Sati or suttee[note 1] is a largely historical practice found chiefly among Hindus in the northern and pre-modern regions of South Asia, in which a widow sacrifices herself by sitting atop her deceased husband's funeral pyre.
The extent to which sati was practised in history is not known with clarity. However, during the early modern Mughal period, it was notably associated with elite Hindu Rajput clans in western India, marking one of the points of divergence between Rajput culture and Islamic Mughal culture, which allowed widow remarriage. In the early 19th century, the British East India Company, in the process of extending its rule to most of India, initially tolerated the practice; William Carey, a Christian evangelist, noted 438 incidences within a 30-mile (48-km) radius of the capital Calcutta, in 1803, despite its ban within Calcutta. Between 1815 and 1818, the number of incidents of sati in Bengal doubled from 378 to 839. Opposition to the practice of sati by Christian evangelists, such as Carey, and Hindu reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, ultimately led the Governor-General of India Lord William Bentinck to enact the Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829, declaring the practise of burning or burying alive of Hindu widows to be punishable by the criminal courts. These were followed up with other legislation, countering what the British perceived to be interrelated issues involving violence against Hindu women, including: Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, 1856, Female Infanticide Prevention Act, 1870, and Age of Consent Act, 1891.
Isolated incidents of sati were recorded in India in the late 20th century, leading the Indian government to promulgate the Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, criminalising the aiding or glorifying of sati.
The term sati was originally interpreted as "chaste woman". Sati appears in Hindi and Sanskrit texts, where it is synonymous with "good wife"; the term suttee was commonly used by Anglo-Indian English writers. Sati designates therefore originally the woman, rather than the rite; the rite itself having technical names such as sahagamana ("going with") or sahamarana ("dying with"). Anvarohana ("ascension" to the pyre) is occasionally met, as well as satidaha as terms to designate the process. Satipratha is also, on occasion, used as a term signifying the custom of burning widows alive. Two other terms related to sati are sativrata and satimata. Sativrata, an uncommon and seldom used term, denotes the woman who makes a vow, vrata, to protect her husband while he is alive and then die with her husband. Satimata denotes a venerated widow who committed sati.
Few reliable records exist of the practice before the time of the Gupta empire (c. 400 CE). Among those that do reference the practice, the lost works of the Greek historian Aristobulus of Cassandreia, who traveled to India with the expedition of Alexander the Great in c. 327 BCE, are preserved in the fragments of Strabo. In it, he records of hearing that certain tribes' widows in Taxila (modern day Pakistan) were glad to burn along with their husbands, and that those who declined to die were held in disgrace. According to Greek historian Diodorus (c. 1st century BCE), widow-burning was prevalent among the Cathaei people, who lived between the Ravi and Beas rivers. Another Greek historian who mentioned widow-burning was Onesicritus, who gives a similar explanation as to what the Cathaei practiced. It is considered one of the sources of Diodorus.
Two other independent sources that mention widow-burning are Cicero and Nicolaus of Damascus. Some of the early Sanskrit authors like Daṇḍin in Daśakumāracarita and Banabhatta in Harshacharita mention that women who burnt themselves wore extravagant dresses. Bana tells about Yasomati who, after choosing to mount the pyre, bids farewell to her relatives and servants. She then decks herself in jewelry which she later distributes to others. It however happens while Prabhakaravardhana's death is expected, Arvind Sharma suggests it is another form of sati. The same work mentions Harsha's sister Rajyasri trying to commit sati after her husband died. In Kadambari, Bana greatly opposes sati and gives examples of women who did not choose sahgamana.
According to Axel Michaels, the first inscriptional evidence of the practice is from Nepal in 464 CE, and in India from 510 CE. The early evidence suggests that widow-burning practice was seldom carried out in the general population. Centuries later, instances of sati began to be marked by inscribed memorial stones called Sati stones. According to J.C. Harle, the medieval memorial stones appear in two forms – viragal (hero stone) and satigal (sati stone), each to memorialize something different. Both of these are found in many regions of India, but "rarely if ever earlier in date than the 8th or 9th century". Numerous memorial sati stones appear 11th-century onwards, states Michaels, and the largest collections are found in Rajasthan. There have been few instances of sati in the Chola Empire in South India. Vanavan Mahadevi, the mother of Rajaraja Chola I (10th century) and Viramahadevi the queen of Rajendra Chola I (11th century) both committed Sati upon their husband's death by ascending the pyre.
Diodorus writes about the wives of Ceteus, the Indian captain of Eumenes, competing for burning themselves after his death in the Battle of Paraitakene (317 BCE). The younger one is permitted to mount the pyre. According to Didorus, Indians favoured love marriages, but many of them turned sour and wives poisoned husbands for their new lovers. Thus the practice was created to check these crimes. Modern historians believe Diodorus's source for this episode was the eyewitness account of the now lost historian Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus' explanation of the origin of sati appears to be his own composite, created from a variety of Indian traditions and practices to form a moral lesson upholding traditional Greek values.
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The archaeologist Elena Efimovna Kuzmina enlists clear parallels between the burial practices of the ancient Asiatic steppe Andronovo cultures (fl. 1800–1400 BCE) and the Vedic Age. In Kuzmina's archaeological definition, sati is understood as a double burial, the co-cremation of a man and a woman/wife, a feature to be found in both cultures. Kuzmina states that in the Androvo culture and Vedic age, the practice was never strictly observed and was symbolic.
The early 14th-century CE traveller of Pordenone]] mentions wife burning in Zampa (Champa), in nowadays south/central Vietnam.[note 2] Anant Altekar states that sati spread with Hindu migrants to Southeast Asian islands, such as to Java, Sumatra and Bali. According to Dutch colonial records, this was however a rare practice in Indonesia, one found in royal households.
In Cambodia, both the lords and the wives of a dead king voluntarily burnt themselves in the 15th and 16th centuries.[note 3] According to European traveller accounts, in 15th century Mergui, in present-day extreme south Myanmar, widow burning was practiced. A Chinese pilgrim from the 15th century seems to attest the practice on islands called Ma-i-tung and Ma-i (possibly Belitung (outside Sumatra) and Northern Philippines, respectively).
According to the historian K.M. de Silva, Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka with a substantial Hindu minority population, reported "there were no glaring social evils associated with the indigenous religions-no sati, (...). There was thus less scope for the social reformer." However, although sati was non-existent in the colonial era, earlier Muslim travellers such as Sulaiman al-Tajir reported that sati was optionally practiced, which a widow could choose to undertake.
A well-known case is that of the 10th-century CE ship burial of the Rus' described by Ibn Fadlan. When a female slave had said she would be willing to die, her body was subsequently burned with her master on the pyre.
Rituals such as widow sacrifice/widow burning have, presumably, prehistoric roots. Early 20th-century pioneering anthropologist James G. Frazer, for example, thought that the legendary Greek story of Capaneus, whose wife Evadne threw herself on his funeral pyre, might be a relic of an earlier custom of live widow-burning. In Book 10 of Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica (lines 467ff.), Oenone is said to have thrown herself on he burning pyre of her erstwhile husband Paris, or Alexander. (The strangling of widows after their husbands' deaths are attested to from cultures as disparate as the Natchez people in present-day Louisiana, to a number of Pacific Islander cultures.
According to Anand A. Yang, one model proposes taking into account the association of sati with the warrior elite in particular, sati only became really widespread during the Muslim invasions of India, and the practice of sati now acquired an additional meaning as a means to preserve the honour of women whose men had been slain. Jogan Shankar meanwhile states that sati gained more value during the period of Muslim conquests, especially with the variant of mass sati called jauhar, practiced especially among the Rajputs.
However, this theory does not address the evidence of occasional incidences of sati in pre-Islamic times. The 510 CE inscription at Eran mentioning the wife of Goparaja, a vassal of Bhanugupta, burning herself on her husband's pyre is considered to be a Sati stone. Vidya Dehejia states that sati became regular only after 500 CE. He states that the practice originated among the Kshatriyas and remained mostly limited to the warrior class among Hindus. Yang adds that the practice was also emulated by those seeking to achieve high status of the royalty and the warriors.
During the period of Muslim-Hindu conflict, Rajputs performed a distinct form of sati known as jauhar as a direct response to the onslaught they experienced. Military conflicts between traditional and tribal groups seems to have propelled the practice of sati into wider use as well and is roughly datable to the end of the 1st millennium and beginning of the 2nd millennium.
Alternate theories for the spread of sati include it expanding from Kshatriya caste to others castes, not because of wars, but on its own, as part of "Sanskritization" and cultural phenomenon that conflated sati as a caste status symbol. This theory has been challenged because it does not explain the spread of sati from Kashatriyas to Brahmins, and Brahmins were not considered to be of inferior caste status than Kshatriyas. Roshen Dalal postulated that its mention in some of the Puranas indicates that it slowly grew in prevalence from 5th-7th century and later became an accepted custom around 1000 AD among those of higher classes, especially the Rajputs.
David Brick of Yale University claims it existed among the Brahmins of Kashmir in the later half of the first millennium. The author of the text may have mentioned practices existing in his own community, as Vishnu Smriti is believed to have been written in Kashmir. Enrica Garzilli states that the practice existed in the 1st century BCE amidst the Kathaka sect of the "black Yajurveda". The dates of other Dharmasastra texts mentioning sahagamana, states Brick, are not known with certainty. Though the priestly class throughout India was aware of them and the practice itself by 12th century.
Another theory, by Hawley, is that sati started as a "nonreligious, ruling-class, patriarchal" ideology but later spread as a gilded status symbol of "valor", "honor" and "purity", jauhar which was dissimilar to Sati and was performed even if it was unknown if the husband had died to avoid becoming a captive and avoid "rape, torture and other ignominies" in internecine Rajput warfare, Muslim conquests and other foreign invasions before them. This was later adopted by Brahmins into the custom of Sati. He posits the enslavement of women by Greek conquerors may have started this variant of the practice.
The above theories do not explain how and why sati practice continued during the colonial era, particularly in significant numbers in colonial Bengal Presidency (modern Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam). Three theories have been proposed: first that sati was believed to be supported by Hindu scriptures by the 19th century, second that sati was encouraged by unscrupulous neighbors because it was a means of property annexation from a widow who had the right to inherit her dead husband's property under Hindu law and sati helped eliminate the inheritor, and third theory being that poverty was so extreme during the 19th century that sati was a means of escape for a woman with no means or hope of survival.
Lata Mani states that all of the parties during the British colonial era that debated the issue, prescribed to the belief in a golden age of women followed by a decline in concurrence to the Muslim conquests. This discourse also resulted in promotion of a view of the British rescuing "Hindu India from Islamic tyranny". The British tried to present to the natives scriptural interpretations to say that Sati was not mandated, it being seen as part of their civilizing mission. Daniel Grey states that the understanding of origins and spread of sati were distorted in the colonial era because of a concerted effort to push "problem Hindu" theories in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
According to Annemarie Schimmel, the Mughal Emperor Akbar was averse to the practice of Sati; however, he expressed his admiration for "widows who wished to be cremated with their deceased husbands". He was averse to abuse, and in 1582, Akbar issued an order to prevent any use of compulsion in sati. According to M. Reza Pirbhai, a professor of South Asian and World history, it is unclear if a prohibition on sati was issued by Akbar, and other than a claim of ban by Monserrate upon his insistence, no other primary sources mention an actual ban. Instances of sati continued during and after the era of Akbar. For example, according to a poem, Sūz u gudāz ("Burning and melting") by Muhammad Riza Nau'i of Khasbushan (d. 1610), Akbar attempted to prevent a sati by calling a widow before him and offering her wealth and protection. The poet reports hearing the story from Prince Dāniyāl, Akbar's third son. According to Arvind Sharma, a professor of Comparative Religion specializing on Hinduism, the widow "rejected all this persuasion as well as the counsel of the Brahmans, and would neither speak nor hear of anything but the Fire".[note 4]
Jahangir, who succeeded Akbar in the early 17th century, found sati prevalent among the Muslims of Rajaur (Kashmir). They had been converted to Islam by Sultan Firoz. During this era, many Muslims and Hindus were ambivalent about the practice, with Muslim attitude leaning towards disapproval. According to Sharma, the evidence nevertheless suggests that sati was universally admired, and both "Hindus and Muslims went in large numbers to witness a sati". According to Reza Pirbhai, the memoirs of Jahangir suggest sati continued in his regime, was practiced by Hindus and Muslims, he was fascinated by the custom, and that those Kashmiri Muslim widows who practiced sati either immolated themselves or buried themselves alive with their dead husbands. Jahangir prohibited such sati and other customary practices in Kashmir.
Aurangzeb issued another order in 1663, states Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, after returning from Kashmir, "in all lands under Mughal control, never again should the officials allow a woman to be burnt". The Aurangzeb order, states Ikram, though not mentioned in the formal histories, is recorded in the official records of Aurangzeb's time. Although Aurangzeb's orders could be evaded with payment of bribes to officials, adds Ikram, later European travelers record that sati was not much practiced in Mughal empire, and that Sati was "very rare, except it be some Rajah's wives, that the Indian women burn at all" by the end of Aurangzeb's reign.
The memoirs of European merchants and travelers, as well the colonial era Christian missionaries of British India described Sati practices under Mughal rulers. The Spanish missionary Domingo Navarrete wrote in 1670 of different styles of Sati during Aurangzeb's time.
European travellers in the Mughal empire noted the practice, with Ralph Fitch noting in 1591:
When the husband died his wife is burned with him, if she be alive, if she will not, her head is shaven, and then is never any account made of her after.
François Bernier gave the following description:
"At Lahor I saw a most beautiful young widow sacrificed, who could not, I think, have been more than twelve years of age. The poor little creature appeared more dead than alive when she approached the dreadful pit: the agony of her mind cannot be described; she trembled and wept bitterly; but three or four of the Brahmens, assisted by an old woman who held her under the arm, forced the unwilling victim toward the fatal spot, seated her on the wood, tied her hands and feet, lest she should run away, and in that situation the innocent creature was burnt alive."
The Portuguese banned the practice in Goa after the conquest of Goa, however the practice continued in the region. The Dutch and the French banned it in Chinsurah and Pondichéry, their respective colonies. The Danes, who held the small territories of Tranquebar and Serampore, permitted it until the 19th century. The Danish strictly forbade, apparently early the custom of sati at Tranquebar, a colony they held from 1620–1845 (whereas Serampore (Frederiksnagore) was Danish colony merely from 1755–1845).
Attempts to limit or ban the practice had been made by individual British officers in the 18th century, but without the backing of the British East India Company. The first formal British ban was imposed in 1798, in the city of Calcutta only. The practice continued in surrounding regions. In the beginning of the 19th century, the evangelical church in Britain, and its members in India, started campaigns against sati. Leaders of these campaigns included William Carey and William Wilberforce. These movements put pressure on the company to ban the act. William Carey, and the other missionaries at Serampore conducted in 1803–04 a census on cases of sati for a region within a 30-mile radius of Calcutta, finding more than 300 such cases there. The missionaries also approached Hindu theologians, who opined that the practice was encouraged, rather than enjoined by the Hindu scriptures.
Serampore was a Danish colony, rather than British, and the reason why Carey started his mission in Danish India, rather than in British, was because The East India Company did not accept Christian missionary activity within their domains. In 1813, in a speech to the House of Commons, William Wilberforce, with particular reference to the statistics on sati collected by Carey and the other Serampore missionaries, forced through a bill that made Christian missionary preaching in British India legal, under the guise of combating such perceived social evils as sati and simultaneously converting people by spreading misinformation about Hinduism.
Elijah Hoole in his book Personal Narrative of a Mission to the South of India, from 1820 to 1828 reports an instance of Sati at Bangalore, which he did not personally witness. Another missionary, Mr. England, reports witnessing Sati in the Bangalore Civil and Military Station on 9 June 1826. However, these practices were very rare after the Government of Madras cracked down on the practice from the early 1800s (p. 82).
The British authorities within the Bengal Presidency started systematically to collect figures on the practice in 1815.
The ban on Sati, effected by Lord William Bentinck in 1829, was largely due to the efforts of both Christian and Hindu reformers such as William Carey and Ram Mohan Roy. In 1799 Carey, a Baptist missionary from England, first witnessed the burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Horrified by the practice, Carey and his coworkers Joshua Marshman and William Ward opposed sati from that point onward, lobbying for its abolishment. Known as the Serampore Trio, they published essays forcefully condemning the practice and presented an address against Sati to then Governor General of India, Lord Wellesley.
In 1812, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, founder of Brahmo Samaj, began to champion the cause of banning sati practice. He was motivated by the experience of seeing his own sister-in-law being forced to commit sati. He visited Kolkata's cremation grounds to persuade widows against immolation, formed watch groups to do the same, sought the support of other elite Bengali classes, and wrote and disseminated articles to show that it was not required by Hindu scripture. He was at loggerheads with Hindu groups which did not want the Government to interfere in religious practices.
From 1815–1818 Sati deaths doubled. Ram Mohan Roy launched an attack on Sati that “aroused such anger that for awhile his life was in danger” In 1821 he published a tract opposing Sati, and in 1823 the Serampore missionaries led by Carey published a book containing their earlier essays, of which the first three chapters opposed Sati. Another Christian missionary published a tract against Sati in 1927.
Sahajanand Swami, the founder of the Swaminarayan sect, preached against the practice of sati in his area of influence, that is Gujarat. He argued that the practice had no Vedic standing and only God could take a life he had given. He also opined that widows could lead lives that would eventually lead to salvation. Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Bombay supported Sahajanand Swami in this endeavor.
In 1828 Lord William Bentinck came to power as Governor of India. When he landed in Calcutta, he said that he felt "the dreadful responsibility hanging over his head in this world and the next, if… he was to consent to the continuance of this practice (sati) one moment longer."
Bentinck decided to put an immediate end to Sati. Ram Mohan Roy warned Bentinck against abruptly ending Sati. However, after observing that the judges in the courts were unanimously in favor of it, Bentinck proceeded to lay the draft before his council. Charles Metcalfe, the Governor's most prominent counselor expressed apprehension that the banning of Sati might be “used by the disaffected and designing” as “an engine to produce insurrection.” However these concerns didn't deter him from upholding the Governor's decision “in the suppression of the horrible custom by which so many lives are cruelly sacrificed.”
Thus on Sunday morning of 4 December 1829 Lord Bentinck issued Regulation XVII declaring Sati to be illegal and punishable in criminal courts. It was presented to William Carey for translation. His response is recorded as follows: “Springing to his feet and throwing off his black coat he cried, 'No church for me to-day... If I delay an hour to translate and publish this, many a widow’s life may be sacrificed,' he said. By evening the task was finished.”
On 2 February 1830 this law was extended to Madras and Bombay. The ban was challenged by a petition signed by “several thousand… Hindoo inhabitants of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa etc” and the matter went to the Privy Council in London. Along with British supporters, Ram Mohan Roy presented counter-petitions to parliament in support of ending Sati. The Privy Council rejected the petition in 1832, and the ban on Sati was upheld.
After the ban, priests in Sindh region complained that the British colonial government was interfering with the rare local sati custom. Charles Napier clarified in 1843 that anyone involved in this custom would be executed and their property confiscated. According to an account of his administration, there were no more sati thereafter, in the region Napier administered.
Sati remained legal in some princely states for a time after it had been banned in lands under British control. Baroda and other princely states of Kathiawar Agency banned the practice in 1840, whereas Kolhapur followed them in 1841, the princely state of Indore some time before 1843. According to a speaker at the East India House in 1842, the princely states of Satara, Nagpur and Mysore had by then banned sati. Jaipur banned the practice in 1846, while Hyderabad, Gwalior and Jammu and Kashmir did the same in 1847. Awadh and Bhopal (both Muslim-ruled states) were actively suppressing sati by 1849. Cutch outlawed it in 1852 with Jodhpur having banned sati about the same time.
The 1846 abolition in Jaipur was regarded by many British as a catalyst for the abolition cause within Rajputana; within 4 months after Jaipur's 1846 ban, 11 of the 18 independently governed states in Rajputana had followed Jaipur's example. One paper says that in the year 1846–1847 alone, 23 states in the whole of India (not just within Rajputana) had banned sati. It was not until 1861 that Sati was legally banned in all the princely states of India, Mewar resisting for a long time before that time. The last legal case of Sati within a princely state dates from 1861 Udaipur the capital of Mewar, but as Anant S. Altekar shows, local opinion had then shifted strongly against the practice. The widows of Maharanna Sarup Singh declined to become sati upon his death, and the only one to follow him in death was a concubine. Later the same year, the general ban on sati was issued by a proclamation from Queen Victoria.
In some princely states such as Travancore, the cutom of Sati never prevailed, although it was held in reverence by the common people. For example, the regent Gowri Parvati Bayi was asked by the British Resident if he should permit a sati to take place in 1818, but the regent urged him not to do so, since the custom of sati had never been acceptable in her domains. In another state, Sawunt Waree (Sawantvadi), the king Khem Sawant III (r. 1755–1803) is credited for having issued a positive prohibition of sati over a period of ten or twelve years. That prohibition from the 18th century may never have been actively enforced, or may have been ignored, since in 1843, the government in Sawunt Waree issued a new prohibition of sati.
Following the outcry after the sati of Roop Kanwar, the Indian Government enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance, 1987 on 1 October 1987 and later passed the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 Part I, Section 2(c) defines sati as:
The burning or burying alive of –
- (i) any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative; or
- (ii) any woman along with the body of any of her relatives, irrespective of whether such burning or burying is claimed to be voluntary on the part of the widow or the women or otherwise
The Prevention of Sati Act makes it illegal to support, glorify or attempt to commit sati. Support of sati, including coercing or forcing someone to commit sati, can be punished by death sentence or life imprisonment, while glorifying sati is punishable with one to seven years in prison.
Enforcement of these measures is not always consistent. The National Council for Women (NCW) has suggested amendments to the law to remove some of these flaws. Prohibitions of certain practices, such as worship at ancient shrines, is a matter of controversy.
There have been 30 cases of sati or attempted sati over a 44-year period (1943–1987) in India, the official number being 28. A well-documented case from 1987 was that of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar. In response to this incident, additional legislation against sati practice was passed, first within the state of Rajasthan, then nationwide by the central government of India.
In 2002, a 65-year-old woman by the name of Kuttu died after sitting on her husband's funeral pyre in the Indian Panna district. On 18 May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly committed sati by jumping into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Fatehpur district in the State of Uttar Pradesh. On 21 August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar district; Janakrani had not been forced or prompted by anybody to commit the act. On 11 October 2008 a 75-year-old woman, Lalmati Verma, committed sati by jumping into her 80-year-old husband's funeral pyre at Checher in the Kasdol block of Chhattisgarh's Raipur district; Verma killed herself after mourners had left the cremation site.
Scholars debate whether these rare reports of sati suicide by widows are related to culture or are examples of mental illness and suicide such as those found among women worldwide. In the case of Roop Kanwar, Dinesh Bhugra states that there is a possibility that the suicides could be triggered by "a state of depersonalization as a result of severe bereavement", then adds that it is unlikely that Kanwar had mental illness and culture likely played a role. However, Colucci and Lester state that none of the women reported by media to have committed sati had been given a psychiatric evaluation before their sati suicide and thus there is no objective data to ascertain if culture or mental illness was the primary driver behind their suicide. Inamdar, Oberfield and Darrell state that the women who commit sati are often "childless or old and face miserable impoverished lives" which combined with great stress from the loss of the only personal support may be the cause of a widow's suicide.
Accounts describe numerous variants in the sati ritual. The majority of accounts describe the woman seated or lying down on the funeral pyre beside her dead husband. Many other accounts describe women walking or jumping into the flames after the fire had been lit, and some describe women seating themselves on the funeral pyre and then lighting it themselves.
Although sati is typically thought of as consisting of the procedure in which the widow is placed, or enters, or jumps, upon the funeral pyre of her husband, slight variations in funeral practice have been reported here as well, by region. For example, the mid-17th-century traveler Tavernier claims that in some regions, the sati occurred by construction of a small hut, within which the widow and her husband were burnt, while in other regions, a pit was dug, in which the husband's corpse was placed along with flammable materials, into which the widow jumped after the fire had started. In mid-nineteenth-century Lombok, an island in today's Indonesia, the local Balinese aristocracy practiced widow suicide on occasion; but only widows of royal descent could burn themselves alive (others were stabbed to death by a kris knife first). At Lombok, a high bamboo platform was erected in front of the fire and, when the flames were at their strongest, the widow climbed up the platform and dived into the fire.
Hindus only bury the bodies of those under the age of two. Those older than two are customarily cremated. A few European accounts provide rare descriptions of Indian sati that included the burial of the widow with her dead husband. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th-century world traveller and trader of gems, wrote that women were buried with their dead husbands along the Coast of Coromandel while people danced during the cremation rites.
The 18th-century Flemish painter Frans Balthazar Solvyns provided the only known eyewitness account of an Indian sati involving a burial. Solvyns states that the custom included the woman shaving her head, music and the event was guarded by East India Trading company officials. He expresses admiration for the Hindu woman, but also calls the custom barbaric.
Sati is often described as voluntary, although in some cases it may have been forced. In one narrative account in 1785, the widow appears to have been drugged either with bhang or opium and was tied to the pyre which would have prevented her from escaping the fire, if she changed her mind.
The British local press of the time proffered several accounts of alleged forcing of the woman. As an example, The Calcutta Review published accounts as the following one:
In 1822, the Salt Agent at Barripore, 16 miles south of Calcutta, went out of his way to report a case which he had witnessed, in which the woman was forcibly held down by a great bamboo by two men, so as to preclude all chance of escape. In Cuttack, a woman dropt herself into a burning pit, and rose up again as if to escape, when a washerman gave her a push with a bamboo, which sent her back into the hottest part of the fire. This is said to be based on the set of official documents. Yet another such case appearing in official papers, transmitted into British journals, is case 41, page 411 here, where the woman was, apparently, thrown twice back in the fire by her relatives, in a case from 1821.
Apart from accounts of direct compulsion, some evidence exists that precautions, at times, were taken so that the widow could not escape the flames once they were lit. Anant S. Altekar, for example, points out that it is much more difficult to escape a fiery pit that one has jumped in, than descending from a pyre one has entered on. He mentions the custom of the fiery pit as particularly prevalent in the Deccan and western India. From Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, where the widow typically was placed in a hut along with her husband, her leg was tied to one of the hut's pillars. Finally, from Bengal, where the tradition of the pyre held sway, the widow's feet could be tied to posts fixed to the ground, she was asked three times if she wished to ascend to heaven, before the flames were lit.
The historian Anant Sadashiv Altekar states that some historical records suggest without doubt that instances of sati were forced, but overall the evidence suggests most instances were a voluntary act on the woman's part.
There have been accounts of symbolic sati in some Hindu communities. A widow lies down next to her dead husband, and certain parts of both the marriage ceremony and the funeral ceremonies are enacted, but without her death. An example in Sri Lanka is attested from modern times. Although this form of symbolic sati has contemporary evidence, it should by no means be regarded as a modern invention. For example, the ancient and sacred Atharvaveda, one of the four Vedas, believed to have been composed around 1000 BCE, describes a funerary ritual where the widow lies down by her deceased husband, but is then asked to descend, to enjoy the blessings from the children and wealth left to her.
In 20th-century India, a tradition developed of venerating jivit (living satis). A jivit is a woman who once desired to commit sati, but lives after having sacrificed her desire to die. Two famous jivit were Bala Satimata, and Umca Satimata, both living until the early 1990s.
Records of sati exist across the subcontinent. However, there seems to have been major differences historically, in different regions, and among communities. Furthermore, no reliable figures exist for the numbers who have died by sati, in general.
An 1829 report by a Christian missionary organization includes among other things, statistics on sati. It begins with a declaration that "the object of all missions to the heathen is to substitute for these systems the Gospel of Christ", thereafter lists sati for each year over the period 1815–1824 which totals 5,369, followed by a statement that a total of 5,997 instances of women were burned or buried alive in the Bengal presidency over the 10-year period, i.e., average 600 per year. In the same report, it states that the Madras and Bombay presidencies totaled 635 instances of sati over the same ten-year period. The 1829 missionary report does not provide its sources and acknowledges that "no correct idea can be formed of the number of murders occasioned by suttees", then states some of the statistics is based on "conjectures". According to Yang, these "numbers are fraught with problems".
William Bentinck, in an 1829 report, stated without specifying the year or period, that "of the 463 satis occurring in the whole of the Presidency of Fort William,[note 5] 420 took place in Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, or what is termed the Lower Provinces, and of these latter 287 in the Calcutta Division alone". For the Upper Provinces, Bentinck added, "in these Provinces the satis amount to forty three only upon a population of nearly twenty millions", i.e., average one sati per 465,000.
Anand Yang, speaking of the early nineteenth century CE, says that contrary to conventional wisdom, sati was not, in general, confined to being an upper class phenomenon, but spread through the classes/castes. In the 575 reported cases from 1823, for example, 41 percent were Brahmins, some 6 percent were Kshatriyas, whereas 2 percent were Vaishiyas, and 51 percent Sudras. In Banaras, though, in the 1815–1828 British records, the upper castes were only for two years represented with less than 70% of the total; in 1821, all sati were from the upper castes there.
Yang notes that many studies seem to emphasize the young age of the widows who committed sati. However, by study of the British figures from 1815 to 1828, Yang states the overwhelming majority were ageing women: The statistics from 1825 to 1826 about two thirds were above the age of 40 when committing sati.
Anand Yang summarizes the regional variation in incidence of sati as follows:
..the practice was never generalized..but was confined to certain areas: in the north,..the Gangetic Valley, Punjab and Rajasthan; in the west, to the southern Konkan region; and in the south, to Madurai and Vijayanagara.
Narayan H. Kulkarnee believes that sati became to be practiced in medieval Maharashtra initially by the Maratha nobility claiming Rajput descent. Then, according to Kulkarnee, the practice of sati may have increased across caste distinctions as an honour-saving custom in the face of Muslim advances into the territory. But the practice never gained the prevalence seen in Rajasthan or Bengal, and social customs of actively dissuading a widow from committing sati are well established. Apparently not a single instance of sati is attested for the 17th and 18th centuries CE.
The sati stone evidence from the time of the empire is regarded as relatively rare; only about 50 are clearly identified as such. Thus, Carla M. Sinopoli, citing Verghese, says that despite the attention European travellers paid the phenomenon, it should be regarded as having been fairly uncommon during the time of the Vijayanagara empire.
Sangam literature (200 BCE) mentions the sati of a Chola queen. The Madurai Nayak dynasty (1529–1736 CE) seems to have adopted the custom in larger measure, one Jesuit priest observing in 1609 Madurai the burning of 400 women at the death of Nayak Muttu Krishnappa.
A few records exist from the Princely State of Mysore, established in 1799, that say permission to commit sati could be granted. Dewan (prime minister) Purnaiah is said to have allowed it for a Brahmin widow in 1805, whereas an 1827 eye-witness to the burning of a widow in Bangalore in 1827 says it was rather uncommon there.
In the Upper Gangetic plain, while sati occurred, there is no indication that it was especially widespread. The earliest known attempt by a government, that of Muhammad Tughlaq, to stop the practice took place in the Sultanate of Delhi in the 14th century.
In the Lower Gangetic plain, the practice may have reached a high level fairly late in history. According to available evidence and the existing reports of occurrences, the greatest incidence of sati in any region and period, in total numbers, occurred in Bengal and Bihar in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The earliest stone inscription in the Indian subcontinent relating to sati has been found in Nepal, dating from the 5th century, wherein the king successfully persuades his mother not to commit sati after his father dies. This inscription suggests that sati was practised but not compulsory. Nepal formally banned sati in 1920.
On the Indonesian island of Bali, sati (known as masatya) was practised by the aristocracy as late as 1903, until the Dutch colonial masters pushed for its termination, forcing the local Balinese princes to sign treaties containing the prohibition of sati as one of the clauses. Early Dutch observers of the Balinese custom in the 17th century said that only widows of royal blood were allowed to be burned alive. Concubines or others of inferior blood lines who consented or wanted to die with their princely husband had to be stabbed to death before being burned.
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Lindsey Harlan, having conducted extensive field work among Rajput women, has constructed a model of how and why women who committed sati are still venerated today, and how the worshippers think about the process involved. Essentially, a woman becomes a sati in three stages:
The pativrata is devoted and subservient to her husband, and also protective of him. If he dies before her, some culpability is attached to her for his death, as not having been sufficiently protective of him. Making the vow to burn alive beside him removes her culpability, as well as enabling her to protect him from new dangers in the afterlife.
In Harlan's model, having made the holy vow to burn herself, the woman becomes a sativrata, a transitional stage between the living and the dead, before ascending the funeral pyre. Once a woman had committed herself to becoming a sati, popular belief thought her endowed with many supernatural powers. Lourens P. Van Den Bosch enumerates some of them: prophecy and clairvoyance, and the ability to bless with sons women who had not borne sons before. The gifts from a sati were venerated as valuable relics, and in her journey to the pyre, people would seek to touch her garments to benefit from her powers.
Lindsey Harlan probes deeper into the sativrata stage. As a transitional figure on her path to becoming a powerful family protector as satimata, the sativrata dictates the terms and obligations the family, in showing reverence to her, must observe in order for her to be able to protect them once she has become satimata. These conditions are generally called ok. A typical example of an ok is a restriction on the colours or types of clothing the family members may wear.
Shrap, or curses, are also within the sativrata's power, associated with remonstrations on members of the family for how they have failed. One woman cursed her in-laws when they brought neither a horse nor a drummer to her pyre, saying that whenever in future they might have need of either (and many religious rituals require the presence of such a thing), it would not be available to them.
After her death on the pyre, the woman is finally transformed into the shape of the satimata, a spiritual embodiment of goodness, with her principal concern being a family protector. Typically, the satimata manifests in the dreams of family members, for example to teach the women how to be good pativratas, having proved herself through her sacrifice that she was the perfect pativrata. However, although the satimata's intentions are always for the good of the family, she is not averse to letting children become sick, for example, or the cows' udders to wither, if she thinks this is an appropriate lesson to the living wife who has neglected her duties as pativrata.
David Brick, in his 2010 review of ancient Indian literature, states
There is no mention of sahagamana (sati) whatsoever in either Vedic literature or any of the early Dharmasutras or Dharmasastras. By "early Dharmasutras or Dharmasastras", I refer specifically to both the early Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Hiranyakesin, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha, and the later Dharmasastras of Manu, Narada, and Yajnavalkya. – David Brick, Yale University
The earliest scholarly discussion of sati, whether it is right or wrong, is found in the Sanskrit literature dated to 10th- to 12th-century. The earliest known commentary on sati by Medhatithi of Kashmir argues that sati is a form of suicide, which is prohibited by the Vedic tradition. Vijnanesvara, of the 12th-century Chalukya court, and the 13th-century Madhvacharya, argue that sati should not to be considered suicide, which was otherwise variously banned or discouraged in the scriptures. They offer a combination of reasons, both in favor and against sati.
In the following, a historical chronology is given of the debate within Hinduism on the topic of sati.
The most ancient texts still revered among Hindus today are the Vedas, where the Saṃhitās are the most ancient, four collections roughly dated in their composition to 1700–1100 BCE. In two of these collections, the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda there is material relevant to the discussion of sati.
Claims about the mention of sati in Rig Veda vary. There are differing interpretations of one of the passages which reads:
This passage and especially the last of these words has been interpreted in different ways, as can be seen from various English translations:
Verse 7 itself, unlike verse 8, does not mention widowhood, but the meaning of the syllables yoni (literally "seat, abode") have been rendered as "go up into the dwelling" (by Wilson), as "step into the pyre" (by Kane), as "mount the womb" (by Jamison/Brereton) and as "go up to where he lieth" (by Griffith). A reason given for the discrepancy in translation and interpretation of verse 10.18.7, is that one consonant in a word that meant house, yonim agree ("foremost to the yoni"), was deliberately changed by those who wished claim scriptural justification, to a word that meant fire, yomiagne.
In addition, the following verse, which is unambiguously about widows, contradicts any suggestion of the woman's death; it explicitly states that the widow should return to her house.
Dehejia states that Vedic literature has no mention of any practice resembling Sati. There is only one mention in the Vedas, of a widow lying down beside her dead husband who is asked to leave the grieving and return to the living, then prayer is offered for a happy life for her with children and wealth. Dehejia writes that this passage does not imply a pre-existing sati custom, nor of widow remarriage, nor that it is authentic verse because its solitary mention may also be explained as a later date insertion into the text. Dehejia writes that no ancient or early medieval era Buddhist texts mention sati, and if the practice existed it would likely have been condemned by these texts.
David Brick, a professor of South Asian Studies, states that neither sati nor equivalent terms such as sahagamana are ever mentioned in any Vedic literature (Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads), or in any of the early Dharmasutras or Dharmasastras.
The Brahmana literature, one of the layers within the ancient Vedic texts, dated about 1000 BCE – 500 BCE are entirely silent about sati according to the historian Altekar. Similarly, the Grhyasutras, a body of text devoted to ritual, with composition date about the time of the youngest within Brahmana literature, sati is not mentioned, either. What is mentioned concerning funeral rites, though, is that the widow is to be brought back from her husband's funeral pyre, either by his brother, or by a trusted servant. In the Taittiriya Aranyaka from about the same time, it is said that when leaving, the widow took from her husband's side such objects as his bow, gold and jewels (which previously would have been burnt with him), and a hope expressed that the widow and her relatives would lead a happy and prosperous life afterwards. According to Altekar, it is "clear" that the custom of actual widow burning had died out a long time previously at this stage.
Nor is the practice of sati mentioned anywhere in the Dharmasutras, texts tentatively dated by Pandurang Vaman Kane to 600–100 BCE, while Patrick Olivelle thinks the bounds should be roughly 250–100 BCE instead.
Not only is sati not mentioned in Brahmana and early Dharmasastra literature, Satapatha Brahmana explains that suicide by anyone is inappropriate (adharmic). This Śruti prohibition became one of the several basis for arguments presented against sati by 11th- to 14th-century Hindu scholars such as Medhatithi of Kashmir,
Thus, in none of the principal religious texts believed composed before the Common Era is there any evidence at all for a sanctioning of the practice of sati. It is wholly unmentioned, although the archaic Atharvaveda do contain hints of a funeral practice of symbolic sati. In addition, the twelfth-century CE commentary of Apararka, claiming to quote the Dharmasutra text Apastamba, it says that the Apastamba prescribes that if a widow has made a vow of burning herself (anvahorana, "ascend the pyre"), but then retracts her vow, she must expiate her sin by the penance ritual called Prajapatya-vrata
The oldest portion of the epic Ramayana, the Valmiki Ramayana, is tentatively dated for its composition by Robert P. Goldman to 750–500 BCE. Anant S. Altekar says that no instances of sati occur in this earliest, archaic part of the whole Ramayana.
According to Ramashraya Sharma, there is no conclusive evidence of the sati practice in the Ramayana. For instance, Tara, Mandodari and the widows of Ravana, all live after their respective husband's deaths, though all of them announce their wish to die, while lamenting for their husbands. The first two remarry their brother-in-law. The only instance of sati appears in the Uttara Kanda – believed to be a later addition to the original text – in which Kushadhwaja's wife performs sati. The Telugu adaptation of the Ramayana, the 14th-century Ranganatha Ramayana, tells that Sulochana, wife of Indrajit, became sati on his funeral pyre.
Instances of sati are found in the Mahabharata.
Madri, the second wife of Pandu, immolates herself. She believes she is responsible for his death, as he had been cursed with death if he ever had intercourse. He died while performing the forbidden act with Madri; she blamed herself for not rejecting him, as she knew of the curse. Also, in the case of Madri the entire assembly of sages sought to dissuade her from the act, and no religious merit is attached to the fate she chooses against all advice. In the Musala-parvan of the Mahabharata, the four wives of Vasudeva are said to commit sati. Furthermore, as news of Krishna's death reaches Hastinapur, five of his wives choose to burn themselves.
Against these stray examples within the Mahabharata of sati, there are scores of instances in the same epic of widows who do not commit sati, none of them blamed for not doing so.
The four works, Manusmṛti (200 BCE–200 CE), Yājñavalkya Smṛti (200–500 CE), Nāradasmṛti (100 BCE–400 CE) and the Viṣṇusmṛti (700–1000 CE) are the principal Smrti works in the Dharmaśāstra tradition, along with the Parasara Smrti, composed in the latter period, rather than in the earlier.
The first three principal smrtis, those of Manu, Yājñavalkya and Nārada, do not contain any mention of sati.
Passages of the Parasara Smriti say:
Neither of these suggest sati as mandatory, but Parasara Smriti elaborates the benefits of sati in greater detail.
Within the dharmashastric tradition espousing sati as a justified, and even recommended, option to ascetic widowhood, there remained a curious conception worth noting the achieved status for a woman committing sati. Burning herself on the pyre would give her, and her husband, automatic, but not eternal, reception into heaven (svarga), whereas only the wholly chaste widow living out her natural life span could hope for final liberation (moksha) and breaking the cycle of rebirth. Thus, acknowledging that performing sati only achieved an inferior otherworldy status than successful widowhood could achieve, sati became recommended when coupled with a dismissal of the effective possibility for a widow to remain truly chaste.
While some smriti passages allow sati as optional, others forbid the practice entirely. Vijñāneśvara (c. 1076–1127), an early Dharmaśāstric scholar, claims that many smriti call for the prohibition of sati among Brahmin widows, but not among other social castes. Vijñāneśvara, quoting scriptures from Paithinasi and Angiras to support his argument, states:
"Due to Vedic injunction, a Brahmin woman should not follow her husband in death, but for the other social classes, tradition holds this to be the supreme Law of Women... when a woman of Brahmin caste follows her husband in death, by killing herself she leaders neither herself nor her husband to heaven."
However, as proof of the contradictory opinion of the smriti on sati, in his Mitākṣarā, Vijñāneśvara argues Brahmin women are technically only forbidden from performing sati on pyres other than those of their deceased husbands. Quoting the Yājñavalkya Smṛti, Vijñāneśvara states, "a Brahmin woman ought not to depart by ascending a separate pyre." David Brick states that the Brahmin sati commentary suggests that the practice may have originated in the warrior and ruling class of medieval Indian society. In addition to providing arguments in support of sati, Vijñāneśvara offers arguments against the ritual.
Those who supported the ritual, did however, put restrictions on sati. It was considered wrong for women who had young children to care for, those who were pregnant or menstruating. A woman who had doubts or did not wish to commit sati at the last moment, could be removed from the pyre by a man, usually a brother of the deceased or someone from her husband's side of the family.
David Brick, summarizing the historical evolution of scholarly debate on sati in medieval India, states:
To summarize, one can loosely arrange Dharmasastic writings on sahagamana into three historical periods. In the first of these, which roughly corresponds to the second half of the 1st millennium CE, smrti texts that prescribe sahagamana begin to appear. However, during approximately this same period, other Brahmanical authors also compose a number of smrtis that proscribe this practice specifically in the case of Brahmin widows. Moreover, Medhatithi – our earliest commentator to address the issue – strongly opposes the practice for all women. Taken together, this textual evidence suggests that sahagamana was still quite controversial at this time. In the following period, opposition to this custom starts to weaken, as none of the later commentators fully endorses Medhatithi's position on sahagamana. Indeed, after Vijnanesvara in the early twelfth century, the strongest position taken against sahagamana appears to be that it is an inferior option to brahmacarya (ascetic celibacy), since its result is only heaven rather than moksa (liberation). Finally, in the third period, several commentators refute even this attenuated objection to sahagamana, for they cite a previously unquoted smrti passage that specifically lists liberation as a result of the rite's performance. They thereby claim that sahagamana is at least as beneficial an option for widows as brahmacarya and perhaps even more so, given the special praise it sometimes receives. These authors, however, consistently stop short of making it an obligatory act. Hence, the commentarial literature of the dharma tradition attests to a gradual shift from strict prohibition to complete endorsement in its attitude toward sahagamana.
Although the myth of the goddess Sati is that of a wife who dies by her own volition on a fire, this is not a case of the practice of sati. The goddess was not widowed, and the myth is quite unconnected with the justifications for the practice.
Julia Leslie points to an 18th-century CE text on the duties of the wife by Tryambakayajvan that contains statements she regards as evidence for a sub-tradition of justifying strongly encouraged, pressured, or even forced sati. Although the standard view of the sati within the justifying tradition is that of the woman who out of moral heroism chooses sati, rather than choosing to enter ascetic widowhood, Tryambaka is quite clear upon the automatic good effect of sati for the woman who was a 'bad' wife:
Women who, due to their wicked minds, have always despised their husbands ... whether they do this (i.e., sati), of their own free will, or out of anger, or even out of fear – all of them are purified from sin.
Thus, as Leslie puts it, becoming (or being pressured into the role of) a sati was, within Tryambaka's thinking, the only truly effective method of atonement for the bad wife.
Opposition to sati was expressed by several exegesis scholars such as the ninth- or tenth-century Kashmir scholar Medatithi – who offers the earliest known explicit discussion of sati, the 12th- to 17th-century scholars Vijnanesvara, Apararka and Devanadhatta, as well as the mystical Tantric tradition, with its valorization of the feminine principle.
Explicit criticisms were published by Medhatithi, a commentator on various theological works. He offered two arguments for his opposition. He considered sati a form of suicide, which was forbidden by the Vedas:
Medhatithi offered a second reason against sati, calling it against dharma (adharma). He argued that there is a general prohibition against violence of any form against living beings in the Vedic dharma tradition, sati causes death which is sufficient proof of violence, and thus sati is against Vedic teachings.
Vijnanesvara presents both sides of the argument, for and against sati. He argues first that Vedas do not prohibit sacrifice aimed to stop an enemy and in pursuit of heaven, and sati for these reasons is thus not prohibited. He then presents two arguments against sati, calling it "unobjectionable". The first is based on hymn 10.2.6.7 of Satapatha Brahmana will forbids suicide. His second reason against sati is an appeal to relative merit between two choices. Death may grant a woman's wish to enter heaven with her dead husband, but living offers her the possibility of reaching moksha through knowledge of the Self through learning, reflecting and meditating. In Vedic tradition, moksha is of higher merit than heaven, because moksha leads to eternal, unsurpassed bliss while heaven is impermanent and smaller happiness. Living gives her an option to discover deeper, fulfilling happiness than dying through sati does, according to Vijnanesvara.
Apararka acknowledges that Vedic scripture prohibits violence against living beings and "one should not kill"; however, he argues that this rule prohibits violence against another person, but does not prohibit killing oneself if one wants to. Thus sati is a woman's choice and it is not prohibited by Vedic tradition, argues Apararka.
Reform and bhakti movements within Hinduism favoured egalitarian societies, and in line with the tenor of these beliefs, generally condemned the practice, sometimes explicitly. The 12th-century Virashaiva movement condemned the practice. Later, Sahajananda Swami, the founder of Vaishnavite Swaminarayana sampradaya preached against sati in the 18th century in western India.
European artists in the eighteenth century produced many images for their own native markets, showing the widows as heroic women, and moral exemplars.
In her article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" philosopher Gayatri Spivak discusses the British manipulation of sati practice, and how sati takes the form of imprisoning women in the double bind of self-expression attributed to mental illness and social rejection, or of self-incrimination according to British colonial law. The woman who commits sati takes the form of the subaltern in Spivak's work, a form much of postcolonial studies takes very seriously.
The 2005 novel The Ashram by Indian writer Sattar Memon, deals with the plight of an oppressed young woman in India, under pressure to commit suttee and the endeavours of a western spiritual aspirant to save her.
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Quote: The Brihaspati-Smriti is in fact a kind of Varttika on the Manava-Dharmasastra. It prohibits burning of widows.
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