SATI AND SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS

By editor - 18.1 2019

Introduction

In many religious traditions marriage is arguably one of the most sacred institutions on which two people can unite.In the Hindu tradition, a woman’s devotion to her husband is seen as essential and is very important to the marriage itself.However, this devotion should not only be seen in life, but also with death. In the pasta wife was able to prove her devotion through a ritual called Sati.The ritual is when usually an orthodox Hindu woman will throw herself on the pyre of her dead husband and be burned alive so that she would be able to follow him into the afterlife.An explanation of what Sati is according to tradition and how it became outlawed under the British rule is very important to understanding the devotion and traditions of orthodox Hindu people. Through the use of edicts set down by the British monarchy, and a more recent case of Sati, I wish to show how even though a practice is outlawed; those that remain faithful will continue the practice.

What is Sati?

According to Dorothy Stein Sati (also called Suttee) is practice which is “an expression of an underlying view of women as property” (253).Women were seen as heroes because of their willingness to be sacrificed (Stein: 253).However, women within the higher classes were not specifically told to do this sacrifice, and neither were the women of the lowest castes (Stein: 253-254).

A woman who is able to follow her husband through the act of Sati is seen as a being of high power and was given great respect.Stein states “The widow on her way to the pyre was the object (for once) of all public attention….Endowed with the gift of prophecy and the power to cure and bless, she was immolated amid great fanfare, with great veneration” (254).It is through the burning of the wife that her true essence was seen. Only if she was virtuous and pious would she be worthy of being placed on the fire, therefore, she has to make the decision of being put on the fire, or be seen as a non-pious wife (Stein: 254-255).Through Sati she would be ridding herself of the sins she may have acquired in this life time, and in past ones (Stein: 256).“By burning, moreover, she, her husband, her husband’s family, her mother’s family, and her father’s family would be in paradise for 35 million years, no matter how sinful they all had been” (Stein: 256) .It is clear why so many women would be willing to do it, for to rid past and present sins is a great cause.

What are the Social Implications?

Several aspects should be considered with the practice of Sati.For one, it the age of the wife when her husband dies does not matter Stein claims that “a widow’s death assured guardianship and undisputed influence over her children to her husband’s family. It also kept her from enjoying her lifetime rights in her husband’s estate” (Stein: 256). With the practice of Sati expenses were cost considerate.The Pundit (a Hindu priest) would receive the most precious gift, and everyone who attended would be given gifts as well, also the families who were wealthier would also be expected to buy more expensive products and presents (Stein :256-257).

According to Anne McLeer (2001) Lata Mani (1990) examined two different debates with regard to the Practice of Sati.Mani claims, according to McLeer, that:

“Both abolitionist and promoters of Sati (all members of the male establishment) used brahmanic scripture as justification of their position.The female subjectivity of the Sati was not allowed to enter into the debate; even the abolitionists failed to mention cruelty of the cultural authority of Sati and its relation to tradition” (McLeer: 47).

With use of the notion of women be subject to men, both groups did not have strong enough arguments for what was to happen to the people.In India the practice itself was restricted under British rule, and it lead to the decline of the practice.

In 1829, the British Monarchy decided to abolish the practice of Sati (Oldenburg: 101-102).To the British the use of Sati was that of horror and they wanted to gain public attention to the cause back in England.At first they did not want to interfere with the religious practices of the countries they were adding to the Empire (Stein: 258).There were also meetings which occurred between Hindu religious advisors, and members of the British Supreme Court, and it was decided in 1813 they were not going to interfere with the practices, they would just monitor them (Stein: 258).According to historical documentation and records of Sati it was seen, the numbers of cases of Sati increased a great deal after the new regulations regarding Sati were administered (Stein: 258). Some believe that it is because the British were not as vigilant with recording the cases prior to the new legislations, and now the administration would have to be more careful about its records (Stein: 258).

“Lord William Bentinck’s regulations of Sati published on 8 December 1829 outlawed widow burning in Bengal” (Datta: 136).He had consulted with the British monarchy to understand how he was going to be able to decrease the number of Sati sacrifices (Datta: 136). Some Hindus saw this action by Bentinck as attack on Hinduism itself (Datta: 138). In Calcutta the orthodox community petitioned against Bentinck. They eventually lost however on February 6, 1830, the orthodox party called Dharma Sabha was founded.The party was formed to protect the Hindu community at large and to maintain its traditions and rights (Datta: 140).The outcome was that Sati was outlawed still but the Hindu community was able to prove they had the right to discuss the issues with the ruling monarchy (Datta: 144).Datta states“though Sati was prohibited, there still existed a strong feeling among the Hindu community that despite the legislative enactment the practice of widow – burning would continue as the Hindus were attached to their ancient customs with a fanatical devotion”(Datta:145).

Then in the 1950`s when the Indian Penal Code was being revised the British thought the sections dealing with death and suicide were comprehensive enough to cover the regulations instituted by the East Indian Company therefore they would be enough to cover the practice of Sati, and for this reason there was no implicit reference to Sati made (Oldenburg: 102).However, in 1987 a women in Marwari, India, resurrected the practice by deciding she was going to follow her husband into the afterlife; these actions on her own behalf led to another debate on the morality of Sati.In the 1980`s there was a case of Sati which occurred and caused several feminist groups to speak out against the practice of Sati (bearing in mind Sati is not a common occurrence it is nearly one in a million). A girl by the name of Roop Kanwar, who was a new wife (Oldenburg: 101), to a seemingly depressed and suicidal man. They were only married for a short time, before her husband was admitted to the hospital, and soon thereafter he died.The new family of Roop Kanwar, claimed that she wanted to die alongside her husband (Oldenburg: 118).This case led several feminist groups to take up the cause of fighting against the justifications and revival of Sati.They claim there are three groups to blame on this they are: 1) Rujput Men – “for using women`s lives as the means of propping up old chivalric traditions in a time when they are otherwise disenfranchised,”2) Marwari Businessmen- “for imitating and supporting these traditions in their quest for status and power and for contributing their wealth and commercial acumen to perpetuating this custom”, and finally3) Brahmins – “for leading an air of legitimacy to the ethos of Sati as a way to bolster their own dwindling importance in the modern world” (Oldenburg:104).Many also claim that if there are no witnesses to the actual act of Sati it would not possess the meaning it does (Oldenburg: 105).

Conclusion

The opinions and the popular beliefs around Sati have been the topic of great debate for centuries.Sati has been argued as being against women, but in some cases women have chosen to carry out this practice themselves.The information provided shows that Sati is still very controversial; the process of a wife killing herself for the sake of her husband and her family was generally respected and seen as devotion.This opinion has since changed and is seen now as social pressure.Though Sati is rare, if not nearly non-existent in today’s Hindu communities, it is still being talked about and understood. On a personal level Sati is not generally seen as pro-women, however, ultimately it may be argued that it is her decision.Reality however has stated otherwise, as seen through the laws passes by the British government, though it should be noted that if a pious wife wishes to follow in his footsteps as Roop Kanwar decided there is nothing that can really stop her.

THE TRADITION OF SATI

The Hindu tradition is a complex religious system that has many rites of passage and traditions. Among these customs are death rituals that consist of performing a specific ceremony or making a sacrifice for a loved one. One of these sacrificial rituals prescribed for a widow is called sati. Sati is a ritual in which a woman may choose to burn herself alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre to free him from all his sins. This sacrifice is an indication of a wife’s devotion to her husband.

The practice of sati has created a debate over whether it is an acceptable religious ritual or an unacceptable Hindu practice. The defence of sati lies in sacred texts that are read by most people following the Hindu tradition. Arguments against sati are based on changing social norms and a history of people such as Rammohun Roy who fought for the elimination of sati. From the time it was first practiced to modern times, sati has become more controversial, and was eventually outlawed.

The oldest section of the Vedas is known as the Samhitas and there are four texts under this section.The Rig Veda Samhita is one of these four. It contains 1028 hymns in ten books written “by priests for specific needs of the ritual services” (Embree 5). Rig Veda 10.18.7 provides a passage called the Sati hymn in defence of sati. There it states,

“Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned.”

This verse is saying that devoted wives should step into their deceased husbands pyre as a personal sacrifice to their husband. This is understood as an argument in favor of sati. In this scripture, sati is described as a wife entering the funeral pyre, a pile of wood used for burning a corpse during a death ritual. Sati was practiced because it is outlined in sacred scripture. The Rig Veda explains rituals practiced by the authors, the Aryans, and since sati is included in one of the hymns, this can be used as a justification for sati.

The second sacred text in Hinduism that defends sati is the Atharva Veda Samhita. It is also from the same collection of Samhita as the Rig Veda but it “consists largely of spells and incantations” and has to do with situations of people, offering assistance and support (Embree 5). The funeral verses in the Atharva Veda are given in Kanda 18, Sukta 3 of this text.

“This woman, choosing her husband’s world, lies down (nipad) by you that are departed, O mortal, continuing to keep [her] ancient duty (dharma); to her assign you here progeny and property.”

Sati is mentioned in both the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, both sacred texts that are vital to the Hindu tradition. The reason why it was practiced for so many years was because of discussion in these texts. The debate over sati began when reformers started questioning scripture and pointing out what was considered to be wrong with the tradition.

Another piece of literature in Hinduism is an ancient epic known as the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata has become accepted as smritimeaning that it is highly respected, although it was not regarded as directly revealed to the ancient Rishis. This epic is about a great war between two families known as the Dhritarashtras and the Pandus (Embree 137). Sati is mentioned among the many stories throughout the Mahabharata that teach and share wisdom. The fact that sati is discussed in the Mahabharata, a popular choice of reading for the Indian people, presents more evidence that sati was an acceptable religious tradition.

The first mention of sati in the Mahabharata is in the story of the pigeon and the hunter. Sati is described in the Mahabharata as a “ritual suicide” following the passing of a wife’s husband and it is a way for her to “follow him to heaven” (Sutton 87). Bhisma, one of the Pandu brothers, tells the story where the pigeon’s wife decides that no moral woman could still live if her husband was dead and so she decides to throw herself into her husband’s funeral fire (Sutton 87). The result of her actions is that she is sent to svarga-loka (celestial world) alongside her husband in a “celestial chariot” (Sutton 87). The Mahabharata is acknowledged as a highly regarded piece of literature to people who follow Hinduism. The mention of sati within its pages can be understood as another justification for the tradition.

Sati is discussed further in the Mahabharata when wives of main characters commit the ritual. From the two families come two royal brothers who end up trading the leadership of the kingdom (Embree 137). One of these brothers, and the father of the five main characters, is Pandu (Embree 137). Pandu’s second wife, named Madri, decides to commit sati, as do the widows of warriors and Vasudeva (Sutton 430). Since the act of sati was perceived to be rewarded in the afterlife it has led to thoughts that there were “social pressures exerted upon widows” (Sutton 430). An incentive to perform sati was the spark that ignited a debate among people in and outside the Hindu tradition.

Even though sati is discussed in Hindu texts such as the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and the Mahabharata, people began looking more closely at what these verses were really saying. The defense for satiis found in sacred texts but social norms and different opinions were formed. As the history of sati is examined, it is clear that new government and reformers would change the legal acceptance of sati.

Sati was generally practiced from the eighth century to the seventeenth century but mostly by upper classes (Embree 98). The areas where sati was commonly practiced was in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat (Hawley 35). In these areas, the discovery of sati stones prove the existence of the ritual. Sati stones are similar to tombstones but have images of sati being performed on them (Hawley 35).

It is difficult to identify the number of women who actually performed sati. The collection of data did not begin until the ninteenth century, thus complicating the process of determining numbers from before that time. The number of recorded burnings that occurred in 1815 was 378 and tripled to 839 in 1818 (Hawley 21). Traditionally, sati was performed by higher caste women; a study was completed in order to prove this phenomenon. In 1823 an investigation into the tradition proved that 64 percent of these events were “predominant among the brahmins (teachers), kayasths (warriors/rulers), vaidyas (farmers/merchants)” (Mani 22).

When focusing on the history of India, it is apparent that the presence of Muslims in India would become important to the eventual prohibition of sati. The people known as the Mughals invaded India in the sixteenth century (Embree 230). One of the leaders from this reign was named Akbar, and he ruled from 1556 to 1658 (Embree 230). He was significant to Hinduism because of his views on sati. Akbar took a passive role in preventing sati but tried to ascertain that women were not being forced into participating in the tradition (Hawley 53). Another Mughal leader was Jehangir, who took steps in stopping sati by persuading women with “gifts and land” (Hawley 140). The Muslim influence in India was positive for eliminating the tradition of sati.

Britain began colonizing India in the seventeenth century but it was not until the nineteenth century that Britain’s influence reached its peak. Colonization brought specific views, especially Christian and western ones, and this ignited controversy over practices and traditions of Indians. Sati was one of the issues that got to the point when Britain decided to create a law prohibiting the practice. In 1829 sati was officially prohibited (Mani 24). The abolition of sati can be seen as a great moment for Indian women or as a restriction on religious freedom. The elimination of sati can be seen as beneficial because bad many people viewed sati as a gratuitous ritual to be practiced. In some cases of sati, there was an element of force being inflicted on the widow. Since colonization, there has been an increased awareness that supported the movement towards prohibition.

Rammohun Roy was an influential man who worked timelessly to bring about the prohibition of sati. It was primarily Roy’s efforts and campaigning that led the government to officially ban the practice (Hawley 140). He denied passages from sacred texts because, in his opinion, they were too vague, thus giving no excuse for sati to continue (Mani 50). He believed that widow burning was not a necessary ritual in traditional Hinduism.

Once sati was prohibited, it was recognized by most as a negative practice. This created an public awareness of widows who may be forced into, or who may have already been forced into performing the ritual. Although some Indians believed that sati was an acceptable ritual, the example of Roop Kanwar has caused a realization about the rare cases in which women were being manipulated into a ritual that they did not wish to perform. In 1987 it was reported by Roop Kanwar’s in-laws that she had performed the ritual sacrifice by choice after her husband of eight months passed away (Hawley 101). Since she had a large dowry and her husbands death was questionable, there was controversy over whether or not she was forced or drugged into sati (Hawley 122). Even though this led to more debate over sati, it still increased awareness of women’s rights over 100 years after it was prohibited in India.

The tradition of sati, known by the English title of “widow-burning”, has raised many questions over its true meanings and justifications, and the significance it has to the Hindu tradition. The defence of satiis shown in texts such as the great epic Mahabharata or sacred texts as the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. Since these writing are held as authentic canon for the Hindu tradition and they illustrate passages promoting sati, it was not considered wrong to practice sati. On the other hand, even before the colonization of India and the introduction of western education, new ideas and opinions promoted anti-sati views, resulting in the official prohibition of sati. The beliefs of influential people and their efforts in banning widow-burning is an indication of the anti-sati views of a reforming nation. In addition, the banning of sati and the debate it caused has created a heightened awareness of women’s rights in India. The combination of women, death and faith makes sati an incredibly controversial tradition, and one that has attracted the attention of the whole world.

Works Cited

Datta, V.N. (1988). Chapter 5: Public Reaction. In Sati: A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning. Riverdale Company: Riverdale Maryland. Pp. 136-150.

Hardgrove. A. (1999). Sati Worship and Marwari Public Identity in India. Journal of Asian Studies 58 (3). Pp. 723 – 752.

McLeer, A. (1998). Saving the Victim: Recuperating the Language of the Victim and reassessing Global Feminism. Hypatia 13 (1).Pg. 42- 55

Oldenburg, V.T. (1994). Chapter 5: the Roop Kanwar Case: Feminist Responses. In John Stratton Hawley (editor). Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: the Burning of Wives in India.Oxford University Press: New York. Pp. 101-130.

Stein, D.K. (1978). Women to Burn: Suttee as a Normative Institution. Signs 4 (2). University of Chicago Press. Pp. 253-268.

Further Readings to be Consulted

Major, A. (2004). “Eternal Flames”: Suicide, Sinfulness and Insanity in “Western” Constructions of Sati 1500-1830. International Journal of Asian Studies 1(2), Cambridge University Press. 247-276.

Mani, L. (1998). Contentious traditions: The debate on Sati in colonial India. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Sharma, A. (1988). Sati: historical and phenomenological essays. Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi.