SATI . The difficulties encountered in the study of sati—the death of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre, or on a separate pyre soon afterwards—are reflected in the terminology used. The term coined by the British in India (suttee ) suggests the oppression of widows and the woman as victim, both reinforced by the term widow-burning. The same word in its original Sanskrit (satī, a feminine noun derived from sat, meaning "goodness" or "virtue") denotes not the practice but the practitioner: the "good woman" who, by choosing to join her husband in death, refuses to become an inauspicious widow. In its traditional context, the term satī conveys supreme virtue, personal strength, and religious autonomy. The most common Sanskrit terms for the practice are sahagamana ("going with"), anugamana ("going after"), and anumaraöa ("dying after"). In this article, the practice is denoted by the modern term sati, and the Sanskrit word satī ("good woman") is reserved for the person. (There is no parallel notion of the "good man" who chooses to burn on the pyre of his dead wife, a fact that suggests that this one-sided practice is rooted in the male desire to control the sexuality of women; by contrast, the widower is encouraged to remarry.)
Outside India, sati was practiced in one form or another (that is, not always by fire) by the ancient Greeks, Germans, Slavs, Scandinavians, Egyptians, and Chinese. Although there is evidence of the custom in the Indo-European period, by the time the Indo-Aryan language reached India, only traces of an archaic practice remained. The earliest indisputable reference to sati in a Sanskrit text is found in the Mahābhārata, the great epic which evolved between 400 bce and 400 ce, reaching its present form by the sixth or seventh century. An account is also given by the Greek author Diodorus Siculus (first century bce) in his history of the Panjab in the fourth century bce. Physical evidence in the form of "sati stones," memorials to women who died as satī s, is found in many parts of India, dating from as early as 510 ce. In the Muslim period, the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, the Rajputs practiced a form of collective ritual suicide termed jauhar (denoting a construction made of combustible materials for the purpose of burning people alive); that is, to avoid dishonor at the hands of the (Muslim) enemy and to encourage their menfolk to fight, Rajput women burned themselves before their husbands' expected death in battle (as, for example, in the three celebrated occasions of the mass suicides of women at Chitorgarh in Rajasthan in 1303, 1535, and 1568). In the medieval period in general, the hardships experienced by Hindu widows (such as severe restrictions on diet and dress, and the stigma of inauspiciousness) probably encouraged the spread of sati. The further increase in the practice among the brahmins of Bengal, especially during the period from 1680 to 1830, is ascribed by some scholars to the fact that the system of law prevailing there gave inheritance rights to widows: although some widows enjoyed the powers this conferred, others succumbed to a greater familial pressure to die. Other scholars argue that, by destabilizing traditional Hindu values, the British were partly responsible for the increase.
Although the number of women who died as satī s is statistically small, the ideal is revered throughout traditional India even today. The ideology behind this belief is debated in the texts of Sanskrit religious law (dharmaśāstra ) in the section devoted to the proper behavior of women (strīdharma ). The issue is usually raised in the context of widowhood: some texts (such as Manusmṛti ) describe only the duties of the widow for the woman whose husband has died; some allow a choice between widowhood and sati; few recommend sati. The standard objection is that sati is a form of suicide, and suicide is prohibited; the standard riposte is that ritual death is not suicide. Other objections include that ritual death, appropriate in the legendary period of ancient India, no longer applies in the "degenerate era" (kaliyuga ) of recorded history; that sati, traditionally a warrior or Rajput custom, is prohibited to brahmin women; and that the ritual applies only rarely and only to exceptionally virtuous women. The arguments in favor of sati focus on the rewards accruing to the "good woman," further evidence that this form of ritual death was optional; that is, the ritual is open to those women who actively seek the rewards described. By about 700 ce, however, the merit bestowed by sati was so great that it cut across the usual implications of karma for both wife and husband. The satī is credited with the power to rescue even a bad husband from hell, taking them both (and, according to some sources, seven generations of ancestors on either side) to heaven. There is even some scriptural justification for persuading, even forcing, a "bad" woman to burn herself: whatever her reasons for joining her husband on his pyre, her sacrifice purified them both.
Ethnographic evidence is somewhat different. Among traditional communities in Rajasthan even today, the satī is no longer a woman: she is worshiped as a goddess, a deified eternal wife. According to belief, the pyre ignites solely by the power of the satī, that is, by the inner heat of sat, the force of virtue at her core. Fire is thus not so much the cause of her death but the essence of her being. There are three stages in the life of the satī : as a married woman, she is the devoted wife (pativratā ); when she takes a vow to become a satī, she is termed a satīvratā ; when she ends her life in spontaneous combustion, she has become a "satī -mother" (satīmātā ). The paradoxical notion of the "living satī " is applied to saintly women who are believed to be possessed by sat, who have taken the vow to become satī s, but who are unable to fulfill those vows because sati is illegal. Such women are worshiped as liminal beings, living on the cusp of the human and divine realms.
There has always been resistance to sati, even within orthodox and traditional Hinduism; hence the debates in Sanskrit and vernacular texts. The Mughal rulers Humayun and Akbar both tried to abolish the practice. In the British colonial period, a vigorous campaign against sati—headed by the governor-general of India, Lord William Bentinck, and supported by Hindu reformers such as Rammohun Roy—culminated in the Suttee Regulation Act of 1829. When the British left India, the independent Indian government reaffirmed the illegality of sati. Despite the efforts of both British and Indian governments, however, instances of sati continued to occur, and the respect and devotion paid to the memories of those women remained unchanged.
The reemergence of sati in north India since the 1970s—including the celebrated sati of Roop Kanwar in Deorala, Rajasthan, in 1987—has prompted renewed interest in the topic among activists (both for and against sati) and commentators. As early as 1983, for example, the Rani Sati Sarva Sangh (largely funded by the Marwari community) launched a campaign to popularize sati, to administer sati shrines, and to promote the building of additional sati temples. Pro-sati activism of this kind is consistently met by anti-sati campaigns, both giving rise to a complex debate among students of Indian religion, political and cultural commentators, and Indian and Western feminists.
Anand, Mulk Raj, ed. Sati: A Write-Up of Raja Ram Mohan Roy about the Burning of Widows Alive. Delhi, 1989. Published soon after the death of Roop Kanwar in Deorala in 1987, this volume juxtaposes the key texts of Ram Mohan Roy's anti-suttee campaign in the early nineteenth century and a range of responses to the Deorala sati in the late 1980s.
Datta, V. N. Sati: Widow-burning in India. A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning [sic]. Delhi, India, 1988.
Fisch, Jörg. Tödliche Rituale: Die Witwenverbrennung und andere Formen der Totenfolge. Frankfurt, Germany, 1998. A comprehensive study of ritual death outside India and "widow-burning" in India.
Harlan, Lindsey. Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Berkeley, Calif., 1992. An account of Rajput women's conceptions of what it is to be a good Rajput woman. In this context, the term satīmātā embraces both the woman who dies on her husband's funeral pyre and the "living satī "; in each case, the ideal of wifely devotion (pativratā ) is central.
Hawley, John Stratton, ed. Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York, 1994. This collection of essays by Indian and Western scholars, written in response to the sati of Roop Kanwar in Rajasthan in 1987, attempts to clarify the multiple realities of sati from the distant past to the present day.
Leslie, Julia. "A Problem of Choice: The Heroic Satī or the Widow-Ascetic." In Rules and Remedies in Classical Indian Law, edited by Julia Leslie, pp. 46–61. Leiden, 1991. Rulings for the widow and the satī are compared with those for the male renouncer with a view to examining the traditional idea that widowhood is a valid path of renunciation for women.
Leslie, Julia. "Suttee or Satī : Victim or Victor?" In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie, pp. 175–191. London, 1991. An analysis of four different discourses on sati: the British colonial, the radical feminist, the orthodox Hindu text, and contemporary Indian experience.
Mani, Lata. "Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India." In Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, pp. 88–126. Delhi, 1989. A feminist critique of official, native and missionary writings on sati in colonial India between 1780 and 1833, this important study draws attention to the blindness of the patriarchies on both sides of the colonial divide to the physical agonies of the women under discussion.
Mani, Lata. Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. The 1989 article expanded to book length.
Sharma, Arvind, ed., with Ajit Ray, Alaka Hejib, and Katherine K. Young. Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Delhi, 1988. Twelve essays on sati in the context of the colonial and Hindu-Christian encounter, as well as in terms of orthodox Hinduism.
Van den Bosch, Lourens P. "A Burning Question: Sati and Sati Temples as the Focus of Political Interest." NUMEN 37, no. 2 (December 1990): 174–194.
Weinberger-Thomas, Catherine. Cendres d'immortalité: La cremation des veuves en Inde. Paris, 1996. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and David Gordon White as Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India (Chicago, 1999). An experiential and psychoanalytic account of ritual self-sacrifice in South Asia based on fifteen years of fieldwork in north India, drawing on both Sanskrit and vernacular texts.
Julia Leslie (2005)
In Hindu mythology, Sati was the daughter of Daksha, son of the Hindu creator god Brahma. Sati was in love with Shiva, god of destruction, but her father forbade her to have anything to do with him. Her father's objections eventually led Sati to her death.
To find a husband for his daughter, Daksha held a gathering of the gods. Sati was to throw a bouquet of flowers into the air and marry the one who caught it. The only god not invited was Shiva. However, Sati prayed to Shiva, who appeared at the gathering and caught the flowers. Enraged, Daksha had to permit the two to marry
pyre pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in a funeral ceremony
After Sati's wedding, her father planned a ceremony involving a sacrifice, and again he invited all the gods except Shiva. Unable to persuade her father to invite her husband, Sati threw herself into the sacrificial fire and burned to death. Shiva, overcome by grief, took Sati's body from the flames and began to dance with it. His violent dance threatened to destroy the entire universe. Finally, the god Vishnu* cut Sati's body into pieces, and Shiva ended his dance. According to some versions of the story, Vishnu later brought Sati back to life. The legend of Sati leaping into the fire is sometimes used to explain the Indian tradition of suttee, in which a widow throws herself onto her dead husband's funeral pyre.
See also Brahma; Hinduism and Mythology; Shiva; Vishnu.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
The term (anglicized as ‘suttee’) was used for the self-immolation of Hindu widows, either by joining the dead husband on his funeral pyre, or by committing suicide later on a pyre lit by embers from that pyre. Not even pregnancy could save a woman from this fate; the ceremony was merely postponed until two months after her child's birth. The custom continues, but infrequently and illegally.
Hindu law books of the 1st and 2nd cents. CE see the act as gaining spiritual merit; 400 years later it was considered that for a woman to survive her husband was sinful.
It is unlikely that many widows went voluntarily to the flames, though it is certain that some did. Many were forcibly burnt; even sons would be deaf to their mothers' pleas, in order to protect family honour.
Not until 1829, under Lord Bentinck's Regulation, did satī become legally homicide, after pressure was brought to bear on the British authorities by Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, notably Rām Mohan Roy.