By Swami Harshananda
Sati literally means practice of self-immolation by a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband.
The practice of widow-burning was not peculiar to the people of India only. It owes its origin, according to European scholars like Schrader to the oldest religious views and superstitions of mankind in general. The practice was also prevalent among the ancient Greeks, Germans, Slavs and other races. A. L. Basham in his work 'The Wonder that was India' says that this custom dated back to the earliest cultures. He even notes that it existed among the Kings of Ur, the ancient Chinese and some early Indo-European peoples. They used to either burn or bury a man’s widow, their horses and other cherished possessions with his corpse in order that he might have all that he loved and needed in the other world.
Discretionary Symbolic Act
The practice of Sati had become outmoded from the Ṛigvedic times in our country. One of its mantras refers to the practice of the widow lying on the funeral pyre of her husband, before it is lit up and then coming down. So it existed only as a symbolic ritual. With the solitary exception of the Viṣṇudharmasutras, no other work including the famous Manusmṛti, has ordained it. Even in the Viṣṇudharmasutras, committing Satī is a choice given to the widow and is not compulsory. In the epics a few instances of the queens and other wives of the deceased kings having burned themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands are mentioned. It was a voluntary act and was not highly extolled. In all probability, this pure voluntary practice existed only among the kings and noblemen and never for the general level of the populace. In fact, religious works have extolled a life of austerity and purity by the widows as of far superior merit than Sahagamana or self-immolation.
It is an unfortunate fact that the practice became more universal and more widely prevalent among all the sections of the people. It is due to the superstitions among the ignorant masses and their clever exploitation by economic vested interests. This is borne out by the fact that incidents of Satī were very high in Bengal where the share of women in the properties of joint families was rather high as compared to other parts of the country. Consequently, there were instances when unwilling women, even innocent child-widows, have been forcibly burnt alive most inhumanly. The large sections of society, under the enlightened leadership of people like Rājā Rammohan Roy, rebelled against this heinous custom and put a stop to it.
Condemn of the Sati Practice
It is not that in Sati practice Raja Rammohan Roy was the first person who fought against this abominable custom. Ancient commentators of scriptures like Medhātithi and literary geniuses like Bāṇa have condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. All the teachers of Tantras were vehemently against it.
There is a single opinion regarding the stopping of this practice. But, people who are preaching against it vigorously, sometimes issue statements of wholesale condemnation of the practice. As far as the forcible burning of Sati is concerned, no words are strong enough to condemn them. They are first degree murders. Hence the long and strong arm of the law of the land must have its full sway.
Voluntary Sati Practice
All the Satis were not forced to the burning. Travelers like Jean Baptiste Tavernier of France, who toured the country between A. D. 1641 and 1667 have described graphically how a young widow non-chalantly burnt her finger in a blazing torch as a ‘test’, before she finally committed Satī of her own free will. None could dissuade her. He also states how the eleven queens of the King of Vellore, when confined to a room and locked up to prevent them from committing Satī, were found dead after three hours. There were no signs of hanging or poison or physical injury on their bodies. The mass Jauhar system of the Rajput princesses, to save their honor from the marauding barbaric invaders, is now a well-documented historical fact.
The point to be admired in the Sati system, immaterial of it being right or wrong, is the tremendous courage displayed by these noble ladies who cared more for their cherished ideal than for their lives. Honor and chastity were everything for them and life was like straw when compared to these. In this connection, it is worthwhile to quote a well-known modern savant, Dr. P. V. Kane, from his monumental work History of Dharmaśāstra:
“Modern India does not justify the practice of Satī, but it is warped mentality that rebukes modern Indians for expressing admiration and reverence for the cool and unfaltering courage of Indian women in becoming Satīs or performing Jauhar for cherishing their ideals of womanly conduct. If Englishmen can feel pride in their ancestors who grabbed one fourth of the world’s surface or if Frenchmen can feel pride in the deeds of their Emperor Napoleon who tried to enslave the whole of Europe and yet are not held up to ridicule or rebuke, there is no reason why poor Indians cannot express admiration for the sacrifices which their women made in the past, though they may condemn the institution itself which demanded such terrible sacrifice and suffering.”
Origin of Sati
The word ‘Satī’ comes form the root ‘sat’, the truth. Hence it actually means a woman who is true to her ideals. Tradition has placed chastity and personal purity as the highest ideal of womanhood. Any woman who has risen to the heights of this ideal is a Satī. The best known example of this ideal is Satī herself. She was also known as Dākṣāyaṇī, Lord Śiva’s consort. When Dakṣa, her father, insulted her and her husband in the sacrificial site before a large gathering, she resolved to give up her body in protest. As per the accounts given in the Bhāgavata she sat in deep meditation and burnt her body to ashes in yogāgni or the fire generated by the yogic meditation. This story reveals to us two startling facts:
- Satī gave up her body voluntarily in yoga and did not jump into the sacrificial fire as is often made out in popular legends.
- Her husband, Śiva, had not ceased to exist.
If any woman is capable of giving up her body in yogic meditation, unable to stand the insults to her husband and herself, none should prevent her from doing so. Even if she wants to give up her body in this fashion, on the death of her dear husband, there should be no objection. She indeed should be honored as the original Satī herself.
Goal of Life
A more fundamental question is:
Why should a widow die at all, just because her husband had died?
Our holy scriptures declare that human birth is extremely valuable and should be fully utilized for realizing the final goal of life, viz., realization of the Ātman or the Self and consequent stoppage of trans-migratory existence. As far as the goal of life and the possibility of achieving it are concerned, man and woman are treated as absolutely equal. In fact, the Vedāntic scriptures do not even recognize the man-woman differences as fundamental, but only as incidental to the respective karma of the individual soul, which is a spirit, sans sex.
A widow has much greater opportunity for spiritual progress, if only she can takes her life in the right spirit. In fact, the stringent rules imposed on a widow in her personal life approximate to the code of conduct of a sanyāsin or a monk. It should be looked upon from this angle. Apart from Śrī Sāradā Devī herself, the consort of Rāmakṛṣṇa, the many women disciples of the Master, some of whom were child-widows and had been the victims of tragic events of life, have set before us glorious examples of Indian womanhood.
Middle Ages or ‘Dark’ Ages
It is an undeniable fact that during the Middle Ages the society meted a very cruel treatment to its women. Main cause for the dismal attitude in the minds of women often forcing them to opt for Satī rather than die every moment of life were:
- Problems of child-widows as a result of the ridiculous system of child-marriage
- Absence of education resulting in superstitions
- Various unjust taboos forcing the widows to slave in the joint families for life
- Utter economic dependence
Pioneering efforts in the field of women’s education by persons like Sister Niveditā, the fiery disciple of the fiery guru Vivekānanda had certainly brought a glimmer of hope to these hapless women during the last century.
After independence, when practically every field of life has been thrown open to women and when several women’s organisations run by enlightened women are working for their welfare, women in general and destitute widows in particular, have nothing to despair. If the society can vigorously propagate the idea that women can do better things in life than dying on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, the Satī problem will die a natural death. There is a popular saying that marriages are made in heaven. To support this philosophy, our widowed sisters and mothers should wait for their marriages to be continued or dissolved in heaven by the Power that made them.
- Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples
- Paragraph 188
- Rgveda 10.18-8
- He lived in A. D. 1772-1833.
- He lived in circa 10th century.
- He lived in 7th century.
- It is now in Tamil Nadu.
- Jauhar means jumping into fire.
- History of Dharmaśāstra Vol. II, P-I. p. 636
- Bhāgavata 4.4
- She lived in A. D. 1867-1911.
- He lived in A. D. 1863-1902.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore