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 smriti meaning 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 sati is 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 sati is 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.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS
Embree, Ainslie T. (ed.) (1966) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.
Joshi, K. L. (ed.) (2000) Atharvaveda Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.
Mani, Lata (1998) Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hawley, John Stratton (ed.) (1994) Sati: The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (ed.) (1981) The Rig Veda. London: Penguin Group.
Sutton, Nicholas (2000) Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
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Article written by Brooke Brassard (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its contents.