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).
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.
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.
Hindu Rites and Ritual Practices
Article written by Nerissa Bhola (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.