Category Archives: g. Sati and the Status of Widows

The Savitri and Satyavat Myth

The myth of Savitri and Satyavat is the fictional love story of a Hindu wife following her husband through death and saving him with her great dharmic wisdom. The origin of the story dates back to the Mahabharata. The sage Vyasa had written the Mahabharata with the help of the god Ganesa to give to the world as a gift. Within Vyasa’s telling of the Mahabharata the ideology of dharmic character is clarified and expanded on through side stories such at Savitri and Satyavat. The Mahabharata tells the epic story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas were battling each other, and at one point, the Pandavas were exiled to live in the forest for 13 years. During this time, the brothers meet with the rishi Markandeya. The most dharmic brother, Yudhisthira, was lamenting the kidnapping of Draupadi, the Pandava’s wife, as she had been taken by Jaydratha (Anand 2). He asked the rishi if he had ever met a more dharmic woman than Draupadi. The rishi responded with the myth of Savitri and Satyavat, answering his question by telling of the most dharmic woman possible.

The king Asvapati of the land Mudra had no heirs. Worried that he would die before his bloodline would be carried on, he devoted himself to prayers and sacrifices, asking the gods for many sons. After eighteen years, the sun Goddess Savitri answered Asvapati’s hundred thousand hymns to her (Narayan 182). The goddess explained that although she knew he requested for many sons, she would instead bless him with a single daughter, for whom he should be grateful (Anand 3). Soon after, Asvapati’s eldest wife gave birth to a baby girl, whom he named Savitri after the goddess. When Savitri had grown up, her beauty was so astounding that suitors would not ask for her hand in marriage. When the king requested a reason, they responded she must be an incarnation of a goddess and could not be married. The princess Savitri then began a penance, as she waited for a proposal. However, none appeared. The king decided Savitri must be married, and came up with a plan for her to find a husband. Savitri was told to search for her own husband that was well suited and that was as good to her as she was to her father (Narayan 183). Savitri was unsure how to do so, but agreed to do his bidding. The king sent an assembly of his men to accompany his daughter who were under the order not to interfere with her decision.

A year later, she returned to her father who was with the heavenly sage Narada. Narada did not understand why she did not have a husband yet, but the king was ready to receive her answer. Savitri reported that she named Satyavat her husband [often called Satyavan]. Narada strongly advised against her decision. He explained that although Satyavat was perfectly suitable, he was cursed to die in exactly one year from that day. Asvapati tried to persuade his daughter to find another husband, but Savitri refused. Satyavat was her first and only choice for husband, and she would not choose again.

Satyavat was son of the exiled, blind king Dyumatsena, and he took care of him and his mother in their forest hermitage. Before the wedding, Asvapati asked the exiled king for his blessing on the marriage (Nadkarni 2012:np). Dyumatsena was hesitant but agreed. Once the blessing was given, Savitri married Satyavat and joined him in his forest home. Savitri was the ideal wife and daughter in-law, and brought joy to the household (Narayan 185). However, she always remembered the curse and silently counted down the days. When four days were left before the cursed day, Savitri began a triratra vow, a severe penance of fasting, praying, and standing, for three days and nights. Her parents in-law were worried for her and insisted she end this penance, but Savitri refused. On the fourth day, when Satyavat was to begin his daily journey into the forest, Savitri begged him to allow her to join him. Satyavat was hesitant but agreed only if Savitri gained approval from her in-laws. Asking her parents in-law, they granted her wish as Dyumatsena knew she had never asked for anything before (Narayan 186). Travelling deep into the forest, Satyavat was unaware of his fate, but Savitri could not focus on anything else (Narayan 186). As Satyavat was swinging the axe to cut trees, he suddenly felt fatigued. Savitri went to his aid and brought him to rest his head in her lap. She realized this must be the hour that Narada had foretold. Satyavat soon fell into a deep sleep. Savitri continued to hold him when a figure came to hover over them. As Savitri focused on this figure, she saw that it was the God of Death, Yama, coming to take Satyavat’s soul. Savitri rested Satyavat’s head on the ground, and rose to address the God of Death. Savitri asked the God why he himself had come (Dutt 423). Yama answered that because Satyavat was such a distinguished person, he wanted to honour Satyavat in his death by bringing him to death’s halls himself. Yama recognized Savitri as an auspicious wife with a rare gift of being extraordinarily sensitive. But unwavering, Yama continued to take Satyavat’s soul to his kingdom against Savitri’s requests.

However, Savitri had begun to follow him to the land of death, a place where she could not go. Yama tried to persuade her to turn back, but Savitri was refused, knowing that where her husband went, she went, as it was her dharmic duty as a wife to accompany her husband through life and death. Impressed by her knowledge of dharma, Yama told her to ask for any boon other than the life of her husband and he shall grant it (Nadkarni 2012:np). Savitri asked for the return of her father in-law’s sight. They continued their conversation and Yama is repeatedly impressed, granting 3 more boons. Savitri asked for Dyumatsena’s kingdom to be restored, her father to have a hundred noble sons and for a hundred sons for herself and Satyavat. Yama granted these, but then realized too late that for the final boon to be granted Satyavat must be returned to earth. Yama kept his word and gave his blessing and Satyavat’s soul back to Savitri to return to his body (Nadkarni 2012:np).

Restoring his soul to his body, Savitri and Satyavat hurried home to his parents’ hermitage as they were late to return. Dyumatsena, with his sight recently restored, and his wife were worried when Satyavat and Savitri had not returned at their normal time. Neighbours had come to comfort them. When Savitri and Satyavat finally arrived, a celebration was thrown in their honour. Questioned on their reason for such a late arrival, Savitri began her story of all the transpired events, beginning with Narada’s prophecy up until their return home. She explained in detail her interactions with Yama, the God of Death, and the boons he had granted her (Dutt 429). The next day, Dyumatsena was informed his enemy, who had seized the throne, had been killed by the hands of one of his own ministers. Dyumatsena was once again declared king of the Shalwa kingdom. Savitri and Satyavat had their 100 sons who were brave, noble, and never fled from war (Dutt 430). Asvapati was also blessed with 100 sons who kept his bloodline and lineage strong for generations.

Savitri is used as the example of the ideal Hindu wife; a woman who is willing to follow her husband through death and back. Savitri symbolizes the dharmic wisdom that overcomes death (Anand 2). The perfect wife is to maintain her position beside her husband for all of time. In each dharmic marriage the man has the responsibility to take care of his family in all the physical aspects of life, while the wife “embodies the power to sustain their existence” (Rodrigues 125). She must maintain this power by being as auspicious as possible, and by being loyal by following orders from her husband. This enhances her personal spiritual power, or sakti. Her whole family depends on this spiritual power for their survival. By having this power, she is responsible to take part in sati, the ritual where the wife is required to lie on her deceased husband’s pyre, showing that she is willing to die with him and to use her sakti to cleanse his soul in a spiritual sense (Pitchman 26). Savitri is the ideal wife because when she completed sati she brought Satyavat back to life with her, proving she was purely dharmic. Her higher understanding of the dharmic teaching and her commitment to Satyavat is what brought her husband back to life (Verma 67). As they are two parts of a whole, both the husband and wife rely on each other to live a dharmic life. Their devotion to each other, especially Savitri’s, deems her the ideal wife in Hindu culture.


Anand, Subhash (1988) Savitri and Satyavat: A Contemporary Reading. Pune: Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute

Dutt, Manmatha Nath (1895) A Prose English Translation of the Mahabharata: (translated Literally from the Original Sanskrit Text). H.C. Dass.

Nadkarni, Mangesh V. (2012) Savitri-The Golden Bridge, The Wonderful Fire: An introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s epic. Auroville: Savitri Bhavan

Narayan, R. K. (1964) Gods, Demons, and Others. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Pintchman, Tracy (2011) Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism–The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Verma, K.D. (1977) Myth and Symbol in Aurobindo’s “Savitri”: A Revaluation. Michigan: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University

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Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topicśvapati

Article written by: Abby Neudorf (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Savitri and Satyavan

The Hindu myth of Savitri and Satyavan, found in the Mahabharata, is a tale of the love and devotion a Hindu wife was expected to have for her husband. In the Hindu tradition women are expected to show this devotion to their husbands above all else, and the tale of Savitri’s devotion is one of the most poignant and significant examples of this.

The story begins with Aswapati, a king, who was virtuous and lived what could be considered a perfect dharmic lifestyle. Despite this, Aswapati could not conceive a male heir; as he grew older this became more and more of a concern. After 18 years of a perfect dharmic lifestyle, including performing ten thousand oblations daily and reciting Mantras in honour of Savitri, Aswapati was visited by the goddess Savitri herself, who is also called Gayatri. Savitri could not grant him a son, but instead granted him a daughter, who the king named Savitri after the goddess. In some versions Savitri did not grant him the child herself, but informed Aswapati that Brahma was granting him a child (Sarma 329). Savitri grew up to become a beautiful woman, compared by the people to a goddess, and because of her intimidating beauty none would marry her. Aswapati sent her off in search of a husband, as none in his land would marry her. (Ganguli 570-571)

When she returned, she tells her father of another king, Dyumatsena. Dyumatsena was a wise, virtuous kshatriya king. Dyumatsena grew blind, and thus his kingdom was overthrown by an old enemy, ousting Dyumatsena and his family and forcing them into a hermitage. Dyumatsena’s only son, Satyavan, grew up in this state of hermitage. Savitri met the adult Satyavan, and chose him as the one she would marry. She praised his virtues to her father, listing his energy, wisdom, bravery, and forgiveness. She compared his noble attributes to those of various gods, to further emphasize just how perfect a match Satyavan was. Her father’s counselors, who accompanied Savitri on this journey supported her statements. The king asked his trusted advisor if this seemingly perfect youth had any defects, and it is revealed that Satyavan was to die exactly one year from this meeting. Aswapati urged Savitri to choose another, but she had already made up her mind and refused to change it, stating that she had already selected Satyavan and will not select again. The king relented on seeing the full extent of her devotion, and the two were wed. (Ganguli 572-574)

As the day of Satyavan’s death approached, Savitri offered prayers and ascetic observances for the three days prior to Satyavan’s preordained demise. Savitri and Satyavan went out in the woods on the day in question to pick fruits and cut down tree branches. Satyavan began to feel weak, and Savitri laid him on the ground with his head in her lap. The next moment, Yama, the god of death, appeared to Savitri. He had come to personally take Satyavan’s soul. He did so and departed, but Savitri proceeded to follow him out of her devotion to her husband. She spoke to Yama of Satyavan’s virtues, and he was impressed by her words and her devotion and granted her a boon, anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life. She requested that her father-in-law, Dyumatsena, regain his eyesight and his strength. Yama granted this, and continued on his way. Savitri followed him still, telling Yama more of Satyavan. Yama granted her a second boon, and she asked for Dyumatsena to regain his kingdom. She continued to follow him, this time speaking of mercy, and Yama granted her a third boon. She asked to beget children to continue her father’s line, and Yama granted her that she may have a hundred sons. She proceeded to speak about justice. Yama had heretofore been very impressed with Savitri’s devotion and extensive wisdom, and he granted her a fourth boon. She asked for a century of sons, begat by her and Satyavan, and Yama granted this before realizing the implication. He realized Savitri had tricked him and, impressed with her cunning, granted Satyavan’s life back, as she could not father sons with him if he was dead. This differs, as in some versions it is not by Savitri’s cunning, but by her continued devotion that she convinced Yama to give Satyavan back (Sarma 334). When Savitri and Satyavan returned, they found Dyumatsena’s eyesight and strength had returned, and he ascended once again to his rightful place at the head of his kingdom. Savitri and Satyavan had many children, and all was well (Ganguli 576-585).

Savitri’s devotion to her husband is the key theme of this myth. Even before they are married, she is unshakeable in her conviction to stand by Satyavan despite his impending death, and this devotion is what impresses her father so much that he allows the two to be wed. This is especially significant due to the inauspicious status of widows in the Hindu tradition, and the prohibition of remarriage (Rodrigues 127-128). She also shows devotion towards her husband’s family, who in the Hindu tradition essentially becomes her new primary family. Her requests of Yama to return her father-in-law’s sight, strength, and kingdom exemplify this ideal. Lastly, her devotion to Satyavan even in death is impressive. She follows Yama, death himself, and he grants her multiple divine boons, eventually even giving her Satyavan back. It is interesting to note however, that Savitri is not a helpless damsel following Yama because she is incapable of anything without her husband. If anything, after Satyavan’s death she shows her many other impressive characteristics in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.

The ideal of pativrata is described by Rodrigues as “ascetic dedication to [the woman’s] husband” (Rodrigues 124). It is the highest vrata, or ascetic observance, that Hindu women follow. The pativrata is closely related to sakti, spiritual power, and the husband was dependent on this spiritual power for his survival and strength. The story of Savitri exemplifies this, as Savitri’s devotion is very closely tied to her husband’s strength and survival, literally bringing him back from death. Savitri initially tries to prevent his death, performing vrata for three days just prior to the promised time. When this fails, she follows Yama, an extraordinary display of ascetic devotion, and her spirituality is a key factor in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.

Some scholars explore the similarities and differences between Savitri and Draupadi. Indeed, the entire reason this myth was told in the Mahabharata was in response to Yudhisthira asking if there had ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s (Ganguli 570). Weiss looks at Savitri’s marriage as a sort of inversion of Draupadi’s. Savitri is an ascetic wife, while Draupadi is married to five men, both deviations from the Hindu norm. As Weiss states: “Savitri lowers her social status by an act that creates social discontinuity (ascetic practices terminate social lineage), and Draupadi limits the natural capacities of her husbands by marrying all of them.” (Weiss 268-269).  The feminist scholar Lohia gently criticizes Savitri in comparison to Draupadi, stating that loyalty was important, but only as a single aspect of a woman’s personality (Yadav 110). Ultimately, both women represent distinct aspects of the Hindu ideal.

The story of Savitri and Satyavan exemplifies Hindu ideals of a wife’s devotion to her husband. Savitri marries the man she chooses regardless of his impending death, and refuses to let him go. When he does die, it is her devotion and strength of character that brings him back to life. In my opinion, she epitomizes the ideal of pativrata, and is an example of how the Hindu epics teach how one should live through tales with simple moral principles.


Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1990) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Vol.III (5th Edition). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sarma, Bharadvaja (2008) Vyasa’s Mahabaratam. Academic Publishers.

Weiss, Brad (1985) “Mediations in the Myth of Savitri.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 53, No. 2: 259-270.

Yadav, Kumkum (2010) “Draupadi or Savitri: Lohia’s Feminist Reading Of Mythology.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 48: 107–112.

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Gayatri (goddess)






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This article was written by Thomas Hill (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Sati and Social Implications


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.

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.

Related Topics


Dowry Death

Widow Burning

Hindu Marriage

Hindu Rites and Ritual Practices



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Article written by Nerissa Bhola (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

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 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.


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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Rammohun Roy

sati stones


Roop Kanwar


British colonialism

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Article written by Brooke Brassard (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its contents.


Sati is an ancient ritual that is now outlawed throughout India and the East. Sati, or suttee as the British call it, is the act of a widow cremating herself on her husbands burning funeral pyre (see Embree 98). Sati is a Sanskrit word that has many meanings, one of them meaning goddess. Therefore, when a women would perform this rite, the word sati could mean either the ritual itself, or what the woman would become (a goddess) through performing the ritual (Hawley 30). Western thinking found this ritual appalling, which type of thinking is what led to the passing of the Sati Abolition Law in 1829. Since that time there have still been a few instances of widows performing sati, and by some Hindus today it is still revered as an honorable act (Narasimhan 71). During the time period when sati was allowed, there were many reasons why a widow chose it over a solitary life. There are also many reasons why it was outlawed, and cases of sati being performed since then.

Hindus have many rituals, and are particularly detailed in the way in which the rituals are performed. One account of how the ritual of sati is performed started with the men, usually Brahmins and male relatives, preparing the pyre. Women then washed the widow’s feet, and the Priests would explain to her what to do. She would lay down alongside her husband, with “her right hand under his neck, his right arm over hers, and his right leg over her” and the male relatives would then start the fire (Leslie 179). Throughout this, the women would continue wearing bangles, or jewelry of some sort. The wearing of such things shows that one is married, and in this case is a symbol of the women’s continuing state of marriage (Hawley 35).

There are cases in which women did not voluntarily perform sati, but this was uncommon. There are other uncommon cases in which a woman would want to perform sati, but be persuaded not to by friends and family. In another account, a Queen attempts to explain to her grieving son, why it is that she is performing sati, while trying to convince him to let her do it: “Daughter, spouse, mother of heroes, how otherwise could such a woman as I, whose price was valour, act?… Thus every limb has fulfilled its mission I have spent my store of good works, what more should I look to… I cannot endure… to make unavailing lamentations for a burnt husband. Going before, like the dust of your father’s feet, to announce his coming to the heavens, I shall be high-esteemed of the hero-loving spouses of the gods. Therefore dishonour me no more . . . with opposition to my hearts desire” (Embree 99-100).

The ritual of sati stemmed from the negative attitudes towards being a widow. The idea of sati is not a monolithic one, and many books of scripture have different ideas on it. Some ancient scriptures, however, do promote sati due to the negativity of becoming a widow. One such scripture is, The Laws of Manu, which is an ancient book of Hindu scripture that dictates how individuals should act. In this book of scripture it is taught that widows cannot speak the name of another man. If a widow remarries she is disgracing herself and her Lord (Wilkins 211). Hindu widows wore white saris, little or no jewelry and removed the red spot on their forehead that had been worn since marriage (Ganeri 7). There are customs by which every Hindu lives that are written in such books of scripture as The Laws of Manu. Some customs by which widows had to live by were, only eating one meal per day, and two days a month going completely without food (Wilkins 211). Even in the year 1987, over one hundred years since the abolition of sati, one Hindu woman stated that it was better to die than to be a widow. She said that widows are not permitted to wear nice clothes or eat good food and must stay inside for the rest of their life (Narasimhan 28). Pativrata is a Sanskrit term for the ideal woman and encompasses the thought that “if her [the pativrata] husband . . . is dead, she should also die” (Narasimhan 29). Although there are many negative factors to widowhood, performing sati gives you a positive way in which to deal with becoming a widow. A women who performs sati is not only honored and respected, but is thought to dwell in heaven for thirty-five million years [This number comes from the fact that she should reside in heaven for as many years as she has hairs on her head, which is thought to be 35, 000, 000 (Wilkins, 1887)] (Wilkins 223). When one performs sati, she becomes a goddess and may thereafter be worshipped as one, by having shrines or temples built in her honor (Hawley 34-36).

During the Reform Period in India, Ram Mohon Roy was a very influential man, and son of a wealthy Bengali Brahmin family. He lived from 1772-1833, during which time the British were heavily influencing Indian culture, education and society. Ram Mohon Roy was the founder of a famous society called the Brahmo Samaj (The Encyclopedia of Religion 479). Throughout Ram Mohon Roy’s lifetime he rejected many traditional Hindu beliefs. “He was the first Indian to publicly denounce [sati]” (Narasimhan 102). His ideas of widow remarriage and forbiddance of sati were highly influential in its future abolition. Many European travelers also witnessed sati and believed that it was inhumane (Embree 98). In 1829, Lord William Cavendish Bentick passed the Sati Abolition Law of 1829 prohibiting this ritual [This act was also called the Bengal Regulation XVII of 1829.]. Despite this law, there were still occurrences of sati, leading to the Sati Prohibition Act of 1987 (Narasimhan 53).

There are still some modern cases of sati, such as the highly publicized case of Roop Kanwar in 1987. Kanwar was a young Hindi woman, eighteen years old, and had only been married for 8 months. Shortly following her husbands death, she decided to perform this self-immolation ritual (Hawley 103). Throughout the world many groups, societies and individuals strongly opposed this action. In contrast, many Hindus respected and revered her. Soon after she performed sati, a widely distributed newspaper wrote and editorial on the death of Roop Kanwar, giving their approval and respect for what she did [This newspaper is called the Jansatta and is highly read and distributed throughout North India. This act became heavily debated leading to many articles, essays and books on the Roop Kanwar case.]. It states: “Roop Kanwar did not become a Sati because someone threatened her… [S]he purposely followed the tradition of [sati] which is found in the Rajput families of Rajasthan . . . It is quite natural that her self-sacrifice should become the centre of reverence and worship”(Hawley 105). Many individuals still cling to ancient thoughts and traditions and greatly revere the women who choose a different path than widowhood, the still commonly respected way of a Sati.


Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ganeri, Anita (1998) Journey’s End: Death and Mourning. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Cranbury: Associated University Presses.

Mani, Lata (1998) Contentious Traditions. London: University of California Press Ltd.

Wilkins, W.J. (1887) Modern Hinduism. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.

Narasimhan, Sakuntala (1990) Sati, Widow Burning in India. New York: Penguin Books India, Ltd.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1972) The Hindu Tradition, Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Hawley, John Stratton (1994) Sati, The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1986) “Roy, Ram Mohan.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Collier Macmillan Canada, Inc. V. 12, p.479.

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Ram Mohan Roy

The Laws of Manu

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Written by Crystal Haitsma (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.