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.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
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.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Ram Mohan Roy
The Laws of Manu
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Written by Crystal Haitsma (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.