What is Sati Pratha?
Sati (also Suttee) Pratha refers the practice or act of burning of a Hindu widow on the funeral pyre of her husband in-order to show her devotion as a true wife. The woman who performs such act is called a “Sati”.
Pratha is a Hindi word meaning “Practice”, “Custom” or “Tradition”. There are laws in India that prohibit this practice.
As Indians we are proud of the rich tradition and cultural heritage of our country. But there were some unholy practices and evil customs in the past of which we feel greatly ashamed.
Sati Practice is illegal in India
Sati Practice is completely illegal in India. The practice of suttee (or Sati) was one such unholy and cruel custom in our country which is indeed a land of strange paradoxes and in consistencies in words and practices.
This cruel and barbaric custom was denounced and abolished by Lord William Bentinck – the then Governor General of India.
H had the unflinching support of the enlightened Indian like Raja Rammohon Roy, one of the most worthy sons that India has ever produced.
Since then the Sati system existed only in relics and as some strong cases. To modern Indians it seems that this system had been most in human cruel and barbarous.
The Roop Kanwar Sati Case
But what is strange is that after a long lapse of time this cruel custom had reappeared in certain parts of this country.
On 4th September, 1987, Roop Kanwar of Deorala in Rajasthan performed the act of Sati. She was merely 18 year old young girl at the time of her death. After the event she was given the status of “Sati Mata”.
Enlightened and cultured people of India were therefore, greatly shocked when they all on a sudden came to know from the newspapers.
The Special Court at Jaipur had accused 11 people for glorifying the act of Sati.
Abolition of Sati Practice
The British officials and the British missionaries in India first protested against Sati practice and demanded of the parliament of its abolition in the face of strong opposition of the orthodox Hindus of the time. It was Raja Rammohon Roy who first came forward for cause of these unfortunate widow and urged the liberal and for-sighted Governor-General, Lord Bentinck to stop this cruel murder of Hindu-widows.
Thus the cruel practice of ‘Sati’ was abolished by an ordinance on December 4, 1829. But it a matter of regret that this unfortunate practices is not given up everywhere. In spite of the national liberation movement and anti-caste emphasis this ugly practice continued to survive in some provinces of India and the case of Roop Kanwar’s death was one such example.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 was passed by the Government. The cruel practice of Sati was banned for ever from the Indian soil.
The democratic society of India allows women to enjoy as much right as men do. This practice of ‘Sati’ is really unthinkable. Let us stand united to stop this cruel custom following the Anti-Sati Laws passed in India.
Suggested External Readings
1. Roop Kanwar Sati Case on Wikipedia
2. Sati Practice on Wikipedia
3. Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, on Wikipedia
Category: Essays, Paragraphs and Articles, Social Issues in India
"Suttee" redirects here. For other uses of "sati", see Sati (disambiguation).
Sati or suttee[note 1] is an obsolete funeral custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband's pyre or takes her own life in another fashion shortly after her husband's death.
Mention of the practice can be dated back to the 3rd century BC, while evidence of practice by widows of kings only appears beginning between the 5th and 9th centuries CE. The practice is considered to have originated within the warrior aristocracy in India, gradually gaining in popularity from the 10th century AD and spreading to other groups from the 12th through 18th century CE. The practice was particularly prevalent among some Hindu communities, observed in aristocratic Sikh families, and has been attested to outside South Asia in a number of localities in Southeast Asia, such as in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Under British rule, the practice was initially tolerated. In the province of Bengal, sati was attended by a colonial government official, which states historian A.F. Salahuddin Ahmed, "not only seemed to accord an official sanction, but also increased its prestige value". Between 1815 and 1818, the number of sati in Bengal province doubled from 378 to 839. Under sustained campaigning against sati by Christian missionaries such as William Carey and Brahmin Hindu reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, the provincial government banned sati in 1829. This was followed up by similar laws by the authorities in the princely states of India in the ensuing decades, with a general ban for the whole of India issued by Queen Victoria in 1861. In Nepal, sati was banned in 1920. The Indian Sati Prevention Act from 1988 further criminalised any type of aiding, abetting, and glorifying of sati.
Etymology and usage
Sati (Sanskrit: सती / satī) is derived from the name of the goddess Sati, who self-immolated because she was unable to bear her father Daksha's humiliation to her husband Shiva.
The term sati was originally interpreted as "chaste woman". Sati appears in Hindi and Sanskrit texts, where it is synonymous with "good wife"; the term suttee was commonly used by Anglo-Indian English writers.Sati designates therefore originally the woman, rather than the rite; the rite itself having technical names such as sahagamana ("going with") or sahamarana ("dying with"). Anvarohana ("ascension" to the pyre) is occasionally met, as well as satidaha as terms to designate the process.Satipratha is also, on occasion, used as a term signifying the custom of burning widows alive. Two other terms related to sati are sativrata and satimata. Sativrata, an uncommon and seldom used term, denotes the woman who makes a vow, vrat, to protect her husband while he is alive and then die with her husband. Satimata denotes a venerated widow who committed sati.
The Indian Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 Part I, Section 2(c) defines sati as the act or rite itself.
Origins and comparisons
Few reliable records exist of the practice before the time of the Gupta empire, approximately 400 CE although the Greek historian Aristobulus of Cassandreia, who traveled to India with the expedition of Alexander the Great, recorded that he had heard that among certain tribes widows were glad to burn along with their husbands, and that those who declined to die were disgraced. According to Axel Michaels, the first inscriptional evidence of the practice is from Nepal in 464 CE, and in India from 510 CE. The early evidence suggests that widow-burning practice was seldom carried out in the general population. Centuries later, instances of sati began to be marked by inscribed memorial stones called Sati stones. According to J.C. Harle, the medieval memorial stones appear in two forms – viragal (hero stone) and satigal (sati stone), each to memorialize something different. Both of these are found in many regions of India, but "rarely if ever earlier in date than the 8th or 9th century". Numerous memorial sati stones appear 11th-century onwards, states Michaels, and the largest collections are found in Rajasthan.
A description of sati appears in the Greek 1st-century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus's account of the war fought in Iran between two of Alexander the Great's generals, Eumenes of Cardia and Antigonus Monophthalmus. In 317 BCE Eumenes's cosmopolitan army defeated that of Antigonus in the Battle of Paraitakene. Among the fallen was one Ceteus, the commander of Eumenes's Indian soldiers. Diodorus writes that Ceteus had been followed on campaign by his two wives, at his funeral the two wives competed for the honour of joining their husband on the pyre. After the older wife was found to be pregnant, Eumenes's generals ruled in favour of the younger. She was led to the pyre crowned in garlands to the hymns of her kinsfolk. The whole army then marched three times around the pyre before it was lit. According to Diodorus the practice of sati started because Indians married for love, unlike the Greeks who favoured marriages arranged by the parents. When inevitably many of these love marriages turned sour, the woman would often poison the husband and find a new lover. To end these murders, a law was therefore instituted that the widow should either join her husband in death or live in perpetual widowhood. Modern historians believe Diodorus's source for this episode was the eyewitness account of the now lost historian Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus' explanation of the origin of sati appears to be his own composite, created from a variety of Indian traditions and practices to form a moral lesson upholding traditional Greek values.
In the 1886 published Hobson-Jobson, Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell mention the practice of Suttee (sati) as an early custom of Russians near Volga, tribes of Thracians in southeast Europe, and some tribes of Tonga and Fiji islands. Yule and Burnell also compiled a few dozen excerpts of historical descriptions of sati, the first being of Ceteus (or Keteus) mentioned above in 317 BC, and then a few before the 9th century AD, where the widow of a king had the choice to burn with him or abstain. Most of the compiled list on sati, by Yule and Burnell, date from 1200 AD through the 1870s AD.
The archaeologist Elena Efimovna Kuzmina enlists clear parallels between the burial practices of the ancient Asiatic steppe Andronovo cultures (fl. 1800–1400 BCE) and the Vedic Age. In Kuzmina's archaeological definition, sati is understood as a double burial, the co-cremation of a man and a woman/wife, a feature to be found in both cultures. Kuzʹmina states that in the Androvo culture and Vedic age, the practice was never strictly observed and was symbolic.
The sacrifice of widow(s) or a great man's retainers at his death is attested in various Indo-European cultures outside of India. As an example where the widows vied for the honour to die with their common husband, the 5th-century BCE historian Herodotus mentions the Krestones tribe among the Thracians. The woman found to have been held highest in the husband's favour while he lived had her throat slit on his grave, the surviving wives reputedly regarding it as a great shame to have to live on. Citing 6th-century AD Procopius from his "Gothic Wars", Edward Gibbon notes that among the Germanic tribe of the Heruli, a widow typically hanged herself upon her husband's tomb.
The early 14th-century CE traveller Odoric of Pordenone mentions wife burning in Zampa (Champa), in nowadays south/central Vietnam.[note 2] Anant Altekar states that sati spread with Hindu migrants to Southeast Asian islands, such as to Java, Sumatra and Bali. According to Dutch colonial records, this was however a rare practice in Indonesia, one found in royal households.
In Cambodia, both the lords and the wives of a dead king voluntarily burnt themselves in the 15th and 16th centuries.[note 3] According to European traveller accounts, in 15th century Mergui, in present-day extreme south Myanmar, widow burning was practiced. A Chinese pilgrim from the 15th century seems to attest the practice on islands called Ma-i-tung and Ma-i (possibly Belitung (outside Sumatra) and Northern Philippines, respectively).
According to the historian K.M. de Silva, Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka with a substantial Hindu minority population, reported "there were no glaring social evils associated with the indigenous religions-no sati, (...). There was thus less scope for the social reformer." However, although sati was non-existent in the colonial era, earlier Muslim travellers such as Sulaiman al-Tajir reported that sati was optionally practiced, which a widow could choose to undertake.
Comparable practices in other non-Hindu cultures
In 1968, Eberhard stated that the practice of widow burning was observed inside China, but was rare and influenced by India. Chinese sociology studies that followed suggest that the practice was historically more widespread, far removed from India (near the Korean peninsula), and found among the Manchu people of China where a widow would ritually commit suicide after her husband died (Chinese: xunsi, congxun). After her suicide, she was socially celebrated as a virtuous chaste widow.[note 4] This Altaic tradition was not limited to the Manchu people of China, but also found in other Chinese ethnic groups. The practice of self-immolation and other forms of public suicide by widows were observed, for example, in Fukien province of southeast China, in some cases in duress after a rape attempt and in other cases voluntarily without duress.
A similar practice of widow suicide to follow her husband or fiancé, states Hai-soon Lee, existed in medieval Korea, in accordance with the traditional Confucian ethos. According to Martina Deuchler, this practice was praised as misok (beautiful custom), and the dead widow praised as "faithful wife", in the historic Korean culture and literature.
Historical documents attest to the public self-immolation practice (self cremation, as shaoshen 燒身 or zifen 自焚) among Buddhist nuns (and monks) in ancient and medieval China for religious reasons. This was considered as evidence of a renunciant bodhisattva, and may have been inspired by the Jataka tales wherein the Buddha in his earlier lives immolates himself to assist other living beings, or teachings in the Lotus Sutra. The Chinese Buddhist asceticism practices, states James Benn, were not an adaptation or import of Indian ascetic practices, but an invention of Chinese Buddhists, based on their unique interpretations of Buddhists texts. It may be an adoption of more ancient pre-Buddhist Chinese practices.
In modern times, Buddhist nuns have used self-immolation as a form of protest. Thich Nu Thanh Quang, a Buddhist nun publicly burnt herself to death in front of Diệu Đế Pagoda in central Vietnam, as a mark of protest against the Vietnam War. Her death triggered a wave of similar self-immolations by other nuns and monks as the war continued.
Cases of burning at funerals elsewhere, history and legends
A well-known case is that of the 10th-century AD ship burial of the Rus' described by Ibn Fadlan. Here, when a female slave had said she would be willing to die, her body was subsequently burned with her master on the pyre.
Such rituals as widow sacrifice/widow burning have, presumably, prehistoric roots. Early 20th-century pioneering anthropologist James G. Frazer, for example, thought that the legendary Greek story of Capaneus, whose wife Evadne threw herself on his funeral pyre, might be a relic of an earlier custom of live widow-burning. The strangling of widows after their husbands' deaths are attested from as disparate cultures as the Natchez people in present-day US state Louisiana, to a number of Pacific Islander cultures.
Sati-like Hindu practice: Jauhar
Main article: Jauhar
The Rajput practice of Jauhar, known from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was the collective suicide of widows who preferred death rather than being captured alive and dishonored by victorious Muslim soldiers in a war. According to Bose, jauhar practice grew in the 14th and 15th century with Hindu-Muslim wars of northwest India, where the Hindu women preferred death than slavery or rape they faced if captured. Sati-style jauhar custom was observed only during Hindu-Muslim wars in medieval India, but not during internecine Hindu-Hindu wars among the Rajputs.
Arvind Sharma states that there was a distinction between jauhar and sati, because jauhar was principally motivated by a desire to avoid being captured by the invading Muslims, while sati was suicide of a devoted widow. John Hawley disagrees, and states there was a connection between jauhar and sati in terms of the insecurity and fears of the widow(s), and that these customs reinforced each other. Further Jauhar was a custom for which special combustible rooms were built within the forts called Lakshagraha made of Lacquer and other inflammable substances.
Practice within Sikhs, Jains and Muslims
Sati was observed within Sikh aristocracy. For example, when the founder of the Sikh EmpireRanjit Singh died in 1839, four of his proper wives and seven of his concubines committed themselves to sati. Two wives committed sati when Sikh King Kharak Singh died, and five women joined the funeral pyre of Maharaja Basant Singh. When Raja Suchet Singh died in 1844, 310 women committed sati. Sikh theology does not support the Sati practice, however, as is evidenced by the criticism of the practice by the 3rd Sikh Guru Guru Amar Das (1479–1554).
In ancient texts of Jainism, such as the Kalpa Sūtra the term Sati is found, and it means "virtuous woman". Many texts include a list of sixteen Satis, ancient women that represent auspiciousness and virtue, names revered in the mythology of Hinduism as well. The connotation of the term Sati, states M Whitney Kelting, means the same "virtuousness, chaste, dedication to her family" as in Hinduism, and in both cases, it is different from the associated practice called suttee during colonial British India. Evidence suggests that there were instances of Sati practice (self immolation) by Jain women, including some in the 19th century. In the Epigraphia Carnatica, two of the 41 cases of sati in the time period 1400 to 1600 CE are those of Jain women. The low numbers of Jains known to have committed sati suggests that the practice was uncommon within this community. In Jainism, the alternate competing phenomenon of widows becoming nuns, after a husband's death, has been recorded.
In Bihar, the Muslim widows were stated to be carrying out a related practice. Buchanan Hamilton in his early 19th century Shahabad report wrote that Sati-like practice had spread to Muhammadans because he had heard that a widow had herself buried in the coffin of her dead husband.
Models for the spread of sati
The earlier historian Anant Sadashiv Altekar, in his (1938) The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day held the position that the Vedic Age saw an active discontinuation of pre-historic burning of widows, on basis that a 1000 BCE funerary custom describes that of symbolic sati, where the widow lies down by her deceased husband, but is then bidden to rise again, to enjoy the bliss of children and wealth remaining for her. In the following, a brief sketch on the chronology on the spread of sati, as proposed by Altekar is given.
According to Altekar, there is no mention of actual sati in the period of Brahmana literature (c. 1500–700 BCE) and the later Grhyusutras, roughly composed 600–300 BCE on a number of rituals, but sati is not described or mentioned. In fact, what is written about funeral customs, is that the widow is brought back from the funeral pyre, typically by a trusted servant. Altekar thinks it significant that Gautama Buddha, who castigated customs of animal sacrifice, and other customs where pain was inflicted, is entirely silent about burning women alive. Altekar takes these elements as proofs that burning widows alive had long ago died out as a practice. Nor do the authors of the Dharmasutras (c. 400 BCE–100 BCE) or Yajnavalkya (c. 100 CE–300 CE) say anything about it being commendable to burn a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Although we have late fourth-century BCE evidence from Greek authors and the Mahabarata for the 'existence' of the custom of sati, Altekar thinks it did not really begin to grow in popularity before 400 CE, by the manner of which it is infrequently mentioned in the Puranas of that time. A very early attested case from 510 CE is that of the wife of Goparaja, who immolated herself with her dead husband, according to the Eran inscription of king Bhanugupta, with another similar case attested from 606 CE. As the custom grew in popularity, Altekar highlights as determined opponents of this aristocratic custom in particular 7th-century poet Bāṇabhaṭṭa, but also 9th-century theologian Medhātithi and 12th-century Devana Bhatta. In Altekar's view, their crusades against the custom were largely unsuccessful.
According to Altekar, it is the period c. 700–1100 CE that sees sati becoming really widespread in India, in particular in Kashmir. As the centuries wore on, Altekar provides a few statistics on the spread of the custom. In Rajputana, a later stronghold for sati there are two, possibly three reliably attested cases before 1000 CE. For the period from 1200 to 1600 CE, there are at least 20 such cases. For the Carnatic, we have about 11 inscriptions relative to sati from 1000 to 1400 CE; for 1400-1600 CE we have 41.
Thus, a main view that Altekar espoused is that the spread of sati increased over time (with local variations, for example reductions in territories governed by zealous rulers hostile to the practice), and probably was close to a maximum when the British began to intervene in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Modern causative models
How, when, where and why the practice of sati spread are complex and much debated questions, without a consensus.
According to one model, proposed by Yang, taking into account the association of sati with the warrior elite in particular, sati only became really widespread during the Muslim invasions of India, and the practice of sati now acquired an additional meaning as a means to preserve the honour of women whose men had been slain. Sashi states, "the argument is that the practice came into effect during the Islamic invasion of India, to protect their honor from Muslims who were known to commit mass rape on the women of cities that they could capture successfully."
However, this theory does not address the evidence of occasional incidences of sati in pre-Islamic times. The first archeological evidence in the form of Sati stones extolling Sati appear around 700 CE, states John Hawley, including the great sati stones (ma sati kal) from 8th through 15th-century CE and hero-stones ("virgal") from the 12th and 13th century. The practice remained limited to the warrior class among Hindus until the start of 2nd millennium CE. During the period of Muslim-Hindu conflict, Rajputs performed a distinct form of sati known as jauhar as a direct response to the onslaught they experienced. The earliest Islamic invasions of South Asia have been recorded from early 8th century CE such as with the raids of Muhammad bin Qasim, and major wars of Islamic expansion after the 10th century. This chronology has led to the theory that the increase in sati practice in India may be related to the centuries of Islamic invasion and its expansion in South Asia.
Alternate theories for the spread of sati include it expanding from Kshatriya caste to others castes, not because of wars, but on its own, as part of "Sanskritization" and cultural phenomenon that conflated sati as a caste status symbol. This theory has been challenged because it does not explain the spread of sati from Kashatriyas to Brahmins, and Brahmins were not considered to be of inferior caste status than Kshatriyas. Another theory, by Hawley, is that sati started as a "nonreligious, ruling-class, patriarchal" ideology but later spread as a gilded status symbol of "valor", "honor" and "purity", representing strength and courage in internecine Rajput wars, and after Muslim invasions where Hindu women feared becoming the "booty for the captor" and committed jauhar and sati to avoid "rape, torture and other ignominies".
The above theories do not explain how and why sati practice continued during the colonial era, particularly in significant numbers in colonial Bengal Presidency (modern Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam). Three theories have been proposed: first that sati was believed to be supported by Hindu scriptures by the 19th century, second that sati was encouraged by unscrupulous neighbors because it was a means of property annexation from a widow who had the right to inherit her dead husband's property under Hindu law and sati helped eliminate the inheritor, and third theory being that poverty was so extreme during the 19th century that sati was a means of escape for a woman with no means or hope of survival.
Daniel Grey states that the understanding of origins and spread of sati were distorted in the colonial era because of a concerted effort to push "problem Hindu" theories in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
According to Annemarie Schimmel, the Mughal Emperor Akbar was averse to the practice of Sati; however, he expressed his admiration for "widows who wished to be cremated with their deceased husbands". He was averse to abuse, and in 1582, Akbar issued an order to prevent any use of compulsion in sati. According to M. Reza Pirbhai, a professor of South Asian and World history, it is unclear if a prohibition on sati was issued by Akbar, and other than a claim of ban by Monserrate upon his insistence, no other primary sources mention an actual ban. Instances of sati continued during and after the era of Akbar. For example, according to a poem, Sūz u gudāz ("Burning and melting") by Muhammad Riza Nau'i of Khasbushan (d. 1610), Akbar attempted to prevent a sati by calling a widow before him and offering her wealth and protection. The poet reports hearing the story from Prince Dāniyāl, Akbar's third son. According to Arvind Sharma, a professor of Comparative Religion specializing on Hinduism, the widow "rejected all this persuasion as well as the counsel of the Brahmans, and would neither speak nor hear of anything but the Fire".[note 5]
Jahangir, who succeeded Akbar in early 17th century, found sati prevalent among the Muslims of Rajaur (Kashmir). They had been converted to Islam by Sultan Firoz. During this era, many Muslims and Hindus were ambivalent about the practice, with Muslim attitude leaning towards disapproval. According to Sharma, the evidence nevertheless suggests that sati was universally admired, and both "Hindus and Muslims went in large numbers to witness a sati". According to Reza Pirbhai, the memoirs of Jahangir suggest sati continued in his regime, was practiced by Hindus and Muslims, he was fascinated by the custom, and that those Kashmiri Muslim widows who practiced sati either immolated themselves or buried themselves alive with their dead husbands. Jahangir prohibited such sati and other customary practices in Kashmir.
Aurangzeb issued another order in 1663, states Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, after returning from Kashmir, "in all lands under Mughal control, never again should the officials allow a woman to be burnt". The Aurangzeb order, states Ikram, though not mentioned in the formal histories, is recorded in the official records of Aurangzeb's time. Although Aurangzeb's orders could be evaded with payment of bribes to officials, adds Ikram, later European travelers record that sati was not much practiced in Mughal empire, and that Sati was "very rare, except it be some Rajah's wives, that the Indian women burn at all" by the end of Aurangzeb's reign.
The memoirs of European merchants and travelers, as well the colonial era Christian missionaries of British India described Sati practices under Mughal rulers. The Spanish missionary Domingo Navarrete wrote in 1670 of different styles of Sati during Aurangzeb's time.
British and other European colonial powers
Non-British colonial powers in India
The Portuguese banned the practice in Goa after the conquest of Goa, however the practice continued in the region. The Dutch and the French banned it in Chinsurah and Pondichéry, their respective colonies. The Danes, who held the small territories of Tranquebar and Serampore, permitted it until the 19th century. The Danish strictly forbade, apparently early the custom of sati at Tranquebar, a colony the held from 1620-1845 (whereas Serampore (Frederiksnagore) was Danish colony merely from 1755-1845).