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Sati (Devanagari: सती, the feminine of sat "true"; also called suttee) was a social funeral practice among some Indian communities in which a recently widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The practice was banned several times, with the current ban dating to 1829 by the British. Hindu texts forbid its practice in Kali yuga, the current age.
The term is derived from the original name of the goddess Sati, also known as Dakshayani, who self-immolated because she was unable to bear her father Daksha's humiliation of her husband Shiva. The term may also be used to refer to the widow. The term sati is now sometimes interpreted as "chaste woman". Sati appears in both Hindi and Sanskrit texts, where it is synonymous with "good wife"; the term suttee was commonly used by Anglo-Indian English writers.
Few reliable records exist of the practice before the time of the Gupta empire, approximately 400 CE. After about this time, instances of sati began to be marked by inscribed memorial stones. The earliest of these are found in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, though the largest collections date from several centuries later, and are found in Rajasthan. These stones, called devli, or sati-stones, became shrines to the dead woman, who was treated as an object of reverence and worship. They are most common in western India. A description of suttee appears in a Greek account of the Punjab written in the first century BCE by historian Diodorus Siculus. Brahmins were forbidden from the practice by the Padma Purana. A chapter dated to around the 10th century indicates that, while considered a noble act when committed by a Kshatriya woman, anyone caught assisting an upper-caste Brahmin in self-immolation as a "sati" was guilty of Brahminicide.
The ritual has prehistoric roots, and many parallels from other cultures are known. Compare for example the ship burial of the Rus' described by Ibn Fadlan, where a female slave is burned with her master.
Aristobulus of Cassandreia, a Greek historian who traveled to India with the expedition of Alexander the Great, recorded the practice of sati at the city of Taxila. A later instance of voluntary co-cremation appears in an account of an Indian soldier in the army of Eumenes of Cardia, whose two wives jumped on his funeral pyre, in 316 BC. The Greeks believed that the practice had been instituted to discourage wives from poisoning their old husbands.
Voluntary death at funerals has been described in northern India before the Gupta empire. The original practices were called anumarana, and were uncommon. Anumarana was not comparable to later understandings of sati, since the practices were not restricted to widows – rather, anyone, male or female, with personal loyalty to the deceased could commit suicide at a loved one's funeral. These included the deceased's relatives, servants, followers, or friends. Sometimes these deaths stemmed from vows of loyalty, and bear a slight resemblance to the later tradition of junshi in Japan.
It is theorized that sati, enforced widowhood, and girl marriage were customs that were primarily intended to solve the problem of surplus women and surplus men in a caste and to maintain its endogamy.
Apart from the Indian subcontinent, origins of this practice have been found in many parts of the world; it was followed by the ancient Egyptians, Thracians, Scythians, Scandinavians, Chinese, as well as people of Oceania and Africa.
During the Islamic conquest of Indian subcontinent, sati practice revived, as rapes and abductions were commonly carried out by the Islamic invaders. Mughals interfered little with local customs, but they seemed intent on stopping sati. Mughal emperor Humayun (1508-1556) was the first to try a royal fiat against sati. Akbar (1542–1605) was next to issue official general orders prohibiting sati and insisted that no woman could commit sati without the specific permission of his Chief police officers. The Chief police officers were instructed by him to delay the woman's decision for as long as possible. Pensions, gifts and rehabilitative help was offered to the potential sati to persuade her from committing the act. Tavernier, writing in the reign of Shah Jahan, observed that widows with children were not allowed in any circumstances to burn and that in other cases, governors did not readily give permission, but could be bribed to do so.
The emperor Aurangzeb was the strongest opponent of sati among the Mughals. In December 1663, he issued an "order that in all lands under Mughal control, never again should the officials allow a woman to be burnt". Although the possibility of an evasion of government orders through payment of bribes existed, later European travelers record that by the end of Aurangzeb’s reign, sati was much abated and very rare, except by some Rajah’s wives.
By the end of the 18th century, the practice had been banned in territories held by some European powers. The Portuguese banned the practice in Goa by about 1515. The Dutch and the French banned it in Chinsurah and Pondichéry, their respective colonies. The British, who by then ruled much of the subcontinent, and the Danes, who held the small territories of Tranquebar and Serampore, permitted it until the 19th century.
The British, following the example of the early Moghuls, for a while tried to regulate it by requiring that it be carried out in the presence of their officials and strictly according to custom. Attempts to limit or ban the practice had been made by individual British officers in the 18th century, but without the backing of the British East India Company. The first formal British ban was imposed in 1798, in the city of Calcutta only. The practice continued in surrounding regions. Toward the end of the 18th century, the evangelical church in Britain, and its members in India, started campaigns against sati. Leaders of these campaigns included William Carey and William Wilberforce, and both appeared to be motivated by their love for the Indian people and their desire to introduce Indians to Christianity. These movements put pressure on the company to ban the act. The Bengal Presidency started collecting figures on the practice in 1813.
The leader of the burgeoning Swaminarayan sect, Sahajanand Swami, was influential in the eventual eradication of sati. He argued that the practice had no Vedic standing and only God could take a life he had given. He also argued that widows could lead lives that would eventually lead to salvation. Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Bombay supported Sahajanand Swami in this endeavor, whose domino effect led to other social reforms.
From about 1812, the Bengali reformer Raja Rammohan Roy started his own campaign against the practice. He was motivated by the experience of seeing his own sister-in-law being forced to commit sati. Among his actions, he visited Calcutta cremation grounds to persuade widows against immolation, formed watch groups to do the same, and wrote and disseminated articles to show that it was not required by scripture.
On 4 December 1829, the practice was formally banned in the Bengal Presidency lands, by the then-governor general, William Bentick. The ban was challenged in the courts, and the matter went to the Privy Council in London, but was upheld in 1832. Other company territories also banned it shortly after. Although the original ban in Bengal was fairly uncompromising, later in the century British laws include provisions that provided mitigation for murder when "the person whose death is caused, being above the age of 18 years, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent".
General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India from 1859 to 1861 is often noted for a story involving Hindu priests complaining to him about the prohibition of sati by British authorities.
Sati remained legal in some princely states for a time after it had been abolished in lands under British control. Jaipur banned the practice in 1846. Nepal continued to practice Sati well into the 20th century.
Following outcries after each instance, the government has passed new measures against the practice, which now effectively make it illegal to be a bystander at an event of sati. The law now makes no distinction between passive observers to the act and active promoters of the event; all are supposed to be held equally guilty. Other measures include efforts to stop the 'glorification' of the dead women. Glorification includes the erection of shrines to the dead, the encouragement of pilgrimages to the site of the pyre, and the derivation of any income from such sites and pilgrims.
Another instance of systematic Sati happened in 1973, when Savitri Soni sacrificed her life with her husband in Kotadi village of Sikar District in Rajasthan. Thousands of people witnessed this incident.
Following the outcry after the sati of Roop Kanwar, the Indian Government enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance, 1987 on October 1, 1987 and later passed the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987.
The Prevention of Sati Act makes it illegal to abet, glorify or attempt to commit Sati. Abetment of Sati, including coercing or forcing someone to commit Sati, can be punished by death sentence or life imprisonment, while glorifying Sati is punishable with 1–7 years in prison.
Enforcement of these measures is not always consistent. The National Council for Women (NCW) has suggested amendments to the law to remove some of these flaws. Prohibitions of certain practices, such as worship at ancient shrines, is a matter of controversy.
Although many have tried to prevent the act of sati by banning it and reinforcing laws against it, it is still being practiced (on rare occasions) in India under coercion or by voluntary burning, as in the case of Charan Shah: a 55 year-old widow of Manshah who burnt herself on the pyre of her husband in the village of Satpura in Uttar Pradesh on 11 November 1999. Her death on the funeral pyre has provoked much controversy, as there have been questions as to whether she willingly performed the Sati or was coerced. Charan Shah had not professed strong feelings to become a Sati to any of her family members, and no one saw her close to the burning body of her husband before she jumped into the fire. The villagers, including her sons, say that she became a Sati of her own accord and that she was not forced into it. They continue to pay their respects to the house of Charan Shah. It has become a shrine for the villagers, as they strongly believe that one who has become a sati is a deity; she is worshipped and endowed with gifts.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 Part I, Section 2(c) defines Sati as:
The burning or burying alive of –
- (i) any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative; or
- (ii) any woman along with the body of any of her relatives, irrespective of whether such burning or burying is claimed to be voluntary on the part of the widow or the women or otherwise
The act of sati is said to exist voluntarily; from the existing accounts, many of these acts did indeed occur voluntarily. The act may have been expected of widows in some communities, and the extent to which social pressures or expectations constitute compulsion has been much debated in modern times. However, there were also instances where the wish of the widow to commit sati was not welcomed by others, and where efforts were made to prevent the death. Women who became afraid during the act of Sati could, according to writings in the Yājñavalkya Smṛti, be called back from the act of sati by her deceased husband's relations to cause her to rise up and stop the act of sati.
Traditionally, a person's funeral would have occurred within a day of the death, requiring decisions about sati to be made by that time. When the husband died elsewhere, the widow might still die by immolation at a later date.
Sati often emphasized the marriage between the widow and her deceased husband. For instance, rather than mourning clothes, the to-be sati was often dressed in marriage robes or other finery. In the preliminaries of the related act of Jauhar (or Saka), both the husbands and wives have been known to dress in their marriage clothes and re-enact their wedding ritual, before going to their separate deaths.
Accounts describe numerous variants in the sati ritual. The majority of accounts describe the woman seated or lying down on the funeral pyre beside her dead husband. Many other accounts describe women walking or jumping into the flames after the fire had been lit, and some describe women seating themselves on the funeral pyre and then lighting it themselves.
According to Dharmasātric authors, a Brahmanical branch of scholarship that is concerned with the outlining the moral right behavior, there are several conditions that could bar a woman from committing Sati. According to an interpretation by Madhàva of the Parāsara Smrti if a the woman is pregnant, menstruating, or if she is not on her regular menstrual cycle (indicating that she may be pregnant) she is not permitted to follow her husband onto the pyre.
Some written instructions for the ritual exist. For instance, the Yallajeeyam provides detailed instructions about who may commit sati, cleansing for the sati, positioning, attire, and other ritual aspects.
Sati is often described as voluntary, although in some cases it may have been forced. In one narrative account, the widow appears to have been drugged either with bhang or opium and was tied to the pyre to keep her from fleeing after the fire was lit.
Maharani Raj Rajeshwari Devi of Nepal became regent in 1799 in the name of her son, Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah Deva, after the abdication of her husband, Rana Bahadur Shah, who became a sanyasi. Her husband returned and took power again in 1804. In 1806 he was assassinated by his brother, and ten days later on 5 May 1806, his widow was forced to commit sati.
There have been accounts of symbolic sati in some Hindu communities. A widow lies down next to her dead husband, and certain parts of both the marriage ceremony and the funeral ceremonies are enacted, but without her death.
The Rajput practice of Jauhar, known from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was the collective suicide of a community facing certain defeat in a battle against Muslims. It consisted of the mass immolation of women, children, the elderly and the sick, at the same time that their fighting men died in battle. Chittor is famous for jauhar of Rani Padmini, Rani Karnavati and the wives of Maharana Udai Singh.
In some Hindu communities, it is conventional to bury the dead. Deaths of widows have been known to occur in these communities, with the widow being buried alive beside her husband, in ceremonies that are largely the same as those performed in an immolation.
Records of sati exist across most of the subcontinent. However, there seem to have been major differences historically, in different regions, and among different communities.
There are no reliable figures for the numbers who died by sati across the country. A local indication of the numbers is given in the records kept by the Bengal Presidency of the British East India Company. The total figure of known occurrences for the period 1813 to 1828 is 8,135; another source gives a comparable number of 7,941 from 1815 to 1828, thus giving an average of about 507 to 567 documented incidents per year in that period. Raja Ram Mohan Roy estimated that there were ten times as many cases of Sati in Bengal compared to the rest of the country. Bentinck, in his 1829 report, states that 420 occurrences took place in one (unspecified) year in the 'Lower Provinces' of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and 44 in the 'Upper Provinces' (the upper Gangetic plain).
It is said by some authorities that the practice was more common among the higher castes, and among those who considered themselves to be rising in social status. It was little known or unknown in most of the population of India and the tribal groups, and little known or unknown in the lowest castes. According to at least one source, it was very rare for anyone in the later Mughal empire except royal wives to be burnt. However, it has been said elsewhere that it was unusual in higher caste women in the southern matrilineal societies of Kerala and the Tulu regions. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu however, the cult of Veeramastis was common.
It was known in Rajasthan from the earliest (6th century) to the present. About half the known sati stones in India are in Rajasthan. However, the extent to which individual instances of deaths resulted in veneration (glorification) implies that was not very common.
It is known to have occurred in the south from the 9th century through the period of the Vijayanagara empire. Madhavacharya, who is probably the best known of those historical figures who justified the practice, was originally a minister of the court of this empire. The practice continued to occur after the collapse of the empire, though apparently at a fairly low frequency. In one instance more than fifty women committed Sati in Vijayanagara after the Battle of Talikota. In North-western Karnataka about fifteen sati stones brought from Vijayanagara can be found. The actual immolation of widows might have taken place elsewhere. The relatives of Sati when they migrated took Sati stones along with them and resurrected at their new abodes. A record exists of a minister of the kingdom of Mysore giving permission for a widow to commit sati in 1805.
In the Upper Gangetic plain, while it occurred, there is no indication that it was especially widespread. The earliest known attempt by a government to stop the practice took place here, that of Muhammad Tughlaq, in the Sultanate of Delhi in the 14th century.
In the Lower Gangetic plain, the practice may have reached a high level fairly late in history. According to available evidence and the existing reports of the occurrences of it, the greatest incidence of sati in any region and period, in terms of total numbers, occurred in Bengal and Bihar in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was during the earlier period of British rule, and before its formal abolition. The Bengal Presidency kept records from 1813 to 1829. The frequency increased in periods of hardship and famine. Ram Mohan Roy suggested that it was more prevalent in Bengal than in the rest of the subcontinent. An unusually large number of the surviving reports for this period are from Bengal, also suggesting that it was most common there.
Sati still occurs, albeit rarely, in the rural areas. A well documented case from 1987 was that of 18-year old Roop Kanwar. In response to this incident, additional recent legislation against the practice was passed, first by the state government of Rajasthan, then by the central government of India.
In 2002, a 65-year-old woman by the name of Kuttu died after sitting on her husband's funeral pyre in the Indian Panna district. On 18 May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly committed sati by jumping into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Fatehpur district in the State of Uttar Pradesh. On 21 August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar district. On 11 October 2008 a 75-year-old woman committed sati by jumping into her 80-year-old husband's funeral pyre at Checher in the Kasdol block of Chhattisgarh's Raipur district.
Brahmin scholars justified the practice, and gave reasonings as to how the scriptures could be said to justify them. Among them were Vijnanesvara, of the 12th-century Chalukya court, and the later Madhavacharya, theologian and minister in the late 14th century of the court of the Vijayanagara empire, according to Shastri, who quotes their reasoning. They lauded the practice as required conduct in righteous women, and said that it was not to be considered suicide, which was otherwise variously banned or discouraged in the scriptures. They deemed it an act of peerless piety, which was said to purge the couple of all accumulated sin, guarantee their salvation, and ensure their reunion in the afterlife.
Justifications for the practice are given in the Vishnu Smriti (dated from 700 to 1000CE):
Justification for the practice is also found in the later work of the Brihaspati Smriti (25-11). Both this and the Vishnu Smriti date from the first millennium.
The Manu Smriti, often regarded as the culmination of classical Hindu law[by whom?], does not mention or sanction sati. It does prescribe lifelong asceticism for most widows, no matter their age when widowed.
Although the myth of the goddess Sati is that of a wife who dies by her own volition on a fire, this is not a case of the practice of sati. The goddess was not widowed, and the myth is quite unconnected with the justifications for the practice.
The Puranas have examples of women who commit sati; they suggest that this was considered desirable or praiseworthy: A wife who dies in the company of her husband shall remain in heaven as many years as there are hairs on his person. (Garuda Purana 1.107.29) According to 2.4.93, she stays with her husband in heaven during the rule of 14 Indras, i.e. a kalpa.
According to Ramashraya Sharma, there is no conclusive evidence of the sati practice in the Ramayana. For instance, Tara, Mandodari and the widows of Dasharatha, all live after their respective husband's deaths, though all of them announce their wish to die, while lamenting for their husbands. The first two remarry their brother-in-law. The only instance of sati appears in the Uttara Kanda - believed to be a later addition to the original text — in which Kushadhwaja's wife performs sati. The Telugu adaptation of the Ramayana, the 14th-century Ranganatha Ramayana, tells that Sulochana, wife of Indrajit, became sati on his funeral pyre.
In the Mahabharata, Madri, the second wife of Pandu, immolates herself. She believes she is responsible for his death, as he had been cursed with death if he ever had intercourse. He died while performing the forbidden act with Madri; she blamed herself for not rejecting him, as she knew of the curse.
Passages in the Atharva Veda, including 13.3.1, offer advice to the widow on mourning and her life after widowhood, including her remarriage.
Some commentators claim that this ancient text sanctions or prescribes sati. This is based on verse 10.18.7, part of the verses to be used at funerals. Whether they describe sati or something else entirely, is disputed, The hymn is about funeral by burial, and not by cremation. There are differing translations of the passage. The translation below is one of those said to prescribe it.
The text does not mention widowhood, and other translations differ in their translation of the word here rendered as 'pyre' (yoni, literally "seat, abode"; Griffith has "first let the dames go up to where he lieth"). In addition, the following verse, which is unambiguously about widows, contradicts any suggestion of the woman's death; it explicitly states that the widow should return to her house.
A reason given for the discrepancy in translation and interpretation of verse 10.18.7, is that one consonant in a word that meant house, yonim agree "foremost to the yoni", was deliberately changed by those who wished claim scriptural justification, to a word that meant fire, yomiagne.
No early descriptions or criticisms of the practice within Hinduism are known before the Gupta period, as the practice was little known at that time.
Reform and bhakti movements within Hinduism tended to be anti-caste, favoured egalitarian societies, and in line with the tenor of these beliefs, generally condemned the practice, sometimes explicitly. The Alvars condemned sati in the 8th century  as did the Virashaiva movement in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In the early 19th century, Ram Mohan Roy wrote and disseminated arguments that the practice was not part of Hinduism as part of his campaign to ban the practice.
The principal early foreign visitors to the subcontinent who left records of the practice were from Western Asia, Central Asia and later on, Europe. These groups were fascinated by the practice, and they sometimes described it as horrific, but they also often described it as an incomparable act of devotion. Ibn Battuta described an instance, but said that he collapsed or fainted and had to be carried away from the scene. European artists in the eighteenth century produced many images for their own native markets, showing the widows as heroic women, and moral exemplars.
Europeans also showed a change in their attitudes regarding local customs as their home countries became dominant local powers. The earliest Europeans to establish themselves were the Portuguese in Goa. They tried early on to override local customs and practices, including sati, as they attempted to spread Christianity throughout the territories in their control. The British entered India as a trading body, and in the earlier periods of their rule, they were largely indifferent to local practices. The practice of sati, and its later legal abolition by the British (along with the suppression of the thuggee) went on to become one of the standard justifications for British rule. British attitudes in their later history in India are usually given in the following much-repeated quote from General Sir Charles Napier -
In her article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" philosopher Gayatri Spivak discusses how sati takes the form of regulating women in pre-colonial India according to Hindu law, and how sati takes the form of imprisoning women in the double bind of self-expression attributed to mental illness and social rejection, or of self-incrimination according to British colonial law. The woman who commits sati takes the form of the subaltern in Spivak's work, a form much of postcolonial studies takes very seriously.
1777 - 1799 H.H. Svasti Sri Giriraj Chakrachudamani Narnarayanetyadi Vividha Virudavali Virajamana Manonnata Shriman Maharajadhiraja Sri Sri Sri Sri Sri Maharaj Rana Bahadur Shah Bahadur Shamsher Jang Devanam Sada Samar Vijayinam, Maharajadhiraja of Nepal. ... m. (first) at Katmandu, 1789, Sri Sri Sri Maharani Raj Rajeshwari Devi [Sri Vidya Lakshmi Devi] (k. by forced sati on the orders of Bhimsen Thapa, on the bank of the Salinadi rivulet, at Sankhu, 5th May 1806)
Since the Mahometans became Masters of the Indies, this execrable custom is much abated, and almost laid aside, by the orders which nabobs receive for suppressing and extinguishing it in all their provinces. And now it is very rare, except it be some Rajah's wives, that the Indian women burn at all.
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