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The Tradition of Sati in India

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by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1997
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

Sati (Su-thi , a.k.a. suttee) is the traditional Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on  her husband's funeral pyre. 

"Sati" means a virtuous woman. A woman who dies burning herself on her husbands funeral fire was considered most virtuous, and was believed to directly go to heaven, redeeming all the forefathers rotting in hell, by this "meritorious" act. The woman who committed Sati was worshipped as a Goddess, and temples were built in her memory.

Sati was prevalent among certain sects of the society in ancient India, who either took the vow or deemed it a great honor to die on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Ibn Batuta (1333 A.D.) has observed that Sati was considered praiseworthy by the Hindus, without however being obligatory. The Agni Purana declares that the woman who commits sahagamana goes to heaven. However,  Medhatiti pronounced that Sati was like suicide and was against the Shastras, the Hindu code of conduct. It is believed that they were not coerced, although several wives committed Sati. The majority of the widows did not undergo Sati.

Maha Sati -Woman Commits Suicide
Woman Commits Suicide on Funeral Pyre
Illustration based on  a Maha Sati Sculpture (Hero-stone)

Maha-sati stones (hero-stones)  were erected in memory of brave women who committed sati and are periodically worshipped. There are not many  instances of remarriage of widows in Indian history and it is believed that women preferred death to the cursed life a widow (see: Origins of the Sati System).

Many hero-stones claim that  the wife has committed Sati out of tremendous love for husband, so they can be together after death, but these are not historically substantiated. One finds a large number of satis committed just after the war (like the Johar in Rajasthan (map - topics), when the women must have died to protect their honor from the invading enemies after their men perished in the battlefield.

Indian leader Rajaram Mohan Roy, through his organization Brahmo Samaj was among the first who fought to eliminate Sati. The ritual of sati was banned by the British Government in 1829 (see a timeline of Sati). However, it took a large scale social reforms by Dayanand Saraswati(of Arya Samaj), Mahatma Gandhi and the like to actually stop the practice (see: Timeline of Sati). In the modern times,  there was one instance of a Sati reported in Rajasthan (late 1980s),  and another in Madhya Pradesh (in year 2002) that caused a lot of  controversy and social turmoil.

 

See also:

 

The Suti Tradition
The Sati System
Index

Pictures
Woman Commits Suicide on Funeral PyreMemorials Erected for Women Who Committed SatiDecorated Sati from a Hero-stone (Mahasati Stone)Bridal Makeup of a Woman Commiting Suicide
Sitas Trial by FireA Woman Goes SatiWoman being Paraded before SuicideA Memorial for a Brave Lady
Memorial to a Mahasati Hero-Stone Depicting Fierce BattleDecorated Idols of SatisA Mahasati Sculpture

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