The Sati System - Origins
The Origins of the Sati System
by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: February 01, 2001
Page Last Updated: November 01, 2016
The Mahasati (the great Sati) or
the Sahagamana (joint departure) system of a cremating the woman alive on
the death of her husband is an ancient custom in India. Scholars of
the Puranas trace the origins to the suicide of Satidevi in the
Yajnakunda (sacrificial fireplace) of Lord Brahma, while a few
attribute it to the pre-caste Vedic system of Indian society. In the
Indian mythology of the Mahabharat, there is the instance of Madri dying on the funeral
pyre of husband Pandu, leaving the children to the care of the first
wife Kunti. The feminists
proclaim the Sati system as a cruel institution established by men against the womankind,
while the lower-caste in India have felt it as another means of torture
taxed on them by the upper-caste Brahmins.
The answer to the complex
question of how Sati system originated is perhaps all of them:
Burning the wife along with the attendants, horses and
carriages of the the dead dignitary was a common practice among come
Central Asian tribes. India being the melting pot of good and bad
social systems of its constituent cultures, the custom of Sati was
In a time which believed that a woman's path to heaven
is though Sheela and Pativritya -- her character, and
devotion to her husband, it was perhaps thought that a woman's life
served no purpose after the death of her husband.
It might have come into practice as an evil family conspiracy against the widow to
benefit from her assets and gold.
The life of a widow was so bad (this has continued to
this day in India), the women perhaps favored death to humiliation.
The women who went Sati were glorified to no avail.
The entice of instant fame and immortality cannot be ruled out
on why women committed Sati.
There is another suicide tradition in the Jain
religion called Sallekhana, where one dedicated one's soul in
prayer. Despite of this tradition, numerous instances in Indian
history illustrate when a Jain woman has preferred Sati over Sallekhana -- especially in the cases of untimely deaths of the
Some women believed that those who died with the love
of their life, were united with the man in heaven in an eternal
marriage. Numerous women believed that they have married the same man
in several of their lives. There is an interesting instance of a wife
who went Sati with another man (not her husband), because of her
belief that he was the one.
In Bengal, a system called Däyabhaga prevailed
entitling a woman equal property along with male members of the
departed husband. This may be the reason for the Sati system being
more popular in that region, wherein the woman was driven to commit
Sati by force.
There are numerous occasions when the woman
experiences a divine calling (see: Valle's
interview) and decided to commit Sati.
Excerpted from author's book Mahile - Ondu Adhyanana,
Nava Karnataka, 1999