Life in India: The Practice of Sati or Widow Burning

Added over 4 years ago

By Linda Heaphy, BSc PhD

 

Suttee by James Atkinson

Suttee by James Atkinson, 1831 (India Office Collection of the British Library (c) British Library Board 2009)

 

In this age of ascending feminism and focus on equality and human rights, it is difficult to assimilate the Hindu practice of sati, the burning to death of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, into our modern world.  Indeed, the practice is outlawed and illegal in today's India, yet it occurs up to the present day and is still regarded by some Hindus as the ultimate form of womanly devotion and sacrifice.

Sati (also called suttee) is the practice among some Hindu communities by which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of force or coercion commits suicide as a result of her husband's death.  The best known form of sati is when a woman burns to death on her husband's funeral pyre.  However other forms of sati exist, including being buried alive with the husband's corpse and drowning.

The term Sati 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 (living) husband Shiva.  Sati as practice is first mentioned in 510 CCE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh.  The custom began to grow in popularity as evidenced by the number of stones placed to commemorate satis, particularly in southern India and amongst the higher castes of Indian society, despite the fact that the Brahmins originally condemned the practice (Auboyer 2002).  Over the centuries the custom died out in the south only to become prevalent in the north, particularly in the states of Rajasthan and Bengal.  While comprehensive data are lacking across India and through the ages, the British East India Company recorded that the total figure of known occurrences for the period 1813 - 1828 was 8,135; another source gives the number of 7,941 from 1815 - 1828, an average of 618 documented incidents per year.  However, these numbers are likely to grossly underestimate the real number of satis as in 1823, 575 women performed sati in the state of Bengal alone (Hardgrave 1998).

Historically, the practice of sati was to be found among many castes and at every social level, chosen by or for both uneducated and the highest ranking women of the times.  The common deciding factor was often ownership of wealth or property, since all possessions of the widow devolved to the husband's family upon her death. In a country that shunned widows, sati was considered the highest expression of wifely devotion to a dead husband (Allen & Dwivedi 1998, Moore 2004).  It was deemed an act of peerless piety and was said to purge her of all her sins, release her from the cycle of birth and rebirth and ensure salvation for her dead husband and the seven generations that followed her (Moore 2004). Because its proponents lauded it as the required conduct of righteous women, it was not considered to be suicide, otherwise banned or discouraged by Hindu scripture. Sati also carried romantic associations which some were at apparent pains to amplify. Stein (1978) states "The widow on her way to the pyre was the object (for once) of all public attention...Endowed with the gift of prophecy and the power to cure and bless, she was immolated amid great fanfare, with great veneration".  Only if she was virtuous and pious would she be worthy of being sacrificed; consequently being burned or being seen as a failed wife were often her only choices (Stein 1978).  Indeed, the very reference to the widow from the point at which she decided to become a "Sati" (Chaste One) removed any further personal reference to her as an individual and elevated her to a remote and untouchable context.  It is little wonder that women growing up in a culture in which they were so little valued as individuals considered it the only way for a good wife to behave.  The alternative, anyway, was not appealing.  After the death of a husband an Hindi widow was expected to live the life of an aesthetic, renouncing all social activities, shaving her head, eating only boiled rice and sleeping on thin coarse matting (Moore 2004).  To many, death may have been preferable, especially for those who were still girls themselves when their husband's died.

Solvyng Plate 3

A Woman Leaping into the Flames to the Corpse of her Husband, etching by Solvyng 1799. 

Over the centuries, many of India's inhabitants have disagreed with the practice of sati.   Since its very foundation the Sikh religion has explicitly prohibited it.  Sati was regarded as a barbaric practice by the Islamic rulers of the Mogul period, and many tried to halt the custom with laws and edicts banning the practice.  Many Hindu scholars have argued against sati, calling it "as suicide, and...a pointless and futile act"; both abolitionists and promoters of sati use Hindu scripture as justification of their position.  At the end of the 18th Century, the influx of Europeans into India meant that the practice of sati was being scrutinized as never before; missionaries, travelers and civil servants alike condemned official Raj tolerance of the "dreadful practice" and called for its end (Hardgrave 1998).   In 1827 the Governor-General of India, Lord Bentinck, finally outlawed the custom in its entirety, claiming it had no sound theological basis (James 1998).  James also notes that the outlawing of sati practice was considered the first direct affront to Indian religious beliefs and therefore contributed to the end of the British Raj.  However the common people felt about it, many Indian rulers of the 19th century welcomed its abolition (Allen & Dwivedi 1998). 

Most recorded instances of sati during the 1800's were described as "voluntary" acts of courage and devotion (Hardgrave 1998), a conviction that sati advocates continue to promote to this day. At the very least, women committing sati were encouraged by priests (who received the best item from the women's possessions as payment), the relatives of both families (who received all the women's remaining possessions and untold blessings) and by general peer pressure. However it appears that at least in some recorded cases the women were drugged. In "An Account of a Woman Burning Herself, By an Officer," which appeared in the Calcutta Gazette in 1785, the observer describes the woman as likely under the influence of bhang (marijuana) or opium but otherwise "unruffled." After she was lifted upon the pyre, she "laid herself down by her deceased husband, with her arms about his neck. Two people immediately passed a rope twice across the bodies, and fastened it so tight to the stakes that it would have effectually prevented her from rising had she attempted".

Once the reality of burning to death became obvious, many women tried to escape their fate.  Measures and implements were put into place to ensure that they could not.  Edward Thompson wrote that a woman "was often bound to the corpse with cords, or both bodies were fastened down with long bamboo poles curving over them like a wooden coverlet, or weighted down by logs."  These poles were continuously wetted down to prevent them from burning and the widow from escaping (Parkes, 1850).  If she did manage to escape, she and her relatives were ostracized by society, as is related by the redoubtable Fanny Parkes, wife of a minor British civil servant during the early 1800's, who gives a frank eyewitness account in 1823 of a sati burning and the consequences:

A rich baniya, a corn chandler, whose house was near the gate of our grounds, departed this life; he was an Hindu. On the 7th of November, the natives in the bazaar were making a great noise with their tom-toms, drums, and other discordant musical instruments, rejoicing that his widow had determined to perform sati, i.e., to burn on his funeral-pile.

The [English] magistrate sent for the woman, used every argument to dissuade her, and offered her money. Her only answer was dashing her head on the floor, and saying, 'If you will not let me burn with my husband, I will hang myself in your court of justice.' The shastras say, The prayers and imprecations of a sati are never uttered in vain; the great gods themselves cannot listen to them unmoved.'

If a widow touches either food or water from the time her husband expires until she ascends the pile, she cannot, by Hindu law, be burned with the body; therefore the magistrate kept the corpse forty-eight hours, in the hope that hunger would compel the woman to eat. Guards were set over her, but she never touched anything. My husband accompanied the magistrate to see the sati: about five thousand people were collected together on the banks of the Ganges: the pile was then built, and the putrid body placed upon it; the magistrate stationed guards to prevent the people from approaching it. After having bathed in the river, the widow lighted a brand, walked round the pile, set it on fire, and then mounted cheerfully: the flame caught and blazed up instantly; she sat down, placing the head of the corpse on her lap, and repeated several times the usual form, 'Ram, Ram, sati; Ram, Ram, sati;' i.e., 'God, God, I am chaste.'

As the wind drove the fierce fire upon her, she shook her arms and limbs as if in agony; at length she started up and approached the side to escape. An Hindu, one of the police who had been placed near the pile to see she had fair play, and should not be burned by force, raised his sword to strike her, and the poor wretch shrank back into the flames. The magistrate seized and committed him to prison. The woman again approached the side of the blazing pile, sprang fairly out, and ran into the Ganges, which was within a few yards. When the crowd and the brothers of the dead man saw this, they called out, 'Cut her down, knock her on the head with a bamboo; tie her hands and feet, and throw her in again' and rushed down to execute their murderous intentions, when the gentlemen and the police drove them back.

The woman drank some water, and having extinguished the fire on her red garment, said she would mount the pile again and be burned.

The magistrate placed his hand on her shoulder (which rendered her impure), and said, 'By your own law, having once quitted the pile you cannot ascend again; I forbid it. You are now an outcast from the Hindus, but I will take charge of you, the [East India] Company will protect you, and you shall never want food or clothing.'

He then sent her, in a palanquin, under a guard, to the hospital. The crowd made way, shrinking from her with signs of horror, but returned peaceably to their homes: the Hindus annoyed at her escape, and the Musulmans saying, 'It was better that she should escape, but it was a pity we should have lost the tamasha (amusement) of seeing her burnt to death.'

Had not the magistrate and the English gentlemen been present, the Hindus would have cut her down when she attempted to quit the fire; or had she leapt out, would have thrown her in again, and have said, 'She performed sati of her own accord, how could we make her? It was the will of God.' ... 'What good will burning do you?' asked a bystander. She replied, 'The women of my husband's family have all been satis, why should I bring disgrace upon them? I shall go to heaven, and afterwards reappear on earth, and be married to a very rich man.' She was about twenty or twenty-five years of age, and possessed of some property, for the sake of which her relatives wished to put her out of the world.

As a result of being outlawed, sati began to decline in the 19th Century but persisted in parts of India, particularly Rajasthan, a state with one of the lowest literacy rates in India.  Chimnabai, wife of Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Maharaja of Baroda from 1875 to 1939, was a tireless campaigner for the rights of Indian women.  In 1927 in a speech at the first All-India Women's Conference she called sati a curse, but also noted that the practice no longer posed a great risk to Indian women, unlike the practices of girl-child marriage and the institution of purdah. 

Solvyng Plate 2

The Wife Burning Herself with Some of her Husband's Property, etching by Solvyng 1799:  

 

In the late 1950's, a royal sati took place. Performed in Jodhpur by Sugankunverba, the widow of Brigadier Jabbar Singh Sisodia, her act of self-immolation occurred illegally and supposedly in secret.  The Maharani Padmavati Gaekwad of Baroda, her close friend, provided this account of her death in 1984:

About a month before he died she stopped eating and drinking. She went about her household chores, looked after her husband and nursed him, but without letting on she got together all the things required for the last rites. I used to go to their house to cheer them up and one evening just a little before sun-down as I drove into the compound, I heard this very deep chanting of Ram-Ram as if coming from a deep, echoing chasm. He had passed away two minutes earlier and she had already announced that she was going to commit sati when he was cremated at sunrise. While they attended to his body she went to her bathroom, had a bath and put on the brand new clothes that she had stored in her trunk. For sati we don't wear widow's clothes but wedding clothes, with the ivory bangles and everything. The colour she chose was a sort of light pink called saptalu, which none of the wives of the Sisodias can now wear because they now do puja to that colour. When she had dressed she sat with her husband's head on her lap all night. Twice his body perspired and twice she wiped it down saying, 'Why are you so impatient, I am coming with you. Be calm. The sun's first rays are still to come.' Morning came and her devar arrived, her husband's brother who was going to perform the last rites. When he doubted her intentions she got up and sat over the lamp which they kept burning near the dead body. She fanned the flames with the hem of her sari and sat there for five minutes until he said, 'I'm satisfied.' Now normally when a sati goes to the pyre she is accompanied by a procession, but the word had spread like wildfire through the whole city and people started gathering. So she said, 'We can't walk, bring cars and a truck,' and in this way they avoided the police who were waiting at the entrance to the big burning ghat. She had sent for me, but I didn't get the message and got there late and by that time the flames had got too high for me to see her - but I heard her voice saying 'Ram-Ram', which never stopped for a second until she died. She is worshipped today not only by Rajputs but by everybody and so many artis and bhqjans (devotional songs) have been composed about her, and her funeral pyre burnt for almost six months non-stop with all the coconuts that people kept putting on it.

There are many interesting points about this particular sati event.  The woman was obviously deeply attached to her husband and devastated at his death.  However no attempt was made to dissuade the woman from committing suicide; indeed her brother-in-law was concerned only with whether she would go through with it on the day and not bring shame to the family name.   While several thousand people manage to catch wind of the event and attend the immolation, the authorities did absolutely nothing to prevent it, despite its illegal status.  And at least up to the mid 1980's when this account was recorded, Sugankunverba was still regarded as a martyr, idolized in poems and songs and worshiped as a saint by the women of her family.  If the Indian authorities were serious about stamping out sati altogether, then well publicized voluntary satis such as this one did nothing to remove any lingering glamour associated with the act.

In today's India, sati is rarely discussed openly.  Ostensibly, it is considered a shameful practice, particularly by the burgeoning middle class, long outlawed and of interest only as a minor historical footnote.  And yet the practice continues, particularly in rural areas of India, with over forty documented cases occurring since the 1950's (The Team, 2006), approximately one recorded incidence per year, with some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there are a much greater number of sucessful and unsuccessful sati attempts (Shiva 2008).  Indeed, pro-sati advocates, generally men, demand the right to commit, worship, and propagate sati (Parilla 1999).  One well documented case, that of 18-year old Roop Kanwar, occurred in 1987 at the village Deorala in Rajasthan.  Eyewitness reports of the incident present conflicting stories about the voluntariness of her death: that she was dragged from a shed in which she had been hiding, that she was sedated, that she herself told her brother-in-law to light the pyre when she was ready.  Several thousand people managed to attend the event, after which she was hailed as a "pure mother".  Devotees from all over India flocked to her shrine to pay homage, bringing huge revenues and status to the village.  The event produced a public outcry in urban centres and served to pit a modern Indian ideology against a very traditional one.  After Kanwar's death, the Sati Dharma Raksha Samti or Committee for the Defence of the Religion of Sati was formed (Hawley 1994), run and supported by educated young Rajput men who stated that sati was a "fundamental part of their traditions; a refusal to legitimize sati, they said, was a deliberate attempt to marginalize the Rajputs" (Kumar 1995).  Kanwar's sati led to the creation of state level laws to prevent the occurrence and glorification of future incidents and the creation of the central Indian government's The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987.  However, of the 56 people charged with her murder, participation in her murder or glorification of her murder during two separate investigations, all were subsequently acquitted.

Other incidents of sati continue to take place.  Fifty-five year old Charan Shah's self-immolation in 1999 at Satpura village in Uttar Pradesh is shrouded in mystery as witnesses refused to co-operate with official investigations.  Shah's suicide is notable because it led to the publication of a vitriolic article apparently justifying the practice of sati and demanding the repeal of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, by a respected female academic, Madhu Kishwar (published in Manushi, Issue 115).  In May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Uttar Pradesh. In August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, died on the funeral pyre of her husband in Sagar district. In October 2008, a 75-year-old woman committed sati by jumping into her 80-year-old husband's funeral pyre at Checher in Raipur.

Following public outcries after each instance there have been various reforms passed which now make it illegal even to be a bystander at a sati event.  Other measures include efforts to stop the glorification of the victims, including the erection of shrines over their ashes, the encouragement of pilgrimages to the site of the pyre and the derivation of any income from such sites and pilgrims.  However, it must be recognized that the tradition of sati in India is very complex indeed.  Despite the existence of state and country-wide laws prohibiting the act and its glorification, incidents continue to occur every year and may be on the increase.  As one Indian feminist notes, these occurrences confirm that deeply held and deeply cherished norms cannot be changed simply by enacting laws (Shiva 2008).

Burning of A Hindoo Widow, by James Peggs

Burning of A Hindoo Widow, by James Peggs


 

References and further reading

Allen, Charles & Dwivedi, Sharada 1998.  Lives of the Indian Princes.  Arena Edition, Mumbai.

Auboyer, Jeannine 2002.  Daily Life in Ancient India: From 200 BC to 700 AD.  Phoenix Press, London.

Hardgrave, Robert L, Jr 1998The Representation of Sati: Four Eighteenth Century Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns.  Bengal Past and Present, 117: 57-80.  Reprinted here http://www.laits.utexas.edu/solvyns-project/Satiart.rft.html Accessed on 1 August 2010

Hawley, John Stratton 1994.  Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India.  Oxford University Press, New York.

James, Lawrence 1998.  Raj: the Making and Unmaking of British India.  The Softback Preview, Great Britan

Kishwar, Madhu (date unknown) Deadly Laws and Zealous ReformersManushi Issue 115 and reprinted here http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue115/madhu.htm Accessed on 2 August 2010

Kumar, Radha, 1995.  From Chipko to Sati: The Contemporary Indian Women's Movement.  In The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective. Amrita Basu, ed.  Westview Press, Boulder.

Moore, Lucy 2004. Maharanis: the Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament.  Penguin Books, India.

Parrilla, Vanessa 1999.  Sati: Virtuous Woman Through Self-Sacrifice.  Reprinted here http://www.csuchico.edu/~cheinz/syllabi/asst001/spring99/parrilla/parr1.htm Accessed on August 2010

Parkes, Fanny 1850.  Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, during Four-and-Twenty Years in the East; With Revelations of Life in the Zenana.  Pelham Richardson, London.

Shakuntala Rao Shastri 1960.  Women in the Sacred Laws - The Later Law Books.  Reprinted here http://www.hindubooks.org/women_in_the_sacredlaws/ Accessed 25 July 2010.

Shiva, 2008.  Widow Burning. India Facts http://india-facts.com/news/women-abuse/2008122152/widow-burning-sati/ Accessed 2 August 2010

Stein, DK 1978.  Women to Burn: Suttee as a Normative Institution. Signs 4 (2): 253-268.  University of Chicago Press.

The Team, 2006 SATI resurfaces in MP.  Published in A different stroke of news views from India Accessed 2 August 2010.

Wikipedia Sati (practice) Accessed on 25 July 2010

Tags: Blog, Diaries, Gods And Godesses, Hinduism, India, Sati, Suttee, Widow Burning

 

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