Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays

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The Phenomenon of Sati, on account of its dramatic and tragic element, has always commanded considerable attention. This has not always been complemented by adequate analysis. Even when the treatment of the subject has transcended sensationalism, it has not always been sufficiently nuanced. This book hopes to remedy this situation by bringing to bear on the topic (whose relevance the recent recurrences of the phenomena have highlighted) a measure of methodological sophistication which was not possible prior to emergence of the History of Religious as a discipline.

About the Author:

Arvind Sharma (B.A. Allahabad,) 1958; M.A. Syracuse, 1970; M.T.S. Harvard Divinity School, 1974; Ph. D. Harvard University, 1978) teaches at the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He has also taught in Australia (Brisbane, Sydney) and the United States (Philadelphia).

Ajit Ray is associated with the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. Alaka Hejib taught Indian languages and religious for several years at McGill University and now lives in India. Katherine K. Young is Associate Professor at McGill University and the general editor of McGill Studies in the History of Religions.


This book consists of twelve essays on sati, nine of which are by Dr Arvind Sharma of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney, two by Dr Ajit Ray of the Australian National University Library, Canberra, and the last by Dr Alaka Hejib and Dr Katherine Young, of the Faculty of Religious Stu- dies at McGill University, Montreal. While both Dr Sharma and Dr Ray examine sati in the context of the Indo-Western and in particular in the colonial and Hindu-Christian encounter, Drs Hejib and Young try to look at the institution as orthodox Hindus saw it. The two approaches are radically different but comple- mentary and welcome.

Dr Ray focusses his attention on the part played by various groups and individuals in the abolition of sati, and he comes to the conclusion that the missionaries have not been given their due for the role they played in its abolition. His verdict, how- ever, is not unequivocal, and its unequivocality highlights, in my opinion, a crucial problem in the evaluation of the missionary contribution to the abolition ofsati and other humanitarian tasks. He writes: "The Christian missionary involvement for the aboli- tion of the sati rite was only an offshoot of their grand design in India which was the conversion of the country to Christianity." It is not that they were not moved by compassion for the victims of sati but that the desire to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to Hinduism was there, as also the feeling that in the- conversion of Hindus to Christianity lay the solution to their many social ills. And this was before the abolition of slavery in the Western world, to mention but one home-grown evil.

As already mentioned, Dr Sharma also discusses sati in the context of the Indo-Western encounter, of which the Indo- British encounter is only a part, though a decisive one. He points out that the institution is an old one, though it does not have sanction of the Vedas. Even the Smritis, the lawbooks, do not sanction sati unreservedly. There is no mention of sati in Manu. Further, suicide is a sin as also killing a woman. The widow who leads a celibate life and performs the prescribed sacrifices for her dead husband, is living according to the injunctions of the Smritis. But in spite of this sati seems to have found acceptance in the later Smriti literature, between 9th and 11th centuries A.D., to be specific. How did this occur? This is indeed a problem for histo- rical research.

The abolition ofsati did not, however, put an endto its pole- mical role. According to Dr Sharma, "The polemical position to be set out was that India was a country where horrid rites like sati prevailed. These were stamped out by the British. If the British left India, India would lapse into barbarism again." The British tried to "sensationalize" sati, and according to British historians, it was abolished entirely due to British efforts. Accord- ing to Edward Thompson, "The credit is almost entirely personal, and it is Bentinck's." Percival Spear did mention Rammohun Roy but added, "Rammohun Roy accepted Jesus as one of the religious masters."

Such "hogging" of credit annoyed-and continues to annoy- many Indians. For it needs to be remembered that the Tantrics denounced sati in strong terms. Akbar and some Maratha chiefs fought against it. Albuquerque abolished it in Goa in 1510 A.D. The Indian response to the British condemnation of sati was, according to Dr Sharma, to "trivialize" the institution, and to scandalize Western womanhood. Indian scholars, for instance, pointed out that sati was not prevalent in the Vedic period and that there were few references to it in the period 300-700 A.D., and that only after- 700 A.D. had it gained ground. Its incidence was really local, and limited to certain classes: "It was thus pointed out that the rite •was largely confined to Bengal and Rajputana, and among the Rajputs and the Marathas who claimed Rajput descent. It was thus narrowed down into martial custom (though Brahmins also took it over)."

While the motive behind the efforts to determine the temporal, spatial and other dimensions of sati may have been to minimise its gravity, such determination is obviously essential to its under- standing. In the first place, Bengal and Rajasthan were its strongholds, and castewise, the institution Seems to have been confined to the high castes, and in particular Kshatriyas and Brahmins.

In view of the fact that the two areas of concentration of sati are, in northern India, one is tempted to ask whether it was tied up with the institution of hyper gamy, and the incidental phenomenon of polygyny at the top of the hypergamous hierarchy. The late Dr Kane thought that the high incidence of sati in Bengal was related to the Dayabhaga law in which the widow had a right to her husband's property till her death, a fact which gave the husband's agnatic relations an interest in her committing sati. With regard to the rise in the incidence of sati in Bengal bet- ween 1815 and 1817, Marshman noted that it was probably due to the emulation of expensive European habits by natives, and to the jealousy of old men with young wives. What is significant in Marshman's explanation is the effort to explain one social pehnomenon-sudden rise in sati-by reference to other social phenomena. Only thorough research into the conditions obtain- ing in Bengal in the first two decades of the 19th century will make clear whether there is any substance to Marshman's explanation.

It is necessary to make clear here that all widow-burning is not sati. Jauhar, for instance, was the collective suicide of Rajput widows who preferred death rather than submit themselves to being captured alive by Mughal troops victorious in battle. Death was preferred to dishonour, and it was fundamentally different from a situation where a widow climbed the pyre of her dead husband to become a sati.

That brings me to the last and fascinating essay, "Sati,' Widow- hood and Yoga" by Alaka Hejib and Katherine Young. Their declared aim is to see sati as orthodox Hindus saw it: "There seems to be little scholarly attempt to understand what is Hindu about the Hindu widow and the sati. Stripped of this adjective Hindu, the widow is like any other bereaved-person and the sati is nothing but a suicidal or homicidal act." They then proceed to explain the logic of sati in terms of the ideas and values of orthodox, high caste Hindus. They explain why the sati, the wife who performed sati, became a sainted figure while the widow, in spite of her celibacy and her austere conditions of living, and her preoccupation with matters religious, was regarded as an inauspicious person whose presence boded no good for those around her. Their interpretation makes it clear that even the foreigners who admired the courage and devotion of satis who climbed the funeral pyres of their dead husbands and calmly allowed themselves to be burnt, did not fully understand the institution. The sati was a model wife, and her voluntary death proclaimed the truly transcendental character of the conjugal relationship. It brought renown to her natal and conjugal lineages and to the region, and more importantly, it augured well for everyone. On the contrary, her turning away at the last minute from the ordeal brought infamy to her kin, and forebode disaster for the locality.

I hare, however, a difficulty with the interpretation of Drs Hejib and Young: it is not always clear when the authors are merely giving expression to traditional Hindu ideas and when they are putting their own gloss. The Yoga analogue is indeed impressive in helping to understand the sati's behaviour, but was that really how the indigenes saw it? Some more evidence than is presented in the essay, would appear to be necessary.

There is a still deeper level of explanation of sati which needs to be adumbrated here. Between the end of the Vedic period and 12th century A.D., the idea seemed to have gained ground that the husband should have exclusive and total control over his wife's sexuality. Pre-pubertal marriage was the surest way to make certain of it. Pre-pubertal marriage also transferred the responsi- bility for safeguarding the girl's sexuality from her male kin in her natal family to her husband and his agnates. Once married, total faithfulness was expected of the wife, and this was attempted to be assured by the deification of the husband. Total control over her sexuality was not only for the duration of the marriage: it extended to the pre- and post-marital periods, absurd as it may seem to outsiders. Virginity in brides was ensured by pre-pubertal, and frequently, child marriages, while celibacy was required of the widow. She was disfigured by having her head shaved, and by forbidding to her the symbols of the happy and auspicious state of sumangalihood (i.e., the married state with the husband alive), and her activities were restricted to the kitchen and to ritual. She was condemned to perpetual mourning, as it were, and she became a symbol of inauspiciousness and ill-luck. The death of her husband was attributed to the sins she had committed in a 'previous incarnation. The widow who decided to commit sati was, on the contrary, the mirror image of the widow who had decided to live. She was auspicous, and she was dressed as a bride for her last journey. Her martyrdom brought good reputation and good luck to her kinsfolk and to her village. In some parts of India, memorial stones were erected to satis.

While the widow and sati were treated so radically differently, the ruling idea in both the cases was the assertion of the dead husband's total control over the wife's sexuality. The wife, on the other hand, had no such exclusive right over the husband's sexuality. Not only was a widower not required to burn himself on his dead wife's funeral pyre, he was urged to marry soon. He emerged from mourning after performing the thirteenth day ceremonies. This one-sidedness is really the key to the relationship.



I would like to begin by specifying the authors of the various essays. Chapters 1-8 and II are by Arvind Sharma of the Department of Religious Studies, the University of Sydney, Australia. Chapters 9-lO are by Ajit Ray of the Australian National University Library, Canberra, Australia and Chapter 12 has been co-authored by' Alaka Hejib and Katherine K. Young' of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

In a work of this kindsome overlap, even repetition is inevitable. It may even be desirable, for the themes which recur most-the indigenous tradition' of protest against sati, for example-are precisely those which have been consistently overlooked. Again, in a collective work of this kind the style and format used by the 'different authors, not to say their approach, is also likely to differ. These differences have been preserved, for what brings these pieces together is not that they speak with one voice or ina uni- form manner but that they address the same subject.

Most of the _essays are historical in nature, dealing, as they do, with the phenomenon of sati and it is hoped that they present, fresh material and generate new perspectives; the last paper tries to break new methodological ground in attempting a pheno- menology of the phenomenal.

A short terminological note on the word sati itself may be helpful to readers. Although there is a tendency to abandon the word Suttee in favour of sati, sometimes the distinction has been preserved on the ground that Suttee may more appropriately describe the act and sati the person committing it. Similarly, with the word sati itself an effort could have been made to use the form sati (without the diacritic) for the rite and sati (with the diacritic) for the person. After reviewing these uses, however, it was decided to 'use the form sati to cover all cases.

One more prefatory remark also seems called for. It has al- ready been mentioned that this study relies mainly on history and phenomenology but may also, according to an anonymous referee, be described as "humanistic or from the humanities and to my knowledge, is original. Most interpretations of sati in recent years are sociological, anthropological and socio-economic". Those interested in other perspectives may profit by looking at Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) Chapter III; Dorothy K. Stein, "Women to Burn: Suttee as a Normative Institution" in Signs (1978) 4 (2): 253-273-; Ashis Nandy, At the Edge of Psychology (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980) pp. 1-31; etc.

The following news item, which appeared in The Australian (September 29, 1986, p. 4) should dispel any lingering doubts about the relevance of the present study.


NEW.DELHI: Hundreds of villagers stood by approvingly as a newly wed Indian woman, unable to bear her husband's death; jumped into his funeral pyre in accordance with the banned ancient Hindu custom of sati, the Press Trust of India reported yesterday .

. It is interesting to speculate on how attitudes to sati might change if Hinduism becomes a success-oriented religion instead of remaining a sacrifice-oriented religion. The Kerala tradition, which connects Sankara with a kind of Advaitic triumphalism also credits him with the abolition of sati (P.V. Kane, History of Dharmastra Vol. II pt. I, p. 506).

The press in India is still aflame with controversy caused by the sati of Roop Kanwar last year as this book goes to the printers. A recent issue of the monthly Seminar (February 1988) is devoted to Sati, while the -governmental legislation banning glorification of sati has already resulted in the banning of a film on "The .ground that it glorified the cult of Suttee" (The Economist, 20 February 1988, page 94). It has even entered the arena of political controversy, with the disclosure by Ms. Jayalalitha in a mass-circulated Tamil weekly that she contained her desire to commit Sati" as she stood next to the body of MGR, the late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and former actor whose leading lady she had been, as a result of being "subjected to untold misery by her opponents in the party". "Tongues have started wagging over her confession, as the legally wedded wife of MGR is still alive" (Sunday, 21-27 February, 1988, page 95). This touch of levity may lighten the burden of our theme but cannot detract from its gravity as highlighted in a recent special issue of Manushi (Sep.-Dec. 1987).

Finally, permission to publish articles from the Journal of Indian History, Journal of Karnatak University (Social Sciences), Glory of India, Manthan, Indica and the Indian Economic and Social History Review is gratefully acknowledged.





    • 1. Sati: A Study in Western Reactions

    • 2. The Tradition of Indigenous Protest against Sati

    • 3. An Analysis of the Reaction of Hindus and Non-Hindus to Sati

    • 4. The Role of the Brahmanas in the Commission of Sati

    • 5. Brahmana Widows and Sati

    • 6. The Scriptural Sanction for Sati in Hinduism

    • 7. The Identification of a New Form of Sati

    • 8. Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak(1857-1920): A Comparison Based on Roy's Attitude towards Sati.

    • 9. Widows are not for Burning: Native Response to the Abolition of the Sati Rite

    • 10. Widows are not Burning: Christian Missionary Participation in the Abolition of the Sati Rite

    • 11. The Bhagavadgita: Its Role in the Abolition of Sati

  • 12. Sati, Widowhood and Yoga



Sanskrit Index

Author Index

Subject Index

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