Sati Pratha in India

Sati literally means ‘a pure and virtuous woman’. Sati Pratha or tradition of widow burning at the funeral pyre of her husband has been a shameful social evil and an age old practice in Indian society. A widow was burned either with her tacit consent or most of the times forcefully by her in-laws after the death of her husband. This practice shows a dark and evil side of Hindu society, especially of ancient and medieval India.

The practice of Sati or self-immolation by the widow was associated with a kind of virtue. The ‘virtue’ of this practice was defined by a religious logic that it was inauspicious for widow to live after the death of her husband. A widow who agreed to self-immolate herself at the funeral pyre of her husband was considered to be very virtuous and attained to the status of Sati Mata or Sati Goddess. We can still find Temples of Sati Mata in some States of India such as in Rajasthan and M P.

Origin of Sati Pratha

The root of this inhuman practice lies in the patriarchal traditions of Hindu society where women are always considered as subservient and inferior to men. But the mythological story about the origin of Sati Pratha says that Sati was the wife of Shiva and she self-immolated herself in protest against her father who had disrespected Shiva. Though in this story, Sati immolated herself while her husband, Shiva was still alive but in historical reality, the practice took a different form and women were being forced to die by sitting on their husband’s funeral pyre. How this transformation took place is not clear from historical sources but one thing is clear that the evil practice somehow became part of Hindu society. The earliest literature of Hindus such as Vedas does not mention the practice of Sati. It is only in the later Hindu texts such as Puranas, one finds the mention of Sati. Furthermore, the practice was mainly associated with the so-called high castes (Brahmin and Kshatriya) in the early history. According to one version it became fairly wide spread during the Muslim period when invasions and conquests played its role and it was considered necessary to preserve the honor of Hindu women. However, there are evidences to show that the practice of Sati was also there in western and southern India even before the advent of Muslims.

Gradually, the practice was adopted by the so-called lower castes in their quest to aspire for higher ranking in social order by emulating the customs and rituals of higher castes. The practice of Sati was not, therefore, peculiar to one caste or one region of the country and we find evidences across the spectrum of the contemporary Hindu society.

Abolition of Sati

As far as stopping or banning this evil practice is concerned, it was tough a task as it had been given a religious sanction by the conservative religious pundits of the time. But some enlightened Indian rulers had taken steps to curb the cruel practice; for instance, Akbar attempted to restrict it, the Marathas had forbidden it in their dominions. However, the East India Company, early in their rule over India, adhered to its policy of non-interference into socio-religious customs of the people of India.

But in the early Nineteenth-century-British India, the English view about India’s socio-religious aspects began to change. This change of view was mainly for two reasons. Firstly, there was a genuine concern among some good-hearted English officials that the social conditions especially of women were in urgent need of reforms; and secondly, the English rulers wanted to get a moral sanction of their illegal and unethical exploitation of the native people by maintaining that it was a moral duty and ‘Whiteman’s burden’ to civilize the uncivilized people of the country. Therefore, the British began to depart from their earlier stand of non-interference. Some serious efforts were made in 1813 when a Circular was issued which prohibited the burning of women in all cases where the widows was below 16 years of age or pregnant or intoxicated or in any other way coerced. But these measures proved inadequate and unsuccessful.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy

The real change occurred during the time of Governor-General Lord William Bentinck when he took charge in 1828. He tried to tackle several social problems facing the society such as abolition of Sati and suppression of infanticide and crushing the gangs of Thugs. Several sane and educated Indians also began to question this inhuman practice of Sati despite the opposition and pressure from the religious leaders. Prominent among them was Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Roy is rightly considered to be the first leader of the Indian social enlightenment in the early Nineteenth century. It was Raja Rammohan Roy who urged and pressed Bentinck to take necessary steps and declare the practice of Sati illegal. Due to his great efforts and work through publication of pamphlets and newspaper reports etc, he was able to awaken the conscience of the masses. In December 1829, Regulation No- XVII was issued by the Governor-General declaring the practice of Sati or burning or burying alive of widows illegal and punishable by the criminal courts as culpable homicide. The Regulation of 1829 was initially applicable to Bengal Presidency alone but in 1830 it was extended in different forms to Madras and Bombay Presidencies also.

Thus, after the Regulation of 1829, the inhuman practice of Sati was more or less abolished from the customary practices of Hindu society; though opposition was made from some quarters of orthodox Brahmins but overall the abolition proved successful.

In recent past one notable incidence came into light when in September 1987, in Rajasthan village of Deorala, 17-year-old Roop Kanwar, a bride of eight months immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Thousands were present at the venue. This shocking incident once again brought into light the fact that still in the sub-conscious memory of traditional Hindu society people consider the practice of Sati as some kind of virtuous act.

But apart from this infamous exception no other such event came into light anywhere in the country. Therefore, it can be said that the inhuman practice now has no place in the modern outlook of Twenty-first-century society of India.