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.
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-
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
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
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
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.
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend