Sati Pratha: Ultimate Devotion?
Avni Gupta writes about the historical, self-immolation tradition of Sati which was prevalent across many parts of India.
Sati refers to a practice of a widow sacrificing herself after her husband’s death – either on his pyre or separately. It is derived from a Sanskrit word suttee meaning “virtuous woman”. In Hinduism, it symbolises closure to a marriage and a woman’s destiny lies in committing her life to her husband, even after death. Initially, it was performed voluntarily by a devoted wife, who followed her husband to the afterlife. Soon, however, the greatest form of devotion became a forced practice. A widow without children to support was, in many cases, pressured to accept sati as she was considered a burden on the society.
It must not be confused with the practice of Jauhar. Jauhar was prevalent in the north-western parts of the country, majorly during the 14th and 15th centuries. Hindu women performed a collective suicide to escape capture, slavery, and rape by barbaric hordes.
Sati pratha finds roots in Hinduism and it is believed that women who self-immolate acquire divine status and become a manifestation of Lord Shiva’s partner. In Hindu mythology it is believed that Sati was Lord Shiva’s wife who burned herself in order to protest against the hatred her father held for her husband. While she burnt, she pleaded to be incarnated as Shiva’s wife, which she did as Parvati.
Historical records reveal the spark of sati in the 4th century, when the Gupta dynasty was reigning the nation. Records reveal incidents of sati in Madhya Pradesh in the 6th century, spreading to Rajasthan and other northern and central states of India in consecutive years. More incidents have been documented from the 10th century. Initially, the ritual was confined to women of royal families, who left their handprints on a stone wall to be remembered as valiant and devotional wives. Handprints of wives of kings can be found on walls inside Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan. Soon, however, it became a widely occurring pratha amongst all social divisions.
After the 12th century, Islam achieved a powerful position in India and numerous Muslim warlords began ruling the northern parts of India. Reports suggest that the number of sati cases after this period of time increased. For instance, when Bengal began being ruled by the Muslims, it experienced high incidents of the ritual.
A peak in self-immolation by women was observed between the 15th and 18th centuries. At least 1,000 women have been recorded to burn alive each year. Christian Missionaries recorded 10,000 to 1,00,000 cases of sati every year from 1800 onwards. According to Government figures, 8134 widows performed sati between 1815 and 1829. Out of these, more than 60% incidents were reported from Calcutta. Besides India, countries like Nepal, Russia, Fiji, and Vietnam also reveal scanty cases of sati.
Indian History Pics
Between the 15th and 18th centuries, sati was prohibited on several occasions – by Humayun in 1535, Emperor Akbar in 1582, Aurangzeb in 1663, the Portuguese, and the French.
History reveals that when the British were unable to tolerate the injustice against women during European colonial period, they even decided to abolish Sati. The practice was abolished under the British rule in 1829 by the Governor-General of India, Lord Bentinck, after sustained campaigns by Christian missionaries and reformers. William Carey, William Bentinck, and Sir Charles Napier had a significant role to play in opposing the practice. Hindu priests who dared to moderate widow burning were punished to death. Reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar embarked on their journey to advocate for women’s rights and abolition of social evils like sati and child marriage. In 1861, the Queen of England imposed a stringent ban on the practice.
After an incident sparked in 1987, The Government of India enacted the Sati Prevention Act, 1988 in order to “prevent the commission of sati and its glorification and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. The Act makes it illegal to force or encourage a widow to self-immolate.
Feminism in India
Despite the extensive discourse, occurrence of few sati incidents has been reported till October 2008.
1987: In the village of Deorala, Rajasthan, Roop Kanwar, an 18-year old widow was succumbed to burning in her late husband’s pyre. Even after vigorous resistance, a group of men drugged her and forced her to become sati. The act was considered as a product of honour and devotion by the thousands of spectators.
2002: In a village of Madhya Pradesh, Kuttu Bai, a 65-year old woman committed sati after her husband’s death.
2006: In a village of Uttar Pradesh, Vidyawati, a 35-year old widow jumped into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband.
2006: In a village of Madhya Pradesh, Janakrani, a 40-year old woman burnt to death along with her late husband.
2008: In the village of Chechar, Chhattisgarh, Lalmati, a 71-year old widow jumped in her husband’s pyre. It is unknown whether the act was voluntary or the woman was pushed by someone.
Incidents like these have spurred human rights campaigns and debates throughout the country. They have managed to jolt the entire nation and throw doubts on the condition of women and their rights in India.
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