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Sati Is it a Religious Event?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Introduction to the Issue of Sati

The Self Immolation of Women on their Husbands Funeral Pyre

Traditionally, the word ‘Sati’ contains the meaning of the term ‘Goddess’.  In the context of this article, I aim to explore the roots of Sati as an Indian death ritual. Historically, in India, deaths of women have been reported as a consequence of them committing suicide by jumping on their husbands funeral pyre.

Sati is currently illegal in India. An initial move towards this was the outlaw of Sati in 1829 in Bengal by Lord Bentinck.   Yet British misunderstandings of the phenomena led to ‘voluntary’ Sati being codified legal in 1813.[1]  

My questions raised on the concept of Sati as religious interlink with issues of power, as I attempt to challenge the British assumptions as they outlawed Sati.    The central problem was that Sati was judged, or misjudged, from a Western perspective. This was problematic on religious, cultural and sociological grounds. 

In this article, I focus on whether Sati could actually be justified from Hindu texts.


[1] Hawley, J. S. [ed.], Sati, The blessing and the Curse, p29

Should Sati be considered a Religious Event?

Of the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Ramayana as composed by Valmiki is the most relevant source to be used to traditionally contextualise Sati.[1]   Sita is the supreme ultimate devoted wife and role model.   At the end of the Ramayana, (in the Uttara Kanda), there is a terrible battle for Lanka.   Ravana taunts Sita with a lie about Rama’s death, but one of her demonness guards, Trijata, reassures her, saying that Rama will kill Ravana.   At last Hanuman comes to tell Sita of Rama’s success.   However, when reunited with Rama, he addresses her reproachfully.  Her chastity is in question, as she has resided with another man.[2]    It is the point at which Sita proves herself in a trial by fire that could be interpreted as textual evidence for Sati as a religious practice.  

“The defense of Sita filled all who witnessed it with emotion and, at that moment, Vayu, the foremost of the Gods, sent forth a pure and fragrant breeze to the great delight of the assembly, as formerly in the golden age, and, it appeared marvellous to all those people from many lands who experienced it!

Beholding that assembly, Sita, attired in a yellow robe, with joined palms, her head bowed, her eyes lowered, said:-

‘If, in thought, I have ever dwelt on any but Rama, may the Goddess Madhevi receive me!’

As Vaidehi was still speaking, a miracle took place and, from the earth rose a marvellous celestial throne supported on the head of Nagas of immeasurable power, their bodies adorned with divine gems.   The Goddess Dharani, bidding her welcome, to Maithili in her arms, causing her to be seated on that celestial seat and, while she occupied the throne, a shower of blossoms fell without ceasing from the sky.   Then the Gods burst into loud acclamations, crying “Excellent! Excellent! O Sita, thy virtue is supreme!”[3]

Sita is certainly a sati in the sense that she is a supremely devoted wife, yet she does not die with Rama.   She does, however, voluntarily take the fire test to prove her innocence to the Gods.   Thus I would like to argue here that Valmiki does not display the modern view of Sati.  By this I mean that sati or being a good wife does not have to include death by immolation on the husband’s funeral pyre.   Sati here is to be viewed in the mythical sense.   The fire takes the form of Agni, the God that is the flames engulfing her.   Sita as the good wife is auspicious and pure, but this is not true Sati in the sense of the act, as Rama is not dead, and Sita is not burned, as depicted by many modern pictorial accounts.[4]

In contrast with the epics, we turn to the eighteenth century’s Orthodox pundit Tryambakayajvan’s[5] Stridharmapaddhati or 'Guide to the religious status and duties of women', based on earlier dharmashastra texts.   It was written in Sanskrit in Thanjavur (Tanjore) in Southern India.   Tryambaka draws the conclusion that a woman’s highest duty is to serve her husband.   He discusses sahagamanavidhi (dying with ones husband) and vidhavadharma (duties of the widow).   In section four of the Stridharmapaddhati, the duties common to all women, Tryambaka begins with two justifications for sahagamana.   Firstly, ‘at the time of a girls wedding, the Brahmins should recite, “May you be one who accompanies her husband, (always), when he is alive and even when he is dead!”’ and ‘if, when her husband has dies, a woman ascends with him, into the fire, she is glorified in heaven as one whose conduct is equal to that of Arundhati.’[6] The prohibition of suicide is the standard moral objection to the practice of Sati, but is not an absolute rule, and is modified by supplementary rules. There are three exceptions: suicide by the ascetic who kills himself at a sacred place, the courting of death in battle by the warrior and the self-immolation of the widow.   Tryambaka’s next argument in favour of Sati is that ‘dying with one’s husband (bhartranumaranam) is recommended for women because it brings great rewards.’[7]    Tryambaka focuses on rewards and Sati being kamya (optional) as opposed to being naimittika (occasional).[8]   He concludes that sahagamana is kamya, and therefore must be left to the woman to decide.   Yet the rewards of becoming a sati are outlined.   Tryambaka states that,

‘The husband is to be followed always (sahanuyatavy[ah]): like the body by its shadow, like the moon by the moonlight, like a thundercloud by lightening   There is no doubt that the woman who follows [anuvrajanti) her husband gladly from his house to the cremation grounds attains with every step the reward(s) of the horse sacrifice.   Just as the snake-catcher drags the snake from its hole by force, even so the virtuous wife (sati) snatches her husband from the demons of hell and takes him up to heaven.   Yama’s messengers recognise a virtuous wife (satim) from afar and take to flight.   Even if her husband has been an evil man, they let go of him at once, exclaiming, “When we see a devoted wife, (patrivratam) hurtling towards us (to rescue her husband), we messengers (of death) are less afraid of fire and lightening than we are of her!”   There are 3 ½ crores of hair on a person’s body: she who dies with her husband will dwell in heaven for the same length of time.   (Even in the case of) a husband who has entered into hell (itself) and who – seized by the servants of death and bound up with terrible bonds – has arrived at the very place of torment (yatanasthanam); (even if he is already) standing there, helpless and wretched, quivering (with fear) because of his evil deeds; even if he is a Brahmin killer, or the murderer of a friend, or if he is ungrateful for some service done for him – (even then) a woman who refuses to become a widow can purify him: in dying, she takes him with her…   according to the established custom as shown in the eloquent statements (given above), this (act of) dying with (one’s husband; anumaranam) – when put into practice by a devoted wife (pativrataya) – confers great blessings on both (wife and husband).[9]

The rewards of Sati are identified to be threefold: the virtuous wife snatches her husband from the demons of hell and takes him to heaven, the demons of death are less afraid of fire and lightning than of her, and a woman who refuses to become a widow purifies her husband (even if he is a brahmin killer or murderer of a friend).   Sati from this perspective is a blessing on both the wife and husband in which all sin is destroyed.   It remains the safest course of action for the less than perfect wife.   The sati becomes a Goddess, because Sati and Shakti are identical.[10]   For Tryambaka, the proper role of the woman does include Sati, whether she is a brahmin or not, but only those who aspire to the highest ideal actually practise it.[11]

Contextually, Tryambaka appears to be defending orthodox Hindu values in response to European Christian Missionaries, the threat of Muslim domination, the customs of the local Tamil people and the increasingly popular devotional religion of bhakti.[12]   The author’s concern seems to be women of the Maratha elite in the court of prosperous and largely kshatriya court of Thanjavur.   There are no references to agricultural labourers, market women, or in fact any women outside of the court.  Few lower class or ‘outsider’ women are mentioned with significant reference, other than the servants and courtesans who are mentioned with indifference or disapproval.   The women with whom Tryambaka is concerned are personally, socially and economically restricted, and have the highest demands of Hindu orthodoxy placed upon them.[13]    I would argue therefore, that even if Tryambaka’s Stridharmapaddhati had decided upon anumarana as a compulsory action, it still needs to remain in it’s regional and historical setting and should be viewed as a response to political unrest and religious developments, and placed in the court of the Maratha elite, as opposed to a law for the whole of Hindu orthodoxy across India.  

It becomes clear then, that no scriptural authority defines Sati as necessary or compulsory, and that the only eighteenth century source of authority found which may be relevant is restricted to the Maratha courts of Southern India, and are not necessarily transferable to Rajasthan and Bengal, where the majority of recorded Satis have taken place.   In fact, as early as 1817, chief pundit Mrityunjay Vidyalankar pointed out that the scriptural sanctification for Sati was ambiguous.[14]   Consideration of trans-regional variation within the Indian subculture and religion should have been a primary consideration for the British as they considered the legalities surrounding sati, but they tended to ignore such variations in practice.

Even though there is no scriptural justification of sati as a compulsory act, I would criticise the fact that Sati had to be justified scripturally, as the search for this was itself based on a Christian protestant presumption, i.e. the fact that one authoritative scripture can be applied to the whole of a society.   In order to understand this fully, the origins of the judicial system in Bengal during the colonial period needs to be explored.   The judicial structure of the legal system in Bengal was grounded in judicial reforms instituted by Governor General Warren Hastings soon after the East India Company’s acquisition of the diwini,[15] in 1765.   This followed the Mugal practice of enforcing Islamic law on criminal cases for both Hindu’s and Muslim’s.   Hastings then established the principle of governing Hindu’s by Hindu Law and Muslims by Muslim Law, because he thought that to impose a legal alien system would be regarded as tyrannical by indigenous populations.[16]   We find evidence for this in the 1772 Judicial Plan by Warren Hastings, where it is stated that,

‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws of the Koran with respect to Mahometans and those of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos shall be invariably adhered to’ [17]

Hastings stated that the Koran will be referred to for Muslim Law and the Shaster for ‘Gentoos’ or ‘Hindus’.[18]   Through his reference to religious usage and institutions, we need to recognise here the British divisions between the Bishops and crown Courts, which were also applied to the Bengal judicial system.   Mani informs us that,

“The judicial system implemented in Bengal also reflected the division in Britain between the bishops and the Crown Court, in which the former dealt with marriage, divorce, testaments and religious worship under ecclesiastical law and the Crown Court with all other matters.   The Calcutta Supreme Court was a combination of both a temporal and a religious court.   Hastings’ reforms thus extended to Bengal a system that prevailed in England, one, furthermore that accorded with the east India Company’s view of the place of religion in indigenous society.” [19]

This reflection of the British legal system suggests that notion of Biblical authority underpinned the occidental gaze.   Whilst Christians could take authority from the Bible, and Muslims from the Koran, this was not so straightforward in Hinduism.   The project of codified law, then, was not only in place to facilitate rule, but also to ensure clarity and uniformity amongst the interpretation of Hindu scripture.[20]   This links in to the fact that when the British had the desire to ban Sati in the 18th and 19th Centuries, they were clearly searching for proper scriptural authorities.   We find evidence of this desire in official government documentation and letters to the Courts.   On the 5th February 1805, Lord Wellesley, Lord Lake, Sir Barlow and Mr Udney, the Governor General in Council addressed the Law Court of Nizamat Adawlut with a letter stating that,

“one of the fundamental maxims of the British Government to consult the religious opinions, customs and prejudices of the natives, in all cases in which it has been practicable, consistently with the principles of mortality, reason and humanity” after which the government General in council adds that he “considers it to be an indispensable duty to ascertain whether this unnatural and inhuman custom can be abolished altogether;  (and we will) ascertain how far the practice is founded on the religious opinions of the Hindoos.   If not grounded in any precept of their law, the Governor General in Council hopes that the custom may gradually, if not immediately, be altogether abolished.   If, however, the entire abolition should appear to the Court to be impracticable in itself, or inexpedient, as offending any established religious opinion of the Hindoos, then the Court are desired to consider the best means of preventing the abuses.”[21]

They clearly wanted to ban Sati, yet adhere to their own moral values and retain their power.  


Rammohan Roy (1772-1833)[22] and Radhakanta Deb (1784-1867) can be seen as a symbols against and for Sati respectively.   Though Rammohan Roy was seen as progressive in some respects, he even took a Brahminical cook on his trip to England.[23]   Roy is central to this crucial stage as he greatly influenced Lord Bentinck in making the move towards the banning of Sati. Rammohun Roy’s first and second pamphlets against widow burning (1818 and 1820) were written in the form of a dialogue between an advocate and opponent of Sati and addressed the spiritual merits of Sati.   The second is more sophisticated than the first, as it addresses Kashinath Tarkavagish’s response (1919), which was similar to Vidyalankar’s position.[24]   Tarkavagish argued that Sati was permissible and customary alternative to ascetic widowhood.   It was necessary since women incapable of virtue or disinterested worship (i.e. without expectation of reward).   Burning was seen to be preferable to living ascetic life incorrectly or living unchastely.   It is the lesser of two evils in which the wife can rescue self and husband and ‘get rid of her feminine sex’.[25]   Rammohan’s second pamphlet in response to this refutes these claims by further textual exergesis, citing a range of texts[26] to expose the weaknesses of arguing for Sati.   In his second pamphlet, Roy states that,

“Angira, Harita, Vishnu, and Vyasa, authorised widows to choose the alternative of concremation, or living as ascetics…besides, Manu, Yajnavalkya, Vashista, and several other lawgivers have prescribed asceticism only.   Why, therefore, despising the authorities of Manu and others, do you persist in encouraging weak women to submit to murder, by holding out to them the temptations of future pleasures in heaven?”[27]

By playing the British officials at their own game of textual exergesis, Roy has a great influence on Lord Bentinck in the decision to outlaw Sati.[28]



[1] Alternatively, according to Hindu mythology, sati (often referred to as dakshayani and is a form of paravati) can be identified as the daughter of daksha who married Shiva.   Sati does immolate herself, but this is due to the arrogance of her father, and, in my opinion, is not the most suitable example of wifely devotion. In some versions of this story, Sita dies, is reborn as Parvati, and wins Shiva anew in that life through her extraordinary asceticism.   In other stories, Shiva takes Sati’s corpse from the fire and carries it across the world to demonstrate his grief.   The Gods dismember her body, and pieces of it fall to earth each forming a shrine.

[2] Suthren Hurst, Jacqueline, Sita’s Story,  (Bayeux Arts Incorporated, 1997), p18

[3] Shastri, Hari Prasha (translator), The Ramayana of Valmiki, Vol III, p617

[4] See Fig. 1, Sita’s Sacrifice

[5] I recognise here the involvement of three possible authrors: Tryambakayajvan, Trambakayamakhin and Dhundhiraja   I would like to refer to Tryambaka as both Tryambakayajvan and Tryambakarayamakhin, the author of the Stridharmapaddhati, the Garhsthyadipika and the Dharmakuta (as suggested by Julie Leslie).   I will avoid substituting Dhundhiraja for the other two authors here, as I do not have the time to pursue this debate.

[6] Leslie, J., The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan, (Oxford University Press: Delhi), 1989, p292

[7] Leslie, J, The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan, Oxford University Press: Delhi, 1989, p293

[8] Naimittika could refer to Sati as an occasional act, but could also be interpreted as required on the occasion of ones husband’s death.

[9] Leslie, J., The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan, p284-295

[10] Leslie, J., “Suttee or Sati: Victim or Victor?” from Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, (Printer Publishers: London, 1991) p185-190

[11] Leslie, J., “Suttee or Sati: Victim or Victor?” from Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, , p183-184

[12]By 1676, Babaji Bhosle’s great grandsons, Sivaji (1627-1680) in the Deccan and his half brother Ekoji (c. 1630-1686) in Thanjavur, had set themselves up as independent Hindu Kings in an India controlled by Muslim overlords.   Following disagreement regarding inheritance on their fathers death, the Deccan sultans were conquered in turn by the Mughals.   In 1799, Serfoji II resigned the government of his Kingdom into the hands of the EIC and Thanjavur became a British province.  For further information, see Leslie, Julie, The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan, Oxford University Press: Delhi, 1989, p4

[13] Leslie, J., The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan, p20

[14] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p23

[15] Diwini is the right to collect revenues

[16] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p16

[17] See Rosane Rocher ‘British Orientalism in the eighteenth century’, in ed Carol Breckenridge & Peter van der Veer, Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament, p.220 

[18] Note the term Hindu is not in usage at this point.  Note also that Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and tribals are here not considered separately.  (Parsi law is later recognised as separate.)

[19] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p16

[20] Ibid.,

[21] Wellesley, Marquis, Letter to the Law Court of court of Nizamut Adawlut (1805), from Human Sacrifices in India: Substance of the Speech of John Poynder, Esq., at the Courts of Proprietors of East India Stock held on the 21st and 28th days of March, 1827, (London: J. Hatchard and son, 1827), p12-13

[22] Founder of the Brahmo Samaj and often referred to as the father of the Bengal Renaissance

[23] Radhakanta Deb was seen to be more conservative, yet it is interesting to find out that his family background did not practice Sati, whereas Rammohan Roy did see Sati in his family, and may have based his judgements on the fact that he was an observer at the immolation of his sister in law.  

[24] Vidyalankar provided the East India Company with an analysis of the ambiguous scriptural position and value of Sati, but did not conclude from this that goal-oriented acts were to be depreciated.   Instead they were a pre-requisite for obtaining knowledge.   He therefore remained an advocate of Sati

[25] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p55

[26] Vedas, Smritis, Puranas and Itihasas.

[27] Roy, ‘A Second Conference between an Advocate for and an Opponent of the practice of Burning widows alive’, 354, quoted in Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p 55

[28] Further to this, Roy challenges Tarkavagish’s assumptions about women that served to justify Sati, such as women’s inferior understanding, lack of resolution and absence of virtue.  He dismisses claims about women’s inferiority by pointing out that women are prohibited from education and then unfairly pronounced inferior.   He turns the argument around to say that the act of Sati itself actually exemplifies women’s strength of mind and character.   For a more detailed account on this aspect of the second pamphlet, see Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions p74-75

[29] For the full Sati: Regulation XVII, A. D. 1829 of the Bengal code (4 December 1929) see Kumar, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s rights and Feminism in India, 1800 – 1990, (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1993)

[30] Major, A., Pious Flames, p153

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
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Conclusion: Sati is not Justified Contextually according to the Hindu Scripture

Once it had been established that Sati was not necessary with references to scriptural authority, the ban could go ahead, as it did in on 4th December 1829 in Bengal.[29]   Andrea major informs us that,

“Only once the prescriptive nature of the scriptural authority had been refuted, did the British feel that they could outlaw the right without violating their self-imposed principle of Religious tolerance.   The result…was an official discourse on Sati that was more about defining parameters of colonial control than it was about burning women.  “By choosing to regard the act primarily as one of religious conviction, the British failed to adequately address the sociological aspects of the rite, with the result of these, and the widow herself, were often marginalised within their understanding of it.” [30]

Major identifies here that the British government were so preoccupied with whether or not their legal decisions were justifiable, that they ignored the social factors which were implicated in Sati, and ignored the voice of the indigenous women themselves.

Overall, the need to justify Sati contextually, was a bias of the Occidental Gaze. This comes from the Christian European perspective that ultimate authority comes from textual authority, namely the Bible. Perhaps we shouldn' have even been trying to explore Sati textually afterall, but concentrating on the social and financial issues of the woman committing the act.





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