The ancient Hindu tradition called sati, wherein a widow would throw herself on her husband’s pyre and burn to death, was initially a voluntary act considered courageous and heroic, but it later became a forced practice. Although sati is now banned all over India, it has a dark history.
MEANING OF SATI
“Sati” originally meant a woman who performed the act of immolating herself after her husband’s death. The word is derived from the Sanskrit word “asti’, which means “She is pure or true”.
In mythological terms, Sati was the name of the wife of Lord Shiva. Her father never respected Shiva and often despised him. To protest against the hatred that her father held for her husband, she burned herself. While she was burning, she prayed to be reborn as Shiva’s wife again. This did happen, and her new incarnation was called Parvati. People used to justify the practice based on this tale, but when Sati burned herself, she wasn’t a widow, and thus the practice is quite unrelated to this tale.
FROM VOLUNTARY TO FORCED
According to ancient Hindu customs, sati symbolised closure to a marriage. It was a voluntary act in which, as a sign of being a dutiful wife, a woman followed her husband to the afterlife. It was, therefore, considered to be the greatest form of devotion of a wife towards her dead husband.
With time, it became a forced practice. Women who did not wish to die like this were forced to do so in different ways. Traditionally, a widow had no role to play in society and was considered a burden. So, if a woman had no surviving children who could support her, she was pressurised to accept sati.
HISTORY OF SATI
Historical records tell us that sati first appeared between 320CE to 550CE, during the rule of Gupta Empire. Incidents of sati were first recorded in Nepal in 464CE, and later on in Madhya Pradesh in 510CE. The practice then spread to Rajasthan, where most number of sati cases happened over the centuries.
Initially, the practice of sati was confined to royal families of the Kshatriya caste and only later spread to the lower castes, becoming widely practised among all social classes.
Sati was at its peak between the 15th and 18th centuries. During this period, as many as 1000 widows were burned alive every year, most commonly in India and Nepal. However, records show that the practice was also popular in other traditions and in countries like Russia, Fiji and Vietnam.