Suttee or sati is a practice in which a widow will either kill herself by burning on the death of her husband. While linked to Hinduism, the practice has never been a dictated part of the religion and many argue that it goes against some of the basic concepts of the Hindu religion. However, others suggest that there is a religious foundation for the practice. Regardless of its religious or social history, it is a controversial social practice. While many condemn the practice in general, specific cases of sati are often considered to be examples of heroic self-sacrifice. However, the practice reveals much about the role of women in Indian society; widows are frequently left without any real position in the community, so much so that their deaths are seen as an acceptable alternative to life as a man without a woman.
From a religious perspective, it is believed that the term sati comes from the goddess Sati, also known as Dakshavani. According to Hindu religious tradition, Sati burned herself alive to spare her father shame. Her father, Daksha, was ashamed that his daughter had married a human male, Shiva. Therefore, while there is a linkage between the goddess Sati and self-immolation, her self-sacrifice was not motivated by the loss of her husband or a sign of marital loyalty and fidelity.
Historically, suicides though self-immolation was occurring in India, and elsewhere, before the practice became known as sati. For example, in northern India, prior to the first century BCE, a practice known as anumarana existed, and anyone who felt a particular loyalty to the deceased might then engage in self-immolation. While it was similar to sati, because the practice was not limited to widows, it cannot be considered the same. Sati has been a documented practice since at least the first century BCE, as it was documented by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. At that time, the practice appeared fairly uncommon, but it grew more common during the Gupta Empire and seemed to grow in popularity through the 800s. The history of sati is somewhat well-documented because satis were frequently memorialized by stones that have survived through the centuries. However, the practice was always somewhat controversial. For example, sati was considered a noble act, but to assist in a sati was a form of homicide. Despite that, the practice, which had been much more prevalent in the western part of India, spread across most of the country. It occurred from the 900s to the 1800s all around India, though it would become more prevalent at certain times and in certain areas. During the Mughal period, the Mughals attempted to stop sati. Though they stopped short of completely criminalizing the practice, they engaged in delaying tactics meant to ensure that a widow choosing the practice was doing so freely. At one point during the Mughal period, sati was completely outlawed, but the practice continued. Regardless of its legal status, sati was never a very frequent occurrence, though there would be spikes in how popular the practice was.
In the late 1700s / early 1800s, opposition to the practice began to grow in several different areas. The British had attempted to regulate sati, but had only seen limited success, much as the Mughals had. British Christians began to oppose the practice, which put pressure on the British government to do something about the practice. Likewise, Indian religious leaders began to oppose sati. Sahajanand Swami, a Swaminarayan leader, argued that the practice was counter to Hinduism because it was an act of murder. He also argued about the value of a woman's life and suggested that widows had merit. Together these different opposition groups were able to have the practice officially banned in 1829. Of course, this official ban did not end the practice.
Despite having been illegal for almost two centuries, sati still infrequently occurs. While these self-immolations are not frequent, what they say about Indian society and the relative value of women in that society is very troubling. Frequently, when a woman is going to commit sati, a large crowd gathers and urges her to do so. A woman who has killed herself in this way is treated as if she has done something heroic. People erect shrines to sati and discuss them as if they were saints. All of this post-death glorification can create a scenario in which widows may face an unknowably intense pressure to become a sati. Furthermore, this glorification exists even into modern times. Though the government has attempted to outlaw symbols of the glorification of sati, such as shrines, these things still exist. There is still a strong communal message that a woman is doing something noble when she engages in sati, even if there is no communal expectation that all widows should self-immolate when their husbands die.
While sati has been outlawed since the early 1800s, the practice still continues, even into the modern day. The problem is that it is difficult to discern if the practice is voluntary or involuntary. In the 1980s, there was a highly publicized sati of a widow named Roop Kanwar. Though sati is outlawed and most people frown upon the practice from a general perspective, her self-immolation was treated like a heroic act by much of the country. "It was widely assumed that Roop Kanwar had died voluntarily, painlessly, and without protest, strengthened by divine force" (Sen, p.6). However, looking into Kanwar's death, this seems highly unlikely. She had only been married to her husband for eight months. In addition, there were suggestions of real trouble in her marriage; she had spent very little time actually cohabitating with her husband, but had continued to live with her parents, instead. They had literally only spent weeks with each other, which does not seem to support the type of undying devotion that would encourage a relatively highly educated, financially well-off woman to engage in sati. Moreover, there were reports that she had been drugged. Witnesses watching her as she proceeded to her funeral pyre reported that she stumbled and also mentioned that there were armed guards accompanying her to the pyre. Furthermore, her brother-in-law hit her funeral pyre, which should have subjected him to at least manslaughter charges, but charges against him were never pursued (See Sen, p.1-8). All of these different suggestions make it questionable whether Kanwar's death was a suicide, a homicide, or some hybrid combination of the two. Roop Kanwar's death led to the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance and the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. However, her brother-in-law was never charged with any type of homicide, though the laws in place at the time of her death would have supported such a charge.
While sati is fascinating to Western observers, it can also be very difficult for a non-Indian to truly understand:
The idea of sati has long been a central feature in the Western image of India. Suttee, as Westerners have often spelled the word, describes the ritual according to which a Hindu wife follows her husband to his death by ascending his pyre with him or ascending one of her own shortly afterward. Yet words can be deceiving, particularly when they travel from one language to another. For many Hindus, sati is not a woman's deed but the woman herself (Hawley, p.3).
It may, in fact, be wrong to suggest that critics do not understand that sati is not just the act but the woman, herself. On the contrary, it is the fact that a woman would be defined by this that is so troubling to many of the people who critique the practice. The underlying issue with the practice is not that a grieving widow commits suicide; this is a practice that occurs in some cases in all societies and as inferior to other women, while sati are treated as superior to other women:
From the Hindu standpoint, a sati is the opposite of a widow. A widow is a bad woman; since it is a wife's duty to keep her husband alive, it is ultimately her fault if he dies and dishonorable for her to outlive him; to the degree to which she internalizes these traditional beliefs, she suffers both shame and guilt in her widowhood. A sati, by contrast, is a good woman, who remains a wife always and never a widow, since her husband is not regarded as dead until he is cremated (or, occasionally, buried), and she goes with him to heaven (Doniger).
One of the troubling aspects of discussing sati is that any discussion of it necessarily has a sexist element. For example, suggesting that sati is always coerced and that no one would voluntarily do such a thing without tremendous societal pressure infantilizes the women who chose to commit sati and assumes that they were not sufficiently rational or mature enough to choose to take their own lives. This is a very paternalistic view of women. On the other hand, suggesting that sati…