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Was Sati a Voluntary Act in Ancient India?

Updated on July 4, 2014
Burning Of A Widow On The Funeral Pyre Of Her Late Husband
Burning Of A Widow On The Funeral Pyre Of Her Late Husband | Source

Sati in Ancient India

When Alexander the Great came to India he was surprised by the Indian obsession with fire. European archaeologists found women burned along with their husbands in the ancient graves north of the Himalayas.

The horrors of ‘sati’ are really not understood by us Indians. Drugged women forced to burn upon the funeral pyres of their opium-drugged husbands who died in battle. Shut up in granaries where the grain and oil incited the flames so they died of asphyxiation. The reason? The ferocious sexual jealousy of their men.

Four hundred women were burned on the royal funeral pyre of the Vijayanagar king Krishna Devaraya.

-   The handprints (sati marks) of the ranis who in 1843 immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband, Maharaja Man Singh in Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
- The handprints (sati marks) of the ranis who in 1843 immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband, Maharaja Man Singh in Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. | Source

No Escape from Sati

So where was love then? A woman would try her best to make her man live as long as possible for she would go with him when he did. And what life awaited her if she didn’t? Ostracism and isolation, condemned to a shaved head and wearing white all her life.

Forget, forget the tales of valiant self-sacrificing women who burned themselves out of love and devotion for their dead husbands. What woman could do that without being out of her mind?

Dowry Deaths

Today this preoccupation with fire translates into the horrific numbers of the burning of women, including dowry deaths. It is said that a woman BECOMES sati. Sat for being, existing. She can only feel and think but doesn’t exist until she is burned. It is a noble wife who can burn. Those who refuse are cowards. Hark back if you will to Sita’s Trial by Fire.

The Grudge of the Jilted Husband

This mindset of “You can’t have it without me” has also seeped into relationships. It is not uncommon for a divorced or separated husband or a jilted lover to harass his former love. How can she enjoy her life after losing her lord and master? How dare she? If she does take on a lover or builds a platonic relationship with a man she is a slut and not fit to raise the kids.

Yet if he does the same and more, not even trying to be discreet in he presence of his kids, he is only doing what is natural. The kids had better get used to the fact that there is such a thing as lust and that there is no escaping it.

A friend separated from her abusive husband says:

“I thought he was happy with his new woman…he’s living with her and even plans to marry her so he says. But the moment he found out that I had anything to do with a guy he never did like right from the start because he knew he was attracted to me—he went berserk. Even though it’s a platonic relationship we share.

He wrote me an eight- page letter filled with insults and false accusations. But what really gave him away was the part where he said I’m no longer a great beauty as I think I am, that I now have a paunch and a double chin and have aged so much that I look like a terminal cancer patient! But I’m still always the belle of the ball with my toned body and no one can ever guess my age correctly. I am constantly told by old admirers and new that I have a radiance about me and look even better than ever. There is peace and even more joy in my life now. My daily spiritual practice makes all the difference to how I look.”

I could not agree more with what she says. This friend of mine would put a teenager to shame with that svelte body of hers.

Rani Roopmati's Pavilion In Mandu
Rani Roopmati's Pavilion In Mandu | Source
Rani Roopmati and Baz Bahadur
Rani Roopmati and Baz Bahadur | Source

A Tragic Courtly Love in Mandu

Many tales are told of the romance of Mandu. But would you call the story of Rani Roopmati, a ‘song- girl’ torn from her roots by the doting Prince Baz Bahadur, only to die of poison, romantic? Many do.

Let me share with you a poem about the song girl from Mandu, written by my late friend and Muse, an Englishman named Gordon Hindley, who knew more about India than anyone else I've met.


The Court of Love

She was a song-girl of no consequence

And he a prince of high esteem, and, more,

A great commander, famed in peace and war.

He plucked her from her village. – Her good


Raised up her family from indigence--

Gave her a royal life: -- she living for

And only for her prince who, near Indore,

At Mandu built her palace: it immense…

It crowned a hilltop…war broke out,

He fled

With all her jewels and his elephants,

But left behind his love, as he walked free….

She, taken prisoner, took poison: dead,

Mandu was stripped and raped by sycophants.

Baz Bahadur his name; Rupmati, she.

How many times this story has been told,

Changing mere names throughout the history

Of royal cowardice and treachery ---?…

Those who may marvel feel the blood run cold

To witness each betrayal as unfold

Lives which once were, which are, and are to


All withering, soon dead:-- their misery

Nothing:-- they trinkets, merely bought and


So when, from these high balustrades you


Upon this fabled and delighting earth,

Tirning away from splendour, see what is:

Heart-breaking truth is in this picture-book;--

So pause, if for a moment:---Nothing worth

Are cold aesthetics and false pieties.

-Gordon Hindley

Woman has come a long way from the days of Mandu. She refuses to sacrifice herself. She is unafraid and confident and carries a pepper spray to deter an acid-throwing ex lover.

Relics of Sati: Widow Burning in India


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    • Anita Saran profile image

      Anita Saran 3 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Thanks for reading grand old lady - actually cases of sati have been reported on and off in some parts of the country. Shocking, isn't it? And the treatment of widows is so terrible in some areas that they'd rather be dead.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      Very informative and interesting article. I never believed that wives voluntarily burned themselves with their husbands out of devotion. I'm sure many women in India today are grateful that Sati no longer exists. Un, it doesn't, right?

    • Sunardi profile image

      Sunardi 3 years ago from Indonesia

      I read on a book of Indonesian heroin, Kartini, that she was told had a contact through her article with a woman activist in India. But I forget her name. Kartini told how terrible the women's life in Indonesia at that time, but the Indian woman activist told that in India was more terrible, a woman must accompany her husband in his grave.

      Great article.