Was Sati a Voluntary Act in Ancient India?
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.
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?
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.
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,
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.
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.