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Widow Burning Was an Inherant Part of Hinduism

Updated on January 28, 2020
emge profile image

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.

The Practice of Sati

What is sati? It is a custom wherein a woman commits suicide by burning herself on the pyre of her husband. It was a sort of enforced death and in modern parlance is equated with murder. Die-hard Hindu supporters also say that Sati was a "voluntary act".

Many Hindu thinkers and writers have opined that Sati was a later day extrapolation in Hindu thought and came to the fore after the Muslim invasion of India. They point to the defeat of Hindus by Muslims as a reason. They further add that Hindu women had no recourse to anything to save them from dishonor and thus committed sati on the funeral pyre of her husband.But a look at the history of the earliest period, one finds that Sati is mentioned in each era of Indian history, right from the age of the Ramayana. Later chroniclers, who came with Alexander the Great in 325 BC also refer to sati. Thus sati was an age-old custom that had deep roots. It is possible that it was not rigidly enforced, but sati is something built into the Hindu ethos and continued for over 2 thousand years till the arrival of the English.

There was an attempt by Aurangzeb that much-maligned ruler of India to outlaw Sati, but he failed. He must take credit for being the only Indian ruler who outlawed sati, which he did by his Firman (order) in 1664.

This practice was given official burial in 1829 by Lord William Bentick Governor-General of India.

Hindu Goddess of Sati is an Aberration

Sati is a timeless phenomenon and in a way, it is an inherent part of Hinduism. The God Shiva, who is one of the foremost gods in the Hindu pantheon was in love with the goddess Sati. She committed death by burning and reappeared in Shiva's life as his consort Parvathi. Thus Sati gets legal sanction as a goddess and many women who committed Sati are revered in Hinduism as " Sati Mata" and temples called Sati Mandir are available all over India.

The Hindu religious reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy a Bengali realized that Sati was an obnoxious custom and he started an agitation to ban it. His campaign had an effect and the British Governor-general was convinced it was just plain and simple murder. Accordingly, after the Firman of Aurangzeb, an act was passed in British India banning Sati and equating it with murder. The spirit behind this was the then Governor-General Sir William Bentick. The act was passed in 1829 and put an end to almost 2000 years of practice, which nobody had dared to end.

Diehard Hindus petitioned the House of Lords stating this custom was integral to Hinduism and the act be declared null and void. The House of Lords and the Privy Council heard the case and by a slim majority upheld the Governor General’s contention. It was thus equated with murder. It was a great piece of reformative legislation and credit must also go to Raja Ram Mohan Roy for his tireless campaign to ban Sati. There were also many Christian missionaries who campaigned against Sati. Foremost among them was Sir William Carey who was born in England and died in India in 1835. Carey was a Baptist missionary. He was the first man who led the campaign for abolishing the sati in Calcutta. The first formal British law was imposed in 1798, in the city of Calcutta only but the practice continued in surrounding regions. It was finally abolished in 1829.

William Carey
William Carey

The Situation Now

After 200 years of British rule and efforts by reformers, this ill of Hinduism is almost 99% eradicated. One cannot say that there is 100% eradication, as once in a way a case of sati still emerges from the vast subcontinent. The perpetrators are arrested and tried for murder, but the fact that even 1% accept Sati is a dangerous portend. The Indian penal code passed by the English in 1861 equates Sati with murder.

The truth is that some Hindu revivalist organizations are silent on sati. However the wheels are moving forward and one can say that Hindu women are freer now than they have ever been for the last 2000 years, when Alexander the Great invaded India, in this, we remember the 19th century when Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Lord Bentick appeared to give a new lease of life to a moribund society

Rani Sati temple in Rajasthan
Rani Sati temple in Rajasthan
Sati Pith Temple in Guwahati ( Assam)
Sati Pith Temple in Guwahati ( Assam)

Last Word

Despite the abolition of Sati, there are still in India tens of temples dotting the subcontinent which are dedicated to the goddess Sati and all women who commit sati. These temples exist from Assam to Rajasthan is proof that Sati was a custom that was widely prevalent in India during ancient times. Most of these temples get a steady stream of devotees, which is an anachronism in modern society. One hopes that social reformers and the government will ensure that this stops and the people and woman who committed sati centuries back are not glorified One hopes that social reformers and the government will ensure that this stops, and woman who committed sati centuries back, are not glorified


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      8 months ago from Singapore

      Anupam, these are the ills of Hindu societies but I do not know how they crept in. All thanks to the British Raj that eradicate this menace. I never saw the film water though I read a lot about it

    • Anupam Mitu profile image

      Anupam Mitu 

      8 months ago from MUMBAI

      Have you watched the controversial movie 'Water' ?

      If a lady like me get a situation that the one is shown in Water, I would better go for Sati.

      Opinions vary.

      But mesmerised by your overwhelming points.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, you are right Lawrence, some good didcome from missionary work, but the main thrust was from local reformers as well

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      5 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      I knew a little about 'Sati' from reading biographies of Carey and Henry Martyn but not about the local drive to change things.

      The missionaries made lots of mistakes, but some things they got right!


    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Oztinato for commenting

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      5 years ago from Brisbane

      There will always be those who use anything including religion money or politics for evil ends.


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