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Many people use the practice of Sati (सती) as a weapon against Hinduism to point out that it is full of bad practices. I have heard that it was limited to one particular community in one of the states where women sacrifice their life after the death of their husbands. As India has a culture with variability, there will be differences and uniquely strange practices among the various communities within this culture. But people against Hinduism use 'Sati' to defame the whole culture and they are thinking that the practice was common among all Hindus in India in past. Can someone clarify the things for the whole community?

It is a bit of history about our religion, but it is important to clarify the things among ourselves.

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    The eminent commentator of Manu Smriti, Medhatithi (c 825-900 ce), has already criticized Sati because it is simply suicide. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Nov 4 '14 at 14:32
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    sati is not against shastras, it is also not compulsory. Just like doing a yagam. if you don't do it, no consequence, but if you do it, great rewards. the greatest chastity for a woman is to be devoted to her husband, and husband alone. if she does not want to live on earth without her husband, then she can enter the funeral pyre voluntarily and attain great worlds for herself and husband. – ram Mar 22 '17 at 6:37
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According to Swami Vivekananda the practice was limited and was outlawed in the mid 19th century. He says that although the British took steps to formally outlaw it, it was already being condemned at the time by various Hindu intellectuals of the time and steps were being taken to stop the practice.

Sathi was a cultural practice. It is not a religious practice. In all cultures there are practices that spring up under the heading of religion, but are in actuality cultural, not religious. Sathi was voluntary, it was never involuntary. It was also rare. A wife who wanted to commit Sathi had to first plunge her arm into the fire to show her commitment to doing it before it was she was allowed to do it completely.

All religions have had various questionable practices in the past, there are no exceptions. It is difficult to judge the past by our present standards. Among Catholics there was the Spanish Inquisition. Among the Protestants, there was the wholesale slaughter of Jews in Europe during the middle ages as well as the burning of witches in the US.

It is important when discussing religion to separate cultural practices, especially those of ages ago, from religious practices.

One reference: Complete works > Vol 4 >> Mother.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Thank you for your opinions. Many sources from the British times suggest sati was forced. Sathi was voluntary, it was never involuntary. The belief is related to the supernatural and heaven. It is religion. I don't like it, so it's culture and not religion. – Notty Apr 11 '16 at 13:50
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    @wally actually among established religions, scriptural authority is what determines what is a religious practice and what may be called superstitious or cultural practice. Just as the Spanish Inquisition and The burning of witches have no scriptural authority for their practice - although both were done in the 'name' of religion - likewise sati has no scriptural foundation for its practice. – Swami Vishwananda Apr 13 '16 at 8:28
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    Sati is not a questionable practice. It is the greatest display of chastity a woman can show toward her husband, and since chastity comes from the mind, it is only true if it is voluntary. It is also religious, because it is accepted by shastras and they mention phalan (great rewards) for this act. It is not 'merely cultural'. – ram Mar 22 '17 at 6:39
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    Can you cite some quotes of Swami Vivekananda? I searched one but don't know which speech or sayings you're referring to. – Pandya Oct 2 '18 at 2:18
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The "Sati Pratha" has been extolled in Hindu Sastras but none mention it as something mandatory.

So,it is upto the wives to decide and can't be enforced upon them as a "Sastra Vachan"(a directive from Scriptures).

The Parashara Smriti(in Chapter 4),for example says,that :

enter image description here

If a woman follows her departed lord, by burning herself on the same funeral pile, she will dwell in heaven for as many years as there are hairs on the human frame, — which reach the number of three crores and a half.

Also,(by doing so),

As a snake-catcher seizes a venomous serpent by force, and from within its hole lifts it up ; so does a wife deliver her lord from the torments of hell, and then rejoices [in heaven] with him.

However,a previous Sloka found in the same chapter says:

enter image description here

If a woman has led a continent life, after her lord departed this life, she wins a region of bliss after her death, like to the well-known male observers of a celibate life.

*The above verse proves that being a Sati is not must for Hindu ladies but nevertheless an act of great merit(Punya)*

Similarly,Sloka 160,Chapter 5, Manu Smriti says:

5.160. A virtuous wife who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste, reaches heaven, though she have no son, just like those chaste men.

Hence,for a widow ,remaining chaste after the death of her husband,is enough for her to attain higher abodes of bliss (after her death). Being a "Sati" or not being one is completely a matter of personal choice.This is the true verdict from Hindu Shastras.

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Before I go forward to my answer I would Like to clarify a specific word 'SATI'.

SATI : Pavitra ( meaning Pure ), anything or anyone in its purest form is called Sati, a female who is limited to her husband is considered as Sati, male are not considered for this name as males are born Impure ( sorry this is my personal view after knowing many things, do not take it personally, I can also be wrong.).

WHY TO PERFORM SATI : There is no reason to perform sati, none of our scriptures mention this in any manner, we will find sati majorly in two forms DEVI SATI, SATITVA and other related words. Actually this question has nothing to do with religion its purely a cultural concept, and has a long history behind it.

WHY IT STARTED? The SATI PRACTICE is not older than 800-1000 years back. It actually started after the invasion of the MUGHALS. Most of the mughals used to acquire woman forcefully, mostly raping and molesting them. This caused fear in most royal woman, not because of death, but to loose their SATITVA, which even ends when a other male even touches them. It started with the royal woman, mostly in groups where the royal woman use to burn their bodies in fire to protect their SATITVA. And by the years this came down to normal people, making it a ritual, mostly by the villagers to protect their females, and after that it became a ritual.

You can read the whole story here.

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    who said it is not older than 800-1000 years ? have you read mahabharata where madri performs sati after pandu dies ? – ram Mar 22 '17 at 6:44
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Swami Chandrasekarendra Saraswati in the book Hindu Dharma: The Universal Way of Life explains satī or sahagamana as follows.

Sahagamana

When people nowadays talk of "satī" or "sahagamana" they mean it to be a custom in which the widow is forcibly thrown into the funeral pyre of her husband. We do not know for sure whether such an act of cruelty was indeed committed at any time in the past in any part of our land, that of forcibly pushing a widow into the funeral pyre of her husband. In any case satī has never been a widely practised custom. Only women of exemplary chastity and devotion, who did not wish to live after the passing of their husband, resorted to sahagamana. I have heard stories of such pativratas in my childhood. When the relatives lamented, "Oh, you are burning yourself alive," the widow exclaimed, "This fire does not burn me. I am dying in the warmth of my husband's embrace." Such noble women died with a smile on their lips.

...

A wife of exemplary pātivratya falls dead on the death of her husband. In the story of Kaṇṇagī we come across such an example of devotion. When the Pāṇdyan king dies owing to his profound feeling of guilt, his queen also dies with him. There is a similar story told of Padmāvatī, wife of Jayadeva, author of the Gīta-Govindam. In order to test her devotion for her husband, the queen light-heartedly tells her that Jayadeva, who had been out on a journey, was dead. Thereupon Padmāvatī falls dead. The queen is filled with remorse for her thoughtlessness and it is said that Jayadeva was able to restore his wife to life with the grace of Kṛṣṇa.

Only women highly devoted to their husbands resorted to sahagamana. They were not forcibly thrown into the fire and were indeed prevented from taking such an extreme step. When Pāṇḍu died, Mādrī, one of his two wives and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, ascended the funeral pyre of her husband as expiation for her being the cause of his death. The great men who permitted this act of sacrifice prevented Kuntī, the second of the two wives, from taking a similar step. They said to her: "Desist from such an extreme act. Your duty now is to bring up your own children as well as Mādrī's."

...

Like sannyāsa, sahagamana has never been compulsory. I will tell you an important reason for this. The dharmaśāstras deal extensively with the conduct of widows. If everybody was expected to be a sannyāsin there would be, as I said before, no need for cremation to be brought under the purview of the śāstras. Similarly, if every widow was expected to immolate herself in the funeral pyre of her husband, where would be the need for a separate code of conduct for them (that is for widows)?

Nobody can foretell when the hand of death will strike. It can come in one's childhood or during the time one is a householder. So everyone cannot be expected to die a sannyāsin. If the śāstras insist that on the death of a man his widow must also be cremated with him, then there will be no need for codifying "vidhavā dharma" (code of conduct for widows).

[Hindu Dharma » Gṛhasthāśrama » Sahagamana]

(You can read the whole chapter here)


Although in Mādrī's case, I'm not too sure if she really performed the satī. In his report titled Interpolations In The Mahābhārata, M. A. Mehendale of BORI says:

Another similar example is from the Ādiparvan. It is usually believed that Mādrī committed satī after the death of Pāṇḍu. In support of this belief we have a specific statement in the Mbh. which occurs without exception in all the versions and hence forms part of the constituted text. That statement tells us very clearly that Mādrī mounted the funeral pyre of Pāṇḍu and burnt herself with him. (taṃ citāgatam ājñāya vaiśvānaramukhe hutam / praviṣṭā pāvakaṃ mādrī hitvā jīvitam ātmanaḥ 1.117.28; also 1.116.31). However, it is not so well known that immediately after this stanza we have another one which also occurs in all the versions and hence forms part of the constituted text.

The latter stanza directly contradicts what is said in the preceding stanza. According to this stanza the sages who, after the death of Pāṇḍu, brought Kuntī and the young Pāṇḍavas to Hāstinapura, also brought with them the two dead bodies of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī. They handed them over to the elders of the Kauravas and asked them to perform the due funeral rites (ime tayoḥ śarīre dve... pretakārye ca nirvṛtte pitṛmedhaṃ mahāyaśāḥ/ labhatāṃ... pāṇḍuḥ.../ / 1.117.30-31). Then, in the following adhyāya (1.118) we have a detailed description of the cremation of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī. Both these accounts could not be true at the same time. Either Pāṇḍu was cremated on the Śataśṛṅga mountain and Mādrī mounted the funeral pyre, or cremation did not take place and the dead bodies were brought to Hāstinapura. Nīlakaṇṭha's feeble attempt to remove the contradiction by interpreting śarīra 'body' as asthi 'bone' is not convincing. Sukthankar, following Hopkins, has already expressed his dissatisfaction with Nīlakaṇṭha's explanation.

Clearly here, as in the above case, we have conflation of two different accounts of the same incident. The interpolator while borrowing stanzas from a different account and inserting them in his own has shown scant regard for the contradiction his interference with the received text involved.

  • The answer was going quite nicely until that BORi jumped in yet again..:D – Rickross Mar 23 '17 at 14:30
  • @Rickross Yeah. I don't blame you :) Truth is bitter sometimes. I don't view things in black & white :P so don't mind leaving answers in a doubtful state as an exercise for readers :D BTW, take a look at this meta post... – sv. Mar 23 '17 at 18:28
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In simple terms this was practiced because for a chaste wife the fire of separation from husband is much more difficult than giving up the body with the husband and there are also merits associated with it.

In Parasara Dharma Sastra, Chapter IV text 29 it says 'If a woman has led a continent life, after her lord departed this life, she wins a region of bliss after her death, like to the well-known male observers of a celibate life.

Next text, i.e text 30 says,'If a woman follows her departed lord, by burning herself on the same funeral pile, she will dwell in heaven for as many years as there are hairs on the human frame, which reach the number of three crores and a half.

Two citations above are from the translation of Krishnakamal Bhattacarya, Formerly Professor Of Sanskrit in the Presidency College of Calcutta. Check here for a copy.

From the above citations we can see that it is not a required act but there are merits available either way. We see that when Pandu died, one of his wife Madri gave up her body but the other Kuntidevi remained to take care of the children.

However fanatic people started forcing women to practice what we know as sati and the insanity was later legally banned.

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