Sati is a Hindu funeral practice in some Indian communities referring to a widow that immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Although the practice was banned in 1829 there were women who still committed Sati either forced by their family or voluntarily.
The word “sati” means virtuous woman and in Indian tradition a woman who commits sati will be seen as a Goddess and will go directly to heaven. The term also comes from the goddess Sati, also known as Dakshayani who immolated herself because of her father. In the 10th century widows had to commit sati because otherwise they were seen as bad people. It was also believed that committing sati was a way to erase their husband’s sins, so refusing to do it was not in the benefit of their dead husband. However, sati was not popular in all Hindu societies as many of them saw this practice as suicide.
Those in favor of sati say that it is a practice approved by the ancient texts. For example, in Rig Veda Samhita there is a passage called Sati hymn which states:
“Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house
with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into
the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned.”
A woman who committed sati thought that she would follow her husband in heaven. Such a woman will be highly respected, sati stones would be raised in her name called Maha-sati stones, and she would be worshiped by people.
Sati – voluntary or forced?
Before answering this question we should first explain how a widow was(and sometimes still is) perceived in Hindu societies. They were stigmatized by wearing a white sari, shaving their head, wearing the tika sign on their forehead, eating a single meal, and live an austere life. The family perceived them as a burden and abandoned or simply rejected them (and some still do this nowadays) so they were forced to live in groups called ashrams.
In these humiliating conditions sati might have been a better option. However, in some cases women were forced by family or simply drugged and pushed into the fire. Even if it is voluntary, sati is still seen as a collective murder.
Voluntary sati was documented by Pietro Della Valle in the town of
“There was a musical band in front of the procession. The widow was mounted on a horse. She was holding a lemon in her right hand and a mirror in her left. She was constantly making sure her bridal make-up was in tact. An umbrella was held to protect her from the sun. The widow was not in mourning at all. And instead looked as if she was anxious to join her husband. The people in the procession sang her glories and admired her sacrifice. While the system of Sati is a cruel one, the courage of the women is admirable. I am going to visit her on the day of the Sati and pay my respects to her eternal love."
A case of modern sati was that of Roop Kanwar, an 18 year old girl married only for 8 months. Some say she was forced to commit sati by her family while others state that she asked her brother to light the pyre when she was ready.
Here you can read about a case of forced sati where a woman is murdered because her family wants her property.