Sati: Virtuous Woman Through Self-Sacrifice

by Vanessa Parrilla

Burning of A Hindoo Widow, by James Peggs

    That one would voluntarily commit sati in the twentieth century is very difficult to comprehend for Westerners and many Indians.  This is especially evident in the reactions that occurred in 1987 when Roop Kanwar, a well-educated eighteen-year-old girl from the Rajput caste, decided to be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, though they were only married for eight months. Varying accounts exist of the incident suggesting that Roop Kanwar may have been forced into self-immolation and she was possibly drugged (Kumar 1995: 81).  In any case, the incident aroused considerable upheaval throughout India and forced the country to re-evaluate the status of women.

Rajput girl

    For many traditionalists, this Hindu practice symbolizes the epitome of wifely devotion, especially among the Rajput caste of  Northern India (Harlan 1995: 80).  In addition, some Hindus believe the act of self-immolation by a widow facilitates the attainment of spiritual salvation for her dead husband.  The woman who commits sati is also revered as a goddess (81).  On the other hand, feminists, political leaders, and many of India’s rural people and elite contend that the glorification of sati is a national disgrace and an immoral act.  Understandably, the differing points of view have created strong division among India’s people, especially among women.
     Comprehending why a woman would choose to commit sati, however, requires the removal of  our  “western lenses.” The act of self-immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre may be construed as a horrific act by the Westerner but in India cases of sati have been documented in their culture for hundreds of years (Oldenburg 1994: 165).  More important, the symbolic significance of sati is intricately intertwined in the Hindu belief system and reveals something about the status of women.


    Historically, sati is not unique to India.  In the north Indian state of Rajasthan, it came to be associated with the people of the warrior Rajput caste, who viewed sati as the extreme expression of marital valor (Harlan 1994: 80).  Although the practice of sati has been virtually non-existent elsewhere in India after the British banned it in 1829, about forty cases have taken place since India’s independence in 1947.  Twenty-eight of these cases have occurred in Rajasthan, mainly around the Sikar district (Oldenburg 1994: 191).
     As stated earlier, Roop Kanwar’s sati appears to have launched a fierce debate in India between sati supporters and sati opponents.  As surprising as it may seem, shortly after Kanwar’s death, women demonstrators organized in various parts of the country to demand that women be permitted to commit sati (Kumar 1995: 76).  Pro-sati demonstrators demanded, as Hindus and women, the right to commit, worship, and propagate sati.  In addition, their endeavors were also supported by Rajput men.  For example, shortly after Kanwar’s sati, the Sati Dharma Raksha Samti (the “Committee for the Defense of the Religion of Sati”) was formed (Hawley 1994: 9).  This group was run by educated Rajput men in their twenties and thirties who claimed that sati was a “fundamental part of their traditions; a refusal to legitimize sati, they said, was a deliberate attempt to marginalize the Rajputs” (Kumar 1995: 81).
     In sharp contrast, Indian feminists argued that sati was a deplorable act.  It was viewed as a crime against women.  They contended that sati as an issue had been settled in 1829 when it was officially abolished by the British (Oldenburg 1994: 101).  Feminists rejected the glorification that followed Roop Kanwar’s sati.  In addition, they countered the propaganda produced by the media which represented Roop Kanwar as a symbol of the ideal Hindu women. That is, as a result of Kanwar’s sati, she symbolized the chaste and devoted wife who was able to sacrifice her life for her husband.  For Indian feminists, this ideology exemplified the oppressive status of  women.  In addition, the glorification of a woman’s self-immolation confirmed to feminists that many women believed “their strength lied in the act of sacrifice and the endurance of untold pain” (Oldenburg 1994: 105).  As one can see, the attitudes regarding the significance of sati are controversial.  However, to discern the cultural relevance of this “tradition,” one must be cognizant of the role of women in Hindu society, and acknowledge the myths which venerate sati as well as the origin of this practice.  In this way, a better comprehension as to why one would commit such an act will be attained.


In comparison to most cultures, the role of men and women has been socially constructed in India. This means, culture dictates the socially acceptable roles for members of society.  In India, however, dharma or the moral order the cosmos influences the roles of men and women.  For example, dharma has many meanings.  Dharma signifies truth.  It has come to be understood as “that which is established, customary, or proper” (Heinz 1999:123).  In addition, dharma signifies one’s duty, responsibility, or moral responsibility.  For example, svadharma is understood as one’s moral obligation given one’s position in India’s social order.   Rajadharma is the dharma of kings.  Varnadharma is the dharma of one’s caste and stridharma is the dharma of women (123).

Under stridharma, the dharma of women entails devotion to one’s husband.  A woman’s career is her husband.  This means a woman’s obligation in life is to serve her husband and provide him with children, especially sons (Heinz 1999: 161).  He is essentially her “lord” for the very meaning of the word husband (Pati) means both husband and lord.  In addition, she worships him by eating his leftovers.  This may also be a sign of respect.
Obedience to and dependence upon men characterizes women’s traditional roles in the family.  Patrivrata, or total devotion to the husband, set out by Hindu scriptures is the wifely ideal (Lebra,et al. 1984: 26-27).  The ideal wife is one whose sole joy in life is to satisfy her husband.  Her only concern is to perform properly any of the services demanded by her husband.  Such a woman is attached to her husband even after he has died.  In fact, in a conversation between mythological characters Sandili and Sumana, when asked by Sumana how she had attained divinity and was residing in heaven, Sandili replied that it was not through performance of any religious rite or penance but through fidelity and loyalty to her husband that she became a goddess (Mukherjee 1978: 15).  Stories like this are not uncommon in Hindu mythology which serves to strengthen the ideals of stridharma.  In addition, under Hindu customary law, marriage is seen as a sacrament with stricter obligations for women than men (13-17).  For example, neither divorce nor widow remarriage was allowed in the past.  Also, whereas widowers could remarry, widows were considered ritually polluting and  lead restricted lives.

A Suttee,  1800's sati scene.

     Though the origin of sati is questionable, Megasthenes, the Greek chronicler recorded cases of sati as early as the fourth century B.C. (Oldenburg 1994: 166).  There is also documentation of cases in which widows self-immolated but these have been classified as jauhar.  In this case, jauhar was reserved for queens in the context of war and defeat.  Usually, the queens of Rajput kings would self-immolate on a pyre without their husbands because they were believed to be dead.  Also, one of the purposes of jauhar was to avoid being kidnapped by the victors (Oldenburg 1994: 165).  Nevertheless, incidents of sati were recorded during the succeeding periods.  In addition, during the early years of Muslim invasion there were quite a few well known cases of sati, performed mainly by Rajput women.  Furthermore, a greater incidence of satis were evident during the early years of British rule, primarily in East India where as many as five deaths a day where documented during the height of this “epidemic” (Dalrymple 1997: 16).  Despite these historical records, neither Hindu sacred texts nor the Laws of Manu demand that women commit sati.


Ironically, the Hindu term for sati literally means “a good woman,” a woman who has become capable of self-immolation (Harlan 1994: 79).  In addition, among the Rajput caste, sati  is as a person one becomes, gradually through good behavior.  Dying as a sati demonstrates to all concerned that the woman has developed appropriate and admirable behavior (80).  As Sushil Kumari, a fifty-four-year-old Rajput woman shared with Elisabeth Bumiller, “it is a tradition that has been instilled in us since childhood.”  “It is very, very ingrained in the Rajput psyche.”  In addition, “it is glamorized, eulogized, it is drilled into us, whether we are educated or not, that the husband is a god figure” (1990: 69).  Furthermore, according to Kumari, committing sati guarantees that a woman, her husband and seven generations of the family after her will have a direct passport to heaven.  Through her sacrifice, she releases herself and family members from the “painful cycle of birth and rebirth” (70). In this way, one can see the responsibility appropriated to women for not only the salvation of her husband but his family as well.  It is through her suicide that all others can be freed from the painful cycle of reincarnation.
    Having discussed the significance of this selfless act, one can see the reasons why a Rajput woman would consider sati. This ritual is believed to be an act of purity, self-sacrifice and dignity.  In fact, after the death of Roop Kanwar, a majority of the men of Deorala admitted to being proud of what Kanwar had done.  As one man said “our Rajput women are very valorous.”   “ What she (Roop Kanwar) did has made the whole village respect her and the whole of Rajasthan respect the village” (Dalrymple 1997: 17).


    According to Indian feminists, it is this traditional ideology that continues to oppress women.  According to them, the expectations placed on women to offer selfless nurturance are great and to be socialized to commit suicide for the benefit of others is ludicrous.  Some feminists believe that women have also been targeted by fundamentalists, such as the Committee for the Defense of the Religion of Sati.  As participants of fundamentalist movements, feminist are disturbed that women can be active supporters of organizations and activities which limit their own rights (Clark and Feldman 1996: 3-5).  Furthermore,  fundamental movements such as The Committee for the Defense of the Religion of Sati are said to reinforce traditional assumptions about family, community and social order, within which women occupy a defined and subordinate place.
    As one can see, the controversy of sati is very complex.  Despite the existence of laws which prohibit sati in India and the glorification of a Sati (one who has successfully committed sati), these laws have not hindered some attempts by women to perform the selfless act.  In fact, just two years ago in 1997, police in Northern India prevented a widow from committing sati (The Daily News).  For Indian feminists, these occurrences confirm that deeply held and deeply cherished norms cannot be changed simply by enacting laws (Kishwar 1994: 7-8).  As the editor of Manushi, one of India’s most recognized feminist journals contends, “social change among the Rajput women is going to require a genuine dialogue on why women have been culturally conditioned to consider their own lives worthless after the death of their husbands” (1994: 8).  In essence, it is the ingrained cultural traditions the Indian people must change.  Reversing years or centuries of  female oppression is not only a challenge for Indian women but for women on a global scale.