Modern India has recognized that such funeral practices are not in the best interest of the community or the people, yet some people still cling to the old ways.
The practice of Sati originated from the Goddess Sati also known as Dakshayani who sacrificed herself by fire because she could not bare the shame that was bestowed upon her husband Shiva, by her very own father, Daksha. Though a desperate act by a desperate woman, or more correctly a Goddess, why should this symbol of devotion or desperate act of love or grieving if you will, be the legacy of all Indian women throughout time?
It is hard to trace the original of the Sati. It does have its roots in ancient times that much we know, however historians disagree on the actual time frame. Some will date it back to the evidence written in the Vedas, around 5500 thousand years ago, and others say that it is a much newer practice first seen around the first century A.D. Cases of Sati have been reported as late as 2006 and has caused a lot of controversy throughout India.
Sati means virtuous woman and a woman that commits sati, by burning to death on her husband’s funeral pyre is the most virtuous of all. Any woman committing Sati was believed to go directly to heaven while redeeming all her forefathers from rotting in hell. The act of a martyr or savior would be befitting to describe this sacrifice.
Though traditional not all peoples of India practiced this tradition, it was mostly a practice of certain cults or sectors of society. “Ibn Batuta (1333 A.D.) has observed that Sati was considered praiseworthy by the Hindus, without however being obligatory. The Agni Purana declares that the woman who commits sahagamana goes to heaven. However, Medhatiti pronounced that Sati was like suicide and was against the Shastras, the Hindu code of conduct. It is believed that they were not coerced, although several wives committed Sati. The majority of the widows did not undergo Sati.”
It was also estimated that certain areas such as Bengal and the region of Rajasthan had the highest incident of Sati. All in all, Sati occurred in about 1% of the total Indian population affecting royal families and higher-level caste system women of the past.
It is also believed that some women preferred to die from Sati then to live a horrible life as a widow.
The practice of Sati was banned in India in 1829 by the British government. Indian leaders such as Rajaram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj organization were also one of the first Indian organizations to denounce and support the eradication of Sati.
If Sati was outlawed so long ago why is it still practiced in some parts of India?
Some would argue that the practice of Sati is justified according to the ancient scriptures: Sanskrit and Hindu texts.
Others say that though not directly mentioned or condoned, Sati is sanctioned in the earlier Indian Law Books:”Vishun Smriti
Now the duties of a woman (are) … After the death of her husband, to preserve her chastity, or to ascend the pile after him.
There is also justification in the later work of the Brihaspati Smriti (25-11). Both this and the Vishnu Smriti date from the first millennium.
The Manu Smriti is often regarded as the culmination of classical Hindu law, and hence its position is important. It does not mention or sanction sati though it does prescribe life-long asceticism for most widows.”
See sources for the references for these excerpts.
On the other hand, many argue that the Vedas actually condemned the practice of Seti referring to it as a form of suicide.
Modern India has tried various measures to suppress Sati:
They forbid anyone to stand by and watch a Sati making their passivity out to be part of the problem.
Anyone having any actual part in the ceremony is held accountable.
They have also tried to ban the glorification of the dead woman by forbidding shrines and pilgrimages to the funeral pyre site.
The Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance of 1987 was passed to insure the end of this ancient ritual.
The problem is the law has is not constant, and the practice still goes on.
The National Council of Women has suggested amendments to the law to eradicate some of its flaws. However controversy about prohibition of shrines etc, still remains controversial and far from being solved.
Indian is a beautiful country with a magnificent culture and traditions, but it must also enter the modern world and adhere to modern values. I feel that more should be done by the Indian Government to make the transition understood by all peoples of India, from the great cultural centers to the rural areas as well.