What is Sati ?
Sati is an old, largely defunct custom, in which the widow was
immolated alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Although the act was
supposed to be a voluntary on the widow's part, it is believed to have
been sometimes forced on the widow. It was abolished by the British
in 1829. There have been around forty reported cases of sati since
independence. In 1987, the Roop Kanwar case of Rajasthan led to
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act.
Sati i.e. widow burning would normally be looked upon as a negative
aspect of culture. When confronted with questions as to why such a
Practice should have existed, a student of history with misplaced
national pride would try to explain awasy such practices.
Today Sati is illegal, it is also generally looked down upon but it
continues to exist in the rural corners of our country. One- still does
hear of stray incidents of woman being forced to or trying to commit
Sati. The country owes the abolition of this deplorable practice to the
crusading efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy the 18th century social
The reason why this inhuman practice could hae come into being are
many. But the principal among them could be identified in the same
mileu which which gave birth to dowry. Closer examination of this
practice of widow-burning supports this inference. Widow-burning as
a widely prevalent practice can be seen only since the mediaeval period
but there are reasons which trace its origins in antiquity.
Even a casual observer will notice that widow-brning is more prevalent
among the higher martial caste. Among the lower castes and aboriginal
tribes it is nearly absent. The prevalence of Sati among the higher
castes is no co-incidence.
As mentioned earlier, among the higher castes, a bride was looked
upon as a burden as she represented a drain On the family's income
while not contributing anything towards it. If this was her status as a
bride, it is not surprising that if she had the misfortune to become a
widow, her presence in the family was dreaded. And apart from being
considered an object of ill omc , her presence after her husband
demise was a dead weight to her in-laws family.
A widow's status as an unwanted burden was also a result of the taboos
that prevented a wicow from participating in the house-hold work as
her touch, her voice, her very appearance was considered unholy,
impure and something that was to be shunned and abhorred. Thus
without her husbandRa woman's existence was not tolerated and an
extreme but logical outcome of this was widow-burning.
Other auxiliary reasons also went into making widow burning a
prevalent practice. The near impossibility of widow re-marriage arising
from the taboos and prejudices that santified virginity of a bride was
an important reason. Another reason could be the non-recognition
of the individuality of a woman who was considered part and parcel
of her husband, without whom she was a nullity.
This attitude of looking at women is visible in the legal literature
(Dharmashastra) of antiquity. The Manusmriti considered to be one
of the most important legal texts guiding ancient Indian polity has
injunctions which reflect this attitude. It says "a woman is undeserving
for indepancemsce" (Ne stree svatantyam arahathi). Beliefs that a wido,
especially a young one would fall into immoral practices for sensual ple
asures was also used to stoke the fires of Sati. Strangely enough this
logic was never applied to the stronger sex. Widowers were never an
But the most visible factor that perpetrated Sati was the 'halo of
honour' given to it. Especially in the medieavel ages Sati was given
the status of an act of honour. This was mainly so among the Rajput
martial caste of northern India among whom Sati took the form of a
collective suicide after a battle in which male members had suffered
death at the enemy's hands.
Sati was even committed by women before their husbands were
actually death when their city or town was beseiged by the enemy
and faced certain defeat. This form of Sati was more popularly known
as Jouhar. The Jouhar committed by Rant Padmini of Chittor when
faced by the prospect of dishonour at the hands of a Sultan from
Delhi has been immortalised in Indian history.
In those days North India was under foreign subjugation. The most
powerful kingdomset up by the invaders was the Sultanate of Delhi.
But in RaJputana, the RaJputs had defiantly preserved their writ by
resisting the Delhi Sultans. One such Rajput kingdom was at Chittor.
In those days of the aribitrary feudal power structure, any feudal lord
who took a fancy for any lady would claim her for himself even at the
cost of killing her husband if she happened to be married or even by
waging a war if she was queen or princess. one such lady of
unsurpassable beauty was the Rana of Chittor named Padmini.
Chittor was under the Rule of King Ratnasen, a brave and noble
warrior-king. Apart, from being a loving husband and a just ruler,
Ratnasen was also a patron of the arts. In his court were many talented
People one of whom was a musician named Raghav Chetan. But
unknown to anybody, Raghav Chetan was also a sorcerer. He used
his evil talents to run down his rivals and unfortunately for him was
caught red-handed in his dirty act of arousing evil spirits.
On hearing this King Ratnasen was furious and he banished Raghav
Chetan from his kingdom after blackening his face with face and
making him ride a donkey. This harsh Punishment earned king
Ratansen an uncompromising enemy. Sulking after his humiliation,
Raghav Chetan made his way towards Delhi with -the aim of trying to
incite the Sultan of Delhi Ala-ud-din Khilji to attack Chittor.
On approaching Delhi, Raghav Chetan settled down in one of the
forests nearby Delhi which the Sultan used to frequent for hunting
deer. One day on hearing the Sultan's hunt party entering the forest,
Raghav-Chetan started playing a melodious tone on his flute. When
the alluring notes of Raghav-Chetan flute reached the Sultan's party
they were surprised as to who could be playing a flute in such a
masterly way in a forlorn forest.
The Sultan dispatched his soldiers to fetch the person and when
Raghav-Chetan was brought before him, the Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji
asked him to come to his court at Delhi. The cunning Raghav-Chetan
asked the king as to why he wants to have a ordinary musician like
himself when there were many other beautiful objects to be had.
Wondering what Raghav-Chetan meant, Ala-ud-din asked him to
clarify. Upon being told of Rani Padmini's beauty, Ala-ud-din's lust
was aroused and immediately on returning to his capital he gave
orders to his army to march on Chittor.
But to his dismay, on reaching Chittor, Ala-ud-din found the fort to
be heavily defended. Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty
of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratnasen that he looked upon
Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On hearing this, the
unsuspecting Ratnasen asked Padmini to see the 'brother'. But
Padmini was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful
But on being persuaded she consented to allow Ala-ud-din to see her
only in a mirror. On the word being sent to Ala-ud-din that Padmini
would see him he came to the fort with his selected his best warriors
who secretly made a careful examination of the fort's defences on
their way to the Palace.
On seeing Padmini, the lustful 'brother' decided that he should secure
Padmini for himself. While returning to his camp, Ala-ud-din was
accompanied for some way by King Ratnasen. Taking this opportunity,
the wily Sultan treacherously kidnapped Ratnasen and took him as a
prisoner into his camp.
Ala--ud-din showed his true colours and demanded , that Padmini be
given to him and in return Ratnasen was to get his liberty. Word was
sent into the palace about the Sultan's demand.
The Rajput generals decided to beast the Sultan at his own game and
sent back a word that Padmini would be given to Ala-ud-din the
nextmorning. On the following dat at the crack of dawn, one hundred
and fifity palaquins (covered cases in which royal ladies were carried
in medieveal times) left the fort and made their way towards Ala-ud-
din's camps The palanquins stopped before the tent where king
Ratnasen was being held prisoner. . Seeing that the palanquins had
come from Chittor; and thinking that they had brought alongwith them
his queen, king Ratnasen was mortified. But to his surprise from the
palanquins came out, not his queen and her women servants but fully
armed soilders, who quickly freed ; Ratnasen and galloped away
towards Chittor on horses grabbed from Ala-ud-din's stables.
On hearing that his designs had been frustrated, the lustful Sultan was
furious and ordered his army to storm Chittor. But hard as they tried
the Sultans army could not break into the fort. Then Ala-ud-din decided
to lay seige to the fort. The seige was a long drawn one and gradually
supplied within the fort were depleted. Finally King Ratnasen gave
orders that the Rajputs would open the gates and fight to finish with
the besieging troops. On hearing of this decision, Padmini decided
that with their menfolk going into the unequal struggle with the
Sultan's army in which they were sure to perish, the women of
Chittor had either to commit suicides or face dishonour at the hands
of the victorious enemy.
The choice was in favour of suicide through Jauhar. A huge pyre
was lit and followed by their queen, all the women of Chittor jumped
into the flames and deceived the lustful enemy waiting outside. With
their womenfolk dead, the men of Chittor had nothing to live for.
Their charged out of the fort and fought on furiously with the vastly
Powerful array of the Sultan, till all of them perished. After this phyrrhic
victory the Sultan's troops entered the fort only to be confronted with
ashes and burnt bones of the women whose honour they were going
to violate to satisfy their lust.
These women who committed Jawhar had to perish but theirmemory
has been kept alive till today by bards and songs which glorify their
act which was right in those days and circumstances. Thus a halo of
honour is given to their supreme sacrifice.
But this halo of honour has to be seen in the light of the above
complusions of alien rule in Inda during the medieveal ages. From the
13th century onwards upto the coming of the British, the position of
women was insecure due to the arbitrary power structure associated
with the feudal society and the rule of the Sultans of Delhi. Although
during the reign of the later Mughals the situation had improved
relatively, women in the medieaval ages were often exposed to the
lust of feudal overlords. Their insecurity increased after the demise
of their husbands. This compulsion which was resultant of a particular
age was by far the most important reason for the prevalence of Sati
during the middle ages.
Although the Moghal emperor Akbar tried to curb this practice, he
could not eradicate it completely. As long as circumstances made
necessary the existence of such an anomalous and inhuman practice,
all efforts to stamp it out were bound to fail. But with the passing of
the feudal power structure and entry of the industrial age under the
British, the compulsions of the medieaval age which helped the
existence of Sati were no longer there. Hence the efforts of Raja
Rammohan Roy succeeded while those of emperor Akbar could not.
One last reason that needs to be mentioned in this context is that of
grief and remorse experienced by a widowed lady. Women as such
are more sensitive and emotional than menu This explains in part the
readiness of some woman to commit Sati. But it should be borne in
mind that the proportion of voluntary Sati was far less and the reasons
behind voluntary Sati Though facts were blown out of proportion to
justify this practice. However, in conclusion it can be observed thet a
complexity of factors contributed over different periods to make Sati a