Sati Was Started For Preserving Caste

Dr. K. Jamanadas

With the much discussed subject, now in India, about a so called "sati" of Charanshah, in village Satpura in Uttar Pradesh, some information about this evil in Hindu social system, may be not only informative but also educative to the masses who wish to build a new India on new values.

Condition of Widows in ancient India

In India, the condition of women in general, was made more dreadful than that of a slave, but the lot of widows was always very hard and they were forced to lead a horrible life of torture, disfigurement, tonsure and deprivation, with an enforced strict ban on remarriage. They were compelled to undergo sex with other men for procreation under the system of Niyoga. As if this was not enough, a peculiar system existed in India, whereby widows were burnt alive on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. The practice existed among the higher castes mainly, though it was given a honorable and prestigious outlook among the masses by various means adopted by the Brahmins.

Why this system started in India? It was for maintaining the caste, which was very important for the welfare of those, who are benefited by it. And as the caste system grew more rigid, the sati become more strict. Notable example is Bengal, where it was enforced more strictly because of "Kulin system", where any of the hundreds of disgruntled young wives could easily poison the old man.

Position of women

Ms. Shakuntala Rao Shastri, in her "Women in Sacred Laws" very aptly describes the pitiable condition of women before the Britishers came to India:

"True it is that anyone who has witnessed the pathetic condition of women in India at the dawn of British rule cannot but be shocked at it: the enforced child marriage, the exposure of female children, putting to death female children by throwing them at the junction of the Ganges and the sea, the violence used to make women follow the Sati rite and thus end their miserable existence, the shameful treatment accorded to a widow, the (in)famous kulinism which made marriage a profession rather than a sacrament, made woman not only an object of pity but many a woman sighed in the secret recess for her heart and wished that she had never been born a woman in this unfortunate country." [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in Sacred Laws" p. 171]

The situation described by the learned Vedic Scholar is at the time of dawn of British occupation, but since how long it was in existence? The reply is that this was the situation since the fall of Buddhism around tenth century A.D. That the women enjoyed high position in Buddhist period can be judged by a mere glance at the Buddhist law being practiced in India before tenth century A.D. and which is practiced in all the Buddhist countries even now.

Today after passing of Ambedkar's Hindu Code, piece meal, the Hindu Laws of Marriage, Adoption, Succession, and other related Laws have been changed to a great extent. But prior to 1956, the Old Hindu Brahamaninc Law was in force, under which the condition of women was pitiable. To get some idea of how these laws were made more and more cruel is seen if one considers that original law of India was Buddhist Law. BUDDHIST LAW WAS THE NATIONAL LAW OF INDIA, BECAUSE FROM THE HISTORICAL PERIOD, THE RELIGION OF INDIA WAS BUDDHISM. IT WAS THE MAIN STREAM. The Brahmins succeeded in causing the fall of Buddhism, at the cost of women and Shudras. They had to bear the brunt of all evils, to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmins.

The Buddhist personal Laws about Women

To get some idea of what was The Buddhist Personal Law, we quote from Ms. Shastri.

"In Buddhist Law, the position of women was different. The religion was more practical and elastic as well as highly ethical due to the eight principles of life enjoined on each man: (1) Right Understanding; (2) Right mindedness; (3) Right speech; (4) Right Action; (5) Right livelihood; (6) Right endeavor; (7) Right concentration; (8) Right collectedness.

"In Buddhism every human being - man or woman - is a free agent able to work out his own salvation independent of any supernatural agency or the medium of priests or rituals. The inequality between man and woman is wiped out. Hence woman in the Buddhist Law has a special place.

"Buddhist marriage is a simple ceremony it is purely a civil contract.

"The age at which a girl is allowed independent choice is twenty. If a girl contracts a marriage before this period without the consent, expressed or implicit, of her guardians or parents, it is null and void. This rule is not binding on widows and divorcees as their first marriage has already freed them from paternal control.

"Polygamy is allowed in Buddhist Law. A man can marry a second time during the lifetime of the first wife; but a woman has not a similar choice. Wives of inferior status, who can however inherit the property of their husband, are mentioned and Buddhist Law speaks of them as 'wives and concubines'. Concubines have a legal status and can inherit property, hence illegitimacy of children is avoided.

"Women have the same rights of inheritance as men. On marriage the couple have a joint interest on their estate, each keeping his or her share separate. All property acquired or inherited comes under joint property. Both husband and wife get equal share of interest. But where property is the contribution of one party only, the contributor gets two-third share and the other one-third.

"Divorce is permissible by mutual consent under Buddhist Law. When one party contracts some incurable disease, such as leprosy, divorce is immediately granted.

"In these cases each is entitled to one half of the interest in property. If one deserts the other, divorce is automatic and the deserting party forfeits all rights to inherit property but is liable to pay off the joint debts if any.

"If the husband becomes a priest against the wishes of his wife and remains as such for seven days, the wife inherits the entire property and to pay off also their joint debts, To sell or mortgage a joint property, the consent of the wife is obligatory. Neither party can act independently. A woman has the right to adopt under Buddhist Law she might adopt for inheritance or out of pity; girls are not barred from adoption.

"These laws still survive in Buddhist countries like Burma, Indochina, Japan and Ceylon, But it must be said that at one time when Buddhism was a living religion in India, they influenced, not to a small extent, Hindu culture and the legal literature, Kautlilya admits divorce by mutual consent as did the Buddhists. [The Bombay Law Reporter, Vol. 38, p. 14, quoted by Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in Sacred Laws" p. 7]

As this comes from a scholar, who is a strong supporter of Brahmanic Laws and visibly biased against Buddhism as she blames Buddhists for every thing at every conceivable opportunity even applying a wrong logic, it is more important. Sati, enforced widowhood and girl child marriage along with prohibition of education of women and reduction of age of marriage of women are the various points so inter-related that they must be discussed together. But leaving the question of position of women in general for some future occasion, we would like now to deal only with one aspect of this broad subject in this article, that is the prevalence of Sati.

Efforts to stop Sati All the Rajput rulers, the pseudo-Kshatriyas always eulogized the practice of Sati under the Brahmanic domination, but many Muslim and Christian rulers had attempted to stop the practice of Sati. During Portugese rule in Goa, in 1508 A.D., Albuquirk declared it as a crime. Akbar was against use of force to stop it, but he had declared it a crime punishable by death penalty, and he had also rode 450 miles to save the queen of Jodhpur just a few steps away from pyre. Jahangir had proclaimed death penalty for those putting a widow in funeral pyre of her dead husband with force. Aurangjeb had declared that no woman would be allowed to be burnt alive. But nobody among the Hindus except Raja Rammohan Roy tried to end this infamous custom. [Jamuna Nag, "Raja Ram Mohan Roy", Hind Pocket Books, 1972, hindi tr. by Satyendra Nath Sarkar, p. 44] Raja had undertaken this onerous task after the flames of Sati had engulfed his own family members.

The Raja used to be abused by his own kith and kin as a "Muslim", when he tried to prevent a widow burning. His opponents were Radhakant Deo, Pandit Kalanand Banerjee, Pandit Nimai Mukhopadyaya, Harihar Sashtri, Darmapati Ganguli etc. They submitted memoranda to the Governor General to expel Fr. William Kerry and Fr. William Sliman, who were opposing sati. Their argument against the missionoeries was that the missioneries are awakening public opinion against sati and thereby destroying Hinduism. [Fransis D'Souza, Loksatta, 3.12.99]

But thanks to Raja's persistent efforts, it was eventually banned by Lord Bentik, the then Governor General of East India Co. in November 1829, and it became a Law on 4th December 1929. The appeal against this by the "Dharma Sabha", an organization of savarnas came before the Privy Council in July 1832 and the judges unanimously advised the Emperor to reject it. [Jamuna Nag, p. 55] Interestingly the appellants had argued that if Sati is prohibited the women would kill their husbands.

Though for nearly hundred and seventy five years, the Act is in force, still the Sati is not completely stopped. Rupakuwanrs are still getting burnt. Not only that but there are important personalities supporting the act of burning the widows alive. This includes a prominent political leader and a widow queen, who did not practice it herself. Even leaders talking in favour of womens' Reservation movement, like Sadhwi Ritumbhara, Uma Bharati, and Sushama Swaraj have supported the sati system. [Jyoti Lanjewar, Lokmat, 2.12.99]

Sati in Vedas

Ms. Shakuntala Rao Shastri quotes Kaegi saying
"The well known custom of burning of widows for thousands of years demanded by the Brahmins - is nowhere evidenced in the Rig-Veda; only by palpable falsification of a hymn has the existence of the custom been forcibly put into the texts which, on the contrary, prove directly the opposite - the return of the widow from her husband's corpse into a happy life and her remarriage" [Kaegi - "The Rig Veda", p.16, quoted by Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in Sacred Laws" p. 172]

Sati in Atharva Veda

The name 'Atharva Veda is not found before the Sutra period. [Shak. Rao, WVA, p.39, Vedic Index, vol. I, 18] It represents the life of another branch of Aryans who came to India later. [p. 58] It was the literature of a different stock of Aryan family, who were influenced by Iranian culture and who entered India later than the Rig Vedic group. [p.62] Here the mention is found for widowhood in one of the later books dealing with funeral ceremonies. [p.53] Out of the two verses about widows, one refers to custom of widow lying beside her dead husband on pyre and the following verse describes the maiden being led forth for the dead. It is clear that burning of widow was prevalent in Atharva-Vedic cult, but 'became almost extinct and was observed only as a show.' [p.54]

Time of Origin of Sati

"It may now be asked, when and how this custom of the self- annihilation of windows on the funeral pyre of their husbands technically called by the name of Anumarana then, and later the 'Sati rite', came to be introduced and enforced in India? The available evidence shows that the custom was entirely nonexistent in early Hindu society.

"The Vedic practice was for a widow to marry her dead husband's younger brother. In the sutra period she was allowed to marry any near kinsman; in the earliest Dharmasutra (Gautama) without enjoining any restriction and in the later (Baudhayana and Vasishtha) enjoining ascetic practices for a short period only. Later on, however this asceticism alone remained and became life long. This was the characteristic of the period ranging between the 2nd century B.C. and the 4th century A.D., when the Smritis of Manu and Yajnavalkya were compiled. But there is absolutely no mention of widow burning. Later on, however, we find Anumarana prescribed for a widow as an alternative to life long asceticism.

"This is clear even for a superficial study of the Vishnu and the Brihaspati Smritis, which were put together between the 5th and the 9th centuries. A. D. Hindu society was completely revolutionized soon after this, and we find new Smritis and new commentaries springing up and holding up the ideal thing for a widow in comparison with life-long asceticism. This last is no doubt mentioned by them, but only incidentally.

"On the other hand, this practice was exceedingly eulogized and celestial felicity of the highest type was promised to the widow who immolated herself. In fact, she was believed to raise her dead husband even from hell and make him a participant of her heavenly bliss. The period between the 5th 9th centuries was a period of transition. The practice of Anumarana was, no doubt, gaining ascendancy, but authors and scholars were not wanting who condemned it."

Authors opposing Sati

Perhaps the first author opposing the pracice was was poet Banabhatta, who flourished earlier than Medhatithi in the 7th century A.D and was protege of Harshavardhana, perhaps the last Buddhist Emperor prior to Palas. His view on the subject have been embodied in a characteristic passage of the "Kadambari". He thought that:

"This practice which is called Anumarana is utterly fruitless. This is a path followed by the illiterate this is manifestation of infatuation, this is a course of ignorance, this is an art of foolhardiness, this is short-sightedness, this is stumbling through stupidity, viz. that life is put and end to when a parent, brother, friend, of husband is dead. Life should not be ended, if it does not leave one of itself. ..." [Kadambari: Edited by Kashinath Pandurang Parab, Nirnaysagar Press, 1890, purva-bhag, pp.339-9]

The another such author was Medhatithi, who was, however, a schooliast and probably belonged to one school of Law. About him it is said:

"Medhatithi did not look upon Anumarana, or the self- immolation of windows, as a Dharma or meritorious act at all, and tolerated it only as a transgression in times of distress. On the other hand, Vijnanesvara and Madhavacharya regarded Anumarana as a Dharma and not as an act of suicide. Hence they argued that the suicide prohibited by the sruti text was to be considered suicide in all cases, except in that of self-destruction by a widow. The whole mental vision thus seems to have changed between the times when Medhatithi and Vijnanesvara respectively wrote, that is, between the 9th and the 11th centuries. [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in sacred laws", Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959, p. 124]

In the law-codes, however, it is the Vishnu Smriti that sanctions widow-burning for the first time in the religious and legal literature of India. The Vishnu Smriti has been supposed to have been complied soon after the 5th century A.D" [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in sacred laws", Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959, p. 128 ff.]

The earliest recorded instance of Sati

The earliest known case is recorded by Diodorus, about a soldier from India who died in Iran and his two wives vied with each other to get burnt alive on his funeral pyre.

"... In the year 316 B.C., the leader of an contingent which had gone to fight under Eumenes in Iran was killed in battle. He had with him his two wives. There was immediately a competition between them as to which was to be the sati. The question was brought before the Macedonian and Greek generals, and they decided in favour of the younger, the elder being with child. At this the elder woman went away lamenting, with the band about her head rent, and tearing her hair as if tidings of some great disaster has been brought her; and the other departed, exultant at her victory, to the pyre crowned with fillets by the women who belonged to her and decked out splendidly as for a wedding. She was escorted by her kinsfolk who chanted a song in praise of her virtue. When she came near to the pyre, she took off her adornments and distributed them to her familiars and friends, leaving a memorial of herself, as it were, to those who has loved her. Her adornments consisted of a multitude of rings on her hands set with precious gems of diverse colours, and about her neck a multitude of necklaces, each a little larger than one above it. In conclusion, she said farewell to her familiars and was helped by her brother onto the pyre, and there to the admiration of the crowd which had gathered together for the spectacle she ended her life in heroic fashion. Before the pyre was kindled, the whole army in battle array marched round it thrice, she meanwhile lay down beside her husband, and as the fire seized her no sound of weakness escaped her lips. The spectators were moved, some to pity and some to exuberant praise. But some of the Greeks present found fault with such customs as savage and inhumane. The Greeks, we find, had a theory to account for the custom, whether of their own invention or suggested to them by Indian informants we cannot say. The theory was that once upon a time wives had been so apt to get rid of their husbands by poison that the law had to be introduced which compelled a widow to be burnt with her dead husband." [Rapson, E. J., ed. "Cambridge History of India", chapter "India in early Greek and Latin literature", by E.R.Beven, p. 372 ff.]

Epigraphic evidences of Sati

Ms. Shakuntala Rao Shastri describes the "Memorial stelae". They are small stone uprights sculptured with figures and inscriptions, and are called Devli, and are found in abundance in Rajputana. They are erected in commemoration of women immolating themselves on funeral pyres of their husbands. The earliest one found in Jodhpur state at Gatiyala is dated 890 A.D. The earliest of these stelae is found in Eran in Sagar District in M.P. and is dated 510 A. D. Thus the practice of Sati was coming to vogue in sixth century A.D. [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, Ibid. p. 130]

The Annals of Kashmir by Kallahna of 12th century, mentions some instances where, in addition to wife / wives others like concubines, slaves, mother nurse, friends and followers also practiced Anumaran. Earliest mentioned was in 902 King Samkaravarman, in 1081 King Ananta, in 1161 King Malla, and the last one mentioned was in 12th century of King Sussala. [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, Ibid. p.130]

Not only it was practiced in North, West and Central India, the examples of Inscriptions from Epigraphica Carnataka show that the custom existed in South India also. Anumarana was practiced after deaths of various kings like - in 1130 A.D. Kadamba King Tailapa, Ganga King Nitimarga, and Satyavakya Kongunivarman Lord of Nandagiri, both of whom lived in 915 A.D., in 1220 A.D. King Ballala, and in 1180 King Bammarasa. [Ibid. p. 132 ff.]

When a Tomar King in Gujrath died, his 90,000 queens were requested not to commit sati. They consulted their Kula-brahmana, who advised them to commit sati as Veda verse 18/877 mentions "Agne" and not "Agre", just for the sake of golden coins, thus condemning these 90,000 women to flames. 3000 queens committed sati with king of Vijaynagar. On conquest of Jaselmere by Muslims, 24 thousand queens committed sati. Old cremation place has got inscriptions mentioning names of those committing sati. 112 queens of king Amarsing of Bundi, 88 queens of Keshosing, Jagirdar of Dharampur, 78 queens of Surendrasing of Palitana. Some social reformists tried to prevent sati of 95 queens of Bharatpur, but they had to commit sati. [Francis D'Souza, Loksatta, 3.12.99]

Why Sati was started

Thus we find that excepting the solitary instance mentioned by Diodoras, which occured in a foreign land, and the persons involved were perhaps from foreign tribes settled in India during those times, the practice started from the time of decline and ultimate fall of Buddhism after seventh century. Still we find Banabhatta (7th century) in the court of Harshavardhana and later Medhatithi (9th century) condemning the practice.

The more important question is why this system started, developed and why it attained such a high respect. Sati custom in India has to be considered in combination with other customs of Child girl marriage with an elderly man and prohibition of widows to remarry. All these customs were imposed by the brahmins in order to prevent transgression of caste rules. This was explained by Dr. Ambedkar as early as in 1919, ["Castes in India", W&S. vol. I, p. 5 ff.] while dealing with genesis and mechanism of Castes. The following are the salient points from it.

Endogamy is the only characteristic peculiar to caste. No civilized society in today's world shows more survivals of primitive times than Indian society. One such primitive practice is of exogamy long given up by the world but is still favoured in India. Though there are no clans in India, clan system is savoured, as there is prohibition on not only "sapinda" marriages but also on "sagotra" marriages among the Hindus. The various gotras and other totemic organizations have always been exogamus. When endogamy was superimposed over sagotra exogamy, a caste was formed. To preserve and maintain this caste, inter caste marriages were banned. In case of death of a spouse, the other spouse was likely to marry outside the caste. To prevent this happening various means were adopted. These are:

1. Sati or burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

2. Enforced widowhood by which she is forced not to marry and

3. Girl marriage with an aged man.

All the medieval Brahmanic texts eulogize these customs in very glamourous language but give no reasons for them. Dr. Ambedkar, who calls all this eulogy as a sugar coating of the barbarous pill, gives the reasons:

"... Sati, enforced widowhood and girl marriage are customs that were primarily intended to solve the problem of the surplus man and surplus woman in a caste and to maintain its endogamy. Strict endogamy could not be preserved without these customs, while caste without endogamy is a fake." [Ibid., p.14]

The brahmins enclosed themselves into a caste, thus forcing others to be the other caste. This was divided and further subdivided into multiple non-brahmin castes and the institution of castes spread through the length and breadth of India. This spread was due to the tendency of imitation of Brahmins by the others. As these customs were very harsh and barbarous, the imitation was imperfect and we find that nearer a caste is to Brahmins more strictly it insisted on observance of these customs. Example of Kulinism in Bengal, which also was a movement to preserve the Caste and ensure supremacy of brahmins, is discussed elsewhere. That the reason, these customs had to be enforced strictly in Bengal following Kulinism, was to prevent any one among the hundreds of dissatisfied wives of a kulin man from easily poisoning him, could be easily appreciated.


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