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The Sati Myth

It is said that Hindu women must throw themselves into their husbands cremation pyre

You can ask any Hindu community if they know of any woman who has done this and the answer is universally no. In fact the idea is seen as horrendous in all eyes, Hindu and otherwise.  There may have been a few occasions in the distant past where this may have happened, yet it is so rare there are few records of it happening so where does this myth come from?

Before answering, it must be recognised that:

  1. Remember the myth of the powerful priest Daksha who made a great yagna (ritual sacrifice) but did not invite his youngest daughter Sati and her husband Shiva? Sati found out and decided to go alone to the yagna. When she arrived, Sati entered into an argument with her father. Unable to withstand his insults, she spoke a vow to her father, “Since it was you who gave me this body, I no longer wish to be associated with it.” She walked to the fire and threw herself in. From here we get the word Sati and the idea of self immolation.
  2. Small numbers of men and women commit suicide for various reasons but the idea of sati (suttee) has nothing to do with this.
  3. Small numbers of women followed their husbands into the funeral pyre as a lesser suffering to widowhood in the hands of inlaws.
  4. Some women were forced so that the family could inherit her property.  This is illegal yet it happens world wide and is not a uniquely Hindu issue.
  5. We must also consider the idea that some spouses were so deeply attached that upon the death of one spouse, the remaining spouse chose suicide perhaps to avoid suffering or to prove a point. But this was as rare then as it is today.
  6. It must also be recognised that in times of war, suicide commonly happens where invading armies raped and tortured the citizens. Practises like Sati and Jauhar take place to prevent women from becoming the war booty particularly of Islamic invaders for as we know today in the Middle East, Daesh (Islamic State) captures, tortures and sells women and children into sex slavery.
  7. Another rare fact that must be considered is spontaneous combustion that could have given rise to erroneous understanding and perpetrating of this myth that became distorted over time.
  8. There is yet another element which may have given rise to the myth as any person can be burned up by the fire of wisdom. This is not a fire but a metaphor describing an entranced/spiritual state of being that was consequently misreported.

When we consider any of these elements within a poorly educated and connected society and the fact that when information moves from one person to the next, it is often embellished or changed wilfully or otherwise. But let's not forget, these things happened globally and not only in India.

The myth is set in India because such things have happened there and while sati is mentioned in Vedic texts, it was clearly disapproved of within Hindu society. In the Rig-Veda (10:18:8) there is a passage addressed to a widow at her husbands funeral pyre: "rise up, abandon this dead man and re-join the living".

If Sati is not a Hindu practise, how has this misconception become so popular?

While sati did occur with references from Mogul times and the Commission Of Sati (Prevention) Act was enacted in 1988, to associate sati with Sanatana Dharma is a serious misconception for the wives of Hindu heroes did not commit suicide when they died and there are no assertations from Godly heroes like Rama and Krishna that women should do this.  There is little doubt that travelling information is quickly distorted, quickly snapped up and utilised for political advantage as so often happens today. But the idea of sati was deliberately propagated by the British while they ruled over India but rather than the smell of roasting flesh, it smells of a cook up orchestrated by the British East India company who ruled India solely for their own profits.

While they were building railways to export the produce of India in order to line their own pockets, they orchestrated disrespect of traditions and propagated falsehoods to divide the population, keep them passive and justify British rule to the Brits at home. In the colonial era, the British media used to deliberately propagate myths like Sati to paint Indians as a barbaric people who were incapable of self-rule, and therefore needed to be ruled by foreigners. As Cambridge historian Mike Dash explains: “Suttee was not, in fact, particularly common… But that was not the impression Britons received from their newspapers and books. Prurient reports from India spoke of women being forced shrieking onto their funeral pyres by baying relatives, and dwelled on the agonies of a slow death by fire; a good many readers with no personal knowledge of India believed that this was the common fate of all Hindu widows from Bombay to Bengal. The notion…profoundly shocked public opinion at home.”

There are too many propagandist views of Hinduism that are simply not true. The least we can do for ourselves is not be taken in by them. So when we hear that Hindu widows are supposed to burn themselves in the funeral pyre of their dead husbands, it should be recognised that what we are reading/listening to a piece of quasi-Imperialistic propaganda that should be firmly rejected.

Contrary reference; The Madras Courier
Credits:
Hindu Perspective
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