Sati i.e. self-immolation by a widow 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 away such practices.
According to Hindu mythology, Sati the wife
of Dakhsha was so overcome at the demise of her husband that she immolated herself on his
funeral pyre and burnt herself to ashes. Since then her name 'Sati' has come to be
symptomatic of self-immolation by a widow.
Today Sati is illegal. The country owes the abolition of this deplorable
practice to the crusading efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy the 18th century social reformer.
The reasons why this practice could have come into being are many. But the
principal among them could be identified in the same milieu which gave birth to dowry.
Closer examination of this practice of immolation supports this inference. Immolation 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 immolation was more prevalent among the
priestly and martial castes. Among other castes and aboriginal tribes it was nearly
absent. The prevalence of Sati among the Brahmins and Kshatriyas was no co-incidence.
Among the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, 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 omen, her presence after her husband demise was a dead weight to her in-laws
A widow's status as an unwanted burden was also a result of the taboos that
prevented a widow 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 husband a woman's existence was not tolerated and an extreme
but logical outcome of this was immolation.
Other auxiliary reasons also went into making immolation a prevalent practice.
The near impossibility of widow re-marriage arising from the taboos and prejudices that
sanctified 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 of
antiquity. The Manusmriti considered to be one of the most important legal texts guiding
ancient Indian polity (Editor's Note : Manusmriti is not considered to be a religious
text) has injunctions which reflect this attitude. It says "a woman is undeserving
for independence" (Ne stree svatantyam arahathi). Beliefs that a widow, especially a
young one would fall into immoral practices for sensual pleasures was also used to stoke
the fires of Sati. Strangely enough this logic was never applied to the men. Widowers were
never an under-privileged lot.
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 Rani 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, Ratansen 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 Ratansen 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 Allah-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 despatched his soldiers to fetch the person and when Raghav-Chetan
was brought before him, the Sultan Allah-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, Allah-ud-din asked him to clarify. Upon being told of Rani
Padmini's beauty, Allah-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, Allah-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 Ratansen that he looked upon Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On
hearing this, the unsuspecting Ratansen asked Padmini to see the 'brother'. But Padmini
was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful Sultan personally.
But on being persuaded she consented to allow Allah-ud-din to see her only in a
mirror. On the word being sent to Allah-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, Allah-ud-din was accompanied for some way by
King Ratansen. Taking this opportunity, the wily Sultan treacherously kidnapped Ratansen
and took him as a prisoner into his camp.
Allah-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
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 next morning. On the following day 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 Ratansen was being held prisoner.
. Seeing that the palanquins had come from Chittor; and thinking that they had brought
along with them his queen, king Ratansen was mortified. But to his surprise from the
palanquins came out, not his queen and her women servants but fully armed soldiers, who
quickly freed ; Ratansen and galloped away towards Chittor on horses grabbed from
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 siege 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
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 up to 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 Mughal 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 that a complexity of factors contributed over
different periods to make Sati a prevalent custom.