Abolition of Sati: History & Facts

15 Nov 2022  Read 1192 Views

Have you watched the movies Padmaavat, Prithviraj Chauhan and Mangal Pandey? These movies displayed the practice of Sati and Jauhar in which women were burnt alive if their husbands were dead. In 1724, at the funeral of Ajit Singh of Marwar Jodhpur, sixty-six women were burned alive; similarly, eighty-four women sacrificed their lives at the funeral of Budh Singh (a king of Bundi). From this, we can say that it became a common practice in ancient India. However, even after the abolishment, the practice continued in most rural regions of India and gained all the controversial aspects of all time. So, let’s discuss Sati in detail, starting from who Sati is to where this practice stands in Modern India.

Who is Sati?

The word 'Sati' originated from Goddess Sati, as she was the first woman to initiate this practice. On the one hand, Sati was regarded as a glorious, dignified sacrifice and a way to clear the spouse's sins; on the other hand, some people considered it their private matter to accompany their loved one to death.

What is Sati custom?

Hinduism is the oldest religion, following various practices, among which Sati custom was constant for a very long time. Sati, aka “suttee”, is the practice of burning a woman alive after her husband’s death because it is considered her duty according to the religious texts of Hindus.

Reasons behind Sati Practice

There are two reasons why the Sati tradition started are discussed below:

1. Upper-class funerals- The idea of cremating a husband with his wife came from the belief that a man should be cremated with his precious possessions, and women were then regarded as one of them. It was written in Hindu texts that a woman who burns herself alive with her deceased husband would be promised an afterlife in heaven.

2. Safety of widows- Sati practice was regarded as protection from enemy invasions. At that time, when the Mughals, after their victory, used to enter Rajput kingdoms and take away their wives. To prevent themselves from falling into the hands of the Mughals, the wives of the deceased soldiers immolated themselves. Queen Padmini For example, Queen Padmini and her women followers killed themselves to escape being captured by Delhi's Muslim monarch, Alauddin Khilji. Many think Sati was created solely to protect women from being captured by Muslims who entered India due to this incident.

Who stopped Sati system in India, and when?

In the ancient period, the first ones who tried to ban this tradition were Muslim rulers of India named Mughals and Nizams. Since many people criticised them, the practice continued. In the 19th century, during British rule, the Governor of India named William Bentick gave the order to abolish this practice.

Banning of Sati Practice

Many people allege that this practice has been performed since 510 AD, and there are signs in religious scriptures that imply that it was present even before 510 AD and was performed by specific tribes. Greek visitors who visited North India claim that Sati was practised in the 4th century B.C. this practice was not so common in the 18th century; however, it became a widespread practice in the 13th century. This practice became so popular that even tourists knew that India had such dreadful beliefs.

Initially, women practised Sati voluntarily, but with time, it evolved into a coercive act. They say that everything changes with time and people's opinions on Sati have also changed. The situation deteriorated, but later, in modern India, specific laws were enacted to outlaw the practice, and now it is illegal and widely disregarded by the people.

Sati in medieval India

In the 7th century, it was predicted by a Sanskrit poet that it was a constant practice in Upper Hindu classes. Sati in the 14th century was at its peak in the Vijay Nagar empire. The warriors of the Goudas and Gayakas classes of Hindus performed this act of Sati.

Some incidents included the King of Madura, who died because of illness and his wife committed Sati. Another incident of Sati happened when King Pandyan died, and his 47 wives sacrificed their lives at his funeral. There are many other similar incidents in that era.

Sati in the medieval era

-        Nizam tried to prohibit sati in Hyderabad in 1847 by issuing an order that whoever committed Sati would be held guilty and punished accordingly. However, this attempt failed as there were still many cases of Sati pratha in that area.

-        In North India, Sati was practised by upper-class Hindus such as Brahmins, whereas in South India, it was performed by royal families, peasants from the lower caste and nobles.

-        For the sake of humanitarianism, Christian missionaries opposed the Sati practice long before the British did. The Bombay government outlawed Sati and issued warnings against its approach to the rulers of Gujarat, including Devgadh Baria (1840), Baroda (1840), Lunawada (1840), Rajpipla (1840), Mahikantha (1843), and Palanpur (1848). However, many of them broke the law and were consequently penalised.

Which Mughal emperor tried to ban Sati system?

During the Mughal period, Sati was a standard practice followed by both Hindus and Muslims. Sati pratha was observed in almost all the areas of Mughal India, which mainly focused on the Ganges Valley, Madura and Vijaynagar in South India and the Punjab and Rajputana in the North.

-        The Indian tradition of Sati, in which a woman immolates herself even against her consent, is mentioned by Akbarnama.

-        The first Muslim king to protest and speak out against Sati was Mohammed bin Tughlak. He made it necessary to obtain a licence before burning the widow, discouraging Sati and ending the practice of forcibly immolating widows.

-        Following him, Humayun and Akbar both attempted to end Sati’s coercive performance. Still, Akbar insisted that if a Hindu woman wanted to perform Sati, they would not stop her against her will. Sometimes he intervened to put a stop to this.

-        Jahangir then made infanticide and Sati illegal. However, some contend that the prohibition was merely in writing and was not fully adhered to. Shah Jahan, after him, prohibited pregnant women from performing Sati and allowed widows' children to attend school.

-        Aurangzeb, in contrast to him, outlawed Sati in his reign. However, it was only a temporary solution; there have been instances where Sati has been practised despite being illegal.

Sati in Modern India

In the 19th century, when India was ruled by the British, Sati ended. William Bentick, a British citizen, outlawed Sati in 1829, and by 1862, the British had compelled the Indian kings to stop practising it. According to the Indian penal code, Sati is now considered a crime, and anyone caught doing it faces a mandatory life sentence in prison. However, the practice persisted, and each year numerous incidents go unreported. This is because, despite Sati's ban, the society and some significant castes or groups within the Hindu faith still promote it.

Let’s discuss some incidents of Sati in the Modern era:

1. On September 4th, 1987, a girl named Roop Kunwar attended her husband’s funeral and died. She was just 18 years old, and her husband died during his treatment in the hospital. She escaped fearing she would be burnt; however, her in-laws found her and forcefully threw her at the cremation. The Police arrested the people who forced her to die.

2. In 2008, a 71-year-old woman from Chhattisgarh willingly practised Sati and died with her deceased husband. This incident was reported, but many other incidents go unreported, especially in rural India.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy as a social reformer

·   Sati pratha was one of the leading social ills. Raja Rammohan Roy, a prominent Hindu reformer from Bengal, battled against the Hindu society of Bengal.

·   He had seen his sister-in-law set herself on fire. In 1812, he began to fight against this practice.

·   About 700 widows were burned alive in 1817 alone.

·   Although it was first permitted by the British, it was outlawed in Calcutta in 1798. However, the surrounding areas kept up the tradition.

·   Raja Rammohan Roy was a vocal opponent of Sati (also spelt Suttee). He contended that neither the Vedas nor other early Hindu literature supported Sati.

·   In his article, Sambad Kaumudi published essays arguing for its willful disobedience. He urged East India Company's management to outlaw this behaviour.

·   In 1828, Lord William Bentinck was appointed Governor-General of India. To combat various prevalent societal ills like Sati, polygamy, child marriage, and female infanticide, he collaborated with Raja Rammohan Roy.

·   Lord Bentinck enacted the rule outlawing Sati throughout the Company's purview in British India.

Laws on the Practice of Sati

1.     Bengal Sati Regulation Act of 1829 stated that practising Sati is declared illegal and punishable by criminal courts.

2.     Prevention of Sati Act, 1987: This act was introduced for the voluntary or forced burning or burying alive of widows, as well as the praising of such acts, including taking part in any Sati parade, became illegal. The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, was enacted in 1988, making this Act a law of the Indian Parliament. The practice of sati is therefore punished with death or imprisonment for life with or without a fine.

Case Laws on Sati System

1. The Supreme Court issued directives to the government in Gaurav Jain v. Union of India about prohibiting any criminal activities involving women and rehabilitation through various means. Making the women financially independent will prevent them from committing crimes like Sati because they will become independent and develop their identities. The court also emphasised vocational training as a way to guarantee employment for women.

2. In the case of Tejsingh v. State, it was held that anyone who helps in the act of Sati is equally responsible under Section 306. In this instance, Mt. Saraswati was burned on her husband’s funeral pyre after he passed away. To see the scene, people gathered from several villages. According to the investigation, the decision had been made in advance because the police could not stop the march of more than 1500 persons who were chanting "Sati ki Jai" and "Sati Mata ki Jai ho." The five close relatives, who had a significant role in the burning, had received just a 6-month term, which the High Court had increased, while the defendants had received a 1-year sentence under Section 147, 1-year imprisonment under section 342 and imprisonment of 5 years under section 306


Because of its elements of coercion and voluntariness, the Sati tradition is difficult to comprehend. Some academics contend it is a choice act, others consider it a choice act, while others see it as mandatory. Because I am confident that if it is voluntary, it is a suicide, and if it is forced, it is murder. Indian men have a history of using religion to control women. Now more than ever, society has to awaken. Regardless of what a person's faith says, we need to educate, enlighten, and make them aware of what is right and wrong. Humanity undoubtedly exists at the highest point and level. For one's religion to develop society, it must be patient, tolerant, and peaceful

About the Author: Gurpreet Kaur Dutta | 43 Post(s)

A legal content writer who pursued BBA-LL.B.(H) from Amity University Chhattisgarh. She has a keen interest in corporate and IPR sectors. 

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