What Is Sati?

A widow is thrown onto her husband's pyre
A Hindu widow is thrown onto her husband's funeral pyre. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Sati or suttee is the ancient Indian and Nepalese practice of burning a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, or burying her alive in his grave. This practice is associated with Hindu traditions.  The name is taken from the goddess Sati, wife of Shiva, who burned herself to protest her father's ill-treatment of her husband.  The term "sati" can also apply to the widow who commits the act. The word "sati" comes from the feminine present participle of the Sanskrit word asti, meaning "she is true / pure."  While it has been most common in India and Nepal, examples have occured in other traditions from as far afield as Russia, Vietnam, and Fiji.

According to custom, Hindu sati was supposed to be voluntary, and often it was seen as the proper finale to a marriage. It was considered to be the signature act of a dutiful wife, who would want to follow her husband into the afterlife.  However, many accounts exist of women who were forced to go through with the rite. They may have been drugged, thrown into the fire, or tied up before being placed on the pyre or into the grave.

In addition, strong societal pressure was exerted on women to accept sati, particularly if they had no surviving children to support them. A widow had no social standing in traditional society, and was considered a drag on resources. It was almost unheard-of for a woman to remarry after her husband's death, so even very young widows were expected to kill themselves.

History of Sati

Sati first appears in the historical record during the reign of the Gupta Empire, c.

320 to 550 CE.  Thus, it may be a relatively recent innovation in the extremely long history of Hinduism. During the Gupta period, incidents of sati began to be recorded with inscribed memorial stones, first in Nepal in 464 CE, and then in Madhya Pradesh from 510 CE. The practice spread to Rajasthan, where it has happened most frequently over the centuries.

Initially, sati seems to have been limited to royal and noble families from the Kshatriya caste (warriors and princes). Gradually, however, it percolated down into the lower castes. Some areas such as Kashmir became particularly known for the prevalence of sati among people of all classes and stations in life. It seems to have really taken off between the 1200s and 1600s CE.

As the Indian Ocean trade routes brought Hinduism to Southeast Asia, the practice of sati also moved into new lands during the 1200s to 1400s. An Italian missionary and traveler recorded that widows in the Champa kingdom of what is now Vietnam practiced sati in the early 1300s. Other medieval travelers found the custom in Cambodia, Burma, the Philippines, and parts of what is now Indonesia, particularly on the islands of Bali, Java, and Sumatra. In Sri Lanka, interestingly, sati was practiced only by queens; ordinary women were not expected to join their husbands in death.

Under the rule of the Muslim Mughal emperors, sati was banned more than once.  Akbar the Great first outlawed the practice around the year 1500; Aurangzeb tried to end it again in 1663, after a trip to Kashmir where he witnessed it.  

During the European colonial period, Britain, France, and the Portuguese all tried to stamp out the practice of sati.

Portugal outlawed it in Goa as early as 1515. The British East India Company imposed a ban on sati in the city of Calcutta only in 1798. To prevent unrest, at that time the BEIC did not allow Christian missionaries to work within its territories in India.  However, the issue of sati became a rallying point for British Christians, who pushed legislation through the House of Commons in 1813 to allow missionary work in India specifically too end practices like sati. 

By 1850, British colonial attitudes against sati had hardened. Officials like Sir Charles Napier threatened to hang for murder any Hindu priest who advocated or presided over a widow-burning.  British officials put intense pressure on the rulers of the princely states to outlaw sati, as well.  In 1861, Queen Victoria issued a proclamation banning sati throughout her domain in India.

 Nepal officially banned it in 1920.

Today, India's Prevention of Sati Act (1987) makes it illegal to coerce or encourage anyone to commit sati. Forcing someone to commit sati can be punished by death. Nonetheless, a small number of widows still choose to join their husbands in death; at least four instances have been recorded between the year 2000 and 2015.

Pronunciation: "suh-TEE" or "SUHT-ee"

Alternate Spellings: suttee

Examples:

"In 1987, a Rajput man was arrested after the sati death of his daughter-in-law, Roop Kunwar, who was just 18 years old."