By Varuni Trivedi
Sati Pratha was without a doubt a horrific ritual that needed to be done away with. History or rather the widely accepted history which gets its narrative from a rather British perspective, tells us that the ritual was first recorded between 320 to 550 CE, during the rule of the Gupta Empire. According to many British historians, incidents of Sati were first recorded in Nepal in 464 CE, and later on in Madhya Pradesh in 510 CE further spreading to Rajasthan. The practice of Sati however was confined to royal families of the Kshatriya caste only it was only later that it spread to the lower castes, becoming widely practiced among almost all social classes. A rather delusional British history talks about Sati and its peak between the 15th and 18th centuries.
It is important to shed light on the fact that Sati is not mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures like the Valmiki Ramayana and Vedas. Grhyusutras, composed during 600-300 BCE, describes a number of rituals with no mention of Sati in them. Gautama Buddha, who highly condemned even animal sacrifice, does not talk about Sati which is quite peculiar and makes one believe that Sati was non-existent during his times. Even Yajnavalkya doesn’t mention Sati.
However late 4th century BCE evidence from Greek historians says that Sati did not grow popular before 400 AD. The origins of Sati are quite debated and unclear. Lord Mahavira, Buddha, Adi Sankara, and other reformers have in their scriptures nowhere mentioned Sati which makes one believe that in ancient Hinduism Sati Pratha was not followed evidently.
As a matter of fact, even earlier bards of Rajputana mention hardly anything about Sati in their songs. The earliest record of Sati that can be traced is of the Mother of the Chahamana king Chandamahasena becoming in 842 AD. The next available case is of Sampalladevi of Ghatiyala in 890 AD. It was only after 1300 AD that Sati became an observed custom. However it was not rampant even then, Bhandarkara lists 20 cases of Sati in Rajputana between 1200 AD and 1600 AD, most of them being from royal families. Even though the 3rd Sikh Guru Amardas condemned Sati custom and prohibited it among Sikhs, it became a custom amongst the Sikh aristocracy as well later on.
It would be difficult to answer the exact period of Sati but it’s mostly considered between 1300-1800. Sati Pratha was high in the warrior families of Rajputana, where the percentage may have been as high as 10%. However for the general population, perhaps one widow in 1000 became a Sati when the custom was in its peak.
Most records of Sati come from foreign travelers; one such record is that of Edward Thomson. In his book ‘Suttee’, he states the official number and mentions statistics of Sati for the early 19th century, in Poona, there were 12 cases per year, in Tanjore 18 and in Central India 3-4 per year. An interesting fact that needs to be noted here is that many have claimed that Brahmanical Peshwas banned Sati throughout their domains in 1800, even Hindu Maratha kingdom Savantvadi banned Sati in 1821. The fact that Brahmins have been accused and Hinduism has been projected under bad light as a religion for having a custom like Sati stands less ground when certain facts are taken into consideration. For example, women who committed Sati were said to have died chaste, which, people believed, meant she would have good karma and a much better life in her next birth. However, this justification didn’t work for Brahmin women as they already belonged to the highest caste, so karmically they couldn’t benefit from Sati and thus did not have to practice it. Another noteworthy case is that of Raja Ranjit Dev, the Dogra king of Jammu, (1728–1780), who banned Sati in Jammu in the first half of the 18th century.
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Thus, Available statistics clearly show that outside ruling and priestly families, the custom did not make a wide appeal to the Hindu community. Then why was Sati pratha a rampant tradition and what gave more wind to this fire? When invaders started coming into India and raping women and taking them as sex slaves. That’s when the men who died their wives used to burn themselves on pyre from the fear of getting raped or being taken as a slave.
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Ram Mohan Roy undoubtedly led the crusade against Sati which was then banned in 1829. However if one accuses Brahnamical elites and Hinduism of propagating Sati pratha it would be entirely wrong. Likewise, it would also be wrong to give credit to Brits for banning Sati because what they primarily did was establish an anti-Hindu sentiment and play their divide and rule policy. They let the ritual flourish and helped ban it only to further the divide that they had been planning and plotting.