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About Sati practice in India

I read an essay by Ashis Nandy that contends that the epidemic of sati in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century was mainly a product of British colonial intrusion into Indian society. The popularity of the rite and its abolition in response to a reform movement were two phases in Indian society’s attempt to cope with large-scale environmental and cultural changes; that both these changes involved the invalidation and distortion of traditional attitude to women and femininity.
It was prevalent mostly in Bengal and was partly a primitive Malthusian means of population control in famine-ridden Bengal.
The author (Ashis Nandy) of the essay was not concerned with the origins of the practice but with its sudden revival in the Bengali society in the face of changes brought in the society due to British rule. Secondly, in Bengal and some parts of eastern India, we have dayabhaga system of Hindu law so; Sati was a way of solving property disputes.
I think these two still are the main reasons for sati. In place of British Raj, we have so called ‘modernization/westernization’. And in response- instead of Sati, we have Hindutva.
The essay provides psychological reasons for revival of sati and the whole reform process associated with it. Try to get you hands on the essay. It might be useful for understanding Sati and whole lot of other issues.
Ever wondered why most of the widows in Banaras are from Bengal. Why they have great love for Female Deity and yet don’t treat women as equals? Man is corrupted by his fear of the female. Diodorus Siculus in 314 B.C. presents one of the early and not so popular myths associated with Sati. It speaks of a Rajput wife who poisoned her husband. For this crime, the ‘institution took its rise’.
All pro-sati literature (including Manu and concept of Jauhar that involved mass burning so that they don’t get raped etc) repeatedly mentions the frailty of women, their ‘subjection to passion’, lack of understanding and quarrelsomeness and their ‘want of virtuous knowledge’. All three all allegedly made them untrustworthy and fickle.

An Excerpt from the essay:
A large number of Bengali Brahmans did claim sacred sanction for sati; indeed, sati was seen by many observers of Indian society as a conspiracy of Brahmans. Infact Rammohun himself in a general way believed in this conspiracy theory (see his English Works, Vol 2 pp43-4, 48-9)
It went unnoticed by most of these observers that the Bengali Brahmans, unlike Brahmans in some other parts of India, were not merely religious leaders and interpreters of texts, traditions and rites but major landholders and financiers who were increasingly co-opted by the colonial system. Also, they were the caste most exposed to westernization and the growing conflicts between the old and the new. As already noted, in the new set-up many had to maintain their traditional status on the grounds of a new set of values and not on the grounds of their old , more internally consistent, life style. As a result, material and status gains were often associated with moral anxiety and some free-floating rage at adaptive problems. And they began to see all restrictions on ritualized expression of these feelings as further threats to life style. The opposition to sati constituted such a threat for them. In their desperate defense of the rite they were also trying to defend their traditional self-esteem and self-definition(A.F. Salahuddin, Social Ideas and Social Changes in Bengal,1818-1835, p.126, mentions pride and economic discontent as two possible causes of support far sati.
This article is Sati from his book At the edge of Psychology. It can be found in the Book Exiled at HomeSati Burning women , comprising At the Edge of Psychology, The Intimate Enemy and Creating a Nationality.
You can find some help on the topic at Datafoundation
A Sketch by Georges Bess from Leela et Krishna


  1. Thanks for directing me to this piece on Sati. I had an Indian friend who read my blog entry that referenced Mark Steyn's speech tell me that there was more to Sati than was mentioned in the speech, but he didn't elaborate. This piece is at least a start.

  2. I don't see how the death of women, most of whom are well past their childbearing age, would be an effective means of population control. Killing young, fertile women would work well, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening here.


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