How ‘Sati,’ a Once Funeral Ritual, Became Banned in India

painting sati
An 18th-century painting depicting the practice of ‘sati’ or widow-burning

Self-immolation is a practice associated with many different types of religions. And the common principle unique to each association is the aim of nobility, heroism, and protest. The act of “sati” began as such a gesture. Until its history took a darker, more sinister turn. But what is sati? Why did it flourish­­–and what led to it being banned throughout India?

Once a voluntary act, sati (or “suttee”) has its roots in the Hindu religion (first appearing around 320 to 550 CE, during the Gupta Empire) and, in short, references a traditional funeral rite for a married, male practitioner. When the husband died and was to be burned on his pyre, his grieving widow might commit sati by throwing herself onto the flames. This act was entirely voluntary and indicated a forthright action–the name itself comes from the Sanskrit word, “asti,” which means “she is pure or true.” That is until incidents of involuntary acts began to surface.

Sati, following the customs that defined it, was meant to symbolize the closure of a marriage. Any dutiful Hindu wife should want to finalize her vows by offering up the ultimate sacrifice. But what was once seen as the move of a devoted partner eventually took on a darker connotation.

A widow burning herself with the corpse of her husband

Why? Typically, in such societies, widows with no supportive children were seen as useless–financial burdens, or worse. In many families, women like these were encouraged to die. And some were outright forced.

The most recent publicly known case of sati occurred in 1987 when a group of men forcefully burned widow Roop Kanwar after she refused to do so voluntarily. This led to the Prevention of Sati Act by Rajasthan’s government, which criminalized the tradition indefinitely.

However, there have been at least four cases of documented, voluntary sati committed in the last twenty years.