The terrible and shocking rape of a young Indian woman on a bus in Delhi last month and the demonstrations that took place in India after the girl died lighted again a long discussion on the position of woman in Indian society. I would like to refer to another difficult and disturbing case regarding women’s rights in India, which is Sati.
What is Sati?
The term ‘Sati’ has several meanings which vary according to the context in which it is presented. In the west the term Sati is perceived as a description of a Hindu custom when a widow commits suicide and burns herself at the fire of her late husband.
But Hindus perceive the term differently. Sati refers first and foremost to the woman herself, who becomes Sati when she releases her inner truth and re-unites with her husband in the act of death. That preserves the woman’s female energy known as shakti to continue to stand by her husband following his journey to the next incarnation.
The Origin of Sati
The origin of the custom is deeply ingrained in Hindu mythology and can point to a number of mythical literature (like the great epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas – mythological stories of the Hindu gods) which has reference to the same phenomenon of righteous women who in an act of devotion to their husbands to bring about their own death. The most famous story associated with the history of the custom is the story of Sati, one of the goddesses of India, who jumped to the ceremonial fire made by her father Dashka which was made in respect to all of the gods except for her husband, Lord Shiva. In order to save the honour of her husband and to prevent this shame she committed suicide. It is believed that the fate of a woman who became Sati is to gain the ultimate freedom known as moksha and to be released from the account of karma and the cycle of births. After the ‘Heroic death’ they received respect and holiness and their families honoured.
The custom of Sati was never common throughout India and took place only in specific areas around the sub – continent. Originally this was a voluntary practice. A widow had the right to choose whether to burn after the cremation of her husband or not and if she decided to she always had the right to regret. In the early nineteenth century this custom was outlawed by the British colonial authorities who ruled India. In light of India’s encounter with the West, Sati also became an issue within the Indian society, with a strong opposition against this practice.
The Sati of Roop Kanwar:
Today, the existence of this practice is almost gone. But on September 4, 1987 in the village Deorala in Rajasthan, a young girl named Roop Kanwar became Sati. This Sati case became known throughout the world and lighted intense public debate about the legitimacy of the practice and if Indian women really have a choice in the decision to cause death in her own hands. The discussion went beyond the scope of the practice itself and raised important questions about the place of the Hindu religion in the country and the political system, and the status of women in Indian society. The Case of Roop Kanwar’s Sati gained the public eye in India due to the major dispute around it.
Coming up this week Sati part 2 will look at the debate over Sati and issues of gender