Sati, the Indian Ritual of Widow Burning
In 2001 I traveled to India for several months. For years I have had an interest in herbal medicine and wanted to experience Ayurveda in its country of origin. Being there I could not but be deeply moved by the situation of the Indian women.
Out of my experiences I wrote the text On Feminine Solidarity (i) and started a series of paintings that deal with the topic of Sati, the burning of widows. Sati is a ritual forbidden in today's India, but occasionally still practiced in some remote regions. The rural population considers it a heroic act, but for me the question arises: what kind of a choice and survival possibilities has a single woman in the traditional (Indian) society?
On the history of Sati: roots and rumors
The ritual of Sati (or Suttee) is the killing a favorite wife on her husband's grave. It is not exclusively an Indian ritual but has been practiced in many parts of the world such as China, Oceania, Africa and Scandinavia from where it arrived in India only late.
While often seen as a part of the Hindu tradition by outsiders, actually there is no statement in the classical Hindu scriptures concerning Sati. On the contrary, according to the funeral hymns in Rigveda (ii), there is a ceremony of a widow sleeping next to the corpse of her dead husband and then being allowed to marry anyone she pleases.
According to some sources, the practice of Sati came to India through the Kushans (iii) in 1 A.D. and was practiced by the Rajputs (iv), a warring tribe living in the north-western parts of India who were in constant battle amongst themselves and the Moslems. An interesting explanation for their practice of Sati is that due to the constant warfare many young men were killed and the young widows were considered a danger to the moral stability of society. The introduction of Sati was thus an extreme measure of eliminating them. (The Moslems, who had the same problem of young widows solved it by allowing polygamous marriages) (v).
Sati, which has never been practiced in Southern India, was abolished by the British in India in 1829 and classified as a criminal offence. (vi)
Sati as a form of suicide
By definition, suicide is the deliberate taking of one's own life. Ideally it is an individual's conscious decision, but as soon as it is a behavior judged by culture or tradition, the line between social pressure and personal motivation begins to blur. Depending on the time and place, suicide may be regarded as a heroic deed or condemned by religious and civil authorities (vii).
According to the Indian Sati ritual, the widow follows her deceased husband onto the pyre. The following aspects show the similarities between Sati and a comparable Viking Age practice of sacrificing a widow and thus illustrate that the basic concept of this custom lies beyond the traditional Indian context (viii):
(1) a considerable amount of time passes between the death of the man and the cremation of the woman[/women], who die at the funeral ceremony later
(2) the wives and concubines are allowed to choose whether or not they will accompany their husband or master, but once the decision is made they may not change their minds
(3) the woman who volunteers to die is pampered and treated as a privileged person until the day of (her) sacrifice
(4) the victim is encouraged to face her death by emphasizing her role as wife/concubine, how much she desires to be with the man, and also by the use of calming or narcotic drugs to prevent resistance
(5) sacrifice or release of birds which may represent the soul or journey of the spirit
(6) an old woman or old women accompany the girl(s)(women) to the pyre and instruct/encourage/and even sacrifice the girls(women).
Sati is a form of suicide closely related to honor: in committing suicide, the widow not just shows ultimate loyality to her deceased husband, but also transforms herself into a heroine, adding even more to the honor of her husband's family.
However, it is also interesting examinating the aspect of guilt: does the widow feel guilty for her husband's early deceasing? Her Sati then would be also standing in a tradition where suicide was offered to a favored few to save one's face. Hara-Kiri in traditional Japanese society is an example therefore, as it was seen as the appropriate moral course of action for a person who otherwise faced the loss of his honor.
On the other hand the practice of Sati must also be seen under the sociological aspects mentioned earlier, where young widows not just presented a danger to moral stability but were also an additional burden to the family. Because they were not supposed to work outside their homes (which would dishonor the family) they had no means of earning their living. So Sati also shows similarities to suicides as self-regulatory mechanism among pre-industrial peoples where members of society who could no longer contribute to their own subsistence committed self-murder for the welfare of the group. Traditionally these were the elderly; if a young woman acts the same way within her social context it just shows as how little her worth for the group is considered.
Why I choose Sati
What interests me about Sati is that it is in a way a point of culmination; for me it is metaphor for a society, that gives no worth to a woman as an individual, but rather sees her as a man's extension or possession, who's right to live vanishes with the man's passing away. Because the ritual of Sati it is of such cruel and horrendous nature, I choose it as the highest and most symbolic climax of this attitude towards women.
We may easily fall into the attitude of seeing Sati as a exotic however atrocious ritual of a remote society that has nothing to do with us and our culture. But, understanding it as an icon, for me it symbolizes concepts of honor and guilt as well as attitudes towards women that very well exist within our own, including western, industrialized societies.
What is the basic idea of Sati other than a woman defining herself (or rather being defined) exclusively through her relationship to her husband, while forgetting about herself as an individual human being? From this point of view it is a cruel logic that as soon as the husband's life is over, her own life must be over as well, and thus creating the urge to follow him onto the pyre, again adding to his honor.
While this final step is not taken in Western societies, very many women adopt attitudes of a striking similarity to their Indian sisters regarding their own perception as individuals; they sacrifice their life and individuality on the altar of marriage and a husband's career and family and while negating professional success define they themselves to a huge extent through their husband.
And a last questions arise for me: to what extent does the practice of Sati involve the free decision of a free individual? To what extent can an individual ever be free when it is born into a rigid society with rigid attitudes and behavioral codexes? Any individual always stands before the decision to either obey to these codexes and thus loose individual freedom, or to rebel against them and leave the group and the protection it may offer.
A woman committing her Sati, thus obeying the group's codex of honor and moral clearly made a decision against personal freedom and for her integration into this very group. However, death is always the big liberator; in stepping over the line (between life and death) voluntarily, she takes the only route towards freedom that has remained for her. Sati thus is truly a point of culmination; in the moment of deepest incarceration into a traditional society's most oppressing moral codexes a door to total liberation is opened.