Sati Sahagamanam

Sati Sahagamanam is also called Sati Sahamaranam. The word sati means wife (an excellent, devoted wife) and pati means husband. (a protecting, providing, husband). Saha means with. Gamanam means going. Maranam means dying. This process relates to the co-funeral of a living wife with her dead husband. (Not like Ruru – Pramadvara)

The Europeans had a morbid fascination with this Indian custom, that was prevalent in the 18th and early 19th centuries in Bengal and other parts of India. Many Brahmin widows (except those who were pregnant, suckling etc) used to follow their husbands on the funeral pyres, rather than face the humiliation of living on after their death. It was also followed by other castes which were wealthy.

Vedic Time: Prof. P.L. Bhargava has written in his book “Vedic Religion and Culture” that women did NOT immolate themselves on the funeral pyre in the Vedic days. In the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda a custom is described where a woman who wants to go to the same world as her husband after her death, would lie down for a little while on the unlit pyre and then be asked to get up by the people around. (This is confirmed by Swami Harshananda).

Sri Rama’s time: When Sri Rama’s father died, none of Dasaratha’s queens (Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi) or his 300 other wives immolated themselves with him. (Balakanda, Ayodhya Kanda, Aryanya Kanda)

Sri Krishna’s time: When Pandu died, his second wife *Madri chose to accompany him to the next world via the funeral pyre and his first wife Kunthi (Sri Krishna’s paternal aunt) stayed back reluctantly because someone had to raise the Pandava princes. (* Please see Ananya’s Comment)

Mauryan period: There was a framework for widow re-marriage and divorce by mutual consent as detailed in the Kautilya Arthasastra. See

Swami Harshananda in A Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism: (Notes from his article on Sati page 250).

  1. The practice of burying a man’s posessions including wives, servants and livestock for his use in the ‘Next World’ was a custom common to many ancient cultures including egypt, china, europe, Ur etc.
  2. This practice had become outmoded by the time of the Rg Veda. Mantra 10.18-8 refers to the practice of the widow lying on the funeral pyre of her husband, and coming down before it is lit up. It was purely symbolic.
  3. No scripture ordains Sati Sahagamanam except Vishnu Dharma Sastra. In the Vishnu Dharma Sastra it is voluntary and it is not extolled. The scriptures ordain that a life of austerity for a widow is higher than sati sahagamanam. This is because self-realization is the highest goal of human life.
  4. The high incidence of Sati Sahamaranam in Bengal had to do more with the high share for women in the property of joint families. It was a custom driven by a greed for money and helped by illiteracy.
  5. Prior to Raja Rama Mohan Roy, Methatithi, Bana and teachers of tantras were against this custom.

Muslim Rule Time: Maharani Padmini was a  brave and beautiful queen of Chitor. She committed Johar with all the remaining women of her clan, rather than submit to the dishonour of subjecting herself to the unwelcome advances of Ala Ud Din Khiji. Her husband, the Rana, and all the other rajput men defended the fort to their death.

One thing very clear to me, is that Indians have always believed in the next world and have had less fear of death per se, than others. To an Indian, Ihaloka (this world) and Paraloka (the other world) were equally real. Honour was very important.

British Rule. (Reference): An American merchant, Benjamin Crowninshield, described the “suttee” he witnessed while in Calcutta in 1789 with “extraordinary detail” and “great sensitivity.”In his ship’s log, he concluded his sober account: “Whether it is right or wrong, I leave it for other people to determine. . . . t appeared very solemn to me. I did not think it was in the power of a human person to meet death in such a manner.”   (A modern analogy :  During the independence struggle, wave after wave of Indians (men and women), went up, got beaten by Britishers and did not hit back, as per Gandhiji’s word.

  1. Within the city of Calcutta, under jurisdiction of British law, suttee was prohibited since 1798.
  2. As the debate over widow-burning intensified, officials took steps to suppress the practice in 1812, with a distinction between “legal” (voluntary) and “illegal” (involuntary) suttee. In 1817, the government ruled that Hindu law did not permit brahmin widows “to ascend any other pile than that of their husbands” and that, consequently, they “could not be allowed to perform the rite of anumarana, or of burning after their husband’s death and at a different time and place, but that they could only be allowed to perform the rite known as sahamarana, or burning on the same funeral pile.”
  3. Its complete abolition came under Lord William Bentinck through Regulation XVII of the Bengal Code, December 4, 1829, declaring the practice of suttee, whether voluntary or not, illegal and punishable by the criminal courts.”

Double Standards of the British/Christian Missionaries/Church: Over the course of the nineteenth century, with imagery of horror, missionary tracts and journals frequently depict ‘suttee’ as the symbol of benighted India and Hindu “superstition.” They however had no problems with witch-burning, book burning, the spanish inquisitions that put their science back by centuries, with massacres as in Jalianwalah Bagh or with the holocaust.

  1. Slavery in Britain was abolished in 1834. (except with the notable exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,” the “Island of Ceylon,” and “the Island of Saint Helena.”
  2. The practice of Black Slavery, with its attendant horrors was in vogue in America from 1607 to 1865. The American church supported this.
  3. Taking over the kingdoms of widows (Jhansi etc) was  fine with the British Rulers.
  4. The last witch burned in England, by the Church, was in 1730. In 1770 Christian missionaries were crying themselves hoarse over the “dreadful practice” Sati Sahagamanam. (See Also : history of witchcraft persecutions).
  5. The Jallian Walah Bagh Massacre was in 1919
  6. The Holocaust was in 1942 : “Vatican reactions to the Holocaust cannot truly be understood without realizing that the Catholic perspective on Jews underwent a dramatic change from 1930 to 1965. Although the Vatican has never fully admitted how its centuries of anti-Semitism set the stage for the Holocaust, it did implicitly acknowledge how its anti-Semitism has been both problematic and false by trying to repudiate it during the Second Vatican Council.” (Source)

Indian Nationalists: Indian nationalists studied the scriptures and found that Sati Sahagamanam was NOT prescribed by the Vedas. They concluded that it was an “in between” custom. They fought Against Sati Sahagamanam, Against Child Marriage, Against Kanya Sulkam (Bride-Price) and Against Vara katnam (Dowry), within the context of Hinduism.

Notable among these are :

  1. Raja Rama Mohan Roy. (fought Sati Sahagamanam)
  2. Gurajada Venkatappa Rao. (fought Kanya Sulakam)
  3. Kandukuri Veeresalingam (fought For Widow Re-marriage – PunarVivaham)
  4. See Also: Book by Pattabhi Sitaramayya on the History of Congress Including Social Reform in 1935.

My View:

  1. Firstly, I believe in any individual’s right-to-die, if life is a medical misery or prolonged humilation/slavery.
  2. I also personally believe that it is better to live than to die, under general circumstances.
  3. I have heard from my great-grandmother and others that it was the Muslim rule that resulted in early marriages for girls and was the cause for the immolation of widows. (She herself was widowed at 25 and lived till 97 taking care of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren). She said that “the Muslims would not carry away married girls, so the girls were married off pre-puberty“. She also said the widows of Hindu kings who were killed by muslims, immolated themselves to avoid public humiliation. She herself was married at the age of 7.
  4. Re-marriage is a good option, whenever possible for whoever wants it. , but no one should be forced to re-marry.
  5. Evolution of Dharma Sastras

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