Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood

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What is mentioned concerning funeral rites, though, is that the widow is to be brought back from her husband's funeral pyre, either by his brother, or by a trusted servant. In the Taittiriya Aranyaka from about the same time, it is said that when leaving, the widow took from her husband's side such objects as his bow, gold and jewels which previously would have been burnt with him , and a hope expressed that the widow and her relatives would lead a happy and prosperous life afterwards.

According to Altekar, it is "clear" that the custom of actual widow burning had died out a long time previously at this stage. Nor is the practice of sati mentioned anywhere in the Dharmasutras , [] texts tentatively dated by Pandurang Vaman Kane to — BCE, while Patrick Olivelle thinks the bounds should be roughly — BCE instead. Not only is sati not mentioned in Brahmana and early Dharmasastra literature, Satapatha Brahmana explains that suicide by anyone is inappropriate adharmic.

Thus, in none of the principal religious texts believed composed before the Common Era is there any evidence at all for a sanctioning of the practice of sati. It is wholly unmentioned, although the archaic Atharvaveda do contain hints of a funeral practice of symbolic sati. In addition, the twelfth-century CE commentary of Apararka, claiming to quote the Dharmasutra text Apastamba , it says that the Apastamba prescribes that if a widow has made a vow of burning herself anvahorana, "ascend the pyre" , but then retracts her vow, she must expiate her sin by the penance ritual called Prajapatya-vrata [].

The oldest portion of the epic Ramayana , the Valmiki Ramayana, is tentatively dated for its composition by Robert P. Goldman to — BCE. Altekar says that no instances of sati occur in this earliest, archaic part of the whole Ramayana. According to Ramashraya Sharma, there is no conclusive evidence of the sati practice in the Ramayana. For instance, Tara , Mandodari and the widows of Ravana , all live after their respective husband's deaths, though all of them announce their wish to die, while lamenting for their husbands.

The first two remarry their brother-in-law. The only instance of sati appears in the Uttara Kanda — believed to be a later addition to the original text — in which Kushadhwaja 's wife performs sati. Madri , the second wife of Pandu , immolates herself. She believes she is responsible for his death, as he had been cursed with death if he ever had intercourse.

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He died while performing the forbidden act with Madri; she blamed herself for not rejecting him, as she knew of the curse. Also, in the case of Madri the entire assembly of sages sought to dissuade her from the act, and no religious merit is attached to the fate she chooses against all advice. In the Musala-parvan of the Mahabharata, the four wives of Vasudeva are said to commit sati. Furthermore, as news of Krishna's death reaches Hastinapur , five of his wives choose to burn themselves. Against these stray examples within the Mahabharata of sati , there are scores of instances in the same epic of widows who do not commit sati, none of them blamed for not doing so.

Moriz Winternitz states that Brihaspati Smriti prohibits burning of widows. Neither of these suggest sati as mandatory, but Parasara Smriti elaborates the benefits of sati in greater detail. Within the dharmashastric tradition espousing sati as a justified, and even recommended, option to ascetic widowhood, there remained a curious conception worth noting the achieved status for a woman committing sati. Burning herself on the pyre would give her, and her husband, automatic, but not eternal, reception into heaven svarga , whereas only the wholly chaste widow living out her natural life span could hope for final liberation moksha and breaking the cycle of rebirth.

Thus, acknowledging that performing sati only achieved an inferior otherworldy status than successful widowhood could achieve, sati became recommended when coupled with a dismissal of the effective possibility for a widow to remain truly chaste. While some smriti passages allow sati as optional, others forbid the practice entirely. Those who supported the ritual, did however, put restrictions on sati.

It was considered wrong for women who had young children to care for, those who were pregnant or menstruating.

Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood

A woman who had doubts or did not wish to commit sati at the last moment, could be removed from the pyre by a man, usually a brother of the deceased or someone from her husband's side of the family. David Brick, [] summarizing the historical evolution of scholarly debate on sati in medieval India, states:. To summarize, one can loosely arrange Dharmasastic writings on sahagamana into three historical periods.

In the first of these, which roughly corresponds to the second half of the 1st millennium CE, smrti texts that prescribe sahagamana begin to appear. However, during approximately this same period, other Brahmanical authors also compose a number of smrtis that proscribe this practice specifically in the case of Brahmin widows. Moreover, Medhatithi — our earliest commentator to address the issue — strongly opposes the practice for all women.

Taken together, this textual evidence suggests that sahagamana was still quite controversial at this time. In the following period, opposition to this custom starts to weaken, as none of the later commentators fully endorses Medhatithi's position on sahagamana. Indeed, after Vijnanesvara in the early twelfth century, the strongest position taken against sahagamana appears to be that it is an inferior option to brahmacarya ascetic celibacy , since its result is only heaven rather than moksa liberation.

Finally, in the third period, several commentators refute even this attenuated objection to sahagamana, for they cite a previously unquoted smrti passage that specifically lists liberation as a result of the rite's performance. They thereby claim that sahagamana is at least as beneficial an option for widows as brahmacarya and perhaps even more so, given the special praise it sometimes receives.


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These authors, however, consistently stop short of making it an obligatory act. Hence, the commentarial literature of the dharma tradition attests to a gradual shift from strict prohibition to complete endorsement in its attitude toward sahagamana. Although the myth of the goddess Sati is that of a wife who dies by her own volition on a fire, this is not a case of the practice of sati.

The goddess was not widowed, and the myth is quite unconnected with the justifications for the practice.

Julia Leslie points to an 18th-century CE text on the duties of the wife by Tryambakayajvan that contains statements she regards as evidence for a sub-tradition of justifying strongly encouraged, pressured, or even forced sati. Although the standard view of the sati within the justifying tradition is that of the woman who out of moral heroism chooses sati, rather than choosing to enter ascetic widowhood, [] Tryambaka is quite clear upon the automatic good effect of sati for the woman who was a 'bad' wife:.

Women who, due to their wicked minds, have always despised their husbands Thus, as Leslie puts it, becoming or being pressured into the role of a sati was, within Tryambaka 's thinking, the only truly effective method of atonement for the bad wife. Opposition to sati was expressed by several exegesis scholars such as the ninth- or tenth-century Kashmir scholar Medatithi — who offers the earliest known explicit discussion of sati, [] the 12th- to 17th-century scholars Vijnanesvara, Apararka and Devanadhatta, as well as the mystical Tantric tradition, with its valorization of the feminine principle.

Explicit criticisms were published by Medhatithi , a commentator on various theological works. He considered sati a form of suicide, which was forbidden by the Vedas :. Medhatithi offered a second reason against sati, calling it against dharma adharma. He argued that there is a general prohibition against violence of any form against living beings in the Vedic dharma tradition, sati causes death which is sufficient proof of violence, and thus sati is against Vedic teachings.

Vijnanesvara presents both sides of the argument, for and against sati. He argues first that Vedas do not prohibit sacrifice aimed to stop an enemy and in pursuit of heaven, and sati for these reasons is thus not prohibited. He then presents two arguments against sati, calling it "unobjectionable". The first is based on hymn His second reason against sati is an appeal to relative merit between two choices.

Death may grant a woman's wish to enter heaven with her dead husband, but living offers her the possibility of reaching moksha through knowledge of the Self through learning, reflecting and meditating.

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In Vedic tradition, moksha is of higher merit than heaven, because moksha leads to eternal, unsurpassed bliss while heaven is impermanent and smaller happiness. Living gives her an option to discover deeper, fulfilling happiness than dying through sati does, according to Vijnanesvara.

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Apararka acknowledges that Vedic scripture prohibits violence against living beings and "one should not kill"; however, he argues that this rule prohibits violence against another person, but does not prohibit killing oneself if one wants to. Thus sati is a woman's choice and it is not prohibited by Vedic tradition, argues Apararka. Reform and bhakti movements within Hinduism favoured egalitarian societies, and in line with the tenor of these beliefs, generally condemned the practice, sometimes explicitly.

The 12th-century Virashaiva movement condemned the practice. European artists in the eighteenth century produced many images for their own native markets, showing the widows as heroic women, and moral exemplars. In her article " Can the Subaltern Speak? The novel The Ashram by Indian writer Sattar Memon , deals with the plight of an oppressed young woman in India, under pressure to commit suttee and the endeavours of a western spiritual aspirant to save her.

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For other uses of "sati", see Sati disambiguation. Peoples and societies. Religion and mythology. Indo-European studies. Scholars Marija Gimbutas J. Main traditions. Vaishnavism Shaivism Shaktism Smartism. Rites of passage. Philosophical schools. Gurus, saints, philosophers.

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