Sati, anglicized suttee, referred to the practice of self-immolation among Hindu windows, either by joining her dead husband on his funeral pyre, or by committing suicide later on a pyre lit by embers from that pyre. Not even pregnancy could save a woman from this fate; the ceremony was merely postponed until two months after the child’s birth. The origins of the custom are mysterious; there is no reference to it in the Vedas except for a hint in the rituals for the antyeshti (funeral) rite that describes how a widow might lie beside of her husband on the unlit pyre, his bow in hand; she was then formally recalled to life and might marry his brother, or beget children by niyoga. However, both the Mahabharata and Ramayana contain references to extensive sati practices. The first historical instance of sati is found in Greek records of 316 BC, when the wife of an Indian general who was killed was supposedly burned. One of the last was the sister of Dr. A. S. Altekar, who joined her husband on the funeral pyre in 1946, in spite of pleas from her relatives imploring her not to do so. The custom though illegal infrequently continues.
The Hindu law books in the first and second centuries AD viewed the act as gaining spiritual merit; 400 years later it was considered sinful for a woman to survive her husband. Originally the practice was reserved for widows of rulers and military leaders, but, as it gained prestige, it spread even to the lower castes. The proper procedures for the ceremony are recorded in the Padma-Purana of the early twelfth century. Originally a northern Indian custom, especially among the Rajputs, it spread to southern India by the tenth century. As polygyny was usual among the rulers and nobility throughout India, literally hundreds of widows and concubines were called upon to face self-immolation upon their husband’s death. Among the Rajputs the practice of jauhar was a variant.
It is doubtful that many widows went to their husbands’ pyres willfully or peacefully, although it is certain that some did. Some were forcefully burned, even sons were deaf to their mothers’ pleas, in order to protect family honor.
Many Hindu lawyers and writers opposed sati over the centuries, but until the Tantric scholars condemned it as positively sinful, there was no concerted opposition. The Mughals in their effort to abolish it, instituted a permit system by which a woman stated she was committing sati by her own choice, but this scheme was widely open to abuse. Not until 1829, under Lord Bentinck’s Regulation, did sati become legal homicide, after pressure was brought to bear on the British authorities by Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, notably Ram Mohan Roy. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 861-862