Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rg-Vedic reference to Sati



                The Rg-Veda contains a famous passage mentioning Sati – and preventing it. To a widow who is with her husband on his funeral pyre, the text says: rise up, abandon this dead man and re-join the living (10:18:8). The Vedic testimony proves two things: (1) Sati already existed, and (2) it was disapproved of by the mainstream of the Hindu tradition.

Of course it already existed, going back at least to Proto-Indo-European days. It is also recorded among the Germanic and Celtic branches of Indo-European (in the Siegfried saga, his beloved Brunhilde follows the hero into death). As a general rule, it was more frequent in societies where women had honour to uphold, whereas societies where women were treated as household commodities (like the Greek) did not know the practice at all. Variations on Sati, with harem wives and servants following their kings into death, are recorded in ancient Egypt, ancient China, Mongolia (where the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism put an end to it) and other societies. So India was not that exceptional.

                The Mahabharata confirms the practice’s existence among the aristocracy, esp. with the self-immolation of Pandu’s beloved wife Madri (while his other wife Kunti does not consider it). She may have felt guilty, having seduced Pandu to have intercourse with her in spite of knowing that he was cursed to die from it; but she may also not have valued life without her husband. Greek sources of the last centuries BCE testify that the wives of Indian warriors killed in battle committed self-immolation. One episode  even describes how a dead soldier’s two widows quarrel over who will be the Sati. Mind you, they quarreled for the right to self-immolate, not to make the other one self-immolate, for it was voluntary and indeed required some will-power to overcome the family’s resistance. The Hindu warrior caste, at least in some areas, upheld the practice until the collective Sati of several of Shivaji Bhonsle’s and of Ranjit Singh’s wives. The last great self-immolation by a Hindu ruler was indeed committed upon the death of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh in 1839. (If Sati is Hindu, the latter incident only offers extra proof that, much to the displeasure of the Khalistanis, Sikhism is Hindu.)

It is not true that, as some internet Hindus claim, Sati dates to the Muslim or even to the British period. It may be true that in some cases, families forced widows to commit Sati under pressure from altered British inheritance laws, but under these new circumstances it was still Hindus themselves who misused a hoary Hindu practice. They even cited a skewed reading of the Rg-Vedic verse in support of Sati, a classic case of the pliability of “tradition”. As for the Muslim period, typical for some battles was that Hindu warriors fought to the death and their wives who had remained in the towns committed collective self-immolation  or Jauhar, not to fall into the hands of the Muslims. This was a specific practice building on the long-existing Hindu practice of Sati, but not to be confused with it.

It was confined to the real or would-be warrior castes, though, in keeping with their ethos of pride and passion. For Brahmins it was forbidden, a negative judgment going back to this Rg-Vedic verse. Taking such a momentous decision within at most 24 hours between the husband’s death and his cremation, under the impact of heavy emotions, was deemed to be in conflict with the Brahmin ethos of self-control. It is only logical that some rulers in the Brahmin-dominated Maratha confederacy forbid the practice even before the British East India Company Governor Lord William Bentinck (under prodding from Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy) abolished it by law in 1829. Brahmin and other high-caste widows were expected to remain loyal to their deceased husbands and refrain from remarrying, no matter how young they were. They became white-clad widows, often kept at a distance because of the stench of death figuratively hanging over them: primitive belief held them responsible for the death of their husbands (the converse implication of the belief that the wife’s force protected the husband). Though lower castes widely emulated this practice by the time European travelers recorded Hindu customs, the rule and often still the practice among low-castes had been that no womb should go unused and so widows remarried.

What is so puzzling about Sati for moderns in general and multiculturalists (in India: secularists) in particular, is that as per numerous testimonies, most self-immolating widows went into the pyre voluntarily, often overcoming pressure from their relatives or from the authorities not to do it. The shrill feminists who were protesting the Sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987 (calling it “murder”, a view which the Court refused to uphold) don’t want to understand this, but the testimonies are clear. The problem is that willing Satis confront the multiculturalists with a really different view of death, of freedom and of a woman’s place. Multiculturalism may be fun as long as it’s about exotic cuisine or Buddha statues in the garden, but here it gets really serious: actual difference between our and their conception of the rights of woman. Here was a class of women who, even as brides, knew very well that their husband’s death would leave them with the option of self-immolation, and accepted the custom.

Then again, we’ve been here before. In some Western countries, progressives have stood up for the right of women (effectively, of their parents) to commit female circumcision. All over the Western world, it is considered progressive to stand up for the right of Muslim women to cover their faces, even on passport photographs. Under their creed of cultural relativism, progressives ought to defend Sati as well, instead of being judgmental and applying narrow-minded Western prejudice to it. Alternatively, they might hold on to the modern “prejudice”, condemn Sati, and admit that multiculturalism has its limits.

Only a tiny minority of the Hindus, and even of the caste most famous for it, the Rajputs, ever committed Sati, but the practice had and largely still has a much wider constituency of supporters. Temples are erected for the women who committed it, where their heroism and loyalty is venerated: the Satisthal-s (now rebaptized as Shaktisthal-s, since Roop Kanwar’s Sati triggered a prohibition on the glorification of Sati). In South India, these women are commemorated with standing stones or Satikal-s, while men who have died while defending their villages get their Virakal-s, “hero stones”. So, whereas few women ever committed Sati, those who saw and venerated the heroism of it, were many.

But is it a “Hindu practice”? Firstly, the practice goes back to the time when the current belief in reincarnation didn’t exist yet. Husband and wife were supposed to go to heaven together, for “going to heaven” prevailed over reincarnation. The later version that they would “reincarnate together” is an unconvincing compromise. If there is anything to reincarnation, it means that if we are somehow entangled, we meet again even if we don’t die together.

Secondly, Hindu scripture largely frowns on it but accepts it for the warrior caste. A good but also difficult point in Hindu ethics is its relativity: depending on caste, age group and circumstances, the rules may differ. Caste autonomy is also recognized, and the decision of the caste Panchayat (council) effectively overruled anything written in the so-called law books. For instance, Brahmins wrote law books sternly condemning abortion, yet pre- and postnatal abortion was rife in some castes. The current problem of female feticide is based on this “Hindu” tradition, yet is clearly forbidden by the equally Hindu law books. So, Sati also had a place in the Hindu commonwealth even if it was forbidden for most people.

The well-known Somali-born ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while campaigning for atheism as an alternative to Islam, accepts that Muslim women in large majority will go on believing in Allah and venerating Mohammed for a while, and therefore encourages a progressive interpretation of Islamic law, esp. regarding the treatment of women. But one problem she runs into, is the decentralization of Islam: no matter that a lone liberal Mufti (jurisconsult) issues an opinion giving a progressive reading of Islamic law, this innovation is not binding on other Muftis or on the masses. It is not like in the Catholic Church, where the Pope or the Council can take decisions which are binding on every Catholic. Reform may be slow, but at least it has teeth. By contrast, in decentralized religions, paradoxically it is very difficult to impose change. In particular, no matter how many Hindu authorities or commoners say that they don’t want Sati, if one caste upholds it, it will continue at least in that community.

Hindus, however, much in contrast with Muslims, can effect reform starting below, through a change in mentality. Even the law books, deemed a hotbed of unchanging orthodoxy, explicitly lay down that reform is permissible, esp. if effected by those familiar with the spirit of the law books, who judge that in new circumstances it is better served by a new concretization. Hindus have spontaneously adapted much better to modernity. With some prodding from the secular state, but mainly be an evolution in mentalities, Sati is becoming a quaint memory. The conviction that for a widow, there is life after the death of her husband, is becoming generalized even among the castes where self-immolation was customary.   

(Hindu Human Rights,)


Trailer of Dharma said...

Koenraad Elst ji,
A very good post! It is important to underline the diversity of Hindu Law, which can differ from Jati to Jati. The Rg-Vedic disapproval of Sati is also not something many people are aware of.

अश्वमित्रः said...

[The Mahabharata confirms the practice’s existence among the aristocracy, esp. with the self-immolation of Pandu’s beloved wife Madri (while his other wife Kunti does not consider it). She may have felt guilty, having seduced Pandu to have intercourse with her in spite of knowing that he was cursed to die from it; but she may also not have valued life without her husband.]

It’s been a few years since I last read Adiparva, but this isn’t how I remember this story. I remember that Kunti is the first to propose that she follow Pandu on the pyre (I believe the word anugam is used), but then Madri dissuades her, saying that Kunti should remain alive to take care of her own and Madri’s children, and that anyway Madri always loved Pandu more passionately than Kunti, so it’s appropriate that Madri should be the one to follow him. I also remember that Madri does not seduce Pandu; on the contrary, she resists him when he is overcome by desire for her, but he goes ahead and has his way with her.

[The shrill feminists who were protesting the Sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987 (calling it “murder”, a view which the Court refused to uphold) don’t want to understand this, but the testimonies are clear. The problem is that willing Satis confront the multiculturalists with a really different view of death, of freedom and of a woman’s place. Multiculturalism may be fun as long as it’s about exotic cuisine or Buddha statues in the garden, but here it gets really serious: actual difference between our and their conception of the rights of woman. ]

Uh-huh, shrill Indian feminists and Manmohan Roy don’t want to understand Indian culture, but we’ll explain it to them, right? I think your use of “our” and “their” is leading you into somewhat dangerous terrain here.

ysv_rao said...

The episode of Rani Padmini is instructive. It shows that the ritual suicide of women in the face of violation by the enemy forces is preferable to death thus preserving their honor and also denying the enemy a demographic advantage as captured women are often given in marriage to the troops as spoils.

Really there are no statistics to show how volunatry or involuntary Sati as practices was.

Of course what was really too much was the mass sati when kings would die.For eg when the Vijayanagar kings died, a good number courtesans and helpers were obliged to commit suicide as well.
This is plain idiocy and silliness ,it is one thing for your life partners to go to the pyre with you and another to subject others to the same.

Anyway there were relatively few satis before the medieval era ,most likely the prevalent mild notion of Sati got an imeptus due the Scythian and Hun influence who used to practice more extreme forms of the same. It is these ethnicities to a large degree which formed the ruling classes of post Harshvardhan northern India

And @friendofahorse

Raja rammohan roy and shrill feminists are like a broken clock -they are right twice a day.But dont take that to mean the rest of day their views on pretty much anything are sound as well.

Furthermore Madri's love for Pandu is more of an insecurity due to being a 2nd wife of unrelated ethnicity(of the Madras in Punjab ,hence Madri).
I dont seem to recollect him having 'his way with her' thereby implying rape but she was considered rather beautiful as Madri women were renowned to be back then and their daughters still are today(if the Punjabi actresses in Bollywood are any indication).
Anyway Kunti was always rather headstrong and had an independent streak (this got her into trouble with Surya who probably told her- karna chahiye toh karna chahiye).Dont groan please the Rg veda is full of puns that would make James Bond blush.

Balan Kesavan said...

It is not sure how deep you know the caste atrocity and caste problem spoiling the indian masses right from vedic or brahminic culture in india. Most of the supporters of hindutva are selectively choosing a very few lines in midst of vast blather irrationality out of vedic or brahminic collections. It is like digging deep in to the middle core of earth to extract a precious metals, knowing how danger it is!

ysv_rao said...


I didnt understand anything from that incoherent rant. I think you are a DMK supporter or a neo Dalit Buddhist or some sort.
The entire purpose of this blog is read the Vedas and other scriptures with a fresh pair of eyes and open mind influenced as less as possible by prevailing notions and emotions associated with mainstream Hinduism.

I hope you realize that Indra (the so called Aryan god) is considered a friend to the Chandalas.

Balan Kesavan said...

What prompt you to jump into conclusion of your choice? Ok let it be! You name the rationality with some other name, it’s OK.

Paint your muddy brahminic collection to any level, but you cannot rubbish the stinking collection of all the characters of vedic names including indra (with 1000 …….). Truth always truth, either it is from DMK or Neo dalit Buddhist or some sort. Fresh fair of eyes and open mind mean, with soma rasa or without soma rasa? Charactering the naturalistic human with perverted expression like chandala shows your perverted mind.

ysv_rao said...

@Balan Kesavan

Your response is nothing more than evasion,deflection and more ad hominem attacks. This is the standard MO of a DMK lunatic. Dalit agitators are atleast usually somewhat more coherent.
There is nothing perverted about Chandala. It is a word that became somewhat undesirable much later on.
"Achoot" or untouchable OTOH is indeed a derogatory term. I find it very irritating when well intention Western people still use it!

Hey arent you late to exhibit your rationality and agnosticism by visiting the Periyar memorial and leaving your shoes outside.Thats DMK intellect for you!

Balan Kesavan said...

Ha.. ha….ha… Periyar ! he is after all a human, are you in the sense that he has been projected as like your god? If it so, it must be another blunter committed by the India’s mass, in line with immoral worship and flattery system exist in this land. As per your statement, one thing is certain you cannot change the mind set of masses even if thousand of Periyar, Buddha, charavak philosophy …etc arise in India. As long as Fear, Uncertainty and superstitious dominates human mind they cannot come across your kind of peoples preaching! But, it is possible since we are marching towards changes!

You cannot forbid the truth by counter attacking! It is the hell of truth soon all the common mass will come to understand. This is not the vedic period, when there was a forgery to strict common mass from get educated. Now a Sudra or dalit or chandala can read all the vedic truth and reveal its ugliness, for that no one can cut his tongue, no one will fire him, no one will pour molten Tin in his ear.

ysv_rao said...


Im convinced that you are a fool as only a fool would mention Periyar in the same sentence of Buddha and Charvakha.

Periyar had little to nothing original about Hinduism except to say that it was wrong and casteist.

He had zero knowledge of Indian history,world history or religions but that didnt stop him from commenting on such matters.

He also said that Brahmin women should be made public property. Yes congratulations ,this is your messiah.
Since the Brahmin exodus from TN , how exactly is it faring?
The universities which were one of the best in India are now a laughing stock due to being forced to take in riff raff due to reservations.
You are probably too stupid to realize that ultimately SC/STs suffer from such policies as in time even diligent and intellegent graduates from those communities are looked upon with suspicion due to the widespread mediocrity prevalent amongst the university system.

All the while I dont see TN ruled by the atheist DMK turning away tourist money coming in from tourists to see the magnificient temples built by those evil Brahminical casteists.

Well I suppose we should be grateful that you find it prudent to leech off them rather than destroy them.
A similar situation exists with Egyptian Muslims and the monuments of the Pharaonic era.

Give me one impressive legacy of the DMK era which matches the achievements of what you consider the dark ages.

Poetry,architechture,music(please film music including AR Rahman doesnt count as anyway he is a Muslim),painting,science, technology, industry?

You have nothing.Periyars legacy is not even a zero but profoundly negative.
The other southern states recognized this early on and wisely distanced themselves from it.

Thanks to the the DMK today, Tamils have become some of the most hated communities in India due to the arrogance,intolerance and lack of assimilation.

The Sri Lankan Tamils had far more legitimate grievances than Indian Tamils, that is until the DMK got their grubby paws all over them and pressured the successive Gandhi administrations into turning them in a violent,psycopathic self defeating organizations which lost the worlds sympanthy and led to their defeat.

Congratulations this is your legacy

Balan Kesavan said...

@ysr_ roa

It looks like you are a frustrated guy, restless irritated mind always abuse others, your abuse are best fit for you since it has no merit. The whole world agrees the Periyar as great legendary revolutionist, who first introduced the Self respect movement in Indian subcontinent in midst of stinking caste slavery system. Every rationalist surely understands the service of Periyar and his struggle on creating awareness about nonsensical caste ugliness in Indian society. I repeat, Periyar is ordinary human, who cannot be compared with your immoral comic Vedic characters.

Your command about Tamilnadu poltics, If some one agree some political parties ideology and become leader of that party, there is no question of individual identity, that too if you go through the old news, in 1987, I would like to tell you, the Sati, i.e. the topic what we argue through is, openly announced and dramatized by your favorite rulers on demise of MGR. It must be laughing stock, if we discuss more on it.

See the ugliness of Brahminical culture below!
A sexual ritual is prescribed to purify a woman who has committed sexual sins:
“A woman who has been unchaste should worship Siva in his calm aspect, Siva who is Kama. Then she should summon a Brahmin and give herself to him, thinking, ‘This is Kama who has come for the sake of sexual pleasure.’ And whatever the Brahmin wishes, the sensuous woman should do. For thirteen months she should honour in this way any Brahmin who comes to the house for the sake of sexual",
After reading the above, one who is other than brahmin must give up barbaric system of caste and become rationalist, but the practical ugliness, it is not happened/happening, they become tolerant enough to compromise their women but not the caste! That’s what Periyuar was so strong in against indian system of god and caste belief, so he extended on saying marriage between different section including Brahmin is need and must of this changing world.

Regarding achievement of Tamils, you agreed one thing, until unless Indian people come out of their crude old belief, they cannot achieve any think, the best example is double Oscar winner, yes, very few decade ago their family was converted, so Dilip become ARR. Also the wonder is your ignorance on counting the achievements of Tamil, go through history and politics, you will understand your deafness and selective mental retardness.
Another acknowledgment by you is, even after 65 years of independent, Indian bureaucracy and education is fails to recognize the intelligent low caste. Could not you ask your self, why India is so lacking in S&T and R&D, where as, even war front Korean gone far away from us? The answer is, India is not recognizing the innovative working class even if they come up struggle through with reservation. Indian caste corrupt mind is suppressing them, on the fear of losing their ground. There are number of institution where there is no reservation system followed, and many institution not filling the reserved seats, the bureaucrats are taking their maximum effort by cheat the reservation seats unfilled. Can you give any few achievement of this institute which is not following reservation? How many noble or some appreciation they got so far? The barrier is foul belief system and caste fundamentalism holding India as tortoise in development. Now, we can see the changes due to participation of all the class through reservation and break of caste barriers.

Balan Kesavan said...


Tamils are hated!
Does the Bihari and UP is loved and hugged affectionately by Marathi? like wise Bengali, Kashmiri, Assamese, Keralites, Anthratis, Kannada are doing calm without any issues? This is the bluff by Brahmin and Brahminical media, since Tamils always against their fake theory! Tamil is the Classical language, which has heritage of having world oldest carbon dated leaf lets, but there are other language such as Sumerian, Roman, .. etc but they are in stone inscription. I am coming to the point, this tamil language heritage automatically hurt the Sanskrit loyalist, so they have reason to hate tamils. They are doing half success in propaganda, because Tamil don't have any issue with any body except Hindi. Now it also becomes non issue, as each and every one has their own freedom to learn their wishful language!
Your bluff go waste, here after! Watch your health ysr_ roa, It is dangerous to be in this condition.

One more correction, the temples are constructed not by Brahmin, but the temples are occupied and corrupted by them, everyone know how they occupied it, its all kings weakness!

ysv_rao said...

@ Balan

with each post you prove your idiocy even further.
Please this idiot DMK propaganda may work with the low IQ adherents of Periyar but doesnt hold water here.
Hardly anyone outside TN cares too much about Periyar. And LOL ,no one outside the world gives a damn about him IF they have even heard of him.
I remember some Tamil idiot pretty much made the same comparision between Periyar and Vedic dieties and I slapped in the face with my shoe and he ran away crying. And if I knew who or where you are I would like to do the same. Arguments are useless with you- you will only understand this language.

India has not ceased to recognize the lower classes you imbecile. That is not my point at all.Do you even know how to read?
What I said was that reservation and a sense of entitlemnt wrecked the university system and entire generations of lower castes.
Are you going to sit there with a straight face and tell me that TN universities were better before the Periyar and DMK pollutants got their grubby paws on them.

I love how you want to give credit to the DMK ideologies for AR Rahmans Oscars. This idiocy is a class apart.

Regarding the weird mating ritual involving Brahmins, I never claimed that Hinduism is perfect you retard.The case Im making is the DMKs "cure" is worse the malady.
WHy is this so hard to understand.

Tamils birthrate is incredibly low-thank god is all I can say.Perhpas in a few generations you will be extinct and we will be rid of you.

Balan Kesavan said...

Its all waste of time with useless idiot1 , talking like born to mullah, they make same statement all rel follower go minority! If you have guts go and challenge with DMK leadership, What is concern is tamil.
Look like many time faced shoe/ chapel exchanges.

Karthikrajan said...

Women committing suicide following the death of their husbands, especially to escape sexual harassment, is understandable. By why jump into the funeral pyre, which is very torturous to the body? why not thro less painful methods? Was this method used to send some kind of message to potential harassers? or, is there any other religious angle to it? Indian law views any kind of suicide as a crime punishable with jail sentence. Opponents of roop kanwar's sati were probably opposing from this point of view, but to denigrate hinduism they have called it murder.

hemant said...

Dear Author,

I do not agree with your use of the terms "Warrior Caste" either it could be "Warrior Castes" or "Kshatriya Varna". Afterall, "Caste" and "Varna" are not the same, right ?

Hemant Rajan Naidu

LisaDavis said...

This is a thought-provoking scholarly article.

1. Numerous classics, outside India, end with the woman choosing to die, after her lover dies. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Romeo dies, Juliet wakes up, finds Romeo dead, stabs herself with his dagger. Other classic tales with the same immolation theme: Tristan and Iseult, and Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, etc.

2. Monte Carlo population modeling study how unstable and rapidly vanishing a population would be, if (a) average life expectancy was less than 40 years, (b) marriages occurred before the age of 15, and (c) each and every woman killed herself when her husband died? These statistical reproductive models provide support to "Sati-like death rituals can only be a rare practice in ancient societies that thrived. Mass and compulsory death rituals lead to rapid, natural extinction."

Animesh Mishra said...

sati in Rig veda is refereed to godess sati not to sati pratha... that is famous as devi upnishad or devi atharvstotra.

Robert Richart said...

IMHO, reincarnation is a feature of astrological planetary and star recordings and is original to this subject. 15th century poets, linguists and scholars have made Kabuki theatre from star records and forms what we see today as the basis for Jain, Buddhism and "Sindu" beliefs. The first word in the Sankhyakarika 'dukha' has been translated as human suffering, whereas in the lexicon of science when translated as 'tensor strength' the whole work defines the nature of the energy at the substratum of Space.