Excerpts From:
' Hinduism and Islam

A Comparative Study '

According to Hindu scriptures, a widow is required to mount the funeral of her dead husband and be cremated along with his corpse. If the husband dies at a distant place, the widow is nonetheless to be burned alive on a pyre by herself. A widow who burns herself to death this way is called sati. The guiding force to motivate Hindus to practice sati is the instructions given in their scriptures. Some of these are as given below [ 1 ]:

"It is proper for a woman, after her husband's death to burn herself in the fire with his copse; every woman who thus burns herself shall remain in paradise with her husband 35,000,000 years by destiny."

"The wife who commits herself to fames with her husband's copse shall equal Arundathi and reside in Swarga (heaven)."

"Accompanying her husband, she shall reside so long in Swarga as the 35,000,000 of hairs on the human body.

"As the snake-catcher forcibly drags the serpent from his earth, so bearing her husband [from hell] with him she enjoys heavenly bliss."

"Dying with her husband, she sanctifies her maternal and paternal ancestors and the ancestors of him to whom she gave her virginity."

"Such a wife adorning her husband, in celestial felicity with him, greatest and most admired, shall enjoy the delights of heaven while fourteen Indras reign."

"Though a husband had killed a Brahman, broken the ties of gratitude, or murdered a friend she expiates the crime."

The rite of sati was prevalent in India until it was prohibited by the British Government in 1829. Regulation XVII of 1829 declared sati illegal and punishable by the criminal courts as 'culpable homicide' amounting to manslaughter,' for which a death sentence could be awarded.[ 2 ]. The orthodox Hindus protested that measure and made an appeal to the Privy Council in England, but, fortunately for the would-be Hindu widows of India, the council dismissed the appeal. Thus after having been practiced in India for over two thousand years, the institution of widow-burning became illegal by the law enacted by a foreign power.

Until the practice of widow-burning was made a punishable offence, the number of widows sacrificed every year was appalling. Early in the nineteenth century, in Bengal alone, the annual number of such cases was about twelve hundred. In 1818, no fewer than 839 cases of sati occurred in Bengal. Of these cases, as many as 544 were accounted for by Calcutta division alone [ 3 ].

It appears that Hindu society was not ready to honour the ordinance which banned sati except under duress. Long after the date of enactment of the ordinance, the rite was freely practiced in Hindu States outside the jurisdiction of the British power. The sati which accompanied the cremation of the body of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab in 1839 is a case in point. Four of his wives and seven female slaves were burnt to death on the funeral pyre with his corpse when it was cremated [ 4 ]. Sati continued to be practiced in some parts of India even after independence (i.e, 1947).

Apparently, the institution of sati highlights the chastity of women. However, when one considers the institution of devdasi (i.e., the system of keeping temple prostitutes) to satisfy the lust of the priests and enable them to earn handsome income through engaging these girls in immoral activities with rich pilgrims, one fails to understand what is the real purpose of sati, upholding the chastity of women or torturing them to death.

The alternative to the rite of sati is enforced widowhood, with all its degrading accompaniments. It seems as if the Hindu law-givers made harsh regulations to be strictly followed by a widow to make her life as miserable as possible. The widow had from the moment her husband died not only to deplore the loss of a companion, but she had also to take a position of utter degradation in the household where formerly she had an honourable place. In the words of J.C. Oman, "In many parts of India, it is customary a few days after the cremation of the husband, to perform what may be called the ceremony of formally degrading the widow, when she has her head shaved by the barber and is deprived of the use of all her personal ornaments..."

References :
[1] Wilkins: Modern Hinduism, London, 1975, pages 186 and 223.
[2] S.R. Sharma, The Making of Modern India, Bombay, 1951, p. 478.
[3] Ibid.
[4] John C. Oman, The Brahmans, Theists, and Muslims of India, Delhi, 1973, p. 192