Was sati suicide or murder?

by Chaitanya CharanMarch 21, 2015

Answer podcast:

Transcription (edited) by: Bhaktin Raji Nachiappan

Question: Was sati suicide or murder?

Condensed answer:

  • Sati is not suicide because it was not done out of frustration. It is not murder because it was never forced, it was voluntary.
  • In sati, on death of husband, the wife would feel that life without husband be more intolerable than fire, hence she would enter into funeral pyre.
  • It was done with the same purpose as marriage i.e. for spiritual cultivation in partnership with one’s life partner and continue that purpose beyond present life.

Detailed Answer:

It was neither. If we want to use today’s terminology, perhaps the best word is self-immolation. Words always have their connotations and murder is not what sati was originally meant to be. The whole idea of sati was that a husband and a wife are united together and they are united together not just for bodily gratification but for spiritual cultivation. Their bond goes beyond this life. And so, when a husband dies, the wife would feel great separation from the husband and she would feel that the life without her husband would be more intolerable than the fire. Therefore she would voluntarily enter into the funeral pyre.

Everyone at that time knew that the soul is eternal and that end of the body is not the end of life. So the wife having shared life with her husband would also share death and would go to the same destination where the husband would go and they would continue their spiritual journey onwards that way.

When we look at this practice in a materialistic perspective, with only one life in picture then it may seem shocking and barbaric. But when we see any practice we have to look at it within its own framework. From that perspective, understanding the eternality of the soul and understanding the ultimate purpose of marriage as a religious activity for spiritual cultivation, it makes sense within its own framework.

The word suicide has very negative connotations, where usually the person is frustrated with life. They feel that there is nothing worth living for or whatever worth living for is taken away. There are many intolerable problems and therefore they just want to end their life. Therefore, suicide was done out of frustration whereas sati was embraced out of a spirit of self-offering for a higher cause.

If we look at the Mahabharata, after Pandu dies, it was not that his two wives, Madri and Kunti were pushing each other to go into the fire. Both of them, themselves wanted to go into the funeral pyre. Then, Madri requests Kunti to stay back since Kunti is the elder among the two and they have young children to take care of. Moreover, Pandu was desiring Madri when he departed so Madri followed him and entered into the fire. And Kunti agrees to this. The point is, it was seen as a privilege. To be able to continue the relationship between the husband and the wife in the next life, was a privilege and Kunti accepted it as a sacrifice to stay on in life. If we look at Mahabharata in its own terms, the way characters are discussing, there was no frustration associated with suicide in anyone’s minds at all.  The focus mainly was, this life was ending and existence would continue in another life.

The word nearest to sati that we have today is self-immolation. Self-immolation is where people, because of some higher cause and not being able to achieve that higher cause, enter into fire as an expression of protest. Of course, often that self-immolation is also due to frustration. For example, Buddhist monks who are frustrated with the Chinese occupation of Tibet undergo self-immolation. There is no doubt that there is a little bit of frustration but there is an understanding of some higher cause for which people are ending their lives. In suicide there is no higher cause. There is just frustration for which one ends their life. Sati, however, was for a higher cause.

Over the centuries, as materialism spread more and more, people became self-centred and as a result, sometimes sati was forced. Forced sati is barbaric. A widow being forced into the funeral pyre would be murder. And that was stopped by the British law at the request and pressure of some Hindu reformers. That sort of forced entering of a woman into the funeral pyre of her husband is definitely not the original import of sati.

To summarize, sati is neither suicide because it was not done out of frustration and certainly it is not murder because it was never forced, it was voluntary. It was done with the same purpose with which marriages were done and the same purpose for which life was led in general. And that was for the purpose of spiritual cultivation in partnership with one’s life partner and to continue that beyond this life in the next life.

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Chaitanya Charan

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