Once upon a time widows were burned alive on their dead husband’s funeral pyres. It was believed that if a widow burn herself to death soon after her husband died, her husband would go to heaven and all his sins would be gone with the wind. Suttee or sati (“good woman” or “chaste wife”) was the Indian tradition of a widow burning herself. The practice of Sutee was banned in 1829.
‘Suttee was sometimes committed voluntarily, but cases of compulsion, escape, and rescue are known. Scattered instances of it continue to occur, most notoriously in the case of Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old widow who committed suttee in 1987. The incident was highly controversial, as groups throughout India either publicly defended Kanwar’s actions or declared that she had been murdered.’
Religion supports widow burning.
‘The most sacred of Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, and the Rig Veda, the oldest Veda, explicitly sanctions the custom of Sati. The following famous `Sati Hymn’ of the Rig Veda has been recited during the actual immolation of the widow . Rig Veda 10.18.7 : ” Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium ( to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned.’
Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman — come, he is lifeless by whose side thou liest. Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover. (RV 10.18.8)
The Garudapurana favourably mentions the immolation of a widow on the funeral pyre, and states that women of all castes, even the Candalla woman, must perform Sati. The only exceptions allowed by this benevolent author is for pregnant women or those who have young children. If women do not perform sati, then they will be reborn into the lowly body of a woman again and again till they perform Sati. [ Garuda.Purana. II.4.91-100 ]
* A sati who dies on the funeral pyre of her husband enjoys an eternal bliss in heaven [ Daksa Smrti IV.18-19 ] [ Sm.Samu p.30 ] [ 1200, p.65 ]
* According to Vasishta’s Padma-Purana, a woman must, on the death of her husband, allow herself to be burnt alive on the same funeral pyre
* Yajnavalkya, the most important law-giver after Manu, states that sati is the only way for a chaste widow [ Apastamba.I.87 ] [ 1200, p.65 ]
* The Yogini Tantra enjoins upon Brahmana widows to burn themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands [ Yog.T. II.303-308 ]. Vaisya and Sudra widows were also allowed to do it. It was prohibited to unchaste women and those having many children. [ 1200, p.67 ]
* The Vyasa Smrti gives one of the two alternatives for a Brahmana widow, ie. either to become a sati or to take up ascetism after her tonsure [ Vyasa Sm. II.53 ] [ Sm.S. p.362 ]
Further, the Vishnusmirti gives only two choices for the widow:
Vishnu Smirti.XXV.14 : “If a woman’s husband dies, let her lead a life of chastity, or else mount his pyre”
— [ Vis.Sm. xxv.14 ] [ Clay.13 ]
Brahma is one of the main Aryan gods, being the creator of the world ( later he was identified as an incarnation of Vishnu ). One of the Puranas is named after him, the Brahma Purana. Like other Puranas, it was composed after the Vedas ( Pandits hold 4000 B.C., Indologists 700 B.C.) This scripture also sanctions sati:
Brahma Purana.80.75 : ” It is the highest duty of the woman to immolate herself after her husband “.
Long life is promised to the sati:
Brahma Purana.80.76, 80.77 : ” She [ the sati ] lives with her husband in heaven for as many years as there are pores in the human body, ie. for 35 million years.”
— [ Br.P. 80.76, 80.77 ] [ Sheth 103 ]
Vishnu Dharmasutra XXV.14 contains the statement: ” On her husband’s death, the widow should observe celibacy or should ascend the funeral pyre after him.”
Remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Last Suttee?
Widows are excluded from society.
There is a ceremony during the funeral of husband. Widows smash their bangles, remove their vermilion, colorful clothes and all jewelries they have been wearing. Widows have to wear simple white clothes. They are forced to shave their heads. They are not allowed to eat fish, meat, eggs, milk, onions, garlic and many different kinds of vegetable, animal products and spices. They have to fast many times a month. Widows are not thrown on the funeral pyres these days, but they are thrown on some other kinds of pyres. That is not any less traumatic.
There are more than 40 million widows in India. Most of them are ‘living dead’.
A widow’s family members would be excluded from the society if they didn’t respect to the restrictions society impose on widows. A widow is considered a bad omen, she is excluded from all auspicious events. In some cases even her shadow is considered polluting or offensive to society.
‘In India, widows are an invisible community. Although many widows are treated less harshly nowadays, they still face discrimination and neglect. People treat widowhood not as a natural stage in the life cycle of a woman, they treat it as some kind of an aberration. People accept death but do not accept widowhood. “Because somewhere in the Indian psyche, the woman’s identity is with the man and the minute he’s not there, it’s something that cannot be accepted.” Women are not considered as separate human beings. Your husband is dead, you are dead. The suffering of widows is one of the brutal consequences of patriarchy.
Shunned from society, widows flock to Vrindaban and Varanasi, pilgrimage towns to die. Young widows are often sexually exploited. Older women beg at temple gates. Some go to Ashrams where they chant prayers. For a four hour chant they can earn a cup of rice and 7 rupees( 12 cents).’
‘Hindu widows are not supposed to remarry. With little social or economic status, many become destitute. The truth is, women do not lose their dignity and basic rights when they lose their husbands. But our anti-women society do not like to think about women’s basic human rights.
What happens when a man’s wife dies? Is he treated as a bad omen? Is he excluded from all auspicious events? Does he stop eating certain food and stop wearing colorful clothes? Is he sent to a lonely place where he has nothing to do but to wait for his death? No. Men don’t get abandoned, they remarry young women and start a new life.
You can always watch Water, a great movie. The story of an eight-year-old widow.