Tracing ashes
Ranjit Powar

Sati: A Historical Anthology
Ed. Andrea Major. Oxford. Pages 466. Rs 650.

Sati: A Historical AnthologyNearly 178 years after it was banned, ambers from pyres of satis still smoulder with mystifying and intriguing questions about a custom which invited horror and criticism from most of the world, awe and fascination from some and devotion from others. Europeans projected it with a more or less motivated agenda to reinforce the picture of an India with a tribal face and gory ancient rituals.

A large number of people, largely Hindus, see sati as the ultimate achievement in "stridharma", elevating the woman to the status of a goddess and ensuring blessings for the husband and coming generations. The issue resurfaced in 1987, when Roop Kanwar burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband at Deorala in Rajasthan and was hailed as a "satimata". It gave rise to debates, protests and conflicts, raising questions about the role and position of women and gender-related exploitation in the name of religion.

Andrea Major, in this anthology of essays, has brought together first-hand accounts, opinions, debates, treatises and legislations on the subject. There are vivid descriptive accounts by Greek, Portuguese, French and Arab travellers like Ibn Batuta from as far back as the 17th century. Tracts by British missionaries like Rev. William Ward seem to aim at highlighting it to prove Hindu depravity.

There are portions from Parliamentary Papers, 1818, elucidating Lord William Bentinck's reasons for outlawing it. On the Indian side, Raja Ram Mohan Roy asserted that sati was not enjoined in the Shastras. Major has tried to maintain a fine balance in the projection of different viewpoints - of horror by the Western observer, of blind glorification by the orthodox Hindu and of the underlying cause-and-effect social mechanisms by the sociologist.

The anthology introduces the reader to sati as its earliest projections in ancient pre-Hindu and Hindu texts. Major asserts that Hindu texts do not validate the ritual. The Vedas (4000 BC-1000 BC) do not enjoin the practice. Poet Banabhatta condemned it unequivocally. An extract from the feminist journal Manushi says the word sati is derived from "sat", which means truth. So sati means a woman who is true, not a woman who combusts spontaneously.

None of the mythological heroines revered as mahasatis - Sati, Draupadi, Mandodari, Tara, Ahalya and Sita - burnt herself on her husband's pyre. All the same, self-immolation by women, either to prove their purity or devotion to their husband, was eulogised. The reasons for the progressive institutionalisation and covert and overt promotion of sati are varied and complex. It offered an easy solution to the problems of maintenance and inheritance of the widow and acquired a political aspect, especially among the Kshatriyas. The honour of powerful households was associated with that of their wives and daughters, who were viewed more or less as property with high exchange value.

Their sexuality had to be controlled and the husband came to be projected as the main reason for their downgraded and undervalued existence. If it is any help to redeem the image of Hindu orthodoxy, it was not the only culture to exploit women to the grave.

Major quotes that the custom of sacrificing the widow was also practised among the Gauls, the Goths, the Norwegians, the Celts, the Slavs and the Scythians. Among the Hindus, the fact that it was the ruling and powerful classes where a widow was expected or induced to offer herself as a sacrifice at her husband's pyre seems to indicate that it was, besides other considerations, a type of last tribute to the massive ego of man.

Some of the excellent articles presenting the possible origins and historical development of sati include those of Romila Thapar, Ashish Nandy and Madhu Kishwar. Through exposing the reader to various viewpoints, narratives and emotional attitudes to sati across nationalities, time and religions, Major has succeeded in giving an objective and full picture on the subject.