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The Psychology Of Sati


Psychology And Human Behaviour Digest, Sept 1989, p 47-51.




The Psychology Of Sati


Ajai Singh

Shakuntala Singh




Why does one commit sati? What are the psychological reasons that make a woman throw herself on the pyre of her husband? The writers, on the second anniversary of Deorala sati, discuss these aspects at length.









Two years ago, this very month, the headlines had screamed. ‘Barbaric’, ‘Outrage’, Shameful’, ‘Unforgivable’, ‘Revivalist’. The media, confronted with a fresh instance of what it considered medievalism, responded thus to the sati of a young girl at a remote hamlet in rural Rajasthan. This was followed by a lot of digging up inevitable in such circumstances. This was the thirty-eighth incident of sati after independence, said someone. Her husband was psychiatrically treated, and probably had potency difficulties, said another. She was pushed into the pyre when she tried to get out, said still another.  She decided right on seeing her husband’s corpse to go sati and kept her resolve in spite of the elder’ protestations. The family physician treating her husband was absconding, said someone else. So probe it, said still another.


Her father and other relatives were censured when they tried to speak about the incident. A Shankaracharya tried to defend the right to sati according to his reading of Hindu scriptures. A ‘Bhagwan’ retorted by telling the Shankaracharya to go sati himself. And a shocked academic wanted to burn the scriptures that extolled sati. It was shocking to see such obscurantism, such fierce obsession with totems of faith, they said.


Politicians of Rajasthan, and elsewhere, took up cudgels on one or the other side, but in general played safe. And played politics, over the whole issue. Most of them remained quiet, and in that earned censure. At least for one the fall was hastened - the Chief Minister of the state.


Women activists took to the streets, wrote, cried themselves hoarse, and in general made it clear how angry they were at one more instance of their ‘oppression’.  The pro-sati groups, Dharam-Raksha Samiti amongst them, went on to organize a ‘Gita-Path’ (dubbed sati-mela by the media), an year after the sati, despite central and state legislations e.g. The Commission of Sati Prevention Act 1987, that forbade any mela at the site and specifically prohibited any worship or glorification of sati. The Calcutta High Court, on a related issue, allowed worship at the Rani Sati temple at Jhunjhunu but forbade any mela at the site.


Commentators highlighted the financial aspect of such ‘carnivals’, of sati as spectacle and sati as commerce. Women’s groups pointed out that the chunari mahotsav following the Deorala sati yielded Rs. Seventy lakhs, of which nothing was accounted.  For a government which did not like to believe such money existed, this was very convenient. The Jhunjhunu Temple was itself pointed out to have an annual turnover of Rs. Four crores. As pilgrims and tourists faithfully trooped in to watch/commemorate such spectacles, the money that poured in and its role could not be dismissed lightly.  And yet to claim it as the sole or even most important motivating factor would be to skew perspectives.


Someone else stressed the human factor. It was possible to push a widow to suicide by creating the right atmosphere, often without being aware that one was creating such an atmosphere, he said. And we are afraid of the idea of self-immolation in a world where self-interest is the ultimate currency in public life (Nandy, 1988). He only elicited an angry rejoinder from two women.



Rani Padmini committed jouhar (a form of immolation of self, and therefore sati) to save her honour.  Madri, the second wife of Pandu, in the Mahabharatha, died on the funeral pyre of her husband while instructing Kunti to look after the five Pandavas.  Sati, the first consort of Lord Shiva, entered the sacrificial pyre unable to suffer the humiliation heaped on her mendicant husband, and was reborn as Parvati, the eternal consort of the Lord. The Peshwa Madhavrao’s wife, Ramabai, went sati in the seventeenth century. Jijabai, the mother of Shivaji, wanted to go sati on her husband’s death. It was Shivaji who broke her resolve: when at Shahaji’s death Jijabai wanted to immolate herself it was Shivaji’s entreaties which reconciled her to live with him a little while longer (Ranade, q.v.). Again, a modern day film-actress expressed a dramatic resolve to go sati on the death of her mentor-political, and received considerable flak. Ananda Coomaraswamy presented a spirited defense of the concept of sati, while Rabindranath Tagore extolled the emotion behind the act while opposing the act itself. Rammohan Roy himself was ambivalent toward a legal ban on sati and, according to some, he opposed such a ban (Nandy, 1988). There is a difference between a ghatana (an act) and a pratha (a tradition) meaning thereby that one may condemn the first and yet accept the other. How is that to be done when there is the view that sati is plain and simple fanaticism and criminal stupidity, and the issue at stake, according to them, is one of human dignity, the freedom to live as one chooses, may be the resolution of the century.


When an incident throws major parts of the populace into convulsive opposite camps, with arms raised either in protest or in defense, reasoned analysis becomes difficult, almost impossible. Fir one is obliged to take sides. And more so if the conclusions even appear to lean to one or the other side. For that is enough for some to immediately slap labels, and thus be dispensed with. This is inevitable. We know such is the risk of discussing any topic which arouses mass emotion.


We have risked it before. We shall risk it again.


Especially since the aspects of sati that we deal with here have, to the best of our knowledge, escaped the attention of any serious analyst.


We shall evaluate the psychosocial implications of the Deorala Sati both from the angle of the person who commits the act and its implication for society. Its main thesis is based on the classic works of Emile Durkheim and one of his early followers, Maurice Halbwachs. This article will try to show how sati fulfils an expiatory role for a real or imagined wrong committed, whose guilt has to be sublimated by an act with social sanction. It will also try to show how Sati serves an accusatory role at the same time, pointing a direct finger at the pseudo-emancipated lot of Indian women today.






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