The tradition of ritual suicides by widowed women is still respected in certain communities of India and, despite long ago being prohibited, such cases continue to occur.
The Hindu tradition of Sati, where a recently widowed woman commits suicide on her husband's funeral pyre, has been outlawed in India since 1829. However, that did not completely eradicate the practice.
A recent example is the case of Sharbati Bai. When her husband died, the 60-year old decided to kill herself.
“I loved my husband dearly. Life here is difficult, there’s no water to drink and who will help with my medication? I don’t know what happened, I prayed to God to lift me from here, and then I fainted,” recalls Sharbati Bai.
Luckily for Sharbati, villagers stopped her in time. This is the biggest change in India’s attitude towards Sati since it was outlawed in 1829: that an entire village in the Hindu heartland came forward and prevented Sati from taking place.
Witness to the event Ram Azad remembers that “She was sitting by the funeral pyre, saying “Light it, light it, I want to become a Sati.’ There was a crowd of over a hundred people there. We stopped her, and caught hold of her and brought her away from the fire.”
Sati was supposed to be voluntary, but there have been accounts of women being forced or drugged. Property tussles are often the reason, with male heirs preferring to do away with a widow, leaving the inheritance entirely in their hands. In other cases, women commit Sati themselves because of the prestige it brings the family.
“Whatever the rich people did in the past, the poor think is a mark of status and follow blindly, because through Sati, a family’s spiritual status and prestige jumps, and so does its source of income,” lays the deal Kailash Meena, a member of People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
”On the other hand, sometimes when a husband dies, his widow is left with no financial support, and prefers to die in a sort of respectable suicide,” he adds.
India’s most infamous Sati case took place in the village of Devrala exactly 22 years ago. 18-year-old Roop Kanwar committed Sati on the funeral pyre of her husband right here in the centre of the village in 1987. It shocked the entire nation, and it strengthened the laws against Sati. Yet the villagers of Devrala have erected a makeshift shrine to Roop Kanwar . So even though the practice itself is banned, the glorification of Sati lives on.
In fact, India has at least 250 Sati temples, including 11 in the district of Sikar alone. Women who commit Sati are worshipped as Sati Devi or a goddess. In Hindu tradition, Sati is an act of piety, and is said to purge a woman of all accumulated sin. No wonder then that villagers from the surrounding region visit this temple for her blessings.
The priest of one such temple, Makhan Sharma, says that once a woman becomes a Sati, she attains healing powers.
“Her respected status means that people’s prayers are answered. That’s why people come here from all around. Our pain and diseases are healed through her blessings.”
However, India’s strong anti-Sati laws are helping to eradicate the practice, and very few take place in India today. As the villagers’ prompt action in stopping Sharbati’s self-sacrifice shows, Indian society is coming to terms with living with the tradition but not adding to it.