There has been a lot of misunderstanding about Sati. The number of instances of Sati after independence have been around 40 but if we look around the amount of literature produced in post independent India on this subject reflects that it was one of the widespread practice.
There are certain questions which need to be answered before discussing about Sati. Was Sati sanctioned and mandated in the religio-legal scripts or texts in ancient India?
It’s surprising to note that ancient Indian religious legal text had no reference to Sati for a long time. In the Rig Veda, there is a famous funeral hymn and that has been used by critics of Hinduism to say Sati was mandatory and obligatory from Vedic times.
But what does this funeral hymn says;this hymn (Rigveda 10.18.7) addresses a widow, it tells that sit next to the dead body of man, moisten your eyes with ghee and get up and resume your place in the world. It is interesting that word ‘Agre’ has been replaced by ‘Agni’ that is fire. So this took place deliberately to convey an impression that Hindu religious scripts made it obligatory to commit Sati.
Actually the noted expert on Dharmashastra P.V. Kane said it was not a deliberate act but was an innocent slip.
First person who wrote about this was H.T. Colebrooke in 1795 who just came to India, wrote his first paper on the duties of a faithful Hindu wife. In this article he said ,Sati was mandatory according to Shastras. Sir William Jones was in India at that time and said ‘this is an incorrect article and you haven’t read the text properly’.
25 years later H.H. Wilson , a very noted Orientalist, read this hymn of Rig Veda and concluded that it does not reflect of widow burning .
So, here one of the most prevalent myth that ‘Rig Veda funeral hymn refers to widow immolation’ has been debunked.
‘Brahmanas’ and ‘Grahasutras’ do not mention Sati. Even In the time of Mauryas, we had Megasthenes, Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Muarya, does not mention Sati in his work ‘Indica’ , Also, Kautilya in his book ‘Arthashastra’ does not refer to Sati at all.
Writers of Dharmashastras and Smritis , discusses the duties of wife but do not discuss Sati. Manu describes wives as worthy of being worshipped and as lamps that lit the households and he says that the female is supposed to seek protection of father when she is a child , husband after she gets married and of the son after husband passes away. So here he does not mention that after the husband has died she should immolate herself.
Yajnavalkya said “Wives were the gifts of the gods who should be respected and valued”. He laid down strict duties for widows but not self immolation.
However ,we learn about Sati also from the epic of Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Mahabharata ,wife of king Pandu that is Madri, she immolate herself but the assembled sages tried to dissuade her from this act, they said it is her duty to look after her younger sons but Madri immolates herself as she consumes the sense of guilt , Pandu died because of her.
In Mahabharata, father of Sri Krishna Vasudev’s four wife do immolate Rohini, Devki ,Madri and Bhadra but many wife of Krishna retreat to the forest and lived a life of ascetic, do some immolates themselves but the Mahabharata also says very clearly that the widows of many fallen soldiers, they survived and carried the funeral ceremonies.
In Ramayana, very clearly stated none of the wives of king Dasratha or Ravana immolates.
Some instances of immolation are mentioned in Puranas. Some smriti writers refer to it but more profoundly to lead an ascetic life and not immolation. The ‘Vishnusmriti’ does not consider immolation a religious duty it said ” a good wife , who preserves a chastic life after the death of her lord , will go to heaven like (perpetual) students, even though she has no son.”
Several other Smritis like VyasSmriti, ParasharSmriti and BrihspatiSmriti they praise Sati but lays down rights of widow which makes it clear that these are not recommending immolation as they have mentioned rights of widow.
Kalidasa mentions Sati and Bana, who was in a court of Harsha condemns Sati. Medhatithi compares practice of Sati to ‘Siyan Yagya’ that is black magic which a man perform to kill his enemy which means they were clearly against this practice of Sati.
By the late medieval period when ‘Raghunandan Smriti’ appeared, Sati was not uncommon, but all the smritis till the time did not laid any instruction to be followed.
In 18th century, we had a guide to the duties of women prepared in Thanjavur, called ‘Stridharmapaddhati’ written by Pandit Triyambaka and he is writing in South India and concerned about threats encroached by Islamic Invaders, Christian missionaries and European traders so he is writing in this context about how to preserve ‘Hindu dharma’ from these many threats so he recommended Sati a way of salvation to widow in this troubled scenario but he also says option to lead an ascetic life is always open for a widow, at the same we had another text which condemns Sati.
On the whole there was not recommendation or obligation in the ancient religio legal texts and when certain people began to comment on Sati always qualifying it by saying an ascetic life is always open to a widow so as some people to say that Sati was enjoyed in ancient religious text is absolutely incorrect. It should be clear that Sati wasn’t obligatory in religious legal texts.