This question was relayed to the Hindu speaker at an event in Brighton University. The speaker smiled and asked the largely Hindu audience if they had actually heard of any woman amongst their family or friends who had burnt herself when her husband died, or had even been encouraged to do so? The crowd, of course, answered in the negative.
The speaker then explained that this practice, called Sati, was always very rare, and to associate it with Hinduism is a serious misconception. Did the wives of Dashratha (Rama’s father) commit suicide when he died? Were they encouraged to do so by Vashista or Vishwamitra? NO. Did Uttara (the wife of Abhimanyu) burn herself when her husband died? Did Krishna who was there at the funeral encourage her to do so? NO. Furthermore, the practice is explicitly prohibited in several ancient texts, including the Rig-Veda. The Rg-Veda contains a famous passage mentioning Sati – and preventing it. To a widow who is with her husband on his funeral pyre, the text says: rise up, abandon this dead man and re-join the living (10:18:8). The Vedic testimony proves two things: (1) Sati already existed, and (2) it was disapproved of by the mainstream of the Hindu tradition.
The question may arise that if Sati is not actually part of Hinduism, then how has this misconception become so popular? The answer lies relates to the British rule of India. In the colonial era, the British media used to widely highlight Sati. The aim was to paint Indians as a barbaric people who were incapable of self-rule, and therefore needed to be ruled by foreigners. This justified British rule of India in British public opinion. Cambridge historian Mike Dash explains this as follows:
“Suttee was not, in fact, particularly common… But that was not the impression Britons received from their newspapers and books. Prurient reports from India spoke of women being forced shrieking onto their funeral pyres by baying relatives, and dwelled on the agonies of a slow death by fire; a good many readers with no personal knowledge of India believed that this was the common fate of all Hindu widows from Bombay to Bengal. The notion…profoundly shocked public opinion at home.”
Furthermore, religious propagandists have always tried to defame other religions, painting a negative image of them so as to make their own religion look like the ‘logical choice’. Hinduism has been on the receiving end of this treatment for a long time.
There are too many misconceptions about Hinduism? There are many malpractices associated with Hinduism that are simply not sanctioned by Hinduism, for which the world tends to blame Hinduism. The least we can do is ourselves not be taken in by them. So when we hear that Hindu widows are supposed to burn themselves in the funeral pyre of their dead husbands, it should be recognised that what we are listening to is a piece of quasi-Imperialistic propaganda that should be rejected outright.