Out in Chechar village, Chhattisgarh, where Lalmati, 70, committed sati on Saturday, seven people in her immediate family have been arrested for the grievous crime of sati-abetment: her daughter, her three sons and their wives. Meanwhile, there is nobody left at home to look after the children. The police and local administration no doubt did the right thing in sending out this strong message about the criminality of sati. But the entire village is surely to blame for supporting the commission of sati? These people actually believed that sati was a deed of great piety and merit, worthy of social support. Though the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act was passed when independent India was 38 years old (1987), 21 years later, it is incredible that some pockets of North India remain ignorant of both the true scripture and the law.
Can we blame villagers entirely, though, enough to prosecute and hang them for their crime of abetment? Does not the greater blame go to educated people in the administration and local religious leaders, for not disseminating information on the law in sati-prone areas and for perhaps actively encouraging such beliefs? It is the failure of both state and society that such veneration persists in Rajasthan and Bundelkhand (UP). And popular respect for long-ago satis is most likely exploited today for profit, by the trustees and keepers of such shrines and temples.
Some of us may truly respect the misapplied courage of our ancestral women, those who were not drugged as was the case with many ‘satis’, but ascended the pyres of their dead husbands and said, with full consciousness, “Mujhe agni-daan do.” But it was a practice born of feudal control-freakery, not a scriptural injunction. The Vedas do not sanction it; they forbid suicide, while the Puranas and epics are not shastra.
More crucially, how can any scripture, ‘revealed’ or not, compare with the human suffering of a widow? How can a devout Hindu believe there is spiritual reward for a human being who burns alive? The Constitution of India is the truest Upanishad for our life today and hereafter as a nation. When an ignorant Hindu publicly worships a sati today, he (or she) spits in all our faces. But the greater crime is when educated and/or powerful people promote such beliefs, citing ‘tradition’. Surely, these are the ‘trustees’ and their temples that the law should crack down on at once?