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So the ritual of sati (where a women must throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her dead husband) was widely practiced throughout South Asia in the Ancient era and Middle Ages. In the Mughal era, some leaders (Akbar the Great) tried to abolish the ritual but failed and instead opted to discourage the practice instead of banning it outright. Since even some leaders were resistant to this method, how resistant were the women who committed sati to the ritual at this time. Did they accept it as part of their culture and voluntarily do it, or were they forced into performing the act? Which women were the most pressured to commit sati? Did it vary based on socioeconomic status or chastity?

  • Thanks for the advice. I tried narrowing it down to the Mughal era, because evens some of the leaders then wanted to abolish it. – mmango Apr 7 '15 at 20:48
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    Oh, my textbook made it sound like almost every woman was forced to do this, but based on some online research, it doesn't look like it. Was it always a choice? – mmango Apr 7 '15 at 20:51
  • As I said in my first comment, most women by far did not commit sati. It was technically a choice for the most part, but obviously that's not to say some weren't forced or coerced, either physically or by peer pressure / familial opinions, to do it. Pressure would have been higher on women who were, for one reason or another, not expected to be chaste in their widowhood. – Semaphore Apr 7 '15 at 20:55
  • OK I revised my question again. – mmango Apr 7 '15 at 21:08
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Sati were supposed to be voluntary. Since it was offensive to the sentiments of the Mughals, its rulers such as Akbar the Great explicitly banned involuntary sati. On a superficial level, therefore, most these women were not resistant to committing sati at all. In fact, the Mughals expended a great deal of effort trying to convince women applying for permission for sati to change their minds.

No woman can sacrifice herself without permission from the governor of the province in which she resides, and he never grants it until he shall have ascertained that she is not be turned aside from her purpose: to accomplish this desirable end the governor reasons with the widow and makes her enticing promises, after which, if these methods fail, he sometimes sends her among his women, that the effect of their remonstrances may be tried.

- François Bernier

Of course, that's not quite the full picture. These women were not killing themselves for no reason; they were acting in accordance with their social conditioning. In effect, they were brainwashed from birth to consider killing themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres to be a good thing.

As early as the 17th century, the French physician François Bernier noted that:

I soon found that this abominable practice is the effect of early and deeply rooted prejudices. Every girl is taught by her mother that it is virtuous and laudable in a wife to mingle her ashes with those of her husband, and that no woman of honour will refuse compliance with the established custom. These opinions men have always inculcated as an easy mode of keeping wives in subjection, of securing their attention in times of sickness, and of deterring them from administering poison to their husbands.

- François Bernier

Unsurprisingly, the high praise the ritual attracted made a sati widow desirable for her surviving family. For this reason it is not wholly unheard of for women to be coerced into committing sati, either by force or persuasion. Even some members of royalty, for example, were pressured into committing sati for political reasons. In general, it has been observed that the widow's family would be more likely to pressure the woman into sati for fear that she might bring shame upon them.

The kyndred of the husband that dies never force the wife to burne her self, but her owne kyndred, houlding it a greate disgrace to theire familie if shee should denye to bee burned; which some have done, but very fewe

- Nicholas Withington

Overall however, forced sati was probably not common. Travellers to the Mughal Empire recorded many instances of widows determined to commit sati, including cases where they committed suicide in less dramatic ways when denied permission.

At the same time, however, if a widow consented to sati, it seemed she would not be allowed to back out of it when the moment came. The English traveller Nicholas Withington wrote for instance that the widow's own parents would bind her and throw her back into the fire:

if any one of them purpose ot be burned and (after ceremonied done) bee brought to the fyre, and there, feeling the scorching heate, leape out of the fyer, her father and mother will take her and bbynde her and throwe her into the fyer and burne her per force.

- Nicholas Withington

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    Thanks for the awesome response and for helping me narrow down my question! It's kind of horrifying to think that it's the family of the widow pressuring her, but the idea of sati being honorable for the family also makes sense if that was ingrained into their education. – mmango Apr 7 '15 at 22:09
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    +1 for a great answer. I think that when the British (EICo) came the situation was different in terms of voluntariness- most cases seem to be that of greedy relatives and Brahmins trying to grab property. Which explains why it happened mostly to young childless widows. – Rajib Apr 8 '15 at 2:37
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    @Rajib Thanks, and yeah, seems like it. Apparently sati had been becoming more rampant overall as the Mughals declined, too. – Semaphore Apr 8 '15 at 6:30

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