Sati Dharmic Perspective
Revisiting Sati: Understanding the practice from a Dharmic perspective

What is missing in the contemporary narrative about Sati is an examination of the tenets of the practice on its own basis. To do this, we must first locate the place of Sati in the Dharmic worldview and then analyze the practice and its validity from a Dharmic perspective.

Sati or “Widow-burning” as it is pejoratively called in the Colonial and Post-Colonial media and literature, has remained one of the most controversial issues even today, though historically the practice had always been very rare and sporadic. It has been routinely described as “regressive” and violent practice. When the case of 18-year old Roop Kanwar committing Sati in Deorala village had come to light in 1987, a team of Women and Media Committee that had visited the site described the practice as the “most violent of patriarchal practices[1]” and had held the “union of religion, commerce, and patriarchy[2]” as the cause behind the incident. Sati has also been used as a convenient tool by inimical forces to dismantle various Hindu practices. While during the Colonial period, “the sati issue was the most forceful created by the Evangelical-Utilitarian alliance to validate British rule in India[3]”, even after independence, reformists and feminists, especially those leaning to the left have used Sati and Sati reforms as a parallel in their own fights against what they perceive as “regressive practices” still prevalent in Hinduism (Ex: Made Snana, Bettale Seve).

To this politicization of the practice of Sati, except for the excellent study by Meenakshi Jain, the Hindu response has been feeble. Jain provides an authentic account of the historical practice of Sati and shows how the missionary-British nexus inflated the number of incidents to horrific levels, while the recorded incidents on the ground throughout the history has been rare and uncommon. But, her work does not examine the merits and demerits of the practice itself or about its place or relevance in Hinduism. On this front, the Hindu response has been varied, but weak, marred in confusion. While some confuse and conflate Sati with Jauhar, others argue that Sati is not sanctioned in Hinduism. Many modern commentators also triumphantly note how Hindus have reformed their religion and got rid of regressive practices.

What is missing in the contemporary narrative about Sati is an examination of the tenets of the practice (and not just the historical context) on its own basis. To do this, we must first locate the place of Sati in the Dharmic worldview and then analyze the practice and its validity from a Dharmic perspective. Since, “Dharmo viśvasya jagataḥ pratiṣṭhā[4] has served as the foundational principle of Hindu worldview and Dharma itself has been conceived as facilitating each individual to his/her material welfare and spiritual fulfillment[5], it is imperative to examine Sati, a practice which arose in the Hindu Dharmic tradition, in relation to Dharma, so as to arrive at a correct understanding of the practice that is dispassionate and free from prejudice. In this article, one such attempt is being made by examining how the Dharmashastra tradition has handled the subject of Sati.

Sati, an incorrect name

The Colonial, as well as contemporary literature refers to the practice of a widow mounting the funeral pyre of her dead husband and burning with him as either widow-burning or as Sati (Suttee, is also used). There are serious issues with the usage of both these terms.

While the term “widow-burning” carries a lot of colonial baggage and clearly an underlying insinuation that widows were coerced or forcibly burned by others (relatives and community people), an assumption that is neither attested by history[6] nor by tradition; the term “Sati” is not without its own issues either.

Sati Dharmic Perspective 1

Devi Sati. Source:

Sati derives from the word “Sat” which has a variety of meanings, including truth, goodness, and virtue. The term, which originally referred to Goddess Sati, the wife of Bhagavan Shiva, who immolated herself in the Yajna as a protest against the insult of her husband by her father Daksha, has been used throughout the tradition as a reference to women who are very loving and devoted to their husbands. Sati has also been understood as a synonym of Pativrata- women who consider husbands as Guru and devotion to their husband (by way of helping and walking side by side with him) as a Tapasya (spiritual austerity). For Satis, then their husbands represented the means to attain Sat- Ultimate Truth or Moksha. As Manu Smriti (2.67) notes for wives, serving husbands is itself staying and serving the Guru and household activities are themselves Yajnas, i.e. women who are homemakers derive the same spiritual benefit from doing their work as the men derive from performing Yajna, etc. In other words, Sati does not refer to any ritual or rite, but simply to women who have chosen devotion to husband and the responsibilities of Grihasta-ashrama as the means for spiritual emancipation. For this reason, we do not find any Dharmashastras referring to the ritual of self-immolation by devoted widows as Sati.

Instead, the Dharmashastras use a number of terms to refer to the ritual: “anugamana” (‘going after’), “sahagamana” (‘going with’), “anumarana” (‘dying after), “sahamarana” (‘dying with’), and “anvarohana” (‘mounting after). Even in popular usages, when the ritual is referred to as “satidaha”, “satipratha” or “sativrata”, the term Sati refers to the devoted wife, while the suffix describes the ritual aspect. Arvind Sharma notes that while Sahamarana (and hence Sahagamana) refers to the case of concremation, Anumarana (and hence Anugamana) refers to immolation of the widow after the dead husband’s cremation[7]. PV Kane writes: “The burning of a widow on the death of her husband is called sahamarana or sahagamana or anvarohana (when she ascends the funeral pyre of her husband and is burnt along with his corpse), but anumarana occurs when, after her husband is cremated elsewhere and she learns of his death, the widow resolves upon death and is burnt with the husband’s ashes or his padukas (sandals) or even without any memento of his if none be available[8].”

Keeping with the spirit of this article as well as the correct usage in mind, from here onwards, while we have completely avoided the usage of terms like Sati or Widow-burning, the term “anugamana” have been used throughout as a single term to refer to both concremation and immolation after husband’s cremation, for the sake of easy understanding (except where such a difference is necessary to be pointed).

Anugamana as a Dharmic practice

Hindu tradition posits Moksha or liberation from the bondage of karmic cycle of birth and death as the ultimate goal of life. Though Moksha is the ultimate goal, Hindu tradition recognizes that not all have the ability to attain Moksha in a particular life. This is so because, to attain Moksha, one must first have attained dispassion and a condition of desirelessness towards worldly pleasures. Since, most people are under the influence of all kinds of worldly desires, which could be broadly divided into Artha (material prosperity) and Kama (material pleasures), the Hindu texts posit Dharma as another Purushartha, which, while facilitating one to fulfill Artha and Kama in a measured restrained manner, also helps one to slowly move from a state of desire to a state of dispassion i.e. towards Moksha. These two paths, the path of dispassion and the path of measured action are respectively called as Nivritti and Pravritti path.

While the path of Nivritti is the path of Sannyasa or renunciation, the path of Pravritti is the path of Grihasta or the householder into which men and women enter through marriage so as to fulfill their worldly desires through Dharmic action. Vivaha is a Samskara, a purification ritual which makes a couple fit to enter Grihasta Ashrama to pursue Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha together as one. It is a sacred bond, a commitment to pursue righteous desires so as to slowly walk towards Moksha. It is in the context of this all important Grihasta stage and the aftermath when one of the spouse pass away, that we must locate and understand the practice of Anugamana.

Passing away of a spouse implies that the living spouse can no longer practice his Grihasta Dharma to attain Purusharthas. This means, one becomes Anashrami i.e. one without an ashrama, which is unhelpful to a person, since, Vishesha Dharma, or the righteous duties as contextualized to a specific individual is always defined with reference to varna and ashrama, and without an ashrama, one is unable to perform Dharma and hence will neither attain material welfare nor gain spiritual merit. It is for this reason, the state of “anashrama” is condemned in the Dharmashastras[9]. To remedy this, then the living spouse must adopt one of the ashramas and come out of the state of Anashrama. Dharmashastras provide a number of ways this could be accomplished.

For a widower, at least four different options are suggested in the Dharmashastras. While Yajnavalkya Smriti (1.89) suggests the widower to take another wife without delay and rekindle a new fire (for religious Yajnas), texts like Baudhayana Dharmasutra (2.17.4) suggests one to renounce the world and become a Sannyasi. He may also rekindle the fire with a ‘substitute wife[10]’ made of gold or Kusha grass (Aitereya Brahmana 32.8; Trikandamandana 2.8) and thus enter Grihasta Ashrama symbolically and continue his duties, or he may rekindle the fire alone for himself[11] (Trikandamandana 3.128) and taking Shraddha (faith/conviction) as his ‘substitute wife’ may perform agnihotra etc. similar to those who remain unmarried (Naishtika Brahmachari). Thus, the four options for the widower are: remarriage, renunciation, taking a substitute wife in the form of statue made of gold or kusha grass for ritual purposes, staying as Apatnika by rekindling the sacrificial fire for oneself alone.

While a widower enters Sannyasa ashrama by renouncing his desires and attachment to the worldly objects, he enters Grihasta Ashrama in case of a remarriage or rekindling of fire with a substitute wife made of Kusha grass or gold. He enters an ashrama similar to Naishtika Brahmachari by rekindling the fire for himself alone. This path could be understood as a widower counterpart of Vidwavrata or practices associated with widowhood prescribed for widows. Also important to note is that while by entering Sannyasa or by remarrying a new woman, a widower cuts off his Karmic connections[12] to his dead wife, he retains this connection and even reinforces it, in case he chooses the other two options.

For a widow, on the other hand, Dharmashastras prescribe three different paths: Anugamana, Vidwavrata, and Punar-vivaaha[13]. While texts like Parashara Smriti (4.28-30) mention all the three paths, other texts mention only one or two options. For example, while Manu Smriti (5.165-168) makes elaborate discussion about importance of Vidwavrata and Daksha Smriti (4.18-19) notes about the glory of Sahagamana, Vyasa Smriti (2.52) mentions both Anugamana and Vidwavrata. Apart from Parashara Smriti, Daksha Smriti and Vyasa Smriti, we have a number of other texts which also make explicit mention about Anugamana. Vishnu Dharmasutra (25.14) says a widow should either practice brahmacharyam or ascend the pyre. Stridharmapaddhatti of Tryambakayajvan cites two verses, one from Sankha Smriti and one from Skanda Purana ( Sankha Smriti notes that a widow who opts for Anugamana is glorified in heaven as one who is equal to Arundhati. Skanda Purana gives a sloka which blesses a woman saying may she accompany her husband in life and death and Tryambakayajvan opines that this must be recited during the marriage ceremony. There are a number of other verses either in the available Smritis or Itihasas-Puranas[14] or as citations by later day authors of Dharmashastras, which speak of Anugamana as a Dharmically legitimate practice.

While remarriage is the common path suggested for both widows and widowers, Anugamana and rekindling the Grihasta fire with a substitute wife made of gold or Kusha grass are exclusively prescribed for widow and widower respectively. The path of Vidwavrata suggested for a widow shares elements with both Sannyasa and Apatnikas, who rekindle the fire for themselves alone. Anugamana, in fact, can be understood as the female counterpart of the male practice of using a substitute wife[15]. To understand this, we must return back to the basic tenets of Grihasta-ashrama.

Vivaha, as noted before, is a sacred bond, a relationship into which the husband and wife enter so as to pursue the Purusharthas together. Though the goal pursued is same, the roles played by each person in the couple are different. While the man plays the role of husband and a father, the woman plays the role of a wife and a mother. While the husband takes the role of Yajamana, the conductor of the rituals and other Dharmic duties, the wife takes up the role of Saha-dharmacharini, one who accompanies the husband in fulfillment of Dharmic duties. A virtuous wife is, in fact, identified with the sacred fires of the house itself[16]. That is, the role played by the wife is like that of the sacred fire: the role of a facilitator. She facilitates her husband to fulfill his Dharmic duties and hence described as “saha-dharmacharini” and without whom a Grihasta man cannot perform any Dharmic rituals or duties. That is, the husband is the performer of the Dharmic duties using Yajnas, etc. with the support, help and company of his wife. On the other hand, for the wife, facilitating the husband in the accomplishment of the Dharmic duties is itself the Dharmic duty and a means for her overall emancipation. It is for this reason, the texts note how the half of Dharmic merit of all the actions of the husband automatically becomes transferred to the wife. That is, the husband himself becomes the direct means for accomplishing all the purusharthas for women. In other words, while for the husband a number of Grihastaashrama duties have been prescribed based on his location, condition, varna, etc., as a means for attaining purusharthas; for the wife, facilitating the husband in pursuit of these purusharthas itself is the duty or dharma prescribed and in this way, both attain all the purusharthas together.

Procession of a Suttee Woman. Source: Wikipedia

With this background, let us look into Anugamana prescribed for widows and the substitute wife made of gold/Kusha grass prescribed for widowers. Since, for performing his Grihasta duties, a man requires a wife by his side, a widower has been advised to create a wife in gold or Kusha grass to not only act as a substitute for the departed wife, but also act as a representation or an image of the departed wife in the physical world. Just as Rama kept a golden idol of Sita not only as a substitute for the real Sita, who was in the forest (after being sent away there by Rama), but also as the very image or a representation of the Sita herself. Thus, by choosing this path, a widower will continue to perform his Grihasta duties as if his wife was still alive and as a result, both he and his departed wife will get the full merit of all Dharmic actions performed by the widower. On the other hand, a widow is not given this option to rekindle the fire with a substitute husband, because performing the Yajnas and other such Dharmic duties were never her Dharmic duty and to expect her to suddenly do it is not only unfair to her but is also impractical. She is instead given the option to choose Anugamana, by which she can continue to stay with her husband in heaven (Parashara Smriti 4.28-30) and then return back to physical life with the same husband and/or attain Moksha. By opting for Anugamana, she would continue to be with her husband and accompany him in all his actions, thereby fulfilling her own Dharmic duties. Anugamana, thus forms the widow counterpart of widower’s path of using substitute wife made of gold or Kusha grass, since both these paths facilitate the performers to reinforce the sacred bond with their spouses and continue to practice their Grihasta duties.

Vidhwavrata, on the other hand, takes on elements from both Sannyasa and Apatnika paths of the widowers. Apatnikas are those who do not have dispassion and hence cannot take Sannyasa, but because of their love and attachment to their departed wives, they cannot even remarry. Either due to sorrow at the loss of the wife or due to desire to enter a Vanaprasta-like stage, the widower chooses the Apatnika path and practices Agnihotra etc. and lives a highly restrained life by cherishing the memory of the departed wife. Similarly, widows undertaking the vows of widowhood or Vidwavrata, lead a celibate life cherishing the memory of the departed husband. As Manu Smriti (5.160) notes widows who opt for vows of widowhood, even if without sons would attend heaven just like the Brahmacharis. Widowhood also involves withdrawal from sensory-gratifications like in Sannyasa. Manu Smriti (5.157-158) notes that they should practice austerity by sustaining on only flowers, fruits and roots. They should be self-controlled and chaste.

Thus, though four options for widowers and only three options for widows are mentioned in the Shastras, we can see how the three itself sufficiently plays the role of four with respect to widows. But, it is important to note that the entire discussion, though usually applied to all women or all wives, their specific audience is actually the women who are called Sadyovadhu. Shastras broadly divide women based on their inner temperaments into Brahmavadinis and Sadyovadhu[17]. Brahmavadinis refer to those with intense desire and a competency for Vedic learning. They undergo Upanayana and are entitled to study of Vedas and the performance of Vaidika Karmas, or even take up Sannyasa, just like the menfolk. Sadyovadhu, on the other hand, do not have the desire or aptitude for Vedic learning. They are more worldly-oriented with a focus on arts, science, family, career, etc. For them, marriage itself plays the role of Upanayana and supporting and facilitating the husband in his Dharmic duties itself forms the Dharmic duty. As Manu Smriti (2.67) notes, for such women, “The nuptial ceremony is stated to be the Vedic sacrament… serving the husband (equivalent to) the residence in (the house of the) teacher, and the household duties (the same) as the (daily) worship of the sacred fire.” That is, in the case of Sadyovadhu, the husband and wife also share a relationship of the Guru-Shishya. This also explains why for such Sadyovadhu, Pati-vrata-dharma or Sati-dharma i.e. dedication to one’s husband (i.e. husband himself) is prescribed as the means for overall welfare. Just as for Brahmachari boys, it is taught that the Guru is the guide and Gurubhakti is the means for attaining Moksha, with husband donning the role of Guru in the case of Sadyovadhu, Pativratya dharma becomes the means for attaining Moksha.

It is, thus, important to note that the entire discussion in the Dharmashastras about the life-paths that could be chosen by women and the enunciation of the three Dharmically legitimate path, including Anugamana, is a discussion specifically applicable to Sadyovadini women. But, since, the number of women who were Brahmavadinis were always very minuscule compared to Sadyovadhus, and this is especially so in Kaliyuga, most of the Dharmashastras while making a reference to Streedharma almost always speaks about Sadyovadhu, as if it is applicable to all women.

Eligibility for performing Anugamana

As noted in the previous section, Anugamana is prescribed only for a Pativrata Stree[18], since she alone has chosen a lifestyle where the husband is the Guru and the means for overall wellbeing — material and spiritual. Harita, in fact, says: “A woman should be known as a pativrata, if she is pained when her husband is pained, rejoices when he’s happy, becomes wretched and emaciated when he’s gone abroad, and dies when he dies[19].” Though, it may appear as if Harita is defining Pativrata as one who undergoes Anugamana or that Anugamana is mandatory, Madanaparijata, which quotes this verse enters into a detailed discussion clarifying how these two conclusions are wrong. Madanaparijata notes that since, Manu and others give alternate options like Vidwavrata for a Patrivrata widow, saying Anugamana is mandatory is incorrect. Madanaparijata then quotes Manu Smriti (5.160), which says: “A virtuous wife (Sadhvi) who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste, reaches heaven, though she have no son, just like those chaste men” and Mahabharata (12.144.9-10), which says: “The pativrata entered the blazing fire. There she followed her husband, who wore colorful arm-bracelets”, showing how “Patrivrata” alone is eligible for either Vidwavrata or Anugamana. Hence, Harita’s opinion must only be understood as eulogization of the qualities of Patrivrata Stree.

In any case, not all Pativrata Stree’s are eligible for Anugamana either. Vijnanesvara, the author of Mitakshara, the famous commentary on Yajnavalkya smriti notes: “And all of this constitutes the universal Law for all women right down to Candalas, provided that they are not pregnant and do not have young children (Mitakshara 1.86)[20].” Similarly, Madhavacharya in his commentary on Parashara Smriti (4.31), cites two scriptural authorities[21]: “A woman who has young children should not depart, thereby forsaking raising her young children; nor should a woman who is menstruating or has just given birth; and a pregnant woman should protect her fetus”; and “O beautiful princess, women do not ascend the funeral pyre when they have young children, when they are pregnant, when their menses have failed to appear at the regular time, and while they are menstruating.”

That is, devoted wives, who are pregnant, who are menstruating, and who did not menstruate on their expected date (indicating a possibility of a pregnancy) and those who have young children that need to be taken care of are not eligible for Anugamana. Madhavacharya, though, qualifies the last of the criteria by saying that if the mother can make arrangement for proper guardians to take care of the young children, then they can opt for Anugamana. It is interesting to note that this was what Maadri did in Mahabharata and it was Kunti who took care of all the children including two of Maadri’s sons.

A Hindu widow performing Sati. Depiction by William Frederick Martyn, from The Geographical Magazine. Source: Wikipedia

Then, there are a number of verses, which apparently prohibit the practice for the Brahmana widows. The two popular verses cited are ascribed to Paithinasi and Angirasa. Paithinasi notes: “Due to Vedic injunction a Brahmin woman should not follow her husband in death, but for the other social classes tradition holds this to be the supreme dharma of Women[22]”. Angirasa notes: “When a woman of Brahmin caste follows her husband in death, by killing herself she leads neither herself nor her husband to heaven[23].” But, what is interesting to note is, while Paithanasi refers to the practice by the “mrtanugamana”, Angirasa calls it “patim anuvrajet”—both meaning she who commits self-immolation after her dead husband’s body has been burned on the pyre. Thus, the Dharmashastra writers starting from Vijnaneshwara to Aparaarka and Madanapala, all have taken the verse to mean a prohibition of only the Anugamana (immolation of the widow on a separate pyre after the husband has been cremated) and not a prohibition of Sahagamana, wherein the widow is immolated together with her husband. To substantiate this stand, they even quote another smriti text by Ushanas, which notes: “A Brahmin woman ought not to depart by ascending a separate pyre, yet for other women tradition holds this to be the supreme dharma of Women[24]”. In short, while non-Brahmana Pativrata women are eligible for both Anugamana and Sahagamana, Brahmana women are eligible only for Sahagamana[25].

Nirnayasindhu of Kamalakara Bhatta and Dharmasindhu by Kashinath Upadhyaya, two important digests on Dharma composed during the medieval period, further note that the wives of husbands who died either for the sake of penance or were Dharmically fallen, should not perform Anugamana[26]. Dharmasindhu also notes that women who have committed adultery, who have been negatively disposed towards their husbands while they were alive do not have eligibility for this practice[27].

To summarize, the eligibility criteria for performing Anugamana includes:

  1. The widow must be a Patrivrata
  2. Such Pativrata widow must neither be pregnant, nor have young children, nor is menstruating at the time, nor have missed their most recent monthly period.
  3. The husband must not have been an Adharmic and hence fallen person, nor must he have died for the sake of penance for his Adharmas.
  4. Wives who have been negatively disposed towards husbands when they were alive are also ineligible to undertake the practice.
  5. While all are entitled for Sahagamana, Brahmana widows are not entitled for Anugamana (except under certain circumstances. Refer Endnote: 25)

Anugamana as an optional practice, an expression of love and commitment

If there is one element regarding Anugamana on which all Dharmashastra writers agree, then it is that it is an optional practice. In Hindu tradition, Dharmic actions are divided into three categories: Nitya, Naimittika, and Kamya. Nitya refers to those activities, which ought to be performed daily. Naimittika refers to those that must be performed on particular occasions. Kamya, on the other hand, are those actions that are performed out of desire to attain the particular fruits that result from those actions. By definition, then, Nitya and Naimittika are obligatory Dharmic duties, while Kamya is an optional practice, performed only by those desiring a particular fruit. Starting from Aparaarka, the commentator on Yajnavalkya Smriti, who explicitly mentions “anvarohanam ca kamyatvad anityam” i.e. “Since, anvarohana is optional, it is not obligatory[28]” to later day commentators and writers of Dharmashastra up to as recent as Tryambakayajvan, who lived in 17th-18th century, all have clearly noted how the practice is optional. Dharmasindhu, further, notes that Anugamana can be done either as a Sakaama practice or as a Nishkaama practice[29]. In fact, the non-obligatory nature could be seen in the Smritis themselves, which advice, different options available for a widow.

If it be asked, why Anugamana has been made optional, it is because the act involves so much courage and sacrifice that only a truly dedicated wife who feels she cannot remain separated from her husband even for a moment, can undertake such a ritual. A verse from Brahma Purana quoted by Aparaarka, one of the commentator on Yajnavalkya Smriti, states: “There is no other recourse (than sahagamana) for a good woman when her husband dies, (for) there is no other way to extinguish the burning pain of being separated from her husband[30].” Anugamana, thus, is an expression of extreme love and commitment of the women towards their husbands. It is for this reason that Parashara Smriti (4.29-31) notes that such women will dwell in heaven with their husbands for “three and a half crores (in years) or however many hairs are on a human body—for that long a time (in years)”. This is not to suggest that widows who choose Vidwavrata, the other option available for pativratas, are less dedicated to their husbands, for Parashara notes that even they attain heaven; but the courage and commitment required to voluntarily embrace death by burning is so huge that they attain superior result as far as being together with the husbands in heaven is considered.

Thus, the correct way to understand Anugamana is that it is a Dharmically legitimate optional practice, voluntarily entered by women as an expression of their love and dedication towards their departed husbands. It is, in fact, an exertion of freewill by women who display extreme courage, commitment and sacrifice by choosing this path.

The Ritual Procedure of Anugamana

PV Kane in his History of Dharmashastras notes the procedure involved in the ritual of Anugamana, as mentioned in the medieval text Shuddhitattva of Raghunanda, thus: “The Suddhitattva sets out the procedure of widow burning. The widow bathes and puts on two white garments, takes kusha blades in her hands, faces the east or north, performs acamana (sipping water); when the brahmanas say ‘om, tat sat’ she remembers the God Narayana and refers to the time (month, fortnight, tithi) and then makes the samkalpa (declaration of resolve) set out below. She then calls upon the eight lokapalas (guardians of the quarters), the sun, the moon, the fire &c. to become witnesses to her act of following her husband on the funeral pyre, she then goes round the fire thrice, then the brahmaṇa recites the Vedic verse ‘ima narlr'(Rg.X.18.7) and a Purana verse ‘may these very good and holy women who are devoted to their husbands enter fire together with the body of the husband’, the woman utters ‘namo namah’ and ascends the kindled pyre.”

Slightly different procedures can be seen in texts like Dharmasindhu and Nirnayasindhu. However, if the widow, after thus ascending the pyre, becomes afraid or loses her resolve to continue or simply does not wish to continue with the ritual, the texts note that one of her relatives must make her to get up and come down from the pyre. Aparaarka (1.87), for example, notes: “However, they say that if a woman (who is to perform anugamana) has a desire for sons or for the world of the living, her husband’s younger brother or the like should cause her to get up (from her husband’s pyre)[31].” Similarly, Dharmasindhu notes: “(if) the woman (who is to perform anugamana) becomes afraid, either her husband’s younger brother or one of his students should cause her to get up (from the pyre) with the two verses beginning, ‘Rise…’ (RV 10.18.8-9)[32].” Apastamba, in fact, prescribes a Prajapatya penance for a widow who after deciding to perform anugamana and making a Sankalpa towards this, turns back from it at the last moment[33]. That anugamana is an optional nature of the practice, with the entire decision-making to whether to perform this ritual or not being in the hands of the women clearly comes out in the ritual procedure itself, which gives an option for the widows involves to opt out until the last moment.

Sati Dharmic Perspective 3

Suttee by James Atkinson, 1831, in the India Office Collection of the British Library (c) British Library Board 2009. Source:

Opposition to Anugamana and its refutation in Dharmashastra tradition

While the contemporary narrative on Anugamana assumes that the Hindu tradition had a monolithic straightjacket view of the practice, an examination of the Dharmashastra tradition, however, reveals that there was a lively discussion throughout history among pandits, vidwans, authors, and commentators of Dharmashastras with both pros and cons of Anugamana being examined in minute detail. As David Brick rightly notes: “Dharmasastric writings… provide clear testimony of a long, intricate, and pan-Indian debate on its very validity[34].”

One of the strongest voices within the Dharmashastra tradition who has put forward a number of objections to Anugamana is Medhatithi, the famous commentator on Manu Smriti who probably lived around 9th-10th century CE in Kashmir. In his commentary on the verse 5.155, he raises following objections to anugamana[35]:

  1. That it is a form of Suicide and suicide is prohibited for both men and women.
  2. That it goes against the Sruti statements like “Therefore, one should not depart before one’s natural lifespan” (Shatapatha Brahmana, which prohibit suicide.
  3. As a corollary from above, it is implied, though not explicitly stated by Medhatithi, that Anugamana has no sanction (owing to no positive mention) in Sruti.
  4. That the Smriti prescriptions regarding Anugamana must be taken to be of the same category as those regarding Syena Sacrifice, wherein it is simply a statement about the fruits begotten from its performance and not a prescription about the Dharmic status of the performance. In fact, like Syena Sacrifice, whose end result is death of the enemies and hence considered Adharma, Anugamana is Adharma.

Anugamana vs. Syena Sacrifice

Let us first look at the last of these arguments regarding the comparison of Anugamana with Syena sacrifice. Explaining the arguments put forward by Medhatithi, David Brick writes: “First, he argues that the practice is adharmic, because it is analogous to the syena sacrifice, a Vedic ritual whose explicit result is the death of the sacrificer’s enemies. According to the traditional interpretation given by Sahara in his commentary on Purvamimamsa Sutra 1.1.2, the performance of the syena sacrifice is not in conformity with dharma, since there is a general prohibition against violence. The Veda simply states that if a person wants to kill his enemies, the syena sacrifice is one means of accomplishing his goal. It does not, however, enjoin the killing of one’s enemies, so there is no specific injunction that would override the general prohibition against violence. Using the analogy of this sacrifice, Medhatithi argues that smrtis like that of Angiras do not actually enjoin sahagamana, because they explicitly mention its result, namely, heaven. They only state that if a widow wants to be reborn in heaven, sahagamana is one possible means. Thus, as in the case of the syena sacrifice, the general prohibition against violence still applies[36].”

But, this equation of Anugamana with Syena Sacrifice was severely criticized by Vijnaneshwara, the famous commentator on Yajnavalkya Smriti, who lived in 12th century CE. He instead provided two different refutations of Medhatithi’s position showing how Anugamana is dissimilar to Syena Sacrifice, on the one hand, and how it is instead quite similar to Agnisomiya rite involving animal sacrifice, which is a Dharmic activity, on the other.

Summarizing the first argument forwarded by Vijnaneshwara, Brick writes: “In outline, the first argument he presents goes as follows: A) There is a general prohibition against violence. B) The syena sacrifice involves violence, since its outcome is the death of one’s enemies. C) Only a specific injunction stating that one should kill one’s enemies could override the general prohibition, but no such injunction exists. Therefore, D) the syena sacrifice is prohibited by the sastras. Vijnanesvara holds that part C) of this argument does not apply in the case of sahagamana, since this practice is actually enjoined in the sastra. He points out that unlike the syena sacrifice, which results in violence, a prohibited outcome, sahagamana results in heavenly rebirth, a permissible outcome. The syena sacrifice is prohibited, because its violence is its result and its result is not enjoined. In other words, it is prohibited because the sastras never state that a person should kill his enemies and this is the violent part of the sacrifice. By contrast, the violence of the sahagamana rite (i.e., the widow’s suicide) is enjoined, as a means to rebirth in heaven, and although the sastras may not specifically enjoin rebirth in heaven, they certainly do not prohibit it. Vijnanesvara adds that sahagamana should instead be treated like the agnisomiya rite, which both involves violence to living beings (animals) and leads to a permissible outcome. Since the agnisomiya rite is permitted, sahagamana should be as well[37].”

The second argument forwarded by Vijnaneshwara was even more thorough, though more complex as well, and hence beyond the scope of this article. It is suffice to say that Vijnaneshwara’s refutation of Medhatithi and his establishing of the dissimilarity between Anugamana and Syena sacrifice was so thorough that Vijnaneshwara’s word became the last word[38] on this issue in the Dharmashastra tradition.

Is Anugamana against Sruti?

Now let us take Medhatithi’s argument that Anugamana is analogous to Suicide and hence prohibited by the statement in Shatapatha Brahmana ( “Therefore, one should not depart before one’s natural lifespan”.

Regarding this, Aparaarka, another famous 12th century CE commentator on Yajnavalkya Smriti, writes thus: “And it should not be objected that the smrti passages that enjoin sahagamana are in conflict with the following sruti passage: ‘Therefore, one who desires heaven should not depart before one’s lifespan.’ The reason for this is that they have different spheres of applicability: sruti prohibits dying by one’s own desire in general, but smrti enjoins the particular method of dying that is entering the fire when one’s husband has died. Hence, there is no conflict, for they have different spheres of applicability. Likewise, there is no conflict with (other) sruti passages that have general spheres of applicability, such as ‘Desiring heaven, one should sacrifice’ and ‘One should perform the Agnihotra rite as long as one lives’[39].” Madhavacharya, the celebrated commentator on Parashara Smriti, puts forward a similar argument and notes how “the smrti enjoining sahagamana is of greater force, as these Vedic texts do not apply here. Instead, the Vedic texts that prohibit suicide apply only to people other than women that desire heaven[40].”

The gist of the argument forwarded by Aparaarka, Madhavacharya and others is that since the Sruti passage cited by Medhatithi is of general application and the smriti passage gives a specific instruction, the latter overrides the former in that specific case, as per the hermeneutic principles of Mimamsa. An example that can clearly illustrate this is the case of Ahimsa. Ahimsa or non-injury is upheld as highest Dharma. It is one of the Samanya Dharma or common duties of all people. Yet, Kshatriyas, who have the duty to protect the people and the nation are allowed by Vishesha Dharma-special duties to use force and violence in the form of punishment and war to fulfill their obligations to the society. Similarly, though suicide in general is prohibited by the Shatapatha Brahmana and similar texts, their fields of applicability are general. There are no specific prohibitions in the Sruti or Smriti regarding Anugamana. Instead, Smriti texts enjoin Anugamana as a Dharmic activity, one that imparts heaven. Hence, the Smritis which impart special duties enjoining anugamana takes precedence over the Shruti text which imparts general prohibition against suicide.

A corollary of the above argument by Medhatithi is that Anugamana has no sanction of the Vedas. Though, Medhatithi himself has not explicitly mentioned this, many scholars, especially in recent times have highlighted this. PV Kane, for example, notes: “There is no Vedic passage which can be cited as incontrovertibly referring to widow-burning as then current, nor is there any mantra which could be said to have been repeated in very ancient times at such burning nor do the ancient grhyasutras contain any direction prescribing the procedure of widow burning[41].”

Yet, the writers in the Dharmashastra tradition, at least from the time of Aparaarka, have quoted the Rigvedic verse 10.18.7, as well as a verse from Brahma Purana[42], which quotes Rigveda as a positive evidence that prove the sanction of Sruti for Anugamana. The Rigvedic verse in question states: “Let these unwidowed dames with noble husbands adorn themselves with fragrant balm and unguent. Decked with fair jewels, tearless, free from sorrow, first let the dames go up to where he lieth[43].” The very next verse (i.e. Rigveda 10.18.8) states: “Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman: come, he is lifeless by whose side thou liest. Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover[44].” Kane notes that the verse 10.18.7 was not “addressed to widows at all, but to ladies of the deceased man’s household whose husbands were living and the grhyasutra of Asv. made use of it with that meaning.” Similarly, traditional commentators on the Vedas like Sayana also do not consider the verse a reference to Anugamana. Instead, verses 10.18.8 & 10.18.9[45] have been held as a reference to either Niyoga or remarriage.

But, what is clear is that at least, a few of the traditional commentators and digest writers like Aparaarka, Kashinatha Upadhyaya, etc. have interpreted 10.18.7 as a reference to Anugamana, while 10.18.8 has been taken as a reference to the widow’s family urging her to get up from the pyre and not continue with Anugamana. One text, Sahamaranavidhi, in fact, goes to the extent of saying that the verse 10.18.8 was only to test the resolution of the widow and “induce her to retire if she be not sufficiently firm in her purpose.” The usage of these verses in the Anugamana ritual, at least since, medieval times have already been noted in the previous section. Even Kane, notes: “The two verses ‘iyam nari’ and Rg. X. 18. 8 are employed by the Baudhayana-Pitrmedhasutra in the funeral rites, the first to be repeated when the wife is made to sit near the corpse and the next for making her rise. It is to be noted that Baud. directs that the corpse is placed on the funeral pile after the wife is made to rise from the vicinity of the corpse; while the Brhad-devata appears to suggest that the wife ascends the funeral pile after the corpse is placed thereon and then the younger brother forbids her with the verse udirsva[46]” This is very significant, since firstly, it shows that the said verses were utilized in funeral rites. Second, the different ways in which the widow is suggested to sit near the husband’s body points towards the possibility that while Baud. was referring to widows who would not commit Anugamana but only symbolically sit in front of the pyre, the procedure in Brhad-devata was actually directed at widows who had decided to perform anugamana. Though, Kane notes: “But the Brhad-devata does not mean that the wife burns herself on the funeral pyre and the brother-in-law contents himself with only repeating a verse to dissuade her[47]”, even he had to concede that “The Rgvidhana (III. 8. 4) says that the brother-in-law should call back the wife of his sonless brother when she is about to ascend the funeral pyre for procreating a son on her with Rg. X. 18. 8. It appears that the verse Rg X. 18. 8 symbolically describes what even in the days of the Rgveda was probably only a tradition viz, that in hoary antiquity a wife burnt herself with her husband[48].”

The very possibility that the Rigvedic verses could have referred to the practice of Anugamana, even if it was only in the hoary antiquity and not during ‘Rigvedic’ times, is enough to give credence to the Anugamana ritual put together during the medieval period that utilizes these verses in the context of Anugamana. In any case, we also have two verses (18.3.1-2) from Atharvaveda, which are clearer than the Rigvedic verses in their meaning and implication. The verses in question state: “Choosing her husband’s world, O man, this woman lays herself    down beside thy lifeless body. Preserving faithfully the ancient custom. Bestow upon here both   wealth and offspring (18.3.1). Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman: come, he is lifeless   by whose side thou liest. Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover (18.3.2)[49].” The first verse above notes without any ambiguity that the widow would lie beside her husband’s body choosing her “husband’s world”, i.e. choosing to go with him to heaven. The second verse, is of course, the urging of the family and the priests to the widow to rise up from the pyre and not to go ahead with Anugamana. Aravind Sharma writes that even Sayana notes how with the first verse, the widow is made to lie beside her dead husband on the funeral pyre and that the reference to progeny and property is a reference to having those in the next life[50]. Thus, to state that there is no sanction of Sruti for Anugamana would be incorrect. Nor is it correct to conclude that the urging of the widow to arise in the second verse makes Anugamana portrayed in the first verse redundant. Instead, as Sahamaranavidhi, quoted before rightly notes (though in the context of the Rigvedic verse), while the first verse speaks about Anugamana, the second speaks about the alternative. That both alternatives have been given together in the Sruti and was also later incorporated into the Anugamana ritual procedure itself, only establishes that Anugamana was an optional practice from which the widow could withdraw herself till the very last moment.

Even if, we were to discard the verses from Rigveda and sideline those from Atharvaveda that are currently available as being insufficient for positively assuming Anugamana as being sanctioned by the Sruti, even then, as Aparaarka notes, the Smriti evidence alone is enough in this case to attain the sanction of the Sruti. Aparaarka (1.87) writes: “Moreover, it should not be objected that when a smrti text is contradicted by a sruti text that has a general sphere of applicability, it becomes unauthoritative, because there is really no contradiction between them, as these texts have different spheres of applicability: one is general and one is specific. For contradiction exists only when there is no difference between spheres of applicability, but not when there is a difference between specific spheres of applicability. And therefore, from a smrti text that has a specific sphere of applicability, one can infer a sruti text that has its same specific sphere of applicability and that it is the basis of it. And that sruti text carries greater weight than a sruti text with a general sphere of applicability and, hence, causes it to be restricted[51].”

To understand what Aparaarka is saying, we must first understand the Pramanas or the means of valid knowledge in the case of Dharma. Manu Smriti (2.12) notes: Veda, Smriti, Sadachara and Atmatrupti as the four means for having correct knowledge about Dharma. Of these, Vedas alone are considered as the very source of Dharma (2.6). That is, while the Sruti is the direct and foundational pramana for Dharma, Smriti and others derive from Sruti. The other Pramanas are, in fact, successive stages of contextualization of the Dharmic teachings available in Sruti to practical life. Hence, though we have lost a large number of branches of Vedas and have no longer access to these texts, from the guidelines on a particular theme that are present in the available Smritis, we can infer that such guidelines would have been present in the Sruti texts as well, though it may be absent in the currently available Sruti texts.

In other words, since, we only have a general prohibition against Suicide and not a specific prohibition against Anugamana in the Sruti; and since, on the other hand, we have a specific guideline proposing Anugamana as a Dharmically legitimate path in the Smriti texts; we have to infer that there must be a specific Sruti injunction considering Anugamana as a Dharmically legitimate path, though such a Sruti text is no longer available to us having been lost over the course of the time. That this is a legitimate hermeneutics process accepted in the Dharmashastra tradition can also be known from the fact that Kulluka Bhatta in his commentary on Manu Smriti verse 1.3 notes that “vedas” refers to both available Srutis and those which can be inferred from Smritis and other texts like Puranas[52]. Thus, the assertion that Anugamana has no sanction of Sruti or that it is against Sruti has no basis.

Sati Dharmic Perspective 5

An 18th-century painting depicting sati. Source: Wikipedia

Is Anugamana same as Suicide?

Interesting, no Dharmashastra author appears to have provided a direct refutation of the objection that Anugamana is analogous to suicide. But, before proceeding, it is worth noting that the term used by Medhatithi is “Atmatyaga” or “renunciation of the self, i.e. body” which has a wider and generally more neutral connotation to it than the term “suicide”, which carries a baggage of negative connotation to it. It is in this context, then we must understand the Dharmashastra writer’s assertion that though there is a general prohibition against “Atmatyaga” (renouncing the body) before its naturally stipulated time, it does not apply to the specific case of Anugamana.

Nevertheless, it is worth examining whether Anugamana is analogous to how we understand suicide today. For the purpose of the article, we would adopt the definition of suicide provided by American Psychological Association: “Suicide is the act of killing yourself, most often as a result of depression or other mental illness.” Then, the question which must be asked are: Whether Anugamana is an outcome of depression? Whether Anugamana is an outcome of mental illness or some personality disorder? We can straight away discard the notion that those who performed Anugamana did so out of some mental illness or personality disorder. That means, we are left with only one question: Whether Anugamana was performed due to depression?

Though, a superficial reading of the practice of Anugamana, especially some of its descriptions like those in Brahma Purana, quoted previously which states: “There is no other recourse (than sahagamana) for a good woman when her husband dies, (for) there is no other way to extinguish the burning pain of being separated from her husband”, may suggest that the widow indeed opts for Anugamana as a result of shock and depression, a careful reading of the intricacies involved in the Anugamana ritual as well as the nuances put forward in the Dharmashastras give us an opposite picture.

For one, if the widow does indeed wants to simply commit suicide unable to bear the pain and out of depression due to the loss of the husband, she can as well do so by other means: drowning in the river, hanging herself, etc. Why would she take the trouble to ascend the pyre and become burned alive? Why would she voluntarily choose a more painful path? The fact that the widow consciously makes a decision to follow the husband to the funeral pyre and burn herself with her husband’s dead body with a strong resolve to unite with him after discarding her body, shows that her performance of Anugamana is anything but a rash or rushed decision taken in depression.

Second, a careful look at the ritual procedure involved in Anugamana– the Sankalpa, the giving of clothes, kumkum, turmeric, etc. to other married women, the prayer to Agni, the Ahutis, etc.– reveal that the ritual requires a lot of poise and self-control on the part of the widow. Only an extremely self-controlled and courageous widow can undergo the entire ritual.

Third, a look at other exceptions to the general prohibition against Atma-tyaga will reveal these cases have no resemblance to Suicides. Other exceptions include, ascetics who discard their bodies at holy places in order to attain heaven[53], heroic warriors who deliberately embrace death in the battle[54], Prayopravesha or embracing death by fasting of persons who are aged or no longer have worldly responsibilities[55]. All these are Dharmically legitimate ways of ending one’s life and interestingly all of them require enormous courage, detachment, and self-control. Something which is missing in those who commit suicides due to depression and under the influence of other internal passions. Dalpat Singh Baya, in his study on Sallekhana, the Jain counterpart of Prayopravesha, notes how it is different from suicide. Prominent among the differences he notes include[56]:

  1. Sallekhana is not suicide because here the practitioner leaves the body through ritual practice and not by coming under the influence of internal passions and adopting lethal means as done in suicide.
  2. Psychologically, a suicidal person have conflicting desires to live and to die simultaneously. These desires may be conscious or subconscious in nature. On the other hand, the practitioner of Sallekhana, has no such desires.
  3. There is a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in a suicidal person, whereas no such feelings exist in spiritual practitioner. The spiritual practitioner is dispassionate, self-controlled and practices Sallekhana for spiritual merit.

These observations are more or less true about Anugamana as well. The widow leaves her body through ritual action. She does not have a conflicting desires regarding to live or die and if she does, then she always has the choice to not to proceed with Anugamana until the last moment. Like spiritual practitioners, even a widow willing to perform Anugamana is full of poise, self-control, and courage. Of course, the widow is full of sorrow for the loss of her husband, which actually impels her to choose Anugamana. But, this sorrow also creates dispassion towards the body and the worldly life, which drives her to embrace Anugamana. The desire to be with her husband in heaven is yet another factor. Hence, though, Anugamana is different from other practices like Prayopravesha in a significant way, it is also different from suicide. From the above discussion, it is clear that Anugamana has no resemblance to suicide. It is instead a Dharmic way of choosing to end one’s life for attaining Preyas and Sreyas[57].

The lengthy discussion in the previous paragraphs show how the Dharmashastra tradition is not monolithic and instead discussed and debated on all aspects of Anugamana. Though many did raise various objections against the practice from time to time, these objections were answered and refuted as well by others from time to time. Dharmashastra commentators like Vijnaneshwara, Aparaarka, Madhavacharya and others have clearly established Anugamana as a Dharmically legitimate practice, though an optional practice that widows with exceptional love, courage, detachment and self-control chose to perform.

Anugamana vs. Vidwavrata vs. Punarvivaha: A comparison of the fruits accrued  

We already dealt in some depth about the three Dharmically legitimate life paths that are available to the widows. But, what we did not touch upon before was the Karmic fruits i.e. the merits accrued by following each of the paths and a comparison of these fruits.

First, let us take Anugamana and Vidwavrata, since both of them are specially prescribed for Pativratas who are fully in love and are committed to their husbands. Parashara Smriti is one among the many Smriti and Dharmashastra texts which provide such an enunciation of merits obtained by the widows. Comparing the merits obtained by following Vidwavrata and Anugamana, Parashara Smriti (4.29-31) notes: “If a woman adheres to a vow of ascetic celibacy (brahmacarya) after her husband has died, then when she dies, she obtains heaven, just like those who were celibate. Further, three and a half crores or however many hairs are on a human body—for that long a time (in years) a woman who follows her husband (in death) shall dwell in heaven. And just as a snake-catcher forcefully lifts up a snake out of its hole, so does this woman lift up her husband and then rejoices together with him[58].” Tryambakayajvan in his Stridharmapaddhati (47[2] r.5-7) notes that widows who follow Vidwavrata attains three fold fruits: “She is both happy and auspicious (shubha) in this life; she obtains the pleasures of the heaven (svargabhogan), or indeed the same heaven as her husband (patilokam); and she marries the same husband in next life[59].” Regarding widows who choose Anugamana, he highlights a number of great rewards accrued: Women who follow their husbands to the cremation ground will attain with every step the rewards of Ashwamedha sacrifice; such women will attain their husbands in heaven and enjoy there for three and a half crores of years; women can purify themselves as well as their husbands and become free of many of the Adharmas committed while alive[60]; and, in short, Anugamana confers great blessings to both the wife and the husband. Tryambakayajvan, in fact, notes that Anugamana is a commendable path for widows (45r.5). Dharmasindhu of Kashinatha Upadhyaya notes that those who follow Vidhwavrata, will attain same husband and enjoy with him in heaven[61]; and those who follow Anugamana may attain heaven and other fruits, if it was done in Sakaama way (i.e. with desires) or may even attain Moksha, if done in Nishkaama way (without desires)[62]. Vijnaneshwara in his Mitaakshara (1.86), on the other hand, believes Vidhwavrata could be considered superior to Anugamana in one aspect: While alive a widow following Vidhwavrata still has the ability and possibility to attain Jivanmukti, the widow who follows her husband through Anugamana only attains heaven with him.

To summarize, Anugamana imparts following merits:

  1. When performed in Sakaama way, widows can go to heaven with their husbands and enjoy there for a very long time, in fact for as many years as there are hairs on a human body. And presumably, they will be together with their husbands in their next human lives they will take after enjoying in heaven.
  2. When performed in Sakaama way, the widows will also attain the merits accrued by performing a large number of Ashwamedha yajnas.
  3. When performed in Nishkaama way, widows can attain Moksha or final liberation. Perhaps, she will attain the heaven with her husband first, and then instead of returning back to human body, she will attain Jnana and Moksha.
  4. Secondary fruits includes purifying oneself and the husbands of some of the Adharmic actions committed while alive.

Vidhwavrata, on the other hand, imparts following fruits:

  1. When done in Sakaama way with attachment to their departed husbands, the widow, after their deaths, will join their husbands in heaven and will be with the same husbands in their next lives as well.
  2. When done in Nishkaama way, like the Brahmacharis, the widow will still attain heaven. But, perhaps, she may not be united with the husband, if she has sufficiently become dispassionate towards him.
  3. The widow will have an opportunity to gain complete Vairagya (dispassion) while alive and perhaps even attain Jivanmukti (Liberation even while alive in body).

Contrary to the above two life-paths, if a widow chooses to remarry, she would be cutting of her connection, with her departed husband, at least in the ritual/Dharmic context, and she will be establishing a newer connection with her new husband. In this case, she will of course not be uniting with her departed husband in the heaven, nor she may have him as her husband in the next life. (Though, she and the departed husband may still be destined to be coupled in some future lives, if the Karmic bond or rina-bandha between them remains unexhausted completely). She may still attain heaven and a better future birth, if she lives a Dharmic life and perhaps follows Patrivrata dharma with her new husband. It is just like the case with widowers who rekindle a new fire with a new wife and start journey afresh.

At this juncture, it is important to note that despite Parashara Smriti (4.28) clearly allowing remarriage for women under five circumstances for Kaliyuga— if husband is missing, dead, has renounced the world, is impotent, or if he commits severe Adharmic actions— which pretty much covers all legitimate grounds; except for Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, no Dharmashastra writer or commentator has written much about widow remarriage. They have either maintained silence or have criticized it. One possibility for this could be the importance of Pativrata as the means for women’s overall wellbeing. Since, the husband himself was considered the means to both heaven and liberation, love and dedication to one’s husband were upheld by the Dharmashastra authors. Vidhwavrata and Anugamana received all the attention, since they alone strengthen and reinforce the widow’s connection to their departed husbands and provides a way for her to fulfill her spiritual sadhana of Pativrata despite the husband’s death. In any case, despite the silent treatment or occasional opposition to Punar-vivaha, it is also a Dharmically legitimate path as attested in Parashara Smriti and a number of other texts.

The fruits accrued from Punar-vivaha can be summarized thus:

  1. A chance to restart her life with a new husband and hence take up the Dharmic duty of saha-dharmacharini with a new husband.
  2. Attaining heaven and other benefits by following the Pativrata duties with the new husband.
  3. The only drawback, if it can be called a drawback, is that marrying someone else after the death of one’s husband, leads to severing (or at least straining) of the Karmic relationships with the departed husband.

Anugamana vs. Jauhar: A comparison

In contemporary discourse, Anugamana and Jauhar are often used synonymously. But, it is important to note that while the former is a well-established ritual procedure in Hindu tradition, the latter evolved in a particular politically charged historical context. It is not that both of the practices are entirely distinct from each other, since they do share a number of common elements, most prominent among them being that in both practices the women ascend the pyre and become “sati” by burning themselves. Yet, Jauhar is also significantly different from Anugamana in a number of ways, the most important distinction being the motive.

Arvind Sharma notes how while the primary motive behind Jauhar was a desire to avoid being captured by the invading Muslim armies, Anugamana was performed by devoted widow[63]. Writing about the political context behind the evolution of Jauhar, Kaushik Roy notes how Jauhar was only practiced during Hindu-Muslim wars[64]. That is, Jauhar was practiced by Rajput women in order to avoid being captured, raped, and enslaved in the face of imminent defeat in the battle.

What is generally referred to as Jauhar, in fact, has two elements: Jauhar-immolation by the womenfolk and Shaka ritual by the menfolk wherein they entered the final battle, fighting till they fell dead on the battlefield. As Lindsey Harlan notes: ‘”The jauhar sati dies before and while her husband fights what appears to be an unwinnable battle. By dying, she frees him from worry about her welfare and saves herself from the possible shame of rape by triumphant enemy forces[65].” That is, Jauhar served as the female counterpart of the male Shaka ritual, with both of them attaining Veer-gati i.e. attaining heaven due to heroic death.

Thus, while Anugamana was a ritual practice available for pativrata widows, facilitating them to attain overall wellbeing, Jauhar ritual, in addition to having elements of Anugamana, also had the Kshatra element of granting Veera-gati on the performer and acted as the female counterpart of men going out on their final battles. But, the greatest significance of Jauhar in the historical context was its ability to save Hindu women from capture, rape, and slavery, which they would have been subjected to, had they been captured alive by the marauding armies of Islam.


The contemporary discourse on Anugamana or Sati suffers from a lot of misrepresentation and disinformation about the practice. As a result, both the history and the practice have gained a lot of negative traction in media and literature, thus creating a very negative image about the practice. While the historical aspect of the issue has been dealt extensively by others, this article sheds light on the practice itself.

The article examined the place of Anugamana among the various Dharmic options available for widows and compared the same with the Dharmic options available for widowers. It was then noted how the practice was voluntary in nature and love, commitment and courage were the essential elements of the practice. Various eligibility criteria and the ritual procedure were also briefly examined. The Dharmashastric debate on Anugamana with its various arguments made against Anugamana as well as their refutations were examined as well. And finally we looked into the relative merits accrued to widows by choosing Anugamana vs. Vidhwavrata vs. Punarvivaha.

From the above discussion, we can conclude that Anugamana was[66] a Dharmically legitimate ritual practice and a life choice that imparted great merits to the widow as well as to her dead husband. It was, indeed, in many a sense, an ultimate symbol of love, commitment, courage and sacrifice. Nevertheless, it was only one among the three Dharmically legitimate life-choices available for widows (the other being widowhood and remarriage), with each of these three life-choices having their own importance and imparting their own merits on the widow. It was ultimately up to the widow to choose what was best for her and this availability of choice for the widow, made Anugamana an expression of freewill, a sacred yajna in itself. The kind of love, courage and dispassion that takes to perform Anugamana meant that the practice was always extraordinary, not ordinary. And the historical evidence shows that the widows only rarely and sporadically chose Anugamana.


[1] Meena Menon, Geeta Seshu, Sujata Anandan. 1987. Trial By Fire: A Report on Roop Kanwar’s Death, Bombay Union of Journalists. Cited from Jain, Meenakshi (2016). Sati. Preface X. Delhi: Aryan Books International

[2] Jain, Meenakshi (2016). Sati. Preface X. Delhi: Aryan Books International

[3] Ibid. 179

[4] Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad (79.7)

[5] Preyah and Śreyah, material wellbeing and spiritual fulfillment are proposed as two-fold goals of life in Kaṭhopaniṣad (1.2.1-2)

[6] We have many examples from history wherein the widow committed Sati, despite severe opposition and attempts to convince the widow against committing Sati by the immediate relatives. In 606 AD, for example, Queen Yasomati, the mother of King Harsha, committed Sati, despite Harsha’s attempts to convince her to not commit sati. Similarly, a Belaturu inscription of Saka 979, refers to a Sati committed by a Sudra woman at Dekabbe, despite severe opposition from her parents. Further, epigraphic evidences show that relatives often tried to discourage women from performing Sati. Even Brahmins in the community tried to prevent women from committing Sati. For more details, See: Jain, Meenakshi (2016). Sati. Delhi: Aryan Books International

[7] Sharma, A. Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Retrieved November 2017 from

[8] Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (628). Retrieved November 2017 from

[9] Daksha Smriti (1.9), for example, advices a Dvija to not spend even a moment in the state of anashrami and notes one who stays without an ashrama must perform prayashchitta. Piovano, I. (2002). Daksha Smriti: Introduction, Critical Edition, Translation and Appendices. Botto, O (Ed). Corpus Juris Sanscriticum. 1. Turin: Comitato ‘Corpus Juris Sanscriticum’.

[10] A symbolic wife who acts as a substitution for the real wife and in case of men whose wives have died or have separated or disappeared, these symbolic image acts as the representation of the dead or separated wife itself. A good example of this is how in Ramayana, Sri Rama creates a golden idol of Sita to perform Yajnas after he becomes separated her.

[11] The Aitereya Brahmana discusses whether a man without a wife can perform Agnihotra and concludes that he can and should since otherwise it would make him an “anaddhapurusha” or man of falsehood owing to his failure to perform sacrifices. The term “Apatnika” or a man without a wife refers to both those who never married and those whose wives have either died or are missing for a long time. See: Leslie, Julia (1995) The Perfect Wife (Stridharmapaddhati). By Tryambakayajvan. (114-115) New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

[12] Karmic connection or Rinabandha which was created when the couple bonded with each other through Vivaha and then reinforced it every day through their love, commitment, and pursuance of all Purusharthas together.

[13] Texts which mention remarriage for widows includes: Narada Samhita, Agni Purana, Garuda Purana, among others. For a detailed discussion on the validity of remarriage as a Dharmic option for a widow, See: Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar, Hindu Widow Remarriage, trans. Brian A. Hatcher. (2012). New York: Columbia University Press.

[14] PV Kane notes of some of the instances of Sati In Itihasa-Puranas: “Madrl, the favourite wife of

Pandu, burnt herself with her husband’s body. In the Virata-parva Sairandhri is ordered to be burnt with Kicaka, just as in ancient times it is said there was a custom to bury a slave or slaves along with the deceased ruler. The Mausalaparva (7. 18) says that four wives of Vasudeva, viz. Devaki, BhadrS,RohinI and Madira burnt themselves with him and (chap.7. 73-74) that RukminI, Gandhftrl, Saibya, Haimavati, Jambavati among the consorts of Krsna burnt themselves along with his body and other queens like Satyabhama went to a forest for tapas. The Visnupurana also says that eight queens of Krsna, EukminI and others, entered fire on the death of Krsna. The

Santiparva (chap. 148) describes how a kapotl (female pigeon) entered fire on the death of her husband the bird… In the Ramayana, (Uttarakanda 17. 15) there is a reference to the self-immolation of a brahmana woman… The Bhagavatapurana I. 13. 57 speaks of Gandhari’s burning herself on the death of her husband, Dhritarastra.” [Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (626-628). Retrieved November 2017 from]

[15] It may be asked why Anugamana has not been suggested for men. It is only because of the different nature of Grihasta duties of the husband and wife. While the wife is saha-dharmaharini for the husband, husband himself is the means for attaining purusharthas for the wife. Hence, anugamana has not been suggested as a Dharmically fruitful activity for men. However, there is no explicit prohibition against it as well. Thus, while men may not attain any spiritual merit, they may still do it out of love and for the sake of being together with their departed wives. While some may consider this to be a suicide, especially with respect to men and this needs to be debated (anugamana is not suicide with respect to women), even if this is accepted at face value, the fact that men are doing it for the sake of love and uniting with departed wives, will result in their realizing this desire, despite also incurring paapam associated with suicide. Because being a Kamya karma, one performed out of desire, it reinforces the love and rina-bandha/karmic bond between the couple. Also, as the Shastras note, the next life of a person depends upon the final thought he has just before death. This being the case, even a man who commits anugamana for the sake of wife will attain his wife. It is for this reason perhaps, the Shastras do not explicitly prohibit anugamana for men, despite not giving it as a Dharmically suitable option.

[16] Leslie, Julia (1995). The Perfect Wife (Stridharmapaddhati). By Tryambakayajvan. (141) New Delhi: Penguin Books India

[17] PV Kane writes: “Haritadharmasutra as quoted in the Sm. C. and other digests says ‘there are two sorts of women, those that are brahmavadinis (i. e. students of sacred lore) and those that are sadyovadhus (i.e. who straightway marry). Out of these brahmavadinis have to go through upanayana, keeping fire, vedic study

and begging in one’s house (i e. under the parental roof); but in the case of sadyovadhus when their marriage is drawing near, the mere ceremony of upanayana should somehow be performed and then their marriage should be celebrated’.” [Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (294). Retrieved November 2017 from]

[18] Sharma, S (tr) (2012). Dharmasindhu. By Kashinatha Upadhyaya. (540) Dharwad: Samaja Pustakalaya

[19] Quoted in Madanaparijata of Madanapala. Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[20] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] ibid

[24] ibid

[25] Niryana Sindhu qualifies even this requirement and notes in case Brahmana widow who wanted to perform Sahagamana, but was unable to for some reason, she can use her husband’s bones or a piece of Palasha wood and self-immolate herself with them. Doing so removes the paapam of dying on a separate pyre. Cited from ibid.

[26] Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[27] Dharmasindhu clearly note that the statements in Dharmashastras enunciating how even women who have been wicked towards her husband can purify herself by anugamana must be understood only as “arthavada”, i.e. statements made only eulogize anugamana; since women who are negatively disposed towards their husbands do not have eligibility to perform anugamana. [Sharma, S (tr) (2012). Dharmasindhu. By Kashinatha Upadhyaya. (540) Dharwad: Samaja Pustakalaya]. It is also to be noted that doing marananthaka-prayashchitta i.e. penance wherein the performer dies at the end of the performance is prohibited in Kaliyuga [Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 3 (926-968). This is also perhaps another reason, why Dharmasindhu consider the statements which eulogize anugamana even for widows who have been wicked and bitter towards husband as mere “arthavada” not to be practiced. This view is expressed even by Madanapala in the context of Anugamana purifying even the husband of his heinous paapams

[28] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[29] Sharma, S (tr) (2012). Dharmasindhu. By Kashinatha Upadhyaya. (538) Dharwad: Samaja Pustakalaya

[30] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[31] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[32] ibid

[33] Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (633). Retrieved November 2017 from

[34] Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[35] Medhatithi’s arguments have been summarized from the verses cited in Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[36] Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[37] Ibid.

[38] Brick notes: “Significantly, this refutation appears to have been quite effective, as not one of the later commentators within the dharma tradition, so far as I am aware, takes up this line of argumentation against the custom.” [ibid]

[39] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[40] ibid

[41] Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (625). Retrieved November 2017 from

[42] The verse from Brahma Purana quoted by Apararka and others says:” There is no other recourse (than sahagamana) for a good woman when her husband dies, (for) there is no other way to extinguish the burning pain of being separated from her husband. And when he dies in a distant place, a virtuous woman should place a pair of his sandals on her chest and, purified, enter fire. Due to the statement of the Rgveda, such a virtuous woman does not commit suicide. And when the three days’ impurity has ceased, she eternally obtains the sraddha offering.” Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[43] Translation from Ralph T.H. Griffith. Retrieved November 2017 from This translation has been used only because of it being conveniently available.

[44] ibid

[45] Rigveda 10.18.9 reads: “From his dead hand I take the bow be carried, that it may be our power and might and glory. There art thou, there; and here with noble heroes may we o’ercome all hosts that fight against us.” [ibid]

[46] Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras. Vol 2. Part 1 (618). Retrieved November 2017 from

[47] ibid

[48] Ibid (618-619)

[49] Translation from Ralph T.H. Griffith. Retrieved November 2017 from

[50] Sharma, A (1988). Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. (37). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

[51] Cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[52] In verse 3 of chapter 1 of Manu Smriti, the rishis who had asked the questions about Dharma to Manu outlines the competency of Manu Smriti as a teacher suitable for teaching about all Dharma. In this context, the verse describes how Manu is knower of all Vedas with the words “asya sarvasya vidhanasya”. While commenting on this, Kulluka Bhatta notes that while the term “Vidhana” refers to “Veda”, the usage of the term “sarvasya” or “all” refers to the entirety of Vedas, which includes both “Pratyaksha Sruti” or directly available Sruti and “Smruti-aadi-anumeyasya” or those Srutis that are to be inferred from Smruti and other texts on Dharma like the Itihasas and Puranas.

[53] Yathidharmaprakasha 17.1-32

[54] Attaining Veer-gati

[55] Compare with Jain practice of Sallekhana. Sridhar, N (2015). Is the Jain practice of Sallekhana really suicide? Retrieved November 2017 from

[56] Baya, DS. Death with Equanimity. Retrieved November 2019 from The summarized account of Baya’s observations have been quoted from Sridhar, N (2015). Is the Jain practice of Sallekhana really suicide? Retrieved November 2017 from

[57] Preyas in the form of being with husband in heaven when Anugamana is performed in Sakaama way and Sreyas in the form of Moksha when Anugamana is performed in Nishkaama way.

[58] Translation cited from Brick, D. (2010). The Dharmaśāstric Debate on Widow-Burning. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130(2), 203-223. Retrieved from

[59] Leslie, Julia (1995) The Perfect Wife (Stridharmapaddhati). By Tryambakayajvan. (303) New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

[60] As noted earlier, while some Dharmashastra writers consider this “Prayashchitta” aspect of Anugamana only as eulogy or Arthavada for glorifying Anugamana, others point out that penances leading to death are prohibited in kaliyuga. In fact, women who are negatively disposed towards their husbands or if the husbands had performed deeply Adharmic actions, such widows are not eligible to perform Anugamana.

[61] Sharma, S (tr) (2012). Dharmasindhu. By Kashinatha Upadhyaya. (541) Dharwad: Samaja Pustakalaya

[62] Ibid (538)

[63] Sharma, A. Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Retrieved November 2017 from

[64] Kaushik Roy (2012), Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present. Retrieved November 2018 from Wikipedia.

[65] Harlan, L (1992). Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Retrieved from

[66] The past tense used in the paragraph, as well as elsewhere in the article is only to reflect the ground reality that Sati is a legally prohibited practice even in the Independent India. Also, the instances of Sati in independent India have been too minuscule.


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Author’s Note: This is to clarify that the purpose of the article is to understand the practice of Sati-Anugamana as it was practiced in the past using value-system prevalent at those times. The author neither suggests that Sati has to be revived today nor supports any such attempts by anyone in current times.

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