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How was sati practiced in early India? How was it done, why and by who?

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The Indian funerary ritual of sati has existed in Indian as far back a 400 A.D. Records before that period are scare, so little is known of the practice before the Gupta period. According to what written records existed, sati was widespread as early as the 10th century A.D. and was performed in generally the same manner across the subcontinent. There are many prehistoric practices that could have spawned it, such as the ship burning rituals of the Rus or the practice of killing a king’s court in Egypt and China. Voluntary death rituals were recorded north of India before 400 A.D., but not within the subcontinent.

First, according to what records we have, many sati participants did so willingly. There were of course many instances of brides being forced onto the funeral pyres of their husbands, but a surprising number of them willingly cast themselves into the flames.

Second, practitioners believed that when a widow sacrificed herself, she did away with the sins of her husband, allowing him to achieve happiness in the afterlife. There was a certain amount of peer pressure that went into this practice. Widows were looked down upon if they refused, or in some cases were forced by the family of their dead husbands. A Greek observer wondered if this practice was possibly developed to prevent young wives from poising their old husbands.

Third, not all communities participated in this ritual. Leaders such as Akbar and other Muhgal leaders tried to ban the practice with mixed success. Today, the Indian government still combats sati, but only in isolated communities.   

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