Is Sati a product of Sanatana Dharma, as Udayanidhi claims?
by Jayasree Saranathan on 16 Dec 2023 1 Comment

Recently, a huge furore was created by Mr. Udayanidhi, the Minister for Sports and Youth welfare of Tamilnadu, and son of the Chief Minister, that he stands for eradicating Sanatana Dharma. In defiance of the criticism and legal cases against him, he clarified that he is not against Hindus or Hinduism but only against the evil practices promoted by ‘Sanatana Dharma’. He clarified what those practices are in a review meeting in Thoothukudi by stating that he is against Sati and the ill-treatment of women like slaves by Sanatana Dharma. The same view was repeated by the HR & CE Minister, Mr. Sekar Babu who said that they did not oppose the followers of Sanatana Dharma but only wanted to abolish policies like Sati, hereditary education and untouchability. Ultimately, according to them, eradication of Sanatana Dharma means abolition of Sati and untouchability.


This makes a surprising reading for the people of Tamilnadu because Sati was not seen in the Tamil lands. The subsequent explanations given by Udayanidhi, and his colleagues make two things clear: they are not aware of what Sanatana Dharma means and are not aware of what the olden Tamil texts that they proudly speak about have to say about Sati.


There is no known event of Sati being committed in the last 2000 years or so in Tamil lands, but there does exist a poem by a queen of the Pandyan dynasty just before she immolated herself on the pyre of her husband. In what way Sanatana Dharma played a role in her decision is questionable. To know whether a practice is dictated by Sanatana Dharma or not, it is essential to know what Sanatana Dharma stands for.


Scope of Sanatana Dharma


Sanatana by its very name means that which is ever-lasting, universal or relevant for all at all times. The principles and practices which are applicable to all is Sanatana Dharma.


This can be explained by means of Newton’s third law of Motion which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Once action takes place, the reaction cannot be avoided. In human life this has relevance as we know that action begets reaction. This forms the basic concept of Karma, which applies to everyone irrespective of one’s religious background or nationality or gender. This concept is applicable to people of all times – in the past, present and future. By this we can say that the concept of Karma is a Sanatan idea.


Since the reaction for one’s action must be necessarily experienced, one cannot escape from it. Suppose one’s life gets terminated before experiencing the reaction, one will have to experience it in the next birth. Thus, rebirth too applies to everyone. This makes rebirth a concept of Sanatana Dharma.


If actions are good, the reactions also will be good in which case they are called as Punya. If actions are bad, they bring hardship. Such actions are called as Paapa (sin). So, Punya and Paapa are also Sanatana concepts. In a nutshell, Sanatana Dharma encompasses those concepts that are indestructible and applicable to one and all – irrespective of whether one believes them or not. When seen through this prism of clarity about Sanatana Dharma, we can judge whether a practice such as Sati was a creation of Sanatana principle or not.


Self-immolation is not a Sanatana principle


DMK’s biggest allegation is the Sati issue. They criticize Sanatana Dharma as promoting it without realising that the ancient Tamil Grammar book, Tholkappiyam, talks about it. This book is not just about Tamil grammar but also about the lifestyle of different types of people. In the context of describing the nature and condition of widows, it describes something called Kaiyaru Nilai. This is about what a woman does upon losing her husband. Among the list of things done by the widow, it says that some of them self-immolate themselves on the pyre of their husband.


Verse 77 of Puraththinai Iyal says that a good wife will self-immolate on her husband’s funeral fire. By specifically stating ‘good wife’ does Tholkappiyam impose an ideology on women that unless she chooses to self-immolate, she cannot be considered as a good wife? No one asked this but just accepted it as it is. One can interpret the verse as proof for Tholkappiyam encouraging Sati practice. Why doesn’t Udayanidhi and his coterie find fault with Tholkappiyam as regressive, that deserves to be eradicated?


If it is a Sanatan practice, it should have been practised by all widows. Such a thing never happened. The same Tholkappiyam talks about different ways of expressing grief and not necessarily insisting on Sati, but the reference to Sati done by good wives does find mention in the text. Looking at persons who committed it, we have a long list of people who had not committed it. A popular example is Kannaki; she didn’t self-immolate herself. The other woman in Kovalan’s life, Madhavi, too, did not commit sati.


Kannaki did speak about self-immolation. On hearing about the death of her husband, Kovalan, Kannaki lamented that she neither self-immolated herself nor pursued widowhood penance, but only became the object of insult by the people. Why should she suffer a miserable life because of the mistake done by the king, asked Kannaki.


Madhavi, too, spoke about not doing Sati. In Maninekalai, people teased her for not taking part in the Indra Festival to do her hereditary job of dancing. Madhavi refused and stopped her daughter from pursuing the hereditary job of dancing in public festivals. In that context, she said that she was unfazed for not doing it. She was ashamed only for not mourning the death of her lover Kovalan, by not committing Sati, not dying along with Kovalan and not doing widowhood penances so that she could unite him in the next birth.


These talks by two of the top heroines of Tamil lands make it clear that self-immolation was not a choice. Even the widowhood penance was not compulsory. Whenever they had chosen it, it was due to their extreme distress of having lost their loved one. The society had censured them for not doing such acts but that in no way influenced their decision. Their talks reveal that it was mostly due to a self-choice dictated by societal pressure or one’s own extreme emotion and not a rule of law dictated by Sanatana Dharma. If it was a Sanatana principle, it would have been mandatory. It is not so.


In the Sangam period, a queen by name of Perum Koppendu, self-immolated following the death of her husband, Bootha Pandiya. This woman was in her middle age and not someone who seemed to take an emotional decision.  She kept insisting on joining her husband on his pyre which she penned in a moving verse which exists in the Tamil Sangam corpus. Everyone from ministers, staff and people tried to dissuade her from her decision but she could not be influenced. Her decision to commit Sati and another poet’s moving verse on her committing Sati are found in verses 246 and 247 of Pura Nanooru.


In poem 246, the message given by the Pandiya Queen Perum Koppendu is shocking. She says: “If I did not self-immolate, I should follow widowhood penance, should eat uncooked rice spread on the ground by mixing white sesame paste and raw tamarind, should sleep on a bed of pebble stones. Instead of enduring that suffering, I can die by falling into the fire.” Her poem gives the message that she preferred to self-immolate than to endure lifelong widowhood penance. Coming to think of the ‘good wife’ jibe of Tholkappiyam, this poem makes disturbing reading. What Kannaki and Madhavi chose to ignore, this Pandyan queen could not take lightly.


Tholkappiyam doesn’t say that this way of life had to be undertaken. It just says that some women chose to do so. If the tough widowhood penance is the cause for this, it is for the woman to convince herself because of the belief that such a penance would enable her to get the same husband in the next birth. Such ideas are the product of the society and the individual as well, for which one cannot blame Sanatana Dharma, nor Tholkappiyam.


Similar lamentation was expressed by menfolk too. In verse 245 of Pura Nanooru, king Cheraman kottambalathu thunjiya Maakkothai lamented why he was alive when his wife perished in a fire. Despite the expression of extreme grief, he didn’t give up his life. It appears that women become more emotional than men that they take the extreme step of self-immolation by not being able to cope with the loss of the dear one. They needed psychological support and close monitoring in such circumstances. The Pandyan queen ignored all the support she was given. Perhaps it worked in the case of others that Sati is more or less absent in Tamil society.  


The huge hullabaloo raised in Tamilnadu for NEET suicides, is almost similar to the Sati psychology. If persons who failed in the NEET Exam committed suicide, can the NEET Exam be blamed for that? We say that we should help to change the mentality in facing failure.  Likewise, the woman should have been given the strength to endure the loss of her husband. There was evidence to that effect when the British government enacted legislation to prevent Sati practice. Whenever there was a news that someone desired self-immolation, counsellors were sent immediately to counsel the vulnerable woman. At Vizadroog in the South Konkan region, when a Judge came to know that a lady was going to self-immolate, he sent a Brahmin to change her mindset. The Brahmin spoke spiritually about death and Atman and managed to change her mind. Brahmins prevented self-immolation. They had not encouraged self-immolation.


As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, there is no history of anyone, forced by religious tenets or by society, to commit Sati. If at all Udayanidhi wants to blame someone for Sati, Tholkappiyam with a sutra of ‘Good wife’ appears more vulnerable. Will Udhayanithi convene a Tholkappiyam Abolishing Conference for that? Why is such a line present in Tholkappiyam? Will he work to remove that line? How can he blame Sanatana Dharma as promoting evil when there is no evidence linking Sati with Sanatana Dharma? Sanatana Dharma means that which is applicable at all times to all people. How can he blame Sanatana Dharma for something which is not sanctioned by it?

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