Medhatithi and his refutation of the Sati Pratha

Hindus are attacked for the prevalence of Sati pratha among Hindus.As far as I know there is no Hindu philosophy that supports Sati Pratha. There are some texts like the Puranas (Garuda Purana) and Smritis (Parasara) that talk about voluntary Sati. However, that is not the end of the story. The most precise philosophical argument against Sati Pratha has been given by the famous philosopher Medhatithi (c 825 ce).

कामं तु क्षपयेद् देहं पुष्पमूलफलैः शुभैः ।
न तु नामापि गृह्णीयात् पत्यौ प्रेते परस्य तु ॥ १५५ ॥

kāmaṃ tu kṣapayed dehaṃ puṣpamūlaphalaiḥ śubhaiḥ |
na tu nāmāpi gṛhṇīyāt patyau prete parasya tu || 155 ||

Well might she macerate her body by means of pure flowers, roots and fruits; but she should not even mention the name of another man, after her husband is dead—(155).

Manu Smriti 5.155

What has been said in the preceding verse is explained more specifically in the present verse.

As in the case of men, so in that of women also suicide is forbidden. As for what Aṅgiras has said—‘they should die after their husband’,—this also is not an obligatory act, and so it is not that it must be done. Because in connection with it there is an eulogium bestowed upon the results proceeding from such suicide. Thus then, the performing of the act being possible only for one who is desirous of obtaining the said result, the act stands on the same footing as the Śyena sacrifice. That is, in connection with the Śyena sacrifice we have the Vedic text—‘one may kill living beings by means of the Śyena sacrifice,’—and this makes the performance of this sacrifice possible; but only for one who has become blinded by extreme hatred; so that when the man does perform the act, it does not become regarded as ‘Dharma,’ a ‘meritorious act’; exactly in the same manner, when the widow happens to have a very strong desire for the results accruing from the act of suicide, it is open to her to disobey the prohibition of it and kill herself; but in so doing she cannot be regarded as acting according to the scriptures. From this it is clear that the act of killing herself after her husband is clearly forbidden for the woman. Further, in view of the distinct Vedic text—‘one shall not die before the span of his life is run out’—being contradicted by the Smṛti-text of Aṅgiras, this latter is open to being assumed to have some other meaning. Just as in the case of the Smṛti rule ‘one should take the final bath after having read the Veda’,—the injunction of the bath, as pertaining to one who has not yet studied the meaning of the Vedic texts, has been taken as having a different meaning.

Medhatithi’s commentary

As far as I know no one has ever refuted Medhatithi’s criticism of the Sati Pratha. It is also remarkable that Medhatithi does not accept direct scriptural support for Sati Pratha.

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