Every culture has its own way of dealing with death, and exactly how they do it often comes down to that culture's views on the afterlife. Or in some cultures' cases, "before-life." Here in the West, we might see other cultures' funerary practices as morbid or unthinkable. But they might well say the same of us. That sort of cultural relativism does apply to most practices. Except for that one we always have a problem wrapping our minds around: human sacrifice.
The custom of sati, a widow killing herself following a husband's death, seems fairly barbaric in some ways. Prehistoric, almost. And it is, on both counts. But is this really so different from what we see in something like Romeo and Juliet? Two people deeply in love, entering the hereafter together?
Depending on your age and views of the afterlife (or in India's case, reincarnation), the idea of Sati may be either very easy or very difficult to understand. But there is some beauty to be found in the notion. Just ask Juliet.
Rich People Weren't Supposed to Do It
Vijñāneśvara, an early Dharmaśāstric scholar writing about 1100 B.C.E., references Vedic injunctions against sati in terms of social class. He writes that a Brahmin woman (one of the highest social caste) shouldn't follow her husband into death. This might have something to do with the fact that Brahmins were leaders of the community, major landholders, and the death of two such people at the same time would throw things into disarray. It might also be a safeguard against children murdering their fathers for the inheritance. Then again, it may just be a case of the upper class saying to the lower class, "Yeah... that's not for us."
It Was Practiced Before Recorded History
Our best records date the concept of sati at least as far back as the Vedic Age (1500 B.C.E.). Even then, sati is spoken of largely in the past tense. Estimates say it had been practiced for at least 500 years prior — about 2000 B.C.E. That would make the practice of sati at least as old as the earliest recorded history in Asia, and probably at least as old as Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Nobody knows exactly how old the practice of sati is, because even our oldest texts mention it in the past tense.
Sati May Have Influenced the Vikings and Inspired Catholic Witch Burnings
This connection has been made by many, but remains unproven in terms of documentation. Around the time that witch burnings became a thing in Medieval Europe, Christian culture was already well-aware of the practices of heathen Vikings and Hindus. The practice of burning witches descends directly from Viking funerary rituals, in which a king's widow or female thrall would be burned alive with her lord. No one knows precisely where this custom came from, but it is known that Vikings traded heavily throughout Central Asia with Persians and Hindus. It is fairly likely that the Vikings adopted the custom of sati from their trading partners, as it fit nicely with their own social structure and mythology. When the Church began to execute "brides of the Devil," it seemed only natural they should burn them as those brides of pagan kings burned.
It's Named for the Goddess Sati, Who Burned Herself Alive
Sati was the wife of Shiva the Destroyer. She was herself a powerful goddess, having power over all heat and energy, including lighting and thunder. Sati agreed to be born to Earth when a king and queen who couldn't have children came to her, and begged her to be born through them. Sati agreed on the condition that if she were ever to be insulted, she would assume her terrifying celestial form of Adishakti and destroy them all.
When Sati met Shiva the Destroyer in his Earthly form, her father the King disapproved. She married Shiva anyway, leading to an argument between herself and her father. In her rage, Sati assumed her celestial form (Adishakti). All the gods and Earth trembled as Adishakti rained down fire and destruction. Unfortunately, her own Earthly body of Sati was consumed and burned by Adishakti's radiance. Adishakti, seeing she had no way to return to Shiva, turned her power on herself, and burned herself alive in devotion to him.
But at least the story has a happy ending. Because then, Shiva the Destroyer went out and killed lots and lots of people. Including his in-laws. Then he brought everyone back to life, but replaced the King's head with that of a goat. Sati went on to become the goddess of marital fidelity and longevity, was later reincarnated as Parvati, and found Shiva on Earth again. They remain together to this day. And the King is still a goat.