Perceptions of Sati: A Comparative Analysis

Time Estimate

Five 50-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. analyze textual primary sources.
  2. analyze visual primary sources.
  3. recognize the ways that language reveals point-of-view.
  4. analyze how the cultural biases of Europeans and Indians influence their attitudes toward the act of sati.

  1. Hook:
    • Ask students to respond on paper to the following question: “What traditions does your family engage in that other families might think are strange or unusual?”
    • After students have written down their individual answers, have them share them with the class.
    • Write the words “cultural bias” on the board and give students the definition: cultural bias is when we judge others according to the standards or norms of our own culture. Lead a discussion linking that definition back to the examples they shared.

  2. Contextualizing the Sources:
    • Direct students to read the Sati Introduction.
    • After they have read the selection, have students answer the following questions on paper, then discuss as a class:
      • Define what the word “sati” refers to today.
      • What is the literal translation of the word in Sanskrit? Why might that word have been chosen to refer to the self-immolation ritual of widows?
      • What other restrictions have historically been put on widows?
      • Why might widows as a social group have had restrictions put on them? What about them makes them vulnerable? What about them makes them a possible threat to society?
      • Create a chronology of European views of sati.
      • How did European views of sati change over time?
  3. Interpreting the Sources:
    • Direct students to read each of the primary sources, being sure to keep the European sources separate from the Indian sources.
    • Distribute Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images and Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts.
    • Direct students to fill out the worksheets for each of the eight assigned sources. They should complete this individually, either for homework or in class.
    • Discuss their responses as a class.
  4. Comparing Points-of-View:
    • Have students go back through the textual sources and circle words used to characterize: the widows, the Brahmins, and the act of sati. Remind them to keep the sources written by Europeans separate from the sources written by Indians.
    • Divide students into small groups, then ask them to create charts of the words they circled in the documents. They must create two separate charts: the first will list words used by Europeans to describe widows, Brahmins, and sati. The second chart will list words used by Indians to describe widows, Brahmins, and sati.
    • Instruct students to use their charts to answer the questions below, continuing to work in small groups.
      • How would you characterize the language used by Europeans to describe the widows? The Brahmins? The act of sati?
        • Students should understand that the Europeans tend to describe the widows as victims, the Brahmins as perpetrators of evil, and the act of sati as a strange, barbaric ritual. Be sure to link these characterizations back to the concept of cultural bias.
      • How would you characterize the language used by Indians to describe the widows? The Brahmins? The act of sati?
        • Students should see that the language used by Indians allows for more agency on the part of widows. Widows are seen as having a variety of motives for engaging in the act of sati and having some control over the act itself. Brahmins are characterized in multiple ways but are generally not demonized. The act itself is described in more neutral language than the Europeans used. In general, Indians do less stereotyping and generalizing about the act and its participants.
    • Discuss their answers as a class.
    • Conclude by discussing why European and Indian perceptions may have differed and what motives the Europeans and the Indians may have had for using the language they did.
      • Students should again connect European and Indian perceptions with the concept of cultural bias. Because the Indians are familiar with sati and see it as part of their cultural standard, their characterizations of it are more complex. Indians are also less likely to characterize women as being victims than are Europeans. Both sides use inflammatory language to try to persuade their audiences to support their argument.
  5. Document-Based Essay Question:
    • Distribute copies of the Document-Based Essay Question.
    • Allow students time in class to brainstorm and outline their ideas.
    • Instruct students to complete the essay outside of class. Collect in the next class period.


  • Teachers in classrooms with SMART Boards, student laptops, and access to SMART programs may wish to integrate their technology into the “comparing points-of-view” portion of the lesson. After students circle the language choices made by the Europeans and the Indians, divide them into groups, giving one laptop to each group. Instruct students to use the laptops to create two concept maps in SMART Ideas, one mapping the words used in the European sources, and one mapping the words used in the Indian sources. Then, have the groups email their concept maps to the teacher. Choose the best ones, display them on the SMART Board, and use them as a model for the class discussion about how to characterize the language choices found in both sets of sources.

Advanced Students:

  • As a hook, ask students what rituals they can think of that involve the use of fire. Brainstorm a list as a class, then ask students to write down any themes that they see. One theme should be the association of fire with purification or chasteness. Discuss why this is true. Bring this theme up again at the end of the “Comparing Points of View” section of the lesson by asking students to compare European and Indian uses of fire and concepts of what it means to be pure.
  • In the “Interpreting Sources” step, only have students fill out a complete worksheet for visual image and one textual source. Rather than filling out the rest of the worksheets alone, then discussing them, accelerate the lesson by having students fill them out as you discuss the documents.
  • Instruct students to complete the Document-Based Essay at home; do not allow for extra in-class time to complete outlines and do brainstorming around the question.

Less Advanced Students:

  • Complete more steps of the lesson as a class rather than asking students to complete them individually. This is particularly necessary for the document interpretations: read the documents out loud as a class, then complete the text worksheets as a class.
  • Add an intermediate step in creating the document-based essay: ask students to hand in an outline of their answer, receive feedback from you, then turn the outline into an essay.