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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [02] Suttee after 300 A.D.

Published: 09.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Information on suttee 'after 300 A.D.' is much richer than information on suttee 'before 300 A.D.' According to ALTEKAR, suttee was in full sway since '700 A.D' (126, infra). Our organization of § 12 uses '300 A.D' (pre-Gupta) for the beginning of the increase of suttee. '300 A.D.' also means 'before Kalidasa'. Below we try to mention all relevant details. § 12.2-5 demonstrate 'traditional India' as defined in § 1 and in the Glossary.

We do not know the course which a suttee usually took in the early days, i.e. the ritual and the ideological background. Possibly the procedure was already similar to the procedure in the last centuries. Widow burning is a part of Hinduism, but it is not certain that suttee was from the very beginning marked by Hinduism, or by any form of Indian religion.

Suttees have been mentioned in ornate poetry since the early centuries of our era (SYED Ku 175-176, ALTEKAR 123, WINTERNITZ 62-69). The great authorities are Kalidasa and Bana; Bana is the court poet of king Harsha (606-648 A.D.). Kalidasa describes in his court epic Kumarasambhava the widowhood of the wife of the god of love and her intention to commit suttee. In Bana's famous novel Kadambari (K. is the name of the heroine) the hero explains to a young widow, ready to ascend the funeral pyre, that suttee is absolutely useless and without logic: "... It [suttee] is a mistake of stupendous magnitude. It does no good whatsoever to the dead person. It does not help him in ascending to heaven; it does not prevent him from sinking into hell. It does not at all ensure union after death;..." ALTEKAR 124, WINTERNITZ 64-65. The widow abandons her plan. Bana was also the author of a biography of Harsha. The mother of King Harsha committed suttee immediately before the death of her husband and in spite of the protests of her son. The incident is described by Bana in his Harsha biography (COWELL/THOMAS 149-155, WINTERNITZ 63). See CHEN Ru 71, footnote 27 on "pre-suttee deaths."

The law-books are our main source. The custom of suttee is not mentioned by Manu, but it is named by later authors (JOLLY 67-68). ALTEKAR specifies on pp.123-124 jurists who were at an early date opposed to suttee (124). Medhatithi (9th/10th C.) criticised suttee (ALTEKAR 124), and there were thus pro-suttee authors (perhaps also anti-suttee authors) before him. But "From about 700 A.D. fiery advocates began to come forward to extol the custom of suttee in increasing numbers." (ALTEKAR 126) "During the period 700-1100 A.D., suttees became more frequent in northern India and quite common in Kashmir" (ALTEKAR 126-128). "The enthusiastic advocacy of the Sati custom by medieval commentators [names?] began to have an appreciable effect on society only after about 1300 A.D." (ALTEKAR 130). The chronological arrangement given by ALTEKAR is useful, but we do not know the lifetime of the relevant authors. A collection of suttee references in law-books (post-Manu) has been prepared by COLEBROOKE (COLEBROOKE 1795, JOLLY 67): Essay “On the duties of a faithful Hindu widow.” Refer also to ZACHARIAE 550 for short Sanskrit-texts on widow burning and to KANE Ch.15 for further historical sources.

Suttee was not mentioned by Manu. This was a devastating argument against suttee (infra). But all these problems (authorities and traditions) did not destroy the belief in the blessing of suttee as a "fundamental article of faith." (WEINBERGER 215-216) See also § 12.4.

Noteworthy epigraphic records commemorating suttees are less frequent than one would expect; e.g. ALTEKAR 130-131, 135-136; WINTERNITZ 68-69; KANE 629.

Sati-stones (memorial stones erected in honour of a sati) are a comparatively late development, on the whole rare in the first millennium A.D., but already found in South India in the 8th and 9th centuries. A volume on memorial stones published by SETTAR and SONTHEIMER presents more hero-stones than sati-stones (whatever the reason), but nevertheless gives an overview of sati-stones in different regions. See SONTHEIMER (277-281) and LEHMANN (41-56, Abb.2-25) for sati-stones.

Suttee is a uniform phenomenon, but there are varieties. Ramification has been caused mainly by the extension of the custom to Bali (Indonesia), § 14, by the growth of jauhar in Rajasthan (§ 12.6), by the sat-ideology (also in Rajasthan), and by the local custom (Eastern India) of burying the widow alive: See FISCH 277, also Datta Sa 31 and MANI Co 19. Little is said about minor differences between different castes and regions. In India there have been cases of strangling, and in Bali stabbing to death was not rare (§ 14).

We have records of the self-immolation of royal widows in the second millennium: JOLLY 68-69; PENZER IV 263-272: Panjab (Sikhs), Kashmir, Vijayanagara (South India), Rajasthan etc.; NARASIMHAN 109-112: suttees in all parts of the country. Refer for suttee in Vijayanagar and under Muslim rule to DATTA Sa 9-15 (according to a traveller mentioned by DATTA "the Mughals looked with absolute disfavour on the practice, because they were hostile to the barbarous custom,” 12-13). Refer for "Suttee in Indian States" to DATTA Sa 151-184. The number of women burned at the death of a ruler depended on his rank. V.N.DATTA mentions one case where "ten wives and three hundred unmarried ladies of his [Raja Suchet Singh's] zenana committed suttee." (DATTA Sa 160; also NARASIMHAN 111). The figure 'three hundred' is certainly exaggerated, but many suttees must have been alarming due to the sheer number of immolations. -- There is a psychological difference between rough estimates (ten suttees... twenty suttees...) and the shocking description of an individual suttee (§ 12.4).

In the law-books suttee was discussed in detail. A suttee was not permitted when the widow was expecting a child, was in child bed, had a small child or had the menses (JOLLY 68; see in particular WINTERNITZ 62). In such cases the cremation could be postponed. It could also be postponed when the husband was not at home. See FISCH 268-270 on postponement.

Prospective satis were told that they would go straight to heaven to be united with their husbands and to save their husbands from sins (the former sins of the widows themselves are unquestionably also expiated by the burning).

The position of the husband is not clear. It seems the widow needs her husband's permission to die with him (permission given during his life-time). In that case one would, however, ask whether the husband can or cannot confirm in the presence of reliable witnesses that his wife should not commit a suttee. He probably can. But we never hear that husbands are afraid of their wife's immanent suttee. Theoretically, each suttee can be prevented by the husband, but in such situations the family has the last word (a bedridden husband can not stop the suttee if the family insists on its performance). The public takes the permission probably as granted (if there is no evidence to the contrary).

A traditional argument against suttee was the general condemnation of suicide (ALTEKAR 124, KANE 632, LESLIE 292-293). The karma theory was another impediment. It was objected against suttee that husband and wife had different karmas (that was correct) and would not be incarnated at one and the same place (both in heaven, both in the same heaven, both on earth, both at the same place, and so on). The popular belief in the existence of the deceased as preta (spectre) and as pitri ('father'), no doubt earlier than the belief in transmigration (and accompanied by preta/pitri lore), was a further obstacle. Suttees had no influence on the concept of pretas and pitris.

Originally (ALTEKAR 128), suttee was the privilege of the Kshatriyas (the royal houses) who had initiated the custom. Amongst Brahmans, suttee was initially not merely unusual, it was strictly prohibited (helping a Brahman widow to the funeral pyre was murder [!] of a Brahman according to a Purana: ALTEKAR 128). But later on (ALTEKAR 129: "soon after 1000 A.D.") Brahmans started to adopt suttee in order to preserve their social prestige (suttee standing for spiritual heroism). The earlier Dharma Shastras (KANE 627) which forbade suttee to Brahmans now had to be reread: ALTEKAR 129. The custom also spread to castes outside the field of Kshatriyas and Brahmans (WINTERNITZ 68-69; LESLIE 297; FISCH 465-466; ALTEKAR 130: "weaver, barber and mason classes"). If we had sufficient material we could try to reconstruct in some detail the expansion of suttee from Kshatriya widows to Brahman widows and to further widows. The admission of Brahman widows is an example of a manifest change in the perennial, allegedlly unchanging dharma tradition. However, the Brahmans never accepted suttee whole-heartedly (see also LESLIE 297-298: special rules for Brahman widows).

The widow was permitted to die after the husband on a separate pyre (e.g. together with her husband's turban). But for unknown reasons this (not suttee in general) was prohibited to Brahman women: KANE 627-629; LESLIE 297-298; FISCH 255; WEINBERGER passim. There are also records (ZACHARIAE 559-560, 569) which mention, in the Dharma Shastra style, differences in the suttee ritual between different varnas (Kshatriyas and Shudras different from Brahmans and Vaishyas).

Prescriptions for the performance of the rite of self-immolation are rare. One work has, according to KANE, the following content: "The Suddhitattva [a little known manual] sets out the procedure of widow burning. The widow bathes and puts on two white garments, takes kusa blades in her hands, faces the east or north, performs acamana (sipping water); when the brahmanas say 'om, tat sat' she remembers the God Narayana... and then makes the samkalpa [declaration of resolve] set out below.... then the brahmana recites the Vedic verse... and a Purana verse 'may these very good and holy women who are devoted to their husbands enter fire together with the body of the husband,' [then] the woman utters 'namo namah' and ascends the kindled pyre...." (KANE 633-634, details in KANE 1268). See also ABEGG 140-142.

"That the practice of Sati was mainly a medieval development is also proved by the circumstance that its procedure has not been described in detail even by those few late Smritis, which recommend the practice. We get detailed information on the point only from some late medieval Puranas (date?) and records of foreign merchants and travellers." (ALTEKAR 133) ALTEKAR writes inter alia "The Sati was an object of the highest veneration, and so was taken out to the accompaniment of music in a grand procession through the town to the cremation grounds." (133). But 'grand processions' were no the rule.

WEINBERGER reproduces two very elaborate descriptions of suttees (97-101), the second having taken place in Surat (Gujarat): "In September 1741 A.D.... Shivabai, a lady of the Nagar community, came to know about the death of her husband.... Shivabai took the letter conveying the news upon her lap and gave out that she would burn herself. She then threatened the people with curses if they refused to believe her.... Lala Sadanand [a relative] requested her if she would care to proceed riding a mare or a Rath [chariot]. Satima asked to get ready a bullock Rath. She then proceeded with pomp and dignity. Her sister and maternal aunt sat by her side. The Rath passed through the principal streets of the city, followed by a huge crowd shouting 'Jai Ambe, Jai Ambe' [Long live the Goddess Amba]. The Sati alighted at Lal Darwaja (the city gate) and made hand impressions with 'kumkum' on the doors.... [A torch was lighted at dusk]... The lady came to the river-bank (Tapti) all elated early in the morning. She [Shivabai] dipped herself one hundred and eight times... all alone.... She once more took her bath and performed 'Tarpan' (... the act of propitiating the dead).... [Then] The Sati asked to cease beating the drums as she would not scream or shriek. She then took 'ghi' [clarified butter] and put it on the pyre.... She took the letter [announcing the death of her husband] upon her lap and remembered her lord.... At first the Sati set fire to her hair [with the torch she held in her hand] and then ignited straw all around.... The event became memorable in the annals of the people. Thus the Sati went to heaven by Viman [celestial vehicle].” (100-101) -- It was not unusual that the widow personally set fire to the hut in which she was going to be burned (ZACHARIAE 564, footnote 1).

In his law-code for women, Tryambaka Yajvan, the 18th century pandit, supports suttee. LESLIE 8: "Tryambaka's rather laboured recommendation of sahagamana, or becoming suttee, is of particular interest." The status of a widow, i.e. of a widow who has not committed suttee, depends according to Tryambaka on her conduct; the virtuous widow will be united with her husband in heaven (same husband in her next earthly life, after heaven). The dishonourable widow (malicious, irascible) has to suffer. (LESLIE 303)

In the case of kings, suttees of wives and concubines seem to have been normal and hence, as a rule, involuntary. The women were not asked (?) If only part of the concubines were to be burned, selection was probably made by the palace.

In some cases religious suicide (head offering etc.) is held in respect in Hinduism (WEINBERGER 14-18). Ministers etc. often died with their kings (KANE 629-630; WEINBERGER 13-14, 112).

That the husband followed his wife into death happened but rarely (NARASIMHAN 112). There were cases where mothers followed their sons (NARASIMHAN 112).

When ordinary citizens died, there remained one single widow if the relation was monogamous; perhaps two or three in the case of polygamy. But Kulinism resulted in suttees with scores of victims (§ 12.4). Multiple suttees were rare after the abolition in the British territories (DATTA Sa 154: multiple suttees in Idar State in 1833 and 1835; Ranjit Singh infra).

In shastric literature voluntariness is taken for granted, but the existence of last-minute refusals is not denied: JOLLY 68. Reality is full of attempts at escape, successful or unsuccessful: NARASIMHAN Ch.5 (79-105) is based on observations of early travellers and witnesses in the colonial period. The author mentions numerous cases of women who tried (generally without success) to escape from the funeral pyre at the last moment. See also FISCH 296-323. § 12.7. Possibly there were also cases where the widow objected shortly before entering the funeral pyre. But cases of escape from the pyre (half-burned widows) are probably mentioned more frequently.

Examples of escape have been recorded by early travellers and by a Kashmir historian: Queen Didda, 950-1003, escaped from the funeral pyre. ALTEKAR mentions as many cases of refusal (135) as of completion (136-137; KANE 629). There have been examples of extreme heroism. A 17th century traveller "... states that it is impossible to describe the brutish boldness [!] or the ferocious gaiety depicted on the woman's countenance [before the suttee]; her step was undaunted, her conversation was free from all perturbation; her easy air was free from all dejection, her lofty courage was void from all embarrassment." (ALTEKAR 136) See also FISCH 26.

Once a widows has resolved to commit suttee, she must not, under any circumstances, retreat from her resolve (JOLLY 68). In India, retreat could be effected by having recourse to "low caste men" who were already waiting [!] for the widow (ALTEKAR 135). Women who changed their mind at the last moment were not accepted back "by their castes and families" and had to become members of low-caste families. But ALTEKAR emphasizes that "barring a few exceptions, most of the widows, who used to become Satis, were free agents [!] in their own choice." (137). Refer to § 12.4 for the issue of voluntariness and involuntariness.

Related to but not identical with voluntariness is the question of affection and disaffection. The ancient texts mention divorce and supersession, but the problem of possible disaffection and indifference has never been discussed. Emotions may vary considerably in cases of polygamy and in cases of extraordinary suttees (women in the harem, victims of Kulinism in Bengal). The world of dharma does not guarantee perpetual harmony between the partners. The texts mention partners of ill-tempered and cantankerous nature (women) and drinkers etc. (men). But the sati discourse does not consider empirical details; the husband is at any rate godlike and beyond all discussion.

Intoxication of the widow was used in order to alleviate the pain (§ 12.4) or in order to stimulate supernatural faculties, like foreseeing the future (ZACHARIAE 561, footnote 1; 597; MANI Co 172). But under the influence of narcotics the widow was often not even in a position to circumambulate the funeral pyre (part of the ritual) and had to be carried by a relative on his arms (ZACHARIAE 563, footnote 3). The attempts at escape show that many victims were nevertheless in a normal psychological condition.

An Indian suttee followed in some cases within 24 hours after the husband's death (FISCH 268). The extreme speed (here an astrologer was obviously not required to suggest the time for the ceremony); and the deafening hullabaloo almost demonstrated to those present that the widow had to be liquidated as soon as possible and without much ado. There was no time for elaborate rituals. But ZACHARIAE also mentions cases where rich widows where led around in the city on horse-back or on elephant (556; Shivabai's suttee supra). This makes the suttee a public event, and it also creates an opportunity to model the suttee on marriage (e.g. suttee procession corresponding to nuptial procession). See ZACHARIAE 557, footnote 1, and 571 for further correspondences. DATTA Sa has studied suttees in princely states. "The four ranees [royal widows] clad in the richest apparel and jewels worth many lakhs of rupees accompanied the procession bestowing now and then some portion of the jewels and ornaments to the singer and the Brahmins." (DATTA Sa 158, Ranjit Singh's death 1839). But on the whole, suttees were simple (FISCH 268).

A special feature of the suttee ideology is the sat speculation in Rajasthan, studied by L.HARLAN. sat has been described as "a moral heat not unlike tapas (ascetic heat)", HARLAN 81; "as explosive moral substance" HARLAN 90. And 1987: “The girl, they say, acquired sat -- a supernatural power which is akin to a trance-like state where the woman's body burns to the touch and her eyes redden and glow.... Roop Kanwar, they say, had only raised her hands and the pyre lit itself.” OLDENBURG 113 (quotation).

The sat is the agent which initiates a widow's threefold soteriological progress: It is a moral quality: "... the fundamental idea Rajputs have of the sati's death is that it represents a manifestation of the virtue of sat, a moral and substantive quality that is inherent but latent in the Rajput pativrata [loyal wife]. Sat causes the pativrata to become a sati-vrata [woman ready to die] if her husband predeceases her, and it manifests itself in flames [automatic suttee], which prove that the woman has been a pativrata even as they [the flames] transform her into a sati-mata [deified woman who has committed suttee]. (HARLAN 83-84) Little is said about local scepticism, but claims that a widow had sat were not accepted by everybody (CHEN Ru 62: was Roop Kanwar possessed by sat?). The entire sat complex came only down as part of the oral tradition (CHEN Ru 61: interviews).

It is possible that the worship of sati-matas is fairly old ('after A.D.1000', CHEN Ru 64).

Not directly connected with the sat-ideology are other cases which NARASIMHAN describes on pp.88-97 ("sati mystique"). Refer for further details to § 12.4.

The exact percentage of widows who ascended the funeral pyre (by region and by period) cannot be ascertained easily. We need for a statistical estimate the year(s), the definition and extent of the region, the population total, the number of widows and the number of suttees. Reliable is the following: "In the early 1800s, when records of reported suttee cases were maintained, the Bombay and Madras Presidencies averaged fifty cases per year; central India averaged three to four cases per year... whereas the Bengal Presidency averaged 580 cases per year." (CHEN Ru 51) The number of suttees per widows is generally estimated as one widow among a thousand.

There is (naturally) no connection between Indian widow burning and European witch burning. Both are irrational extremities. See LEVACK.


To give an idea of the course of the contemporary debate we add observations by SUGIRTHARAJAH (125 ff.) and OLDENBURG Co (170-171) on the subject of traditional suttee criticism. See also § 12.7.

SUGIRTHARAJAH wants to show (against J.LESLIE) "... that Hindu patriarchy is not monolithic but complex... [in the case of suttee: “liberating” traditions versus orthodox traditions]... [that there are] significant divergences within patriarchal representations of women” (126). Opposition against patriarchal traditions is rare but not missing.

The early poet Bana is quoted with the following: "This following of another to death is most vain! It is a path followed by the ignorant! It [suttee] is a mere freak of madness, a path of ignorance..." (Kadambari, supra).

Much later than Bana are anti-suttee tendencies in Shrivaishnavism. SUGIRTHARAJAH observes: "There are... Srivaisnava texts which contain liberating images of women." SUGIRTHARAJAH further writes that the existence of such liberating texts within the Hindu tradition... "indicates that brahminical patriarchy, however oppressive it may have been, has not always been static or permanently frozen.”... “Srivaisnava women are not to choose the path of suttee; their salvation is not tied up with that of their husbands". Widows in Shrivaisnavism are in one case clearly called auspicious against the Hindu tradition where they are inauspicious (126). See SUGIRTHARAJAH 127 and 126 (with quotation from K.K.YOUNG; 126). It would appear that the “liberating images of women” are a partial but significant tradition of Shrivaishnavism (S. is in the first place 'strong devotion to the Lord')..

OLDENBURG Co mentions Dharma Shastras which criticize suttee, e.g. Medhatithi (10th c.): suttee is "non-scriptural" (a-sastriya, 170), suttee is not supported by any authoritative law-book. Other critics of suttee belong to the twelfth century (170-171).

Furthermore "The Mahanirvana Tantra [beginning of 18th century?] carries respect for the feminine principle from the realm of myth to social reality by enjoining a whole day's fast upon the man who speaks rudely to his wife, and by encouraging the education of girls before marriage" (171). SUGIRTHARAJAH quotes the following from the Mahanirvana Tantra: "A wife should not be burnt with her dead husband. Every woman is the embodiment of the goddess. That woman who in her delusion ascends the funeral pyre of her husband, shall go to hell" (127). Refer for the Mahanirvana Tantra to GOUDRIAAN Hi (Goudriaan 1981, 98-101).

It would be useful to know the exact extent and date of the 'liberating images'.

OLDENBURG mentions that the ashes of a sati (Om Kanwar) "had to be guarded for thirteen days by young armed Rajput volunteers" because "tantrics and local lower-caste villagers" were against suttee (OLDENBURG Co 171). Local Rajputs were afraid that the ashes might be dispersed by dissidents.

One wonders whether all these unorthodox views, more or less Tantric, had any influence on social reality. We can speculate that the liberal climate of Tantrism existed after all in certain houses though hardly in public. Refer to § 13.4 for GOUDRIAAN In (Goudriaan 1979, 32: "Returned into ordinary life.. social taboos.").

The beginnings of Tantrism are much earlier than the beginnings of transmitted Tantra literature. Early elements of the doctrine: 424 A.D.; appearance of single Tantra works: circa 7th century; composition of the Mahanirvana Tantra: beginning of 18th century (?). Refer for Tantrism to GONDA II 26-39 (chronology of Tantrism: II 31), to GOUDRIAAN Hi (Goudriaan 1981, 22; again chronology) and to § 13.4. Buddhist Shaktism started in the 7th/8th centuries (GONDA II 45); Shaktism spread in Kashmir in the 10th and 11th centuries (GONDA II 348).

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