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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [01] Suttee as recorded up to about 300 A.D.

Published: 08.06.2008
Updated: 01.10.2008

We admit right from the start that there is no clue to the origins of suttee. Early sources are Diodor (Greek author) on the one hand and epic references (India) on the other: see below. We do not know whether suttee was imported or autochthonous (see FISCH 227). J.FISCH's book on 'Totenfolge' ('following the dead') is an interdisciplinary approach, covering all cultures where the relevant custom (i.e. Totenfolge in general and suttee in particular) was found.

The main foreign source for suttee is the Greek author Diodorus (first century B.C.) who gives an interesting but not always reliable description. The exact date of his source (Cleitarchus) is not known. There are different dates, 280 B.C. to 100 B.C. (GARZILLI 339). Diodorus quotes from his source the following (GARZILLI 344-347):

A Hindu general named Keteus, commander of an Indian army in the time after Alexander the Great and embroiled in the ensuing disorder, had lost his life in battle. He left behind two wives who had accompanied him and who both loved him dearly. However, in India there was a law that marriage partners were not selected by the parents but by the parties themselves. This resulted in unhappy marriages (the partners being too young). As a consequence, the following situation had arisen. The wives often preferred a paramour to their legitimate husband and poisoned the latter. Therefore a law was enacted that the wives should be burned along with their husbands. This did not apply to wives who were expectant or had children. Also it applied only to one wife. But Keteus had two wives. It was therefore ruled that the younger wife should have the privilege of death with her husband, the elder one being with child. The younger one was overjoyed, the elder one was wild with rage. The younger one entered the funeral pyre and reclined on the side of her husband. Before the pyre was kindled the armed army circumambulated it thrice. When the flames progressed, the woman did not utter the least sound. The Indian spectators praised her or expressed extreme pity. Different was the reaction of some of the Greeks who were present. They called the custom cruel and painful.

The year of this event is 316 B.C. Keteus was defeated by Antigonos. We are faced with the question of the spread of the Keteus story in Greek literature. The unknown Indian source is in itself partly fictional (poisoned husbands). The Mahabharata parallel (Madri) is mentioned below. See ALTEKAR 122; GARZILI 344-349; FISCH 221-224.

A peculiar reference to suttee is found in the Rigveda (1300-1000 B.C.). The widow has to lie down on the funeral pyre by the side of her dead husband. But she leaves soon (after the cremation of her husband) the funeral pyre in order to marry again. It is possible to conclude that in the Rigveda, and in a related text (Atharvaveda), widow burning was remembered (a few difficult verses), but not practised (ZIMMER Al 331), while much later (in the Mahabharata) widow burning was actually undertaken and thus perhaps reanimated. This was of course only a first step; a gradual but lasting activation ('activation' according to the theory) occurred in the first half of the first millennium A.D. Refer for the Rigveda (and the related text) to THIEME 452-457 (452-458), furthermore to OLDENBERG 586-587, KANE 624-636 and SPROCKHOFF 422-423. ZIMMER Al proposes that the suttee still existed in ancient India in some tribes of the Vedic period, but for that we have no support.

We find the first unequivocal references to suttee in the epics, in a dramatic form and in connection with the death of King Pandu. Pandu had two wives, Kunti and Madri, but it was prophesied to him (by way of a curse) that he would die in the sexual act. One day he was overcome by passion and approached Madri, the younger of the two. His death was instantaneous. Madri is determined to die with her husband. The assembled sages try to dissuade her from her plan, but she does not change her mind. She explains why she, and not Kunti, deserves the honour of being united with her husband in death. She, Madri, is the cause of his death, she is too young to control her passions, and she would find it difficult to treat her sons and stepsons (her own sons and the sons of Kunti) justly. This may or may not be called a competition, there is at any rate some similarity (even historical connection) with the account of Diodoros. Madri then enters the funeral pyre. Her three arguments obviously reflect an old discussion on suttee, they are not invented ad hoc.

The epics seem to demonstrate that suttee was rare and remarriage no great exception. This at least is the view of some authors. But BROCKINGTON feels that "incidental references as well as minor components of the plot indicate that the practice of women burning themselves on their husband's pyre was regarded as normal" (Mahabharata: BROCKINGTON 217). The opposite line of argument would emphasize that the slain warriors in the two epics left behind scores of widows who had not entered the funeral pyre (supra). Also, the almost complete absence of suttee in the Ramayana makes it unlikely that in the Mahabharata the custom of suttee was already in full sway.

Kalidasa (5th century A.D.) gives the impression that suttee had come to stay: Compare the fourth chapter of his court epic Kumarasambhava (SYED Ku: 32-37, 173-177). Suttee must have become an established custom before Kalidasa's days. Epigraphic evidence starts early, but not before 400 A.D. (MICHAELS 149-150: 464 A.D., 510 A.D). The two inscriptions point chronologically in the same direction. See 'Gupta period' in the Glossary. Refer to § 12.2 for '300 A.D.').

SPROCKHOFF compares widow burning with the death of the old man who was in times past forced to leave the house (being an economic burden) and to terminate his life in the forest (SPROCKHOFF 425, 425-428). In India, the old man was indeed sent to the wilderness (Manu 6.2-4). The texts present a typology of aged ascetics: GONDA I 287-288.

Bibliography on suttee in ancient India (before and after '300 A.D.'): JOLLY 67-69; GARBE; MEYER We 307-312 (rarity of true suttee cases in the epics); WINTERNITZ 55-85; ALTEKAR 120-121 (Suttee rare in the Mahabharata, still rarer in the Ramayana); 123 (Suttee found [inter alia] in two Bhasa dramas, Bhasa 3rd/4th c. A.D.?); KANE 624-636 (suttee and suttee ritual); BROCKINGTON 142, 217-218 (Madri etc.), 223, 435; SYED Ku 175-176 (Sanskrit authors).

KANE writes: "... if Frenchmen can feel pride in the deeds of their Emperor Napoleon who tried to enslave the whole of Europe and yet are not held up to ridicule or rebuke, there is no reason why poor Indians cannot express admiration for the sacrifices which their women made in the past, though they may condemn the institution itself which demanded such terrible sacrifice and suffering." (636).

Suttee is only a variety of the more or less universal Totenfolge. There are apparent parallels to suttee (Euripides, FISCH 46-48), but no close parallels. The gradual extension of the custom (first from rulers to ordinary Kshatriyas, then to Brahmans and then -- or simultaneously -- to further castes) is only found in India (§ 12.2). There is no prospect of a convincing explanation of suttee.

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  1. Kshatriyas
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