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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [04] Suttee, Mainly 18th and 19th Centuries

Published: 11.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

§ 12.4 is based on direct observation and can be called a supplement to § 12.2.

Suttee is usually categorized as an event like the death of a soldier in war. But actually every suttee includes a biography. The biography has episodes. If we prefer more analytic language we can distingush between the narrative (suttee) and its “subplots.”

S.NARASIMHAN writes: "... a combination of indoctrination, resignation, economic distress and the threat of familial and social contumely" may urge a widow to end her life (NARASIMHAN 87). "Rather than bear the agony of daily torture on account of perpetual widowhood the woman preferred to die. To save herself from the sense of suffocation inflicted by social compulsions she could very well conclude 'well, parafin is cheap.' The agony of a few minutes on the pyre was probably a less painful experience than the long torture of mind and body during widowhood." (DATTA Sa 208)

E.Molony, Acting Magistrate, Burdwan, writes: "... It is fair to suppose that the resolution to become suttees cannot proceed so much from their [the womens'] having reasoned themselves into a conviction of the purity of the act itself, as from a kind of infatuation produced by the absurdities poured into their ears by ignorant Brahmins, most of whom if asked, would be found unable to give a reason for the doctrines which they inculcate.... I am persuaded, in my mind, that 99 out of 100 women sacrifice themselves more under the influence of this infatuation than from any conviction of their minds." (DATTA Sa 213)

V.N.DATTA himself writes: "Were they [the widows] motivated by the desire to win heaven, to unite themselves with their husbands in paradise, to rescue them from hell and to bring about the spiritual welfare of their husbands and of their own? It is difficult to say whether a woman committing suttee had such lofty ideas." (209). Suttee paves the way to heaven for both bride and husband. Both will spend as many years in heaven as the woman has hairs on her body (350 x 100,000 years). What happens after heaven? Again, a peculiar local custom has been noticed: "Before dying, a suttee will sometimes utter or make a hand gesture to indicate two numbers, whose sum (x plus y) is always seven. The meaning here is that she has already burned herself x number of times with this same husband, and that she has still to burn herself y number of times before attaining liberation." (WEINBERGER 147).

The actual biography starts when a small girl hears for the first time what a suttee is or was (and what widowhood is or was). Up to the death of her husband she has to “live” with the threat of widowhood, afterwards she is a widow. Widowhood is no abstract threat but something very real, and Indian women are absolutely aware of the imponderables of life (sometimes small girls decide that they want to be burnt or, on the contrary, that they refuse to die).

The decision to die is not in all, but in most cases based on the eschatological prophecies and on the horror of widowhood. The widow (the sati) who is prepared to die makes a formal announcement (before she looses her consciousness as is often the case). The decision is important, but the de facto condition of the widow often prevents her from speaking clearly, and the noise of the music makes it often impossible for those present to understand anything. In a number of cases the widows have indicated that her motives were not religious (it is only thanks to modern diaries that such confessions have been put on record). See MANI Co "Nothing in what the widow is reported as having said points to a 'religious' basis for suttee or suggests it is the result of wifely devotion." (167)

We have a vivid description of the antecedents of a suttee: "The man dies. Naturally there is gloom all around. People gather in short time. The widow suffers the most. She is stricken with grief, sometimes absolutely dumb with her eyes red and downcast and hair dishevelled. She is also seen beating her breast and thighs till she is left with no power to speak or to move. She is in a stupor now. She has no time to think. On this occasion, the family members, the Brahmans and the crowd sometime in thousands assemble to organize the great show. Consent is extracted from the widow in unguarded moments when she is dazed with sorrow and grief. Everybody seems to be in a desperate hurry and the whole business to be successful has to be finished with the rapidity of thought. No time is permitted to the widow for reflection." (DATTA Sa 216, from the Friend of India 1818.)

There was no solace from any side: not from the Brahman, not from the mother-in-law, not from the gods and not from the sacred texts. Final release (moksha) hardly existed, solace was no category, and nobody 'prepared' the widow for the execution. She was left alone but had to cooperate with her surroundings. Preparation was often performed with the help of drugs.

Part of the suttee-biography is furthermore the funeral pyre. This may be a pyre of the usual type, but it is sometimes a hut or a pit (FISCH 272-273). Efforts to escape were as a rule rendered impossible, a much discussed subject. “The dead body, the living women [plural in this case] and the large logs of wood were all tied together with two or three ropes.” (DATTA Sa 217) “The technology of widow immolation was geared to ensure incineration, not escape.” (MANI Co 171) In the days of suttee there was possibly the official view that all widows entered the funeral pyre voluntarily (as prescribed by the dharmic texts). But naturally many participants (perhaps not all) knew the truth. Interviews (with men, women, children) were rare.

There is also the biography of the marital family. The decision to carry out the suttee was ultimately in the hands of the family. Who heard the preceding discussions, who took part in them? How far were the children informed?

Many children loose their mother when a suttee takes place. Interesting is a report (1815) of a widow who changed her mind when she heard the “most bitter lamentations” of her 10 year old daughter (MAJOR 154). Cases where a mother deserted her child to enter the funeral pyre have given rise to many critical commentaries: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the infant of her womb?” (MAJOR 155) Under the Indian conditions (joint family) the children could probably easily be entrusted to relatives among the in-laws. Even then the authoress feels that (sometimes) “Mothers Become Monsters” (152-158, title of the section). But probably cases where the mother changed her mind when seeing her child were not quite rare.

The experience of pain is the climax, but it is not discussed by all authors. The stupor of the widow (frequent) is not mentioned or not accentuated. FISCH emphasizes that it was not intended to inflict unnecessary pain on the widow (273-275). The pain is nevertheless multiple: horror of burning alive, duration of suffering (approximately one minute), prolonged cremation (more than a minute). The burning widow has sometimes to be pushed back (while trying to escape). Apart from simple intoxication (§ 12.2) there were possibly methods to produce insensitivity to pain (autosuggestion? influence of the individual sat?). The numerous illustrations show only 'successful' suttees; failures were no subject for the artists. MAJOR has stressed the pain of the widow in the process of being burned: "Tortured Bodies: The Spectacle of Pain" (133-145). A witness quoted by MAJOR wrote inter alia: “Similarly, John Poynder cites this account from the Bombay Courier of a sati who escaped from the pile: 'I cannot describe to you the horror I felt on seeing the mangled condition she was in: almost every inch of skin on her body had been burned off; her legs and thighs, her arms and back, were completely raw; her breasts were dreadfully torn; and the skin hanging from them in threads; the skin and nails of her fingers had peeled wholly off, and were hanging to the back of her hands. In fact, I never saw, and never read of, so entire a picture of misery as this poor woman displayed.'" (134-135) -- MANI Co 175-177.

The use of physical force was normal, and this was often open force. “The French traveller Francois Bernier recorded a sati incident at Lahore when a 'twelve-year-old widow, trembling and weeping bitterly', was forced onto the pyre by three or four Brahmins and an old woman, after they had tied her hands and feet.” NARASIMHAN 80-81 ubi alia.

Often, a suttee was an economic problem. Being buried alive was sometimes (ZACHARIAE 554, footnote 2) a cheap substitute for a cremation, and we also hear that poor widows had to beg for wood for the funeral pyre, or were simply strangled. Sometimes the pyre was deficient (not sufficient wood, oil and clarified butter). As a consequence a poor widow "was repeately heard to cry out 'more fire! more fire!' and shriek with agony until the noise of the instruments drowned out her cries." (MAJOR 170)

Endurance is no personal act when the widow is fettered, but it is remarkable, when the widow has the chance to escape from the flames (for a moment at least), but remains steadfastly on the pyre. Naturally, the strong widow is an important argument in pro-suttee discussions.

The cases where a sati (sometimes half-burned) ran away from the funeral pyre deserve special attention. A visitor recalls "that she came upon a half burned woman who had been lying under a tree for two days on the outskirts of Jaipur, after escaping from the pyre of her husband. Her relations [parents? relatives?] had refused to have anything to do with her since she had disgraced the family by being unable to go through the 'ceremony'. The woman lay in agony, unable to move, for over forty-eight hours before death mercifully put an end to her suffering." (NARASIMHAN 82) Last minute escape means that the widow had been strong up to the end, but that her strength failed at the very last moment when she saw or felt the flames. In a number of cases the escaped woman survived.

Considering the trouble caused by a widow in the family, the suttee is a present for the inlaws; it does away with the expenditure for a useless person and with sexual complications. A surviving widow on the other hand perpetuates the well-known difficulties.

The sati, whatever the circumstances, is not an ordinary woman but a women who satisfies the almost desperate yearning for miracles, the yearning for an air of transcendence. In an atmosphere where rivers, mountains, trees and stones are sacred, where idols and minor images, public shrines and private niches exist everywhere, every available bit of transcendency or holiness is exploited. The consequence are inter alia miracles encircling all or almost all suttees. The whole complex is linked with the sat-ideology or just with sati mysticism (NARASIMHAN, § 12.2 supra). The humanity and human helplessness of the widow are forgotten or no longer remembered by the worshippers, and the chance of darshana (visiting temples and worshipping idols) is all-important: NARASIMHAN 101-102.

A shrine is often built over the spot where a suttee took place; in the shrine the deceased widow is worshipped. There is an image (murti in Hinduism), showing the widow alone or together with her husband (WEINBERGER Figs.25, 30-32; FISCH Abb.21-26). Here we find an important aspect of living Hinduism (over 150 sati temples in Rajasthan, NARASIMHAN 129). Refer to § 12.2 supra for sati-stones.

Devotional objects and miracles are available. "In Calcutta, a widow set herself on fire inside the house in 1911, and there was a rush of hysterical women to the place to pick up relics" (NARASIMHAN 95). See also CHEN 75 ("a piece of silk").

If a Rajput woman is possessed by sat (§ 12.2) she has supernatural powers: On the funeral pyre she is automatically inflamed to perform suttee, moreover she can open locked doors and by the touch of her foot she can even convert cow-dung cakes into coconuts (HARLAN 83-89, CHEN Ru 61-63).

The suttee of Roop Kanwar took place in 1987 at Deorala in Rajasthan. There is already a growing cycle of legends "woven around Roop Kanwar's death" (NARASIMHAN 91). "... stories about how she whispered in her [dead] husband's ear to seek his permission (for her immolation) and how he had come alive for a moment to grant it, were all part of the interleaving of fact and fiction that has always gone into the making of the sati mystique." (91). -- One "author records that suttees are considered 'posthumous wielders of power'... It is therefore believed that veneration of a suttee can bestow all kinds of boons." (91). -- "For the first time, one report claimed, she [Roop Kanwar] had removed the ghunghat (veil) in front of her in-laws while declaring her intention of becoming a suttee; and for the first time, another said, she pronounced the name of her husband (which wives brought up in a conservative tradition would not normally do)." The reports as such are fabrications, but the details throw light on the life in an orthodox family.

A sati is not a woman who has entered the stage of widowhood (a rite of passage): She does not become a widow but remains a woman; her status is not changed, she is even deified. See HAWLEY 13 (footnote 22-23) and CHEN Ru 74 (footnote 51).

Hinduism includes ritual killing in one form or another. Human beings are killed (by the sect of the thugs), or they commit religious suicide (occasion of car festival, hero-stones), animals are sacrificed, mythology is full of violence. To call widow burning an element of a typically Indian weird atmosphere is mere guesswork, however. Parallels do exist in other cultures (death for the chieftain: FISCH), but the phenomenon is out of character with its normal Indian context.

A comprehensive history of the Brahmans has not yet been written. Suttees and burials (to mention only these two occasions) were an important source of income. In the case of the

death of the husband it was necessary to persuade the widow to perform a suttee. "They [the Brahmans] were greedy, avaricious and crafty. They acted in a subtle manner and cleverly induced the widow to burn herself." (DATTA Sa 212). -- See also BHATTACHARYA.

The alleged 'greed' of the Brahmans probably has historical roots. Many Brahmans had after the disappearance of the great sacrifices, and due to the receding interest in Brahmanical services (Muslim influence etc.) no sufficient income in spite of royal grants. This explains the conduct of the Brahmans to some extent. A seventeenth century author wrote: "As soon as the fire [of the suttee] was out the Brahmins would go and gather all the melted gold, silver and copper." (DATTA Sa 213) Presents to the Brahmans on special occasions (supra) are an important element of Hinduism. A Hindu always has (had) an uneasy feeling when he does not pay due attention to Brahmans.

The Brahmans also inaugurated what became known as Kulinism (WINTERNITZ 111-113). It was the tolerated custom of 'Kulin Brahmans' in Bengal to marry an exorbitant number of women. In 1799 a Brahman died in Bengal who had more than one hundred wives; thirty-seven committed suttee, and the fire burned for three days (FISCH 268). "Kulin Brahmins had many wives including some who were married to them on their death-beds." (DATTA Sa 197) Kulinism was also mentioned in the press of the day (e.g. "Serampore Circular letter of February 1812", DATTA Sa 197). The relevant Brahman subcaste of high rank, the Kulin Brahmans, derived from Kulinism material profit, while the families of the wives (Shrotriya Brahmans, a Brahman subcaste of lower rank) raised their prestige (WEINBERGER 201). Marriage of a daughter with a Kulina Brahman raised the status of the Shrotriya family and eliminated the risk of an unmarried daughter (HUTTON 53-54).

Whereas Kulinism was limited to East Bengal (DATTA Sa 197), burning of concubines on a huge scale was practised by the royal houses (by all royal houses?), especially before the Muslim and later the English rulers had established their power. Descriptions of suttees in a harem are not mentioned.

In order to make suttee understandable to critical observers, proponents of suttee conjured up the image of a happy monogamous marriage, of the tragic death of the husband, and of the unbearable grief (NARASIMHAN 83) of the widow; but Kulinism shows, with unusual clarity, the limits of idealization. “When a Kulin male died, it was not uncommon for his crop [!] of secondary wives to be gleaned from the villages they had never left to be burned in a great fire." (WEINBERGER 201)

Statements by educated proponents of suttee may interest a student of rhetoric. "'These are exaggerated reports that were deliberately distorted by the British' insists the journalist who filed a writ petition in the highest court of the land today, against the [Rajasthan] Sati (Prevention) Act. 'Not a single woman has been forced to become a sati', he avers. 'And even if the woman screamed', he argues, 'it is not unnatural. Is it not a fact that sometimes one shrieks in the state of ecstasy? Do not women scream violently at the time of childbirth?... The real reason they (the British) banned sati was to wipe out the higher ideal of self-sacrifice and unbelievable courage from the hearts of the Hindus.'" NARASIMHAN 81-82, Deorala.

The Shankaracharya of Puri (NARASIMHAN 4-5) was an ardent advocate of the right of the woman to commit suttee. When in November 1987 (after the suttee of Roop Kanwar) the Rajasthan Government promulgated their Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance (NARASIMHAN 73), the Shankaracharya "called the ordinance 'a great insult to democracy,' insisting that widow-immolation was enjoined by the scriptures and that the government had no right to forbid a religious practice that he claimed was part of the Hindu dharma..." (NARASIMHAN 4). -- The same spiritual leader or pontifical head wrote "'... ever since this anti-sati law was enacted [November 1987], nature has been revolting. Today, when we should be feeling the heat of summer, it is cold.'" NARASIMHAN 132 (also 93).

Short, almost casual, utterances are effective in a conversation. In connection with a 1980 suttee in Rajasthan, "the Inspector General of Police is reported to have said that

'religion and the law aside, one will have to admit that it was a courageous act.'" (NARASIMHAN 89).

We mention two figures given by A.NANDY: "This survey (Times of India 1987) showed that 63.4 % of the respondents... supported suttee, and that 50.8 % refused to accept it as a crime. This 160 years after suttee was legally banned." NANDY 148, footnote 23.

Suttee was an important element in the European history of ideas. LEWIS emphasises, in a Comment on FIGUEIRA (Sati in European Culture) the different reactions of German and French thinkers on the one hand and British thinkers on the other: "... French and German thinkers of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment were, with the possible exception of Herder [suttee an "unnatural practice"], fundamentally concerned with moral philosophy and metaphysics, rather than with the reform of Indian society. On the other hand, nearly all British treatments of suttee in this period are marked by a strong sense of personal emotional involvement... [concern for the widows]." (LEWIS 75)

"Johann Gottfried von Herder, a vociferous critic of Indian social customs [1744-1803], deplored the practice of widow burning." (FIGUEIRA 59; ibid. 71-72, footnote 35: Herder on false sympathy and lacking sympathy in Hinduism).

Suttee statistics: FISCH 483. -- “To generalize is to be an idiot. Truth only exists in minutely organised particulars.” William Blake. DATTA Sa vi.

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Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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