Suttee - self-sacrifice or murder?

When I set out to write The Hindus: An Alternative History, I decided to highlight a narrative alternative to the one represented in most surveys in English.  I wanted to tell a story that would incorporate the narratives of and about alternative people—people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women).  Part of my agenda was to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition, particularly oppressed castes and women, did actually contribute to Hinduism.

Hindu attitudes to women challenge our cross-cultural understanding. The tension between sexuality and renunciation in Hinduism results in an ambivalence toward women as mothers and seductresses.   We need to take this into consideration when we attempt to understand such a highly-charged subject as the burning of living women on the pyres of their dead husbands, generally called suttee (an English term derived from the Sanskrit word for the woman who commits the act, whom the Hindus call a sati).  We must try to see the reasons why some Hindus thought (and some continue to think) that it is a good idea for some women to do this, while other Hindus strongly disagree, and, on the third hand, British and American readers generally think that suttee is not a good idea at all.

The Hindu View of Satis

From the Hindu standpoint, a sati is the opposite of a widow.  A widow is a bad woman; since it is a wife’s duty to keep her husband alive, it is ultimately her fault if he dies and dishonorable for her to outlive him; to the degree to which she internalizes these traditional beliefs, she suffers both shame and guilt in her widowhood.  A sati, by contrast, is a good woman, who remains a wife always and never a widow, since her husband is not regarded as dead until he is cremated (or, occasionally, buried), and she goes with him to heaven.

Suttee had been around for quite a while before the British came to India; the first-century-BCE Greek author Diodorus Siculus mentions suttee in his account of the Punjab.    Numerous sati stones, memorials to the widows who died in this way, are found all over India; one of the earliest definitively dated records is a 510 CE inscription from Eran, in Madhya Pradesh.   Most of the suttees seem to occur at first in royal, Kshatriya families, and later among Brahmins in Bengal, but women of all castes could do it.

Different scholars confronting suttee, like the blind men who encountered the elephant in the middle of the room, see a different beast depending on what part they grasp.  Some call it a sacrifice, some a murder.   They ask different questions, too: What were the ancient and persistent traditions that drove some widows to do it voluntarily and other men and women to force other widows to do it involuntarily?  Can suttee be explained by the more general mistreatment of women by men in India, particularly female infanticide and dowry murders of daughters-in-law (killing one wife so that the man can marry another and get another dowry)?   And why did the British first loudly denounce suttee, then covertly sanction it, and then officially ban it?  Let’s consider just that last question.

The British Narrative of SutteeWellcome Library, London

Every British schoolchild was once taught the story:  “In 1829 the British government in India put an end to the Hindu practice of suttee, their moral outrage at this barbaric violation of human rights outweighing their characteristic liberal tolerance of the religious practices of people under their benign rule.”  But almost every element in this credo is false.  True, a law was passed in India in 1829 making it illegal for widows to be burnt with their husbands, but moral outrage was not the predominant factor in the British decision to outlaw suttee, nor did they succeed in ending it. On the contrary, the fear of offending high-caste Hindus serving in the British army and civil service, and concern about the political costs of legal interdiction, had led the British for many years to sanction suttee under some circumstances (as long as the woman had no children and persuaded the magistrate that she was acting of her own free will), thus effectively encouraging it by giving it a legal support it had never had before, making it a colonially enhanced atavism.

In 1680, the Governor of Madras prevented the burning of a Hindu widow, and ten years later, an Englishman in Calcutta was said to have rescued a Brahmin widow from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre and taken her as his common law wife.  After that, the British generally looked the other way where suttee was concerned.  On April 20, 1813, a British circular proclaimed that suttee was meant to be voluntary, and that it would be permitted in cases where it was countenanced by the Hindu religion and prevented when the religious authorities prohibited it, as when the women was less than 16 years old, pregnant, intoxicated, or coerced.   In fact, there was a dramatic increase in the number of suttees from 1815 to 1818, the first three years of data collection and the first three years after the circular was published:  the toll went from 378 to 839 cases.  After that, the numbers declined and then fluctuated between 500 and 600.   The numbers may have grown because of government intervention:  they had authorized it (their work made it seem as if a legal suttee was better than an illegal one) and given it interest and celebrity, so that there were copycat suttees. Finally, in 1829, several years after prominent Brahmins had already spoken up against suttee, and at a time when there were many Indians in the legislature and William Bentinck, an evangelical sympathizer, was Governor General (1828-35), the British banned suttee altogether, as well as child marriage.

The P.R. Use of Suttee

Relatively few women died by committing suttee, in contrast with the hundreds, even thousands, who died every day of starvation and malnutrition; but suttee had P. R. value.  The debate, in both India and Britain, turned what had been an exceptional practice into a symbol of the oppression of all Indian women and the moral bankruptcy of Hinduism. The main effect of the British law was to stigmatize Hinduism as an abomination in Christian eyes.  Suttee is a pornographic image, the torture of a woman by fire, hot in every sense of the word.   Nor did the 1829 law, or, for that matter, the new legislation enacted by India after its Independence, put an end to it; at least forty widows have burned since 1947, most of them largely ignored and some even now attested only in obscure local archives.

Continue reading - Part II >

Wendy Doniger - author of The Hindus: An Alternative History

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