Suttee: Deadly Ancient Lessons on How to be a ‘Good Wife’ and a ‘Redeemed Widow’

 
 

Suttee: Deadly Ancient Lessons on How to be a ‘Good Wife’ and a ‘Redeemed Widow’

A poor, 60-year-old barber in rural India, who had been ill for some time, died in his simple mud hut in 2002. The next morning, his widow announced her intention to commit suttee (or sati) —the ancient practice in which a widow burns herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre.

The villagers gathered to watch as the widow calmly walked to her husband's funeral pyre and sat down on it. The crowd lit incense sticks and made offerings of coconuts and betel leaves as she cradled her husband's head in her lap. She sat on the pyre for two hours before her eldest son set light to it. As the widow keeled over in death, the villagers shouted "Sati mata ki jai" (“Long live our chaste mother.”) These were the last words she would have heard before her body was reduced to ashes.

In today's India, the practice of suttee is rarely discussed openly. It is now considered a shameful practice and has been long outlawed. However, memorials to women who have committed suttee exist all over India and still worshipped by women who visit the shrines for help with their various problems.

We still hear rare instances of illegal practices of suttee in this modern age. There have been various reforms passed following public outcries after each instance. It is now illegal even to be a bystander at a suttee event. However, despite the existence of state and country-wide laws prohibiting the act and its glorification, these occurrences confirm that the practice has been a deeply held and cherished norm for centuries.

The pictures made by Indian artists for the British in India are called Company paintings.

The pictures made by Indian artists for the British in India are called Company paintings. This one depicts the practice of suttee, or widow-burning. The word is the Sanskrit for 'good woman' or 'true wife'. It was applied to the Hindu widow who makes the supreme sacrifice by following her husband onto the funeral pyre. (Public Domain)

THE PERCEIVED PRESTIGE OF SUTTEE

The practice of burning or burying women alive with their deceased husbands is not exclusive to ancient India. There are accounts of widow sacrifice among Scandinavians, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese. The practice usually began amongst warriors or warrior clans as the heroism of the suttee was perceived as equal with that of the warrior.

In ancient India, the connection of suttee with the ksatriya (warrior aristocracy) caste endowed it with a social prestige. A possible explanation of its association with the ksatriya is this: as the warriors’ duty was to protect the bodies and honor of their people on the war field, their wives’ duty was to protect their husband’s and children’s body and honor at home. Therefore, the death of a husband, even while he was away at war, would be seen as the wife’s responsibility. As her husband died and his body was burned, it was believed the wife’s duty to follow and make amends for her failure to protect her husband.

Portrait of a Kshatriya/ Ksatriya, a member of the warrior aristocracy, 1835.

Portrait of a Kshatriya/ Ksatriya, a member of the warrior aristocracy, 1835. (Public Domain)

The individuals who sacrificed themselves in this way were called Sati, from the Sanskrit word for “chaste wife.” The Satis are closely associated with, and indeed named after, the goddess Sati, the first consort of Shiva.

Sati, the first wife of Shiva, stands facing her father Daksha, seated on a throne.

“Sati, the first wife of Shiva, stands facing her father Daksha, seated on a throne. They argue after Daksha defiled a statue of the god and refused to invite Shiva to the sacrifice. Sati commits suicide in grief for her beloved.” 1895 (Public Domain)

In Hindu mythology, Sati threw herself into a fire because she was unable to bear her father Daksha's insults of her husband Shiva.  It was said that her faithfulness to her husband was such that she felt no pain from the fire. As Shiva was believed an immortal god and Sati immolated herself while he was still alive, the myth never really fits the ritual as it developed. However, as the reason for Sati’s self-immolation was to defend her husband’s honor in her own way, the intention itself can be credited as a major premise of this ancient practice.

Shiva Carrying Sati on His Trident, circa 1800, India

 Shiva Carrying Sati on His Trident, circa 1800, India (Public Domain)

Suttee as practice was first mentioned in 510 CE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh, India.  The custom began to grow in popularity from the 10th century CE and spread to other groups from the 12th through 18th century CE. The practice has also been attested in a number of localities in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Its popularity was evidenced by the number of stones placed to commemorate Satis, particularly in southern India and amongst the higher castes of Indian society.

Sati pillar at the temple. Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh, India

Sati pillar at the temple. Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh, India. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The practice not only spread to other regions, it was also found among many castes and at every social level, for both uneducated and the highest ranking women of the times. 

HOW TO BECOME A SATI

Traditionally, a woman on the path to become a Sati goes through three stages. In the first stage, she is a pativrata (a dutiful wife) during her husband's life. The pativrata is considered devoted, subservient to her husband, and protective of him. If he dies before her, she bears the blame for his death for not having been protective enough of him as was her duty. She would only be forgiven if she vowed to burn alive beside him, and as such would be able to protect him from new dangers in the afterlife.

Making the vow to burn herself is believed to transform the woman to a sativrata, a transitional stage between the living and the dead, before ascending the funeral pyre. Once a woman committed herself to become sati, it is believed that she becomes endowed with many supernatural powers. Any gifts from a sativrata were venerated as valuable relics, and in her journey to the pyre, people would seek to touch her garments to benefit from her powers.

On the wall of the Daulat Pol (Daulat gate)l, are forty-one hand imprints of wives of the Maharajas of Bikaner, who committed/suffered suttee on the pyre of their husband who died in combat.

“On the wall of the Daulat Pol (Daulat gate)l, are forty-one hand imprints of wives of the Maharajas of Bikaner, who committed/suffered suttee on the pyre of their husband who died in combat. The wall is tinted with red powders as a sign of respect, and their sacrifice continues to be honored as evidenced by flower petals and candy lodged in the palm of their hands, sometimes rubbed scented oil.” (Daniel VILLAFRUELA, CC BY-SA 3.0)

After her death on the pyre, the woman is finally transformed into the shape of the satimata (chaste mother), a spiritual embodiment of goodness. She becomes her family’s protector. The satimata would have the power to appear in the dreams of her family members and teach them valuable life lessons she thinks appropriate for the living.

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS RELATED TO SUTTEE

A verse in the Rig Veda, the most sacred of Hindu scriptures, says that “This woman, choosing her husband’s world, lies down by thee that art departed, continuing to keep her ancient duty.” Another section then follows with “go up, O Woman, to the world of the living. Thou liest by this one who is deceased. Come to him who grasps thy hand. Thou hast now entered into the relation of wife to husband.”

The practice is also alluded to in the two great Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, and is frequently mentioned in the later Sanskrit literature belonging to the classical period. Mahabharata depicts the dialogue between Kunti and Madri, the first and second wife of Pandu, as to who will burn herself on the funeral pyre of their deceased husband, leaving one of them would have to stay living and care for their young children. Kunti says to Madri, “I am the elder of his wedded wives. The chief religious merit must be mine. Therefore, prevent me not from achieving that which must be achieved. I must follow our lord to the region of the dead.”

Bazaar art, from the earlier 1900's, with two co-wives shown as Satis.

Bazaar art, from the earlier 1900's, with two co-wives shown as Satis. (Public Domain)

The orthodox Hindu belief is that the widow was responsible for her husband’s predeceasing her by her sin in a previous life, if not the present, because in the normal course of events the wife was expected to die first. Suttee was also based in the ancient Hindu belief that women are by nature sexually unreliable, thus incapable of leading chaste lives without a husband to control them. Early South Indian literature portrays women as imbued with sacred power that becomes especially dangerous after the deaths of their husbands.

Should the widow have decided against suttee, she would need to go through a lifetime of austerity, abiding by a rigid prescription for the proper conduct of a widow. This included instructions that she should not eat more than one very plain meal a day, perform the most menial tasks and never sleep on a bed. She was to leave the house only to go to the temple, where she needed to keep out of sight as she was inauspicious to everyone but her own children. The widow was not allowed to wear anything but the drabbest clothes and have her head shaved monthly by a male barber. All this was deemed necessary for the sake of her husband’s soul and to keep herself from being reborn as a female animal—yet it was still not enough to expiate her for surviving her husband, and her very existence would be considered dishonorable to her family and her husband’s family.

A widow, then, had two choices: a painful yet brief and ‘heroic’ death, or an obscure and humiliating life as a penitent sinner.

THE ROMANTICISM OF SUTTEE

Those outside of India writing about the custom tend to romanticize the practice, portraying it as the picture of love and devotion of a wife to her husband, or at its worst, a tragic result of a passionate attachment.

Greek writer Diodoros Sikelos made a mistake in thinking that the Hindus marry for love. They were in fact arranged marriages—a practice still common in India today. Based on this misconception, he then theorized that as a result of making their own decisions on who to marry, their choice was often a failure. As wives were not able to honorably leave the husbands of their original choice, they would then kill their husbands by poison. Owing to the prevalence of this practice, and the failure of punishing those who were guilty to deter others from the crime, a law was then made to the effect that widows, unless they were pregnant or had small children, should be burned with their dead husbands. The widow who refused to obey this law, would not be allowed to re-marry and would be barred for the rest of her life from sacrificial rites and other privileges because of her impiety.

Greek historian Nikolaos Damaskenos states that when a Hindu man died, the most devoted one of his wives would have the privilege of throwing herself into his funeral pyre. There would be a great rivalry on the part of the wives themselves, as well as of their friends, each striving to gain the honor. Plutarch reiterates the same assertion in his “Morals”.

 Suttee, in the India Office Collection of the British Library, presented by his son James Augustus Atkinson.  © British Library Board 2009 (F165)

 Suttee, in the India Office Collection of the British Library, presented by his son James Augustus Atkinson.  © British Library Board 2009 (F165) (Public Domain)

Among the Latin writers of the first century BC, Cicero breaks forth in his “Tusculan Disputations” with an impassioned utterance against this “barbaric” practice, although still admiring the women’s courage. Valerius Maximus wrote that the victorious wife was then escorted by her happy relatives to the funeral pyre where she threw herself into the flames and was burned along with him. The defeated wives remained living with grief.

The Persian treatise Dabistan or “School of Manners,” writes regarding the Hindu widow and the belief associated with her.  When a woman became a Sati, she was pardoned of all the sins committed by the wife and husband, and they were believed to remain a long time in paradise. Even if the husband were in the infernal regions, by committing suttee the wife would draw him out from there and take him to paradise “just as the serpent-catcher charms the serpent out of his hole.”

Dabistan also elaborates on the belief of liberation from the constraining female sex. The Sati, in a future birth, would never again return as a woman. Should she reassume the human nature, she would appear as a man. If the widow did not become a Sati, she would never be emancipated from the female state. It was therefore the duty of every woman, excepting one that is pregnant, to enter into the fire. As proponents of suttee lauded it as the required conduct of righteous women, it was not considered to be suicide, which would otherwise be banned or discouraged by Hindu scripture.

THE PROFITS OF SUTTEE

Beyond the spiritual inducements given—where by burning, the widow and her husband as well as their extended families would be in paradise for millions of years, no matter how sinful they all had been—custom also conferred prestige and tangible benefits on the surviving families. Although suttee is considered a religious practice, the common deciding factor was often ownership of wealth or property, since all possessions of the widow devolved to the husband's family upon her death, whether it was her personal possession or the possessions acquired by her in and through her marriage.

By tradition, when a Hindu girl marries, she is officially transferred from her father’s patrilineage to that of her husband. At the same time, her family is relieved of any moral responsibility for her future maintenance. Once widowed, she is of no further use to her in-laws as a potential bearer of sons, unless she marries her husband’s brother—a practice prohibited by Hindu scripture. Indeed, the family’s worst fear is that she should chance to become pregnant and cast a possible shadow on the legitimacy of any previous children. Therefore, in this tradition, a widow’s death assured guardianship and undisputed influence over her children to her husband’s family. It also kept her from enjoying her lifetime rights in her husband’s estate (which are believed to belong to her husband’s family now that the husband has died, breaking the familial bond between his widow and his family).

Most recorded instances of suttee during the 1800's were described as “voluntary” acts of courage and devotion. At the very least, widows committing suttee were encouraged by priests who received the best item from the widow’s possessions as payment, the widow’s relatives of both families who received all her remaining possessions and blessings, as well as by peer pressure from the society. Any attempt of the widow to change her mind after committing to do the suttee would be stopped by her closest family members as she would risk disgracing her family. If the widow escaped from the burning pile, she was often dragged back by force, often by her own brother or son. In some recorded cases the women were drugged.

A sati as depicted by Giulio Ferrario, from 'Il costumo antico e moderno', Florence, c.1816.

A sati as depicted by Giulio Ferrario, from 'Il costumo antico e moderno', Florence, c.1816. (Public Domain)

An account of a suttee event which appeared in the Calcutta Gazette in 1785 described the widow as likely to be under the influence of bhang (marijuana) or opium, but otherwise “unruffled.” After the widow was lifted upon the pyre, she laid herself down by her deceased husband and two people immediately passed a rope twice across the two bodies. The rope was then fastened tightly to the stakes that it would have prevented her from rising had she attempted to do so.

Once the reality of burning to death became evident, many women unsurprisingly tried to escape their fate. Measures and implements were put into place to ensure that they could not.  The measures taken by family members and officiating priests to prevent this from happening included scaffolds constructed to tilt towards to fire pit, piles which were designed so that the exits were blocked and the roof would collapse on the widow’s head, and tying the widow or weighing her down with firewood and bamboo poles. In 1850, Edward Thompson wrote that the widow’s body, and her husband’s, were fastened down with long bamboo poles curving over them like a wooden coverlet, or weighted down by logs.  These poles were continuously wetted down to prevent them from burning and the widow from escaping. If she did manage to escape, she and her relatives would be ostracized by society.

THE ABOLITION OF SUTTEE

The abolition of the practice was due to the action of the British government in 1829 - 1830, during the Indian administration of Lord Bentinck. Another name associated with the abolition of suttee was that of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who lent his support to the reform.

A political illustration from 1815 depicting suttee, with Lord Hastings shown as accepting bribes to allow its continuation.

A political illustration from 1815 depicting suttee, with Lord Hastings shown as accepting bribes to allow its continuation. (Wellcome Trust, CC BY 4.0)

However, it has been proven by the existence of suttee in the modern age that banning the practice requires more than a governmental rule. The practice is too ancient and too much a part of the culture to completely disappear. In November 1905, the Indian newspapers of Lahore, in Northern Hindustan, reported the fact that a woman in one of the outlying districts had perished in the flames, sacrificing herself to an ancient custom covering a period of fully two thousand years, from classic to medieval, and modern times.

Featured image: Detail of 17th century illustration of a woman committing suttee: self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre. (Public Domain)

References

Wendy Doniger (2016) “suttee”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/suttee

Jacqueline Banerjee (2014) “Cultural Imperialism or Rescue? The British and Suttee”. VictorianWeb.org http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/india/suttee.html

Linda Heaphy (2010)The Practice of Sati or Widow Burning” Kashgar.com.au  http://www.kashgar.com.au/articles/life-in-india-the-practice-of-sati-or-widow-burning

“Chapter 2 – The Practice of Suttee, or Widow-Burning, in India, According to Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Italian, Dutch, French, and English Accounts”. iBiblio.org  http://www.ibiblio.org/britishraj/Jackson9/chapter02.html

Luke Harding (2002) “The ultimate sacrifice”. TheGuardian.com http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/aug/23/gender.uk1

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Herman, J., “Men and Women of Feeling: Conventions of Sensibility and Sentimentality in the Sati Debate and Mainwaring's "The Suttee"”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2, Comparative Cultural Studies (2005), pp. 223-2630