Sado-ritual syndrome, part II – Indian suttee

(part I)

“Slow advancing, halting, creeping,

Comes the Woman to the hour!

She walketh veiled and sleeping,

For she knoweth not her power.”

— Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

“She Walketh Veiled and Sleeping,”

In This Our World (free PDF of this collection of Gilman poems) 

“I have not deserved it…Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”

— Willa Cather,

My Mortal Enemy 

“‘Widow’ is a harsh and hurtful word. It comes from the Sanskrit and it means ‘empty’…I resent what the term has come to mean. I am alive. I am part of the world.”

— Lynn Caine,


“They speak together of the threat they have constituted towards authority, they tell how they were burned on pyres to prevent them from assembling in the future.”

— Monique Wittig,

Les Guerilleres 

Suttee in India 

What was involved 

The Indian rite of suttee / widow burning, not occurring only in India, involved a recently widowed woman throwing herself or being thrown onto the funeral pyre of her departed husband, although in some regions the widow was buried alive or buried with just her head above ground and then strangled. A variant on suttee was juaher, in which all of the women of an area would be burned alive to keep them from falling into the hands of invading Muslims (to “save their honor”). The term suttee is derived from the name of the goddess Sati, who self-immolated because she was unable to bear her father Daksha‘s humiliation to her husband Shiva. The ritual dates at least back to the 4th century B.C. There is evidence of it solely among wives of kings beginning between the 5th and 9th centuries C.E. It appeared among the warrior aristocracy in the 10th century and spread to other groups between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. Collected statistics by the 18th century British Raj found 500-600 incidents per year in those areas, where they banned the practice in 1829. In 1861, Queen Victoria issued a ban for all of India. Finally, in 1988 the Indian Sati Prevention Act further criminalized “any type of aiding, abetting, and glorifying of suttee.” 

Sati in Hindi and Sanskrit referred to the woman herself and may be understood as “chaste woman” or “good wife” (the feminist theorist should note that these are, predictably enough, considered synonymous translations). Since the banning of the actual practice, Sati has become a very popular name for Indian girls. 

Before the ritual took place, the widow was ceremoniously bathed and dressed. There were also rules about timing and placement. If the widow was menstruating, she was considered impure, and thus a week had to pass after the cessation of her period before suttee. Since impurity also resulted from pregnancy, suttee had to be delayed for two months after childbirth. For suttee itself, the widow was often required to sit with the corpse’s head in her lap or on her breast. 

Cultural context 

In prevailing religious thought, it was believed that the woman’s bad karma, earned in previous lives or in the current one, had to be the cause of her husband’s death. As such, there was pressure from the man’s grieving family for his wife, who was believed in all cases to have caused his death, to thus join him in death. Priests justified the ritual by their interpretations of the law of karma. There was also community concern that the sexually experienced widow might be tempted to have sex again (and she was legally and religiously prohibited from ever marrying again, so any sex she might have would necessarily be outside of marriage), so at least part of the reason for community desire for a widow’s death was to rid the community of a potential sexual impurity. 

In “Mother India,” Katherine Mayo explains: 

That so hideous a fate as widowhood should befall a woman can be but for one cause – the enormity of her sins in a former incarnation. From the moment of her husband’s decease till the last hour of her own life, she must expiate those sins in shame and suffering and self-immolation, chained in every thought to the service of his soul. Be she a child of three, who knows nothing of the marriage that bound her, or be she a wife in fact, having lived with her husband, her case is the same. By his death she is revealed as a creature of innate guilt and evil portent, herself convinced when she is old enough to think at all, of the justice of her fate. 

Wikipedia shares one Greek report that the practice resulted from an epidemic of wives poisoning their husbands: 

According to Diodorus the practice of sati started because Indians married for love, unlike the Greeks who favoured marriages arranged by the parents. When inevitably many of these love marriages turned sour, the woman would often poison the husband and find a new lover. To end these murders, a law was therefore instituted that the widow should either join her husband in death or live in perpetual widowhood. Modern historians believe Diodorus’ source for this episode was the eyewitness account of the now lost historian Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus’ explanation of the origin of sati appears to be his own composite, created from a variety of Indian traditions and practices to form a moral lesson upholding traditional Greek values. 

From a frank Hindu man of the early 20th century, however, we gain quite a different insight: 

We husbands so often make our wives unhappy that we might well fear they would poison us. Therefore did our wise ancestors make the penalty of widowhood so frightful – in order that the woman may not be tempted. 

(Katherine Mayo, “Mother India”) 

There is debate over whether or not these widows went to their deaths willingly – I’m sure it must have varied from woman to woman. As I will show in the section on scholarship regarding suttee, there has been in the West a tendency to glorify these women, to call them “proud” and “brave.” This was especially the case for artists and writers of 18th and 19th century England, although it continues now. When a man of the nobility died, thousands of women from his household were burned alive. How on earth can we generalize about true inner feelings, assume they were “proud” and “brave,” when thousands died at once following the demise of such a godman? 

We do have a report of a case where a man had two wives and a Greek observer recorded that the two vied for the “privilege” of being the first to throw herself onto the fire. On the other hand, we also have a number of eyewitness accounts of women being forced. This is a incident that happened in 1796: 

A widow escaped from the pyre during the night in the rain. A search was made and she was dragged from her hiding place….She pleaded to be spared but her own son insisted that she throw herself onto the pile as he would lose caste and suffer everlasting humiliation. When she still refused, the son with the help of some others present bound her hands and feet and hurled her into the blaze. 

(Benjamin Walker, “The Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism;” please note that Walker presented this account as this will be relevant later) 

There is also the work of P. Thomas. Writing in “Indian Women Through the Ages,” Thomas notes that “to prevent her escape, she was usually surrounded by men armed with sticks who goaded her on to her destination by physical force.”

The  Calcutta Review published the following accounts:

In 1822, the Salt Agent at Barripore, 16 miles south of Calcutta, went ont of his way to report a case which he had witnessed, in which the woman was forcibly held down by a great bamboo by two men, so as to preclude all chance of escape. In Cuttack, a woman dropt herself into a burning pit, and rose up again as if to escape, when a washerman gave her a push with a bamboo, which sent her back into the hottest part of the fire.

We have still another account of compulsion by a Danish missionary:

However intrepid most of those unhappy victims appeared before jumping into the pit, the note was vastly altered when in the midst of the flames: there they shrieked hideously, tumbled one over another, striving to reach the edge of the pit and get out of it; but they were kept in by throwing heaps of billets and faggots upon them, as well to knock them on the head as to increase the fire.

We also know that widows facing suttee were sometimes first drugged out of their minds. (Thomas)

There were also sometimes, as Wikipedia so delicately puts it, “precautions” taken to ensure that a woman could not escape the fire once she was in it:

Anant S. Altekar, for example, points out that it is much more difficult to escape a fiery pit you’ve jumped in, than descending from a pyre you have entered on. He mentions the custom of the fiery pit as particularly prevalent in the Deccan and western India. From Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, where the widow typically was placed in a hut along with her husband, her leg was tied to one of the hut’s pillars. Finally, from Bengal, where the tradition of the pyre held sway, the widow’s feet could be tied to posts fixed to the ground, she was asked three times if she wished to ascend to heaven, before the flames were lit.

It was solely in Bengal that a widow could inherit her husband’s property. As a result, women being forced into the pyre became especially widespread there – in other words, relatives greedy over the deceased man’s worldly goods were getting rid of widows who otherwise stood to inherit.

Of course, when considering terms like “choice” and “will,” the feminist scholar must always envision yellow “caution” tape around them for they are slippery subjects. She must bear in mind that under the rigged rules of the patriarchy, woman actually ends up facing a Hobson’s choice, that is, something that appears to be a free choice but, in fact, only one option is really offered. Consider, then, what kind of “choice” a woman within the culture of suttee was dealing with. What were her options?

Well, first of all, a widow was never allowed to marry again. She inherited no property, had nowhere to go. She lived in abject poverty, a street wanderer, a beggar. Her family would not shelter her since, as illustrated above, family members stood to lose caste and face humiliation if she did not join the fire. Since it was believed that the widow always karmically caused her husband’s death, everyone despised and terribly mistreated her for the rest of her life. The only other “option” was to become a prostitute. This was sometimes the case when the wife was very young, like the age of ten or even younger, at the time of her widowhood (this often being the situation because so often sixty year old men would “marry” eight or even three year old girls). Still, a life of prostitution was not only miserable for the most obvious reasons, but also because incurable, fatal venereal disease was the prostitute’s fate. Some women then “chose” suicide by suttee over these “options.”

It should also be pointed out here that there was religious compulsion towards suttee. According to male religious leaders, being born female was itself punishment for bad karma. A woman faced being repeatedly reincarnated as a woman, which was a position of subordination and persecution. The only way for a woman to stop being reincarnated into misery was to get to heaven and the only way for her to do that was through suttee. Under such a belief system, what would you choose – endless lives of pain or premature death with a ticket straight to heaven?

Katherine Mayo realistically assessed the situation:

She has seen the fate of other widows. She is about to become a drudge, a slave, starved, tyrannized over, abused – and this is the sacred way out – “following the divine law.” Committing a pious and meritorious act, in spite of all foreign-made interdicts, she escapes a present hell…

Choice? Going into the fire so “proudly” and “willingly?” Well, decide for yourself what you think about choice here.

“Objective” (read “patriarchal”) scholarship: mansplaining misogynist atrocities

This is what Jan Raymond calls “meta-ritual,” that is the ritual of scholarly “explanation” of the actual ritual. As I indicated in part I of this series, here we find a great propensity for moral relativism rather than a woman-centered approach. In this “scholarship,” links are not made to other forms of women’s oppression.

Webster’s offers the following definition of suttee:

the act or custom of a Hindu woman willingly cremating herself or being cremated on the funeral pyre of her husband as an indication of her devotion to him

Yet, as we have seen, the widow did not always go into the fire willingly and even when she did, there were those “precautions” noted by Wikipedia to prevent her from changing her mind once the horrific pain of burning alive began to be experienced.

Joseph Campbell presents suttee as the particular Hindu form of the widely practiced “custom” of sending the family or part of it “into the other world along with the chief member.” Discussing the excavation of an immense necropolis in Nubia in which wives and sometimes entire harems were human sacrifices, the remains indicating that the female victims had died hideous deaths by suffocation, Campbell helpfully explains how we should feel about this:

In spite of these signs of suffering and even panic in the actual moment of the pain of suffocation, we should certainly not think of the mental state and experience of these individuals after any model of our own more or less imaginable reactions to such a fate. For these sacrifices were not properly, in fact, individuals at all; that is to say, they were not particular beings, distinguished from a class or group by any sense or realization of a personal, individual destiny or responsibility.

(Joseph Campbell, “The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology:”

You know, I don’t feel I even need to further comment on this passage.

As to suttee specifically, Campbell explains as follows:

Sati, the feminine principle of sat, then, is the female who really is something in as much as she is truly and properly a player of the female part; she is not only good and true in the ethical sense but true and real ontologically. In her faithful death, she is at one with her own true being.

Mary Daly considers these remarks by Campbell in “Gyn/Ecology:”

Thus the ontological and moral problems surrounding female massacre are blandly dismissed. Campbell is simply discussing a social context in which, for a woman, to be killed is “good and true” and to cease to exist is to be. His androcratically attached de-tachment from woman’s agony is manifested in paragraph after paragraph. After describing the live burial of a young widow which took place in 1813, this devotee of the rites of de-tached scholarship describes the event as “an illuminating, though somewhat appalling, glimpse into the deep, silent pool of the Oriental, archaic soul.”  What eludes this scholar is the fact that the “archaic soul” was a woman destroyed by Patriarchal Religion (in which he is a true believer)….The bland rituals of patriarchal scholarship perpetuate the legitimation of female sacrifice. The social reality, unacknowledged by such myth-masters, is that of minds and bodies mutilated by degradation.

Writing in 1960, David Mace interprets suttee for us in the following example of “objective” scholarship:

Although custom and duty left many widows in the East no alternative but to suffer and even die, it would be a grave injustice to explain all of their sacrifices in these terms. In many, many cases, the widow walked into the fire proudly and by deliberate choice. This was her way of showing the depth of her affection, her devotion, her fidelity. It was a strange way, and to us a gravely mistaken one. But leaving aside the inappropriateness of the action, and looking at the motive, dare we say that these women of the East knew less of true love than their Western sisters?

(“Marriage East and West”)

So women died but, hey, who are we to judge? Here is an obvious invitation to moral relativism as opposed to a woman-centered approach.  The reader is tempted by this passage to feel guilty for not understanding women in “another culture.”

Daly comments on this passage from Mace:

“Mistaken” and “inappropriateness” are bizarre terms in this context. They suggest that there was a real choice involved, and they belittle / distort the horrible reality. As for true love, devotion, etc., one can speculate that true masochism may be an ideal cherished more by this Western author than by the widows whose options were so desperately narrowed.

Edward Thompson, writing in “Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Inquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning,” tells us:

Suttee reached its most magnificent and least squalid form among the Rajputs.

“Magnificent” is an odd word choice when discussing women being burned alive. I understand the meaning in this context but still find it odd.

Benjamin Walker is yet another scholar who weighed in on the subject of suttee:

…in the course of time the widows of weavers, masons, barbers, and others of lower caste adopted the practice.

(Benjamin Walker, “The Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism”)

Note Walker’s use of the active voice – the widows “adopted.” Definitely, we are to understand, the widows sought out, enforced, and accepted this “practice.” Yet Walker, apparently blind to his own inconsistency, is himself the reporter of the 1796 case in which the widow’s son forced her onto the pyre because he would otherwise lose caste, a story I presented above. It boggles the mind that on one page, he tells us how widows of lower castes “adopted” suttee, active voice, and then on another page gives examples of how individual women were actually forced into it.

This is precisely the kind of doublethink for which the feminist scholar must ever be alert for, as Campbell, Mace, and Walker illustrate, “objective” / patriarchal scholarship works to discourage us from identifying with real women. It all too eagerly assigns women agency for their own destruction and at the same time erases agency on the part of the actual oppressors, such as the male priests who rigged the text of the Rig Vita, for scholars believe that by changing the Sanskrit word agre to agneh, the priests changed a sentence from “Let the mother advance to the altar first” to “”Let the mothers go into the womb of fire” (Thomas).

Notice too throughout quoted passages in this post the repeated use of the word “custom” (defined at for it will reappear in subsequent posts about other atrocities against women as well. As Mary Daly points out, “The term custom – a casual and neutral term – is often used by scholars to describe these barbarous rituals of female slaughter.” Here again, morally “objective” language works to keep us from identifying with real women, real women who had dreams, lives, feelings, souls, parents, siblings, friends, perhaps children. This is part of the erasure of women. Daly asks whether the massacre of the Jews would be referred to as a “Nazi custom.” I ask whether any modern scholar would refer to slavery as a “custom.” Again, there seems to be a particular tendency in “objective” scholarship towards moral relativism specifically when it comes to ritualized atrocities against women. Language such as “custom” also works to keep us from noticing the larger planetary patriarchal patterns at play, for “objective scholarship” time and again merely presents to us faceless women in peculiar faraway times and places “adopting” these curious regional “customs” that in fact all hurt and oppress women. Please note that liberal feminist scholars and many texts used in Women’s Studies courses take this same approach. I, however, take a firmly woman-centered, radical feminist approach. “Radical” means “root.” Radical feminist theorizing means doing an analysis to the roots of these atrocities, for it is at the root where we will find that patriarchal oppression, since the end of the Goddess-worshipping period in human history, is upheld across time and place (for documentation of the Goddess period, see for example Merlin Stone, “When God was a Woman”).

Part III will involve applying Mary Daley’s principles of sado-ritual syndrome to Indian suttee.

4 replies »

  1. This extract from The Hindus- An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger on British intervention in Sati deserves to be reproduced in full:

    “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 burned 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 ko 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. 21 After that the British generally looked the other way where suttee was concerned. The same Orientalist spirit that led the British to mistake the idea for the reality, wrongly assuming that Hindus were following the dharma-shastras, led them to believe that they should not hinder but help the Hindus do as their scriptures dictated, and do it right. As usual they reached for Manu, but when for once he let them down—Manu is big on ascetic widowhood but does not mention suttee—they found some Bengali scholars who argued that the part of Manu advocating the burning of widows had somehow been left out of the Bengal manuscripts, so they helpfully put it back in. 22 (Most of the dharma texts do not mention suttee, concentrating instead on ascetic widowhood; several condemn it in no uncertain terms; and a few late commentaries kp argue for it. 23 ) And so, on April 20, 1813 (the same year the missionaries were allowed in), a British circular proclaimed that suttee was meant to be voluntary and that it would be permitted in cases in which it was countenanced by the Hindu religion and prevented when the religious authorities prohibited it, as when the woman was less than sixteen years old, pregnant, intoxicated (a point worth noting), or otherwise 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 five 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 1817-1818 cholera epidemic may have increased the
    numbers, with more men dead and more widows to die with them, or the clerks may have refined their methods of data collection. But there was also a suspicion that the numbers grew because ofgovernment 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, as in the case of Rup Kanwar in 1987, there were copycat suttees). 24

    And when the British did intervene in suttee, the results were often counterproductive.

    For instance:
    THE SLOW-BURNING FIRE A certain Captain H. D. Robertson, Collector of Poona in 1828, learned that a botched suttee had allowed the pyre to burn too slowly, causing the would-be sati to escape in agony. She requested that they try again; again it was botched; British officers finally intervened, and she died twenty hours later. Robertson investigated and determined that “Hindu scriptures” did stipulate that such slow-burning grass should be used, though it seldom was. He decided that if the British were to insist that this text be obeyed to the letter, the realization that suttee would now invariably produce a slow burn, increasing the agony, would discourage women from undertaking it. But one woman did still commit suttee, despite attempts to dissuade her, and Robertson was zealous in carrying out what he saw as his duty. 25 What Joseph Conrad called the reformer’s compassion here went horribly awry.

    Finally, in 1829, the year after Robertston’s intervention, 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 (1828-1835), the desire to justify their continuing paternalistic rule over Indians whom they characterized as savage children led the British to ban suttee altogether, as well as child marriage, with much self-aggrandizing fanfare.

    The British law probably facilitated more women’s deaths than it saved, and its main effect was to stigmatize Hinduism as an abomination in Christian eyes. 26 Suttee is a pornographic image, the torture of a woman by fire, hot in every sense of the word. Relatively few women died that way, in contrast with the hundreds, even thousands who died every day of starvation and malnutrition, but suttee had PR value. Thus the Raj had it both ways, boasting both that it did not interfere with other people’s religions and that it defended human rights. 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.”