The Burning of Widows: A Historical Analysis of Suttee in Pre-Sultanate Kashmir

 

Umar Mushtaq Parry

Research Scholar, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.

*Corresponding Author E-mail: umarparray518@gmail.com

 

ABSTRACT:

Suttee (or sati) is a Hindu custom of burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. The origin of the practice has remained obscure and controversial. Even the scriptural sanction of the practice is contested. However, its mention or instantiation in some religious scriptures seems to have assisted in amplification and expansion of the practice. The growth of suttee was very rapid in Kashmir as compared to other parts of India during the period 700-1100 A.D. Kalhana in his chronicle Rajatarangini which is the major source of information for this period in Kashmir has mentioned numerous cases of sati. This paper aims at examining the historicity of suttee in pre-Sultanate Kashmir by putting in use the sources available. Whether the practice was volitional in nature? How much deep-rooted it was in the society? Which sections of the society had either followed or repulsed it? This paper attempts to answer these questions and also sheds light on the social significance of the practice.

 

KEYWORDS: Kalhana, Kashmir, Pyre, Rajatarangini, Sati, Suttee.

 

 


INTRODUCTION:

Suttee (or sati)1 is a Hindu custom of burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. The suttee is either conducted on the same pyre (along with her husband’s dead body) or on a separate one depending on the availability of the corpse.2 The practice of suttee is considered as a duty of widow with the perception of attaining salvation for both husband and wife, and ascending them to the highest heavens to live an eternal blissful life.3 The scriptural evidence in support of the practice can be traced from many sacred Hindu texts. Rig Veda, however, does not contain in its funeral hymns, any reference, that we can relate to the practice of suttee. Atharvaveda has referred to some funeral formalities that resemble, somehow, with the custom, but the actual immolation of widow has not been referred.

 

From the epic of Mahabharata only one reference (that of Madri), can be designated as a clear case of suttee. Moreover, in Ramayana, at one place, we find Vedavati’s mother performing the practice, and at other, Sita expressed a wish to be burnt alongside her husband.4 In Altekar’s viewpoint, however, both of these references are the later interpolations.5

 

The Puranas that form a very significant part of the sacred Hindu texts are also very sparing in their references to the practice. Nevertheless, the Puranas like Vishnu, Brahma, Padma, Agni, and Baghavata have either cited, instantiated or sanctioned the custom.6 In the Smriti literature, regarding the practice, ‘some works either whole-heartedly or half-heartedly advocate it, others do not.’7 Interestingly, however, the oldest Smritis of Manu and Yajnavalkya, nowhere mentions the burning of a widow as a commendable work. The Smritis that either cite or sanction the custom of sutte are Vishnu, Daksha, Angiras, Brihaspati, Parashara, etc. Angirasmriti even mention it as ‘the only course which religion has prescribed for a widow.’8 Apparently, the religious significance of these texts, provided for the custom, a religious base and helped in the institutionalization and viability of the practice.

 

To trace the accurate origins of suttee seems to be an arduous task and thus still remains a mystery. Some scholars like Ragunandhana and Colebrooke trace the roots of suttee in India, from that of the Vedic times while others like Prof. Wilson and Prof. Max Muller hold the view that the practice was unknown in the Vedic times.9 This controversy, however, emanates from the difference in the readings of the same verse from Rig Veda. Altekar agrees upon the later, and he further states that down to 400 B.C. we find no traces of it whatsoever. However, the custom began to become trending by about 400 A.D., mostly in Kshatriya circles. During the period 700-1100 A.D. the suttee custom became a recurring practice in the northern India while at the same time it set its roots firm and became widely prevailing practice in Kashmir, particularly in the aristocratic class. Altekar attributes the great prevalence of the practice in Kashmir to ‘its proximity to central Asia, which was the home of Scythians, among whom the custom was quite common.’10

 

While studying the pre-Sultanate period of Kashmir Kalhana’s Rajatarangini has always remained the predominant source. Kalhana has delineated suttee as a feat accomplished by a proud woman and shown it sometimes as a form of competition between queens.11 Kalhana has recorded a number of cases of suttee (might be more than eighteen) from which we could recollect the ferocity of this irrational and horrific practice of the time. Moreover, the cases of suttee are more frequently documented in the seventh and eighth book than the first six. Its reasons could be two-fold: first the period that seventh and eighth book cover (eleventh and first half of twelfth century), yielded a greater information for the author and second the practice became quite common in Kashmir during this period as mentioned earlier. As also in the tales of Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagar, which was written in 1100 A.D. in Kashmir, the custom of suttee is a recurring affair.12 One the other hand, a seventh century A.D. text of Kashmir, Nilamatapurana, didn’t contain any verse referring to the practice. It, however, states that ‘a thing burnt in the fire gets purity.’13 Jonaraja, who wrote during Zain-ul-Abidin’s time, didn’t mention any case of suttee in his Rajatarangini14 and Srivara in his Jaina-Rajatarangini calls it a ‘custom of distant countries.’15 Moreover, sultan Sikandar under the influence of Mir Muhammad Hamadani had forbidden the practice during his reign.16 It is thus evident, that the practice lost its significance and began dwindling away during the sultanate period. Nevertheless, we come across the references that attest its presence in some peripheral areas during and even after this period.17

 

The first obvious case of suttee that Kalhana has mentioned in his Rajatarangini is that of the queen Vakpusta. She was a very powerful queen who shared equally the administration with the king. This queen immolated herself on the burning pyre of her dead husband (king Tunjina).18 However, an indirect reference of suttee in Rajatarangini can be traced back in King Jalauka’s time in the first book of the chronicle.19 Numerous other queens in ancient Kashmir had sacrificed their lives on the blazing pyres of their dead husbands. Kalhana had acquainted us with various historical cases of suttee as performed by the queens of king Samkaravarman, Yashakara, Ananta, Kalasha, Uccala, Sussala and many others. The society was so much immersed in the custom of sati that not only the wives of the dead but many a time, concubines, mothers, sisters, other relatives (in laws), servants and sometimes even ministers immolated themselves on the flaming pyre. For instance, when king Samkaravarman died, three queens including queen Surendravati, a minister named Jayasimha and two servants ascended the burning pyre of the dead king.20 At another place when queen Suryamati leapt into the blazing flames, she was followed in the act by three male and three female servants.21 Gajja, mother of Ananda, who was the governor under Harsha, burned herself on the pyre of her only son22, as did the sister of Dilabhatara on his death.23 Surprisingly, however, not a single case of burning of a daughter at his father’s pyre has been recorded by Kalhana. Strange is that when the queen Meghamanjari died, the four foremost women in her household and a servant followed her into death.24 So, suttee had been performed here for a dead queen too. These occurrences made this practice more execrable and ferocious.

 

Apart from upper echelon, the custom seems to have also been followed by other people. Wives or other relatives of ministers like that of Mitrasharman, Tunga, Bhogasena, etc. sacrificed their lives by following them into death.25 Somadeva has also mentioned some suttee cases executed by the women of merchant class.26 Notwithstanding the case of Dilhabhattara, who was not of noble descent27, we are not provided by Kalhana any clear reference regarding the practice as performed by women from lower strata of society. However, this doesn’t negate the possibility of its existence among the lower sections, 28 as Kalhana’s Rajatarangini is a narrative of kings and scarcely provide us the desired information relating to the lower sections of society. One can thus safely assert that it must have not been as popular and widespread in lower sections as it was among the noble classes. No doubt, the custom was mostly followed by the women of Kshatriya descent. Among the Brahmana class also, the practice seems to have been prevalent. As once the Brahmana woman brought the case of her husband’s murder before the king Chandrapida. She addressed him with these words, ‘I have not followed my husband [into death] because I was anxious of retaliation on murderer’.29 Here, her expression of not following her husband into death could be treated as an indication that among the Brahmanas the practice of suttee was prevalent, not knowing, if it was widespread. Besides, Somadeva in his Kathasaritsagar has also provided us with several references of the custom as performed by the widows of Brahmanas.30 In this regard, Sharma has argued that ‘the burning of Brahmana widows began much later than that of Kshatriya widows’ for many of the Hindu scriptures ‘apparently forbid self-immolation of Brahmana widows.’31

 

There were some sections of people too who simply have not followed the practice especially the Damaras (a martial land holding class). Kalhana has praised the suttee-practice of a powerful Damara (or Lavanya), Kosthaka’s wife, as an act ‘never seen or never heard’.32 There could have been two reasons for this, one is that her husband was in prison and his death yet was unconfirmed33 and second the practice might not have been exercised by the Lavanya women which is also noticed by Bamzai.34 Despite her relatives tried to stop her as her husband would might come back alive, she paid no heed and entered the fire. Kalhana seems to put it plainly that Lavanyas or Damaras were not following the practice of suttee, he thus states, ‘let the wives of Lavanyas yield up in widowhood their beautiful bodies from lust of money even to village officials, [common] householders, and the like.’35 That is why, Kalhana has ascribed her daring act to her Kshatriya lineage. From this we can thus assume that there might have been some sections who would have been not following this custom.

 

The sati was performed either by instantly burning own selves on the flaming pyre, or later in a sacrificial fire (as in the case of Yashakara, Uccala and Sussala), or sometimes by setting the entire house on fire. When king Harsha had Vyaddamangala killed, his wife and mother became his satis by setting their house on fire. Also, when Malla was killed by king Harsha, his chief consort Kumudalekha and sister-in-law, Vallabha, two daughters in law and six other female attendants immolated themselves in a fire kindled in their residence. On the other side of the river (Jhelum), Nanda, another wife of Malla burned herself, together with her nurse Candri in her house.36

 

If some women were eager to give themselves up to the flames others were reluctant too. Mammanika and other six queens as well as a concubine called Jayamati followed the king Kalasha into death as his satis. But his favorite concubine Kayya refused to become a sati. She was courageous enough, not only to be reluctant of becoming sati but also changing her master (paramour) subsequently (Kalhana called her as a disgrace for whole womankind).37 At another instance, queen Jayamati also wished to live and tried to bribe and convince the minister named Garga. However, he didn’t pay heed to her request due to some obscure reasons and made arrangements for her suttee.38 Also, queen Didda when wished to immolate herself (as other queens were readily doing so), the prime minister, Phalguna, gave his quick ascent as he had some personal grudge with the queen. However, when in front of the funeral pyre, she bewailed her decision, and supported by two other ministers, was thus prevented from becoming a sati. The last two instances indicate not only the desire of queens to live but also that the approval from ministers had some sort of role in conducting sati of the queens.39 Beside this we also have many instances where queens didn’t follow this obnoxious practice and hence survived their husbands. This alludes to the fact that the practice might have been more a voluntary than forcible.

 

Sir Henry Maine and Herbert Risley’s opinion that this institution had its origin in the Brahmanical dislike to the enjoyment of property by women40 seems to be irrelevant at least to the region we are discussing here. Though the underlying motives for the practice is a conglomerate of many (spiritual, psychological, Brahmanical, social and material aspects); Loyalty, love, devotion and attachment might have been the significant reasons under which women performed sati. The elements of loyalty and voluntary nature of the practice in the pre-Sultanate Kashmir has also been admitted by R. S. Pandit. He argued, ‘the wife followed in death the deceased husband as a matter of honor and loyalty.’41 The careful study of all the cases, barring a few exceptions, as recorded by Kalhana in his Rajatarangini alludes to the fact that the practice might have been voluntary in nature. Queens sometimes assisting in the murder of king or rejoicing on kings’ demise as in the case of king Cakaravarman42 and king Umattavanti43 gestures toward its arbitrary nature. Furthermore, there were many queens who had not followed their husbands into death as said earlier. However, the aspect of force couldn’t be ruled out altogether and its autonomous facet could make it volitional in nature but not justifiable. Thus, Devika Rangachari argues that ‘sati was part of a value system that increased male domination over women and was seen as a means to overcome widowhood.’ She thus links it to the ‘socio-economic realities of a widow’s life’ and the ‘psychological conditioning’, under the patriarchal control that eventually abetted her to self-immolation.44 Besides, Alberuni has also mentioned in his Kitab-ul-Hind that generally a woman was provided with two choices if her husband was dead- ‘either to remain a widow as long as she lives or to burn herself’, but the latter was preferred. He further states that the wives of the kings, ‘whether they wish it or not’, had to be burned with them.45 These statements thus attest the presence of both the elements in occurrences of the practice.

 

The widows who would not become satis might have been socially stigmatized46, added to their already miserable widowhood. Thus, we could say that the practice was socially encouraged, if not socially enforced. Bazaz also has argued about its admiration and encouragement as perpetrated by what he called as ‘social fanatics’.47 The social significance of the practice could be recognized by the fact that Kalhana has ever praised the women who have conducted sati and shamed those who have avoided it. A concubine of Utkarsa named Sahaja burned herself on his pyre. Even Harsha also tried to stop her but she didn’t renounce death. Kalhana thus states that if Kayya was a disgrace for all womankind, Sahaja raised their head high. Kalhana places their conducts as blameworthy and praiseworthy respectively.48

 

Customarily, widows with an infant, or pregnant or have not attained puberty yet were exempted from the horrific practice. This we notice in context of Kashmir in cases of many queens who having a minor child or receiving the guardianship of child kings evaded to become satis. Moreover, the two queens of Gopalavarman (Nanda and Jayalakshmi) didn’t become his satis as one was of tender age and the other pregnant respectively.49

 

Jauhar, which can be considered as another form of suttee is the mass suicide performed especially by Rajput Hindu women at the end of the battle to prevent themselves from falling into the hands of enemy troops. We come across the only but very clear specimen of Jauhar that Kalhana acquainted us with. When Uccala attacked Srinagara, many queens of king Harsha locked themselves up in the four-pillared pavilion of the palace. They were ready to set the palace on fire to perform Jauhar, if enemy reached there. Ultimately thus led by the queen Vasantalekha, seventeen queens including daughters in law of the king Harsha, committed mass suicide by burning themselves to ashes.50 There are other incidences too that could be considered, somehow, akin to the practice of Jauhar. These events, however, didn’t fit entirely into the actual circumstances which leads to a Jauhar. The existence and expansion of Jauhar in the pre-sultanate Kashmir attracts a separate study.

 

REFERENCE:

1.      The term suttee is referred to the practice or rite of widow burning. The word sati means a good woman, a devoted/true wife or a widow who burns herself on a funeral pyre. (These terms in this paper are put in use in accordance with the given meanings).

2.      Arvind Sharma, Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1988) 39. V. N. Datta, Sati: A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning (New Delhi, Manohar Publications, 1988) 1. In Hindu usage the former is referred to as sahamarana and the later as anumarana.

3.      Op. cit., Sharma, pp.31-2.

4.      S. Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilisation, (Benaras Hindu University: The Culture Publication House, 1938) 137-42. For detailed information about the Rig Veda, Atharvaveda, and the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana regarding the custom of sati.

5.      Ibid., p.142.

6.      Ibid., pp.142-3, 151. Op. cit., Sharma, pp.31-2.

7.      Ibid., p.33.

8.      Ibid., pp.31-32. Op. cit., Altekar, pp.140, 143-5, 148.

9.      Dwarka Nath Mitter, A Thesis on The Position of Women in Hindu Law, (West Bengal: Visva Bharati Library, Santiniketan) 357-58.

10.   Op. cit., Altekar, pp.139, 142-43, 159-50.

11.   Devika Rangachari, Invisible Women, Visible Histories: Gender, Society and Polity in North India, (New-Delhi: Manohar, 2009) 159.

12.   Op. cit. Altekar, p.149.

13.   Ved Kumari, The Nilmata Purana, Vol. II., (Srinagar-Jammu: J & K. Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, 1968) 71.

14.   J. C. Dutt, tr., The Rajatarangini of Jonaraja, (The Kings of Kashmira-2nd series) (Delhi, Gian Publishing House, 1986).

15.   J. C. Dutt, tr., Srivara’s Rajatarangini, (3rd series), p.143.

16.   G. M. D. Sufi, Kashir: Being A History of Kashmir (Vol.I), (Lahore: University of Punjab, 1948) 93-4, 146. Muhibbul Hasan, Kashmir Under the Sultans, (Calcutta: Iran Society, 1959) 65.

17.   Dutt, Srivara’s Rajatarangini, (3rd series), p.143. Op. cit. Sufi, p.262.

18.   M. A. Stein, tr., Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (Vol.I), (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1979) p. 60, v.56. The place where queen Vakpusta performed suttee came to be known as Vakpustatavi, on her name. where this place situates now is uncertain.

19.   Ibid., p.28, v.152.

20.   Ibid., p.217, vv.226-27.

21.   Ibid., p.306, vv.478, 481. Names of all the servants has also been given by Kalhana.

22.   Ibid., p.377, v.1380.

23.   Ibid., (Vol.II), p.37, v.448.

24.   Ibid., p.97, vv.1223-24.

25.   Ibid., (Vol.I), pp.157, 275. (Vol.II), p.37.

26.   C. H. Tawney, tr., The Ocean of the Streams of Story (Vol. I & II), of Somadeva’s, Kathasaritsagar, (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal with Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1880) 13, 299.

27.   Op. cit., Stein, Vol.II, p.37, v.447.

28.   See the same references as given in footnote 17.

29.   Op. cit., Stein, Vol.I, p.128, v.98.

30.   Op. cit., Tawney, Vol.I, p.244, Vol.II, p.195.

31.   Op. cit. Sharma, p.29.

32.   Op. cit., Stein, vol.II, p.180, v.2334.

33.   Op. cit. Sharma, p.39. The case of Kosthaka’s wife resembles that of the queen Yashomati’s (king Harsha’s mother). Sharma has called its kind as a rare form of sati.

34.   P. N. K. Bamzai, Culture and Political History of Kashmir, Vol.I, (New-Delhi: M. D. Publications, 1994) 208.

35.   Op. cit., Stein, vol.II, p.180, v.2338.

36.   Ibid., Vol.I, pp.382-83.

37.   Ibid., Vol.I, p.325, vv.724-27.

38.   Ibid., Vol.II, p.31, vv.363-64.

39.   R. S. Pandit, tr., Rajatarangini (The Saga of the Kings of Kashmir), (New-Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1935) 246. For role of ministers see footnotes also.

40.   Op. cit., Mitter, p.356. Op. cit., Datta, p.5.

41.   Op. cit., Pandit, pp.409, 333. See footnotes.

42.   Op. cit., Stein, Vol.I, p.229.

43.   Ibid., p.231.

44.   Op. cit., Rangachari, p.159.

45.   Edward C. Sachau, tr., Alberuni’s India, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1910) 155.

46.   Ibid., p.155. Op. cit., Altekar, p.159. Op. cit., Datta, p.208.

47.   P. N. Bazaz, Daughters of the Vitasta, (New Delhi: Pamposh Publications, 1959) 11.

48.   Op. cit., Stein, Vol.I, pp.334-35.

49.   Ibid., p.219.

50.   Ibid., pp.389-90.

 

 

 

 

Received on 08.02.2023         Modified on 26.02.2023

Accepted on 20.03.2023      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2023;14(1)37-40.

DOI: 10.52711/2321-5828.2023.00007