Today March 8 2014 is International Women's Day (IWD)
(Warning: In this post, I have quoted from Wendy Doniger’s book 'The Hindus: An Alternative History'...The book has been withdrawn from the Indian market by its publisher Penguin India in February 2014)
J L Nehru, 'The Discovery of India', 1946:
"This suttee, or the immolation of women on the funeral pyre of their husbands, was never widespread. But rare instances continued to occur among the upper classes. Probably the practice was brought to India originally by the Scytho-Tartars, among whom the custom prevailed of vassals and liegemen killing themselves on the death of their lord. In early Sanskrit literature the suttee custom is denounced. Akbar tried hard to stop it, and the Marathas also were opposed to it."
Wendy Doniger, 'The Hindus / An Alternative History', 2009:
Philip Mason, 'The Men Who Ruled India', 1953:
“…particularly in Bengal, suttee was sordid and cruel…in nine cases out of ten, the woman in Bengal went to the flames in fear and horror…she was usually tied to the corpse, often already putrid; men stood by with poles to push her back in case the bonds should burn through and victim, scorched and maimed, should struggle free…”
Every kid in India (and England) once was taught that Lord William Bentinck, with the help of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was responsible for abolishing the tradition of suttee in India.
Historian John Keay has an interesting take on the subject:
Vinayak Janardan Kirtane (विनायक जनार्दन कीर्तने) wrote a Marathi play called “Elder Madhavrao’s Death" ( थोरले माधवराव यांचा मृत्यु) in 1861. It was supposedly the first independent, literary and published play in Marathi.
It was staged in 1862 and had a scene of Madhavrao’s (1745-1772) wife Ramabai (रमाबाई) going suttee on his funeral pyre.
A woman going suttee was considered almost a goddess. To create publicity stunt, theatre company who was staging the play started bringing a few ladies from the audience on to the stage to worship Ramabai !
Soon the scene became so popular that it alone would last for a couple of hours! People used to forget that the actor playing Ramabai was a male – Vishnu Vatave (विष्णु वाटवे) ! People took home suttee’s 'prashad' (like flowers, wheat/rice grains, vermillion/ turmeric etc.) from the stage the way the people must have taken it in real life in November 1772!
[based on D G Godse (द ग गोडसे), 'Butterfly Possessing Stinger' ('नांगी असलेले फुलपाखरू ') 1989]
Was this glorification- now perhaps sounding creepy to urban middle class- unique to India?
None other than Richard Wagner, one of the greatest Western classical music composers, did it in his opera Götterdämmerung, 1876 !
(Wendy Doniger, 'The Hindus / An Alternative History', 2009)
This is just one example. One can learn about more such from Doniger's book.
'The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa (reigned 1761-1772)'
Courtesy: Dorothy and Richard Sherwood and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lenart
After the picture above was posted on FB page of Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, Pune in October 2013 by Pratish Khedekar, there was this comment:
"the position of Ramabai is very interesting, traditionally the sati immolates herself seated with husbands body draped over her lap"
In the picture above Ramabai is shown lying next to her dead husband's body and not carrying his head in his lap.
"'The Hindus / An Alternative History', 2009)
Was the artist perhaps depicting the scene of suttee as was perceived in the Atharva Veda? Just a symbolic suicide?