1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Suttee

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SUTTEE (an English corruption of Sanskrit sati, " good woman " or true " wife "), the rite of widow-sacrifice, i.e. the burning the living widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, as practised among certain Hindu castes. As early as the Atharva Veda the rite is mentioned as an " old custom," but European scholars have shown that the text of the still earlier Rig Veda had been corrupted, probably wilfully, by the Hindu priesthood, and that there was no injunction that the rite should be observed. The directions of the Rig Veda seem to have involved a merely symbolic suttee: the widow taking her place on the funeral pile, but being recalled to " this world of life " at the last moment by her brother-in-law or adopted child. The practice was sporadically observed in India when the Macedonians reached India late in the 4th century B.C. (Diod. Sic. xix. 33-34); but the earlier Indian law books do not enjoin it, and Manu simply commands the widow to lead a life of chastity and asceticism. About the 6th century a.d. a recrudescence of the rite took place, and with the help of corrupted Vedic texts it soon grew to have a full religious sanction. But even so it was not general throughout India. It was rare in the Punjab; and in Malabar, the most primitive part of southern India, it was forbidden. In its medieval form it was essentially a Brahminic rite, and it was where Brahminism was strongest, in Bengal and along the Ganges valley and in Oudh and Rajputana, that it was most usual.

The manner of the sacrifice differed according to the district. In south India the widow jumped or was forced into the fire-pit; in western India she was placed in a grass hut, supporting the corpse's head with her right hand while her left held the torch ; in the Ganges valley she lay down upon the already lighted pile; while in Nepal she was placed beside the corpse, and when the pile was lighted the two bodies were held in place by long poles pressed down by relatives. The earliest attempt to stop suttee was made by Akbar (1542-1605), who forbade compulsion, voluntary suttees alone being permitted. Towards the end of the r8th century the British authorities, on the initiative of Sir C. Malet and Jonathan Duncan in Bombay , took up the question, but nothing definite was ventured on till 1829 when Lord William Bentinck, despite fierce opposition, carried in council on the 4th of December a regulation which declared that all who abetted suttee were "guilty of culpable homicide." Though thus illegal, widow-burning continued into modern days in isolated parts of India. In 1905 those who assisted at a suttee in Behar were sentenced to penal servitude.

Widow sacrifice is not peculiar to India, and E. B. Tylor in his Primitive Culture (ch. 11) has collected evidence to support a theory that the rite existed among all primitive Aryan nations. He thinks that in enjoining it the medieval priesthood of India were making no innovation, but were simply reviving an Aryan custom of a barbaric period long antedating the Vedas. See also Jakob Grimm, Verbrennen der Leichen.