On The Cremation Of Indian Widows
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The revolting and horrid practice of burning annually in India above a thousand weak and deluded Hindoo widows, has justly excited in this country strong feelings of disgust, unalleviated by any well-founded hope of terminating so cruel and atrocious a custom. Restrictive means have been deemed ineligible, as this dreadful act of self-immolation is pretended to be committed under the sanction of religion; though it is well known that in general the obtaining of a share of the property of the infatuated victim is the actuating motive of insidious .Brahmins and interested relatives. A tax on cremation would, as the price of blood, be equally disgraceful and nugatory. Rewards and bribes would involve a loss of character, and cut off a source of greater profit. During my surveys on Sumatra, I saw a man of the Batta-anthropophagi confined in a cage, where he was well fed, in order to be publicly devoured; and on two poles contiguous were the skulls of persons recently feasted on. The servants of the Company had frequently bought off such unfortunate creatures, till this very humanity was converted by these savages into a bounty on cannibalism. Avarice, fanaticism, and delusion are opposed to every inadequate remedy hitherto proposed to remove an evil of the most distressing description.
The law of the case is little known ; and as this shocking wickedness is frequently brought to the notice of the Legislature, it may be well to state it, as it may appear that a remedy may arise out of the transgression of the law itself, and, paradoxical as it may seem, by the enforcement of the law of burning in its very letter. The resident servant of the Company is called on to authorize the cruel sacrifice; and all he can do is to try dissuasives, to see that the wretched female has not been stupefied by intoxicating drugs, and to hear from herself a feeble assent of her destruction, often the effect of terror, or a disturbed and phrensied mind. Let us then see whether death, in so tremendous a form, is sanctioned by, or inflicted according to, Hindoo law.
The most celebrated Pundits and Hindoo scholars have proved in a clear and conclusive manner that these barbarous murders are contrary to Hindoo law. Ramahun Ruya, an eminent scholar, proves that the Hindoo Shastras are opposed to the custom. Ungeera, Harecta, Purasura, and Vayasa are public writers who only recommend the practice, promising the widow a connubial happiness of thirty-five millions of years in heaven, forgiveness for the most licentious life, and the purification of all her family. A celebrated writer, Vishnoo Resee, directs a widow to dedicate herself to Brumhachuya —that is, to lead a life of self-denial and austerity of so severe a nature that few can conform to it ; in which case, it is recommended to the widow to ASCEND, of her own accord, the funeral pile IN FLAMES, with some article which belonged to her husband. He exempts the widows of Brahmins, afterwards included. Munoo, the greatest of their legislators, does not recommend burning, but pre-scribes a life of mortification and austerity. He says that widows ought to pass their lives in Brumhachuya, or strict austerity. The Hindoos believe " that any moral precepts contrary to the doctrine of MuNoo are unworthy of praise." The artful Brahmins attempt to do away the clear and decided, positive precept of Munoo, the acknowledged chief of Hindoo literature, by urging that the recommendations of more than one ought to outweigh the injunction of Munoo, which amounts to begging the question. The words of the Veda confirm Munoo's rational doctrine, "as by means of living, still the duties usual and occasional can be performed to purify the mind ; and as by hearing of, and fixing our minds, and devoting our souls to Brumah, or the supreme spirit, we can attain it [final beatitude or absorption in Brumah] ; no woman should therefore spend her life [that is, suffer death] in hopes of obtaining surga, or bliss in heaven." The Hindoo religion supposes rewards and punishments proportioned in duration to sublunary conduct, after which, according to their metempsychosis, the soul is to undergo multiplied and various trans-migrations, till it becomes so pure .as to attain " absorption into Brumah," or, as the Romans had it, "Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo." The woman who burns herself is not exempt from these transmigrations ; and therefore, the best Hindoo writers recommend to her a life of abstinence and correctness in preference to burning.
The advocates for burning say, that women are so constituted as to be unable to go through the prescribed rigid course of required austerity for attaining beatitude in heaven; and that by burning they at once secure thirty-five millions of years of happiness. The writers on the other side argue, that women would act thus from improper motives of cupidity and selfishness, whereas they ought to place their glory in leading a life of purity, self-denial, and penance, according to the Veda, and the sacred tenets of the great law-giver Munoo. Harieta lays it down that, " unless a widow burns in the fire, she cannot get rid of her feminine body," in order that, after her long term of married happiness in heaven, she might go through numberless transmigrations, and be ultimately assimilated to Brumah, or the great Deity. The sacred lawgiver Munoo says, that a life of abstinence and virtue is alone sufficient to lead the widow to this final happiness, and that to prevent a life of misconduct and impurity, burning cannot be indispensably necessary. There cannot be a more striking proof of a low state of civilization than that women, the mothers of families, should be reckoned so totally devoid of every sense of honour and shame, that a dreadful and cruel death can alone confer a posthumous character; and that they are enticed to this by a promise of a long course of sensuality, after which they are liable to be burnt over again, by an unavoidable return to an earthly condition. The Brahmins who made these absurd laws are extremely immoral and licentious ; and if we are to judge from among ourselves, the law, as a punishment of vice, might be more applicable to the widower than to his unfortunate and murdered relict.
This distressing subject is frequently brought before the British Legislature, and it must be evident that there is no law which pre-scribes suicide in the shape of burning on a funeral pile. If the widow, unintoxicated, declares to the English magistrate her determined resolution to be burnt with the body of her deceased husband, or with some article which (this was an artful contrivance to secure posthumous sacrifices) belonged to him, the civil power in India can no more prevent the crime than they can human sacrifices in temples, and the multiplied gross and immoral acts of the deep-rooted and degrading systematic superstition, which in a course of centuries will yield to civilization, followed by Christianity.
Let us now consider whether, in a violation of the legal mode of burning, a remedy against a cruel death can be found. The advocates on both sides of the question admit that the Shastras direct "that the woman shall mount the BURNING PILE." Human nature was found to shrink from so dreadful a resolution ; and the Brahmins, to secure their victim, though unauthorized by the Hindoo law, always have the living tied to the dead body, and order that the pile shall not be lighted till this precaution renders escape from agony and suffering utterly impossible. Previously to the introduction of this diabolical contrivance, when the poor female, amidst flames and torture, at-tempted escape, she was held down in the fire by the inhuman monsters around her by means of bamboos and long poles. This is anything but "a voluntary ascent to a burning pile." It having been found that feelings of horror arose in the minds of the more humane spectators, on seeing the half-burnt sufferer escape from the flames, by the consumption of the ligatures, and that she was driven back into the fire, a cunning expedient, preventing the possibility of escape, was had recourse to. A frame surcharged with weights was suspended over the pile. When the miserable victim began to writhe in agonies, four ruffians cut the ropes holding the frame in suspension, and it descended, so contrived as to secure the continuation of the burning sacrifice on an unhallowed altar, while the yells of surrounding savages, and the noise of drums and discordant instruments, drowned the shrieks of the dying victim. All this process is utterly unsanctioned by law; and it repeatedly prescribes that the widow shall, "of her own free will and accord, mount A BURNING PILE." She is required by law to pronounce the sunkulpa in these words, " I WILL MOUNT THE BURNING PILE." To be within the scope of the words, the Brahmins direct the pile to be a little lighted at one corner, just before the widow is laid on it. The Vishnoo Moonshee has it, " let the wife embrace either a life of abstinence and chastity, or MOUNT THE BURNING PILE." The Noryuya Sindhoo positively directs that no bandages, bamboos, or wood shall be used in any shape to prevent escape. To prove that the pile must be in flames round the dead body before the devoted widow mounts it, the Soodheekoumoode says, "Let the mother enter the fire, after the son has kindled it around his father's corpse; but to the father's corpse, and to the mother, let him not set fire. If the son set fire to the LIVING mother, he has on him the guilt of murdering both a woman and a mother."
In the page of history, we see what human nature, under very different circumstances, and from exalted motives, is capable of enduring. Though an excellent Bishop, from a sense of remorse, and the heroic Mutius, from excited feelings, voluntarily burnt of a hand, we are not to conclude that a weak female, actuated only by cupidity and ambition; will ASCEND. A FUNERAL PILE IN FLAMES, as positively required by law. The original lawgivers founded their hopes on the effects of fanaticism and religious enthusiasm. Their successors, finding human nature unequal to encounter, voluntarily, a fiery trial, and death amidst fierce flames, perverted the law, so as to render it subservient to their atrocious purposes. We thus see, that the prevention of a dreadful crime lies in the very enforcement of the rigour of the law; for by acting thus, where we cannot do better, we shall experience what the Brahmins did, which is, that not one woman out of a hundred destroyed illegally at present, will be found to sacrifice herself, as must be required, according to the express letter of the original law. This procedure will save thousands; and is the only efficient remedy, till civilization and Christianity shall totally abolish a barbarous usage. It is supposed that the unnatural practice of burning arose from the frequent poisoning of Brahmins by their neglected and ill-treated wives. The law was founded on a principle of revenge; and even the recommendation of a life of unnecessary austerity, deprived the widow, in this world, of all chance of happiness. Twenty further authorities might be adduced, to show that the motives for burning are unworthy, and that a life of chastity and abstinence are preferable. The Sankya states this alone to be lawful, while the Meermanosha allows the choice of either. The laws declare that "no blame whatever is attached to those who prevent a woman's burning;" and also, that "all who dissuade her from burning act laudably." If the widow recoils at the sight of the raging pile, the fine is only a kahuna of couries, or about half a crown. The law prescribes in this case, that " the widow should be treated by her neighbours precisely as before." Vishnoo Moonoo forbids burning, and the learned Pundits say, that his precept, "be thou a companion of thy husband in life and in death," means a regular life, which may ensure future happiness with her husband. Mrityoonjuya says, that all writers against the practice incur no blame, because preventing the destruction of life is the strongest of the Hindoo tenets. Out of a population of a hundred millions, forty millions, at least, must be Hindoo women; and the comparatively few who immolate themselves must be a proof that the law is understood as it ought, and that the victims who suffer, are induced to sacrifice themselves by artful Brahmins and avaricious relations. The English, on their part, will assuredly prevent nearly all of these self-murders, by seeing that the deceived and infatuated object, in her sober senses, and without interference, MOUNTS THE RAGING FUNERAL PILE ; and that as this is the strict law, such conduct cannot be objected to. This requisite procedure will save thousands ; and increases not the sufferings of the victim.
The barbarous Indian practice of burning widows alive is so generally known, that any proof of the fact, or description of the ceremony, would here be superfluous. But, on the subject of antiquity, I beg permission to say a few words.
Without inquiring at what remote period the custom originated, or on what particular occasion, I content myself with observing, that the knowledge of it had made its way to Rome before the birth of Christ, since we find it noticed by the poet Propertius, who died about nine-teen years previous to that event; and who mentions it, not as some-thing altogether novel and inaudite, but as matter of public notoriety. I will here quote his own words (lib. iii., xiii. r5)
" Felix Eois lex funeris una maritis,
This passage is the more remarkable, as pointing to a funereal rite of still greater antiquity—that of the surviving friends cutting off their hair for an offering to the spirit of the deceased. (See the Funeral of Patroclus, in Homer,—and the Prophecy of Ezechiel, xxvii. 31.)
While I have the pen in my hand, it may not be amiss to observe, that the word "Una," in the first of the lines above quoted, was not intended by the poet to be understood in the common acceptation, but as " unique, unparalleled, superlative"—Lex una felix, "singularly fortunate "—as Catullus (xxii. 10) has "UNUS caprimulgus," "the veriest clodpoll on earth "—and Horace (Sat. 24) :
"Hortos, egregiasque domos, merearier UNUS
Among other historical facts, Mr. Hollwell gives the following circumstantial account of the burning a Gentoo lady with her husband's body:
" At five of the clock in the morning of the 4th of February, 1742-3, died Rbaam Chund Pundit, of the Mahabrattor tribe, aged twenty-eight years; his widow (for he had but one wife) aged between seventeen and eighteen, as soon as he expired, disdaining to wait the term allowed her for reflection, immediately declared to the Bramin and witnesses present her resolution to burn; as the family was of no small consideration, all the merchants of Coffimbuzaar, and her relations, left no arguments unessayed to dissuade her from it. Lady Russel, with the tenderest humanity, sent her several messages to the same purpose; the infant state of her children (two girls and a boy, the eldest not four years of age), and the terrors and pain of the death she sought, were painted to her in the strongest and most lively colouring ; she was deaf to all. She gratefully thanked Lady Russel, and sent her word she had now nothing to live for, but recommended her children to her protection. When the torments of burning were urged in terrorem to her, she, with a resolved and calm countenance, put her finger into the fire, and held it there a considerable time ; she then, with one hand, put fire in the palm of the other, sprinkled incense on it, and fumigated the Bramins. The consideration of her children left destitute of a parent was again urged to her. She replied : He that made them would take care of them. She was at last given to understand she should not be permitted to burn ;* this, for a short space, seemed to give her deep affliction, but soon recollecting herself, she told them, Death was in her power, and that if she was not allowed to burn, according to the principles of her caste, she would starve herself. Her friends, finding her peremptory and resolved, were obliged at last to assent.
" The body of the deceased was carried down to the water-side early the following morning ; the widow followed about ten o'clock, accompanied by three very principal Bramins, her children, parents, and relations, and a numerous concourse of people. The order of leave for her burning did not arrive from Hosseyn Khan, Fouzdaar of Morshadabad, until after one, and it was then brought by one of the Soubah's own officers, who had orders to see that she burnt voluntarily. The time they waited for the order was employed in praying with the Bramins, and washing in the Ganges. As soon as it arrived, she retired and stayed for the space of half-an-hour in the midst of her female relations, amongst whom was her mother. She then divested herself of her bracelets, and other ornaments, and tyed them in a cloth, which hung like an apron before her, and was conducted by her female relations to one corner of the pile ; on the pile was an arched arbour, formed of dry sticks, boughs, and leaves, open only at one end to admit her entrance. In this the body of the deceased was deposited, his head at the end opposite to the opening. At the corner of the pile, to which she had been conducted, the Bramin had made a small fire, round which she and the three Bramins sat for some minutes; one of them gave into her hand a leaf of the bale-tree (the wood commonly consecrated to form part of the funeral pile) with sundry things on it, which she threw into the fire; one of the others gave her a second leaf, which she held over the flame, whilst he dropped three times some glue on it, which melted and fell into the fire (these two operations were preparatory symbols of her approaching dissolution by fire), and whilst they were performing this, the third Bramin read to her some portions of the Augblorrab Bhade, and asked her some questions, to which she answered with a steady and serene countenance ; but the noise was so great we could not understand what she said, although we were within a yard of her. These over, she was led with great solemnity three times round the pile, the Bramins reading before her; when she came the third time to the small fire, she stopped, took her rings off her toes and fingers and put them to her other ornaments ; here she took a solemn majestic leave of her children, parents, and relations ; after which one of the Bramins dipt a large wick of cotton in some glue, and gave it ready lighted into her hand, and led her to the open side of the arbour ; there, all the Bramins fell at her feet. After she had blessed them, they retired weeping ; by two steps she ascended the pile, and entered the arbour. On her entrance she made a profound reverence at the feet of the deceased, and advanced and seated herself by his head; she looked in silent meditation on his face for the space of a minute, then set fire to the arbor in three places; observing that she had set fire to leeward, and that the flames flew from her, instantly seeing her error, she rose and set fire to windward, and resumed her station. Ensign Daniel, with his cane, separated the grass and leaves on the windward side, by which means we had a distinct view of her as she sat. With what dignity and undaunted a countenance she set fire to the pile the last time, and assumed her seat, can only be conceived, for words cannot convey a just idea of her. The pile being of combustible matter, the supporters of the roof were presently consumed, and it fell in upon her.