Category Archives: Hinduism


from Indian Home Rule
from An Autobiography: The Story of    My Experiments With Truth
from Non-Violence in Peace and War


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (often called “Mahatma,” or “great soul”), the Indian nationalist and advocate of non-violence, was born in Porbandar to the local chief minister and a mother who was an active disciple of Vaishnavism, the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. Gandhi’s religious upbringing emphasized principles of ahimsa (non-injury to living beings), fasting, self-purification, and nonviolence; these themes would figure prominently in his political philosophy. His academic performance in Indian schools was mediocre; however, after a rebellious adolescence, Gandhi committed himself to a program of passionate self-improvement. In 1888, he sailed to England to study law at the Inner Temple, but found himself more involved in adjusting to Western culture. His vegetarianism, at first a source of embarrassment, became an opportunity to practice his social influence: he joined the London Vegetarian Society, where he was introduced to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.

In 1891, he returned to India to discover that, because he found himself unable to speak in the courtroom and thus was left merely to prepare legal documents, law was not a lucrative career for him in India. Subsequently, in 1893, he took a job for an Indian firm in South Africa; the prejudices against Indians he encountered there persuaded him to remain to help fight discrimination. Almost overnight he was transformed into a skilled politician. He established spiritual communities (ashrams), the Natal Indian Congress, and a weekly newspaper, the Indian Opinion. In 1906, he staged his first nonviolent resistance campaign based on his technique of satyagraha (“the Force which is born of Truth and Love, or nonviolence”), which he derived from the works of Thoreau, Tolstoy, the Hindu scriptures, and the New Testament. Gandhi and his followers in South Africa were often threatened and imprisoned.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India, where he began to campaign and fast for Indians of the lowest castes and for “untouchables,” whom he renamed Harijan, “children of God.” Upon the passing of the Rowlatt Act in 1919, an infringement on Indian civil liberties, he planned an all-India satyagraha campaign, but the event backfired when some of the protesters resorted to violence. Another campaign in 1920 boycotted the British cloth industry; he was subsequently arrested for sedition in 1922 and spent two years in prison. (During his lifetime, he would spend a total of 2,338 days in jail.) Upon his release, he was elected president of the Indian National Congress. He led several social movements, his “constructive program,” which included women’s rights, education, industry, personal hygiene, and Hindu-Muslim unity. However, the issue of whether there should be a separate electorate for Dalits, an alternative term for “untouchables,” divided him from the activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar regarded as a hero of the casteless. In 1933, Gandhi fasted for 21 days over issues concerning untouchables. In 1942, he led a satyagraha to demand the withdrawal of British forces from India; the British reacted sharply and imprisoned the leadership of the Congress. On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were declared independent, but Gandhi was deeply disappointed by this lack of unity at the moment of freedom. Renewed riots between Hindus and Muslims led Gandhi to a final fast. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic while traveling to his evening prayer meeting.

Gandhi’s collected works—autobiography, letters, editorials, and speeches—fill 100 volumes. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), Gandhi recounts his consideration of suicide during his period of youthful rebellion. His writings on satyagraha often refer to conditions under which it is permissible to lay down one’s own life for a noble cause. In the pamphlet “Indian Home Rule” (1909), he uses the dialogue of a hypothetical editor and reader to explain the attitudes of a “passive resister” toward death; in rejecting the ancient tradition of self-immolation that was practiced by Buddhist monks in Vietnam (q.v., Thich Nhat Hanh) in Harijan (1940), he insists that that was mere passive resistance, not the active, engaged satyagraha that he supported. Non-Violence in Peace and War (1945) illuminates his belief in the importance of learning the “art of dying.”

Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Indian Home Rule,” in The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of his Life and Writings, ed. Homer A. Jack (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956; London: Dennis Dobson, 1958), pp. 112, 114-16; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, tr. Mahadev Desai (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 25-28; excerpts from Gandhi on Non-Violence; Selected Texts from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Non-Violence in Peace and War, ed. Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Books, 1964, 1965), selections from pp. 39, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 52, 55, 60, 61, 62, 64, 73, 85, 86. Material in introduction also from Christine Everaert.



EDITOR: Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I an employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.

Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes. Men have before now done many things which were subsequently found to have been wrong. No man can claim that he is absolutely in the right or that a particular thing is wrong because he thinks so, but it is wrong for him so long as that is his deliberate judgment. It is therefore meet that he should not do that which he knows to be wrong, and suffer the consequence whatever it may be. This is the key to the use of soul-force. . .

READER: From what you say I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms.

EDITOR: This is a gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. How, then, can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Physical-force men are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. They can say nothing else. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. And that is a fitting thing for their constitution. But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.

What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others? Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister.

This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. It does not require the training of an army; it needs no jiu-jitsu. Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy.

Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom if is used. Without drawing a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results. It never rusts and cannot be stolen. Competition between passive resisters does not exhaust. The sword of passive resistance does not require a scabbard. It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be a weapon merely of the weak. . . .

READER: From what you say, then, it would appear that it is not a small thing to become a passive resister, and, if that is so, I should like you to explain how a man may become one.

EDITOR: To become a passive resister is easy enough but it is also equally difficult. I have known a lad of fourteen years become a passive resister; I have known also sick people do likewise; and I have also known physically strong and otherwise happy people unable to take up passive resistance. After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness.

Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness. A man who is unchaste loses stamina, becomes emasculated and cowardly. He whose mind is given over to animal passions is not capable of any great effort. . . .

Just as there is necessity for chastity, so is there for poverty. Pecuniary ambition and passive resistance cannot go well together. Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.

Passive resistance has been described in the course of our discussion as truth-force. Truth, therefore, has necessarily to be followed and that at any cost. In this connection, aca

demic questions such as whether a man may not lie in order to save a life, etc., arise, but these questions occur only to those who wish to justify lying. Those who want to follow truth every time are not placed in such a quandary; and if they are, they are still saved from a false position.

Passive resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of passive resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries or death.



Stealing and Atonement

I have still to relate some of my failings during this meat-eating period and also previous to it, which date from before my marriage or soon after.

A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths. My uncle had the habit, and when we saw him smoking, we thought we should copy his example. But we had no money. So we began pilfering stumps of cigarettes thrown away by my uncle.

The stumps, however, were not always available, and could not emit much smoke either. So we began to steal coppers from the servant’s pocket money in order to purchase Indian cigarettes. But the question was where to keep them. We could not of course smoke in the presence of elders. We managed somehow for a few weeks on these stolen coppers. In the meantime we heard that the stalks of a certain plant were porous and could be smoked like cigarettes. We got them and began this kind of smoking.

But we were far from being satisfied with such things as these. Our want of independence began to smart. It was unbearable that we should be unable to do anything without the elders’ permission. At last, in sheer disgust, we decided to commit suicide!

But how were we to do it? From where were we to get the poison? We heard that Dhatura seeds were an effective poison. Off we went to the jungle in search of these seeds, and got them. Evening was thought to be the auspicious hour. We went to Kedarji Mandir, put ghee in the temple-lamp, had the darshan and then looked for a lonely corner. But our courage failed us. Supposing we were not instantly killed? And what was the good of killing ourselves? Why not rather put up with the lack of independence? But we swallowed two or three seeds nevertheless. We dared not take more. Both of us fought shy of death, and decided to go to Ramji Mandir to compose ourselves, and to dismiss the thought of suicide.

I realized that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide, it has had little or no effect on me.

The thought of suicide ultimately resulted in both of us bidding good-bye to the habit of smoking stumps of cigarettes and of stealing the servant’s coppers for the purpose of smoking.



[In non-violence] the bravery consists in dying, not in killing.

Those who die unresistingly are likely to still the fury of violence by their wholly innocent sacrifice.

He who meets death without striking a blow fulfills his duty cent per cent. The result is in God’s hands.

A satyagrahi is dead to his body even before his enemy attempts to kill him, i.e., he is free from attachment to his body and only lives in the victory of his soul. Therefore when he is already thus dead, why should he yearn to kill anyone? To die in the act of killing is in essence to die defeated.

Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence.

The votary of non-violence has to cultivate his capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. . . . He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa to perfection. The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is of God. He who seeks refuge in God ought to have a glimpse of the Atman [the transcendent self] that transcends the body; and the moment one has glimpsed the imperishable Atman one sheds the love of the perishable body. . . . Violence is needed for the protection of things external; non-violence is needed for the protection of the Atman, for the protection of one’s honor.

There is a natural prejudice against fasting as part of a political struggle. . . . It is considered a vulgar interpolation in politics by the ordinary politician, though it has always been resorted to by prisoners. . . . My own fasts have always been strictly according to the laws of satyagraha. . . . I have been driven to the conclusion that fasting unto death is an integral part of the satyagraha program, and it is the greatest and most effective weapon in its armory under giver circumstances. Not everyone is qualified for undertaking it without a proper course of training.

A satyagrahi must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancor in his heart. Some people have come to have a wrong notion that satyagraha means only jail-going, perhaps facing blows, and nothing more. Such satyagraha cannot bring independence. To win independence you have to learn the art of dying without killing.

A satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.

To lay down one’s life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha.

A satyagrahi may never run away from danger, irrespective of whether he is alone or in the company of many. He will have fully performed his duty if he dies fighting.

You are no satyagrahis if you remain silent or passive spectators while your enemy is being done to death. You must protect him even at the cost of your own life.

The art of dying for a satyagrahi consists in facing death cheerfully in the performance of one’s duty.

Ahimsa is one of the world’s great principles which no force on earth can wipe out. Thousands like myself may die in trying to vindicate the ideal, but ahimsa will never die. And the gospel of ahimsa can be spread only through believers dying for the cause.

Non-violence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy. . . . Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.

Murder can never be avenged by either murder or taking compensation. The only way to avenge murder is to offer oneself as a willing sacrifice, with no desire for retaliation.

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best, though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

[Jesus—] a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.

No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life.


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Filed under Asia, Gandhi, Mohandas K., Hinduism, Selections, The Modern Era

(c. 1889)

The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself


This anonymous selection was originally published in the Methodist Church Missionary Society’s magazine The Gospel in All Lands in April of 1889. Little is known about its author or its exact date of composition, except that the author, “a widow herself,” identifies herself as a member of the Kayastha caste, living in the Punjab. The caste is a community of scribes, highly educated and historically very influential, and of well-to-do economic status.

Sati or suttee, as the British called it, also known as widow-burning, in which the new widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was practice with apparent antecedents as far back as the 5th century A.D. or even earlier [q.v., Vedas]. The practice has never been universal among Hindus, and it does not always involve fire: for instance, the Bengali Jogi weaver caste and the Jasnathi caste in Rajasthan buried the wife alive with her husband. Sati stones or grave markers often served as sites of veneration, and were known throughout India by the 10th century. Rulers during the Mughal period attempted to suppress the practice but without lasting success, and it reached the greatest rates of frequency in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1813, the British East India Company recognized the legitimacy of sati as long as it was based on the widow’s “consent,” not coercion. Between 1813 and 1828, the period during which the British collected statistics on sati, approximately 8,000 widows were burnt. The practice was banned by the Bengal presidency in 1829 and upheld by the British Privy Council in 1832; statistics were not kept after that time, though the decree affected only some areas of India and that portion of the population where British rule was in sway. In 1856, the law was also amended to allow widows to remarry, but the Social Reform Movement found that traditional custom could not be undone overnight and that opposition to the continuing practice of sati was necessary. Although it is now illegal to attempt to commit sati or to glorify or abet it, it still occasionally occurs in rural areas of India.

“The Plight of Hindu Widows” is a distinctly graphic and disturbing account arising from the body of literature written in the second half of the 19th century focusing on the issue of widow remarriage and with it the question of women’s rights in India; it is significant in that it presents a view of sati not from the vantage point of European male observers, who were almost universally unsympathetic and disapproving (though often fascinated by the beauty of the doomed wife), but from that of an Indian woman who could have undergone sati herself.

Sati is sometimes conceptualized as a form of suicide, sometimes as a form of social murder. Earlier treatments of sati in Hindu literature had sometimes romanticized it (e.g., in Bana’s Harsha-Carita [q.v.], where the queen’s death is portrayed as a devout and fully voluntary choice against the opposition of her son, a religiously inspired act of devotion to her dead husband in the expectation of reward and reunion in the afterlife, though Bana was himself opposed to the practice). In popular belief, it is claimed, sati is said to be painless and will remove the sins of seven generations in a woman’s family, and she will not be reborn as a woman. In “The Plight of Hindu Widows,” in contrast, the practice of sati is seen by its widow author as an unwelcome alternative, though still preferable to the vicious social treatment experienced by widows, a treatment that she describes as a lifelong, slow death compared to sati’s quick but cruel death. Thus a widow might knowingly, even voluntarily, choose death by sati rather than the life that would otherwise await her after the death of her husband, even though the alleged voluntariness of her choice is severely compromised by oppressive social circumstances.

Anonymous, “The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself,” Methodist Church Missionary Society, The Gospel in All Lands, 1889, pp. 160-162, tr. Maya Pandit, in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Centuryeds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991), pp. 358–363. Material in introduction also from Lata Mani, “Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts: Reading Eyewitness Accounts of Widow Burning,” from Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1992, Ch. 22, pp. 392–408; and Christine Everaert.



There are four major castes among the Hindus and I was born into the caste known as Kayastha, which is the third in the hierarchy and most infamous for its maltreatment of widows.

Widows anywhere have to suffer, but the customs in our caste are too terrible. The people in the Punjab don’t treat their widows so strictly. But we do not belong to the Punjab. Originally we migrated from the northwest and settled there. And since ours is a well-to-do, why, even wealthy, caste, our regulations in this regard are extremely strict.

Once the husband dies, the torture of his wife begins, as if the messengers of the death god Yama themselves have come to take away her soul. None of her relatives will touch her to take her ornaments off her body. That task is assigned to three women from the barber caste. Their number varies from three to six. No sooner does the husband breathe his last than those female fiends literally jump all over her and violently tear all the ornaments from her nose, ears, etc. In that rush, the delicate bones of the nose and ears are sometimes broken. Sometimes while plucking the ornaments from her hair, tufts of hair are also plucked off. If she is wearing any gold or silver ornaments, these cruel women never have the patience to take them off one by one; they pin her hands down on the ground and try to break the bangles with a large stone. And many a time her hands are severely wounded in the process. Why, these callous women torture even a six- or seven-year-old girl, who doesn’t even know what a husband means when she becomes a widow!

At such times grief crashes down on the poor woman from all sides. On the one hand she has to endure the grief of the husband’s death, and on the other hand, no one comes near her to console her. On the contrary, those who had loved her from her childhood, and had brought her up tenderly, even they shower curses on her. In our caste, it is the custom that all the women accompany men when the corpse is carried for cremation. Everyone has to walk even though they are wealthy and have carriages. The menfolk walk in front and women follow them, clad in veils. And the poor widow follows them all. She is supported by the barber women. There has to be a distance of two hundred feet between her and the rest of the women because it is believed by our people that if her shadow falls over a married woman, she too will become a widow. It doesn’t affect the barber women, who torture her, however, in the same fashion. Because of this stupid superstition, even a relative whose heart melts at the sight of her doesn’t dare to look at her. But people are not satisfied even when they have tortured her so much. They brand her heart further as if with red-hot irons. Several men keep on shouting in that procession, asking people to stay away from her, and the barber women literally drag her along throughout the walk.

The place for cremation is usually on the bank of a river or a lake. When the procession reaches the site, the widow is pushed into the water. She has to lie there till the corpse is burned to ashes and all the people have had their bath and dried their clothes. When people are ready to go home, they pull her out of the water. Whether the water is cold as ice or the sun scorches down fiercely, she has to stay there until everyone has finished. Nobody takes pity on her. Even on the way back home, she is dragged along throughout. Because of such things, women prefer to burn themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. If the poor woman falls ill on such occasions, nobody even thinks of giving her medicine.

Once, before I became a widow myself, I had been in one such funeral procession. The place of cremation was nearly six miles away. It was summer. It was three o’clock in the afternoon by the time we reached home after having completed all the rites. I will never forget how the scorching heat of the sun was literally burning us on our way. We used to halt at regular intervals to rest a while and drink water. But that poor widow did not dare to ask for water. Had she asked for it, she would have lost her honor. The women with her could have given her some, but they felt no pity for her. Finally she collapsed unconscious. But even then her torturers continued to drag her throughout the road. On top of it, they kept nagging at her, saying, “Are you the only widow in the world? What’s the point of weeping now! Your husband is gone forever!”

Later on, when this poor forsaken woman did not even have the strength to crawl, she was tied up into a bundle as if of rags, and then dragged off. This woman was one of our relatives; but none of us dared go anywhere near her. Had anyone done so, she would have been showered with curses. But even then, one woman somehow managed to take her water in a glass. On seeing her the widow ran to her like a wild beast. I cannot even bear to describe her behavior then. First of all, she gulped down the water, which revived her a bit. Then she fell at the feet of the woman who had given her the water and said, “Sister, I’ll never forget what you have done for me. You are like a god to me. You have given my life back to me. But please go away quickly. If anybody comes to know of what you have done, both of us will have to pay for it. I, at least, will not let this out.”

It is the custom that a widow should eat only once a day for a year after her husband’s death; apart from that, she also has to fast completely on several days. Other relatives also eat only once a day. But only for fifteen days. After returning from the cremation ground, she has to sit on the ground in a corner, without changing her clothes, whether dry or wet. Nobody, apart from the barber women, visits her. If her own relatives are poor, even they don’t come to see her. She has to sit alone. Oh, cruel corner, all of us widows know you so thoroughly well. And we never remember you unless we are grieved.

A woman whose husband is dead is like a living corpse. She has no rights in the home. In spite of her grief, her relatives brand her with frightening words and gestures. Though she is all alone there and not allowed to speak to anyone, her relatives go to her and pierce her with sharp words. Her mother says, “What a mean creature! I don’t think there is anyone more vile than she. It would have been better if she were never born!” Her mother-in-law says, “This horrible snake bit my son and killed him. He died, but why is this worthless woman still alive?” There are even other widows among the women who speak cruelly to her! They feel that if they don’t speak so, people, and God too, would think that they actually pitied her. The sister-in-law says, “I will not cast even a glance at this luckless, ill-fated creature! I will not even speak a word to her.” Those who come to console the relatives of the dead say to the mother of the dead man, “Mother, this monstrous woman has ruined your house. She must be cursed. It’s only because of her that you have been thrown into the ocean of grief!” And to the widow they say, “Now, what do you want to live for?” If she wails aloud, they say, “What a shameless woman! How callous! She cries because she wants a husband.” Thus, she has to spend those thirteen days of grief in that alcove. What an unendurable state! No one can understand how painful it is unless she experiences it.

On the eleventh day, the brahmin comes. He comes like a policeman to arrest a convict. And then he authoritatively demands money or oil and so on. The widow has to pay him even if she is very poor; if she cannot pay immediately, she has to promise him that she will pay in future. Even if the widow is exceedingly poor, she has to pay at least thirteen rupees. Other brahmins demand other things. They demand more if the family is a rich one. Sometimes the widows have to work as servants doing household jobs, to earn money to pay these brahmins their dues.

Thus, there is nothing in our fate but suffering from birth to death. When our husbands are alive, we are their slaves; when they die, our fate is even worse.

The thirteenth day is the most fateful, the worst day for the widow. Though on this day she is allowed to change the clothes she has been wearing since her husband’s death and have a bath, people continue to condemn her. Her relatives gather around her and place some money before her. This is supposed to be for her keep. They curse her a million times while doing so. If the money gathered is a large sum, one of her relatives takes it into his possession and doles it out to her in small installments.

Then the brahmin comes again to demand money. The brahmin and the barber women have to be paid again when the widow’s head is shaved. After six weeks, she is again given the very clothes she had been wearing for the first thirteen days. When she sees those clothes again, she shudders from head to toe, as if she has been widowed again. Then she is sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Ganges, and those clothes are thrown into the river after she has taken a holy dip in it.

After one year, if the widow is staying with her parents, she may be allowed to wear some ornaments. If asked about the reason, the parents say, “How long can our daughter continue not wearing ornaments? How can we bear to see her sit like that before us, wearing none, when we ourselves wear so many?”

Those widows who have lost their parents, however, have a terrible fate. They have to remain as slaves to their brothers’ wives or even sons. People feel there is no need to employ a servant if there is a widow in the house. If the widow has a sister-in-law (her brother’s wife), she has to suffer harassment at her hands. They constantly quarrel. Her fate isn’t any different in her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law hate her and often beat her. If she decides to separate and live independently because of the frequent quarrels, her honor is maligned. If she has any children, she has to toil hard for their upkeep. And when they grow up and get married, she becomes a slave to their wives. If a widow does not have any children, her relatives make her adopt a male child. He becomes heir to her property. And when he grows up and gets married, he is ruled by his wife and provides his adopted mother only with food and clothing. The widow has no right whatsoever to any property she may have. In such a condition, it is better for her if she earns her own living by working for others as a domestic servant.

In our caste, a woman does not have a right over even a piece of her father’s property. It all goes to his relatives. Similarly, widows do not get a share in their husband’s property either. They can claim only that which someone is kind enough to offer them. If they get any cash, they know neither how to keep it safe nor how to spend it. If a woman dies when her husband is still alive, her body is decorated with ornaments and new clothes, and then cremated. But when a widow dies, her body is just wrapped up in plain white cloth and cremated. It is reasoned that if a widow goes to the other world in ornaments and new clothes, her husband will not accept her there.

Thousands of widows die after a husband’s death. But far more have to suffer worse fates throughout their life if they stay alive. Once, a widow who was a relative of mine died in front of me. She had fallen ill before her husband died. When he died, she was so weak that she could not even be dragged to her husband’s cremation. She had a burning fever. Then her mother-in-law dragged her down from the cot onto the ground and ordered the servant to pour bucketfuls of cold water over her. After some eight hours, she died. But nobody came to see how she was when she was dying of the cold. After she died, however, they started praising her, saying that she had died for the love of her husband.

Another woman jumped from the roof of her house and committed suicide when she heard that her husband had died away from home. I and many of her other friends knew that this woman had never gotten along well with her husband. They used to quarrel often. Yet people praised her for committing suicide. If all these tales are put together, it would make a large book. The British government put a ban on the custom of sati, but as a result of that several women who could have died a cruel but quick death when their husbands died now have to face an agonizingly slow death.

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Filed under Asia, Hindu Widow, anonymous, Hinduism, Honor and Disgrace, Love, Selections, Slavery, The Modern Era


from Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive


Raja Rammohun Roy (also spelled Ram Mohun) was born in Bengal in an ancient Brahman family in 1774, or, according to some sources, 1772. Roy was a religious and social reformer during the British colonial period and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a theist Hindu revivalist movement with strong social-reform commitments. Well-educated, Roy studied Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, and later Hebrew and Greek; he was influenced by the monotheistic teachings of Islam, and at about age 15 or 16 went to Tibet to study Buddhism, causing considerable controversy with his opposition to lama-worship. He was also influenced by Western society’s traditions and his study of the Christian gospels. He served for a decade with the East India Company, eventually as Diwan, or head of revenue collections.

Roy was a reformer in many areas, including education, the caste system, freedom of the press, the abolishment of polygamy and child marriage, and the issue of women’s right to inheritance. He considered certain aspects of Hindu culture to be counterproductive in terms of India’s political interests, and directed his reform movement toward changing these aspects in the name of preserving the whole of Hindu culture.

In 1811, Roy is reported to have been a “horrified witness” of the act of sati or self-immolation when his elder brother Jagomohan died and one of his widowed wives was burnt alive with him; Rammohun “vowed never to rest until he had uprooted this custom.” His “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive” (1818) is one of several tracts dedicated to examining the alleged religious obligation of sati or concremation. Roy was given the title Raja by the emperor of Delhi and appointed his special envoy to convey the case concerning sati to the Privy Council in England. Roy lived to see the 1829 abolition of sati formally upheld by the Privy Council in 1832, but died unexpectedly the following year at Bristol, his death attributed to brain fever.

Ram Mohun Roy, “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,” from the original Bungla (Calcutta 1818), in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, Bahadhurganj, Alllahabad, 1906. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1978, pp. 323-332. Material in the introduction from the biographical sketch of the author, pp. ix-xi, and from Benoy Bhusan Roy, Socioeconomic Impact of Sati in Bengal and the Role of Raja Rammohun Roy (Calcutta: Naya Prokash, 1987).


Advocate. I am surprised that you endeavour to oppose the practice of Concremation and Postcremation of widows,[1] as long observed in this country.

Opponent. Those who have no reliance on the Sastra, and those who take delight in the self-destruction of women, may well wonder that we should oppose that suicide which is forbidden by all the Sastras, and by every race of men.

Advocate. You have made an improper assertion in alleging that Concremation and Postcremation are forbidden by the Sastras. Hear what Angira and the other saints have said on this subject:

“That Woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven, as equal to Arundhati.

“She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions.

“As a serpent-catcher forcibly draws a snake from his hole, thus raising her husband by her power, she enjoys delight along with him.

“The woman who follows her husband expiates the sins of the three races; her father’s line, her mother’s line, and the family of him to whom she was given a virgin.

“There possessing her husband as her chiefest good, herself the best of women, enjoying the highest delights, she partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indras reign.

“Even though the man had slain a Brahman, or returned evil for good, or killed an intimate friend, the woman expiates those crimes.

“There is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband. It should be understood that there is not other duty whatever after the death of her husband.”

Hear also what Vyasa has written in the parable of the pigeon:

“A pigeon, devoted to her husband, after his death entered the flames, and ascending to heaven, she there found her husband.”

And hear Harita’s words:

“As long as a woman shall not burn herself after her husband’s death she shall be subject to a transmigration in a female form.”

Hear too what Vishnu, the saint, says:

“After the death of her husband a wife must live an ascetic, or ascend his pile.”

Now hear the words of the Brahma Purana on the subject of Postcremation:

“If her lord die in another country, let the faithful wife place his sandals on her breast, and pure enter the fire.”

The faithful widow is declared no suicide by this text of the Rig Veda: “When three days of impurity are gone she obtained obsequies.”

Gotama, says:

“To a Brahmani after the death of her husband, Postcremation is not permitted. But to women of the other classes it is esteemed a chief duty.”

“Living let her benefit her husband; dying she commits suicide.”

“The woman of the Brahman tribe that follows her dead husband, cannot, on account of her self-destruction, convey either herself or her husband to heaven.”

Concremation and Postcremation being thus established by the words of many sacred lawgivers, how can you say they are forbidden by the Sastras, and desire to prevent their practice?

Opponent. All those passages you have quoted are indeed sacred law; and it is clear from those authorities, that if women perform Concremation or Postcremation, they will enjoy heaven for a considerable time. But attend to what Manu and others say respecting the duty of widows: “Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man. Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to one only husband.”

 Here Manu directs, that after the death of her husband, the widow should pass her whole life as an ascetic. Therefore, the laws given by Angira and others whom you have quoted, being contrary to the law of Manu, cannot be accepted; because the Veda declares, “Whatever Manu has said is wholesome;” and Vrihaspati, “Whatever law is contrary to the law of Manu is not commendable.” The Veda especially declares, “By living in the practice of regular and occasional duties the mind may be purified. Thereafter by hearing, reflecting, and constantly meditating on the Supreme Being, absorption in Brahma may be attained. Therefore from a desire during life of future fruition, life ought not to be destroyed.” Manu, Yajnavalkya, and others, have then, in their respective codes of laws prescribed to widows, the duties of ascetics only. By this passage of the Veda, therefore, and the authority of Manu and others, the words you have quoted from Angira and the rest are set aside; for by the express declaration of the former, widows after the death of their husbands, may, by living as ascetics, obtain absorption.

Advocate. What you have said respecting the laws of Angira and others, that recommended the practice of Concremation and Postcremation we do not admit: because, though a practice has not been recommended by Manu, yet, if directed by other lawgivers, it should not on that account be considered as contrary to the law of Manu. For instance, Manu directs the performance of Sandhya, but says calling on the name of Hari. The words of Vyasa do not contradict those of Manu. The same should be understood in the present instance. Manu has commended widows to live as ascetics; Vishnu and other saints direct that they should either live as ascetics or follow their husbands. Therefore the law of Manu may be considered to be applicable as an alternative.

Opponent. The analogy you have drawn betwixt the practice of Sandhya and invoking Hari, and that of Concremation and Postcremation does not hold. For, in the course of the day the performance of Sandhya, at the prescribed time, does not prevent one from invoking Hari at another period; and, on the other hand, the invocation of Hari need not interfere with the performance of Sandhya. In this case, the direction of one practice is not inconsistent with that of the other. But in the case of living as an ascetic or undergoing Concremation, the performance of the one is incompatible with the observance of the other. Scil. [To wit,] Spending one’s whole life as an ascetic after the death of a husband, is incompatible with immediate Concremation as directed by Angira and others; and vice versa, Concremation, as directed by Angira and others, is inconsistent with living as an ascetic, in order to attain absorption. Therefore those two authorities are obviously contradictory of each other. More especially as Angira, by declaring that “there is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband,” has made Concremation an indespensible duty. And Harita also, in his code, by denouncing evil consequences, in his declaration, that “as long as a woman shall not burn herself after the death of her husband, she shall be subject to transmigration in a female form,” has made this duty absolute. Therefore all those passages are in every respect contradictory to the law of Manu and others.

Advocate. When Angira says that there is no other way for a widow except Concremation, and when Harita says that the omission of it is a fault, we reconcile their words with those of Manu, by considering them as used merely for the purpose of exalting the merit of Concremation, but not as prescribing this as an indespesable duty. All these expressions, moreover, convey a promise of regard for Concremation, and thence it appears that Concremation is only optional.

Opponent. If, in order to reconcile them with the text of Manu, you set down the words of Angira and Harita, that make the duty incumbent, as meant only to convey an exaggerated praise of Concremation, why do you not also reconcile the rest of the words of Angira, Harita, and others, with those in which Manu prescribes to the widow the practice of living as an ascetic as her absolute duty? And why do you not keep aloof from witnessing the destruction of females, instead of tempting them with the inducement of future fruition? Moreover, in the text already quoted, self-destruction with the view of reward is expressly prohibited.

Advocate. What you have quoted from Manu and Yajnavalkya and the text of the Veda is admitted. But how can you set aside the following text of the Rig Veda on the subject of Concremation? “O fire! let these women, with bodies anointed with clarified butter, eyes coloured with collyrium, and void of tears, enter thee, the parent of water, that they may not be separated from their husbands, but may be, in unison with excellent husbands, themselves sinless and jewels amongst women.”

Opponent. This text of the Veda, and the former passages from Harita and the rest whom you have quoted, all praise the practice of Concremation as leading to fruition, and are addressed to those who are occupied by sensual desires; and you cannot but admit that to follow these practices is only optional. In repeating the Sankalpa of Concremation, the desire of future fruition is declared as the object. The text therefore of the Veda which we have quoted, offering no gratifications, supercedes, in every respect, that which you have adduced, as well as all the words of Angira and the rest. In proof we quote from the Kathopanishad: “Faith in God which leads to absorption is one thingl and rites which have future fruition for their object, another. Each of these, producing different consequences, hold out to man inducements to follow it. The man, who of these two chooses faith, is blessed: and he, who for the sake of reward practices rites, is dashed away from the enjoyment of eternal beatitude.” Also the Mundakopanishad: “Rites, of which there are eighteen members, are all perishable: he who considers them as the source of blessing shall undergo repeated transmigrations; and all those fools who, immersed in the foolish practice of rites, consider themselves to be wise and learned, are repeatedly subjected to birth, disease, death, and other pains. When one blind man is guided by another, both subject themselves on their way to all kinds of distress.”

It is asserted in the Bhagavad Gita, the essence of all the Smirtis, Puranas, and Itihasas, that, “all those ignorant persons who attach themselves to the words of the Vedas that convey promises of fruition, consider those falsely alluring passages as leading to real happiness, and say, that besides them there is no other reality. Agitated in their minds by these desires, they believe the abodes of the celestial gods to be the chief object; and they devote themselves to those texts which treat of ceremonies and their fruits, and entice by promises of enjoyment. Such people can have no real confidence in the Supreme Being.” Thus also do the Mundakopanishad and the Gita state that, “the science by which a knowledge of God is attained is superior to all other knowledge.” Therefore it is clear, from those passages of the Veda and of the Gita, that the words of the Veda which promise fruition, are set aside by the texts of contrary import. Moreover, the ancient saints and holy teachers, and their commentators, and yourselves, as well as we and others, agree that Manu is better acquainted than any other lawgiver with the spirit of the Veda. And he, understanding the meaning of those different texts, admitting the inferiority of that which promised fruition, and following that which conveyed no promise of gratifications, has directed widows to spend their lives as ascetics. He has also defined in his 12th chapter, what acts are observed merely for the sake of gratifications, and what are not. “Whatever act is performed for the sake of gratifications in this world or the next is called Prabartak, and those which are performed according to the knowledge respecting God, are called Nibartak. All those who perform acts to procure gratifications, may enjoy heaven like the gods; and he who performs acts free from desires, procures release from the five elements of this body, that is, obtains absorption.”

Advocate. What you have said is indeed consistent with the Vedas, with Manu, and with the Bhagavad Gita. But from this I fear, that the passages of the Vedas and the other Sastras, that prescribe Concremation and Postcremation as the means of attaining heavenly enjoyments, must be considered as only meant to deceive.

Opponent. There is no deception. The object of those passages is declared. As men have various dispositions, those whose minds are enveloped in desire, passion and cupidity, have no inclination for the disinterested worship of the Supreme Being. If they had no Sastras of rewards, they would at once throw aside all Sastras, and would follow their several inclinations, like elephants unguided by the hook. In order to restrain such persons from being led only by their inclinations, the Sastra prescribes various ceremonies, as Syenayaga for one desirous of the destruction of the enemy, Putreshti for one desiring a son, and Jyotishtoma for one desiring gratifications in heaven, &c.; but again reprobates such as are actuated by those desires, and at the same moment expresses contempt for such gratifications. Had the Sastra not repeatedly reprobated both those actuated by desire and the fruits desired by them, all those texts might be considered as deceitful. In proof of what I have advanced I cite the following text of the Upanishad, “Knowledge and rites together offer themselves to every man. The wise man considers which of these two is better and which the worse. By reflecting, he becomes convinced of the superiority of the former, despises rites, and takes refuge in knowledge. And the unlearned, for the sake of bodily gratifications, has recourse to the performance of the rites.” The Bhagavad Gita says: “The Vedas treat of rites are for the sake of those who are possessed of desire: therefore, O Arjuna! do thou abstain from desires.”

Hear also the text of the Veda reprobating the fruits of rites: “As in this world the fruits obtained from cultivation and labour perish, so in the next world fruits derived from rites are perishable.” Also the Bhagavad Gita: “Also those who observe the rites prescribed by the three Vedas, and through those ceremonies worship me and seek for heaven, having become sinless from eating the remains of offerings, ascending to heaven, and enjoying the pleasures of the gods, after the completion of their rewards, again return to earth. Therefore, the observers of rites for the sake of rewards, repeatedly, ascend to heaven, and return to the world, and cannot obtain absorption.”

Advocate. Though what you have advanced from the Veda and sacred codes against the practice of Concremation and Postcremation, is not to be set aside, yet we have had the practice prescribed by Harita and others handed down to us.

Opponent.Such an argument is highly inconsistent with justice. It is every way improper to persuade to self-destruction by citing passages of inadmissible authority. In the second place, it is evident from your own authorities, and the Sankalpa recited in conformity with them, that the widow should voluntarily quit life, ascending the flaming pile of her husband. But, on the contrary, you first bind down the widow along with the corpse of her husband, and heap over her such a quantity of wood that she cannot rise. At the time too of setting fire to the pile, you press her down with large bamboos. In what passage of Harita or the rest do you find authority for thus binding the woman according to your practice? This then is, in fact, deliberate female murder.

Advocate. Though Harita and the rest do not indeed authorize this practice of binding, &c., yet where a woman after having recited the Sankalpa not to perform Concremation, it would be sinful, and considered disgraceful by others. It is on this account that we have adopted this custom.

Opponent. Respecting the sinfulness of such an act, that is mere talk: for in the same codes it is laid down, that the performance of a penance will obliterate the sin of quitting the pile. Or in case of inability to undergo the regular penance, absolution may be obtained by bestowing the value of a cow, or three kahans of cowries. Therefore the sin is no cause of alarm. The disgrace in the opinion of others is also nothing: for good men regard not the blame or reproach of persons who can reprobate those who abstain from the sinful murder of women. And do you not consider how great is the sin to kill a woman; therein forsaking the fear of God, the fear of conscience, and the fear of the Sastras, merely from a dread of the reproach of those who delight in female murder?

Advocate. Though tying down in this manner be not authorized by the Sastras, yet we practise it as being a custom that has been observed throughout Hinustan.

Opponent. It never was the case that the practice of fastening down widows on the pile was prevalent throughout Hindustan: for it is but of late years that this mode has been followed, and that only in Bengal, which is but a small part of Hindustan. No one besides who has the fear of God and man before him, will assert that male or female murder, theft, &c., having been long practised, cease to be vices. If, according to your argument, custom ought to set aside the precepts of the Sastras, the inhabitants of the forests and mountains who have been in the habits of plunder, must be considered as guiltless of sin, and it would be improper to endeavour to restrain their habits. The Sastras, and the reasonings connected with them, enable us to discriminate right from wrong. In those Sastras such female murder is altogether forbidden. And reason also declares, that to bind down a woman for her destruction, holding out to her the inducement of heavenly rewards, is a most sinful act.

Advocate. This practice may be sinful or anything else, but we will not refrain from observing it. Should it cease, people would general apprehend that if women did not perform Concremation on the death of their husbands, they might go astray; but if they burn themselves this fear is done away. Their family and relations are freed from apprehension. And if the husband could be assured during his life that his wife would follow him on the pile, his mind would be at ease from apprehensions of her misconduct.

Opponent. What can be done, if, merely to avoid the possible danger of disgrace, you are unmercifully resolved to commit the sin of female murder. But is there not also a danger of a woman’s going astray during the life-time of her husband, particularly when he resides for a long time in a distant country? What remedy then have you got against this cause of alarm?

Advocate. There is a great difference betwixt the case of the husband’s being alive, and of his death; for while a husband is alive, whether he resides near or at a distance, a wife is under his control; she must stand in awe of him. But after his death that authority ceases, and she of course is divested of fear.

Opponent. The Sastras which command that a wife should live under the control of her husband during his life, direct that on his death she shall live under the authority of her husband’s family, or else under that of her parental relations; and the Sastras have authorized the ruler of the country to maintain the observance of this law. Therefore, the possibility of a woman’s going astray cannot be more guarded against during the husband’s life than it is after his death. For you daily see, that even while the husband is alive, he gives up his authority, and the wife separates from him. Control alone cannot restrain from evil thoughts, words, and actions; but the suggestions of wisdom and the fear of God may cause both man and woman to abstain from sin. Both the Sastras and experience show this.

Advocate. You have repeatedly asserted, that from want of feeling we promote female destruction. This is incorrect, for it is declared in our Veda and codes of law, that mercy is the root of virtue, and from our practice of hospitality, &c., our compassionate dispositions are well known.

Opponent. That in other cases you shew charitable dispositions is acknowledged. But by witnessing from your youth the voluntary burning of women amongst your elder relatives, your meighbors and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, and by observing the indifference manifested at the time when the women are writhing under the torture of the flames, habits of insensibility are produced. For the same reason, when men or women are suffering the pains of death, you feel for them no sense of compassion, like the worshippers of the female deities who, witnessing from their infancy the slaughter of kids and buffaloes, feel no compassion for them in the time of their suffering death, while the followers of Vishnu are touched with strong feelings of pity.

Advocate. What you have said I shall carefully consider.

Opponent. It is to me a source of great satisfaction, that you are now ready to take this matter into your consideration. By forsaking prejudice and reflecting on the Sastra, what is really conformable to its precepts may be perceived, and the evils and disgrace brought on this country by the crime of female murder will cease.


[1] When a widow is absent from her husband at the time of his death, she may in certain cases burn herself along with some relic representing the deceased. This practice is called Anumaran or Postcremation.

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Filed under Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Roy, Rammohun, Selections, The Early Modern Period


from Biography of the Emperor Akbar: On Jauhar and Saka


Abu’l Fazl was born in Agra, the second son to the Indian scholar and teacher Shaikh Mubarak, who educated Abu’l Fazl from an early age in the Islamic sciences, Greek philosophy, and mysticism. At age 23, Abu’l Fazl was introduced to the court of emperor Akbar by his older brother Abu’l Faizi, the future poet laureate. A liberal thinker like his father, Abu’l Fazl quickly gained favor with the emperor and supported him in extending the religious tolerance of his empire. In 1579, together with his father, Abu’l Fazl helped to compose the decree known as the “Infallibility Decree,” which endowed the emperor Akbar with religious superiority over the orthodox authority of the ulama. In 1599, Abu’l Fazl was given his first office, at Deccan, where he was recognized for his ability as a military commander. Three years later in 1602, he was assassinated under secret orders from emperor Akbar’s eldest son, the future emperor Jahangir, whose ascendancy and 1600 rebellion against his father Abu’l Fazl had opposed.

Abu’l Fazl is best known today for his Akbarnama, a three-volume history of the life and empire of its commissioner, the emperor Akbar. It was composed in Persian between 1590 and 1596 while more than 49 different artists worked on the illustrations. The first volume details the history of Akbar’s family back to Timur, and the second volume describes Akbar’s own reign as far as 1602. The third volume of the Akbarnama, the Ain-i-Akbari, or the “Institutes of Akbar,” is the most famous. As well as containing a detailed report of Akbar’s system of government and administration, the fourth book of this volume gives a more general history of India in addition to an account of Hindu philosophy, literature, religion, and custom.

In the second volume of the Akbarnama, Abu’l Fazl describes the third siege and consequent third Jauhar [Johar] at the fort of Chittor [Chaitúr] in 1567. Jauhar and Saka, often referred to together simply as Jauhar, are the names for the two parts of a mass suicide ritual carried out by the Rájpút clans in the face of immediate and inescapable military defeat. Jauhar specifically refers to the self-immolation of the women and children in anticipation of capture and abuse. Saka is the subsequent or simultaneous march of the men to certain death at the hands of their enemies. Not an immediate witness of the Jauhar, Abu’l Fazl reports that several fires became visible in Chittor less than an hour after the governor of the fort was killed. He describes the women as unwilling participants in the Jauhar, victims of the Rájpút men, who, the next day, came out of the house of Ráná, the temple of Mahádeo, and the gate of Rámpúrah in “twos and threes” to “[throw] away” their own lives.


Abu’l Fazl Ibn Mubarak, “An Account of the Siege and Reduction of Chaitur by the Emperor Akbar,” from the Akbar-namah of Shaikh Abul-Fazl, tr. Major David Price. Miscellaneous Translations from Oriental Languages, Vol. II (London: Samuel Bentley, 1834, pp. 14-15, 31-34, 38, 40).



In the meantime, entertaining a notion that the imperial army was but inadequately provided with the means of carrying on the arduous operations of a siege, the infatuated Ráná devoted his attention to strengthen the fortifications of Chaitúr, and to furnish it with stores and provisions for many years to come. And yet, to the limited scope of human vision, the ramparts of this celebrated place seemed already beyond the reach of anything like a successful attack. He lodged in it, moreover, a garrison of five thousand Rájpúts of acknowledged bravery, and already renowned for their devotion to the paths of glory. After which, having laid waste the surrounding districts in every direction, so that there was not left a blade of grass remaining, he finally withdrew himself beyond the inaccessible passes of his mountain lands.

On due consideration, Akbar was early convinced that the success of the enterprise in which he was engaged would be but little advanced by pursuing the man whose doom was already sealed, in the heart of his mountains; and it was surely by the inspiration of his superior fortune, that he now determined to devote the whole of his energies to the sole object of making himself master of this fortress of Chaitúr, universally considered as the very foundation and resting-place of the Ráná’s power and renown. On Thursday, the 19th of the latter Rabía, accordingly, he appeared in the neighbourhood of the place, and encamped.


A. H. 975. A. D. 1568, 23d February.–The circumstances of this auspicious and splendid event may be distinctly collected from the following statement. On the night previous to the day of its capture, the place was attacked at once on every side, and the rampart having been breached in several parts, all things indicated that the conquest of Chaitúr was now at hand. Near the head of the principal sap, the imperial troops pushing forward on anticipation, succeeded in effecting a considerable breach in the strongest part of the wall, where they proceeded to exhibit the noblest proofs of devoted courage. Some time after midnight, however, the besieged brought a competent force to bear upon this breach; and on the one hand, giving themselves up to the winds of destiny, proceeded on the other to load this breach with bales of cloth and cotton, and faggots smeared with oil, for the purpose of setting on fire the moment the besiegers advanced to the assault, so that it would be impossible to effect a passage through.

At a period so critical, a person came in view of the emperor, clad in that species of armour denominated Hazár míkhí, or mail of a thousand studs, and exhibiting proofs of the highest authority, stood upon the breach, where he appeared to exert himself with signal bravery and activity. The identity of this personage who thus conspicuously distinguished himself could not however be made out by any one. Immediately seizing a favourite fusil, on which he had bestowed the name of Singrám, Akbar instantly discharged it at this person, expressing at the same time to Shujáat Khán and Rájáh Bahgwántdás, that feeling on this occasion the same exhilarating sensation as he experienced when killing game, he entertained but little doubt that his shot had taken effect on the man; on which Khán Jahán, another of the chiefs in attendance, took occasion to mention, that during the night the same personage had repeatedly appeared in the breach, exerting himself with singular diligence and activity, and that if he appeared no more, it was sufficiently evident that he must have fallen.

Not an hour afterwards, Jubbár Kulí Dívánah came and reported that not a man of the enemy was to be seen at the breach, and almost at the same instant the interior of the fort appeared on fire in several places. The attendants on the emperor were indulging in a variety of conjectures as to the meaning of this conflagration, when Rájah Bahgwántdás set the matter at rest by explaining that this was the Johar fire; adding, that in Hindustán, on the occurrence of a catastrophe such as was likely to happen on this memorable night, it was the custom to prepare a pile of sandalwood and odiferous drugs, together with dry fuel and other combustibles smothered with oil, and placing those in whom they could confide in charge of their women, with instructions to set fire to the pile and consume these unoffending and hapless females to ashes, the instant it was ascertained that the conflict had terminated fatally, and that the men were slain.

In fact, on the morning which dawned in victory to the imperial arms, it was ascertained that the shot discharged by the royal Akbar had actually taken effect on the person of Jaimal Pátá, the governor of the fort, and at once decided the fate of Chaitúr and his own. The Johar conflagration was found to ascend from the mansions of Pátá of the Seisúdíah tribe, and one of the Ráná’s most confidential ministers, of the Rahtúrs, of whom a certain Sáhib was the chief, and of Aisúrdas the leader of the Cháhúns, in which there were consumed to the number altogether of three hundred helpless females.

During the remainder of the night, although the breach had been entirely abandoned by the garrison, which had fled in dismay on the death of Jaimul, and withdrawn to various recesses of the places, the imperial troops, nevertheless, cautiously abstained from attack, with that prudent forbearance always necessary to avert unseen and sudden danger. They were at the same time held in perfect readiness to enter the place at the first dawn of daylight. Accordingly, at break of day, the troops issued at once from their trenches, and rushing into the fort at all points, proceeded immediately to the work of bondage and slaughter; while the unfortunate Rájpúts, having lost all order, were put to the sword, fighting and resisting to the very last man.


The number of Rájpúts inured to war collected on this occasion for the defence of Chaitúr, is stated at nearly eight thousand; but the inhabitants, who bore a part also in the defence of the place, amounted to more than forty thousand men. When the banners of the empire were displayed upon the works, the besieged retired partly into the pagodas; and trusting to the sanctity of those places, and the protection of their idols, awaited with fortitude the moment to lay down their lives. Others obstinately awaited their fate in their own houses; while others, with sword in hand and shortened lance, bravely faced their assailants, from whom they found the death they sought. Those who had madly taken post in the temples and dwelling-houses, when they beheld the imperial troops advancing upon them, fiercely sallied out, but were destroyed before they could come within sword-length, by the fire of their adversaries.

Thus, between early dawn and the hour of noon was the period in which these unfortunates were doomed to perish – to be consumed both body and soul by the wrath of Omnipotence; the slain on this occasion being stated at nearly thirty thousand men.


On this memorable day, although there was not in the place a house or street or passage of any kind that did not exhibit heaps of slaughtered bodies, there were three points in particular at which the number of the slain was surprisingly great; one of these was the palace of the Ráná, into which the Rájpúts had thrown themselves in considerable numbers; from whence they successively sallied upon the imperialists in small parties, of two and three together, until the whole had nobly perished sword in hand. The other was the temple of Mahádeo, their principal place of worship, where another considerable body of the besieged gave themselves up to the sword. Thirdly, was the gate of Rámpúrah, where these devoted men gave their bodies to the winds in appalling numbers.

This important conquest, which may well be considered the crowning triumph of imperial fortune, had the immediate effect of dispelling those fumes of ambition and self-importance which had distempered the brains of the haughtiest powers in Hindústán, and disposed them to assume in exchange the bonds of sincere allegiance.

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from Rihla: On Sati and Religious Suicide


Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Batutah, known as Ibn Battuta or sometimes Battuta, was born to a Berber family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. He is known for the extent of his travels over 30 years, setting the record for distance journeyed by an individual until the advent of the Steam Age 450 years later. From the time he left to perform the hajj at age 21, Ibn Battuta’s travels took him through most of the Islamic world, North, West, and East Africa, and as far as South and Central Asia, including China in the east and Southern and Eastern Europe in the west.

Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco in 1354 and an oral account of his experience was collected by scholar Ibn Juzayy and adapted into a narrative entitled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, commonly known as the Rihla, meaning “journey.” The traditional rihla was centered around visits to the holy places of Arabia; only after, and due to Ibn Battuta’s travels, did “rihla” come to mean travels throughout the world.

Ibn Battuta describes in the Rihla that it was first from a passing man in Pakpattan, now in Pakistan, that he was first told of sati, the suicide of a Hindu widow on the pyre of her husband. Ibn Battuta describes noticing later processions of individual Hindu women on horseback, followed by “both Muslims and infidels” on the way to funerals. He wrote that the ritual was voluntary on the surface, but that a widow who declined would be “despised” and live on “with her own people in misery.” Ibn Battuta goes on to describe a sati ritual of three women that he himself witnessed, and relates that while the men preparing the ritual held a blanket in front of the fire so as not to frighten the approaching women, one of the women tore the blanket away and said, smiling, “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.”

In analogy to sati, Ibn Battuta adds religious suicide in the Ganges and quotes a typical man preparing to enter the water: “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” which Ibn Battuta cites as meaning God.


Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, tr. H.A.R. Gibb. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929 (1983 reprint), pp. 190-193.


The first town we reached after leaving Multan was Abuhar [Abohar], which is the first town in India proper, and thence we entered a plain extending for a day’s journey. On the borders of this plain are inaccessible mountains, inhabited by Hindu infidels; some of them are subjects under Muslim rule, and live in villages governed by a Muslim headman appointed by the governor in whose fief the village lies. Others of them are rebels and warriors, who maintain themselves in the fastnesses of the mountains and make plundering raids. On this road we fell in with a raiding party, this being the first engagement I witnessed in India. The main party had left Abuhar in the early morning, but I had stayed there with a small party of my companions until midday and when we left, numbering in all twenty-two horsemen, partly Arabs and partly Persians and Turks, we were attacked on this plain by eighty infidels on foot with two horsemen. My companions were men of courage and ability and we fought stoutly with them, killing one of the horsemen and about twelve of the footsoldiers. I was hit by an arrow and my horse by another, but God preserved me from them, for there is no force in their arrows. One of our party had his horse wounded, but we gave him in exchange the horse we had captured from the infidel, and killed the wounded horse, which was eaten by the Turks of our party. We carried the heads of the slain to the castle of Abu Bak’har, which we reached about midnight, and suspended them from the wall.

Two days later we reached Ajudahan [Pakpattan], a small town belonging to the pious Shaykh Farid ad-Din. As I returned to the camp after visiting this personage, I saw the people hurrying out, and some of our party along with them. I asked them what was happening and they told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him. After the burning my companions came back and told me that she had embraced the dead man until she herself was burned with him. Later on I used often to see a Hindu woman, richly dressed, riding on horseback, followed by both Muslims and infidels and preceded by drums and trumpets; she was accompanied by Brahmans, who are the chiefs of the Hindus. In the sultan’s dominions they ask his permission to burn her, which he accords them. The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquires a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself. Once in the town of Amjari [Amjhera, near Dhar] I saw three women whose husbands had been killed in battle and who had agreed to burn themselves. Each one had a horse brought to her and mounted it, richly dressed and perfumed. In her right hand she held a coconut, with which she played, and in her left a mirror, in which she looked at her face. They were surrounded by Brahmans and their own relatives, and were preceded by drums, trumpets and bugles. Every one of the infidels said to them “Take greetings from me to my father, or brother or mother, or friend” and they would say “Yes” and smile at them. I rode out with my companions to see the way in which the burning was carried out. After three miles we came to a dark place with much water and shady trees, amongst which there were four pavilions, each containing a stone idol. Between the pavilions there was a basin of water over which a dense shade was cast by trees so thickly set that the sun could not penetrate them. The place looked like a spot in hell—God preserve us from it! On reaching these pavilions they descended to the pool, plunged into it and divested themselves of their clothes and ornaments, which they distributed as alms. Each one was then given an unsewn garment of coarse cotton and tied part of it round her waist and part over her head and shoulders. The fires had been lit near this basin in a low lying spot, and oil of sesame poured over them, so that the flames were increased. There were about fifteen men there with faggots of thin wood and about ten others with heavy pieces of wood, and the drummers and trumpeters were standing by waiting for the woman’s coming. The fire was screened off by a blanket held by some men, so that she should not be frightened by the sight of it. I saw one of them, on coming to the blanket, pull it violently out of the men’s hands, saying to them with a smile “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.” Thereupon she joined her hands above her head in salutation to the fire and cast herself into it. At the same moment the drums, trumpets and bugles were sounded, the men threw their firewood on her and the others put the heavy wood on top of her to prevent her moving, cries were raised and there was a loud clamour. When I saw this I had all but fallen off my horse, if my companions had not quickly brought water to me and laved my face, after which I withdrew.

The Indians have a similar practice of drowning themselves and many of them do so in the river Ganges, the river to which they go on pilgrimage, and into which the ashes of those who are burned are cast. They say that it is a river of Paradise. When one of them comes to drown himself he says to those present with him, “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” Kusay being the name of God in their language. He then drowns himself and when he is dead they take him out and burn him and cast his ashes into this river.

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(c. 595-c. 655)

from Harsha-Carita, The Death of the    Great King: On Sati
from Kadambari


Bana, also known as Banabhatta, a Sanskrit author and poet, was born in the latter part of the 6th century in Brahmanadhivasa, or Pritikuta, northern India, into a Brahmin family. Bana’s mother died when he was a child, and his father died when Bana was 14; afterward, he led a nomadic life for many years. He maintained his ancestral fortune, but traveled because of an innate curiosity and desire to explore; according to his own account, he became a figure of derision among his people because of his unorthodox wanderings. When he returned to his native Pritikuta, he was summoned by the emperor Harsha to appear at the royal court. “Emperor Harsha’s ears have been poisoned against you by some wicked people,” warned a message conveyed to him on his return. In spite of his fears about the hostile reception that might be awaiting him, Bana found favor with the emperor and was asked to write a history of Harsha’s life—which, according to his own account, he began the next morning.

The resulting work, the Harsha-Carita (Deeds of Harsha), written in the lofty kavya style of Sanskrit, chronicles the history of this emperor, the famous Harshavardhana (c. 590–647). Harsha gained territory in a brilliant career of conquest and eventually ruled the whole of northern India; his reign lasted from about 606 to 647. Harsha was the last Hindu emperor of northern India; a Chinese Buddhist traveler, Hiuen Tsang, who resided at Harsha’s court from about 630 to 644, says that toward the end of his career, Harsha became a devout Buddhist and held a great assembly every five years in which he emptied his treasury to give all away in charity. Bana’s commissioned portrayal of Harsha is best described as a historical romance, in which he takes his own sovereign as his hero and weaves the story out of the events of Harsha’s reign. Bana’s other works include lyric poetry, prose, drama, romances, and a poetic novel that is the history of his own family, the unfinished Kadambari, later completed by his son. The second selection here is from this latter work. Bana’s works earned him a reputation as one of the most talented Sanskrit poets in Indian history.

The selection from the Harsha-Carita is a complex portrayal of the Hindu practice of sati (literally, “virtuous woman”), or anumarana (from the Sanskrit verb anu-mri, “to follow in death”). In sati, or widow-burning, a wife who has just been widowed immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre as he is being cremated. The custom of concremation had been described in northern India before the Gupta Empire; it may have developed from funeral practices involving the voluntary deaths of retainers and others loyal to the deceased, or evolved from Vedic and sutra-period expectations that the widow lead an ascetic life and marry her dead husband’s younger brother or other kinsman. Sati developed particularly in the higher castes in northern India from the 5th through the 10th centuries, and became the subject of considerable controversy in the 19th century in Bengal [q.v., under Rammohun Roy and under Hindu Widow]. Although often infrequent and, it is claimed, for the most part (though not always) voluntary, sati was practiced throughout India until it was banned by the Bengal Presidency in 1828 and the ban upheld by the British Privy Council in 1832.

By the time of Bana, in the 7th century A.D., sati had come to be regarded as an act of the greatest spiritual merit: The woman who died on her husband’s funeral pyre was known as a sati, a “virtuous woman,” a term also applied to the act itself. In Bana’s account in the Harsha-Carita, a queen explains to her son why she is resolved to follow the custom of sati—atypically, even though her husband, the emperor, is not yet dead, and even though her son begs her not to kill herself. It also describes the suicides of other queens and the emperor’s retainers, once he has died. The passage is important for the insight it gives into Hinduism’s conceptualization of sati and related practices, and the sense in which these practices, though socially expected, were also understood as both voluntary and caused by overwhelming grief. Bana himself, however, was perhaps the first opponent of the practice of sati and an extremely strong one. The second very brief selection, from his novel Kadambari, gives his reasons for his opposition. He denounces the practice as “stumbling through stupidity.”

The Harsa-Carita of Bana, ch. V, trs. E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas [1897], Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1961, pp. 151-155.  Quotations in introductory passage, p. xi, xlviii. Available online from the Project South Asia; Bana, Kadambari, ed. Kashinath Pandurang Parab, Nirnaysagar Press, 1890, purva-bhag, pp. 339.


Thus:–first the earth, heaving in all her circle of great hills, moved as though she would go with her lord. Next the oceans, as though remembering Dhanvantari, rolled with waves noisily plashing upon each other. High in the heavenly spaces, apprehensive of the king’s removal, appeared comets like braided locks with awful curls of far-extended flame. Beneath a sky thus lowering with comets the world seemed grey, as with the smoke of a Long Life sacrifice commenced by the sky regents. In the sun’s circle, now shorn of its radiance and lurid as a bowl of heated iron, some power, studious of the king’s life, had presented a human offering in the guise of a horrid headless trunk.  The lord of white effulgence, gleaming ‘mid the round rim of his flaming

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(c. 595-c. 655)

from Harsha-Carita, The Death of the    Great King: On Sati
from Kadambari

Filed under Asia, Bana, Hinduism, Middle Ages, Selections

(3rd century)

from The Way to Eternal Brahman


The Bhagavad-Gita, perhaps the best-loved of the Hindu religious texts, was probably composed in the 3rd century A.D. and later inserted into the great work of the Hindu epic period, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata, a poem of some 100,000 verses composed between about 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., is an account of the origins, conduct, and consequences of a great war—said to have taken place in 900 B.C.—between two royal families, the Pandavas (the five sons of Pandu, of whom the third son Arjuna is the central figure) and the Kauravas (their cousins, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra). Within this long epic, the portion known as the Bhagavad-Gita, or Song of God, opens just before the battle begins, as Arjuna, repulsed by the thought of the carnage the war would involve, decides to lay down his arms. Krishna, his friend and confidant, the god Vishnu in human form, who is serving as his charioteer, is disappointed, and thus begins a debate between the two over whether Arjuna should fight.

The Bhagavad-Gita stands as one of the most prominent and authoritative works in Hindu religious literature, and together with the Upanishads [q.v.] and the Brahma-Sutra is regarded as part of the basic trio of essential texts. Despite its primary significance in Indian thought, however, the Gita, like the entire Mahabharata, is not classified as shruti, or divine truth revealed by deity, but is instead considered to be smriti, or inspired teachings that explain or clarify divine truth. Regardless of its classification, the epic has profoundly influenced Hindu political, intellectual, and philosophical life throughout the centuries since its composition.

The majority of the Bhagavad-Gita consists of the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna occurring just before the great battle on the plain of Kurukshetra. In the Gita dialogue, Shri Krishna (“Shri” refers to his venerated status) embodies Brahman, or the ultimate reality, and at times, he speaks as God. In the selection presented here, Arjuna inquires about the nature of Brahman, and asks how it is revealed at death to a mortal who unites in consciousness with God. Krishna describes a technique to be used by a yogi at death that allows the person to unite with Brahman and thus to escape the cycle of death and rebirth to which all living things are otherwise subject. This escape, referred to as “the path of no return,” is called Deva Yana in the Upanishads, “the path of the bright ones,” as distinct from Pitri Yana, “the path of the fathers,” which does lead to rebirth. (It should be noted that the “realm of Brahma,” which is also subject to death and rebirth, is not the same as Brahman (the universal, changeless reality), but instead refers to the highest of the worlds of Hindu mythology, in which “Brahma” designates one of the Hindu trinity, with Vishnu and Shiva.) According to yoga technique referred to in this passage, the yogi must employ a special method of leaving his body at death: first, the vital force is drawn up the sushumna, the central spinal passage, and gathered in the brain “between the eyebrows”; the yogi then leaves his body through an aperture in the center of the brain called the sahasrara. The technique Krishna describes thus portrays the yogi as taking a voluntary, deliberate, and partly causal role in his own death.


The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, VIII: “The Way To Eternal Brahman,” trs. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, New York: New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1954, pp. 74–78. Also used for quotations in bibliographic note.



ARJUNA: Tell me, Krishna, what Brahman is. What is the Atman, and what is the creative energy of Brahman? Explain the nature of this relative world, and of the individual man.

Who is God who presides over action in this body, and how does He dwell here? How are you revealed at the hour of death to those whose consciousness is united with you? 

SRI KRISHNA: Brahman is that which is immutable, and independent of any cause but Itself. When we consider Brahman as lodged within the individual being, we call Him the Atman. The creative energy of Brahman is that which causes all existences to come into being.

The nature of the relative world is mutability. The nature of the individual man is his consciousness of ego. I alone am God who presides over action, here in this body.

At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in me. Then he will be united with me. Be certain of that. Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving the body, will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on, during this life.

Therefore you must remember me at all times, and do your duty. If your mind and heart are set upon me constantly, you will come to me. Never doubt this.

Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, who is the light-giver, the highest of the high.

He is all-knowing God, lord of the emperors,
Ageless, subtler far than mind’s inmost subtlety,
Universal sustainer,
Shining sunlike, self luminous.
What fashion His form has, who shall conceive of it?
He dwells beyond delusion, the dark of Maya.
On Him let man meditate
Always, for then at the last hour
Of going hence from his body he will be strong
In the strength of this yoga, faithfully followed:
The mind is firm, and the heart
So full, it hardly holds its love.
Thus he will take his leave: and now, with the life-force
Indrawn utterly, held fast between the eyebrows,
He goes forth to find his Lord,
That light-giver, who is greatest.

Now I will tell you briefly about the nature of Him who is called the deathless by those seers who truly understand the Vedas. Devotees enter into Him when the bonds of their desire are broken. To reach this goal, they practice control of the passions.

When a man leaves his body and departs, he must close all the doors of the senses. Let him hold the mind firmly within the shrine of the heart, and fix the life-force between the eyebrows. Then let him take refuge in steady concentration, uttering the sacred syllable OM and meditating upon me. Such a man reaches the highest goal. When a yogi has meditated upon me unceasingly for many years, with an undistracted mind, I am easy of access to him, because he is always absorbed in me.

Great souls who find me have found the highest perfection. They are no longer reborn into this condition of transience and pain.

All the worlds, and even the heavenly realm of Brahma, are subject to the laws of rebirth. But for the man who comes to me, there is no returning.

There is day, also, and night in the universe:
The wise know this, declaring the day of Brahma
A thousand ages in span
And the night a thousand ages.

Day dawns, and all those lives that lay hidden asleep
Come forth and show themselves, mortally manifest:
Night falls, and all are dissolved
Into the sleeping germ of life.

Thus they are seen, O Prince, and appear unceasingly,
Dissolving with the dark, and with day returning
Back to the new birth, new death:
All helpless. They do what they must.

But behind the manifest and the unmanifest, there is another Existence, which is eternal and changeless. This is not dissolved in the general cosmic dissolution. It has been called the unmanifest, the imperishable. To reach it is said to be the greatest of all achievements. It is my highest state of being. Those who reach It are not reborn. That highest state of being can only be achieved through devotion to Him in whom all creatures exist, and by whom this universe is pervaded.

I show you two paths.
Let a yogi choose either
When he leaves this body:
The Path that leads back to birth,
The path of no return.
There is the path of light,
Of fire and day,
The path of the moon’s bright fortnight
And the six months’ journey
Of the sun to the north:
The knower of Brahman
Who takes this path
Goes to Brahman:

He does not return.
There is the path of night and smoke,
The path of the moon’s dark fortnight
And the six months’ journey
Of the sun to the south:
The yogi who takes this path
Will reach the lunar light:
This path leads back
To human birth, at last.

These two paths, the bright and the dark, may be said to have existed in this world of change from a time without any beginning. By the one, a man goes to the place of no return. By the other, he comes back to human birth. No yogi who knows these two paths is ever misled. Therefore, Arjuna, you must be steadfast in yoga, always.

The scriptures declare that merit can be acquired by studying the Vedas, performing ritualistic sacrifices, practicing austerities and giving alms. But the yogi who has understood this teaching of mine will gain more than any who do these things. He will reach that universal source, which is the uttermost abode of God.

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(c. 600 B.C.—c. 200 A.D.)

Gautama Sutra
Apastamba Sutra
Vasishtha Sutra
Laws of Manu
Vishnu Smriti


The shastras in Sanskrit Hindu literature are the textbooks of religious and legal duty. Shastra literally means “rule, command, code of laws, science,” and these works focus on many different subjects, including the three principal goals for human beings: dharma (law), artha (wealth, profit, business, or property), and kama (passion, desire, pleasure). The Dharmashastra concerns dharma, a concept that incorporates the nature of the world, eternal or cosmic law, and social law, applied to rituals and life-cycle rites, procedures for resolving disputes, and penalties for violations of these rules; the Arthashastra concerns economic affairs; and the Kamashastra concerns love generally and pleasure in particular. (The best known of its component works in the Western world is the Kama sutra, though contrary to popular belief, it is not a “sex book”). These texts are composed of books from individual schools of Vedic and Sanskrit commentary, each school often contributing a sutra named for the school. The Dharmashastra includes the following dharmasutras: Gautama, Baudhayana, Apastamba, Vasishtha, Vishnu, and Vikhanas, as well as the metrical Laws of Manu.

The shastras, including the Dharmashastra, are classified as smriti, a word indicating “what is remembered,” as distinct from the Vedas and the Upanishads [q.v.], which are shruti, “what is heard.” The Vedas and the Upanishads are considered to be divinely perceived—that is, the early seers were held to have perceived eternal truths—and the Dharmashastra, as well as other smriti texts, are the thoughts and explanations of Hindu scholars in response to the shruti books. Chronologically, the sutras of the Dharmahshastra follow sometime after the Vedic period, but these works have been notoriously difficult to date. Most scholars agree, however, that the first three sutras from which selections are included in this volume, Gautama, Apastamba, and Vasishtha, fall sometime between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century B.C., while the Laws of Manu probably date from between about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. From the time of their composition, the works of the Dharmashastra have played a significant role in influencing Hindu culture and law. In fact, the shastras were still being cited in cases of legal contracts as late as the mid-19th century in some regions of India.

The Gautama Dharmasutra, the oldest of the texts of the Dharmashastra, probably composed sometime between 600 and 400 B.C., concerns the sources of dharma, standards for both students and the uninitiated, the four stages of life, dietary rules, penance, rules concerning impurity, and many other regulations and rituals for Hindu life. The section presented here concerns impurity and holds that after the burial of a suicide victim who voluntarily sought death, purity (rather than impurity) follows for their relatives.

The Dharmasutra of Apastamba was most likely composed sometime between 450 and 350 B.C. It is an extensive work with many aphoristic verses and meticulously detailed rituals for daily life. Some of the prominent subject matter includes rules about marriage and married life, forbidden foods and dietary regulations, ritual purity, property laws, rebirth, and various penances. This sutra details various methods of self-destruction that will exculpate violators of certain Hindu laws—fornication with the wife of a religious teacher, drinking alcohol, theft, or murder of a high-caste man—and relieve them of their impurity. It also includes contrary rules, including a prohibition of self-killing.

The Vasishtha Dharmasutra was probably written sometime between 300 and 100 B.C. This sutra is known for its sections on adoption, but it also concerns justice, legal testimony, inheritance, interest rates, and other matters of social law. Several issues surrounding suicide are raised in the text, including penances for those who contemplate suicide or fail in an attempt at self-killing; these are unpermitted suicides. As in the Apastamba sutra, which it echoes, suicide can also be an act of expiation for unlawful behavior, restoring one to purity after death.

The Laws of Manu are perhaps the most famous part of the Dharmashastra, composed in the later part of the Epic Period and often given separate recognition because of their unique metrical style. The Laws of Manu articulate extensive regulations for many aspects of Hindu life, including rules governing religious offerings, purifications, rites, and many other religious and social practices. This code, like Hindu thought generally, distinguishes between unpermitted and permitted suicides. In Book V, suicides are grouped with heretics, those who fail to perform the appropriate religious rites, and those of mixed caste: libations may not be offered to them. In Book VI, the code compares the person who is alive to a servant awaiting payment from his master (an analogy also employed by Plato [q.v.], though yielding a differing conclusion), explaining that one should neither “desire to die“ nor “desire to live.” In many of their other passages, however, the Laws of Manu emphasize the value of leaving the body and becoming free of its pains and torment, as well as achieving full liberation from worldliness and desire. Books VI and XI address the means by which the Brahmana or renouncer should separate himself from his body. Based on the teaching of the four stages of life, developed in the text in detail, the Laws of Manu hold that, after one has become old and passed through the three previous stages of life—celibate religious discipleship, married householder status, and, after one’s grandchildren are born, retirement to the forest—one should simply walk in a northeasterly direction—in this version, without food or water—until one dies. It is in this stage that one becomes a sanyasin, achieving the highest level of spirituality. This journey that ends in death is often called “the Great Departure.”


Gautama Dharmasastra Ch. XIV, 9-12; Apastamba Dharmasastra I.9.25, 1-7, 11-12; I.10.28.15-17, tr. Georg Bühler. The Sacred Laws of the Aryas as Taught in the Schools of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasishtha, and Baudhayana. Part I: Apastamba and Gautama. From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 2., Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1897, p. 250; pp. 82-83. Vasishtha Dharmasastra, ch. XX, 13-14, 41-42; ch. XXIII, 14-19. tr. Georg Bühler. The Sacred Laws of the Aryas as Taught in the Schools of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasishtha, and Baudhayana, Part II: Vasishtha and Baudhayana. From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 14. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1882, pp. 104, 108, 119. The Laws of Manu, V (89), VI (29-32, 45, 76-79), XI (91-92), tr. Georg Bühler, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1967 (reprint of the 1886 edition). From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 25. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1886, pp. 184, 203-204, 207, 212, 449. Online at Gautama and ApastambaVasishthaLaws of Manu.





(The relatives) of those who are slain for the sake of cows and Brâhmanas (become pure) immediately after the burial . . .
And (those of men destroyed) by the anger of the king . . .
(Further, those of men killed) in battle . . .
Likewise (those) of men who voluntarily (die) by starving themselves to death, by weapons, fire, poison, or water, by hanging themselves, or by jumping (from a precipice).


APASTAMBA SUTRA I.9.25, I.10.28.17

He who has had connection with a Guru’s wife shall cut off his organ together with the testicles, take them into his joined hands and walk towards the south without stopping, until he falls down dead.

Or he may die embracing a heated metal image of a woman.

A drinker of spirituous liquor shall drink exceedingly hot liquor so that he dies.

A thief shall go to the king with flying hair, carrying a club on his shoulder, and tell him his deed. He (the king) shall give him a blow with that (club). If the thief dies, his sin is expiated.

If he is forgiven (by the king), the guilt falls upon him who forgives him,

Or he may throw himself into the fire, or perform repeatedly severe austerities,

Or he may kill himself by diminishing daily his portion of food…

(A man of any caste) excepting the first, who has slain a man of the first caste, shall go on a battle-field and place himself (between the two hostile armies). There they shall kill him (and thereby he becomes pure).

Or such a sinner may tear from his body and make the priest offer as a burnt-offering his hair, skin, flesh, and the rest, and then throw himself into the fire. . . .

. . . But the violator of a Guru’s bed shall enter a hollow iron image and, having caused a fire to be lit on both sides, he shall burn himself.

According to Hârita, this (last-mentioned penance must) not (be performed).

For he who takes his own or another’s life becomes an Abhisasta [outcaste].



He who violates a Guru’s bed shall cut off his organ, together with the testicles, take them into his joined hands and walk towards the south wherever he meets with an obstacle (to further progress), there he shall stand until he dies:

Or, having shaved all his hair and smeared his body with clarified butter, he shall embrace the heated (iron) image (of a woman). It is declared in the Veda that he is purified after death. . . .

If a man has stolen gold belonging to a Brâhmana, he shall run, with flying hair, to the king, (exclaiming) ‘Ho, I am a thief; sir, punish me!’ The king shall give him a weapon made of Udumbara wood; with that he shall kill himself. It is declared in the Veda that he becomes pure after death.

Or (such a thief) may shave off all his hair, anoint his body with clarified butter, and cause himself to be burnt from the feet upwards, in a fire of dry cowdung. It is declared in the Veda that he becomes pure after death. . . .

For him who committing suicide becomes An Abhisasta, his blood-relations (sapinda) shall not perform the funeral rites.

He is called a suicide who destroys himself by means of wood, water, clods of earth, stones, weapons, poison, or a rope.

Now they quote also (the following verse): ‘The twice-born man who out of affection performs the last rites for a suicide, shall perform a Kândrâyana penance together with a Taptakrikkhra.’

We shall describe the Kândrâyana below.

A fast of three days (must be performed) for resolving to die by one’s own hand.

‘He who attempts suicide, but remains alive, shall perform a Krikkhra penance during twelve days. (Afterwards) he shall fast for three (days and) nights, being dressed constantly in a garment smeared (with clarified butter), and suppressing his breath, he shall thrice recite the Aghamarshana.’



Libations of water shall not be offered to those who (neglect the prescribed rites and may be said to) have been born in vain, to those born in consequence of an illegal mixture of the castes, to those who are ascetics (of heretical sects), and to those who have committed suicide . . .

These and other observances must a Brahmana who dwells in the forest diligently practise, and in order to attain complete (union with) the (supreme) Soul, (he must study) the various sacred texts contained in the Upanishads,

(As well as those rites and texts) which have been practised and studied by the sages (Rishis), and by Brahmana householders, in order to increase their knowledge (of Brahman), and their austerity, and in order to sanctify their bodies;

Or let him walk, fully determined and going straight on, in a north-easterly direction, subsisting on water and air, until his body sinks to rest.

A Brahmana, having got rid of his body by one of those modes practised by the great sages, is exalted in the world of Brahman, free from sorrow and fear. . . .

Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for (his appointed) time, as a servant (waits) for the payment of his wages. . . .

Let him quit this dwelling, composed of the five elements, where the bones are the beams, which is held together by tendons (instead of cords), where the flesh and the blood are the mortar, which is thatched with the skin, which is foul-smelling, filled with urine and ordure, infested by old age and sorrow, the seat of disease, harassed by pain, gloomy with passion, and perishable.

He who leaves this body, (be it by necessity) as a tree (that is torn from) the river-bank, or (freely) like a bird (that) quits a tree, is freed from the misery (of this world, dreadful like) a shark.

Making over (the merit of his own) good actions to his friends and (the guilt of) his evil deeds to his enemies, he attains the eternal Brahman by the practice of meditation.



Now the duties of a woman (are as follows)…After the death of her husband, to preserve her chastity, or to ascend the pile after him.

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(c. 1500-c. 500 B.C.)

Chandogya Upanishad
Isha Upanishad
Brahma Purana
Padma Purana
Skanda Purana
Jabala Upanishad


The Vedic period in Indian thought, which saw the emergence of the Sanskrit hymns known as the Vedas, began around 1200 B.C. during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age in the region of northern India ranging from the upper Indus valley to the lower Ganges and from the Himalayan foothills to the Vindhya Mountains. Vedic thought continued through a middle phase involving the composition of the interpretive Brahmanas and Upanishads, the latter largely philosophical dialogues, followed by the later Puranas, which began to be composed about 350 A.D. and continued to about 1500 A.D..

The four Vedas—the Rigveda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda—consist of some 1,028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit, composed over several centuries by poets in various priestly groups. They are metrical hymns dedicated to specific deities for recitation or chanting in connection with religious sacrifice, and are considered shruti (“what is heard”), that is, directly  revealed, as distinct from texts that are smriti (“what is remembered”), that is, of human origin. The oldest of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas were originally passed down orally with exquisite precision, and continued to be transmitted orally long after Vedic culture employed writing for other purposes.

Attached to specific Vedas are additional expository and interpretive texts, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Brahmanas are largely prose works, intended to interpret and explore the meaning of the Vedas.

The Upanishads focus on ritualistic worship and on knowledge of Brahman. There are more than 200 Upanishads, comprising ten principal works: the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. Because the Upanishads arose during a period of social, economic, and religious change, as Patrick Olivelle observes, they also display the emergence of central religious concepts in both Hinduism and in the new religious movements of the time, Buddhism and Jainism: such concepts as the doctrine of rebirth, the law of karma that regulates rebirth, techniques of liberation from rebirth, the disciplines of yoga, ascetic self-denial and mortification, and the renunciation of sex, wealth, and family life. It is the Upanishads, viewed by many scholars as the pinnacle of early and classical Hindu literature, that continue to play a role of particularly great influence in Hinduism; they have been of central importance in Indian religion, philosophy, and culture for almost three millennia. Heterodox traditions later developing from these roots include the Jain and Buddhist traditions.

The Rigveda, probably complete by about 900 B.C., provides what some scholars regard as the earliest mention of sati, the practice of self-immolation by a wife on her husband’s funeral pyre. The passage seems to describe a ritual practice in which the new widow lies on the pyre beside her husband’s corpse, but then, apparently, retires before the pyre is set alight. It is not known whether this is the vestige of an older custom involving actual live cremation of the widow, or a gesture symbolizing the end of a marriage. Nor is it known whether it was originally restricted to nobility or the higher castes, a privilege for the wives of nobles and kings. In this text, sati is clearly viewed as a privilege of the virtuous wife. In a much later period of Hindu thought, the Brahma Purana speaks of sati, but casts it as an obligation or duty.

The Chandogya Upanishad is one of the earliest of the Upanishads in date of composition; it is pre-Buddhist, and probably dates from the 7th or 6th century B.C. In the passages presented here it expresses what appears to be dedication to living a “full length of life,” as does the Isha Upanishad: “One may desire to live a hundred years.”

The Isha Upanishad (also called the Ishavasya Upanishad or the Samhita Upanishad) is normally placed first in collections of the Upanishads, though it is not the oldest; it probably dates from the last few centuries B.C.. It is one of the shortest of all the Upanishads. The poem also focuses on those who “kill the self,” explicit in the third stanza. This phrase has many possible interpretations—variously supported by different scholars—ranging from extreme self-abnegation, to destruction of the bodily self, to destruction of the spiritual self by material concerns. The Isha Upanishad also contains highly negative judgments of suicide in the conventional sense: those who commit suicide are condemned to an extremely harsh afterlife. In seeming contrast, according to S. Radhakrishnan, the Jabala Upanishad seems to justify suicide, in certain conditions.

Throughout the Sanskrit literature the term aatma hatya, or “killing (or murder) of the soul,” is used for suicide; it remains the term for suicide in modern Hindi. There is an ongoing debate as to whether in the ancient texts aatma hatya refers to literal, physical, or spiritual suicide, as in certain yogic practices that are held to separate the soul from the body—especially stopping the action of thinking. On the other hand, the Sanskrit literature also includes references to circumstances under which it is not sinful for a Hindu to commit suicide in the physical sense. Some texts in the Sanskrit literature also distinguish between akaal mrityu, “untimely death,” an inauspicious death also including accidents and murder, as well as suicide, and kaal mrityu, “timely death,” a good death. Suicide is not automatically “untimely,” as death in specific circumstances—e.g., in the city of Varanasi (Skanda Purana) or drowning in the Ganges (Padma Purana). Expiational suicide is also the only way to atone for the murder of a Brahmin or other serious sins. In general, observes Karin Andriolo, suicide is accepted as renunciation, when approaching enlightenment; you do not lay hands on yourself but rather let nature take its course with you: you go into the water and drown, or fall from a cliff, or walk into the mountains and freeze. This distinction remains active in Hindu thought today.

See also Rammohun Roy’s [q.v.] “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive” for an extensive debate concerning the significance of early Hindu scriptural texts.


Rigveda X.18.7, ed. Kane, pp. 199-200; Brahma Purana 80.75; Chandogya Upanishad and Jabala Upanishad 5, in S. Radhakrishnan, ed. and tr., The Principal Upanisads. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 510-511. Isa Upanishad, in Upanishads, tr. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996.   Quotation in introduction from Patrick Olivelle, tr., Upanishads. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, see esp. introduction. Material in introduction also from Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative HistoryNew York: Penguin, 2009, F. Max Müeller, ed., The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 1. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1879; Karin R. Andriolo, “Solemn departures and blundering escapes: traditional attitudes toward suicide in India,” International Journal of Indian Studies 3, 1 (1993):1-68, and personal communications from Karin Andriolo and Christine Everaert.


RIGVEDA X.18.7-8

Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned. Rise up, woman, into the world of the living. Come here; you are lying beside a man whose life’s breath has gone. You were the wife of this man who took your hand and desired to have you.



Fourteenth Khanda

The individual soul identical with the infinite Brahma

  1. Verily, this whole world is Brahma. Tranquil, let one worship It as that from which he came forth, as that into which he will be dissolved, as that in which he breathes. Now, verily, a person consists of purpose (kratu-maya). According to the purpose which a person has in this world, thus does he become on departing hence. So let him form for himself a purpose.
  2. He who consists of mind, whose body is life (prana), whose form is light, whose conception is truth, whose soul (atman) is space, containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the concerned
  3. this Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet; this Soul of mine within the heart is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds.
  4. Containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the concernedthis is the Soul of mine within the heart, this is Brahma. Into him I shall enter on departing hence. If one would believe this, he would have no more doubt.Thus used Sandilya to sayyea, Sandilya!


Sixteenth Khanda

A person’s entire life symbolically a Soma-sacrifice

  1. Verily, a person is a sacrifice. His [first] twenty-four years are the morning Soma-libation, for the Gayatri meter has twenty-four syllables and the morning Soma-libation is offered with Gayatri hymn. The Vasus are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths (prana) are the Vasus, for they cause everything here to continue (vas).
  2. If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Vasus, let this morning libation of mine continue over to the mid-day libation. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Vasus.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
  3. Now the [next] forty-four years are the mid-day libation, for the Trishtubh meter has forty-four syllables and the mid-day libation is offered with a Trishtubh hymn. The Rudras are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths are the Rudras, for [on departing] they cause everything here to lament (rud).
  4. If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Rudras, let this mid-day libation of mine continue over to the third libation. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Rudras.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
  5. Now, the [next] forty-eight years are the third libation, for the Jagati meter has forty-eight syllables and the third libation is offered with a Jagati hymn. The Adityas are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths are the Adityas, for [on departing] they take everything to themselves (adadate).
  6. If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Adityas, let this third libation of mine continue to a full length of life. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Adityas.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
  7. Verily, it was this that Mahidasa Aitareya knew when he used to say: ‘Here, why do you afflict me with this sicknessme, who am not going to die with it?’ He lived a hundred and sixteen years. He lives to a hundred and sixteen years who knows this.



Recognition of the unity underlying the diversity of the world

  1. By the Lord (isa) enveloped must this all be
    Whatever moving thing there is in the moving world.
    With this renounced, though mayest enjoy.
    Covet not the wealth of anyone at all.

Non-attachment of deeds on the person of a renouncer

  1. Even while doing deeds here,
    One may desire to live a hundred years.
    Thus on theenot other than this is it
    The deed (karman) adheres not on the man.

The forbidding future for slayers of the Self

  1. Devilish (asurya) are those worlds called,
    With blind darkness (tamas) covered o’er!
    Unto them, on deceasing, go
    Whatever folk are slayers of the Self. . .

A dying person’s prayer

  1. With a golden vessel
    The Real’s face is covered o’er.
    That do though, O Pushan, uncover
    For one whose law is the Real to see.
  2. O Nourisher (pusan), the sole Seer (ekarsi), O Controller (yama), O Sun (surya), offspring
    of Prajapati, spread forth they rays! Gather thy brilliance (tejas)! What is they fairest form–
    that of thee I see. He who is yonder, yonder Person (purusa)I myself am he!
  3. [My] breath (vayu) to the immortal wind (anila)!
    This body then ends in ashes! Om!O Purpose (kratu), remember! The deed (krta) remember!
    O Purpose, remember! The deed remember!



The Atri enquired of Yajnavalkya. On being asked how one who does not wear the sacred thread can be (treated as) a Brahmana, Yajnavalkya answered, this alone is the sacred thread of him that purifies himself by the offering and sipping water. This is the procedure for becoming a recluse. (For one who is weary of the world but not yet fit to become a recluse the following are prescribed), he may choose a hero’s death (by following the path of the warrior in the battlefield), he may fast unto death, throw himself into water or enter fire (burn himself to death) or perform the last journey (walk unto death). Then the wandering ascetic who (puts on) orange robes, who is shaven, who has non-possession, purity, non-enmity, lives on alms, obtains the state of Brahman. If he is diseased he can renounce by mind and speech. This is not to be done by one who is healthy. Such a renouncer becomes the knower of Brahman, so said the venerable Yajnavalkya.


It is the highest duty of the woman to immolate herself after her husband.



A man who, knowingly or unknowingly, willfully or unintentionally dies in the Ganges, secures on death heaven and moksha [release from the cycle of rebirth].



He who dies in Kashi [Varanasi] does not incur the sin of suicide but secures his desired objects.


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