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 , 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.
from HARSHA-CARITA, THE DEATH OF THE GREAT KING: ON SATI
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