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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