(downloaded June 2004)

Ram Mohun Roy

Abstract of the Arguments Regarding the Burning of Widows, Considered as a Religious Rite (1830)


        Several Essays, Tracts, and Letters, written in defense of or against the practice of burning Hindu widows alive have for some years past attracted the attention of the public. The arguments therein adduced by the parties being necessarily scattered, a complete view of the question cannot be easily attained by such readers as are precluded by their immediate avocations from bestowing much labour in acquiring information on the subject. Although the practice itself has now happily ceased to exist under the Government of Bengal, nevertheless it seems still desirable that the substance of those publications should be condensed in a concise but comprehensive manner, so that enquires may with little difficulty, be able to form a just conclusion, as to the true light in which this practice is viewed in the religion of Hindus. I have, therefore, made an attempt to accomplish this object, hoping that the plan pursued may be found to answer this end.

        The first point to be ascertained is, whether or not the practice of burning widows alive on the pile and with the corpse of their husbands, is imperatively enjoyed by the Hindu religion? To this question even the staunch advocates for Concremation must reluctantly give a negative reply, and unavoidably concede the practice to the position of widows. This admission on their part is owing to two principal considerations, which it is now too late for them to feign to overlook. First because Manu in plain terms enjoins a widow to "continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing austere 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." (ch. v., v. 158.) So Yajnavalkya inculcates the same doctrine: "A widow shall live under care of her father, mother, son, brother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, or uncle; since, on the contrary, she shall be liable to reproach." (Vide Mitakshara, ch. i.) Secondly, because an attempt on the part of the advocates for Concremation to hold out the act as an incumbent duty on widows, would necessarily bring a stigma upon the character of the living widows, who have preferred a virtuous life to Concremation, as charging them with a violation of the duty said to be indispensible. These advocates, therefore, feel deterred from giving undue praise to a few widows, choosing death on the pile, to the disgrace of a vast majority of that class preferring a virtuous life. And in consideration of these obvious circumstances, the celebrated Smartta Raghunandana, the latest commentator on Hindu Law in Bengal, found himself compelled to expound the following passage of Angira, "there is no other course for a widow besides Concremation," as "conveying exaggerated praise of the adoption of that course."

        The second point is, that in case the alternative be admitted, that a widow may either live a virtuous life, or burn herself on the pile of her husband, it should next be determined whether both practices are esteemed equally meritorious, or one be declared preferable to the other. To satisfy ourselves on this question, we should first refer to the Vedas, whose authority is considered paramount, and we find in them a passage most pointed and decisive against Concremation, declaring that "From a desire, during life, of future fruition, life ought not to be destroyed." (Vide Mitakshara, ch. i.) While the advocates of Concremation quote a passage from the Vedas, of a very abstruse nature, in support of their position, which is as follows: "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, themselves sinless, and jewels amongst women." This passage (if genuine) does not, in the first place, enjoin widows to offer themselves as sacrifices; secondly, no allusion whatever is made in it to voluntary death by a widow with the corpse of her husband. Thirdly, the phrase "these women" in the passage, literally implies women then present; fourthly, some commentators consider the passage as conveying an allegorical allusion to the constellations of the moon's path, which are invariably spoken of in Sanskrit in the feminine gender: --butter implying the milky path, collyrium meaning unoccupied space between one star and another, husbands signifying the more splendid of the heavenly bodies, and entering the fire, of, properly speaking, ascending it, indicating the rise of the constellations through the south-east horizon, considered as the abode of fire. Whatever may be the real purport of this passage, no one ever ventured to give it an interpretation as commanding widows to burn themselves on the pile and with the corpse of their husbands.

        We next direct attention to the Smriti as next in authority to the Vedas. Manu, whose authority supersedes that of other lawgivers, enjoins widows to live a virtuous life, as already quoted. Yainavalkya and some others have adopted the same mode of exhortation, On the other hand, Angira recommends the practice of Concremation, saying, "That a woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven as equal to Arundhati." So Vyasa says, "A pigeon devoted to her husband, after his death, entered the flames, and, ascending to heaven, she there found her husband." "She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of glory for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions." Vishnu, the saint, lays down this rule, " After the death of her husband, a wife should live as an ascetic or ascend his pile." Harita and others have followed Angira in recommending Concremation.

        The above quoted passages, from Angira and others, recommend Concremation on the part of widows, as means to obtain future carnal fruition; and, accordingly, previous to their ascent on the pile, all widows invariably and solemnly declare future fruition as their object in Concremation. But the Bhagavadgita, whose authority is considered the most sacred by Hindus of all persuasions, repeatedly condemns rites performed for fruition. I here quote a few passages of that book. "All those ignorant persons who attach themselves to the words of the Sastras that convey promises of fruition, consider those extravagant and alluring passages as leading to real happiness, and say, 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." "Observers of rites, after the completion of their rewards, return to earth. Therefore, they, for the sake of rewards, repeatedly ascend to heaven and return to the world, and cannot obtain eternal bliss."

        Manu repeats the same. "Whatever act is performed for the sake of gratification in this world or the next, is called Pravartak, as leading to the temporary enjoyment of the mansions of gods; and those which are performed according to the knowledge respecting God are called Nivartak, as means to procure release from the five elements of this body; that is, they obtain eternal bliss."

        The author of the Mitakshara, a work which is consider6d as a standard of Hindu Law throughout Hindustan, referring on the one hand to the authority of Manu, Yajnavalkya, the Bhagavadgita, and similar sacred writings, and to the passages of Angira, Harita and Vyasa on the other hand, and after having weighed both sides of the question, declares that "The widow who is not desirous of eternal beatitude, but who wishes only for a perishable and small degree of future fruition, is authorized to accompany her husband." So that the Smartta Raghuandana, the modern expounder of Law in Bengal, classes Concremation among the rites holding out promises of fruition; and this author thus inculcates: "Learned men should not endeavour to persuade the ignorant to perform rites holding out promises of fruition." Hence, Concremation, in their opinion, is the least virtuous act that a widow can perform.

        The third and the last point to be ascertained is whether or not the mode of Concremation prescribed by Harita and others was ever duly observed. The passages recommending Concremation, as quoted by these expounders of law, require that a widow, revolving to die after the demise of her husband should voluntarily ascend and enter the flames to destroy her existence; allowing her, at the same time, an opportunity of retracting her resolution, should her courage fail from the alarming sight or effect of the flames, and of returning to her relatives, performing penance for abandoning the sacrifice, or bestowing the value of a cow on a Brahman. Hence, as voluntarily ascending upon and entering into the flames are described as indispensably necessary for a widow in the performance of this rite, the violation of one of these provisions renders the act mere suicide, and implicates, in the guilt of female murder, those that assist in its perpetration, even according to the above quoted authorities, which are themselves of an inferior order. But no one will venture to assert, that the provisions, prescribed in the passages adduced, have ever been observed; that is, no widow ever voluntarily ascended on and entered into the flames in the fulfilment of this rite. The advocates for Concremation have been consequently driven to the necessity of taking refuge in usage, as justifying both suicide and female murder, the most heinous of crimes.

        We should not omit the present opportunity, of offering up thank to Heaven, whose protecting arm has rescued our weaker sex from cruel murder, under the cloak of religion, and our character, as a people, from the contempt and pity with which it has been regarded, on account of this custom, by civilized nations on the surface of the globe.

From: The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy.  Edited by Jogendra Chunder Ghose. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1982, II: 367-372.