Literacy among Indian women was low during the 19th century, and so primary sources written by Indian women are rare for this period. One notable exception is Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), an influential Indian woman social reformer from Maharashtra in western India. Her unorthodox brahman father educated her so that she earned the title of pandita, because her knowledge of Hindu religious texts in Sanskrit was deemed equal to that of male pandits or scholars. Widowed at the age of 24 shortly after her one daughter was born, Ramabai traveled to England in 1883 to seek medical education. During her stay there, she converted to Christianity and decided that her life's mission was to educate and train Hindu child widows to be autonomous women. In February 1886, she sailed for the United States initially to attend the graduation of her cousin, Anandbai Joshi, from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Ramabai wrote The High Caste Hindu Woman in 1886-87 to raise funds in the United States to pay for her expenses there and to build an endowment for her future work in India. In this excerpt from the chapter in her book on widows, Ramabai argued that claiming legitimacy for the self-immolation of Hindu widows resulted from an erroneous interpretation of one word in the Vedas.

Source: Ramabai, Pandita. The High-Caste Hindu Woman. 1887. Reprint, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1901.


It is very difficult to ascertain the motives of those who invented the terrible custom of the so-called Suttee, which was regarded as a sublimely meritorious act. As Mann the greatest authority next to the Vedas did not sanction this sacrifice, the priests saw the necessity of producing some text which would overcome the natural fears of the widow as well as silence the critic who should refuse to allow such a horrid rite without strong authority. So the priests said there was a text in the Rig-veda which according to their own rendering reads thus:
“Om! let these women, not to he widowed, good wives, adorned with collyrium, holding clarified butter, consign themselves to the fire! Immortal, not childless, not husbandless, well adorned with gems, let them pass into the fire whose original element is water.”

Here was an authority greater than that of Mann or of any other law giver, which could not be disobeyed. The priests and their allies, pictured heaven in the most beautiful colors and described various enjoyments so vividly that the poor widow became madly impatient to get to the blessed place in company with her departed husband. Not only was the woman assured of her getting into heaven by this sublime act, but also that by this great sacrifice she would secure salvation to herself and husband, and to their families to the seventh generation. Be they ever so sinful, they would surely attain the highest bliss in heaven, and prosperity on earth. Who would not sacrifice herself if she were sure of such a result to herself and her loved ones? Besides this, she was conscious of the miseries and degradation to which she would be subjected now that she had survived her husband. The momentary agony of suffocation in the flames was nothing compared to her lot as a widow. She gladly consented and voluntarily offered herself to please the gods and men.

. . .

The act was supposed to be altogether a voluntary one, and no doubt it was so in many cases. Some died for the love stronger than death which they cherished for their husbands. Some died not because they had been happy in this world, but because they believed with all the heart that they should be made happy hereafter. Some to obtain great renown, for tombstones and monuments were erected to those who thus died, and afterwards the names were inscribed on the long list of family gods; others again, to escape the thousand temptations, and sins and miseries which they knew would fall to their lot as widows. Those who from pure ambition or from momentary impulse, declared their intentions thus to die, very often shrank from the fearful altar; no sooner did they feel the heat of the flames than they tried to leap down and escape the terrible fate; but it was too late. They had taken the solemn oath which must never he broken, priests and other men were at hand to force them to re-mount the pyre.

. . .

That the text quoted from the Veda was mis-translated, and a part of it forged, could have been easily shown had all Brahmans known the meaning of the Veda. The Vedic language is the oldest form of Sanskrit, and greatly differs from the later form. Many know the Vedas by heart and repeat them without a mistake, but few indeed, are those that know the meaning of the texts they repeat.