What’s the deal with suttee? For years I’ve been hearing that in India, widows are routinely thrown on funeral pyres alive. Is this just propaganda? And if not, is it just unpopular widows that it happens to? Since most men die before women, do all children burn their mom alive as a matter of course? Hindus seem so peaceful! –Mugg Mellish, via the Internet

They do, eh? Then you haven’t been reading the newspapers. Suttee, properly known as sati, was officially banned by the British in 1829 but has never been completely stamped out. About 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947, mostly in the northwest state of Rajasthan, home of the traditional Rajput warrior caste. One instance in 1987 became a cause celebre, with some Indian women, believe it or not, demanding the right to immolate themselves. Gives new meaning to that old Hindu chant I’m a Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love.

No one knows how suttee started, or for that matter where or when. It’s not unique to India–widow suicide is known to have occurred among the Egyptians, Chinese, Vikings, and others. Some say its origin on the subcontinent dates back 5,500 years, while others believe it arrived much later, around 1 AD. I’ve heard Indians deny there’s anything specifically Hindu about it, in that it doesn’t figure in Hinduism’s core texts. Today it’s most closely associated with remote villages dominated by the Rajputs.

Suttee is different from “bride burning,” in which a newly married Indian woman is burned to death by her in-laws for failing to meet demands for a larger dowry, the traditional gift given to the couple by the bride’s parents. Thousands of such murders have been reported. In contrast, suttee is a voluntary act, theoretically at least, meant to atone for the couple’s sins and ensure their reunion in the afterlife. But horrified Indian feminists say that in practice the suttee victim often had little choice. Sometimes family members, including other women, browbeat her into it; sometimes she was bound or hopped up on drugs. Much of the time even that wasn’t enough. It’s said music was played at high volume during suttee so no one could hear the widow’s screams.

Many explanations for suttee have been offered, the most obvious being that it’s simply a male-centered culture’s way of eliminating unwanted women. Traditionally Indian widows can’t remarry and many spend the balance of their lives penniless. Others say it’s a peculiar excess of the Rajputs. In times gone by the warlike Rajputs lost a lot of men in combat, leaving a lot of widows without support. But whereas their Muslim foes dealt with the problem through polygamy, the Rajputs were said to be strictly monogamous. If you can’t marry off your surplus women, this line of thinking goes, the obvious alternative is to set them afire. Another take on it is that the women killed themselves rather than submit to their Muslim conquerors.

The best-known case of suttee in modern times involved the 1987 suicide (or murder) of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar. Educated, middle-class, devoutly religious, Kanwar had been married for just eight months when her husband died, apparently from a burst appendix. The following day, neighbors told Western reporters, she put on jewels and her wedding sari, climbed her husband’s funeral pyre, cradled his head on her lap, then commanded that the fire be lit. By the time the cops arrived she and her husband had been reduced to ashes. About three dozen bystanders were arrested and charged in the death, but no eyewitnesses would testify, and after a nine-year legal battle the accused were exonerated. Much of the world was outraged, but some traditionalists venerate Roop as, literally, a deity–the model Hindu woman.

Were the law against suttee repealed, more women would probably join their husbands on the pyre. In 1997 the police were all that prevented another Indian woman from incinerating herself. To hear some Hindu fundamentalists talk, the prohibition against suttee violates a basic civil right.

Sure, East is East and West is West and all that. (In fairness, it should be said that many Indians were appalled by the whole affair.) The odd commonality–and let’s set aside questions of right or wrong here–is that when a woman in either hemisphere exercises her right to choose, somebody (or something) winds up dead.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illusatrtion/Slug Signorino.