Suttee (Sansc. sati, virtuous, i.e. wife), the name given in Hindustan to a woman who voluntarily sacrifices herself by burning upon the funeral pyre of her husband, and also to the rite itself. The practice has not been confined to India, where it has had effect for many centuries, but has existed in other countries. Diodorus Siculus gives an instance, which occurred in the army of Eumenes more than 300 years B.C. The period of its origin in India is unknown, though it is certainly of great antiquity. Although the practice is not enjoined by their sacred books, yet it is based by the orthodox Hindus on the injunction of their Shastras, and there can be no doubt that various passages in their Puranas and codes of law countenance the belief which they entertain of its merit and efficiency. Thus the Brahma Purdna savs, "No other way is known for a virtuous woman after the death of her husband; the separate cremation of her husband would be lost (to all religious intents). 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 pronounced no suicide by the recited text of the Rig-Veda. The code of Vyasa says, "Learn the power of that widow who, learning that her husband has deceased and been burned in another region, speedily casts herself into the fire." And the code of Angiras, "That woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the same burning pile with him is exalted to heaven, as equal in virtue to Arundhati (the wife of Vasishtha). She follows her husband to heaven, and will dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs on a human body, viz. thirty-five millions. As long as a woman (in her successive migrations) shall decline burning herself, like a faithful wife, on the same fire with her deceased lord, so long shall she not be exempted from springing again to life in the body of some female animal. When their lords have departed at the fated time of attaining heaven, no other way but entering the same fire is known for women whose virtuous conduct and whose thoughts have been devoted to their husbands, and who fear the dangers of separation." The mode of performing suttee varies in some unimportant respects, but its principal features are the same. An oblong space, seven feet by six feet, is enclosed by bamboo stakes about eight feet long, driven into the earth, within which a pile is built of straw, boughs, and logs of wood. After certain prayers and ablutions have been gone through with, the body of the deceased husband is brought from the house and placed upon the pile; sometimes in a little arbor of wreathed bamboos, hung with flowers within and without. Then the wife appears, and is unveiled by the Brahmins, herself removing the ornaments from her person, distributing them among her friends, by whom they are highly prized. She reserves only one jewel, the tali, or amulet, placed round her neck by her deceased husband on the nuptial day. Led by the principal Brahmin, she walks three times around the pile, and then ascends to the side of her husband. Embracing the body she lies or sits beside it, whereupon the nearest relative applies the torch. The shrieks of the dying woman, if she utters any, are drowned by the shouts of the spectators and the noise of drums.
Efforts to suppress this rite were made as early as the 16th century by the Mohammedan emperor Akbar, but without much effect. The practice continued to such an extent that between 1815 and 1826 there were 7154 cases reported in Bengal alone. In 1829 lord Bentinck, governor-general, enacted a law declaring all aid assistance, or participation in any act of suttee to be murder, and punishable as such. In 1847, during lord Hardinge's administration, the prohibitory edict was extended to the native states in subsidiary alliance with the government of India, and the practice may be considered to be practically extinct.
An attempt, of late years, has been made by rajah Radhankant Deb to show that in a text belonging to a particular school of the Black Yajur-Veda there is really a passage which would justify the practice of suttee; but the text cited by him is of doubtful canonicity; and, moreover, there is a text in the Rig-Veda which, if properly read, directs the widow, after attending to her husband's funeral ceremonies, to return home and attend to her domestic duties. See Wilson. On the: Supposed Vadik Authority for the Burning of Hindu Widows (Lond. 1862), vol. 2.