Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Agnisnan (fire-bath) a Rajputs Feudal Fashion (from 7th to 13th C.A.D.) by Gian Chand Chauhan

The widow who was burnt on the funeral pyre of her dead husband is depicted in Indian Brahmanical traditions and in popular English accounts. Sometime, it was used as an adjective or a noun and means ‘that which is’ which exists, or that which is ‘free’, more specific meanings can be derived such as ‘good’, ‘faithful’, ‘virtuous’ honest, or ideal wife who was linked with her husband in a relationship of unshakeable devotion and subordination. The depictions of this are found in Brahmanical mythology. The term Sati was not always used for widow burning on the funeral pyre of her husband as the episodes of ‘Sati Parvati’, ‘Sati Sita Mata and ‘Sati Savatri’ etc. In early Indian mythology the notion was portrayed in complete accordance with the ideal of Sati, but not a widow.
         India. Very clean distinctions was made between the widow burning herself-along with her husband body, which was called Sahagamana or Sahamarna and the widow burning herself after her husband had been cremated, for which the terms anugamana or anumanrana were used, but in all probability widow had to burn herself on the pyre-term as the custom of Agnisnan (fire-bath). From the Indian perspective, the trial by fire was nothing but an “act of truth”. The woman proved her virtues (sat) by showing no physical pain at the time of the ordeal.2 According  to popular belief, the Sat (virtues) protects the Sati like an urgent coating or armour. Death on the pyre was compared to be such a woman “has taken a fire bath”. It was also said that flames refreshed the Sati like sandal wood paste, a morning bath or still water of a lotus ponds.

We observed different  connotations and usages for the act self-burning or burning on the pyre in literacy traditions of early
          The feudal fashion of Agnisnan (fire-bath) of Rajputs widows was widely prevailed among the Rajputs of Rajputana, the prevalence of this feudal fashion among the warlike people is not difficult to understand. The fighting races were very jealous and suspicious of their wives, they married the women of subjugated enemies and turned them into wives, could not completely shed the feeling of suspicion and disdain for them. The matrix seem to be considerably responsible for shaping the traditional attitudes toward women. It was natural for the victories kings/chiefs to be suspicious of their wives who were subjugated and forcibly married them. Thus, the low assessment of women be embedded in the very roots of the traditional Rajputs thoughts and social structure. Therefore, the social position of widow shows a perceptible deadline with the passage of time where the fidelity and loyalty of widow was doubted.
          According to the popular belief in feudal societies that “it was pious duty of the relatives of the dead man to provide all the things that he usually needed when alive. Especially when an important personage like a king, a nobleman or a warrior died, it was felt that his usual paraphernalia should be ‘sent’ with him”.3 Such a belief might have given rise to the custom of widow burning on the funeral pyre. The popular belief in the hereafter indicates very clearly that it became the basis for the burning of widow on the funeral pyre of her husband in Rajputana, although our religious literacy traditions have very definite notion of the hereafter but the fashion of taking Agnisnan has never been a part of religion, and, infact, they opposed it my strongly. Our religious tradition did not recommend and prescribed this feudal fashion of ‘fire-bath’.
          However, everyone had the right to be accompanied by others. But this possibility seldom materialized. This limitation helps prevent the self-destruction of society and at the some time  ensures that the custom retained it egalitarian nature.4 Only certain categories of people like Rajputs followed the fashion of fire-bath-and pained death, where social inequality become the second necessary precondition of this feudal fashion of agnisnan. Another circumstances behind the burning of widow on her husband funeral pyre might be the intention of relatives to get rid of her, to appropriate her wealth and save the cost of her upkeep. The certain condition, especially developed structures of inequality where women were compared with dog, Sudras and the blackbird, because they are untruth.5 Thus, it seems that the social status of woman was reduced to the level of an animal in feudal society of Rajputana. Among Rajputs Satis were idealized as Devi (deity) placed on a high pedestal, and worshiped, but worshiping is one question and giving freedom to widow is quite another. For example we do worship cow, but we do not leave it free.
          The widow who willingly burnt (or took fire bath) on the funeral pyre of her husband, might be victim of various compulsions. Often what was in store for her was a life of poverty and misery, devoid of all social contact, and or being regarded as a lesser being6 (bracked with Sudras and animals). Her decision to burn on the pyre was taken immediately after the death of her husband – taken therefore in a state of shock and in a fit of deep depression. Generally her relatives and priests would direct her to do it. She was grown up in a society in which socialization was based on the subordination of women to men. Could one speak of free choice in a feudal society or a strong patriarchal society like Rajput? Thus the widow in Rajput feudal society was the victim of social and economic constraints and she was the victim of perpetual structural violence.
          The Vedic literary traditions do not recommend agnisnan or fire-bath (so called sati) as an act to be practiced, although we find a reference to this custom in Vedic traditions.7  But these traditions do not  subscribe the custom of widow burning the appears the feudal fashion as early as 400  B.C., but did not get religious  sanction till medieval times. Even Kautilya does not mention this custom in Arthasastra, Manu, compares this for custom to as suicide and condemns the act as a form of suicide which would consign the perpetrators soul to hell.8 The Mahabharta and Ramayana refer  the custom of widow-burning. But it is quite clear that it is due to the anachronism of its compilers. The Mahabharta itself made it clear that all the widows of the fallen heroes remained behind and offered them funeral oblations.9 In the original portion of the Ramayana10 there is no case of Sati. In the Uttarakanda, we find Vedavatis mother becoming a Sati, but this story is more legendary than historical, and seems to be a later addition. Despite growing support to widow burning there was a strong tradition of opposition to this feudal fashion. Banabhatta in his work Kadambari,11 condemned the fashion of fire-bath as inhuman and called it a foolish mistake of stupendous magnitude, committed under the reckless impulse of despair and infatuation. However, the textual references to this custom of widow burning have been quoted and misquoted time and again with regards to the custom of Sati. Now historians and sociologists begun to took more broadly at the socio-cultural environment that created it. The early Indian textual origin of this, fashion of fire-bath on her husband funeral pyre is confused and difficult to pinpoint exactly, so the social and cultural forces that lead to the adoption of the custom are obscure and a matter mainly of confecture.12 Most of the information that we have on social customs in early India has been glared from  secular and religious traditions are far from providing us with any unproblematic explanations of the root cause of the this feudal fashion of widow burning.
          The approach in traditional historiography of Sati is textual and it almost ignored epigraphical traditions. The scholars who wrote about widow burning are confined to the texual traditions in order to cleanse it of its andocentric biases. Since, this brief  paper is mainly based on epigraphic traditions. The main argument is that the women presented in literary traditions mostly emerge from an andocentric perspective and therefore, are rarely real women. In contrast, those figuring in epigraphic traditions are real women in flesh and blood.”13 The women in epigraphic traditions are closer to historical reality than the idealized women of literary traditions.
          Memorial stones were erected for the widows, although among Hindu memorial monuments were rarely erected to the dead, this was conspicuous. The memorial stones displayed special visual elements. The most common was the raised right arms with a Lemon held in the hand; the bangles, symbolizing the married women, were shown on the arms. Some times the stone show the figure of a woman, often accompanied by that of a man, but such portrayals are occasionally accompanied by inscriptions.14
          The  earliest historical reference to widow burning or taking fire bath on the funeral pyre of her husband was referred by Diodorus in his account. Many scholars referred this custom of widow burning in their respective writing very briefly. The wife of Hindu general Keteus, who died in 316 B.C., while fighting against Antigonons. Diodorus siculus said:” she was set upon the pyre by her own brother and was regarded with wonder by the crowd that had run together to the spectacle, and heroically ended her life, the whole force with their arms thrice marching round the pyre before it was kindled.15 The Greek historians made it clear that the custom was confined to the Kathians of Punjab.16
          The  earliest epigraphic evidence of widow burning is recorded in Earn Stone Pillar Inscription of Bhanagupta 510 A.D., in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh. “The wife of general Goparaja, one of the army commanders of Bhanagupta died at this place in battle while fighting for his country against Huna, his wife immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
          “Hither came Bhanu Gupta, the bravest man on earth,
a great king, a hero bold as Arjana;
and hither  Goporaja followed him, as a friend follows a friend. And he fought a great and famous battle,
and passed to heaven, a God among chieftains.
His wife, loyal and loving, beloved and fair,
followed close behind him into the flames”.17

          The custom of widow-burning (agnisnan) was found in another inscription of Madhya Pradesh which does not have a date, but can be ascribed to the a second century A.D.18 D.D. Kosami is of the view that “the widow of a warrior among the Madra and Bahlika clans would even immolate herself with her husband’s corpse, and this horrifying custom was well known in feudal time”19
          A large number of Sati memorials stones found all over Rajputana, but they have not been studied systematically as yet. Therefore, it is very difficult to any thing in precision regarding the frequency and the regional variation of the custom of Agnisnan or finebath. Many of the memorial Sati stones merely speak of the death of an individual. But, in some cases an individual  wife or wives burnt themselves on husband funeral pyre as is recorded in Chhoti Khata Sati Memorial Inscriptions of A.D. 686 A.D. 688 A.D., 692 A.D. and 770 A.D,20 where the custom of fire-burning of four widows of four persons are commemorated separately. Similar, memorial stones are found at Osian Jodhpur 838 A.D., contained the figure of a standing male. This figure is relieved within a niche at the top of the pillar and bears close resemblance  to an image found in religious edifices. The top contains a carving of an amalaka and a kumbhi. The inscription engraved on the lower portion of the ventricle slabs or square pillars of the memorial.21 Another, Sati memorial (devlis) are found in the desert area of western Rajasthan where the wives of the warrior, who burnt-themselves, are carved near their husband figure.22
          The Balaknath Temple Parmar Memorial Inscription of 1013 A.D., records the fire-bath taken by Meehimadevi wife of Dhedhok Rajput Chief.23 An inscription of 1023 A.D. refers the burning of Rani Sampika on the funeral pyre of her husband,24 similar act of widow burning is referred in an inscription of 1027 A.D.25 A Sati memorial inscription tells us about the widow burning in 1134 A.D.,26 and the similar act of widow burning in Jodhpur region in the year 1143 A.D. is recorded.27 The pillar inscription of 1126, refers the act of agnisnan (fire-bath)28 of three Rajput womens such as Salekhadevi Chauhan, Sawaladevi Solikanee and Saijandevi wives Rathor king Salakharao. This show that among the ruling families of Rajputana the custom or feudal fashion of agnisnan or fire-bath on the pyre of the dead husband was firmly established by the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D., became a historical fact by that time. The average Rajputs widow welcomed the opportunity to take agnisnan. A Sati memorial inscription of 1160 A.D.,29 reveals us the act of fire-bath or fire-burning by the two widows of Guhila Chief on his funeral pyre. Similarly, the lohari inscription of 1179 A.D.,30 refers the act of (agnisnan) fire-bath by nine widows of Jalsala on his pyre. An identical act of widow burning of Ajaypala three wives, Somaladevi, Osthalada and Sridevi, at Bassi, in 1132 is recorded.31 A records from Jaismlair depicts the Sangli widow of Chauhan Chief Kusara burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband in the year 1174 A.D.32 It seems that Rajputana was the strong hold of widow burning. Most of the act of widow burning can be recorded in early medieval Rajasthan among the ruling class of that region. Since, most of the Rajput clans trace their ancestry to the noble and the high military officers of the various invaders who came into Rajputana and founded kingdom or fiefs in early medieval times.
          The Goth-Manglod Inscription of 1175 A.D.,33 refers the act of fire-bath of Tribhuvan devi on the pyre of her busband, in similar feudal fashion three widows of Guhila Rana Thaihanpal burnt themselves on the pyre of their husband in 1180 A.D.34 Another memorial inscription of 1187 A.D.,35 from Jodhpur refers the act of a Sati in similar feudal fashion. Another inscription of 1188 A.D.,36 reveals us that Mata Goheilnee Veesaldevi too followed the fashion of agnisnan on the pyre of her Chauhan husband. Usatra memorial inscription 1192 A.D.,37 from Jodhpur region, refers the death of Guhilota Rama Motishwera and his queen widow Rajee burnt herself on his pyre, the similar act of fire-bath is referred in inscription of 1191 A.D.38 Thus the study of Rajputs memorial inscriptions show us that the this feudal fashion of widow burning among the Rajputs was widespread and glaring. Since, Rajputs were considered aggressive community expected more fidelity and loyalty from their women servants and other.
          The Sati memorial Inscription 1192 A.D.,39 records the fire-bath of Sonaldevi on the pyre of her husband Nalha. Kainasarya Sati memorial pillor inscription 1243,40 refers the fire-bath taken by Rani Neeladevi on the funeral pyre of her husband. Another inscription of 1273 A.D.,41 records the death of Rathor Rao Sighajee and his wife Rani Parvati followed him to next world by burning herself on the funeral pyre of  Sighajee.
          Thus, it is very clear from the study of Rajput memorial inscriptions that, the military virtues of fearlessness and valour came to be highly valued in feudal Rajputs society; in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                addition,42 so called honour had always been an overriding notion in feudal society. In feudal society a glorious death was to be welcomed for Rajputs in battle field, and for women, in a fiery end through the feudal fashion of fire-bath (agnisnan) If death rather than defeat and dishonour, was the motto for the Rajputs, death rather than disgrace and dishonour through ravishment, was its equivalent for the women.
          In Rajputana, court bards prepared the psychological ground for widow burning or fire-bath by providing the suitable ideological rationale making this feudal fashion of fire-bath a strong feudal model for women chastity, fidelity and loyalty connecting it with pativratadharma This feudal custom of widow-burning into a heroic sacrifice and effectively linked it to the honour and prestige of a woman’s natal and conjugal clans. But it is very clear that this feudal fashion of widow-burning was not the monopoly of Rajputs only, it was prevalent among others. They also adopted and copied the feudal fashion culture and various practices of Rajputs. The feudal fashion of widow burning or agnisnan, or fire-bath was peculiar to early Rajputs society. It seem that they were burnt on the funeral pyre of their husband either  under social pressure or because of their entrenched belief in the eternal and exclusive loyalty and fidelity to their husband. It shows that the feudal fashion of fire-bath was common in the feudal phase in Rajaputana and got social legitimatization. Since, the early medieval period of Rajputs was marked by constant military activity, because of the physical dominance of men became all powerful.
          Women are indispensable for the continuation of society; they have the unique power of giving birth. But this realization received less and less emphasis among the early medieval Rajputs society, so much so that women, widows in particular, ultimately came to be treated as a liability rather than a precious asset. The importance of women in this regards was thus obviously, and perhaps intentionally underrated and subjugated to the level of non-being.
1.      Jong Fisch, Immolating Women A Global History of Widow Burning from Ancient to the Present. (Tr.) from the German by Rekha Kamath Rajan, Delhi, 2005, p. 214 (hereafter Jorg Fisch) Ramayana of Valmiki, (ed) by U.P. Shah, Oriental Institute, Baroda, 1962- 104.26. 6.103.17-20, 6.104.24.
2.      C.W. Thomas, Ashes of Immortality Widow-Burning in India, (tr.) by Jeffrey Mehlman and Daniel Gordon Write, Delhi, 2000, p.43. E.W. Burtingame, “The Act of Truth: A Hindu Spell and its Employment as a Psychic Motif in Hindu Fiction”, Journal of royal Asiatic Society, England, 1917, pp. 429-67.
3.      A.S. Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, Delhi, rep. 1983. pp. 116-17.
4.      Jorg Fisch, op. cit., pp. 10-11.
5.      G.D. Upadhaya, Satpatha Brahmana, Delhi, 1967-69, XIV. 1.1.31.
6.      Jorg Fisch, op. cit., p.16.

7.      H.H. Wilson (tr.) The Rgvedic Samhita, Delhi, 1977; X, 18,7.
Atharuveda, (tr.) Devi Chand, Delhi, 1982, XVIII, 3, 13. 2.1.3.
8.      Jawala Prasad, Manusmrati, Bombay 1963, V. 157, 160-162, Yajnanalkya Smriti, (ed.) Naragana Sastri, Varanasi, 1930,  1.75.
9.      Mahabharta, (tr.) D. Satwalekor Pardi, Gorkhpur, 1971-74, IV, 23,4.  Adiparva XVII, 7.1 8-24.
10.    Ramayana, 17,14.
11.    Nir (ed) Kadambri, Bombay, 1910, Purvardha, p. 308. Andrea Major, (ed) SATI A Historical Anthology, Delhi, 2007 p. xxi.
12.    Andrea major, op.cit., p. XXII.
13.    K.K. Shah, The Problem of Identity: Women in Early Indian Inscriptions, Delhi, 2001, p. VII.
14.    S. Settar, Inviting death Indian Attitude towards the ritual death, Leiden, 1989, pp. 148-59, Jong Fisch, op. cit., p. 227.
15.    Sakuntala Narasimhan, Sati A Study of widow Burning in India, Delhi, 1998, p. 138, Andrea Major, op. cit., p. XIX, Jong Fish, op. cit., p. 224.
16.    Sakuntala Rao, “Sutteein Annals of the Bhardarkar Oriental research Institute, Bombay, p. 222. A.S. Altekar, the position of women, op. cit., p. 123, R.S. Sharma, Perspective in Social and Economic History of Early India, Delhi, 2005, rep. p. 95.
17.    B.C. Chhabra G.S. Gai (eds) Corpus Inscriptionun Indicarum, Vol. III, Delhi, 1981 No. 43, pp. 352-53. J.F. Fleet, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Leiden,  Vol. III, 1988, p. 93, A.L. Basham, Wonder that was India, Delhi, Rep. 1994, p. 189. Jong Fisch, op. cit., p. 226. Sakuntala Narasimhan, Sati, op. Cit., p. 164.
18.    Archaeological Survey of India, Vol. VII, 1978, pp. 136-37. D.C. Sircar, Sati, A Mythological Story, Calcutta, 1916, pp. 210-15.
19.    D.D. Kasambi, the Culture and Civilization of Ancient Indian Historical Outline, Bombay, 1970, p.     Shankuntala Narasimhan, Sati, op.cit., p. 167.
20.    Govind Srimali, Rajsthan Kai Abhilekhs, Jodhpur, 2000, p. 78. S. Settar and G.D. Sontheimer, (eds) Memorial Stones, Delhi, 1982, p. 142.
21.    R.C. Agrawala in S.Settar and G.D. Sontheimer (eds) Memorial Stones, “Govardhana Pilliars from Rajsthan an Iconographic Study”, p. 151. Govind Srimali,  op. cit., pp. 14-15.
22.    Goetz, H., “Rajput Reliefs”. Oriental Art X(3) London, 1964, pp. 167-168. D. Sharma, Early Chauhan Dynasties, Delhi, 1959, pp. 257-58. R.S. Sharma, Perspectives in Social and Economic, op.cit., p. 96.
23.    Govind Srimali, op. cit., p. 59.
24.    Ibid., p.61.
25.    Ibid.
26.    Govind Srimali, op. cit., p. 100. Anita Sudan, A Study of Chauhan Inscriptions of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1989, pp. 195-96.
27.    Govind Srimali, op.cit., p. 107.
28.    Ibid, pp. 132-33. Sakuntala Rao, Loc. Cit., p. 333.
29.    Govind Srimali, op.cit., p. 134.
30.    B.D. Chattopadhyaya in S. Setters G.D. Sonthcimer (eds) Memorial Stone, op.cit., p. 142.
31.    Epigraphica Indica, Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi, 1965, 1981, XXXVII, pp. 163-64.
32.    Govind Srimali op. cit., p. 167.
33.    Ibid., p.171.
34.    Ibid., p. 183. R.S. Sharma, Perspectives of Social, op.cit., p.99.
35.    Govind Srimali, op.cit., p. 195.
36.    Ibid.
37.    Ibid., p. 199.
38.    Ibid.
39.    Ibid., p. 200.
40.    Ibid, p. 216, EI, XII, No. 12 p. 58.
41.    Govind Srimali, op. cit., p. 235.
42.    Romila, Thapar, In History in Symposium on Sati, Seminar, Vol. 342, Feb. 1988, Andrea Major, (ed), Sati op. cit., p. XXVI-XXVII.

1 comment:

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