Unintended consequences: suttee

Most actions have unintended consequences, and sometimes they can be catastrophic. Ask Theresa May: she called an election to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations ( or so she said) and destroyed her credibility. I’ve long favoured all scientific research being open access (free to read and to reuse), but unintended consequences have been predatory journals (scams) and hybrid journals ( journals making money than ever by continuing with subscriptions but also charging some authors to pay for open access). But both of these examples are trivial compared with what an Indian anthropologist told me about an unintended consequence of the British trying to strengthen the position of women in India.

Before the British arrived India was, he explained, a feudal society that did not use money. The Brahmins, the leaders, grabbed as much land and as many women and cows as they could. A Brahmin might have 100 to 150 wives (something that causes wonder to those of us who have to concentrate to keep one wife happy). When he died his oldest son would take over, and life would continue as before. Suttee, where the wife committed suicide at her husband’s death classically by leaping onto the pyre at his funeral, was, he said, more myth than reality.


The BritSutteeish stepped into this precapitalist society, and thinking it unjust that wives should have no right to their husband’s property gave them such legal rights. But how could you divide land into 100 or 150 parts? You’d destroy the wealth. (I remember a farmer in Britain explaining to me that farmers couldn’t get divorced because it would destroy the sustainability of a farm–and that was with one wife.) Those who depended on the land, not least the son who expected to inherit, thought this intolerable, and so they simply murdered the wives–and called it suttee.

The British seemed to have the best of intentions towards the women but actually precipitated their murder.

4 thoughts on “Unintended consequences: suttee

  1. Hi Richard. I don’t think rich Brahmin men who owned 100-150 wives spent a moment thinking about “keeping them happy”. Do you? Really?


  2. Dear Dr Smith,

    Permit me to offer a rebuttal to the piece you have posted here. I feel a rebuttal is important for 2 reasons : i) The piece contains patently factual errors and the sweeping generalization reinforces a certain form of stereotyping, ii) the comparison that has been made to illustrate unintended consequences is assymetric at best.

    Disclosure : I identify myself as a part of a community of brahmins called the Gowd Saraswat Brahmins whose history, at least through the medieval ages has been documented in a fair bit of detail. These Brahmins lived in parts of Southern India currently known as Goa and Canara (part of Karnataka state). I am taking the liberty to write this rebuttal without consulting an anthropologist or historian, since I’m conversant with my history and will provide you with a few reliable references.

    The first factual error is to call pre-British medeival India a feudal society that did not use currency/ money and the assertion that land and cows were principal sources of wealth. The history of the rupee dates back to the 6th century BC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_rupee). The currency system and the term ‘rupee/rupiya’ was formalised as a pan-India system by King Sher Shah Suri at least 150 years before the British arrived in the sub-continent. I have, in my personal coin collection, a few coins that date back 800 – 1200 years. I also have a book that details contracts/ commitment letters dating back to the 16th century between Brahmin traders in Goa (for providing goods and services) and the Portuguese and with traders from other parts of India. These contracts state that payments needed to be made using coins/currency (not the rupee but another currency prevalent in South India at the time). Similarly, there is enough evidence of payments made using currency for trade along the silk route between Indian traders and their counterparts in Arabia, China and Europe. Indeed, India had its own philosophy of capitalism which has been detailed in this book by an LSE scholar of Indian origin (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2012/12/17/a-history-of-capitalism-in-india/). Land was considered as a capital asset in the same manner as it is today. Cows are revered in Hinduism and was the source of milk/milk products, which were then sold, making them an asset as well. Apart from this there was the barter system. However, it would be fair to say that currency played a major role in Indian economics well before the British arrived.

    The second assertion that the individual Brahmin accumulated land. In Goa, there existed since pre-medieval times, a collective system of land management called the ‘gavkari’. Under the Portuguese, this evolved into the ‘Communidade’ system. Agricultural duties and the proceeds of the land were shared between families, with each family having a specific function. For instance one family would look after irrigation, another after maintaining seed quality and crop storage and so forth. Not all Brahmin families were involved in agriculture. Some families had priestly duties or teacing, some were involved in trade along inland routes and global sealanes, and some families renounced materialism. Importantly, Brahmins were/are taught renunciation as a key principle and any form of wealth hoarding and abusing wealth/ power would lead to social ostracisation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmin). The gavkari system has been detailed in a scholarly work called “Goa – A daugthers story” by Maria Aurora Couto (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1783037.Goa_a_Daughter_s_Story#other_reviews). Under the caste system, people belonging to the social strata of the ‘kshatriyas’ and ‘vaishyas’ were permitted to accumulate wealth, but not brahmins.

    The third that individual brahmins married 100 – 150 wives. Due to similar reasons as listed above, any person marrying or having more than one woman would face ostracisation. Throughout Indian history, only the kings maintained harems.

    Finally about suttee. Suttee was a heinous practice, the prevalence of which varied across India. In India, the practice was commoner in North India, especially in the states of Rajasthan and Bengal, for various reasons. The prevalence was far lesser in Southern India. This practice was most common in royal households. In Southern India, widows were not allowed to re-marry, but sati was uncommon. In the Saraswat Brahmin community, the widow was looked after by the rest of the household, with no records of the practice. The British were not the first to try and address the issue. The Mughals (Akbar) tried doing it through legal means before the British and they almost succeeded in extinguishing the practice by the time of the Emperor Aurangzeb. (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00islamlinks/ikram/part2_17.html). Nonetheless, suttee persisted in isolated pockets into the later part of the 20th century.

    Putting all these facts together, I believe it is impossible that the British legislation against sati led to the murder of thousands of Brahmin women in particular. India’s geography, history, political-economy and society are far too complex and vast to apply sweeping generalizations. I’m certain the anthropologist on whose advice you have relied on is ill informed, as regards this issue (unsure of her/his moivations). Stories like this are frequently circulated to perpetuate the notion that India was a primitive, hellish place before the British arrived and that the British set things right. That notion has been debunked in this recent, famous analysis by the Indian diplomat and member of parliament Shashi Tharoor (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32618967-an-era-of-darkness). I’m sure there are better, more context specific examples that can be given to illustrate unintended consequences. I would love to hear your views on this.

    Best Regards,



  3. Thank you very much for correcting what seem to be errors in my piece. I met the man who said he was an anthropologist in Mysore and was fascinated by what he told me–making the connection, as you can see, with unintended consequences. I think that I wrioe down accurately what he said, but perhaps I introduced errors. It was certainly not my intention to denigrate India in any way, and I apologise for any errors and upset that I may have caused.


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