Category Archives: E. Dharma and the Individual

Birth Rituals in Hinduism

Hindu culture is full of rituals, traditions, and daily routines that seek to enhance and create the best circumstances for an individual while alive. These rituals are very orderly, taking place to move the individual from one stage of life to another. This personal movement, known as samskara, is ultimately to help the individual obtain liberation (moksa), and become free from the birth, death, and re-birth cycle. It is no surprise that birth would have many rituals surrounding it, as parents, extended family, and those involved with a new born would want to provide the best possible conditions for a baby to progress in life and achieve moksa. From the time of pregnancy until the child (if a boy) is ‘born again’ by the performance of the upanayana ritual, people near the new born perform many rituals and rites for the benefit the infant since it is not able to do so for itself. It is the purpose of this paper to describe some of these rituals that are preformed from the beginning of pregnancy until the delivery, as observance to these rituals plays a key part in an individuals life.

Women in Hindu society are complex as they have a duality in their roles. On one hand they are viewed as fertile, compassionate caregivers, yet on the other hand, they can be viewed as hostile, malicious destroyers (Wadley 113).An examination of Hindu women in the context of caregiver shows that along with caring for herself, her primary role is to care for her husband and children; this is why we see such concern surrounding childbearing. When a women suspects she is pregnant, it is not announced immediately, but rather the women leaves it to those around her to notice that, “she has not observed the usual monthly pollution period, is sometimes nauseous, or is widening at the waist”(Jacobson and Wadley 143). Once a women’s pregnancy is known, it is common that her brothers will take her to her parents home for the pregnancy (Tewari 259), however this is not always the case. No matter where the mother is located, she is treated and cared for in a special way to prepare for the coming child. Attention is paid to protect her and her unborn child from coming into contact with evil spirits, even to the point of abstaining from foods that could harm the baby (Jacobson and Wadley 143). The pregnant women, or jacca, is not to be our after dark, is not supposed to walk past pipal, or babul trees (since they are supposed to house evil spirits), and should always keep a piece of iron with her to ward off any spirits (Tewari 258).Upon learing of the pregnancy, one of the first rituals preformed for the jacca is called arathi. Arathi serves the purpose of removing the evil eye, and is similar to a western baby shower, since it primarily centers on the jacca receiving gifts of good fortune, as well as special foods to eat (Dhruvarajan 88).

When the jacca enters into the seventh month of pregnancy, arathi is again preformed, and further attention is given to prepare for the coming of the child. Other rituals such as rit, and kanji may also be preformed, which are very similar in the gift giving nature of arathi. In preparation for the delivery, a special birth-chamber, or sovar, is set up for the jacca and her baby. The sovar is a room that is separate from the rest of the house, preferably without windows, as the delivery should be completely private and away from the public. Much care is taken in the placement of the bed, making sure that it is not placed under the main beam of the house, and that it is not facing south, as these are believed to have a bad effect on the jacca (Stevenson 2).

When the time of delivery has arrives, the jacca enters the birth-chamber accompanied by her midwife (dai), and separates herself from everyone else in the household. This is because labor is a highly polluting experience, so polluting that the jacca is now referred to as a jachcha, or one in “a highly polluted and polluting state, similar to that of the lowest untouchable castes”(Jacobson, 144). Because of the highly polluting nature of delivery, the dai usually lives in a nearby low caste village, and travels to the home of the jacca at the time of delivery (Jacobson and Wadley, 144). If complications arise during delivery, a wide range of action may be taken, from breaking open the mouth of the great grain jar, to putting a lotus flower in water, hoping that as its petals expand, the mouth of the womb will also expand (Stevenson 2). While such traditional methods are preferred, if the jachcha faces complicated problems the dai may turn the pregnancy over to professional medical treatment.

Once the baby has been delivered, attention is given to what time the birth took place, as this will determine an accurate horoscope for the child, which, to a certain extent, will determine when other samskara rituals are preformed. On the day of birth itself, the family Brahmin priest typically holds a small ceremony for the new mother, in which he ritually brews an herbal tea in the company of the women of the extended family (Jacobson and Wadley 146). During the time following the delivery, the mother and child continue to be separated from the rest of the household (as mother and child are still regarded as being in a highly polluted state). It is believed that nine months worth of polluted menstrual blood is discharged at the time of birth, and therefore the mother and child must be purified before the return to the household. The main actions taken during this purification process called sor, are a series of baths and oil massages preformed by the dai, each progressively removing more pollution (Jacobson and Wadley 147). When the mother and child are believed to have been sufficiently cleansed, the dai, “breaks the mother’s old glass bangles…[and] rubs the mother with an ointment of turmeric, wheat flower, oil, and water to cleanse her skin” (Jacobson and Wadley 147). The baby itself is similarly cleansed by being rubbed with a ball of turmeric and dough, and receives an oil message. The mother and child are then changed into clean clothes, with the dirty, polluted clothes and bedding being thrown away. The birth-chamber itself also undergoes a purification by the dai, who “[applies] cow-dung slip to the floor and up onto the base of the walls.”

Upon the completion of sor, the mother and newborn are returned into their household and further rituals are planned, depending largely on the gender of the baby. In the case of a boy being born family and friends are invited to celebrate with the family, however in some instances the birth of a girl has limited celebration, or none at all (Tewari 260). This is based on the fact that a boy is seen as being able to perpetuate the family line and be a provider, where the girl’s role is traditionally less dominant. However while further life rituals are conditional, the birth rituals observed are unconditional as they seek to provide the best conditions for the baby to born into.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dhruvarajan, V. (1989) Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. Granby, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvery Publishers Inc.

Jacobson, D., & Wadley, S. (1977) Women in India . Daryaganj, New Delhi: Manohar.

Jamison, Stephanie (1996) Sacrificed/ Wife Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Rose, H.A. “Hindu Pregnancy Observances in the Punjab.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland Jul-Dec 1905: 271-278.

Stevenson, S. (1971) The Rites of the Twice-Born. New Dehli: Oriental Books Corporation.

Tewari, Laxmi. “’Sohar’: Childbirth Songs of Joy.” Asian Folklore Studies 1988: 257-276.

Vats, S., & Mudgal, S. (1998) Development of Women in Modern India. Faridabad: OM Publications.

Wadley, Susan. “Women and Symbolic Systems: Women and the Hindu Tradition.” Signs Autumn 1977: 113-125.

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Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Ken Baker (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Asceticism

In traditional Hindu life, there are four stages which a Hindu would, theoretically, complete in order to acquire the greatest chance of attaining the ultimate goal of moksa (liberation). These stages include the sisya (student) stage, the grhasta (householder) stage, the vanaprastha (forest-dweller) stage and the samnyasin (renouncer stage). This last stage of the samnyasin is one of total renunciation of social and material things. It would typically be this time in one’s life when one would dedicate oneself entirely to attaining moksa, particularly by engaging in specific practices. One such set of practice that these renouncers would often adopt was asceticism. However, it is important to note that ascetic practices are not limited to the samnyasins. Many laypeople also practice forms of asceticism, such as Vrata [On Vrata and the Pativrata Ideal, see Rodrigues 2005: 160-167], to achieve higher objectives. Nevertheless, in general, the asceticism practiced by renouncers is usually more concentrated and intensely followed. This essay will be focusing mostly on the asceticism of the samnyasin. Therefore, any reference to asceticism or ascetic practices will refer to the customs of the standard samnyasin, unless otherwise stated.To go into great detail of all the differentiations and variations of ascetic practices would probably construct a small book. I can only give a brief background, explain the practices that are most widely used, and give the example of a famous ascetic who has contributed to modernization of the practice.

Before discussing the particularities and practices of asceticism, it is important to look at the background and origin of this practice. According to David M. Miller and Dorothy C. Wertz, in their book Hindu Monastic Life, the word “ascetic” is a translation into the word sadhu, which actually translates as “holy man” (Miller and Wertz 2), a term often used to describe a renouncer.This can give us an idea of what the literary origin is, but to discern the actual foundation of the practice is quite a bit harder.As Patrick Olivelle informs us in his translation of the Samnyasa Upanisads, there are many theories about where the practice of asceticism originated (Olivelle 19-22).He breaks these down into two main theories: that asceticism is a development of the Vedic tradition, and that asceticism is a newer practice than the traditional Vedic religion which “challenged and transformed the Vedic religion” (Olivelle 20).Olivelle sides with the assertion that ascetic practices did not develop out of the old Vedic tradition, but that they are a recent custom which tested and criticized the old Vedic ways. Even so, Olivelle states clearly that ascetic practices could not have appeared out of nowhere and says that “[he does] not subscribe to the view put forward by some scholars that ascetic modes of life were non-Aryan in origin” (Olivelle 21).Olivelle suggests that, even though asceticism has close ties with sacrificial religion and even though the Vedic religion set the conditions in which asceticism is set, asceticism acts as an original element that challenged some of the old Vedic traditions, such as sacrificial theology.

With this brief background of asceticism we can begin to discus what asceticism really is.To become an ascetic means to give up completely, as mentioned before, social and material things. The ascetic is then meant to meditate and concentrate on attaining the final goal of moksa. Since ascetics do not have anything at all, except perhaps a begging bowl and a staff, they rely totally on the lay community to provide for them food and sometimes clothes and shelter. As Vail F. Lise says in his article “Unlike a Fool, He Is Not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the Samnyasa Upanisads”: “ascetics are told to remain in solitude as much as possible, meditating and dis-identifying with their bodies. Nonetheless, Upanisadic passages about the virtues and behaviour proposed for samnyasis are unexpectedly rich in ethical reflection” (Lise 374). Lise is commenting on how, although ascetics are prescribed to not care about any worldly thing, they are taught to be moral, just, and wise among other men. Lise explains this further by saying that “the liberated renouncer is a master of silence, quite patient, and wise in matters of Brahman” (395). In response to this, a question that might arise is: how would one know about these rigorous ascetic practices and ways? The answer is in the Samnyasa Upanisads which “provide a basis in Vedic revelation for the institution of renunciation (samnyasa) and for the rules and practices associated with that state” (Olivelle 5). Therefore, the Samnyasa Upanisads are used as a guideline as how to live the life of the holy man. These Upanisads have been studied rigorously and elaborated on as the practice of asceticism grows and popularizes. Nonetheless, one of the only ways to fully understand true asceticism is to watch and learn from a genuine ascetic. It is important to remember that the customs mentioned are the typical routines practiced by Hindu ascetics. There are many people who do not follow the samnyasin path quite so rigorously and there are those take it to the extreme.

There have been many significant Hindu ascetics in the Indian history; for example, Mahatma Gandhi who helped India fight for independence from Britain [For additional information on Mahatma Gandhi see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 160; and Rodrigues (2005) pg 47-48, 422-424, and 249-250]. In their article “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s reconceptualization of Indian asceticism” Shaman Hatley and Sohail Inayatullah discuss the life of the guru (teacher) Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. Sarkar was a Tantric [On Tantrism see Robinson and Rodrigues (2006) pg 158-159] teacher who lived in the 20th century and who revolutionized Hindu asceticism. Hatley and Inayatullah go into detail about what Sarkar thought that asceticism really was, as they say, “the ascetic stands as a critic of society – not merely a post modern literary critic but one that questions the basis of current society by attempting to transform it” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14). In this way, Sarkar is saying that asceticism is not only about the physical state of renunciation, but also about the exercise of proper mental ethics. The article also emphasizes how Sarkar’s studies did not hold much interest in the traditional ways of Hinduism, but wanted to transform the religion by using asceticism to “eliminate elements based in social custom (such as asrama) and myth” (Hatley and Inayatullah 14).By studying Sarkar, Hatley and Inayatullah have introduced an interesting, modern, way to look at the practice of asceticism.

Overall, the practice of asceticism is a broad topic with a rich history and development.Ascetic practices have been used to help change and develop the Vedic Hindu tradition.Even the concept of the samnyasin has become increasingly revolutionized as more people become interested in these ascetic ways.This practice has, recently, even travelled to the West. Westerners are becoming increasingly interested in Hindu practices. Many books on ascetic practices such as meditation, renunciation, and cleansing of the mind now line the shelves of Western bookstores.


DeBary, William (1966) The Hindu Tradition. New York; Random House Inc.

Hatley, Shaman and Sohail Inayatullah (Feb 99) “Karma Samnyasa: Sarkar’s

Reconceptualization of Indian Asceticism”. Journal of Asian & African Studies

(Brill). 34:139, 14

Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi; Sri

Satguru Publications

Miller, David and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu Monastic Life: the Monks and

Monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal and London; Mc Gill-Queen’s

University Press

Narayan, Kirin (1989) Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu

Religious Teaching. Philadelphia; University Press

Olivelle, Patrick, trans (1992) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and

Renunciation. New York; Oxford University Press

Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the

Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online

Books, Ltd.

Vail, Lise (Fall 2002) “Unlike a Fool, He Is not Defiled: Ascetic Purity and Ethics in the

Samnyasa Upanisads.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 30:373-397, 25

Related Topics for Further Investigation:







Yogas (Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Raja, Kondalini, Hatha)


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Article written by Jahliele Paquin (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Tradition of Sati

The Hindu tradition is a complex religious system that has many rites of passage and traditions. Among these customs are death rituals that consist of performing a specific ceremony or making a sacrifice for a loved one. One of these sacrificial rituals prescribed for a widow is called sati. Sati is a ritual in which a woman may choose to burn herself alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre to free him from all his sins. This sacrifice is an indication of a wife’s devotion to her husband.

The practice of sati has created a debate over whether it is an acceptable religious ritual or an unacceptable Hindu practice. The defence of sati lies in sacred texts that are read by most people following the Hindu tradition. Arguments against sati are based on changing social norms and a history of people such as Rammohun Roy who fought for the elimination of sati. From the time it was first practiced to modern times, sati has become more controversial, and was eventually outlawed.

The oldest section of the Vedas is known as the Samhitas and there are four texts under this section.The Rig Veda Samhita is one of these four. It contains 1028 hymns in ten books written “by priests for specific needs of the ritual services” (Embree 5). Rig Veda 10.18.7 provides a passage called the Sati hymn in defence of sati. There it states,

“Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned.”

This verse is saying that devoted wives should step into their deceased husbands pyre as a personal sacrifice to their husband. This is understood as an argument in favor of sati. In this scripture, sati is described as a wife entering the funeral pyre, a pile of wood used for burning a corpse during a death ritual. Sati was practiced because it is outlined in sacred scripture. The Rig Veda explains rituals practiced by the authors, the Aryans, and since sati is included in one of the hymns, this can be used as a justification for sati.

The second sacred text in Hinduism that defends sati is the Atharva Veda Samhita. It is also from the same collection of Samhita as the Rig Veda but it “consists largely of spells and incantations” and has to do with situations of people, offering assistance and support (Embree 5). The funeral verses in the Atharva Veda are given in Kanda 18, Sukta 3 of this text.

“This woman, choosing her husband’s world, lies down (nipad) by you that are departed, O mortal, continuing to keep [her] ancient duty (dharma); to her assign you here progeny and property.”

Sati is mentioned in both the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, both sacred texts that are vital to the Hindu tradition. The reason why it was practiced for so many years was because of discussion in these texts. The debate over sati began when reformers started questioning scripture and pointing out what was considered to be wrong with the tradition.

Another piece of literature in Hinduism is an ancient epic known as the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata has become accepted as smriti meaning that it is highly respected, although it was not regarded as directly revealed to the ancient Rishis. This epic is about a great war between two families known as the Dhritarashtras and the Pandus (Embree 137). Sati is mentioned among the many stories throughout the Mahabharata that teach and share wisdom. The fact that sati is discussed in the Mahabharata, a popular choice of reading for the Indian people, presents more evidence that sati was an acceptable religious tradition.

The first mention of sati in the Mahabharata is in the story of the pigeon and the hunter. Sati is described in the Mahabharata as a “ritual suicide” following the passing of a wife’s husband and it is a way for her to “follow him to heaven” (Sutton 87). Bhisma, one of the Pandu brothers, tells the story where the pigeon’s wife decides that no moral woman could still live if her husband was dead and so she decides to throw herself into her husband’s funeral fire (Sutton 87). The result of her actions is that she is sent to svarga-loka (celestial world) alongside her husband in a “celestial chariot” (Sutton 87). The Mahabharata is acknowledged as a highly regarded piece of literature to people who follow Hinduism. The mention of sati within its pages can be understood as another justification for the tradition.

Sati is discussed further in the Mahabharata when wives of main characters commit the ritual. From the two families come two royal brothers who end up trading the leadership of the kingdom (Embree 137). One of these brothers, and the father of the five main characters, is Pandu (Embree 137). Pandu’s second wife, named Madri, decides to commit sati, as do the widows of warriors and Vasudeva (Sutton 430). Since the act of sati was perceived to be rewarded in the afterlife it has led to thoughts that there were “social pressures exerted upon widows” (Sutton 430). An incentive to perform sati was the spark that ignited a debate among people in and outside the Hindu tradition.

Even though sati is discussed in Hindu texts such as the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and the Mahabharata, people began looking more closely at what these verses were really saying. The defense for sati is found in sacred texts but social norms and different opinions were formed. As the history of sati is examined, it is clear that new government and reformers would change the legal acceptance of sati.

Sati was generally practiced from the eighth century to the seventeenth century but mostly by upper classes (Embree 98). The areas where sati was commonly practiced was in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat (Hawley 35). In these areas, the discovery of sati stones prove the existence of the ritual. Sati stones are similar to tombstones but have images of sati being performed on them (Hawley 35).

It is difficult to identify the number of women who actually performed sati. The collection of data did not begin until the ninteenth century, thus complicating the process of determining numbers from before that time. The number of recorded burnings that occurred in 1815 was 378 and tripled to 839 in 1818 (Hawley 21). Traditionally, sati was performed by higher caste women; a study was completed in order to prove this phenomenon. In 1823 an investigation into the tradition proved that 64 percent of these events were “predominant among the brahmins (teachers), kayasths (warriors/rulers), vaidyas (farmers/merchants)” (Mani 22).

When focusing on the history of India, it is apparent that the presence of Muslims in India would become important to the eventual prohibition of sati. The people known as the Mughals invaded India in the sixteenth century (Embree 230). One of the leaders from this reign was named Akbar, and he ruled from 1556 to 1658 (Embree 230). He was significant to Hinduism because of his views on sati. Akbar took a passive role in preventing sati but tried to ascertain that women were not being forced into participating in the tradition (Hawley 53). Another Mughal leader was Jehangir, who took steps in stopping sati by persuading women with “gifts and land” (Hawley 140). The Muslim influence in India was positive for eliminating the tradition of sati.

Britain began colonizing India in the seventeenth century but it was not until the nineteenth century that Britain’s influence reached its peak. Colonization brought specific views, especially Christian and western ones, and this ignited controversy over practices and traditions of Indians. Sati was one of the issues that got to the point when Britain decided to create a law prohibiting the practice. In 1829 sati was officially prohibited (Mani 24). The abolition of sati can be seen as a great moment for Indian women or as a restriction on religious freedom. The elimination of sati can be seen as beneficial because bad many people viewed sati as a gratuitous ritual to be practiced. In some cases of sati, there was an element of force being inflicted on the widow. Since colonization, there has been an increased awareness that supported the movement towards prohibition.

Rammohun Roy was an influential man who worked timelessly to bring about the prohibition of sati. It was primarily Roy’s efforts and campaigning that led the government to officially ban the practice (Hawley 140). He denied passages from sacred texts because, in his opinion, they were too vague, thus giving no excuse for sati to continue (Mani 50). He believed that widow burning was not a necessary ritual in traditional Hinduism.

Once sati was prohibited, it was recognized by most as a negative practice. This created an public awareness of widows who may be forced into, or who may have already been forced into performing the ritual. Although some Indians believed that sati was an acceptable ritual, the example of Roop Kanwar has caused a realization about the rare cases in which women were being manipulated into a ritual that they did not wish to perform. In 1987 it was reported by Roop Kanwar’s in-laws that she had performed the ritual sacrifice by choice after her husband of eight months passed away (Hawley 101). Since she had a large dowry and her husbands death was questionable, there was controversy over whether or not she was forced or drugged into sati (Hawley 122). Even though this led to more debate over sati, it still increased awareness of women’s rights over 100 years after it was prohibited in India.

The tradition of sati, known by the English title of “widow-burning”, has raised many questions over its true meanings and justifications, and the significance it has to the Hindu tradition. The defence of sati is shown in texts such as the great epic Mahabharata or sacred texts as the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. Since these writing are held as authentic canon for the Hindu tradition and they illustrate passages promoting sati, it was not considered wrong to practice sati. On the other hand, even before the colonization of India and the introduction of western education, new ideas and opinions promoted anti-sati views, resulting in the official prohibition of sati. The beliefs of influential people and their efforts in banning widow-burning is an indication of the anti-sati views of a reforming nation. In addition, the banning of sati and the debate it caused has created a heightened awareness of women’s rights in India. The combination of women, death and faith makes sati an incredibly controversial tradition, and one that has attracted the attention of the whole world.


Embree, Ainslie T. (ed.) (1966) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Joshi, K. L. (ed.) (2000) Atharvaveda Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.

Mani, Lata (1998) Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (ed.) (1994) Sati: The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (ed.) (1981) The Rig Veda. London: Penguin Group.

Sutton, Nicholas (2000) Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related research topics

Rammohun Roy

sati stones


Roop Kanwar


British colonialism

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Article written by Brooke Brassard (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its contents.


Sati is an ancient ritual that is now outlawed throughout India and the East. Sati, or suttee as the British call it, is the act of a widow cremating herself on her husbands burning funeral pyre (see Embree 98). Sati is a Sanskrit word that has many meanings, one of them meaning goddess. Therefore, when a women would perform this rite, the word sati could mean either the ritual itself, or what the woman would become (a goddess) through performing the ritual (Hawley 30). Western thinking found this ritual appalling, which type of thinking is what led to the passing of the Sati Abolition Law in 1829. Since that time there have still been a few instances of widows performing sati, and by some Hindus today it is still revered as an honorable act (Narasimhan 71). During the time period when sati was allowed, there were many reasons why a widow chose it over a solitary life. There are also many reasons why it was outlawed, and cases of sati being performed since then.

Hindus have many rituals, and are particularly detailed in the way in which the rituals are performed. One account of how the ritual of sati is performed started with the men, usually Brahmins and male relatives, preparing the pyre. Women then washed the widow’s feet, and the Priests would explain to her what to do. She would lay down alongside her husband, with “her right hand under his neck, his right arm over hers, and his right leg over her” and the male relatives would then start the fire (Leslie 179). Throughout this, the women would continue wearing bangles, or jewelry of some sort. The wearing of such things shows that one is married, and in this case is a symbol of the women’s continuing state of marriage (Hawley 35).

There are cases in which women did not voluntarily perform sati, but this was uncommon. There are other uncommon cases in which a woman would want to perform sati, but be persuaded not to by friends and family. In another account, a Queen attempts to explain to her grieving son, why it is that she is performing sati, while trying to convince him to let her do it: “Daughter, spouse, mother of heroes, how otherwise could such a woman as I, whose price was valour, act?… Thus every limb has fulfilled its mission I have spent my store of good works, what more should I look to… I cannot endure… to make unavailing lamentations for a burnt husband. Going before, like the dust of your father’s feet, to announce his coming to the heavens, I shall be high-esteemed of the hero-loving spouses of the gods. Therefore dishonour me no more . . . with opposition to my hearts desire” (Embree 99-100).

The ritual of sati stemmed from the negative attitudes towards being a widow. The idea of sati is not a monolithic one, and many books of scripture have different ideas on it. Some ancient scriptures, however, do promote sati due to the negativity of becoming a widow. One such scripture is, The Laws of Manu, which is an ancient book of Hindu scripture that dictates how individuals should act. In this book of scripture it is taught that widows cannot speak the name of another man. If a widow remarries she is disgracing herself and her Lord (Wilkins 211). Hindu widows wore white saris, little or no jewelry and removed the red spot on their forehead that had been worn since marriage (Ganeri 7). There are customs by which every Hindu lives that are written in such books of scripture as The Laws of Manu. Some customs by which widows had to live by were, only eating one meal per day, and two days a month going completely without food (Wilkins 211). Even in the year 1987, over one hundred years since the abolition of sati, one Hindu woman stated that it was better to die than to be a widow. She said that widows are not permitted to wear nice clothes or eat good food and must stay inside for the rest of their life (Narasimhan 28). Pativrata is a Sanskrit term for the ideal woman and encompasses the thought that “if her [the pativrata] husband . . . is dead, she should also die” (Narasimhan 29). Although there are many negative factors to widowhood, performing sati gives you a positive way in which to deal with becoming a widow. A women who performs sati is not only honored and respected, but is thought to dwell in heaven for thirty-five million years [This number comes from the fact that she should reside in heaven for as many years as she has hairs on her head, which is thought to be 35, 000, 000 (Wilkins, 1887)] (Wilkins 223). When one performs sati, she becomes a goddess and may thereafter be worshipped as one, by having shrines or temples built in her honor (Hawley 34-36).

During the Reform Period in India, Ram Mohon Roy was a very influential man, and son of a wealthy Bengali Brahmin family. He lived from 1772-1833, during which time the British were heavily influencing Indian culture, education and society. Ram Mohon Roy was the founder of a famous society called the Brahmo Samaj (The Encyclopedia of Religion 479). Throughout Ram Mohon Roy’s lifetime he rejected many traditional Hindu beliefs. “He was the first Indian to publicly denounce [sati]” (Narasimhan 102). His ideas of widow remarriage and forbiddance of sati were highly influential in its future abolition. Many European travelers also witnessed sati and believed that it was inhumane (Embree 98). In 1829, Lord William Cavendish Bentick passed the Sati Abolition Law of 1829 prohibiting this ritual [This act was also called the Bengal Regulation XVII of 1829.]. Despite this law, there were still occurrences of sati, leading to the Sati Prohibition Act of 1987 (Narasimhan 53).

There are still some modern cases of sati, such as the highly publicized case of Roop Kanwar in 1987. Kanwar was a young Hindi woman, eighteen years old, and had only been married for 8 months. Shortly following her husbands death, she decided to perform this self-immolation ritual (Hawley 103). Throughout the world many groups, societies and individuals strongly opposed this action. In contrast, many Hindus respected and revered her. Soon after she performed sati, a widely distributed newspaper wrote and editorial on the death of Roop Kanwar, giving their approval and respect for what she did [This newspaper is called the Jansatta and is highly read and distributed throughout North India. This act became heavily debated leading to many articles, essays and books on the Roop Kanwar case.]. It states: “Roop Kanwar did not become a Sati because someone threatened her… [S]he purposely followed the tradition of [sati] which is found in the Rajput families of Rajasthan . . . It is quite natural that her self-sacrifice should become the centre of reverence and worship”(Hawley 105). Many individuals still cling to ancient thoughts and traditions and greatly revere the women who choose a different path than widowhood, the still commonly respected way of a Sati.


Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ganeri, Anita (1998) Journey’s End: Death and Mourning. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Cranbury: Associated University Presses.

Mani, Lata (1998) Contentious Traditions. London: University of California Press Ltd.

Wilkins, W.J. (1887) Modern Hinduism. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.

Narasimhan, Sakuntala (1990) Sati, Widow Burning in India. New York: Penguin Books India, Ltd.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1972) The Hindu Tradition, Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Hawley, John Stratton (1994) Sati, The Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1986) “Roy, Ram Mohan.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Collier Macmillan Canada, Inc. V. 12, p.479.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








Ram Mohan Roy

The Laws of Manu

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Crystal Haitsma (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Vratas

All kinds of vows of fasting and asceticism are practiced on the occasion of diverse religious festivals celebrated during the course of the year. These vows can be performed on the occasion of the Hindu rites, which are related to specific stages in life; such as birth, name-giving, first eating of solid food, puberty, the beginning of Vedic studies, marriage, and cremation. Among these, vratas are incredibly a striking part of the Hindu religion. Even today, millions of Hindus abide by the rituals and implement all kinds of vratas.

In Hinduism, the term vrata has been widely known since the early Vedic Period. In the Rgveda, one of the oldest classical texts in Hinduism, the word vrata occurs just over two hundred times alone or in combination with other words (Kane 5). This implies that the term itself, effectively, is at least three thousand years old. Furthermore, the word vrata is also referred to in other respected groups of texts such as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanisads and Sutras (Pearson 44). The term vrata has been mentioned in various literatures for several centuries until today, however, many still do not understand the true implication of vrata; even scholars today often debate on the authentic meanings of this word.

Vrata is viewed uniquely by the distinct castes and regions in the diverse parts of India. Pearson explains that “…the concept of vrata in the Rgveda is closely connected with the larger metaphysical concept of the cosmic order, righteousness in the Hindu tradition, and with the governed and governing activity of the gods” (Pearson 45). Vratas throughout the Hindu tradition is contemplated as part of dharma (righteousness) for each individual, placing each of the gods to their highest level. Moreover, Pearson defines vrata as a rite that is performed on a regular basis to achieve particular objectives, following respective rules that have been transmitted from one generation to the next (Pearson 45). Vratas have been an important feature of Hindu religious life for a long while; however, the beliefs and practicing of vratas is often associated generally more often with Hindu women. In Sanskrit, more universally, vrata denotes a “religious vow”. Vrata signifies a set of rules and discipline stemming from the verbal root ‘vrn’ which literally means ‘to choose’. These vows are said to be imperative ritualistic obligations serving on the sacrificer for several reasons.

Many may wonder the purpose of performing vratas. The rationales behind and the kinds of vratas vary depending on the precise caste system or region in India to which one belongs to. Pearson in her study, “Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind,” states: “Some Vratas seem to be related to individual status and primary roles—so that one god’s Vrata may be quite different from another’s, or the Vrata of a male cowherd different from that of a female teacher.” For instance, Navarata (nine nights) vratas may be common in North India, while Nagpancami vratas may be common in South India [Navaratri literally means ‘nine nights’, this vrata is observed in most parts of India from the first till the ninth day of Ashvin (Brown 230). It commemorates the victory of Durga over a demon. It is also known as Rama Navami, it is popular in northern India. Nagpancami is an old festival common in South India celebrated for the purpose of appeasing snakes (Pearson 291)]. Nevertheless, some vratas do have common purposes. In general, vratas found throughout India are optional ritual observances. Placing the respective deity to its supreme degree, vratas would commonly involve certain rituals such as fasting (upavasas), worship (puja), the recital of narratives (kathas), and the giving of gifts such as money, food items and clothing to specified recipients (Pearson 229).

In Northern India, vratas are closely associated to bhakti devotional rituals and comprise a crucial element of many devotional practices (Wadley 147). Wadley further explains that most vratas are also performed to gain moksa (liberation from the cycle of life and death), to recuperate life, to alleviate past karmas, and above all, most prominently and commonly to please the different gods and goddesses (Wadley 148). It is believed by many individuals in India that vratas aim for the improvement of life which may alter destiny, or help maintain rta (the cosmic order). This betterment, nevertheless, requires the abolition of previous sins that have led to current difficulties. Moreover, through observing vratas, one could also expect to gain bhukti (objects of enjoyment), mukti (liberation from life and birth), and the destruction of sins (Mishra 61). The basic aim of a vrata, more often than not, is to influence some deity to come to one’s support as one traverses the ocean of existence (Wadley 149). One’s faith and devotion signals to the deity the sincerity allied with the vrata. It is then commonly assumed by these loving devotees that the respective deity will reward their faith and service with some kind of boon (reward).

Vratas are also undertaken to venerate the birth of a deity; for example, Janmastami (the birth of Lord Krsna), which is held yearly. Furthermore, vratas may also be performed on a certain day of the week for the deity associated with that day which may serve a specific purpose. In India some of the most common such vratas include: Monday Vratas sacred to Lord Siva and Friday’s Santosi Ma Vrata conducted for making wishes come true (Brown 252). In Hinduism, the days of the week are ruled by the planetary deities and are also indirectly related to the main deities of Hinduism (Walters 47). Fellow devotees may choose to fast, or also abstain from certain substances like fish, meat, or even onion and garlic on the day dedicated to the deity they are addressing with their vow. For example, Somavara (Monday) is dedicated to Candra (the moon) and to Lord Siva. Fasting on Monday is directed to all general spiritual purposes. On this day, when one performs vrata, the Somavara Vrata Katha is also heard or narrated. As part of the ritual, milk and honey may be poured to the linga (embodiment of Siva). Also meat, onion, and garlic are avoided for consumption on this day (Subramuniyaswami 111).

The rituals and traditions of devotion diverge from vrata to vrata, but most commonly, rites also differ based on the respective deity. For instance, Swarna-Gauri-Vrata is dedicated to Ma Gauri, another name for Parvati Devi. Similarly, the Vara Siddhi Vinayak Vrata is for Lord Ganesha and the Satya NarayanaVrata is for the appraisement of Lord Vishnu. Like these, there are numerous vratas exceptionally frequent throughout India.

For Hindus, particularly women, performing vratas is quite essential. From an early age, Hindu girls learn about the procedures, principles, and meanings of Vratas through observation of elder, experienced female relatives and gradual participation in the rites. They are taught that it is their duty and special ability as women to promote auspiciousness and well-being in the family (Kalakdina 22). The performance of vratas is an important part of this process because it involves bringing together special time, place and items considered favorable for keeping an environment charged with auspiciousness (Pearson 1993:233).

Although women are the predominant ones to perform vratas, male participation should not be underestimated. Hindus believe that anyone who has faith in a vrata and wishes to perform it as per the rules can keep the vrata. During the Vedic period, sacrifices were strictly restricted to men of the three upper castes, known as the dvijas (twice born) (Timothy, 570). As the generations passed by, the doors of the vratas were thrown open to one and all, thus bringing this aspect of ritualistic Hinduism to the lower castes and women (Timothy 571). Amazingly, women have become the leading ones performing these vratas today.

As mentioned earlier, the rituals of each vrata differ depending on the occasion. It is highly believed that these vratas do work; within the limit of their powers, deities are able to reward their devotees. Each vrata serves its own ideal purpose. Some vratas are performed to gain eternal happiness while others promise sons, good health, wealth or even the well being of a specific loved one (Robinson 182). For example, Karva Chautha is a significant vrata kept by many North Indian women to ensure the well being, prosperity, and longevity of their husbands. Karva Chautha provides the opportunity for all married women to get close to their in-laws. Possessing tremendous social and cultural importance, this festival is celebrated by keeping a fast, applying henna, and exchanging gifts. This vrata is categorized as a nirjala vrata, which literally means “without water.” During the day, customarily, women from the family gather to carry out a special puja (worship) and an elderly woman, usually the mother-in-law, narrates the legend of Karva Chautha (vrata katha) .Women break their fast only after sighting the moon in the evening and after offerings of water are made to it. They then drink water, indicating the end of the Vrata (Sharma and Young 22).

Distinct rituals like pujas and kathas are exceptionally essential constituents of these extraordinary vratas. Wadley explains “Khatas [i.e. kathas] are manuals detailing ritual rules and associated myths” (Wadley 1983:150). Some very popular vrata kathas are the Satyanarayan Katha, which contains the rituals of the monthly vrata and myths of the Lord Satyanarayan. Similarly, the Sukravar Vrata Katha contains the rules and katha for the performance of a vrata in honor of the goddess Santosi Ma, the Contented Mother (Narayan 17). Unlike most vrata kathas, the Santosi Ma vrata katha is only read by the worshippers themselves; priests are not involved in the worship of Santosi Ma. Vrata kathas like the Satyanarayan Vrata Katha, on the other hand, can be read by Brahmin priests or the worshippers themselves (Narayan 17). Principally, vratas tend to be incomplete without kathas and pujas.

While performing vratas, one must abide by several rules. However, as generations have passed, these rules have loosened considerably and thus embraced larger segments of contemporary society. Some rules, nevertheless, need to be adhered particularly carefully in order to protect the holiness of the ritual system itself. Primarily and most perceptibly, during the period of the observance of a vrata, one should keep clean and pure, observe celibacy, speak the truth, practice forbearance, avoid non-vegetarian food, and scrupulously perform all the rituals connected with the vrata (Subramuniyaswami 156). A vrata should never be left unfinished, nor should a new one be started before completing the old one. Fortunately enough, it is believed that if one is sick or too old, a close relative may perform the vrata on the other’s behalf. Finally, vratas are typically done at specific auspicious timings, places, and in modes laid out by astrological findings (Subramuniyaswami 156).

As the generations have passed there has been a significant decrease in the amount of Hindus that perform this auspicious ritual, nevertheless, the value of vratas has tremendously increased over the past years. As mentioned earlier, to women in particular, performing vratas has become a vital part of life. Vratas have become a daily routine and highly essential ritualistic observance for many Hindus throughout the world. Though in the past vratas were quite essential and many Hindus abided by it each day, many Hindus, with the guidance of elders, continue performing vratas even today.


Brown, Mackenzie C. The Song of the Goddess. Albany: State University of New York

Gopalan, Gopalan V. “Vrat: Ceremonial Vows of Women in Gujrat, India.” Asian    
       Folklore Studies 37 no 1. 1978. Terre Haute: Indiana State University.

Kalakdina, Margaret (1975) “The Upbringing of a Girl.” In Indian Women: Report on
       the Status of Women in India, ed. Devaki Jain. New Delhi: Ministry of Information
       and Broadcasting. 

Kane, P.V. (1974) History of Dharmasastr. 5 vols. 2nd ed. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriendtal
       Research Institute. 

Leslie, Julia I. (1989) The Perfect Wife. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lubin, Timothy “Vrata Devine and Human in the early Veda.” Journal of the American
       Oriental Society 121 no 4. 2001. Washington: Lee University.

Narayan, Kirin Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon. US: Oxford University Press

Pearson, Anne “Aspects of Hindu Women’s Vrat Tradition as Constitutive for an Eco-
       Spirituality.” Journal of Dharma. 18. (1993): 228-236

Pearson, Anne (1996) Because it gives me peace of mind: ritual fasts in the religious lives
       of hindu women. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Robinson, Sandra P. “Hindu paradigms of women: images and values.” Women, religion
       and social change 1985: 181-215. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Pr.

Rodrigues, Hillary (1999) “Because it gives me peace of mind: ritual fasts in the
       Religious lives of hindu women.” Review in Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses
       28 no 2. 240-241

Sharma A., and Young Katherine K (eds.) (2003) Her Voice Her Faith: Women Speak on
       World Religion. Colorado: Westview Press.

Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya Living with Siva: Hinduism’s Contemporary
       Culture. India, USA: Himalayan Academy.

Wadley, Susan S. “Vrats: Transformers of Destiny.” Karma, an Anthropological Inquiry.
       Berkeley, Calif. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983. 147-162. 

Walters, Donald J. The Hindu Way of Awakening: Its Revelation Its Symbols. USA:
       Crystal Clanty Publishers.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Navaratri Vrata
Sivaratari Vrata
Ekadashi Vrata
Karva Chautha Vrata
Nagpanchami Vrata
Santosi Ma
Durga Ma
Somvara Vrata
Rama Navami 
Vrata Kathas
Sukravar Vrata
Vara Siddhi Vinayak Vrata
Satya NarayanaVrata

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Anju Punjabi (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Six-Fold Policy of the Arthasastra

History and Background

Authored by Kautilya in 300 BCE the Arthasastra was written as a “science of politics” (Boesche 9-10). As the key advisor to the Indian king Chandragupta, Kautilya offered the Arthasastra as discussions on war and diplomacy. Kautilya’s desire was for his king to conquer the world, through teachings of “how to defeat his enemies and rule on behalf of the general good” (ibid. 10-11). As opposed to the idealism of Plato, Kautilya’s Arthasastra is typically classified as a book on political realism. It does not offer how the world should or ought to work, but rather how the world does work and the measures that a king must sometimes take to maintain common good and the state (ibid. 13-14).

Kautilyan Foreign Policy

Kautilyan foreign policy offers the theory that “an immediate neighbouring state is an enemy and a neighbour’s neighbour, separated from oneself by the intervening enemy, is a friend” (Rangarajan 542). The conqueror would thus affect the line of allies and enemies, as well as the differing types of allies and enemies a conquering king has. Kautilya describes a Circle of States like a wheel with the conqueror at the hub. His allies are pulled towards him along the spikes although they may be parted by enemy territory (ibid. 561). When appropriate, the conquering king shall apply the six methods of foreign policy, regularly known as the six-fold policy, to the various components of his Circle of States. These methods work interdependently and bind others to the conqueror so he may do as he pleases with them when necessary.

Six-Fold Policy

Different teachers believe different policies. For example, Vatavyadhi taught that there were only two approaches to foreign policy: make peace or wage war. Kautilya however believes that there are spin-offs of these, thus providing six methods of foreign policy. These are making peace, waging war, staying quiet, preparing for war, seeking support, and the dual policy of making peace with one while waging war against another (Rangarajan 563). One’s circumstances will dictate which methods should be used.

To make peace, one must enter into an agreement, such as a treaty, with specific conditions. Treaties can have specific conditions, or will not have any obligations. Treaties without conditions are mainly used for gaining information on the enemy, so the king may strike after learning of the antagonists’ weak points (ibid. 581). Treaties with commitments allow a “wise king to make a neighbouring king fight another neighbour to prevent them from uniting and attacking him” (ibid. 582). The only time a king will make peace is when he finds himself in relative decline compared to his enemy (ibid. 563).

When a king is in a superior position compared to his enemy, he will attack and wage war (ibid. 568). There are three types of war as part of this second method of foreign policy. There is open war which has a specified time and place; secret war that is sudden, terrorizing, threatening from one side and attacking from another, etc.; and undeclared war which uses secret agents, religion or superstition, and women as weapons against the enemies (Rangarajan 568-569; Boesche 10). Kautilya approved weapons-of-war that tricked unsuspecting kings and fought in unconventional ways. The use of secret agents to befriend and then kill enemy leaders, “religion and superstition to bolster his troops and demoralize enemy soldiers” (Boesche 10), and women who seduced the enemy as means of war (ibid.) were all examples of they way Kautilya believed one should wage an undeclared war.

By neither making peace nor waging war, one acts indifferently to a situation and stays quiet. If a king feels that his enemy and he are equal and neither can harm the other nor ruin the other’s undertakings, then he shall choose to do nothing (Rangarajan 563-565).

When a king increases his own power and has special advantage over his enemy, he will take part in the forth approach of Kautilyan foreign policy by making preparations for war (ibid. 563). While preparing for war, the king must ensure that the enemies’ undertakings will be destroyed while his own will come to no harm (ibid. 565).

In contrast to preparing for war, a king may require the help of another to protect his own undertakings. This idea of building an alliance is Kautilya’s fifth method of foreign policy. A king seeking an alliance must ensure that he finds a king more powerful than the neighbouring enemy. Sometimes it is not possible to find a stronger king than the enemy; in this case one should make peace with the enemy (ibid. 573).

Lastly, having a dual policy of befriending one through peace and promoting one’s own undertakings, whilst ruining another’s mission by waging war against them is the sixth method (ibid. 563-565). Under this method the conqueror may have supplies and reinforcements provided from allies, prevent an attack from the rear where the Circle of States warns us there is an enemy as a neighbour, and have twice as many troops as the other. After discussing waging a war with allies and agreeing on terms a treaty is concluded. However, if the allies do not accept the obligations they are considered and treated as hostile (ibid. 575).


Boesche, R. (2003) “Kautilya’s Arthasastra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India.” Journal of Military History, 67, 1, 9-37.

Rangarajan, L.N. (1992) The Arthashastra: Edited, Rearranged, Translated and Introduced. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books India Ltd.

Further Readings

Jatava, D.R. (2003) Riddles of Indian Politics. Jaipur, India: ABD Publishers.

Kangle, R.P. (ed. and trans.) (1960-61) Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Bombay: University of Bombay.

Sharma, P. (1975) “Kautilya and modern thought.” Proceedings of the First International Sanskrit Conference, 2.2, 247-252.

Rangarajan, L.N. (1992) The Arthashastra: Edited, Rearranged, Translated and Introduced. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books India Ltd.

Roberts, James Deotis (1965-66) “Religious and political realism in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.” Journal of Religious Thought, 22.2, 153-166.

Related Research Topics

Kautilyan State and Society

King Chandragupta

Different Books/ Parts of the Arthasastra ( e.g. Law and Justice, Sources of Revenue, Departments of the Government, Defence and War, etc.)

Notable Websites

Written by Janelle Tibbatts (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kamasutra

The full details of the composition of the Hindu literary text, Kamasutra, is not fully known but is estimated to have been composed around the first century B.C.E. (Peterson 135). It was composed by Vatsyayana in northern India and written in the ancient Indian literary language, Sanskrit. There is very little on the background of Vatsyayana but it is believed that he was a Hindu religious man who was a part of the upper classes (Peterson 135). Vatsyayana had taken pieces of earlier works from the Kamasastra [Tradition of works and literature on erotics, love and pleasure (science of love)] to put together what the western world terms the “paradigmatic textbook for sex” (Doniger 2003:18). Vatsyayana directs the reader’s attention towards the promotion of the greater whole. “He made this work in chastity and in the highest meditation, for the sake of worldly life, he did not compose it for the sake of passion” (Kakar 7.2.57). Since works from the Kamasastra were not easily accessible, Vatsyayana wanted to summarize these works into one. The Kamasutra is the aphoristic summary of the Kamasastra and since sutras precede the sastras in Indian history, it is given more religious authority than the Kamasastra (Doniger 2001:82). Hence the name sutra, which literally means a “thread of thoughts and pages” are put together in such a way to form a “string” of meaning (Doniger 2001:82). Another example of this type of literary composition consists of the literature on dharma, The Laws of Manu which is part of the Dharmasastras [Hindu legal treatises on moral, ethical and social laws. To get a further understanding on the Dharma Sastra texts in comparison to the Kamasutra, see Rocher (1985)].

The Kamasutra was first translated into English by Sir Richard Francis Burton in 1893 and the majority of the English world is familiar with the text through this translation. Many other translations have been composed over the past century by such people as Indra Sinha in 1980, and most recently by Wendy Doniger in 2002. People of today have a misconception of what the Kamasutra truly delivers in terms of its contents. Many consider it a text that is about sexual positions, or a guide to make one skilful with love making. The Kamasutra does help in this area of romance, but that is only a portion of what it has to offer to those who read it. This Hindu text covers all areas in the art of loving, from finding a partner, maintaining a marriage, committing adultery, living with courtesans, the use of drugs, and of course, positions of sexual intercourse (Doniger 2002:126). Other authors after Vatsyayana composed similar texts to that of his Kamasutra. During the 11th century a man named Koka Pandit composed the Rati Rahasya [Koka Pandit physically engaged in the arts of love, and therefore was able to give a more extensive study with his personal endeavours in the Rati Rahasya] based on Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra. Then a few centuries after, another man named Kalyanmalla in the 15th century composed the Ananga Ranga [Kalyanmalla had written the Ananga Ranga originally for the benefit of his own master, Lad Khan, who was a Muslim nobleman] which is based off the other two texts (Thomas 75). All three of these texts are highly regarded for its contents on love and its pursuit in life.

Within Hindu society and tradition, the Kamasutra is generally read by males who are a part of the twice-born (dvija) class in their second stage of life, that of the householder (grhasta), which is initiated with marriage (vivaha). Within this stage of life, the male must pursue and fulfill the goals that are prescribed for the householder. These goals are dharma (religious duties, morality, social obligation—the spiritual), artha (skill, attainment of wealth—political and economic welfare), and kama (desire/attachment—love and pleasure). These are what are known as the trivarga, and Vatsyayana generates a form of hierarchy with these three aspects of the trivarga (Rocher 521-522). Unlike kama, the texts that are associated with artha and dharma to fully understand and obtain the meanings of each, are laid out in the Dharmasastra and the Arthasastra [This text was written by Kautilya with its focus upon pursuing the attainment of material success for householders. Traditionally it was intended to help aid a king in his role and guidance of ruling a kingdom. To get a further understanding on the Artha Sastra in comparison to the Dharma Sastra and Kamasutra, see Rocher (1985)]. Notice the difference between the three goals and the texts that are generally associated with it. The Kamasutra is not a sastra because Vatsyayana asserts that the actions of kama comes naturally, where dharma and artha must be developed and learned (Rocher 522). According to Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Kamasutra, “[h]e should acquire learning in his childhood; in his youth and middle age he should attend to artha and kama; and in his old age he should perform dharma…” (5).

Throughout the householder’s stage of life, it is the goal of kama and artha that are the primary concerns and in order to prosper in society one must pursue these goals relentlessly. As a result, this stage is the most crucial aspect of the life of a householder; to be able to cultivate the art of love to have children and to obtain wealth and power to leave for the children after the completion of this stage (Ostor 110).

Originally, according to traditional lore, the Kamasutra contained thousands of chapters, and over time it was reduced down to what it is considered to be “thirty-six chapters, in sixty-four sections, in seven books, consisting of 1,250 sutras” (Kakar 1.1.4-23). The written work of the Kamasutra is not composed in such a way that it resembles a rule book, where each rule is numbered and one must follow from one step to the next. The text is written along the lines of a work of dramatic fiction and underneath all the sexual content and details of married life it appears to take on the characteristics of classical Indian drama (Doniger 2003: 20). The Kamasutra therefore consists of characters whose sex lives are used to demonstrate the appropriate behaviours to be undertaken by the householders. The man and woman whose lives are illustrated throughout the text are called the hero (nayaka), the heroine (nayika), and the men who assist the hero are termed the libertine (pitamarda), pander (vita) and clown (vidushaka) (Doniger 2001:88 and Doniger 2003:20). Like most classical Indian dramas as noted above, the Kamasutra is composed of seven acts. Each act depicts the different phases of the hero’s life. Act one is an introduction into the text giving a general idea of love and its involvement in the lives of men and women. Act two is an in-depth discussion on the beginnings of sexual techniques. Act three describes the process of acquiring a potential wife and engaging in marriage. Act four is the section in which the text describes the proper conduct of a wife and her roles in a marriage. Act five depicts how a male goes about seducing other women and other men’s wives. Act six is the exploration of various women, more specifically those who are courtesans. Finally, act seven is the exposition of the male exploring different aphrodisiacs and magic spells as a means of attracting others to himself.

Throughout the text, there are a total of sixty-four chapters [The Kamasutra is not entirely composed of prose but also includes several loka verses which are cited at the end of each chapter. These loka verses comprise about a tenth of the total text, see Kakar (2002)]. Within the Indian culture, sixty-four is considered to be a sacred number, somewhat of a natural number. Hence the sixty-four various sexual positions or arts, depicted in the text (Kakar xxiii). Vatsyayana believed that there are eight different ways of making love, and within those eight there are eight different positions totalling sixty-four forms of the art on love. The Kamasutra does not only prescribe how the male should act throughout the householder stage in search of kama, but it also prescribes duties and actions of how a female should act as well. These sixty-four forms of art in which the female is encouraged to perform include, singing, dancing, cutting leaves into shapes, arranging flowers, playing water sports, making costumes, the science of strategy (Kakar 1.3.15) and many more. Therefore, Vatsyayana suggested that women should at one point be encouraged to read the Kamasutra, “[a] woman should do this before she reaches the prime of her youth, and she should continue when she has been given away, if her husband wishes it” (Kakar 1.3.2).

In total, about one-fifth of the text is committed to the art of love making and sexual pleasure, while the rest is guidance for males and females in their relationships and relationships of that with others. It has helped those who are in the householder stage of life on their pursuit to fulfill the goal of kama. Vatsyayana gave a positive definition of kama in which,

“[p]leasure, in general, consists in engaging the ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose each in its own approptriate sensation, all under the control of the mind and heart driven by the conscious self. Pleasure in its primary form, however, is a direct experience by the sensual pleasure of erotic arousal that results from the particular sensation of touch. A man learns about pleasure from the Kamasutra and from associating with the circle of men-about town” (Kakar 1.2.11-13).

Although today in Western society, people still consider the Kamasutra to be solely based on depictions of sexual endeavours; those who follow tradition will find that the Kamasutra is a text of useful insight and guidance on their pursuit of love and pleasure. In summation, the fundamental effect one might feel while reading and following the Kamasutra is an overall experience of sukha (happiness).


Burton, Sir Richard and F.F. Arbuthonot (1997) Kamasutra of Vatsyayana. Mumbai; Jaico Publishing House.

Doniger, Wendy (2001) “On Translating the Kamasutra: A Gurudakshina for Daniel H.H. Ingalls.” Journal of Indian Philosophy. 29 no. 1-2 April, p 81-94.

______ (2002) “On the Kamasutra.” Daedalus. Spring, vol. 131 Issue 2, p126-129.

______ (2003) “The Kamasutra: It Isn’t All About Sex.” Kenyon Review. Winter, vol. 25 Issue 1, p 18-36.

Kakar, Sudhir (2002) Kamasutra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ostor, Akos (1992) Concepts of Person: Kinship, Caste, and Marriage in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, Valerie (2002) “Text as Cultural Antagonist: The ‘Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana’.” Journal of Communication Inquiry. April vol. 26, Issue2, p 133-154.

Rocher, Ludo (1985) “The Kamasutra: Vatsyayana’s Attitude towards Dharma and Dharmasastra.” Journal of the American Oriental Society; Jul.-Sept., vol. 105, no. 3, p 521- 529.

Thomas, P. (1956) Kama Kalpa: The Hindu Ritual of Love. Bombay; D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kama Sastra

Dharma Sastra

The Laws of Manu


Artha Sastra




Rati Rahasya

Koka Pandit

Ananga Ranga






Courtesans (Act Six)

Aphrodisiacs and drugs (Act Seven)

64 arts

Women in the Kamasutra

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Alicia Penny (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Death Hospitals in Kashi (Kasi)

The people of the Hindu tradition travel from near and far on the brink of death to inhale their final breath in their sacred City of Banaras. Banaras’ city circumference is marked by the panch-kroshi (also spelled, panch-kosi), a pilgrimage route that, at times, has approximately tens of thousands of pilgrims walking along its paths. The entire route of the panch-kroshi is about 50 miles long and generally takes five days to complete (Parry 15). The pilgrimage route of panch-kroshi is deemed so extraordinary due to the belief of the Hindu’s that all who die within this boundary will attain moksa, a Hindu’s lifelong quest for liberation (Justice 20). Hindu’s refer to the sacred city of Banaras as Kashi and speak of the attainment of moksa as ending the unwanted cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This continuous cycle, known as mukti, exists for each Hindu until moksa is accomplished (Justice 49). Kashyam marnam mukti means ‘death in Kashi is liberation’; this often quoted Sanskrit tag beautifully sums up the almost universal belief of a Hindu (Parry 21). Once this liberation has been attained, mukti ceases and the ghost of the dead is able to rise up past hell and rebirth, into heaven where it stays unchanging forever. Exceptions and regulations exist for proper attainment of moksa; a few exceptions to reaching moksa HoweverHmay be ones final thoughts, and which riverbank in Banaras one dies. The city of Banaras is located between Delhi and Calcutta in the middle of the Ganges valley (Parry 33). The Ganges River separates Banaras into two riverbanks, the west and the east. The west bank is where one will find the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the center of Kashi where it is often believed that on the west bank of Banaras, “[the] universe is created at the beginning of time and the universe burns at the end of time” (Justice 20). It is on the west bank that moksa is granted (provided the right frame of mind and other requirements have been met). The east bank is usually vacant due to people’s fear of dying on that side of the bank because of the belief that those who expire on the east bank will not attain moksa; instead, rebirth as a jackass will occur (Justice16).

As previously mentioned, there are regulations to the attainment of moksa for a Hindu. It is sometimes said that the physical act of dying in Kashi is, in fact, not a direct guarantee to mukti. Also, it is not guaranteed that one will attain mukti immediately after death. The mindset at the moment of death is what determines the speed and level of mukti that the dying will achieve. If one dies in Kashi but does not have the proper mindset at the moment of passing to achieve immediate mukti, then they will be reborn again a specified number of times before the process is ended, finally allowing them to proceed to heaven (Justice 172). There are four levels of mukti that one can arrive at, which level is attained is based on the dying thoughts one produces. Salokya is when one resides in the same world as god; samipya, the dead remain near to god; sarupya, one will take the same form of god and in sayuja, the highest level, one actually becomes merged with god (Justice173).

Within the City of Banaras there are places set up where people and a few of their loved ones are welcome to stay while they await the final breath of a family member. These places are similar to a hospital but instead of the goal of saving the dying, their purpose is to let people die in a way that allows them to attain immediate, and the highest-level of, mukti while in Kashi. Two of the hospitals that will be discussed still exist in Kashi today, although unfortunately with declining popularity. The Ganga-labh Bhavan, the first of these death hospitals, is located in the most populous area of Manikarnika and is unfortunately difficult to travel to, especially when attempted by those who are weakened by encroaching death. The three-story Ganga-labh Bhavan was once used as a Manikarnika police station; it began by two rich capitalist families, one of which traveled to Kashi bringing their grandmother for kashi-labh (promise of salvation). They found it difficult to locate a place to settle while they stayed in Manikarnika and began to wonder how anyone lower than their financial situation would find accommodation either. This capitalist family joined with another, together, they chose to lease this former police station and begin running it as a hostel where people are welcome to stay while they, or a loved one dies (Justice 59). It is thought that since the beginning of the Ganga-labh Bhavan approximately 10 000 people have died and 12 000 have registered between the walls of this three-story building (Justice 58). Since the introduction of the Ganga-labh Bhavan there are a number of rules to be followed to maintain order and allow the ghat (river frontage) to function the way it was intended to. Some of these rules include: a dying pilgrim can stay at most fifteen days; untouchables and those with infectious diseases are not permitted to stay; do not associate with the noble people staying at the rest house next door; pay special attention that you do not do things which may trouble or inconvenience others; within twenty-four hours of the pilgrim becoming Kashi-labh (‘the profit of Kashi’, attainment of salvation), the accompanying people must free up the Bhavan (Justice 60-61). It is evident through these rules that a caste system exists up until the moment of death and that the ghat is there for a purpose. Even the dying are not equal, although their bodies are deteriorating in the same fashion, some Hindu’s are still seen as more prestigious and noble than others; the act of dying itself does not even change the rules and roles of a caste system.

The second, and currently the most favoured of these hospitals of death is the Kashi-labh Muktibhavan. A man named Jaydal Dalmia, whose mother happily passed away within the boundary of Kashi, founded the Muktibhavan. After their mother’s death and death ceremonies were completed, Dalmia and his brother used the left over rupees for religious purposes and purchased a building with the intention to provide a satsang where music, religious chanting and recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita would take place. Dalmia and his brother had no intention of producing a home for the dying, but they did invite those who were fading from life to join them in their satsang. After a year or more, people started to travel to the Muktibhavan for the purpose of dying, and thus, the death hospital that it is today began (Justice 63-65). Muktibhavan is not in the center of Manikarnika as the Ganga-labh Bhavan is, yet it is the more used of the two; this is because Muktibhavan is in a less crowded area and has easier access from the railway station (Justice 126). Although Muktibhavan is further from the “center of the universe” it is said to have a more religious feel due to the constant spiritual chants, music, and the reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (Justice 126). A major objective of the Muktibhavan is to yield the maximum spiritual benefit of each guest by providing amenities that capitalize on the spiritual atmosphere for the dying. The services offered by the Muktibhavan include specific rituals and a list of rules and restrictions designed to create a religious environment. A number of these regulations include: only those faithful believers and sick on the brink of death are allowed to stay; a place to stay will be available for fifteen days, if there is a special need, with the permission from the manager, one will be able to stay; the making of food must be done on a closed stove using charcoal, there should not be any type of smoke in the rooms or verandas; those infected with infectious diseases cannot stay; incompatible, indecent or reprehensible behaviour will not be tolerated (Justice 174). The underlying rules of each of the hospitals of death within Kashi are quite similar which makes sense since they each are vying for the same purpose.

The Holy City of Banaras has been around in the eyes of believers since existence itself began. The tradition of dying within the panch-kroshi will continue for as long as the belief of dying within the boundaries of panch-kroshi attains that moksa. As travel to Kashi continues the sacredness of each of the death hospitals, Ganga-labh Bhavan and Kashi Labh Muktibhavan, will persist. They will continue aiding the dying on their journey to their sacred space in heaven through achieving the highest level of mukti. As the tradition of dying in Kashi continues, so will it also draw in new believers through the popularity that it has attained, and so on the cycle will continue.


Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Further Recommended Readings

Filippi, Gian Giuseppe (1996) Mrtyu: concept of death in Indian traditions:

transformation of the body and funeral rites. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life – giving waters: cremation, caste and

cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Prakash, Satya (1985) Hindu Religion and Mortality. New Delhi: Asian Publication


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita




Ganges Valley



Manikarnika Ghat









Jaydal Dalmia

Death Rites


Notable Websites

Written by Sarah Richardson (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.