Sati was abolished to protect religious tradition, not women

Original Paper:

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India by Lata Mani


Why You Should Read This

  • The abolition of Sati in 1829 is widely regarded as one of the foundational steps in India becoming ‘modern’.
  • There are multiple versions of how it happened:
    • In the most common telling of the story, the British take credit for ending sati, using it as a symbol of the positive legacy of colonial rule (usually mentioned alongside the railways).
    • Another view is that the abolition of sati was the result of progressive elements within Hindu society pushing to reform their religious practices.
  • Both of these narratives rest on the assumption that sati was abolished to end the suffering of widows and to improve the status of women in Hindu society. Both are wrong.
  • This seminal paper, published in 1987, argues that the abolition of sati had little to do with the horrifying nature of burning women alive and more to do with protecting tradition.
  1. The company wanted to enforce simple, universal religious laws. But they didn’t find any – there were only caste laws.

    • By the end of the 18th century, the East India Company was governing a large part of India.
    • Company officials didn’t want to “provoke indigenous outrage” by interfering in their religious practices.
      • They wanted to keep administration easy so they could focus on their main goal: extracting tax from colonies.😈
    • So they implemented a legal system that did not deviate too much from the existing order… or rather what the Company understood to be the existing order.
    • They decided that in all issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, succession — personal law — they would apply religious law – so Muslims would be governed according to ‘Islamic law’ and Hindus according to ‘Hindu law’.
    • But there was no ‘Hindu law’ in the way we understand law today.
      • Before the arrival of the British, society in India was and still is essentially a collection of castes in a graded hierarchy which had different customs.
      • Disputes were largely decided by local customs, which were unwritten and varied widely from place to place and caste to caste.
  2. So, the company declared some contradictory Brahmin scriptures to be laws, creating what we now know as “Hindu law”.

    • The British were not comfortable with all this ambiguity. They were in search of clear and precise rules that they could apply universally.
    • They deemed Brahminic scriptures like the Srutis and Smritis as the most important scriptures of India.
    • But they also realised that natives were fairly ignorant about these scriptures.
    • Instead of questioning whether all natives truly held these scriptures to be important, the British held that this means that Indians are ignorant of their “religion”. 🤦
    • The British assumed that “Hindu” and the “Islamic” societies are sharply different with no overlaps.
      • They thus believed that Islamic rule had caused Hindu society to fall into decline from the long lost Golden Age of the scriptures.
      • And that this is the reason why people didn’t know the contents of these texts, which corrupt and self-serving Brahmins used to their advantage.
    • So they decided: Indians are ignorant of their religion, and Brahminical scriptures are India’s lost tradition.
      • They made “the regeneration of Hindu society” one of the core principles of their rule.And so they gave these texts the status of law!
      • Through this process, the British began to control and define what counted as ‘authentic Hindu religious practices’, transforming Hindu society in the process. As we shall see in the example of sati.
    • But many of the texts used vague and abstract language – which was not great if you wanted to use them as laws.
      • They also constantly contradicted each other.
      • The British assumed them to be “prescriptive texts containing rules of social behavior” while the evidence for it was weak.
      • It is important to remember that these scriptures were written over many centuries by many different authors.
        • To deal with these issues, the British devised a ranking system. Older texts were more authoritative than newer ones, they said. So the Srutis or Vedas were ranked at the top, followed by the Smritis, and the commentaries came last.
        • But there were exceptions to these rules. Despite being written much after the Srutis, the Manusmriti is considered the most important text of all – the source of all Hindu jurisprudence. Local customs were given legal recognition but were thought to be less important than scriptural laws.
  3. But the British couldn’t read these Sanskrit scriptures. They appointed Brahmin pundits to interpret them, who often came up with very different conclusions. The British then decided what sounded more authentic.

    • But wait there’s one more thing: British judges couldn’t actually read the vast majority of these texts🤭, which existed only in Sanskrit.The Manusmriti was the first to be translated, which might explain its outsized importance
      • So Brahmin pandits acted as interpreters who would take a legal question posed by a judge and extract an answer from the various scriptures in response.
      • The pandits’ interpretation of scripture played a crucial role in the newly-emerging legal system.
      • But since the scriptures were vague, two pandits could arrive at opposite conclusions based on the same text.😶
        • In such situations, it was colonial officials who provided the final analysis. They decided which pandit’s opinions were “essential” and which were “peripheral.”😵
    • The basis for this entire legal system was a flawed understanding of Indian history held by British colonial officials.
  4. When the British courts first encountered sati, they interpreted it through this incredibly confusing system and concluded that the government must allow sati as long as it was practiced according to the scriptures.

    • In 1805, a pandit of the Nizamat Adalatthe highest court in Bengal at the time was asked if Hindu law required widows to perform sati.
    • He consulted the scriptures and responded that for the “four” castes“brahmin, khetry, bues and soo”, it was ‘permitted.
      • He did qualify the response with a list of exceptions to the ruleprovided she has not infant children, nor is pregnant, nor in a state of uncleanness, nor under the age of puberty. Women with infant children could burn provided they made arrangements for their care and the disclaimer “to the best of my knowledge.”
    • And those shaky grounds eventually became the basis for regulations that officially recognised sati as part of Hindu religious practice.
      • However, about a decade later, another pandit in the same Nizamat Adalat offered a different interpretation. He said that the scriptures did not permit sati at all. But his view was ignored.
  5. But having legalised sati on the basis of scripture, the British government now had to ensure that only “scripturally authentic” sati was practiced. This included clarifying every detail about “good sati” and even attending satis so they could ensure that the rules were being followed.

    • A “good sati”, which followed the rules, and “bad sati”, which didn’t, were born.🙄
      • On paper, the fundamental criteria of a “good sati” was that it was voluntary. Even though most British officials seemed to believe this was impossible in practice.
    • The rest of the rules were made up as they went along.
      • During legal cases, judges asked pandits to clarify more precise details: Whether a pregnant woman should do it, whether a young wife who hasn’t attained puberty should, whether it could be done while the woman was on her period, on which side of the man’s body the woman’s must lie and so on.
      • The pandits provided their opinionswhich were, as you will remember, based on interpretations of selected Brahminical contradictory and vague texts and the judges recorded them as rules.
      • So sati became even more formalized than before.
    • In fact, while women burned alive, officials were present and they… recorded everything to ensure that nothing was in contravention of the rules.😢
      • There were at least 8,134 satis between 1815 and 1828 in the area around Calcutta alone.
      • Here’s one thing though: the records of this period tell us that not everyone practiced sati. There was a huge variation by region but even more importantly — by caste. It was recorded mainly, though not exclusively, among upper caste Hindus. Some districts recorded no cases at all and in others, only certain castes practiced it.
  6. Over the first two decades of the 19th century, a public debate began to take place about the abolition of sati. There were three main parties to this debate: the British colonial government, Indian reformers, and orthodox Indians.

    • While the government seemed happy to permit and regulate the practice of sati, some colonial officials viewed sati as a cruel, inhumane practice and even tried to prevent it. 
      • They were also under pressure from Christian missionaries, who had been campaigning against it in India, and in Britain.
      • Despite the fact that mostly upper castes followed the practice, the official British position remained that sati was an integral part of Hindu religious practice and that opposing it would upset all Hindus.
  7. The British: For British officials, the primary concern was whether Sati could be “safely” banned without provoking natives.

    • Those against abolishing it stressed the original basis for legalising it — that it was a religious practice with scriptural sanction.
      • Those in favour of abolition argued that, in practice, sati had little similarity to the ritual described in religious texts.
      • Regardless of whether they were for or against the abolition, the scriptures were the point of focus, not the inherent evil of sati.
        • In 1818, Walter Ewer, a superintendent of police in the Lower Provincespresent day West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam and Bihar, wrote a letter to the judicial department on the subject of sati.
        • Personally, Ewer was in favour of abolishing sati.
        • He wrote that, in his districts, families coerced widows to perform sati to save the expense of supporting them or to be rid of their claim to the family wealth. Brahmin pandits, who earned money from performing the ceremony, also exerted pressure.
        • To him, sati was far from a “voluntary act of devotion” for “the spiritual benefit of the widow and the deceased”.
        • Ewer also pointed out that the various scriptures had differing views on the issue, including the Manusmriti.
        • Ewer didn’t argue that sati should be banned because it was cruel but because it was being practiced wrongly. By banning it, the British would uphold Indian tradition.
  8. The Indian Abolitionists: Raja Rammohun Roy was the most outspoken and famous representative of the reformers who wanted to abolish sati.

    • Roy’s thoughts are best documented in a pamphlet he wrote on the debate in 1830, a year after sati was banned.
      • For Roy, the opinion of the Manusmriti was the most important. And he explained that the ancient text rejected sati in favour of women strictly living as widows devoted to their dead husband.
        • Called “ascetic widowhood,” this required widows to “continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing austere duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practicing the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to only one husband.🤐]
        • To further support his view, Roy quoted a line from the Vedas that says that “life should not be destroyed for future benefit.”
        • At the same time, he also dismissed another Vedic verse, which speaks of women entering the fire to stay with their husbands, arguing that it is vague and open to multiple interpretations.Full verse: O fire, let these women, with bodies anointed with clarified butter, eyes coloured with collyrium and void of tears, enter thee, the parent of water, that they may not be separated from their husbands, themselves sinless, and jewels amongst women. Roy believed the verse was a description of the cycles of the moon.
        • Finally, Roy argued even when certain other scriptures permitted sati, they required the widow to voluntarily enter the flames without any hope of reward. Like Ewer, he argued that the way sati was being practiced at the time violated both of these conditions and so amounted to “mere suicide” or “female murder”. (check paper once)
  9. The Orthodox Indians: In opposition to Rammohun and colonial officials like Ewer were orthodox Indians, who celebrated sati as a ritual willingly performed by devout Hindu women.

    • The orthodox view claimed the British had banned the practice based on an inaccurate reading of the scriptures.
      • Their views are laid out in an 1830 petition to the government protesting the abolition of sati…
    • They quote a line from the Manusmriti which suggests that ascetic widowhood can be considered if the widow is unable to perform sati. For them, this was a definitive command to perform sati. They also wrote that sati was the more humane of the two options as it involved only “short term suffering.” 😱
      • After having quoted it to support their argument, they then attacked the Manusmriti saying it didn’t include many other important customary practices such as Durga Puja.
    • They also argued that the passage in the Vedas which Roy had dismissed was more important as the Vedas were older and so, more authoritative.
      • They also tried to argue that the version of the Manusmriti not explicitly supporting sati could have been the result of a printing mistake because a different text quoted a line from the Manusmriti supporting sati.
  10. All three parties adhered fully to the rules of ‘colonial discourse’. That is, they tried to make their arguments on the basis of the newly freshly created “Hindu laws” which were defined by British officials and court pandits, using its contradictions to their advantage.

    • The entire debate revolved around a selective reading of Brahmanic scriptures to support their pre-existing conclusions.
  11. Ultimately, the Indian and British reformers won the debate and sati was abolished in 1829. But since the alternative to sati — ascetic widowhood — also came from scripture, it’s clear that law was passed to uphold tradition and had little to do with the rights of women.

    • William Bentinck, the governor-general at the time, said that the law was only enforcing what was commanded by Hindu scripture. By practicing ascetic widowhood instead of sati, women could be true to the laws of government and religion.
  12. So what about women? Women’s views were not part of the debate. And in the men’s view, women were seemingly incapable of having an opinion.

    • Official reports that recorded instances of sati tended to describe women who were forced to commit sati as victims of Hindu men.
    • On the other hand, women who willingly embraced the flames, were seen as victims of religion.
    • Either pathetic or heroic, but either way, they could only be victims.
    • If you look at it carefully, the debate was not even about women. The real point of the debate was discovering and restoring “true Hindu tradition.”
      • To put it in other words, women were neither the soldiers, nor the weapons in this battle. Rather, they were the battlefield on which men fought over their differing ideas of tradition.
    • The debate over sati was the first of many such conversations that happened in the 19th century, which seemingly had women’s issues at their centre, but had little concern for women.
      • In all of these conversations, women were expected to perform tradition.
      • For the British, rescuing women became part of their civilising mission.
      • And for the Indian elite, protecting or reforming the role of women became a necessity in order to preserve the honour of their society at large.
    • Thus, whether the issue was widow remarriage or the age of consent, the traditional role of women in society was constantly being debated, defined and redefined by men for men