Sati was abolished to protect religious tradition, not women

sati in colonial india

Why You Should Read This

  • The abolition of Sati in 1829 is widely regarded as one of the first steps on India’s path towards becoming ‘modern’.
  • Some credit the British with ending sati, regarding it as a symbol of the positive legacy of colonial ruleUsually mentioned alongside the railways.. Others see it as the result of progressive elements within Hindu society pushing to reform their religious practices.
  • Both of these narratives assume that sati was abolished to end the suffering of widows and to improve the status of women in Hindu society.
  • This seminal paper, written by Lata Mani 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.
  • We’ve condensed the original 16,000-word paper into a 2,500-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 12 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. When the British first established their rule in India, they wanted to govern using simple, universal laws. But they didn’t find any – Indians mostly lived by unwritten 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 local religious practices.They wanted to keep administration easy so they could focus on their main goal: extracting taxes😈
      • So they implemented a legal system that did not deviate too much from what they understood to be the existing order.
    • They decided that in all issues with regard to personal law – marriage, divorce, inheritance, succession — they would apply the laws derived from a person’s religion. So Muslims would be governed according to ‘Islamic law’ and Hindus according to ‘Hindu law’.
    • But at the time, 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 each of which had different customs.
      • Disputes were largely settled in accordance with local customs, which were unwritten and varied widely from place to place and caste to caste.
  2. In the case of Hindus, they positioned a collection of Brahmin religious texts as laws, creating what we now know as “Hindu law”. 
    • Uncomfortable with the ambiguity and the unwritten nature of caste customs, the British sought written texts that could serve as law.
      • In their view, Brahmin scriptures like the Srutiswhich include the Vedas and the Upanishads and Smritisalso known as Dharmashastras, the most famous of which is the Manusmriti the closest things to the written rules of the Hindu faith.
    • However, they realised that most natives were fairly ignorant about these scriptures. Instead of questioning whether all natives truly regarded these scriptures as lawlike the Brahmins did, the British decided that this meant that Hindus were ignorant of their own “religion”.🤦
    • The basis for this entire legal system was a flawed understanding of Indian history held by British colonial officials. The British believed that Islamic rule had caused Hindu society to fall into decline from the long lost “Golden Age” of the scriptures.
      • According to them, this was the reason most non-Brahmins didn’t know the contents of these texts.
      • They also believed that corrupt and self-serving Brahmins used this situation to their advantage.
    • Having decided that most Hindus were ignorant of their religion, the British made “the regeneration of Hindu society” one of the core principles of their rule. And so, they began to build a legal system around the religious texts they saw as a record of India’s lost traditions.🧐
      • Through this process, the British began to control and define what counted as “authentic Hindu religious practices”. As a result, they transformed Hindu society. as we shall see in the example of the abolition of sati.
  3. These religious texts were vague and contradictory. And initially, the British couldn’t even read the original Sanskrit scriptures. To deal with the confusion, they came up with a ranking system for the texts. They also appointed Brahmin pundits to interpret them, who often came up with very different conclusions. The British then decided what sounded more authentic.
    • The British assumed these texts to be “prescriptive texts containing rules of social behavior” even though the evidence for this claim was weak.
    • These scriptures were written over many centuries by many different authors. They were vague and used abstract language. And they constantly contradicted each other, which was less than ideal if you wanted to derive laws from them.😶
      • To deal with these issues, the British devised a system – older texts were more authoritative than newer ones, they said. So the Sruti were given top priority, 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.
      • Caste customs were given legal recognition but were thought to be inferior to scriptural laws.
    • In courtrooms, Brahmin pandits acted as interpreters who would take legal questions posed by judges and extract answers from the various scriptures in response.
      • 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.”😵
  4. When the British courts first encountered sati, they interpreted it through this convoluted legal 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 soodur”, it was ‘permitted’.
      • He did qualify that 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.”
    • Those seemingly shaky grounds eventually became the basis for regulations that officially recognised sati as part of Hindu religious practice.
      • 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. Having legalised sati on the basis of scripture, the British government now had to ensure that only “scripturally authentic” sati was practiced. This included judges clarifying every minute detail about what a “good sati” involved and officials attending satis so they could ensure that the rules were being followed.
    • From the understanding that sati had to be performed according to the scriptures, 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. Most British officials, however, 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 many precise details about the right way to perform sati: 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 contradictory and vague religious texts and the judges recorded them as rules. Thus, sati became even more formalized than before.
    • In fact, while women burned alive, government officials recorded everything on paper 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.
      • 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, Hindu reformers, and orthodox Hindus.
    • 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 the practice was followed mostly only among upper castes, the official British position remained that sati was an integral part of Hindu religious practice and that opposing it would upset all Hindus.
  7. For British officials, the primary concern was whether sati could be “safely” banned without upsetting natives. Some among them were convinced that this was possible, primarily because sati was not being practiced according to the scriptures.
    • British officials who were 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 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” performed for “the spiritual benefit of the widow and the deceased” – which was what the scriptures required.
        • Ewer also pointed out that the various scriptures had differing views on the issue, including the Manusmriti.
    • Thus British officials like Ewer, though in favour of abolishing sati, argued against the practice not because it was cruel but because it was being practiced wrongly. By banning it, the British were seeking to uphold what they considered Indian tradition.
  8. Raja Rammohun Roy, the most outspoken and famous representative of the Hindu reformers, argued that the scriptures actually recommended a life of harsh, highly restricted widowhood over 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 was 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”.
  9. Standing in opposition to Rammohun and colonial officials like Ewer were the orthodox Hindus, 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 as an alternative in case the widow is unable to perform sati. They interpret this as 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.”😱
        • However, after having quoted it to support their argument, they also attacked the Manusmriti saying that it didn’t mention many other important customary practices such as Durga Puja. Therefore, they argued the Manusmriti not recommending sati did not mean it was not required.
      • They also argued that the passage in the Vedas which Roy had dismissed was more important as the Vedas were older than the Manusmriti 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 created famework of “Hindu law,” which was defined by British officials and court pandits. Each party sought to use the contradictions of this system to their advantage.
    • The entire debate revolved around a selective reading of Brahmanical scriptures to support their pre-existing conclusions.
  11. Ultimately, the 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 abolishing sati was only enforcing what was commanded by Hindu scripture. He stated that 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. They were merely the embodiment of tradition, which is what the men really wanted to discuss.
    • 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 seen as the living embodiment of 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.

Source text: Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
Author: Lata Mani
Publication: Cultural Critique (1987)

Note: This is a summary of a single research paper. It reflects one argument that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It may not offer the full picture or represent consensus on this topic, both of which are always evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.