1 The Abolition of Sati in
India K Straughen
2 Abolition of Suttee
The Abolition of Sati in
suttee) refers to the Hindu custom where a widow throws herself upon
her husband's funeral pyre in an act of self immolation. The purpose of
this essay is to outline the reasons for the custom, and the factors
responsible for its eventual abandonment on a large scale
(unfortunately, cases still occasionally occur in contemporary India –
one in 1987 and another in 2002).
Sati and the Traditional
Status of Widows
society, the fate of widows was very harsh – they were denied the right
to remarry, and were considered an inauspicious burden to all but their
own children. Indeed, the widow's life was that of a virtual ascetic,
with the remainder of her days spent in prayer and the performance of
rituals for the welfare of her deceased husband's soul.
was, in theory,
voluntary rather than mandatory. However, social and family pressure
together with the belief that the widow, by her sacrifice, could
expunge her own sins and those of her husband may, in many cases have
been so great that the grieving woman had little choice but to comply
with these unvoiced expectations.
certain sects of the society in ancient India, who either took the vow
or deemed it a great honour to die on the funeral pyres of their
husbands. Ibn Batuta (1333 A.D.) has observed that Sati was considered
praiseworthy by the Hindus, without however being obligatory. The Agni
Purana [religious text] declares that the woman who commits shaggymane
[another name for sati] goes to heaven. However, Medhatiti [religious
text] pronounced that Sati was like suicide and was against the
Shastras, the Hindu code of conduct. It is believed that they were not
coerced, although several wives committed Sati. The majority of the
widows did not undergo Sati. (Quoted from The Tradition of Sati in
The Frequency of Sati
exact number of widows
who committed sati is difficult to calculate, however, estimates based
on known figures suggest a frequency of less that one percent:
are no reliable
figures for the numbers who died by sati across the country. A local
indication of the numbers is given in the records kept by the Bengal
Presidency of the British East India Company. The total figure of known
occurrences for the period 1813 to 1828 is 8,135, thus giving an
average of about 600 per year. Bentinck, in his 1829 report, states
that 420 occurrences took place in one (unspecified) year in the ‘Lower
Provinces' of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and 44 in the ‘Upper Provinces'
(the upper Gangetic plain). Given a population of over 50 million at
the time for the Presidency, this suggests a maximum frequency of
immolation among widows of well under 1%. (Quoted from Wikipedia entry
Indigenous Social Reformers
sati was a part of
Hindu culture, there were Indians who strongly condemned the custom,
even in ancient times. For example: "Criticisms of the
were not unknown. It was condemned by the humane poet Bana, in the 7th
century, and by the tantric sects, which even declared that the woman
burning herself on her husband's pyre went straight to hell." (Page 189
in The Wonder that was India).
Hinduism generally condemned sati. Examples of these include the Alvars
(8th century) and Virashavia (12th and 13th centuries). The most
vigorous attempt to ban sati, however, was made by Aurongyeb
(1618 1707), ruler of the Mughal Empire.
major 19th century
reformer who campaigned for the abolition of sati was Ram Mohan Roy
(1772-1833), founder of Brahmo Samaj (established in 1828),
an Indian socio-religious movement:
embarked on a
massive mission of social reform. His first action was to wage a
tireless crusade against the act of suttee. He gave petitions to the
English government and published tracts championing the cause for women
... Due to his efforts the lord William Bentinck abolished the act of
suttee on 4th December 1829." (Quoted from the Impact on Society page
of the Brahmo Samaj Website).
chief motivation for
campaigning against sati was witnessing his sister in law die as a
result of this practice. Additional religious reforms that he advocated
included monotheism. He also denounced rituals, condemning them as
meaningless and a source of superstition. He also published Bengali
translations of the Vedas (Hindu Scriptures) to support his views, and
in 1814 established the Amitya Sabha to promote rationality in
religion. His own religious beliefs can be summarised as follows:
religious reforms that he advocated, Roy was moved primarily by
considerations of humanity. He took pains to show that his aim was not
to destroy the best traditions of the country, but merely to brush away
some of the impurities that had gathered on them in the days of
decadence. He respected the Upanishads [a group of late Vedic
metaphysical treatises] and studied the Sutras [concise rules or
teachings in Hindu or Buddhist literature]. He condemned idolatry in
the strongest terms. He stated that the best means of achieving bliss
was through pure spiritual contemplation of the Supreme Being, and that
sacrificial rites were intended only for persons of less subtle
intellect." (Quoted from the Wikipedia entry on Ram Mohan Roy).
cause of women by denouncing polygamy, and demanding property
inheritance rights for them. As well as a reformer, Roy was also an
educationalist who believed schooling to be a powerful instrument for
effecting social change.
has existed in
India since very early times. The first reliable evidence is found in
the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century
Alexandrian monk. In this account of his travels, he notes the
existence of Nestorian churches in Kerala, in South India. According to
tradition, the Church in Kerala was founded by St Thomas. Historians,
however, have been unable to confirm this legend. What is clear,
though, is that the influence of Christianity on reform movements dates
from a much later period, and is linked to Hindu nationalism:
Indian theology were not Christians but enlightened Hindus who came
under the strong influence of Western thought and Christianity. These
enlightened nationalists [such as Ram Mohan Roy] wanted to reform
Hinduism and Indian society, thereby counterbalancing Christian
missionary activities." (Quoted from Hindu Christian Theology webpage)
not a Christian,
nor did he seek to convert his fellow Indians to Christianity. He
interpreted Jesus in the light of Hindu mystic traditions, and
accommodated those elements of Christianity he considered appropriate
under the broad umbrella of Hinduism, whose universalistic and
absorptive characteristics lends itself to syncretism.
rejected by most Hindus because of its dogmatic insistence that it was
the only 'True' religion. Furthermore, being the religion of their
European masters, Christianity became associated in the minds of many
Indians with colonial imperialism, and thus was seen as the "white
man's" instrument of cultural subversiveness (a 2001 census revealed
that only 2.3% of the Indian population are Christian).
actions of indigenous
reformers, such as Roy, proved effective – Lord William Bentinck, the
Governor General of India, was encouraged by their opposition and
banned the practice of sati. Bentinck, himself a reformer, was
influenced by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill,
which emphasised a scientific basis for philosophy and a humanist
approach to politics and economics.
Indians such as Ram Mohan Roy and influenced by the Utilitarian
philosophy which sought the greatest good for the greatest number of
people through legislation, Lord William Bentinck,
governor-general of the [East India] Company's possessions in
India from 1828 to 1835, promulgated legislation criminalizing sati in
1829. Controversy persisted during the 1830s because of continuing
episodes of sati." (Quoted from Women in World History webpage).
Christianity responsible for banning the practice of sati? In my
opinion it played a role, but not one as great as apologists would have
us believe. Christianity has existed in India since the 6th century at
the very least, yet it made no discernible impact on the practice.
Christianity played in motivating indigenous reformers such as Roy also
appears to be minor. This conclusion is based on the fact that he did
not convert to the religion, but continued to study the religious
writings of Hinduism, and used them in support of his views. Indeed, as
previously mentioned, the primary factor that initiated his opposition
to sati was witnessing his sister in law die as a result of the act.
who banned the
practice, may have been nominally Christian, but seems to have been
largely influenced and motivated by the ideas of utilitarianism.
Furthermore, although outlawed the practice of sati continued, and it
took large social reforms spearheaded by non Christians such as Ram
Mohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati and Mahatma Gandhi to eliminate the
Europeans were able to
recognize the injustice and cruelty inflicted on Indian widows is due
to them being foreigners. The outsider, not bound up in the cultural
milieu of a society, is more apt to see social injustice than someone
raised in that culture and indoctrinated from birth into the prevailing
the reason why the
ancient reformers, such as the Alvars did not succeed in eliminating
the practice of sati is most likely due to the fact they were unable to
gain the support of the ruling elite.
Tradition of Sati in
World History —
A.L. The Wonder
that was India, Third Revised Edition, Sedgwick & Jackson, London,
THE ABOLITION of SUTTEE
(Investigator 119, 2008
Mr Straughen's statistics for suttee (or "sati") in #118 compare with
what I supplied in #115.
we know that in
our 21st century, despite careful collating of statistics, the actual
incidence of most sorts of crime exceeds reported cases. Two centuries
ago in non-literate India, with poor roads and poor communications the
disproportion must have been much greater.
Indian reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) influenced Governor General
William Bentinck to abolish suttee. However, my article revealed that
William Carey (1761-1834) tried to intervene in actual cases, lobbied
against suttee for 30 years, and translated Bentinck's law abolishing
Suttee into Bengali.
Christianity came to
India about 600 AD, as Straughen suggests, then it by its preaching and
example, as well as statements in the Bible, opposed suttee in India
for 12 centuries.
Mohan Roy knew about
Christianity and knew it opposed suttee. Therefore, although he
witnessed the self-immolation of his sister-in-law Christianity must
have contributed to him realizing better standards were possible.
percentages to different influences, however, is an exercise for
historians and goes beyond my article in #115. There's also the
philosophical problem (discussed in #104 pp 22-23) that we cannot
define the complete "cause" of anything, even for seemingly obvious
cases such as glass breaking when a rock flies through a closed window.
century Christians had
the then revolutionary idea of assistance, similar to a pension, for
ordinary people such as widows. (I Timothy 5:9-10) This is a better
standard than burning them.