Two articles appear below:

1 The Abolition of Sati in India        K Straughen

2 Abolition of Suttee                        Anonymous

The Abolition of Sati in India

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 118, 2008 January)


Sati (sometimes spelt 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

In traditional Indian 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.

Sati 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.

Sati was prevalent among 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 India webpage)

The Frequency of Sati

The 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:

There 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 on Sati)

Indigenous Social Reformers

Although sati was a part of Hindu culture, there were Indians who strongly condemned the custom, even in ancient times. For example: "Criticisms of the custom 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).

Reform movements within 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.

The 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:

"Rammohan Roy 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).

Roy's 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:
"In the social, legal and 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).

Roy also championed the 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.

Christian Influences

Christianity 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:

"The pioneers of [reformed] 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)

Roy was 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.

Indeed, Christianity was 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).

The 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.
"Emboldened by support from 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).


To what extent was 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.

The extent that 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.

Bentinck, 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 custom.

That 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 norms.

Finally, 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.


Ram Mohan Roy:

Brahmo Samaj Website:

Hindu Christian Theology: theol.htm


Lord William Bentinck:

The Tradition of Sati in India:

Women in World History — Sati:

Basham, A.L. The Wonder that was India, Third Revised Edition, Sedgwick & Jackson, London, 1969.



(Investigator 119, 2008 March)

Mr Straughen's statistics for suttee (or "sati") in #118 compare with what I supplied in #115.

However, 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.

Straughen writes that 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.

If 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.

Ram 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.

Trying to apportion 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.

1st 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.