'Sati' as a Religious Rite: Parliamentary Papers on Widow Immolation, 1821-30 Author(s): Vasudha Dalmia-Lüderitz Reviewed work(s): Source
: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Jan. 25, 1992), pp. PE58-PE64 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4397528 . Accessed: 12/12/2011 04:27
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'Sati' as a Religious Rite Parliamentary Papers on Widow Immolation, 1821-30
Vasudha Dalmia-Liideritz While 'H-indu fundamentalism' is a handy explanation for the recent resurfacing of the practice of 'sati, it blurs the vision and pre-empts the need for analysis of the nature of the contradictions inherent in policies inherited from the British and of the constitutive elements of the legal discourse, which suffered no rupture after independence, but became in fact more opaque than before. In this context, the Parliamentary Papers on Widow Immolation, 1821-30are of immense historical value not only for the evidence of the colonial denigratton of Hindu women and religion, but for the tensions and contradictions which they reveal, the unravelling of which has significance for the understanding of attitudes today.
'SATI'as the practiceof widow immolation came to be generally known under British rule, is still prevalentas isolated incident in India.' The case of an 18-yearold widow being burnt alive with the body of her husband in Rajasthan in September 1987 provokeda nation-widediscussion, as well as some ripples of excitement in the international press. The keyterms of the discussion, however, 'superstition' 'paganpractice, 'coercion', 'free decision'2 have a history which reaches far back into the debates enshrined in tbe ParliamentaryPapers on
Widow immolation, 1821-30.3 - If recent was 378 satis, 442 for 1816. The year 1817 recorded a total of 707, in 1818 it rose to 839. The years 1817 and 1818 had been cholera years, which could be a possible explanation for the rise, as well as the increased vigilance of the law officers in ascertaining and reporting cases of sati. But even though the figures decreased after that, they never went back to the original figures of 1815, whatever the justification for the increase. The fact that under British administration, the practice became more wvidely prevalent than before, was noted and discussed at length by British legislators and officials. It is not surprising therefore, that sati became the occasion for the most extensive documentation centring around women in the 19th century. In the first three decades of the century the sati issue became, in fact, the battle ground for conflicting ideologies, for violent missionary attacks on the nature and basis of Hindu civilisation, for agitated proclamations of faith, as well as for legal wrangling and bureaucratic insistence on detail. Thus, though worfen are ce-trally located in the debate, so enmeshed they in a network of structures and -es, that they often seem peripheral. In reconstructing the debate a century and a half later it becomes imperative then, that we consider the conceptions and preconceptions which colour the documentation and its evaluation. The first part of this paper will be concerned with the categories within which the woman as a legal subject deserving scrutiny becomes an object of documentation. The Parliamentary Papers seem to call specially for this treatment, since it was the express aim of the legal discourse which constitutes them, to encompass and control social reality through a set of concepts linked in a manner necessarily schematic. By a regulation of 1772 Hindus and Muslims were to be allowed to retain their own religious and social practice and were to be administered according to their own legal codes, for as Nathaniel Halhed, the first translator of the Code of Gentoo Laws clearly saw "Nothing can so favourably conduce to these two points [i e, the affections of the natives and the stability of the territorial acquisition] as a well-timed toleration in matters of religion, and an adoption of such original institutes of the country, as
controversiesare to be understood rather than taken for granted, then these Parliamentary Papers can yield information beyondstatistics and place names; they can help to disclose the interpretive framework, the contradictions inherentin the colonial situationand furtherbequeathed us, clarito fying therebysome of the pre-conditionsof the present response. There had been queries from district magistratesin Bengalregardingthe official attitudetowardssati sincethe 90s of the 18th century.4 Since 1812 the government of Bengal had sought to regulatethe practice in accordance with the Shastras, the legal treatisesof the Hindus. The practice,it was was authorisedby the laterlawascertained, givers of the Hindus, though not enjoined. A numberof restrictionswere more or less clearly defined: coercion was discouraged, extremeyouth, pregnancy, statesof impurit) ensuing from the period after pregnancy, menstruation, the existence of infant children.Womenof the Brahmancaste were only allowedto burnwith the remainsof the husbandratherthan with articlesbelonging to the deceased.Otherwisewomen of all the four 'clean' castes were allowed to burn. After the year 1815 detailed statistics specifyingname,age, casteof husband,date of immolation weremaintainedand at the end of the year duly scrutinised and evaluated.Strict vigilanceas to the enforcement of the Hindu regulations was periodically emphasised, but there was little change of policy till the rite was banned in 1829by William Bentinck,governorgeneral of India. Since 1815however, statisticshad exhithe bited a prevailingtendencyto increase.The figurefor the six divisionsof Bengalfor 1815
do not immediatelyclash with the laws and interests of the conquerors" (1776: ix). Panditsand maulavis as legal exegetesand advisors had been attachedto the Supreme Court since 1777, to the rest of the courts, following the CornwallisCode in 1793. The clash betweenreligiousinstitutesand post-enlightenment principlesof rationality which were held to be universally validthough they werebasedon principleswhich served 'the laws and interests of the conquerors' was to occasion much debate.But the imperialRomanswhom Halhed held up as an example,had apparentlymanaged to negotiate such difficulties (1781:ix). It was imperativethat stable criteria be established, for 'prescribedrules' were necessaryin order to pronounce judgment, as William Jones specified in his address to the Grand Juryin Calcuttain 1783.'Law'was to stand abovethe individualsense of justice (Jones, 1799:4-5). Halhed's compilation was held to be inadequate for these purposes by the following generation. Manu was the legendary legislatorof the Hindus and Jones set about translating the Institutes for the benefit of his fellow judges ip Calcutta. Jones was moved, while underliningthe importance of the code, 'its austere majesty that sounds like the languageof legislation and extorts a respectfulawe" to admit: It is system of despotismand priestcraft bothindeedlirnited law,but artfully conby spiring givemutualsupport,thoughwith to
mutual checks: it is filled ... with idle of superstitions, andwitha scheme theology most obscurely figurative and consequently liable to dangerous misconception... (1799:89, emphasis added).
Jonesjuxtaposedthis to the humanitarian practiceof Europeansociety: Whatever opinionin shortmaybe formed of
Manu' and his law, in a country happily enlightened by sound philosophy and the only true revelation, it must be remembered, that these laws are actually revered, as the word of the Most High, by nations of great importance to the political and commercial of interests Eutope,. . ." 11799:89. emphasis added 1. In addition to Manu, there was a vast corpus of legal literature which had been compiled through the ages and which seemed to defy all attempts. to derive a uniform code valid in all parts of the cinb-continent.
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Besidesthe tension betweenlocal usage and the code as the Britishattemptedto standardise it [Cohn, 1965], there was the dual natureof the authorityas it existedin British law as well, that the state "uphold the church's decrees' by seculai penalties" [Derret, 1961:81]. Since in the Indian case the religionin question was alien, therewas boundto be furthertensionbetweenthe two legislating instances. The derivation of a uniform code regulating the practice of sati proved to be an awkward task. The attemptsto establish consonance between 'Shaster' (the legal and treatises) 'humanity', two authorities the which were invariably juxtaposed in this discourse, lead to an uneasybalance.'Regard for the religious opinions of the natives' (1821:64), 'erroneously derived from the superstition they possess (1821: 136), inevitablyclashed with 'feelingsof humanity' (1821:64). But since judges had no feelings, the sole resortwas to find within the Shaster scope for the principles of humanity and thus, practically through the back door, attempt to find means "to confine those sacrifices within as narrow bounds as the rules permit" (1821:64).So, if on the one hand "thestrictadherence the ordinances to of the Shaster"(1821:101) advocated,the was actual practice,in the case of sati was never describedas other than "this perversionof humanity" (1821:65), "this inhuman custom' "present bigotry... uncivilised and ignorant" (1821:176). SuperintendentEwer of the Lower Provinces could stretch this so far as to claim that the rite was not religious at all, since eitwas not prescribed Manu,the primaeval bl legislatorof the Hindus. It was local practice, "sacredauthority is subsequentlyproduced to enforce the merit of an act originatingin the mortal feelings of affection, grief, despair, or some other passion of the mind, equally incapableof affording a hope thatIt could be acceptablein the eyes of the deity. Such can never become
religious. .." (t821:231).
to effectively execute Hindu law regarding sati, they had !necessarily to become exponentsof it whereit was not yet sufficiently known; seek and provide amplification wherethereweregaps or whereclarification was called for; and finally, supervisethat it was legally enforced by actual presence duringthe courseof the riteand activeinterferenceif any violation could be detected. 1813-1823) LordMoira (governor-general, most clearly realisedthe impotence of having become propoundersof indigenous law in the capacity of alien rulers powerlessto introduce effective change: our Wedirected opinionto be statedthatthe on cautionwasrequisite the partof greatest in of theofficers ourgovernment, dissuading widows from the performance of this in ceremony, orderto avoid the imputation with the religiousopinionof of interfering of to the inhabitants, whichthe government
upwardmobility by emulating the customs of the highercastes, and sati would seem to be a case in point.8 Yetit could also be seen as a case of inversesanskritisation-norms imposed from above on castes and groups originally outside the scope of jurisdiction of high caste Hindu law.The Britishtended to an uniform, undifferentiated application of the legalcode they had been at such pains to devise, a code which cast all mannersof Hindus on the sub-continent, regardlessof actual caste customs and regional practice into the social mould prescribed by the Brahmanictradition as they understood it (Cohn, 1968:7).
The Parliamentary Papers offer ample
The dichotomy between bigotry and enlightenedreligioncould only be resolved, as Lord Amherst (governor-generalfrom 1823 to 1828) observed, by plans for encouragingnative education, for The well-meantand zealous attemptsof Europeansto dissuade from and to discouragethe performance the rite,would of appearto have been almost uniformlyunand successful; provebut too strongly, that eventhebestinformed classes the Hindoo of are population not yetsufficiently enlightened to recognisethe propriety abolishing of the rite (1825:7).
BRITISH AS VINDICATORS AND EXPOUNDERS OF HINDU LAW
The British had to cope with a predicament which, though obviously caused by their own policy of conciliating Hindu orthodoxy to their position of power, had consequences whjichthey could not have foreseenand which lead to repeatedprotests by membersfrom theirown ranks. In order
evidenceof thi% inadvertent sanskritisation. FromChandernagore, which was in French possession, those wishing to perform sati simply removed to British territory,as an indignant magistrate reported (1821:243).. a brahmin prince could not be liable In Farrukhabad, the Upper Provinces, in emphasisadded). (1821:243, a sati took place, where the bewildered Yet,in effect this was whatthe Britishpolicy- family had never before witnessed the rite. makersseemed to aspire to-to govern the It was the insistence of the newly-bereaved country as enlightened Brahman princes. widow which apparently obliged them to in The Boardof Directors Londonwriting carryout her wishes, though therewas some to LordAmherstin 1823declaredthemselves perplexityas to the appropriateritual prounwilling to participate in this rite: cedure. After submitting a lengthy report, was that It is, moreover, muchreluctance we the magistrate movedto registerprotest: with canconsentto makethe British government, But I beg to-observe, all deference, that with by a specific permissionof the suttee,an it might be attendedwith good effects, if we ostensible partyto thesacrifice; areaverse somepunishment awarded; operate were and to the practice of making British courts as a check to the growthof this barbarous of and expounders vindicators the Hindoo custom, which though it was at one time whenit leadsto acts which,not less religion, whollyunknown theseprovinces, in appears as legislators than as Christians, we underthe Britishgovernment, be gaining to abominate(1824:45). groundsonce more (1821:212). This was obviously an echo of the misA 'candala'woman, though belongingto sionary stand. The missionariesin India as an 'unclean'caste, was permittedto ascend well as their parentorganisationsin Britain the social scale, since the local panditallowwere in the forefront in mobilising public ed that she belonged to the fourth or opinion against the rite. The language in 'shudra'caste. So she was given permission which they did so was.vehemently critical to burn (1825:42). and tended towardswholesale dismissal of But a woman who had lived in adultery the Hindu religionas such.5 It was obvious was not to be allowed to burn, since the that they recommend drastic action. The couple could not be considered legally CalcuttaBaptistpaper,the Quarterly Friend married.Though the sacrifice was suspendof India advocated that if the British ed, the woman managed to burn. Thus the "possess discretionary power over the British attempt to function as a moral inHindoo laws".then "the helplesswidow has stance authorising correct ritual conduct a strong claim on our compassion" (1823:44).Similarly women in the Bombay (1823:22).6 Presidencywereto be preventedfrom burnThough the ParliamentaryPapers were ing with the bones of the husband, since ordered be printedfrom 1821onwards, the Brahmanwomen, accordingto the shastras to extensivedocumentationhad begun in 1815. as interpreted Bengal,werenot to be burnt in The returnsfor the years 1817and 1818had if time had elapsed after the death of the shown a dramaticincreasein the numberof husband (1824:46). satis. Though officials had tended to view The 'jogis', a weavercommunity had the this as due to cholera epidemics, and the practice of burying widows alive with the numbersdid decline,it was obvious however bodies of their dead husbands, ibstead of that they had increasedsubstantiallyunder immolating them. As a low caste social British jurisdiction. For, the zealous section, their resistanceto change had little watchmanshipseemed to encourage,rather political weight. They were brought under than inhibit, and it was seldom that a case the jurisdiction of Hindu law; the rite was declaredillegal was actuallyprevented, since summarilyterminated.In its proceedings of this often happened in retrospectand the June 4, 1818, the Nizamat Adalat tersely metedout tendedto be cautious recorded: punishment rather than cautioning.' as the Hindoo law does not sanctionthe The sociologist M N Srinivas (1962) has practicewhich prevailsamongst the jogee tribe of buryingthe widow alive with the to coined the term 'sanskritisation' describe the process, whereby lower castes effect body of her deceasedhusband,the Vice-
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Presidentin Council entirelyconcurs with the nizamut adawlut in thinking that the practice in question should be positively'and entirely interdicted. .. It appears, however, to be highly objectionable that so inhuman a practice, without legal sanction, should be continued (1821:179). It is not on record whether it was forthwith considered permissible for the jogis to burn their widows instead. All in all, it was question of policy, 'politic' and 'impolitic' are frequentiv used terms, the attempt to absorb the authority of former -ruling classes, to assimilate, and if convenient temper and thus render unobjectionable to themselves. A LEGAL SUBJECT FOR SATI In this section I should like to consider the conceptualisation of Hindu women as it emerges from this documentation, and this in their capacity as legal subjects. At this point, it is important to emphasise that the account which follows is in no way in defence of an act which belongs to a world to which there is no direct access except as part of history. It is difficult, if not impossible, to read between the lines, in order to provide even a speculative account of the social experiential reality of the cases recorded. It is possible however, to 'see how the women were seen, without necessarily seeing what there was, to determine the vefifiability of the criteria applied to the women concerned, in order to qualify as "a legal subject for a suttee" (1821:38). The police officers present on the scene were required to be notified in advance, they were to determine and record the age of the woman-whether below the age of puberty -finally fixed at 16, whether pregnant or not, the age of her children, caste and name of the husband, but the most important task was to ascertain whether the act Was volunatry or not. There were a number of eyewitness reports, where force had been applied to prevent the woman from escaping from the burning pile, for it was often a question of fierce family honour. The point was stated repeatedly and with great emphasis, as in the General Rules and Circular
Instructions to the Magistratesand Police OfficersRegardingSuttees,promulgated by
the Nizamat Adalat, the chief criminal court in the Presidency of Bengal, in 1817: These ordinanices require that the sacrifice be, in all instances, perfectly voluntary; that the widow be of a competent age to judge and choose in a matter of so mucth consequence to herself and her childreni,
The premise was clear enough. 'I'heoretically at least, the woman was considered to be an agent capable of making a free choice. The very concept occasioned protest While submitting the report and statement of satis for the year 1815 to the Nizamat Adalat, E Watson, fourth judge, Calcutta Court of Circuit, stated categorically: "It' appears to us, that the assent of the woman should be utterly void, and that the persons killing her at her desire or command should,
in the eyes of the law, be murderers" (1821:99). The question then, was whether the power of legitimate volition could be ascribed to Hindu women. Magistrate Bird of the city of Benares suggested the promulgation of an additional rule to safeguard against the whims of women, for there had been three cases of illegal sati. He proposed that they burn immediately upon receiving the news of the husband's death and not later, this in order "to put an end to a practice, not at all unusual, of becoming a suttee many years subsequent to the husband's death, in a fit of caprice or of worldly disappointment, after having in the first instance neglected to become a suttee; a practice, which I understand, is neither recognised nor encouraged by the doctrines of the Hindoo religion" (1821:134). The most detailed paraphrase of this view was once again supplied by superintendent Ewer of the Lower Provinces. He maintained that there could in fact be no such thing as a 'voluntary suttee': "that is, few widows would ever think of sacrificing themselves, unless overpbwered by force or persuasion; very little of either is sufficient to overcome the physical or mental powers of the majority of Hindoo females". Therefore, Ewer reasoned further, "her opinion on the subject can be of no weight, and whether she appear glad or sorry, stupid, composed or distracted, is no manner or proof of her real feelings" (1821:227). It was evident that once it was possible to abstract the woman's real feelings from her environment and upbringing, there could be no motivating ground for the sacrifice. Women were at all times victims of persuasion, since in any case they had no direct access to the shastras and could form no independent opinion. "Now it is well known that the education of Hindoo females, of all'ranks, precludes the possibility of their having, of themselves, any acquaintance whatever with the contents of the shastras" (1821:228). Ewer had sent a questionnaire regarding the sati regulations to the several magistrates of the Lower Provinces and while analysing their response, he proposed the following thesis regarding the evolution of the practice. He was voicing a general opinion, when within this theory he located the woman as a creature who could not be actuated by reason but was moved by feeling alone, which was ever amenable to manipulation. Ewer posited an ur-sati, whereby one woman, from overpowering devotion and grief, voluntarily committed the heroic act, "not with any idea that such an act could be acceptable to the gods, or of any benefit to herself in a future existence, but solely because her affection for the deceased made her regard life as a burden no longer to be borne" (1821:231). This wxasan acceptable stand, th&act of the woman then was no longer rooted in superstition but as motivated in an excess of emotion, was part ot a world accessible to enlightened thought. Essentially the same tendency was to be observed in Europe as regards the mythological, miraculous aspects of religious life-an effort to reduce these
"to events which could be narrated in the common sense language of the cafe. To popularise, to render plausible, to make credible the incredible persisted as the great heroic act of the age" (Manuel, 1959:124-125). Now this original heroic sati according to Ewer, excited 4dmiration and possible emulation as a novelty, but it would never have been installed as a rite, if the interested relatives and the Brahmans hradnot stepped in at this stage. This vwasalso the opinion of E Molony, acting magistrate of Burdwan district, where the practice was frequent: It is needless here to rematek,the influence which education has upon the reasoning powers of the human mind; the total want of any thing like a system of education -among the natives is also well known ... We have known, that whatever little education is given to the males is never extended to the female sex; I have never met an instance of a Hindoo woman, of whatever rank, who could write even her name. If, therefore, we find that the greater proportion of the men are unable to give a reason for the performance of the sacrifice, it is surely fair to infer that the women are not better informed on the subject; and therefore it is fair to suppose that the resolution to become suttees cannot proceed so much from their having reasoned themselves into a conviction of the purity of the act itself, as from a kind of infatuation produced by the absurditiespoured into their ears by ignorant brahmins, most of whom, if asked, would be found unable to give a reason for the doctrines which they inculcate (1821:235, emphasis added). The woman was therefore uniformly referred to as 'the victim'. 'the poor creature', 'the infatuated victim'. The possibility of ever forming 'free, voluntary, unbiased and uninfluenced' (1823:63) judgment was forever precluded in the case of Hindu women; for as the governor general in council, Lord Amherst himself concluded after studying the report and statement for the year 1821: the women are taught from irtfancyto believe that by consenting to the immolation, they perform an act, if not of imperative duty, at least one that will redoundto their own credit and raise the reputation of their fainilies. On the other hand, that a refusal involves the reproachof cowardice,or of the want of true devotion to their husbands (1824:43). Such then was the predicament of 'law' and the legislators. Women in order to be legal subjects were to function autonomously, but they could not in effect be free agents, since from birth onwards certain notions were inculcated in their minds. It is not remarkable then, that no judgment is passed upon women, since in a way they could not be held responsible for their actions. They existed, not unlike savages, in a kind of premoral state, neither good nor evil, moved by social instinct and feelings, defenceless, since reason could not be a regulating principle, and thus all the more exposed to corrupting influence. They could ultimaTely only be protected . Intimately co)nnected with this vision of
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the woman is the stereotype of the crafty priest. If religion as practised on the subcontinent was viewedlargelyas a corpus of superstitiousbeliefs-or 'prejudices'in the language of the day-then it was the Brahmans who were the fostering agents, both as Halhed had early remarked,as "priests and legislators"(1781E a view common liv), since its popularisationby the Deists in the 17th and 18th centuries; "sacerdotal plotters. . . themselvesenvelopedby the vapors of darkness which' they had originally generated"(Manuel, 1959:69).
In the Parliamentary Papers they are
constantlyreferredto as 'hungrybrahmins', 'necessitous brahmins' (1821: 227, 270). It is once again superintendentEwerwho explicitly thematises the link between lawmaking and the execution of it, both of which functions are seen as being opportunisticallyused by the Brahmans.Contemporary Brahmans, he allows, were an ignorantbreed,unableto providegroundsfor theirdogma, but originallythey had known better. After the first sati took place in a short time the brahmins began to perceive,that if properlymanaged,suttee
might be made a very productive source of
and emolument; the mostesteemed authors of the age wereinducedto recommend as it a most meritorious productive good of act, effectsto thesoulsof thewidowandherhusband,andto thoseof thesurviving mcmbers of theirfamilies;theyalso prescribed forms and ceremonies whichthe attendance in of brahmins of courseindispensable was (1821: 231). William Jones had remarkedthat in the
Institutes of Manu the two-despotism and
priestcraft--though they operated as a systemof mutualcheckultimately reinforced each other. Half a century later one had practicallycome full-circle: the new legislators while ostensibly supporting the old laws, wereJo protect the woman from the old law-makers.Thus the Nizamat Adalat was urged by judg C Smith to "interfere with a vigorous hand for the protectionof the weak against the strong, of the simple against the artful classes of its subjects. . (1823:63). As the final document for the year 1825,
an extract from the Bombay Courier is included in the Parliamentary Papers. It is the
report of an exceptionally lucid encounter between an Englishman who inquiresand describes experience an unbureaucratic his in language,free from legal encumbrance, and a young Indian woman about to perform sati, whose answersare clearly recorded.In the encounter, two worlds, apparently mutually exclusive,accost each other with near total incomprehension. It is worth extensive quotation: The poor wretched woman I found seated on a mat,and surrounded aboutfortyor by fifty females,whoall seemedto be in a state of perfectindifference, werefrequently and to laughing each other... she seemedto be in thepossession all herfaculties, gave of arnd distinctanswers all myquestions, .. she to obeyedthecommandment God, and was of certainof' everlastinghappiness.I endea-
voured to set before her the absurdityof such conduct, and how much it was in variance with the character of the Divine Being; ... and assured her, that if poverty had driven her to her present resolution, if she would only abandon it I would find her adequate support. After reasoning with her for a long time, I took higher ground, and,plainly told and that, instead her she was a self-murderer; of finding happiness after death as the reward of her conduct, she must be visited with the punishment, which a murderer deserves. She told me that she was not poor; that she had never committed any sin; that her heart was holy; that she had gone to God, and that He had ordered her to do what she -was about to do. This last expression she explained by saying, that she had gone to the idol, and that it had told her to burn. It immediatoly struck me, that perhaps some interested individual had induced her to go to the temple, and had employed means to give her such an answer; but on this subject I could obtain no information, as her answers were vague and unsatisfactory. After bathing and praying, the widow distributedsome'betel-nut and spice to those around, who fell at her feet and did her reverence,as a being of superior nature. She ascended and calmly laid herself down on the pile, without the smallest assistance; and nothing I have ever witnessed surprised me more than the indifference with which she went through the whole. She was a young woman of perhaps about twenty-two, in the full vigour of health and strength. There appeared no symptom of grief for her departed husband, and I should certainlyhave thought her in a state of stupor, but for the answers she gave io our questions and the composure with which she performed all the ceremonies.... When I saw the poor deluded creatureactually mounjed the pile I reallyfelt so agitated as not to be able minutely to observe if she took a light along with her (emphasis added, 1825:212-214). The beliefs of the two could obviously not be subsumed uider one global category, religion, though each was convinced and rested in his or her position. The inquirer could not believe that there was no manipulation and that the woman seemed to perform the act voluntarily. The woman seems not to have grasped the implication of the question. Here it needs to be emphasised once again that in providing the view point of the woman, there is no attempt to vindicate the practice. But it is important to take note of the natcOre the mutual incompreof hension, of the one perspective remaining incomprehensible in terms of the other. Whose was the true god, whose belief in the nature of life after death the more le*itimate? What is the distinction between 'superstition' and 'religion"? On what premises does 'reason' rest and whe'n does 'voluntary decision' as applied to women become acceptable? How adequate are these categories and how do they co-relate to the social and religious phenomena under review'? The analysis of the Parliamentary Paprerswould s.uggest that the terms of their disculssion cannot, without further reflection
and modification, be applied in the construction of an alternaive view of sati. Perhaps it is worth the effort for us, who have inherited the humanistic concern of the Englishman, to make an attempt to redefine our stand before we disqualify and condemn the women perfornming sati in terms too sweeping and too uncritical of their historical legacy and basis. In the year 1829 Lord William Bentinck, newly appointed governor general of India, passed a regulation making sati an offence punishable by law. His justly famous mninute of November 8, 1829 tackles issues which had long been skirted and remains noteworthy in its attempt to resolve the contradictions of the colonial situation. He insists emphatically that."nothing has been yielded to feeling, but that reason, and reason alone, has governed this decision", of abolishing "this inhuman and impious act" (Datta, 1988:237).9 He feels impelled to quote the testimony of a contemporary Indian in support of his claim that the rite was not part of the original religion of the Hindus: "that enlightened native Rammohun Roy, a warm advocate of the abolition of suttee, and all other superstitions and corruptions, engrafted on the Hindoo religion, which he considers originally to have been a pure deisri-' (Datta, 1988:241).10 With the help of reason then, these later engraftings are to be removed, and religion cleansed of immorality: "I know nothing so important to the improvement of their future conditions, as the establishment of a proper morality, whatever their belief, and a more just conception of the will of god. The first step to this better understanding will be dissociation of religious belief and practice fromnblood and murder. They will then, when no longer under this brutalising excitement, view with more calmness, acknowledged truths" (Datta, 1988:249). Thus could "a foul stain upon British rule" be washed, and religion and humanitv become reconciled. Bentinck claimed: "I write and feel as a legislator for the Hindoos" (249). The British government seemed to have-at least for the time being-come to terms with the position they had long eyed with unease, that of a Brahman prince, albeit enlightened, who could confidently arnend. A network of power relationships had emerged, alliances established in the last century seemed to have matured-the rich landed proprietors were beholden to the British for their position and the native army had no present cause for discontent. Bentinck could confidently maintain: "we are supreme" With this self-appointed task of protecting the 'innocent victim', the British further took over the ftunction not only of potent legislation, but also of manly protection: "Were the scene of this sad destruction of human life laid in the Upper instead of the lower Pros-inces, in the midst of a bold and manly people, I might speak with less con-
fidence upon the question of safety" (240). Henceforth,the regulationproclaimed:"all personsconvictedof aiding and abetting in
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ttie sacrifice of a Hindoo widow, by burning or burying her alive, whether the sacrifice be voluntary on her part or not, shall be deemed guilty of culpable homicide" (emphasis added, 253). A final acknowledgemen that which had vexed legislators for at least two decades-it really was of no consequence whether the sacrifice was voluntary or involuntary, the woman could he no other than an innocent victim. At least on the stirface of it, Bentinck seemed to face up to the responsibility of legislating for the Hindus as one actually involved and implicated in the system, rather than merely administering and supervising the proper observation of the Hindu legal code from outside and above, while at the same time barely countenancing it. It would be outside the scope of this paper to enter into a consideration of his motives, political, evangelical, utilitarian and otherwise. The solution he found, however-of purging the religion of aspects he found 'immoral' could also be viewed as high-handed and peremptory-to be expected of an alien ruler attempting to determine the nature of religious beliefs held by a subject people. It is possible that though the regulation terminated the widespread of the practice, the symbolic value of sati was intensified on a scale much determined by the policy of what I have for convenience labelled 'inverse sanskritisation'. There is ample literary evidence, glorifying sati to support this, it needs however to be sifted dispassionately. For mere suppression does not terminate 'superstition', it finds other modes of expression, and the contradictions far from being resolved, continue to co-exist.
diction, which condemned and vilified even as it supported and codified Brahmanic traditiQn, which supervised the practice of sati while attempting ostensibly to weed it out in the interests of humanity, and finally highlighted the importance of voluntary immolation, while maintaining that in effect, Hindu women could have no free will. In order to avoid being caught up in thesecontradictions, there would be need for us today to emancipate ourselves from the categories of post-enlightenment thought, to effect a conceptual shift such as, partially at least, has taken place in anthropology." This most urgently in the matter of establishing a distinction between 'superstition' and 'religion', without trying to find global definitions, for a discourse cast in universal lerms would necessarily be a denial of the historically specific functions of these terms.'2 What the British felt compelled to elevate to 'religion' and what was discarded as 'superstition' needs at least be evaluated once again, and the beliefs of the participants need to be taken into account. Only then could there be a dialogue with those actually involved in the rite today, or with those in the past, whose testimonies are recorded in the Parliamentary Papers, however inadequately. Both Bentinck and the officials involved in the correspondence recorded in the Parliamentary Papers denied women the ability of free volition. If we are to treat women, not alone as victims of their respective belief systems, but restore at least a measure of 'subjectivity' and autonomy to them, then we are compelled to consider seriously the amount of legitimate authority and formal recognition we accord to them, to revieu the spheres of power reserved in 'traditional' and neo'traditional societies for women as well as for men. Anthropological literature bears testimony to the complex set of attitudes and social constellations, whereby a special status was reserved for widows, for the power of women, when it is not contained in the benign aspects of 'wife' or 'mother' has often been regarded as 'uncontained', as threatening and signalling danger.13 Those are questions which need detailed study, in specific historic detail. Then it could become possible to explore the putative differences between the social status of the widow in India arid, official claims notwithstanding, the condition and social insecurity of unattached womenspinsters and widows-in 19th century And this, not in order to England.'4 establish distance from a practice to be viewed as a malformation of some norm, which remains to be established, but in its specific social configuration, which needs to be investigated rather than castigated, and this in spite of the awesome spectre of human sacrifice. Just as 'religion' and 'superstition', so also the 'reason' and 'feeling' polarity as equating respectively with 'culture' and 'nature' as applied to gender, was the product of 18th century enlightenment thought (Bloch and Bloch, 1980, Jordanova, 1980)).These latter
were by no means simple categories, because though they defined each other negatively as well as complementarily, each contained, through this very process of definition also a critique of the other. 'Feeling' was a complex conceptualisation of the feminine, developed both by the French philosophers of the period (Steinbrugge, 1987), as well as by a physiology which purported to equallv consider biological, psychological and social phenomena (Jordanova 1980). By the turn of the 19th century there was a broad consensus, that women were the products of 'feeling'-both biologically*as being, in their reproductive function, identical with 'nature, as well as socially, by virtue of the very functions they were called upon to fulfil. Thus on the one hand, they were dependent on manly judgment and enterprise, since they lacked 'reason'. on the other they were credulous, "the negative aspects of female naturalness", which made them prone to superstition. "The classic example of the problem was the uneducated woman under the thumb of her priest, who fed her a diet of religious dogma, urging her to believe things which served his interests alone" (Jordanova, 1980; 51). In England this restrictive definition and corresponding socialisation was particularly linked to the Evangelical Christianity, and church and chapel remained central to the articulation and diffusion of the beliefs and practices relating to feminity and manliness (Davidoff and Hall, 1987). This was a mode of thinking mainly current in middle class educated thinking, though popularised and readily accessible to all those who would be literate in the lexica of the first half of the 19th century.'5 It was an ideology obviously closely linked to the modes of production, of professional life in industrialised society, and the sphere, public a-id domestic henceforth to be regarded as pioper for each sex, and the occupation corfespondingly reserved for men and wpmen. The farming, labouring population remained largely unaffected by them, as also the idle rich. That these characteristics and criteria were applied indiscriminately by British officials to the Indian situation, from the turn of the 19th century onwards, in an age confident of the right to evaluate by its own standards, should offer little cause for surprisc But there is obvious need to clarify the relationship of these concepts to the social reality of different sections of Indian society, to the past as far as there is available data, and certainly anew to the present. Perhaps some degree of correspondence can be established, as regards of genderfunction the restrictive conceptualisation, but also these would need to be identified rather than taken for granted. Further, the political implication of the re-surfacing of the rite amidst popular acclaim need to be probed. 'Hindu fundamentalism' is a handy caption, but it blurs the vision, for it relegates phenomena which fill us with unease, to a convenient category, which pre-empts the need for analysis-of
The Parliamentary Papers are to be treated as of immense historical value, not so much for the evidence of the colonical denigration of Hindu women and religion, nor for all that they do not disclose about women, as for the tensions and contradictions which they reveal, the unravelling of which has vital significance for the awarencss of attitudes today. I have tried to demonstrate that the categpries discussed in this paper are tar frorn being self-explanatory, or sel f-justificatory. Their application to the Indiart situation, even super-imposition, at a particular historical period was part of an attempt by an European colonial power to come to grips with an awkward task-that of ruling an alien people in interests wbich in their turn could ony be alien to the people concerned. Enlightened mistrust of ritual, of superstitious belief, of credulous women and crafty priests was offset by pragmatic concerns regarding alliances, which often meant support for the verv forces which reactivated certain strands of tradition. It can hardly be regarded as a co-incidence, that the collusion of these forces with the political struc-
her turesof authority meant fuFt authorisation and ramificationof the practiceof sati. This led to an apparentideological contra-
the natureof the contradictionsinherentin
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Economic and Political Weekly
policies inherited from the British, of the constitutiveelements of the legal discourse, which suffered no rupture after independence,and occasioned no noteworthy but pause for self-reflection, becamein tact, because unopposed, more opaque than in the troubledtimes when an imperial power had struggledto imposecategorieson, what was for them, an unwieldy social system. Whereasthere can be no question of a linearcontinuity in the political configurations as they existedin the early 19thcentury and the late 20th century,therearecertain parallels which could rewardanalysis, both in the nature of political alliances the Britishchose to enter into as well as in the conciliatory gestures which contradicted their proclaimed objectives. Notes
I Sati is a Sanskrit term, meaning a 'good or a virtuous woman', exemplified most of all in the devotion to the husband. Since these qualities were held to climax in the supreme act of self-immolation after his death, the women who underwentthis sacrifice,retained the appellation as long as they were remembered. The British usage restricted the term to the sacrifice alone, the act as well as the agent. 2 Used variously, for instance in the report published in India Today,October 15, 1987; as also the controversy around these very issues in the Illustrated Weekly of India, February4, 1988, February28, 1988, March 13, 1988; the Hindi Hans, October 1987 as castigating the reporting style of the Hindi Jansatta, September 18, 1987. For a sample from the German press, see the Frankfurter Aligemeine Zeitung, December 23, 1987, as well as the Berlin daily taz, November 23, 1987. 3 The official title of.these is Papers Relating to East India Affairs, viz Hindoo W'idows and Voluntary Immolations, by orderof the House of Commons from 1821 to 1830, cited hereafter with year of publication and * page. 4 The legal and political history of sati has been dealt with extensively by the following: Calcutta *Review, 1868; Thompson, 1928 and Seed, 1955;all three representing the British stand with varying degrees of identification. For a study of Westernreactions, see Sharma, 1979; for excellent analysis of the official discourse and debate Mani, 1985 and 1987. For an historical survey of the rite from ancient times up to the present, with reformist, apologetic tendencies, see Datta, 1988, useful also for data on Rajasthan not easily accessible eleswhere. For the pre-British legal history of the rite, the only sources at present are Kane, 1941 and Altekar, 1956. There is obvious need to re-evaluate materialthey the collected. 5 On the efforts of the missionaries to mobilise public opinion against sati, see Ingham, 1956: 44-54. On the petitions sent to the House of Commons by citizens holding meetings for the specific purpose in several towns, see Peggs, 1830. As a sample of Peggs' style, as one in the forefront of the campaign, citing a sympathetic review of his pamphlet on the subject: "There bs a voice that must be heard, that will require it-the voice of an enlightenedand Christianpeople: that voice (Oh, let it be loud and solemn!) must, we are confident, awaken a power and move
an arm that, sooner, or later,will extinguish the Suttee fires of India" For one of the earliest and most detailed from the missionary perspective,see repsorts Ward, 1811:544-66. 6 The report cited here is part of the documentation included in the PP. From the missionary perspectivealso thereis complete identification with the ruling race, as the report testifies further: "Arethe sacred principlesof justice to be abrogatedbecause private individuals are mistaken in their notion of the worship which is acceptable to the Deity? The admission of this principle would rend asunder the bonds of society; for if the highest crime, that of murder, may go unpunished when committed under a religious pretext, what crime can we conThere is no species sistentlypunish in India'? of abomination which the Hindoo code does not sanction under some shape or other. But the whole course of our judicial proceedings demonstrates that we have never acted on these principles" (1823:21). This is supported by the quotation of a long passage from Locke. 7 Exemplified in the reply to the magistrate, Southern Concan, March 14, 1822, by J Farish, secretary to government: "The honourablethe governor in council instructs me to inform you, that under the orders given to him, the sirkumaviesdar of Rutnagerrydid his duty in prohibiting the suttee on this occasion, and the disregard of his prohibition was illegal, and might without injustice be punished; such a step howeverin this instance would be highly impolitic, and you have shown great prudence and judgment in forbearing to adopt it" (1824:49). 8 See Ahmad, 1965; for a more provocative formulation see Nandy, 1980. For an attempt at social analysis by breakdown of caste and occupation figures see Roy, 1987. 9 Bentinck's Minute and the regulation are easily accessible in Datta, 1988:237-250, 25 1-253. 10 Ramnmohun Roy's role in the abolition of the rite has always e\cited a grea. deal of comment. He was against the practice, but also initially against legislation as being inappropriate, and accepted this at a very late stage. Besides his own writings, the most pertinent contemporary compilation on Roy is Joshi, 1975. 11 An awareness indicated for instance in the critical reflection, from a feminist point of view in Strathern,1987;on a generalanthropological level in Marcus and Fischer, 1986 and Clifford and Marcus, 1986, the feminist critique of the latter two titles in Gordon. 1988. 12 See Kippenberg, 1983, for a suggestive summary of the stand regarding definitions of religion. 13 See Rosaldo, 1974 for some discussion of the issue, as also 1980, for later qualifications of the results of her survey. 14 An approach initiated by Stein, 1978, which needs to be concretised with regard to the attitudes of important figures in the sati debate, such as Superintendent Ewer. 15 See Hausen, 1976 for the descriptions of 'female' and 'feminine' in the popular German lexica of the period, as well as for the economic aspects of the polarisation of gender roles in middle-class family and professional life.
A S Altekar (1956), The Position of Womenin
Hindu Civilisation, Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass. Maurice Bloch and Jean H Bloch (1980), 'Womenand the Dialectsof Naturein Eighteenth Century Frenich Thought' in MacCormack and Strathern, 1980, pp 25-41. Calcutta Review (1868), 'Suttee', XLVI, 92, pp 221-61. James Clifford and George E Marcus (1986), WritingCulture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley: U niversity of California Press. BernardS Cohn (1965), 'AnthropologicalNotes on Disputes and Law in India' in America?; Anthropologist, Vol 69, No 6, Part 2, (Special issue: The Ethnography of Law (ed), L Nader), pp 82-122. - (1968), 'Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture' in Structure and Change in Indian Society (eds), Milton Singer and Bernard S Cohn, New York: Wenner Glen Foundation for Anthropological Research. V N Datta (1988), Sati A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning, Delhi: Manohar. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall (1987), Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850, London: Hutchinson. J Duncan M Derret (1961), 'Sanskrit Legal Treatises Compiled at the Instance of the British' in Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, Vol 63, pp 72-117. Deborah Gordon (ed) (1988), Inscriptions (Special Issue: 'Feminism and the Critique of Colonial Discourse'), Nos 3 and 4. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1781), A Code of Gentoo Laws, Or Ordinations of the Pundits, From a Persian Translation,Made from the Original, Writtenin the Shanscrit Language, London, 1st ed, 1776. Karin Hausen (1976), 'Die Polarisierung der 'Geschlechtscharaktere'- Eine Spiegelung der Dissoziation von Erwerbs - und Familienleben' in Sozialgeschichte der Familie in der Neuzeit Europas (ed), Werner Conze, Stuttgart: Klett. Kenneth Ingham (1956), Reformers in India 1793-1833. A n Account of the Work of C-hristianMlissionaries Behalf of Social on Reform, Cambridge: University Press. William Jones (1799), The Works of William Jones. Vol VII (Containing: Institutes of Hindu Law; Or, The Ordinances of Manu, According to the Gloss of Calluca) Indian report, Delhi: Agam Prakashan, 1979. L J Jordanova (1980), 'Natural Facts: A Historical Perspective on Science and Sexuality' in MlacCormack and Strathern, 1980, pp 42-69. V C Joshi (ed) (1975), Rainmohun Roy and the Process of lModerni.sationin India, Dehi:
P V Kane (1941), H'istory of Dharmasastra, Voi 11, Part 1, Poona: BhandarkarOriental Research Institute, article on Sati, pp 624-35, 2nd ed, 1974. Hans Gi Kippenberg (1983), Diskursive Religionswissenschaft-Gedanken zu einer Religionswissenschaft, die weder auf einer allgemieingultigen Definition von Religion Economic and Political Weekly
A F Salahuddin Ahmad (1965), Social Ideas and Social Change in Btengal 1818-1835, Leiden: F J Brill.
Awailable-from A.K. Nayak, Bus Stand Book Stall, Bhubaneswar - 751 009, Orissa.
Economic and Political Weekly
January 25, 1992
noch auf einer Uberlegenheit von Wissenschaft basiert' in Neue Ansatze in der Religionswissenschaft (eds), B Gladigow and H G Kippenberg, Munich: Kosel, pp 9-28. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (eds) (1980), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lata Mani (1985), 'The Production of an Official Discourse on 'Sati' in Early Nineteenth Cent ury Bengal' in, Europe and Its Others, Vol 1, Proceedings of the Essex Conference on Sociology of Literature, July 1984 (ed), Francis Barker,et al, University of Essrx, pp 107-27. - (1987), 'Contentious Traditions:The Debate on 'Sati' in Colonial India' in Cultural Critique, pp 119-56. Frank E Manuel (1959), The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. George E Marcus and Michael M Fischer (1984), Anthropology as Cultural Critique, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Ashis. Nandy (1980), 'Sati: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Women, Violence and Protest' in At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture, Delhi: Oxford University Press. Papers Relating to East. India Affairs: viz, Hindoo Widows and Voluntary Immolations, Printed by Order of the House of Commons, 1821-30. James Peggs (1830), India's Cries to British Humanity, London: Seely, 2nd ed, Indian report: Cries of Agony, Delhi: Discovery Publishing House, 1984. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo (1974), 'Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview' in Woman,Cultureand Society (eds), M Z Rosaldo and L Lamphere, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp 17-42. -(1980), 'The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflectionson Feminismand CrossCultural Understanding' in Signs, Vol 5, No 3, pp 389-417. Benoy Bhusan Roy (1987), Socio-economic Impact of 'Sati' in Bengal and the Role of Raja Rammohun Roy, Calcutta: Naya Prokash. Rammohun Roy (1982), The English Worksof Raja Rammohun Roy (ed), J C Ghose, 2 Vols, New Delhi: Cosmo. Geoffrey Seed (1955), 'The Abolition of 'Sati' in Bengal' in History, October, pp 286-99. Arvind Sharma (1979), 'Suttee: A Study in WesternReactions in Thresholds in HinduBuddhist Studies, Calcutta: Minerva Associates, pp 83-111. M N Srinivas (1962), Caste in Modern India and OtherEssays, Bombay: Asia Publishing House. Dorothy K Stein, (1978), 'Women to Burn: Suttee as a Normative Institution' in Signs, Vol 4, No 2, pp 253-68. Liselotte Steinbrugge (1987), Das moralische Geschlecht: Theorien und literarische Entwurfe uber die Natur der Frau in der franzosischen Aufklarung, Weinhein and Basel: Beltz. Marilyn Strathern (1987), 'An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology' in Signs, Vol 12, No 2, pp 276-92. EdwardThompson (1928), Suttee A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning, London: George Allen. William Ward(1811),Account of the Writings, Religion and Manners of the Hindoos, Including Translations from their Principal Works, In Four Volumes, Serampore: Mission Press. PE-64
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