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Colonial Constructions of Sati

By Edited Nov 1, 2015 0 0

Sati under Colonialism

It becomes clear that scriptural authority and spiritual rewards were not the central concern of the widow.   At the heart of the woman’s desires was to avoid social and financial ruin.   Yet in my opinion the British government officials did not take this into consideration soon enough.   Although it may be perceived that the British government did not have the knowledge and the sources to understand the background to Sati, I would argue that they chose to ignore issues such as the social and financial hardships of the widow, as this was not in their best interest.  

They were so preoccupied with their desire to rule benevolently by tolerating religious practices, that they overlooked pressing issues of financial and social hardships that widows faced.   It was not that the British were unaware of these hardships - evidence for the knowledge of widow’s social and financial pressures being released to the government can be found in Walter Ewer’s letter to W. B. Bayley (secretary to the government in the judicial Department) in 1818.  

Ewer argued that in reality, widows were coerced, and sati was performed for the material gain of surviving relatives.[1]   He suggested that the relatives might be motivated by the desire to spare themselves the expense of maintaining the widow and the irritation of her legal right over the family estate.[2]   Ewer argues that the actual practice bears no resemblance to a religious rite, and also questions the assumption that there is scriptural sanctification for Sati.[3] Yet Sati was not banned until eleven years after Ewer made these statements.


[1] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p26

[2] Ewer is referring to the provisions under Dhayabhaga Law previously mentioned on p15

[3] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p27

Voluntary Sati

The notion of Sati as voluntary is central to this debate.   As identified by Gayatri Spivak, there is a dichotomy between subject constitution (the woman wanted to die) and object formation (the woman who was forced to die).   I am in agreement was Sati as object formation, and would suggest that it is likely that these women were ‘socialised’ into making this choice, in which case the choice element should be removed from this equation.  This is clearly the view of the eyewitness previously mentioned, who was writing for the India Gazette in 1828.  

Even if the woman is not directly forced, I believe that indirectly, through societal pressures, the woman does not have a choice.   Through asking whether or not the Subaltern can speak, many issues about voice and agency are raised.[1]   In the case of Sati, I would argue that the issue is not whether the woman can speak, but whether she will be heard.  Reports of Sati were either accounts of European male observers, or news accounts in the Bengali Press, reported in the context of men’s obituaries and in the English language,[2] on the whole inaccessible to the rural indigenous female.   Even if the women wanted to be heard, they were not given that opportunity in the governmental or intellectual arena.  If, as we have decided, Lord Bentinck passed this law based on the fact that Sati was not scripturally advocated, other social and economic factors were ignored, therefore the voice of the women was not considered.   The woman was clearly not Lord Bentinck’s primary concern, as not a mention of her is made in his famous Minute on Sati.[3]

[1] For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions, p 159-162

[2] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions p160

[3] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions p76

Debates of Sati tied up in Colonial Rule

This brings me to further explore the issues at the forefront of the colonial agenda.   As the nineteenth century developed, and women became involved in nationalist campaigning, the fate of the woman and the fate of a nation become inextricably linked.  

Lata Mani, in Contentious Traditions adopts a Foucauldian analysis of the relationship between knowledge and power that was prevalent in colonial India.   She rightly identifies the central debate on Sati as misleading, as it was one which revolved around political feasibility as opposed to the ethics of Sati.[1]   The official debate on Sati was structured around what was perceived as tension between desirability and feasibility, in which British officials declared their desire to prohibit it alongside their fascination with it.   Debates on Sati[2] were therefore not about women, but instances in which the moral challenge of colonial rule was confronted and negotiated. 


[1] Mani, L., Contentious Traditions, p15

[2] as well as debates on widow remarriage and zenanas (separate womens quarters)

Sati as the Manipulation of Women in a Male Dominated Society

Bose identifies six main points that argue for Sati as a non-religious mode for the manipulation of women in a male dominated society.   Firstly, promotion of Sati has gone beyond family, self interest and religious orthodoxy.   Secondly, it is a political move, a bid to mobilize support by forging a common identity.   Thirdly, this identity must claim the moral authority of tradition and principle to command obedience.   Fourthly, the affirmation of such an identity requires a dramatic event as a revelation.   Fifthly, Sati is such an event.   Therefore, finally, Bose argues that questions of religious and legal validity have been superseded by political expediency, which is capitalising on an available ideology with a proven record of ensuring women’s consent to subjugation.[1]  

In brief, Sati is not only a way of controlling women, but also used as a political tool.   It is no longer solely the subjugation of women, but the subjugation of a nation.   This links into my argument because I have identified that the British, when outlawing Sati, ignored relevant information, particularly to do with the wants and needs of the women in question.  Bose’s line of though exemplifies the need for Sati as a dramatic revelation of tradition to demonstrate power by discussing and ultimately banning it.   Contestation over tradition became integral to colonial rule.   The dynamics of the society during the colonial era was so fluctuating that both advocators and opponents of Sati were undergoing a reform or modernisation process.  

[1] Bose, Mandakranta, “Sati: The event and Ideology” from Bose [ed.], Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India, p29

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
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A Display of 'Power' for the British Male Elite?

This is the ‘traditional-modern’ dichotomy that needed to be addressed.   By this I mean that the Sati phenomenon is framed by an understanding of the differences between traditional values (represented by wifely obedience and chastity) and modern notions of personal autonomy.[1]   In the debate on Sati, women became the site on which tradition was reformulated.[2]   Lata Mani argues that officials posited tradition as a timeless and structuring principle of Indian society enacted in the everyday lives of indigenous people, and that ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ were interchangeable seen as a sphere separate from material life.[3]   The discourse on tradition produced analyses of Sati in purely ‘cultural’ terms and effectively erased the agency of those involved.[4]   The poles of ‘heroine’ and ‘victim’ make the widow susceptible to salvation, as the immolated wife as a heroine rewrites her as a victim of a higher order – not of man by of God (or religion).  

Thus both officials and the indigenous elites alike offer to intercede on her behalf, to save her from ‘tradition’.   In this sense, women are not the subjects of this discourse, and become marginalised in the debate.   Lata Mani states that women represented ‘tradition’, whether viewed as the weak in need of reform through legislation and education, or as the valiant keepers of tradition who must be protected from statutory interventions.[5]   For the British, rescuing women became part of their civilising mission.  

For the indigenous male elite, protection of their status becomes an urgent necessity in maintaining the honour of the collective, be it religious or national.   It was not the status of woman which was being contested, women in fact became the site on which tradition was debated and reformulated.[6]   The terms tradition and modernity are thus inscribed in the bodies of colonised women.   The debate on Sati, says Mani, drew on contemporariness, evangelicalism, Protestantism, orientalism and utilitarianism.   This structured a colonial view of Indian society shared by educated and elitist missionaries and officials, many of whom were orientalists themselves.[7]   By this I mean that the nature of the debate itself sparked discussion from a perspective that was viewing the ‘West’ as superior and ethically pious and the ‘East’ as what is violent and oppressed.  


For Lata Mani, the debate on sati was,

“a secular debate on scripture, a contest over legitimacy of particular readings, and an instrumental and purposive set of arguments about the spiritual merit of selfless actions performed without regard of reward.   Interested men extolled the superior merits of disinterested action, arguing over whether women were intrinsically capable of such detachment.    Both women and scripture became the modalities through which a new class identity was forged.   They provided grounds for cultural and ideological transformation necessary to the reconstellation of social relations in the colonial context.   These processes mediated the realignment of the mutually consolidating systems of gender, caste, and class, and served both to contest colonial power and to refigure elite domination of subordinated social groups.” [8]


What Mani means by a ‘secular debate on scripture’ is that the British as non-Hindu’s were discussing Hindu texts.   Yet I would question the appropriateness of this term.   It was not a secular debate due to the fact that they were discussing these Hindu texts from a Christian Protestant perspective.   The Sati debate in the colonial era centred on a discussion of the legitimacy of scripture, and arguments about whether or not the women were capable of becoming a sati without their primary concern lying in spiritual reward.   Such discussions then led to a new intellectual class with an elitist identity, giving controlling power and status back to the British colonisers.

[1] Courtwright, Paul. B., “The Iconographies of Sati”, from Hawley, J. S., [ed.], Sati: The Blessing and the Curse, p47

[2] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p79

[3] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p77

[4] Mani points out that within the general subjection of all indigenous people to ‘religion’ or ‘tradition, men are offered some measure of will, yet the women dying on the funeral pyre of their husbands are not.

[5] Mani, L., Contentious Traditions, p79

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p192-193

[8] Mani, L., Contentious Traditions, p80



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