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Factors affecting Sati in the eighteenth and nineteenth Centuries

By Edited Jul 2, 2015 0 0

Other than religion, what factors affected the practice of Sati in the eighteenth and nineteenth Centuries? There were many misunderstandings of Sati from the Western World. Many made the mistake of viewing it as a religious phenomenon, yet I have previously demonstrated that Sati is not scripturally based in Hinduism.

In response to the attempts to scripturally justify Sati, I would like to demonstrate that other factors, which the British were not aware of, or more rightly chose to ignore, were also implicated in the way that sati was viewed and practised.

Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India
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Caste and Culture

As well as applying a British court system to the Bengal judicial system, could the British be accused of misjudging Indian society based upon divisions of caste that transcended religious boundaries and was so varied regionally?   One argument is that the British government lacked appreciation of local mechanisms for adjudicating issues , that the British saw as needing regulation by a system of laws universal to all ‘Hindu’s’.  In 1823, official analysis of Sati by caste revealed that the distribution of incidents was: 234 Brahmin, 25 kayasth, 14 Vaishya and 292 sudra.   This questioned the faith in Brahmins as the highest practitioners of Sati.   Benoy Bhusan Roy’s analysis of caste data in Parliamentary papers confirms that caste and social status were consistent indices of the incidence of Sati in a given community.   Sati was predominant among the brahmins, kayasths, vaidyas, sadgops, and kaibarthas, and these groups accounted for 64% of recorded incidents between 1815 and 1827.[1]   Yet despite being a brahmin practice, variation in the practice of sati meant that it did occur across caste boundaries.

A link here can be made to the origins of the concept of Sati, which can be traced back to the practice of Jauhar.[1]   This is interesting because it is taken to mean the same as the Persian word ‘gauhar’ (gem/virtue).   The fact that this term origins from Persian questions it’s authenticity as a ‘Hindu’ custom.   Veena Talwar Oldenburg argues that the Rajput practice of jauhar has been mistakenly seen as a suicide, when in reality it is a glorified death in battle.   Eroded Sati stones were to commemorate memorable tragedies, and were not intended to be worshipped as glorification for the suicide victim.   Jauhar was a heroic death committed in the defense of territory, for economic interests and the defense of the purity of Royal Lineage, as opposed to the chastity and wifely devotion of Sati.  Due to the geopolitics of Rajasthan, it is probable that the Rajputs (kshatriya) who controlled and defended the land were in actual fact more highly regarded than the Brahmins.   Oldenburg argues that it is likely that the Brahmins borrowed the practice of jauhar from the Rajputs in attempt to increase status, and fitted this practice into their gender ideology, thus making ‘Sati’ a socio-political construct.[2]   I would dispute this claim, and argue that it was more likely that the Rajputs developed the Brahmin notion of Sati and adapted it culturally, due to historical brahminical satis preceding the Rajput political unrest.   Brahmin would already have a high status being at the top of the brahminical ideological hierarchy.   It is this Rajput practice that the British labelled as ‘Suttee’, and despite the lack of textual evidence it was still deemed a religious practice during the colonial era.   Evidence can even be found for Sati in some Buddhist writings of Asvaghosa.[3]   In this sense, when we ask the question to what extent is religion implicated in Sati, the answer is none at all.   Sati was ‘originally grounded in a non-religious, ruling class patriarchal ideology and later gilded with notions of valour and honour.’[4]   In this sense, the term sati refers to a cultural ideology as opposed to a religious event.



[1] A combination of the terms ‘jiva’ (life) and har (to destroy or to be taken away) in Urdu/Hindi.

[2] Oldenburg, Veena Talwar, “The Continuing Intervention of the Sati tradition” from Hawley [ed.] Sati: The blessing and the Curse, p164-165

[3] For further information please see Mandakranta Bose’s “Sati: The event and the Ideology” in his book entitled Faces of the feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India,  p24-25

[4] Oldenburg, V. T., “The Continuing Intervention of the Sati tradition” from Hawley [ed.] Sati: The blessing and the Curse, p166

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
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Financial Pressure on the Widow

Yet more pressing than issues of caste and culture were those of social and financial pressures on the widow.   Not only did the British fail to address the concept culturally, they also appear to have ignored the agency of the woman on the funeral pyre herself.   I shall now discuss the importance of the social and financial pressures on a widow, and how this ties in with the debate on whether Sati can ever be a voluntary act.   The threatening ascetic life of a widow - a woman who was once socially and financially dependent upon her husband – and the lack of the possibility of remarriage is hard for an Indian woman to face.   Lata Mani informs us that,

“The ascetic regime imposed on upper-caste widows involved a punishing denial of sensory pleasures.  Widowhood was thus seen to hold the potential for selfless existence and for a life of sustained contemplation of the supreme being.” [1]

 

The Brahmin widow was destined to become an inauspicious outcast, an unattractive future to which many Indian women would ‘opt out’.   Catherine Weinberger Thomas, through her investigation specific to widowhood in Rajasthan - though some of these instances of asceticism can be found in other areas of north India - expands on the fact that the fate of a young high-caste widow in India in the 1920s is not to be envied.   She was barred from remarriage, and where remarriage was allowed, she would be consigned to a lower ranking in the social hierarchy.[2]   Weinberger describes the widow’s life of asceticism and ‘self-mortification’ as follows,

“Her head is shaved, and she is deprived of every finery, every pleasure, and every comfort.   In Rajasthan, her long sleeved bodice marks her for public abuse.   She must emaciate her body through the most austere of diets, sleep on the ground, and pass a full year in penance, living in the corner of the tiny room to which she is confined.   Because she is a bearer of misfortune, she must avoid appearing in public for the rest of her days; her impurity, rather than being intermittent as in the case of other women, is permanent.   An upper caste Hindu will purify himself with an ablution if the first person to cross his path is a widow.   And married women whose husbands are alive are to avoid like the plague all contact with these women, who are considered to be earthly incarnations of Alaksmi, the goddess identified with evil luck, ruin and misfortune.”[3]

 

Further to this hideous existence, she will be excluded from all domestic festivities (even the weddings of her own children) and in very orthodox families there will be no contact with the children whatsoever.   She will suffer abuse, insult[4] and humiliation, and would be presumed to have sinned in her past life.[5]   No wonder some women in areas readily jumped onto the funeral pyre. Concerns of the women clearly appear to be much more social than religious. We can find evidence of this in an eye-witness account found in the Indian Gazette in 1828, in which the narrator states that,

“Her determination to become a Suttee had been the result not of choice, … but fear of personal obloquy and neglect from her friends, and of bringing disgrace on them and her son.”[6]

 

It is clear that avoidance of becoming a social outcast and bringing disgrace on friends and family was a highly influencing factor prompting many women to commit Sati. As argued by Bernier,

The typical sati did not freely choose a course that would bring her merit, but was conditioned to believe that it was the only course that would avoid demerit.” [7] 

Avoidance of social demerit by far outweighed the desire for spiritual rewards.

 

From the nineteenth century onward, the biggest numbers of cases were actually recorded in Bengal and Maharashtra.   This was probably economic, due to financial implications caused by the Dayabhaga Law permitting widows’ inheritance in Bengal.  Due to the fact that this gave the woman rights to her husband’s property upon his death, one may presume that this increases the quality of life of the widow, thus reduced the number of Sati cases.   However, what happened was quite the contrary; this resulted in disinheritance for the other family members, clashing with the patriarchal values and financial ruin for the agrarian society.[8]  



[1] Mani, L., Contentious Traditions, p54

[2] Weinberger Thomas, Catherine, Ashes of Immortality, p146

[3] Weinberger Thomas, Catherine, Ashes of Immortality, p146

[4] often referred to as a ‘whore’ or ‘witch’

[5] Weinberger Thomas, Catherine, Ashes of Immortality, p147

[6] Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions, p163

[7] Major, A., Pious Flames, p161

[8] Bose, Mandakranta, “Sati: The event and Ideology” from Bose [ed.], Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India, (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p27

Conclusion

It appears that religious and spiritual justifications of Sati as a Hindu funeral rite were misconceptions. Evidence suggests that Sati was more likely to be a result of the financial and social pressures of life as a widow.

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