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Sati and the Occidental Gaze

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Introduction

I shall investigate what is meant by the occidental gaze through early European travel writings dating back to the seventeenth century, and move this forward to see the relevance of the occidental gaze in eighteenth and nineteenth century India.

The focus of this article is Occidental gaze on the issue of Sati - the burning of a widow on her husbands funeral pyre. This is an old tradition in some parts of India, and rarely happens today. What is particularly interesting, is the way that it was viewed by British explorers.

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European Eye Witness Accounts of Sati

Early eye-witness accounts suggest that the rite of Sati was inseparable from European writers’ imaginings of India.[1]   This European ‘obsession’ with the violence of sati, combined with the constraints of travel writing and misunderstandings of ‘Hinduism’ led to many jaded views of the practice of sati. Robin Jared Lewis draws our attention to the fact that most late eighteenth and early nineteenth century knowledge was second hand, derived from earlier European travellers such as Sonnerat and Bernier, whose accounts were based on fleeting encounters with the practice, and often reflected the moral or sentimental predilections of the author.[2]    Andrea Major correctly draws our attention to the subjectivity of travel accounts, which appear to be the bulk of eyewitness sources on sati in the seventeenth century.   She acknowledges that these views are not only open to interpretation, but also based on Western cultural and moral standpoints.[3]     Travel writings pre-dating the seventeenth century concentrated on ‘discovery’ and included factual descriptions or detailed accounts of the event itself.   After the initial discoveries were made, it becomes evident that some Western writers on India in the late seventeenth century enforced British Christian perspectives on to Indian society.  

For example, we see Baldaeus’ discerning eye for the horrific and unusual, through his representations of stoning, hanging and ship burning, amongst others.[4]   Although there is no pictorial representation of Sati, he leaves this to his finale on the last of his 901 pages.   Pompa Banerjee suggests that in Baldaeus’ text, ‘the sati, used as a closural trop, without elegy, without further explanation, dually framed the text and the author’s (and the reader’s) averted gaze.[5]   Banerjee goes on to state that what made Baldaeus’ account so authentic was his intimate construction of the moral darkness of the pagans in the East Indies, a darkness that could perhaps only be dispelled by Christian Europeans.[6]   A further example of the occidental gaze is found in the writing of Alexander Hamilton (? – 1732), who applies a Christian hierarchical structure (God, Angel, Humankind) onto pantheons of Hindu Gods, in order to make this material more comprehensible to his European audience.[7]  

Courtwright informs us that, “In the imagined India of Western experience and interpretation, sati came to stand for the whole of Hinduism as an irrational, perverse and heroic religious orientation to life.” [8]   Therefore, evidence through European letters and accounts demonstrate that the practice of Sati was not fully understood, and diversity within Hindu traditions was not originally recognised.   European representations of Sati, through drama and opera, in which Sati was not integral to the plot line, did not serve solely to satisfy the senses, but also to satisfy the European intellectual concern with belief in transmigration[9] which they believe to have created the custom.   An interest in death and the afterlife, particularly amongst German thinkers, was predominantly an enlightenment construct.   Dorothy Figuera identifies how seventeenth Century poems and dramas addressing the fate of the sati follow a consistent but paradoxical pattern - displaying the loving devotion and heroism of the sati on one hand, and her helplessness as a victim on the other.

Judgements made about Sati in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were made by the ‘Western world’.   India under a British government meant that the elitist British ruling class made judgements on legal and ethical issues, as Said argues, within a very different society to their own.   The occidental gaze, or the eye of the western onlooker, was firmly grounded in the anti catholic notions of a protestant reformation and a superiority over the ‘East’ or ‘Orient’.[10]   It was also based contrasting binary assumptions of the ‘East’ as violent yet beautiful, oppressive yet exotic and harsh yet fascinating.   The occidental gaze in question here is that of a white western Christian male, a superiority grounded in race, class, religion and gender.   Reference to the act of Sati itself[11] is a western manipulation of the term.   In Sanskrit, sati refers to the good wife, in certain circumstances the woman who immolates herself, as opposed to the act or event of the immolation.  For this reason I shall refer to sati and Sati (as in the act) respectively.

 

 



[1] Banerjee, Pompa, Burning Women: Widows, Witches and early modern European Travellers in India, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), p73

[2] Lewis, Robin Jared, “Sati and the Nineteenth-century British self”, in Hawley, J. S., [ed.] Sati: The Blessing and the Curse, (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p 73

[3] Major, A, ‘Pious Flames’: European encounters with Sati before 1805, Journal of South Asian Studies, n.s., vol.XXVII, no. 2, August 2004, Carfax Publishing, p155

[4] In A true and exact description of the most celebrated East India coasts of Malabar and Coromandel as also of the Isle of Ceylon

[5] Banerjee, Pompa, Burning Women: Widows, Witches and early modern European Travellers in India, p78

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Banerjee, Pompa, Burning Women: Widows, Witches and early modern European Travellers in India, p79-80

[8] Courtwright, Sati, ‘Sacrifice and Marriage: The Modernity of Tradition’, from Harlan and Courtwright, The Margins of Hindu Marriage: Essays on Gender, Religion and Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) , p185

[9] Hawley, J. S. [ed.], Sati: The Blessing and the Curse – The Burning of Wives in India, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994), p63

[10] For further information see Said’s Orientalism.

[11] Sati as an act being written as ‘suttee’, a Westernised term that I shall be abandoning for the purposes of this essay.

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Conclusions on the Occidental Gaze and it's Perception of Sati

The occidental gaze continued to perceive Sati from a white, British, Christian, male, elitist perspective throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   I am interested in the extent to which the occidental gaze was involved in the way that sati has been viewed and practised.   The British government continued to aim to justify Sati textually, succumbing to the protestant notion that the earliest texts (i.e. The Bible) are the most authoritative and are applicable throughout one single society.   In my next article, I would like to explore; can Sati be textually justified, and were the British elite right to attempt to justify sati in this way?

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