Author: Daminee Budhi
The Story of the Burning Widow
The word sati in India is synonymous with ‘good wife’, originating from an Indian myth of the Sati, the Goddess Durga, who self-immolated because she was unable to bear her husband, Shiva’s, humiliation. The Indian practice of sati, which Reverend James Peggs zealously campaigned to outlaw, is when a widow, self-immolates by throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, to burn to death alongside him.
In pre-colonial India, support for sati was slowly diminishing, yet, with British occupation of India, the debate over sati was reinvigorated, and three prominent groups established themselves in the campaign to finally outlaw this cruel, obsolete practice. These groups consisted of the British officials; Evangelical missionaries; and the elite Indian males. Reverend Peggs is a perfect illustration of the British missionaries who armed themselves with scripture to ‘civilise’ the natives, and were the most vehement voice in the campaign to outlaw sati. Yet, as Lata Mani observes “the ignominy of sati does not…lie only in the cruelty of the practice…it rests equally and inextricably in the place accorded to the outlawing of sati”.
The Struggle for Law Reform
Sati was abolished in 1829 by the provincial government, and a later general ban was issued in 1961. However, the campaign and outlaw of sati was but a secondary branch of the hegemonic, national, and international discourse of the time, the colonial discourse, and is best observed in the self-interest guiding the three sects in their campaign to outlaw sati.
The first group was comprised of the British officials governing British India, the most notable being Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India, who pushed through the Bengal Sati Regulation 1829, outlawing sati in British India. Lord Bentinck expressed horror when he first witnessed the practice, and vowed to abolish the practice immediately. However, this ‘horror’ was not so great as to occupy the forefront of his mind, “if the continuance of the British Empire…absolutely depended on the burning of thousands of widows…to permit these sacrifices, might be…a principle of benevolence”. Further study shows, Lord Bentinck waited for confirmation of the unlikelihood of a political rebellion before acting. Clearly, if the abolition of sati was detrimental to the success of colonisation and imperialism, it was to be forgotten, irrespective of the widow’s burning to death. The East India Company chose a policy of toleration for almost seventy years, because they remained wary of the political stability of British rule, and would do nothing to jeopardise that, even in the face of sati.
Furthermore, the ‘reputation’ of the British Empire is seen to trump the lives of the widows, Mani notes the British government’s “embarrassment” of its previous toleration of the practice was far more prevalent to their argument in favour of abolition. Lord Bentinck concluded in his ‘Minute’, how he hoped the outlaw of sati would “wash out the foul stain upon British rule”. It is apparent that the British official’s campaign to abolish sati was of secondary concern to political stability and imperialism, and the reputation of the Empire.
Secondly, the Evangelical missionaries played a prominent role in publicising the barbarity of sati, by publishing pamphlets and articles. Reverend Peggs, on his return to Coventry, published works, for example, Suttee’s Cry to Britain, which spoke of the ‘religious’ rite of sati, and appealed for the British government to outlaw this “barbarous custom”. The missionary movement also published ‘eyewitness accounts’ of sati, which proved telling regarding missionary discourse, and the larger colonial discourse, as a notion which appears to be at the forefront of these accounts is the concept of the necessity of the “civilising mission”. This concept essentially refers to, as Reverend Peggs described it, the “progress of [Western] civilisation”. Although, most notable within the missionary movement regarding its religious connotations, the ‘civilising mission’ was vital to colonisation and imperialisation, acting as justification, and legitimising British rule in India. Sati spearheaded the missionary campaigns in India, due to its ‘uncivilised’ character, which acted as “evidence of social degradation”. Sati’s supposed scriptural, and therefore, religious origins provided the basis for the British missionaries ‘white knight’ routine, “the social ill-treatment of indigenous women largely served as evidence for the paramount necessity for evangelism”.
A group of elite Indian males joined the campaign to outlaw sati on the basis also, of enhancing their reputations, however, in this case, in the eyes of the ‘new’ hegemony, Britain. Rammohun Roy, a renowned social reformer in India, published pamphlets confessing his hope that the outlaw of sati would have the advantage of erasing “the evils and disgrace brought on [India] by the crime of female-murder”. Once sati was abolished, Roy thanked Lord Bentinck for protecting Indian women and “for rescuing the character of the Hindu men ‘from the gross stigma…as wilful murderers of females”, it is the latter result which seems more compelling to these indigenous males. Colonial discourse has once again dominated the campaign against sati, as Mani queries “is there any doubt that the amelioration of male disgrace, and by extension that of the nation, is at greater stake then the alleviation of women’s sufferings?”
“Perhaps the most striking feature is the astonishing marginality of the widow to this debate over whether she should survive her husband or be burned on his funeral pyre”.
It is inconceivable to think that the campaign to outlaw sati paid very little attention to the widow, and her account of burning to death, but this is apparent when we consider the discourse surrounding sati and its obvious subordination to the hegemonic imperial discourse of the time.
Fundamental to colonial discourse is this representation of Indian women as ‘victims’, which has proved to be “fertile ground for the elaboration of discourses of salvation”, and the ‘civilising mission’. This is apparent when one considers the testimonies of missionaries in India. In one testimony, the missionary witnessing sati claims credit for the widow climbing off the pyre, the result of “the humble exertions and persuasive means adopted by a single European”. In many accounts, the narrator points to his use of a Christian rationale for the widow’s change of heart.
This insistence by British males, on a scriptural, therefore, religious basis of sati, is a “colonial conception of religion as the structuring principle of indigenous society”. Religion played an instrumental role in legitimising the need for the spread of ‘civilisation’ and imperialism. By painting the widow as an “infatuated creature”, “destroy[ing] herself for…evanescent bliss”, she is confined to be a victim of cruel, indigenous religious practices, “they know not what they do…they must be saved. Ergo the civilising mission”.
If, however, we consider the subjectivity of the widow, they were more concerned with material pressures, such as, fear of financial hardship, and the loss of protection afforded to them by their status as a wife. Not only is the widow’s tale rewritten by these men for their own gain, the basis of sati is also rewritten. Research shows that sati had no scriptural basis, and was descendent from a practice performed by warrior’s wives who faced torture at the hands of the enemy. However, this “reductive and binary” view of the widows and of sati, has left “little wonder that the widow herself is marginal to its centre concern”. Rather, the widows become “sites” on which colonial discourse progresses, and in doing so, denies them their “voice”.
This marginalisation of the widow’s subjectivity in sati discourse is further demonstrated in the lack of recognition of the widow’s suffering, as Mani mourns, “the materiality of their burning bodies and the anguish of their pain are remarkably absent from its purview”. We can see this deficiency when we compare the campaign in British India, with the feminist campaign after the death of Roop Kanwar, a modern-day victim of sati. The feminist campaigners focused on the “women involved – their lives, the pain they endured, the cruelty…they experienced”, whereas, any subjectivity from the widows in colonial India is gleaned primarily from missionary eyewitness accounts, and only then, if we consider in more depth, what the narrator has merely said in passing.
Gender Norms Emerge
On the rare occasion the widows were not viewed as “victims”, they were instead represented as “heroines”, “the determined heroic fortitude she displayed throughout…would have done honour to a Christian Martyr”. The fascination of sati visible in this account is a theme that reoccurs in eyewitness accounts, and developed to produce this notion of “voluntary” sati’s. This idealisation of the “heroine”, the devoted, self-sacrificing, serene widow, enthralled male reformers, so much so, that in 1813 a circular was published by the East India Company legalising ‘voluntary’ sati. Any coercion would classify the practice “bad”, yet the notion that sati could be “good”, arose out of, what Mani labels “phallocentric reverie”, this male admiration for the perceived devotion of a wife to her husband in life and in death. So-called ‘voluntary’ sati, was described in a non-horrified way in British newspapers, this act of self-sacrifice was to be praised as “a lesson in female obedience”.
‘Voluntary’ sati conjures up this notion of free-will, diminishing any material or cultural pressures the widow faces, and ultimately obscuring evidence of coercion, whether physical or psychological. An extreme example of this can be found in a male witness’s narrative, where he recounts the story of a young widow, who is so drugged that she had to be lifted onto the pyre. However, instead of being repulsed by this blatant case of coercion, he’s mesmerised by the beauty of her ‘surrender’, her supposed compliant nature, and it is the latter which captures his attention and provokes sympathy. Mani wonders “how many other tales of coercion…perished untold in pyres of those so-called voluntary burnings”. Furthermore, those women who struggled against such coercion, are viewed with disgust for deviating from this perception of heroism. It is the widow’s submission, rather than her strength in escaping, that is valued.
This concept of “bad” sati’s has, too, been distorted by the male gaze. Rather than sati being abhorrent due to the pain and suffering of the widow, it is instead because of this idea that by burning to death, a woman is seen to deviate from society’s expectations of her. For example, missionaries were especially critical of sati because it would be “a desertion of motherhood”. Missionary articles highlighted a woman’s ‘place’ was in the family sphere, therefore sati resulted in the destruction of “domestic enjoyment”. As Rev. Peggs noted in Suttee, sati “cannot be her duty…I regard a women’s burning herself as an unworthy act, and a life of abstinence and chastity highly excellent”. It is apparent that burning to death was preferable than deviating from the roles society has deemed for women.
Nowadays, the noun sati is defined as the ritual burning of the helpless widow, but in Hindu mythology, the Sati conjures up this image of the “luminous, fighting Mother Durga”. In this goddess-centred religion, feminism was intrinsic, and although attempts have been made to erase this feminist symbol, the Goddess Durga still remains a powerful figure in Hindu culture.
 Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate James on Sati in Colonial India, (University of California Press, 1998) 1
 Ibid, 155
 J.K. Majumdar, ‘Lord Bentinck’s Minutes on Suttee’ in Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India (Art Press, 1941)
 Ibid, 139
 James Peggs, The Suttees’ Cry to Britain (1829) 4
 Ibid, 4
 Mani (n 1) 143
 Ibid, 192
 Catherine Hall, Marxism and It’s Others (BA, 2007)
 Mani (n 1) 74
 Ibid, 191
 Ibid, 162
 Ibid 190
 Mani (n 1) 164
 Rev. Peggs (n 5) 7
 Mani (n 1) 32
 Ibid, 72
 Spivak (n 10)
 Mani (n 1) 76
 Veena Oldenburg, Sati: The Blessing and the Curse of Widow Burning (OUP, 1994) 104
 Mani (n 1) 169
 Ibid, 173
 Mani (n 1) 154
 Rev. Peggs (n 4) 7
 Spivak (n 10) 103
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