The influence of scripture, tradition and law on the abolition of Sati

‘Women become sites upon which various versions of scripture, tradition and law are elaborated’ – Lata Mani.

Mani’s sentiment rings true, as scripture, tradition and law were used to address Sati, an issue that primarily concerned women. Women therefore did become sites upon which versions of these three sources were elaborated and developed. Although these debates stemmed from a problem exclusive to women, the discussions demonstrated peoples’ desire to ascertain the legality of Sati, not their desire to help Hindu women. This is reflected in the rulings of the Nizamat Adalat, and in the works of Rammohun Roy and Walter Ewer.  The ideas that were generated by the debates concerning scripture, tradition and law impacted on Britain’s understanding of Sati, leading to the generation of colonial discourse on the topic. This cemented the British view that India was an immoral land, a view that validated their own, colonial, Christianising mission. Although scripture, tradition and law directly affected the debates around the abolition of Sati, and by extension women, women acted as passive bodies that these ideas were elaborated from, as their plight was disregarded in favour of assessing the legality of Sati, and later the colonial agenda of the British.

Initially, the East India Company were deterred from abolishing Sati as they did not want to appear as religiously intolerant, and they also worried about the economic repercussion’s abolition would have on the Company.[1] Due to this, there was a lack of legislation that explained Sati.[2] Regional traditions of the practice also varied, such as the direction of the pyre and whether the widow’s body should be placed on the left or on the right of it.[3] This made the practice inscrutable to the British colonisers. To combat this, instead of condemning Sati, they sought to assess how it should be practised, and to enshrine this in law. Enshrining Sati in a universal law meant that Indian widows could still carry out the practice, in a way which the British colonisers understood. The British colonisers believed this was the best way to minimise disruption to the Indian natives.[4]

British Utilitarianists, such as James Mill, advocated a universal code of law based on British values, believing that by reforming society, they could also improve Indian morality.[5] To generate accurate legislation, British colonisers depended on the interpretation of Indian pandits to understand Indian jurisprudence. This was problematic, as regional variations of Sati were largely ignored.[6] Increasingly, dependence on pandits, and the power that they exercised, became unsettling to British colonisers, so they sought new ways of understanding Sati and ascertaining the legality of it.[7] Social reformers such as Rammohun Roy advocated a return to scripture in order to do this.[8]

The influence of scripture over the debates about the abolition of Sati reinforced the authority of the pandits, as the interpreters of Hindu scripture. When attempting to ascertain the legality of Sati, which in this context refers to its scriptural authority, the court of Nizamat Adalat called on the pandit Ghanshyam Surmono.[9] In 1813, Surmono concluded that because the practice was ‘recognised and encouraged by the doctrines of the Hindoo religion,’ it should be legalised.[10] Surmono stressed that the legality of Sati rested on the voluntary nature of it.[11] This is recognised in magistrates’ records of Sati, in which the countenance of the widow was examined to ensure that she was committing the act of ‘her own free will.’[12] This defined the role of woman as the dutiful wife who was obedient to her husband and obedient to scripture.

The court also concluded that widows could only commit Sati ‘provided she has no infant children, nor is pregnant.’[13] If the widow were to commit Sati, she should also make provisions for childcare.[14] This view casts the widow in the role of mother and demonstrates a conflict between this role and her role as wife. The courts advocation of Sati supports the women’s position primarily as wife. Unfortunately, this does not consider the plight of the widows in question, as their lives rested on the presence and age of their children, and not their own will.

Rammohun Roy’s 1818 tract disagreed with the legal rulings of the court, and asserted that Sati had no scriptural authority.[15]  He claimed that corrupt Hindu princes invented the practice, ‘under the cloak of religion,’ to ensure the faithfulness of their widows, and then asserted the legitimacy of Sati in scripture.[16] Roy noted the absence of Sati in the Shashtras, texts which the British colonisers used as principal guides to the Hindu faith.[17] Despite this apparent display of support for women, Roy’s opposition to Sati stemmed primarily from its lack of scriptural authority.

Instead of Sati, Roy advocated ascetic widowhood, which, as described in the Manusmriti, ‘should preserve the virtue required of widows.’[18] Walter Ewer corroborated the importance of the text, seeing it as the ‘parent of Hindoo jurisprudence.’[19] Governor General of India William Bentinck supported this idea, stating that ascetic widowhood was ‘the purest precepts of religion,’ and that, for the rest of her life, the widow would act as a role model for future generations of Hindus. [20] 

In response, supporters of Sati argued that a prolonged life of widowhood would lead to one of prolonged suffering, recognising Sati as the lesser of two evils.[21] It was also feared that widows were a danger to society, as they did not have a husband to contain their irrepressible sexuality, making Sati a more favourable alternative.[22]

Roy’s use of the Manusmriti to support his argument was also problematic, as the text did not address the issue of Sati, rendering it irrelevant.[23] This led to the broader assertion by the opposition that a lack of scriptural basis did not validate the disregarding of traditional practices.[24] The durga puja and dola jatra were cited as examples.[25] Although women acted as sites upon which these debates were elaborated, their plight was disregarded, and instead, the assessment of the credibility of scripture in defining Sati was prioritised. Women were relegated to an inactive and passive role by scholars in the debates about the abolishment of Sati. Britain selected details of these ongoing debates to incorporate into their own distinct colonial discourse on the topic of Sati.

British evangelical missionary Charles Grant decried the treatment of women in India, and saw them as the ‘unfortunate part of the community and greatly to be pitied.’[26] Politician William Wilberforce publicly condemned the ‘fireside evils’ that Indian women were subjected to, which directly contrasted with the evangelical view of the fireplace, as the heart of the idealised Christian family.[27]

Walter Ewer developed this idea further through his conception of the Hindu widow. His 1818 work advocated voluntary Sati, but argued that the widows involved in the practice were enslaved by religion and the will of those around them.[28] Ewer asserted that any normal person would ‘turn with natural instinct and horror from the thought of suttee,’ but that the widow does not because she lacks education and the ability to reason independently.[29] This infantilised the widows, making them occupy the position of wife, mother and also child.[30] This is ironic, as in 1818, sixty-four percent of Sati’s were above forty years of age.[31] Whilst, in a way, defending women by stating that Sati must be voluntarily, Ewer also does them a disservice by casting them in the role of the unintelligent victim, that needed the aid of foreign intervention. This demonstrates Britain’s ability to manipulate certain ideas about Sati to suit their own colonial agenda.

Ironically, Britain’s discourse on Sati increasingly focused on Hindu men rather than Hindu women. Britons viewed Hindu men as effeminate and weak, leading them to the conclusion that they were unable to protect Hindu women from practices such as Sati.[32] The British decided that they needed to intervene to protect Hindu women from Hindu men, the enforcers of Hindu faith and tradition. The selective discourse that the British employed is also present in their commentary on female infanticide. Hindu men interviewed by Major Walker stated that female infanticide ‘belonged to the Nursery,’ attributing the act to women.[33] However, the British elected to blame Hindu men for this, saying that women committed infanticide on the order of their husbands, who enforced the Hindu faith upon their women, even though Hinduism itself made no mention of female infanticide.[34] This suited the British agenda by confirming the superiority of British, Christian moral values, and encouraged the colonial belief that India was a morally corrupt country that required British intervention.

This was vocalised by Wilberforce, who argued that Christian conversion was an ‘imperial duty.’[35] Charles Grant concurred, claiming that the only way to reform India was to reform its morals.[36] Although these ideas stemmed from the practice of Sati, the focus on Hindu men disregarded the plight of the women in favour of validating the British agenda: the Christianisation of India.

Sati was used to appeal to the wifely and maternalistic nature of the British woman and to inspire their sympathy, in the hope that they would travel to India as missionaries.[37] Bentinck wished for this to happen quickly, in contrast to the gradual change that had gone before.[38] Such a mission epitomised the evangelical idealisation of motherhood, as it saw women expanding their domestic role in the English home to include the country of India.[39] The mission of the women was the spread of education, in the hope that intellectual enlightenment would encourage Hindus to convert to Christianity, and thus end immoral Hindu practices, such as Sati.[40] The campaign itself was successful, and by May 1821 over 521 pounds was collected by the Ladies Committee of the British Foreign School Society to send a teacher to Calcutta.[41] Mary Anne Cooke was selected, and in setting up schools throughout Calcutta, educated 800 pupils over three years.[42] Cooke herself styled her work as one of self-sacrifice, as she had left the comforts of Britain to help people less fortunate than herself.[43] Her sacrifice contrasted the self-sacrifice of Sati, serving the British cause further in highlighting the differences between Britain and India.[44] Despite the good intentions of her mission, it is conceivable to think that the story of Cooke would have attracted more attention than the Indian women who she was trying to educate, and also reinforced the British conception that the people of India were intellectually and morally inferior, as illustrated by their selective discourse. In retrospect Britain’s response to Sati can be read as a white saviour narrative, in which Britain’s attempts at helping India were predominantly self-serving.

Sati was abolished in 1829, meaning that British colonisers were successful in intervening in the lives of the Indian natives. As I have demonstrated, although women acted as sites upon which the debates concerning the abolishment of Sati were elaborated, because Sati specifically concerned women, their feelings were disregarded in favour of the debates that ensued between scholars and academics, who sought to ascertain the true nature of Sati. The ensuing discussions cast women in several different roles, such as wife, mother and victim, roles that the women themselves had no control over. Britain chose which ideas to incorporate into their colonial discourse, concluding that the Indian natives needed to be saved from themselves, citing the weakness of Hindu men as the cause of this development. Britain’s solution was the spread of Christian ideals, perpetuating a white saviour narrative. No action which led to the abolition of Sati demonstrated specific concern for the plight of the widows, as, in the words of Gayatri Spivak, it is their ‘testimony’ that is never encountered, rendering them as the unrecognised, eternal victims of Sati.[45]

Thanks for reading!


[1] L. Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on “Sati” in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 21 (1986) pp. 32-40, p. 33.

[2] S. den Otter, ‘Law, Authority, and Colonial Rule’, in Douglas M. Peters and Nandini Gooptu (eds.), India and the British Empire (Oxford, 2012), pp. 168-190, p. 174.

[3] Ibid., p. 38.

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] F. G Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British Imperialism in India (Princeton, 1967) p. 10.

[6] S. den Otter, ‘Law, Authority, and Colonial Rule’, p. 172.

[7] Ibid., p. 179.

[8] L. Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, Cultural Critique, 7 (1987), pp. 119-156, p. 104.

[9] Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on “Sati” in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’, p. 33.

[10] L. Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 94.

[11] Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on “Sati” in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’, p. 33.

[12] Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 94.

[13] Ibid., p. 98.

[14] Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on “Sati” in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’, p. 33.

[15] R. Kumar, The history of doing: an illustrated account of movements for women’s rights and feminism in India 1800-1990 (London, 1993), p. 14.

[16] Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 105.

[17] Kumar, The history of doing: an illustrated account of movements for women’s rights and feminism in India 1800-1990, p. 14.

[18] Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 108.

[19] Ibid., p. 108.

[20] Ibid., p. 112.

[21] Ibid., p. 108.

[22] A A. Yang, ‘Whose Sati?: Widow Burning in Early 19th Century India’, Journal of Women’s History, 1 (1989), pp. 8-33, p. 15.

[23] Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 108.

[24] Ibid., p. 108.

[25] Ibid., p. 108.

[26] C. Grant, Observations, on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, Particularly with Respect to Morals and on the Means of Improving it, Written Chiefly in the Year 1792 (London, 1813), in Andrea Major (ed.), Sati: A Historical Anthology (New Delhi, 2007), pp. 75-8, p. 75.

[27] C. Midgley, ‘Female Emancipation in an Imperial Frame: English Women and the Campaign Against Sati (Widow-Burning) in India, 1813–30’, Women’s History Review, 9 (2000), pp. 95-121, p. 97

[28] Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on “Sati” in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’, p. 35.

[29] Ibid., p. 35.

[30] Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, p. 97.

[31] Ibid., p. 98.

[32] C. Hall, ‘Of Gender and Empire: Reflections on the Nineteenth Century’, in Philippa Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire (Oxford, 2007), pp. 46-76, p. 53.

[33] D. J.R Grey, ‘Creating the ‘Problem Hindu’: Sati, Thuggee and Female Infanticide in India, 1800-1600’, in Joanna De Groot and Sue Morgan (eds.), Sex, Gender and the Sacred: Reconfiguring Religion in Gender History (New Jersey, 2014), pp. 104-116, p. 108.

[34] Ibid., 107.

[35] L. James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (London, 1997) p. 224.

[36] Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British Imperialism in India, p. 10.

[37] Midgley, ‘Female Emancipation in an Imperial Frame: English Women and the Campaign Against Sati (Widow-Burning) in India, 1813–30’, p. 98.

[38] G.D. Bearce, British Attitudes Towards India, 1784-1858 (New York; London, 1961), p. 156.

[39] Midgley, ‘Female Emancipation in an Imperial Frame: English Women and the Campaign Against Sati (Widow-Burning) in India, 1813–30’, p. 98.

[40] Ibid., p. 98.

[41] Ibid., p. 98.

[42] Ibid., p. 98.

[43] Ibid., p. 98.

[44] Ibid., p. 104.

[45] Yang, ‘Whose Sati?: Widow Burning in Early 19th Century India’,  p. 110.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: