“Despite my general opposition to the British Raj, I very much like Sir Charles Napier’s reply to Indians defending suttee: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” – Masked Avenger
I figured that this was a good time to deal with an interesting part of history. Let us say this. Atheists know precious little about Indian culture or Hinduism. What we know about Islam in general is rather appalling and Hinduism? Well let us just say that when I started out? When I looked for “Ex-Hindu Atheists” the only place I found was the then silent Nirmukhta. I started writing because I saw no one else represent a group of atheists who are small but who do have a different view on the issues and different issues with the views.
I am an atheist. A pretty strong one. However? I also grew up Hindu. It is part of me. My girlfriend (Hera) still goes to the Temple and believes even if I do not. And I do not begrudge her or bemoan her faith. I think if we know the truth about our old religions we can take on the wisdom and ignore the ignorance. And one such is Sati.
Sati to me is a puzzling thing to discuss.
We often bring up the argument of Charles Napier when discussing a culture whose ideas we do not adhere to. In this case? Executions for a Sudanese woman who is considered an apostate. I find the very notion abhorrent but frankly? The adherence to Charles Napier is just as abhorrent.
This is where a small point of contention arises. People often quote Sati as an evil of Hinduism. And the only phrase they know off is from Charles Napier so it appears as if it was only Brits who found the practice “terrible” while ignoring many Hindu reformers throughout Indian history who were involved in it. Indeed, Christianity and Missionary workers against Hinduism love to promote the notion of Sati being an entrenched evil and universally accepted.
Sati was not widespread during Charles Napier’s era. It was part of a practice akin to Seppuku (I must point out? A practice that is highly romanticised and even fetishised among western audiences). During sieges, as a city fell the women would immolate themselves on a funeral pyre while the men fought to the death in funeral clothes. It was akin to total warfare. And here is the thing. Sati was not a widespread Hindu practice. At no point in its history was it ever universal in Hinduism. Even the literature is clear that Southern Hindus considered the practice as rare and an oddity when it occurred and usually among immigrants to the region. Many Southern Hindu states had bans predating the arrival of the British. In one case the rulers of Travancore asked why the British let the practice occur.
The biggest drivers of the Sati ban was not Brits but Indians. There were a tonne of Indian reformers including Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar but most importantly? Raja Ram Mohan Roy. They had bigger pushes to eliminate Sati.
A simple way to look at this are by reading the “idealised” Hindu societies of the epics. The Mahabaratha and Ramayana.
The Ramayana is an older book. It is pre-Biblical dating back to 700 BCE at the earliest. Not one instance of Sati is mentioned despite heroes dying and their wives living on as Widows. Same for the villains. Mandodari and Tara (Ravana’s Wives) explicitly live on after his death. Only in later additions to the book and expansions of the story do we see a single instance of Sati in one case Sita’s Aunt and in another case Ravana’s Daughter in Law (Kushadwaja’s Wife and Indrajit’s Wife) in different additions. Widows expressed the will to die but did so out of love. Despite all portrayals in what western audiences know, Hindu villains tend to be subtle. Ravana for instance? Was a religious man (monster?) and was considered a good and wise king. What his flaw was? Was the flaw of the Trojans. Indeed the Ramayana and the story of Troy has a lot of similar motifs down to the Damsel in Distress. Both stories are among the oldest stories that still are told today of Damsel’s in Distress. Seriously? Ravana wants Sita, sees two brothers who looked like bumpkins and kidnaps one’s wife on his flying chariot causing both of them to go on a epic rampage through his Kingdom supported by a variety of side characters including one that can change size at will. That’s really his crime. His crime was to kidnap a man’s wife.
The Mahabaratha has only one instance of something akin to Sati. Madri, the wife of Pandu kills herself on his pyre but she does so out of guilt and the practice is explicitly forbidden. Pandu was cursed to die if he had sex. Madri had sex knowing he would die from it. She killed herself from guilt. The sages sought to stop her begging her to not jump into the fire claiming that this was an act of pointlessness. In later newer rewritings. The wives of Vasu and some of those of Krishna choose to die but these are later additions. Like 1000 years later additions.
The funny thing with Sati is? That it was so old a practice that it died out once before. It was considered silly among early Vedic Hindus with funerary rites indicating that a widow should return to her family and even remarry. The funeral goods of a Hindu man would be placed in the care of his wife who would take them back along with her jewellery to her family and if she could? She could remarry. The practice was clearly stated within the dialogue of Hinduism. The practice was a “sati” too. Her identity as a wife was “burned” with her husband’s body. In western culture? It would be like burying your wedding dress and ring since those were the identifiers of your marital status. Not her actual being. The early commentary on the Vedas (1000 BCE) are very candid about the practice being purely symbolic. It could be that the practice of Sati was eliminated from Hinduism at one point already.
From around 500 AD to 1300 AD we see a rise in the glorification of real Sati. The probable trigger may have been Greek. Lest we forget? The Greeks also had a practice of widow burning and there were Greek influences in India. It’s where the name’s of Amritsar (Ambrosia and Amrita are very similar substances in Greek and Hindu theology) and Sikandar and Iskander (Alexander) come from. The Mauryan dynasty married Greeks from the Seulecid successor states and the practice may have restarted due to similarities in theology with wife burning being a royal practice that was adopted in the general population.
The elimination of Sati began before 1857 which was when India came under direct rule. The British logged 500 to 600 cases a year. In a population of 300 million. That is a rather small number. The reason was there were already drives in place to eliminate it. The British just codified it into a universal law. India was a series of balkanised states at this point so the law was different in different parts. Many southern independent states already had standing bans on it.
Throughout Hindu history there are repeated people speaking out against it. Even during it’s hey day during 1000 AD (note… Long before the British Arrived) there were theological arguments pointing out Sati as an inferior choice. It is quite simple. The reward for Sati is Heaven. The reward for living is Morksha. Transcendence beats Heaven in Hinduism.
And the modern Sati still exists, except they live. It is called Jitvit and a symbol of how religion can change. A jitvit is a sati who refused to be burned and it is considered a bigger sacrifice because they are trading heaven for earth. Hindus created the notion an a theological stance to oppose the religious push of Sati.
To you it may be appearing to dance through hoops but we must remember? Dancing through hoops gave us Sati in the first place. This was just a way for Hindus to demonstrate why they survived and consumed all invaders. Why Indian culture is so robust and prone to amalgamating others. It is flexible and has a deep habit off irreverence, discourse and philosophy. It is a pragmatic faith. Old rituals for horses still remain, now used to bless cars and motorcycles. It is dancing through hoops that allowed us to ban slavery in the west. Every damn religion dances through the hoops to make ancient theology fit modern life. It is just that Hindus have thrived for more than 3000 years and have gotten better at it. I jest that Indians are the only group of people who can take astronomy and modern computers and use it to play astrologer. Hindus survive in this way despite modernity. The Hindu priests even have telephone and Skype ceremonies to bless people. Their iPhones ring to devotional music.
The earliest pushes against Sati date back to a pre-biblical time where Hindu commentators spoke out against it and indeed about the rarity of the practice in Hindu texts. In the end the stronghold of Sati Was Bengal. And the biggest driver of the destruction of Sati there was Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Who began his work in 1810. 20 years before the British got in on the action and 40 years before the total ban. It wasn’t fear of the noose that killed Sati. It was Indians. It was at his behest the law was created.
Since Independence there have been just 40 known cases of Sati. In a country of 1.2 billion people and it is still illegal. Even to promote it. And I completely agree with that stance. It is a dangerous and poisonous part of Hindu history but we aren’t going to learn anything or oppose it by listening to Charles Napier.
Less than 1 per year. One can argue that women who commit suicide in the USA or the UK after the death of a loved one are committing Sati too. Remember, Sati was seen as an act of love. A lover killing herself to be with her tragically dead husband. Stories of Sati, even the most recent one are spoke of as if they were tragic loves. Romeo and Juliet.
The problem with Sati is the same as Seppuku. The practice was demonised to show the barbarism of Indians and justify colonialism. Seppuku was done to lionise the Japanese. Seppuku made them honourable and brave. Sati was portrayed as the Sati of Around the World in 80 Days. Of savage beings in a savage that robbed women of their agency by a society that placed women on a pedestal.
So remember, when you speak of Sati. It isn’t the Sati of Around the World in 80 days. Of Victorian villains who needed civilisation with the Maxim gun. By all accounts? Roop Kanwar (the last known Sati) walked onto the pyre willingly. If we can conceive young men from the Islamic faith going on suicidal and self destructive runs. If we can consider Japanese men committing suicide for honour in an equally painful way. Why do we not consider Satis as the same? Is it because women are weak?
Sati is dead as it should be. I do not bemoan its loss. I think it was a bad part of Hindu culture, that lionised female sacrifice from a period of Hinduism that place blame on women for all of man’s sins. The idea of forced Sati does exist within Hindu literature during the mid and late part of the height of Sati but it was opposed by anti-Sati activists in Hinduism who wrote from the standpoint of humanist ideals and a rejection of dogma. And would you like to know the biggest joke?
The biggest pro-forced Sati proponent in Indian literature was Tryambakayajvan. It is a female name. A woman was one of the most strong opponents of the Hindu reform to finally stamp out Sati as a practice.
But please don’t bring it up as some sort of sign of Western Enlightenment over a practice that was fought for a greater period of time than the religion and culture that actually broke it. It wasn’t white men or Christianity who destroyed it but Hindus and Indian men and women who long opposed the practice. The first anti-sati statements pre-date Christianity.
And I will leave with these words on the practice of Sati
“it is a path followed by the ignorant. It is a mere freak of madness, a path of ignorance, an enterprise of recklessness, a view of baseness, a sign of utter thoughtlessness and a blunder or folly that one should resign life on the death of the father, brother, friend or the husband. Are you not unique? If you believe in gods do you not agree that you are so bereft of purpose to be created to be doomed on the pyre? Are your gods that cruel to torment you and punish you for something that you cannot control? What wife is to blame over the death of a husband by accident or disease or war? It is bad luck, health and kings to blame for those, not women. What sins must you have committed for so many to be punished this way? If life leaves us not of itself, we must not resign it. For this leaving of life, if we examine it, is merely for our own interest because we cannot bear our own pain. What pain we may think of as terminal will cure with time. It is pain that defines us as human beings and to endure this pain can make us grow stronger. In time, the pain will pass and we will laugh and smile again. Live. If the gods exist then that is the best advice I can think of that will honour them the most. The gods are not cruel”
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