“Please do not interfere in our religious customs”!

This is our traditional religious practice. We are following this for hundreds of years. Please do not interfere in our religious customs. Government should not try to change it.

In India we hear this again and again from believers of all religions. Recently when there was a discussion about having a Uniform civil law regardless of religion, many Muslims were against it. They were arguing that as a minority they have the right to practice their religion as per their traditions. They do not want to raise the legal age for marriage or to ban polygamy or triple talaq. When some women protested against entry ban in some Hindu temples, government was asked not to interfere in religious customs.

This is not something new. Throughout the history of humankind, change, especially in religious beliefs and customs, was resisted quoting traditions. Many archaic and cruel customs found proud defenders. Those who want to reform were termed apostate aiming to destroy religion.

"Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband", from Pictorial History of China and India, 1851.

“Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband”, from Pictorial History of China and India, 1851.

One of the most famous of such an attempt to reform traditional customs was the successful campaign of reformists Hindus in Bengal in British India against Sati.  It was led by Raja Rammohan Roy,who asked for a ban on this cruel and oppressive practice of wife burning to death in husband’s funeral pyre, prevalent among a section of Hindus Conservative Hindus opposed reformists vehemently.  They submitted this petition to the British authorities.  Many of the arguments are interesting and are seen repeated in present day India.

…That the Hindu religion is founded like all relig­ions on usage as well as precept and one when imme­morial is held equally sacred with the other. Under the sanction of immemorial usage as well as precept Hindu widows perform of their own accord and pleas­ure and for the benefit of their husbands’ souls and for their own the sacrifice of self immolation called suttee—which is not merely a sacred duty but a high privilege to her who sincerely believes in the doctrine of her religion—and we humbly submit that any interference with a persuasion of so high and self annihilating a nature is not only an unjust and intol­erant dictation in matters of conscience but is likely wholly to fail in procuring the end proposed…..


…….We learned with surprise and grief that while this is confessed on all hands the abolition of the practice of suttee is attempted to be defended on the ground that there is no positive law or precept enjoining it. A doctrine derived from a number of Hindus who have apostatized from the religion of their fore-fathers who have defiled themselves by eating and drinking forbidden things in the society of Europeans and are endeavouring to deceive your Lordship in council by assertions that there is no law regarding suttee prac­tices and that all Hindus of intelligence and educa­tion are ready to assent to the abolition (of them) on the ground that the practice of suttee is not author­ized by the laws fundamentally established and ac­knowledged by all Hindus as sacred. But we humbly submit, (on) a question so delicate as the interpreta­tion of our sacred books and the authority of our religious usages none but pandits and brahmins and teachers of holy lives and known learning and author­ity ought to be consulted and we are satisfied and flatter ourselves with the hope that your Lordship in council will not regard the assertion of men who have neither any faith nor care for the memory of their ancestors or their religion: and that if your Lordship in council will assume to yourself the difficult and delicate task of regulating the conscience of a whole people and deciding what it ought to believe and what it ought to reject on the authority of its own sacred writers that such a task will be undertaken only after anxious and strict enquiry and patient consultation with men known and reverenced for their attachment to the Hindu religion, the authority of their lives and their knowledge of the sacred books which contain its doctrines. And if such a satisfactory examination should be made we are confident that your Lordship in council will find our statements to be correct and will learn that the measure will be regarded with horror and dismay throughout the Company’s do­minions as the signal of an universal attack upon all we revere…….

………Before we conclude we beg to request your impar­tial consideration of the various acts of parliament passed from time to time since the reign of his Majesty George the Third and which have ever since been strictly preserved. The substance and spirit of which may be thus summed up viz: that no one is to interfere in any shape in the religion or the customs of Hindu subjects. These acts conceived in the spirit of trust wisdom and toleration were passed by men as well acquainted at least as any now in existence with our laws. Our language our customs and our religion have never been infringed by the wisest of those who have here administered the powers of government and we trust will be preserved for the future as for the past inviolate as they are a most solemn pledge and charter from our rulers to ourselves, on the preservation of which depend rights, more sacred in our eyes than those of property or life itself—and sure we are that when this most important subject has been well and maturely weighed by your Lordship in council the resolution will be aban­doned and that we shall obtain a permanent security through your Lordship’s wisdom against the renewal of similar attempts.

Fortunately supporters of Sati were in a minority and overall consensus was for banning it. British banned the practice in Bengal in 1829 and extended it to other areas under their control next year.

Sadly in present day India, the authorities are conceding too much ground for arguments based on traditions.


  1. says

    A later response from General Charles James Napier, Commander-in-Chief the British Army in India, to a similar protest by Hindu priests in 1843:

    “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

  2. says

    Excellent post, Arun. I’ve just spread it to my own readers. It also undermines the automatic refrain: “colonialism = bad” that so bedevils honest consideration of colonialism.

  3. says

    I’m pretty sure you recall Charles Napier’s reply to the hindus who complained that the british were interfering with their customs when they banned suttee.

    “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

    (Not that I am holding the British up as an example of moral behavior. They were tying people to the front of cannon 6 years later, after the sepoy rebellion.)

  4. lorn says

    Marcus Ranum @ #6:
    “Let us all act according to national customs.”

    A fair enough observation. ‘When in Rome” … but noting that if Rome is conquered and occupied differing customs might apply.

    To my mind the custom of sati is another example of religious justification of simple economic and social expediency. In a male dominated, patriarchal, society where property is divided among siblings having the widow removed make a lot of sense because it makes division simpler. Removing widows also solves the problem of social welfare for women dependent upon their husband’s income. Afghan culture is burdened by widows who are not allowed to work most jobs and make a legitimate income so they become beggars and/or prostitutes.

    Through sati Indians avoided the larger problems while simultaneously polishing the reputation of the head of household and the patriarchal system. With the additional benefit of motivating the wife to do her utmost to protect her husband and keep him healthy. It is a triple win. With only the woman, and women in general, paying the price. Not bad as social engineering goes historically.

    Of course, as I understand it, the honour was not always so gracefully bestowed. Hesitant wives sometimes ‘need a little help to do the right thing’. It was not unknown to have, in the better versions, unconscious or drugged women tossed onto the fire by attendants. The alternative being the woman being tossed in kicking and screaming. By one account I read there was quite a fight. The crowd, supporting the custom and wishing to cover the outrage of non-cooperation, chanted a Hindu verse to cover the scrams and shouts as the woman fought for her life, was restrained, and thrown in to the fire. Commentary was divided among those who simply overlooked her resistance and claimed everything went smoothly, those who lamented her inability and/or refusal to take the drugs that would make her compliant, and a few who suggested her husband’s community standing, reputation, possible even his soul, would suffer for her disobedience.

    As I remember it only the western observers were concerned with her lack of choice, suffering, or needless loss of life.

    On the other hand I’m really not sure what to make of execution by cannon. It would seem to be unusual, depending on culture and times but, in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to be cruel. It would be quick and effective. That later point being that you would not likely wake up finding the job half done and yourself only maimed.

    A friend’s uncle committed suicide with a .44 magnum but, evidently unaware of human anatomy and where vital spots are, failed to do the job in a workmanlike manner. Three times he fired the gun. Three times he woke to find himself very much alive. He finally lost enough blood to lose consciousness. He was found several hours later and transported to a hospital. He died the next day.

    I guess the sheer size and exotic nature of a muzzle-loaded cannon adds to the exotic nature but I wonder who we are feeling for. The victim dies swiftly, so swiftly that they likely felt nothing. Are we feeling sorry for ourselves? Having to witness the blood and gore.

    There is no good way to die. But some seem more terrible than others. The Chinese ‘death by a thousand cuts’ seems grim and drawn out. The Romans had ‘death by slow torture’ and, among other things, might roast your legs by suspending you in an iron cage over a slow fire. Roasted leg bones have been found that showed clear pattern of the iron cage and, alarmingly, signs of healing, and more burning. They claimed they could keep you in pain but alive for months. I keep that in mind when Christians claim crucifixion was absolutely the worse way to go. The Romans wrote that crucifixion was a relatively easy way to die.

Comments welcome

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.