The Sati Strategy: How Missionaries Used An Extinct Practice As A Rallying Point To Christianise India
A review of Prof Meenakshi Jain’s book, ‘Sati - Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse’.
After making history with her book on the Ayodhya controversy, Rama and Ayodhya (2013), Prof Meenakshi Jain adds to her reputation with the present hefty volume Sati - Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse (Aryan Books International, Delhi 2016).
In it, as a meticulous professional historian, she quotes all the relevant sources, with descriptions of Sati from the ancient through the medieval to the modern period.
She adds the full text of the relevant British and Republican laws and of Lord Wiliam Bentinck’s Minute on Sati (1829), that led to the prohibition of Sati. This book makes the whole array of primary sources readily accessible, so from now on, it will be an indispensable reference for all debates on Sati.
But in the design of the book, all this material is instrumental in studying the uses made of Sati in the colonial period. In particular, the missionary campaign to rally support for the project of mass conversion of the Indian Heathens to the saving light of Christianity made good use of Sati. This practice had a strong in-your-face shock value and could perfectly illustrate the barbarity of Hinduism.
In the preface, Prof Jain surveys the existing literature and expresses her assent to some recent theories. Thus, Rahul Sapra found that Gayatri Spivak’s observations, e.g. that the 19th-century British tried to remake Indian society in their own image.
The issue of Sati was used as the most vivid proof of the need for this radical remaking, but it did not take into account the changing political equation during the centuries of gradual European penetration.
In the 17th century, European traders and travellers mostly joined the natives in glorifying the women committing Sati, whereas, by the 19th century, they posed as chivalrous saviours of the victimized native women from the cruel native men.
This was because they were no longer travellers in an exotic country and at the mercy of the native people, but had become masters of the land and gotten imbued with a sense of superiority.
Indians in large numbers, and especially the many indefatigable but amateurish “history-rewriters”, tend to be defective in their sense of history, starting with their seeming ignorance about the otherwise very common phenomenon of change.
When I hear these history-rewriters fulminate against the West with its supposed evil designs of somehow dominating India again, it seems that in their minds, time has frozen in the Victorian age.
Similarly here, there is not one monolithic Western view of Sati but, apart even from individual differences of opinion, there are distinct stages, partly because of the changing power equation and partly because internal changes in the Western outlook have influenced the Western perception of things Indian.
So it takes a genuine historian to map out precisely what has changed and what not, and which factors have led to those particular changes.
Then again, It is, of course, interesting to realize the continuity between the present-day interference in Indian culture by leftist scholars like Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock and that of the British colonialists: “We know best what is wrong with your traditions and we have come to save you from yourselves.”
In this respect, the changes in the Western attitude to Sati run parallel to that regarding caste. Until the early 20th century, caste was seen as a specifically Indian form of a universal phenomenon, viz. social inequality.
Nobody was particularly scandalized when in 1622, the Pope gave permission to practise caste discrimination between converts inside the Church. Around the time of the French Revolution, the idea of equality started catching on, but only gradually became the accepted norm.
At that point, it became problematic that people’s status was said to be determined by birth. In this case, the determination by the inborn circumstance of being a woman, unequal in rights compared to men, and never more radically unequal than in committing Sati.
After World War II, the norm (henceforth called Human Rights) of absolute equality and increasingly of absolute individual self-determination made the tradition of caste and of Sati too horrible to tolerate.
Therefore, the indignation about Sati is far greater today than when Marco Polo visited India. Today, Sati is already a memory, but the commotion around the exceptional Sati of 1987 gave an idea of the indignation it would provoke today.
In this case, an extra factor came into play to effect a change in British attitudes to Sati. In Parliamentary debates about the East India Company charter in 1793, there was no mention yet of Sati though it had been described many times, including by Company eyewitnesses.
But by 1829, Sati was forbidden in all Company domains. This turnaround was the result of a campaign by the missionary lobby.
Ever since the missionaries set out to convert the Pagans in India, they made it their business to contrast the benignity of Christianity with the demeaning atrocities of Heathenism. This was an old tradition starting with the Biblical vilification of child sacrifice to the god Moloch by the Canaanites.
The practice was also attested by the Romans when they besieged the Canaanite (Phoenician) colony of Carthage. The Bible writers and their missionary acolytes present child sacrifice as a necessary component of polytheism, from which monotheism came to save humanity.
And indeed, we read here how Rev. William Carey tried to muster evidence of child sacrifice too (but settled for Sati as convincing enough, p.178)
In reality, the abolition of human sacrifice was a universal evolution equally affecting Pagan cultures such as the Romans. In the case of Brahmanism, it is speculated that the Vastu-Purusha concept (a human frame deemed to underlie a house) is a memory of a pre-Vedic human sacrifice.
Even if true, the fact is that in really existing Brahmanism, human sacrifice has not been part of it for thousands of years; if it had, we would be reminded of it every day. In this respect, Brahmanism was definitely ahead of the rest of humanity.
Not to idealize matters, we have to admit that, like the Biblical writers, who used the vilification of the child-sacrificing Canaanites as a justification to seize their land (and even to kill them all), Pagans who had left the practice behind equally used the reference to it to score political points.
The Romans had practised human sacrifice within living memory and then abolished it, so they were acutely aware of it and tried to exorcize it from their own historical identity by rooting it out in conquered lands as well.
This is the same psychology as among modern Westerners who remember their grandfathers’ abolition of slavery and, therefore, feel spurred to support or engineer the “abolition of caste” in India.
Using that mentality, Roman war leaders would emphasize this phenomenon of child sacrifice among the Carthaginians to portray them as barbarians in urgent need of Rome’s civilizing intervention.
Later, Caesar would also demonize as human-sacrificers, the Druids of Gaul, another “barbarian” country the Romans “liberated” from its own traditions after conquering it.
Likewise, the Chinese Zhou dynasty justified its coup d’état (11th century BCE) against the Shang dynasty by demonizing the Shang as practising human sacrifice.
This way, Sati came in very handy to justify an offensive in India. Mind you, in a military sense India had partly been conquered already, and British self-confidence at the time was such that the complete subjugation of the subcontinent seemed assured.
The offensive, in this case, was not military, its target was the Christianization of the East India Company, to be followed by the conversion of its subjects. Around 1800, the Company was still purely commercial and even banned missionaries for their religious zeal might create riots, and these would be bad for business.
So, the Christian lobby had to convince the British Parliamentarians that the Christianization of India was good and necessary, and, therefore, worthy of the Company’s active or passive support, namely to free the natives from barbarism. To that end, there was no better eye-catcher than Sati.
Here I will skip a large part of Prof Jain’s research, namely into the details of the specific intrigues and events that ultimately led to the success of the missionary effort.
While these chapters are important for understanding the Christian presence in India, and while I recommend you read them, I have decided for myself to limit my attention to colonial history as it is presently eating up too much energy, especially of the Hindus.
The study of colonial history is instructive and someone should do it, but for the many, it is far more useful to study Dharma itself, to immerse yourself in Hindu civilization as it took shape, rather than in the oppression of and then the resistance by the Hindus.
India is free now and could reinvigorate Dharmic civilization, which is a much worthier goal than to re-live the comparatively few centuries of oppression.
Let us only note that the missionaries are responsible for associating Hinduism with Sati much more prominently than would be fair.
The missionary assault on Hinduism dramatized the practice of Sati, which had been “an ‘exceptional act’ performed by a minuscule number of Hindu widows over the centuries”, of which the occurrence had been “exaggerated in the nineteenth century by Evangelicals and Baptist missionaries eager to Christianize and Anglicize India”. (p.xix)
Many Hindus believe that Sati is an external contribution, probably triggered by the Muslim conquests. In reality, Sati is as old as scriptural Hinduism. Already the Rg-Veda (10:18:7-8, quoted and discussed on p.4-5) describes a funeral where the widow is lying down beside her husband on the pyre but is led away from it, back to the world of the living. So it already provides a description of a Sati about to take place, as well as of the Brahmanical rejection of Sati.
Likewise, the Mahabharata, the best guide to living Hinduism, features several cases of Sati. Most prominent is the self-immolation by Pandu’s most beloved wife Madri. Less well-known perhaps is that Krishna’s father Vasudeva is followed on the pyre by four wives and that Krishna’s death triggers the self-immolation (in his absence) of five of his many wives.
But unlike Mohammed, Krishna need not be emulated by his followers. By contrast, Rama’s influence on the women in his life is not such that they commit Sati (on the contrary, his wife Sita comes unscathed out of the flames of her “trial by fire”), and he counts as the perfect man, the model which should serve us as exemplary.
The oldest foreign (viz. Greek) testimony on Indian Sati reports on the death of an Indian general in the Persian army. His two wives fought over the honour of climbing his funeral pyre. Both had a case: one was the eldest, the other was not pregnant (whereas the eldest was, and should not deprive the deceased man of his progeny).
So the authorities had to intervene, and they ruled in favour of the younger wife. It should be repeated, for the sake of clarity, that “favour” here really means the honour of committing self-immolation, as emphatically desired by the young widow.
Indeed, a woman wanting to commit Sati needed some will-power, for Hindu society did not take this as a matter of course. As per the many testimonies, she usually had to overcome the dissuasion from her family and from worldly or priestly authorities. (But rather than leading her away in chains for her own good, as modern psychiatrists would do, they gave her the decisive last word.)
That is why the first British report on the practice spoke of “self-immolation of widows”. Contrary to the allegations of “murderous patriarchy” by modern feminists (who hold the same ignorant prejudices about Hindu culture as the average foreign tourist), women themselves chose this spectacular fate.
Contrary to a common assumption, the practice was not confined to the Rajputs or to the martial castes in general, where passion and bravery were prized. Prominent Hindu rulers like Shivaji Bhonsle and Ranjit Singh were followed on their pyres by a handful of wives and concubines. Among the lower castes, like among the Muslims, life usually resumed and a widow soon remarried, not to let any womb go waste.
But nevertheless, a British survey in Bengal found that no less than 51 percent of Sati women belonged to Shudra families. Among the other upper castes, and among the majority of women even in the martial castes, widows would be confined to a life of service and asceticism.
But no matter how rare the actual practice of Sati, it remained a glamorous affair, honoured among the Hindu masses with commemorative stones (sati-kal) and temples (sati-sthal).
Sati was not confined to Hindu civilization. It existed elsewhere, both in Indo-European and in other cultures. Rulers in ancient China or Egypt are sometimes found buried with a number of wives, concubines and servants.
In pre-Christian Europe, the practice was related (directly, not inversely) to the status of women in society: not at all in Greece, where women were very subordinate, but quite frequently among the more autonomous Celtic women.
Among the Germanic people, a famous case is that of Brunhilde and her maidservants following Siegfried into death. Yet Indian secularists preferentially depict Sati as one of the unique “evils of Hindu society”.
The only shortcoming in this wonderful book is not a mistake but a hiatus, less than a page long. One important point I would have liked to see discussed more thoroughly, is the question raised by Alaka Hejib and Katherine Young in their paper: Sati, widowhood and yoga (p.xv-xvi) They see a “hidden religious dimension: yoga; though neither the widow nor the sati was conscious of the yogic dimension of her life.”
Indeed, “the psychology of yoga was instilled, albeit inadvertently, in the traditional Hindu woman.” Well well, yoga as the most consciousness-oriented discipline in the world is imparted unconsciously: “instilled, albeit inadvertently.” Prof. Jain reports this hypothesis but does not comment on it. So I will.
Naïve readers may not have noticed it yet, but here we are dealing with an instance of a widespread phenomenon: the crass manipulation of the term “Hindu”. Every missionary and every secularist does it all the time: calling a thing “Hindu” when it is considered bad, but something (really anything) else as soon as it is deemed good. Many Hindus even lap it up: it is “instilled, albeit inadvertently.”
Thus, whenever Westerners show an interest in yoga, the secularists and their Western allies hurry to assure us: “Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism.” (It is like with Islam, but inversely, for whenever Muslims make negative-sounding headlines, we are immediately reassured that these crimes “have nothing to do with Islam”.)
There may be books on “Jain mathematics”, but never about “Hindu mathematics”, for a good thing cannot be Hindu. If the topic cannot be avoided, you call it, say, “Keralite mathematics” or fashionably opine that it “must have been borrowed from Buddhism.”
So, yoga cannot be Hindu when its merits are an issue. However, when it is presented as something funny, with asceticism and other nasty things, then it can be Hindu, and even used as a middle term to equate something else (something nasty, of course, like Sati) with Hinduism. So: Sati is Hindu!
In this case, the poor hapless secularists are even right. Sometimes even a deplorable motive, like their single-minded hatred for Hinduism, makes men speak the truth: Sati is Hindu.
But Sati is not Brahmanical: the Rig-Veda enjoins continuing life rather than committing Sati, and most of the Shastras either don’t mention it or prefer widowhood, for which they lay down demanding rules.
Many of the testimonies cited here mention Brahmanical priests trying to dissuade the woman from Sati. Not Brahmanical, then, but nonetheless Hindu, a far broader concept.A Hindu means an “Indian Pagan”, as per the Muslim invaders who first introduced the term in India.
And indeed, Sati has existed in many countries but certainly in India, and it is not of Christian or Islamic origin, so it may be called Pagan. And so can the rejection of Sati. See?
This, then, makes for half a page that I would have done differently. The rest of this book, 500-something pages, is designed to stand the test of time. It will survive the flames that tend to engulf its topic: the brave Sati.
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