Sati - why the British banned it !



Sati – self immolation became the norm in medieval India only because of the barbaric way the muslim invaders treated our womenfolk after their victory.  This was more evident in the Rajput society, as it was their women who lost their men in the battle.  Brahmin, merchants and shudras did not face the same level of widowhood and hence there is no strong tradition of widowhood in these castes.


There is no evidence of self immolation before the time of the muslim invasion of India.

The self immolation did not reach South India – one more evidence that this was a reaction to rape, pillage and slavery imposed on the Hindu populace by the invaders. 



The British outlawed it because it enraged their Christian conscious. 
It was OK to support inquisition where countless people, male and female were burned at the stake, but if Hindus did the same, it enraged their Christian ideals ! 
The British were happy to loot the Indians and cause death by mismanagement of food and funds, but, if a widow went to the funeral pyre by herself, it enraged their Christian sensibilities. 


The British were playing a different game. 


I am not saying sati, as practiced in Bengal, was a good system.  It needed to be curbed for sure, but the British were not doing it for the good of the Hindus.  Their game plan was to weaken the Hindu society by claiming as many “souls” for Christianity as possible.  Vulnerable widows, once saved from the funeral pyres, were seen as a good bet.  If the missionaries could get these widows to come to them, they promised to look after them and get them away from their “unkind Hindu families”, conversion being the key benefit.  However, the mass conversions they hoped for never materialised and on the whole, Hindus absorbed the widows in their society.


In Hinduism, women are considered an essential component of a household.  Their presence was essential at most religious and social functions.  Indeed, most religious rituals can’t be performed alone and wife / women were pre-requisite.  A father may want to marry his daughters off as quickly as possible, but that’s not because she a financial burden, but, because she is a moral burden – if she losses her virginity before marriage, she would dishonour him and that is a social burden to a family – not financial.


Infact, women were useful in a house.  The more women there were, the better for running the house.  They could cook and clean, take care of all the “social” aspects, make the family clothes and take care of the spiritual well being of the family too.  In many families, women also helped in the family trade (farming, handi-crafts etc) that would financially support the family.  In some families, women had independent business (weaving, beading, garland making etc) which helped with the financial management of the family.


Windows without children were a different matter.  They were not a financial burden in the common sense.  If old, she could be a drain resources like food.  If young, she would be a moral liability, as any aspirations cast on her honour would taint the family aswell.  Usually, childless windows went to their parental home to claim support and protection from them.  A childless window could not demand a share in the family fortune, and hence was a “poor relative” in most cases.  They usually helped out with the family chores or family business to make themselves “useful” and not become a liability.


If a widow had daughters, she would want to marry them off as soon as possible, so as to protect their honour and to get the best match possible.  However, once the daughters are married, she would have no supporters in her husband’s home and could suffer neglect.  Widow with sons usually fared better.  She could rely on her sons to help protect her rights in the future.  If nothing else, the society would pressure her son to look after her.  It is for this reason Indian women, regardless of religion, wanted sons – in their old age or widowhood, they could expect support from their sons – not their daughters.


Widows from poor upper castes families suffered more than the lower castes. 
Poor people suffer most under any circumstances.  (caste is not the same as class!!!)
Caste rules meant upper caste widows could not get remarried and hence childless widows were stuck in no-man’s land of being forced to either live the life of penury in their family (husband or parental) ; or live on charity in places of pilgrimage in utter penury, or die.  Having seen how widows get treated / neglected, they may not have wanted to live in the family.  Having seen how widows in pilgrimage centres get treated, they may not have wanted to live like that either.  Death may have been an easier option for some under these circumstances. 


Middle class upper castes were always ambivalent on this issue. The families usually took care of their widows, even if this was only for maintaining their social standing in society as compassionate, caring family.  Unless if they were not from the Rajput families, they would not burn their widows.  Their religion also would not allow it as most were either Vaishnav or Shiva and neither allowed this way of losing one’s life.


The rich widows from the upper castes, did not have the same issues – rich never do.  To them, honour and social status meant they would never live in the poor house in a pilgrimage centre, but, if they did not have socially powerful relatives, they would lead non-descript lives in the family (parental or husband).  Once again, having children always helped.  If these children were married into powerful families, that was always a bonus, as the widow than had more people to look out for her safety.


Childless widows from rich families, regardless of caste, had one big problem – inheritance. 
If the family suspected that the childless widow will demand her portion of the family land / money, they may want to get rid off her by sending her on a pilgrimage or killing her.  The British encountered this in Bengal a lot.  The landed gentry, not always from the upper castes, was following the sati ritual to make themselves feel superior to fellow caste members.  This is were the British encountered it and this is what made the British react against it by outlawing it.  The British ruled from Bengal and their experience in Bengal is what coloured their vision of India.  The Bengali gentry were trying to mimic the royals and adopted those rituals and customs that suited them.  Sati suited the men as they did not want to share the land with a childless widow.  In post mughal India, land was the biggest asset, as the British business greatly depended on it for crops (eg indigo and tea) and mining (eg coal).  British did not encounter this in Mumbai or Madras, yet, Calcutta was rife with this and hence their desire to abolish it.


The lower caste widows did not suffer the same level of stigma.  They could remarry if they chose or if they had enough resources, live independent lives.  The poor from the low caste could not afford to worry about widowhood, it was common enough with draughts, ill health and short life expectancy being the norm.  To them, more people in the family meant more helpers and this could only be a good thing.  Widows helped out with the family trade – farming, cleaning, weaving etc and helped earn a living for the family as a whole.  The rich amongst the lower castes tried to mimic the landed gentry and some used “sati” as a way to establish their social credentials.  These were few and far between and usually the root cause for sati amongst them was money / inheritance.


Not concerned about caste, the British were happy to help entrepreneurial people from lower castes establish their business under the British Raj.  It was easy to ingratiate a lower caste person than an upper caste person, as the lower caste person will try to keep on side of the British for helping him rise out of the caste milieu.  They were also easier to deal with in terms of food and drink habits.  They did not have the same issues as the upper castes on being polluted by dining with the cow-eating British.  This is also one of the reasons why the Parsi community did so well under the British – they had no problems with pollution by eating or entertaining the British.  Business was always business regardless of caste, but the British, always in small numbers, craved social acceptance too and they got that from the Parsi and lower caste people more than from the upper castes.  Even if poor, the upper caste Hindus looked down on the British and that irked them more than anything else.


The British did all they could to establish a "brown sahib" culture in India.
Sadly, that culture is still alive and well.  Most Indians do not know their history and care even less.
They keep repeating what the British taught them.  Sati is one such topic.

Socialist government of India has preserved the British system with great love and diligence.


I hope with access to internet, people will want to learn more and will challenge what's taught to them about their history.




© Bhagwat    [email protected]



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