Book Review: Sati by Meenakshi Jain
In many ways this book documents the birth of atrocity literature and its first application in India on Hindus. The successful template of manufacturing atrocities, hyping them, and then using the resulting public opinion to further an evangelical agenda may appear new, but it is one that was honed more than two centuries ago. This is yet another stunning book from Meenakshi Jain, coming after her 2013 tour-de-force, “Rama and Ayodhya.”
What was the evidence and prevalence of Sati in ancient and medieval India? Did it have religious sanction? Was it mandatory? Was there coercion? Was it confined to certain regions and castes or widespread? Did it change over time? Did it increase or reduce over time? Did the English or the East India Company ban it? Did they want to ban it? What were their motivations in banning it? Were they driven by the need to put a stop to a widespread evil? How did Indians react to the ban? When talking of Sati, these are some of the questions that should spring to mind. These are the questions that the book asks, and answers.
All but abandoned morals
It is instructional to visit the state of English society in the eighteenth century, for both the entertainment value as well as to get a glimpse into the kind of people, who came down to India and began their mission of civilizing the brown man. While “most prominent public figures were ‘distinguished for the grossness and immorality of their lives’“, “at the other end of the social scale, the masses were ‘ignorant and brutal’ to an extent difficult to visualize.’” The English clergy was not far behind, and “was among the most inactive in Europe… The archbishops, bishops and their subordinates had all but abandoned celibacy.”
English morals, if they could be called that, were the subject of much debate and lament in England in the eighteenth century. In the decades following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, that threw open trade in Bengal to the English, fortunes were made on a scale perhaps never seen before, or after. “In the twelve years between 1757 and 1769, it was virtually guaranteed that a Company servant in Bengal would return home with a fortune.” With such easy money came easy morals.
“A favourite after-dinner toast changed the traditional lament, ‘Alas and alack-a-day,’ into ‘A lass and a lakh a day.'”
“Young civilians were told on their arrival that among their first duties was to ‘stock a zenana’ and that the mistress was the best moonshee (accountant) in the country.”
Fifteen-course meals were not uncommon, and a visitor to Calcutta in 1761 remarked that “it is become a saying that they live like Englishmen and die like rotten sheep. Of 84 rank and file, which our company consisted of on our arrival, we had but 34 remaining in three months.”
Robert Clive had amassed a personal fortune of more than 400,000 pounds through his thievery in Bengal. According to this site, £401,102 in 1767 would be approximately worth £63 billion in 2016. In his own words, given the wealth in Bengal that was there to be looted, he felt he was “astonished at my own moderation.”
If the soldiers and officers of the Company were ‘honourable’ men, the men of the cloth were not far behind. Here is one incident concerning the army chaplain, Mr. Blunt:
“This incomprehensible young man got abominably drunk and in that disgraceful condition exposed himself to both soldiers and sailors, running out stark naked into the midst of them, talking all sorts of bawdy and ribaldry, and singing scraps of the most blackguard and indecent songs….”
Religion, i.e., Christianity, was “at a low ebb” not only in Calcutta but also “throughout England.” The Rev. Long lamented that let alone religion, “there was not even common morality in high quarters. … These were days when we find a Colonel submit to be circumcised in order to get possession of a Mussalmani who would not on other terms submit to be his mistress.”
This then was the state of England, Englishmen, their morals, and their ethics in the eighteenth century. As the pendulum swung to the other extreme, there was a concerted effort to divert attention from the scandals of the colonizers to the perceived scandals of the colonized. Where none could be found, some had to be conjured. Imperial dominance in India had to justified on not only economic but also on moral terms. To do that, it would not do to describe the Hindus of India as gentle people. The palette had to change. The Hindus had to become degenerates, immoral, evil people in desperate need of the civilizing light of the Englishman and his religion. The Englishmen had to justify their ‘white man’s burden.’
“Sati would become a major validation of the civilizing mission.”
But, before we get into that, an important question to be asked, and answered, would, and should be – how prevalent was the practice of Sati in India. How had it changed from ancient times to the eighteenth century? Was there an increase or decrease in its practice? How did its religious and social outlook change over time?
Manu considered them “worthy to be worshipped and the lamp that lights up the household.” What about their married life and thereafter? The Laws of Manu (Manusmriti) stated that “they were to receive the protection of the father in childhood, the husband after marriage, and the son on the death of the husband.” No word or advice on sati.
Yajnavalkya “viewed wives as gifts of the gods who should be respected and valued.” Nothing about self-immolation.
None of Dashratha’s wives commited sati after his death.
The Mahabharata has only scattered references to sati – one being Madri, the other being of Vasudeva and Krishna’s wives committing sati after the death of their husbands. But there are countless examples of wives of fallen warriors offering them funeral oblations. After all, a billion soldiers perished in the war (according to one shloka in the Mahabharata). But no sati for their wives.
It is only towards the seventh century AD that “some writers had begun to commend immolation for widows.” While there are scattered references to the nobility of sati, by Angira for example, many other writers expressed their reservation about sati. So if an eighteenth century guide on the religious duties of women commended sati, it also took care to stress its voluntary nature.
There are some inscriptions that record incidences of sati. For example, despite “strong opposition of her parents,” Dekabbe, a Sudra woman, immolated herself after her “husband had been killed in battle against a Ganga king.” This is from the times of Rajendra Chola.
Regionally speaking, the incidence of sati seems to have been the highest in Rajasthan – unsurprising, since defiance to the Islamic invaders was the fiercest in this region. In Bengal, on the other hand, no “sati inscriptions from that period have so far been discovered.”
There seem to have been some cases of unwilling sati, including that of two queens of Kashmir, and some accounts by foreign travellers who wrote of both unwilling immolations as well as cases where the women displayed a marked “aversion to intervention.” Many foreign narratives and accounts however have been dismissed as “highly exaggerated“, “formulaic“, and “replete with generalizations.”
Which brings us to the third, and most pertinent set of questions – what caused the English to ban it? Who were the main actors in the campaign to ban Sati? What were the motivations?
The opening of India to missionary enterprise
Religion entered the fray when, towards the end of the eighteenth century, a movement known as Evangelicalism began in England – as a hostile reaction to the “irreligion propagated by Voltaire.” The intent was to make the lower class of the Englishmen religious. In this toxic brew was the Cambridge sect, from the University of Cambridge, and a group at Clapham, a village near London. It is with some interest that we learn that Thomas Macaulay‘s father, Zachary Macaulay, went to Clapham in 1803, and stayed there for more than fifteen years. These “Claphamites” had two aims – the abolition of the slave trade and “the opening of India to missionary enterprise.”
The East India Company had little interest in the religious affairs of India and the Hindus. At least initially. For them, disturbing the natives in the practice of their religion would only make it difficult to do commerce with them. Commerce came first for the company. In fact, till 1813, the East India Company “did not permit missionaries to operate in its territories in India.”
The leader and the “father” of the missionary enterprise in the Indian empire was Charles Grant, who converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1776. It was he, who, in collaboration with Rev. David Brown, William Chambers, and George Udny, drafted the plan for a “Mission to Bengal” that “envisioned the division of the province [of Bengal] into eight missionary circles, each with a clergyman of the Church of England.” This was in 1786-87. But churches were only the second step. The first was the “idea of native schools as prepatory to the main business of giving Christian light to this land sitting in heathen darkness.” This description would not be out of place today, in the twenty-first century. Nothing has changed for the soul harvesting vultures in over two centuries.
The plan was to first have “two young clergymen” come in as missionaries to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in Bengal, and then move to “that famous seat of Hindoo learning, Benares (now Varanasi). There they will spend about three years in study, and furnish themselves with languages. After which they may begin their glorious work of giving light to the heathen with every probability of success.”
After returning to England in 1790, after a twenty-year stay in India, Grant he published “Observations“, what became a Parliamentary Paper on the eve of the Company Charter debates of 1813 and 1833. He concluded his survey of the state of Hindu society thus – “the moral character and condition of the native … is extremely depraved, and that the state of society among that people is, in consequence, wretched. These evils … have been traced to their civil and religious institutions; … in the false, corrupt, impure, extravagant, and ridiculous principles and tenets of their religion…”
As I said before, the barrier to this evangelical fanaticism was the commercial interests of the Company. In fact, John Shore, Governor General between 1793 and 1798, and himself “eminently Christian“, could not but remark – “If there was any disrespect shown towards their religious beliefs ‘the bond of attachment would soon be dissolved, and disaffection and aversion be substituted for subordination.’”
The discussions around the renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1793 provided opportunity for the Evangelicals to insert their missionary clauses into the bill, but these were removed upon protestations by the Directors of the Company who were alarmed by these insertions. The lessons learned by the Evangelicals were to be applied twenty years later, in 1813, to much greater success.
In this endeavor, the Evangelicals were helped by James Mill, a Utilitarian, who managed to pen a six-volume treatise on India without having any personal experience of India! His writings on India have become useful fodder for racists, Orientalists, communist and leftist historians ever since: for him, the Hindus “were perfectly destitute of historical records.” According to Mill, Hindu civilization could be categorized as representing “the rudest and weakest state of the human mind.” James Mill’s “The History of British India” would become a “standard work for East India Company officials, and eventually a textbook for candidates for the Indian Civil Service.” [this is not very different from the prevailing environment, where the work of Bipin Chandra and other communist historians is required reading for those preparing for the Civil Services examinations in India – books replete with distortions and omissions]
The battle moved to Bengal, with missionaries setting foot in Bengal in 1799, and shortly thereafter the New Testament was translated into Bengali, and which was hailed as “the first stroke of the axe leveled at the banyan-tree of India’s superstitions.” The irony in referring to the Bible as an antidote to superstition would be difficult to miss. Then there was the “A Memoir of the Expediency of an Ecclesiastical Establishment for British India“, published by Claudius Buchanan, and which was dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury. “In the appendix were detailed a variety of superstitions of the Hindus, to counter the general perception of them as a mild, humane, and inoffensive people.”
However, the best efforts of the Baptists and missionaries resulted in a grand total of thirty-one converts in their first ten years in the region. These efforts however did result in the mutiny by Sepoys in Vellore in 1806, that saw more than a hundred officers and men being killed. Why? Because there had been an “unpleasant feeling” among the sepoys that there was “interference with the marks of the Hindoos… The presence of Christian missionaries in the region strengthened their apprehension.” The net result was that there was a setback to missionary activities in India for some time – in 1812, there “was a raid against the missionaries in Bengal,” and in 1813, “several missionaries from different societies were ordered to quit India without delay.”
The Brahmin – not a set of worse men in the Earth
The setbacks were temporary. What emerged with renewed clarity in the minds of the missionaries, however, was that the status of the Brahmins had to be undermined, for it was determined that these Brahmins were held in the greatest respect by those the missionaries sought to convert. “A pronounced anti-Brahmin sentiment was palpable in missionary writings.” They were helped by Wellesley, “the first Governor-General to depart from the policy of non-interference in the religious practices of the natives.” The waters were tested by banning the religious sacrifice of children in 1802. Even in the eyes of H.H.Wilson, the sacrifice of infants was “neither countenanced by the religious orders nor the people at large.” Furthermore, Wilson also remarked that the “practice of female infanticide, too, was a ‘very limited observance, being confined to a few castes in one or two districts.’”
As the East India Company’s charter came up for renewal in 1813, the fury with which Hindu atrocities and their “evil practices” were manufactured reached a frenzied pace. Even the rath yatra at the Temple of Jagannath was not spared. William Carey estimated that every year 120,000 pilgrims perished at the rath yatra. Yes, more than one lakh people every year! Pamphlets were published and distributed, “well-orchestrated” campaigns were launched inside and outside Parliament. “A staggering 908 petitions bearing more than half a million signatures were presented to Parliament.” So as to not alarm the Indians, it was suggested to combine “religion with education, preferably via Fort William College.” Wilberforce estimated that every year there were an estimated 10,000 “annual sacrifices of women” (sati) in the Bengal province alone.
The missionary clauses were finally included in the Charter – “despite the opposition of the House of Commons and many members of the Company.”
The second stage was from 1813 to 1829, when “awesome figures” were conjured to show that sati was a raging practice. Sati, in many ways, became the single focal point to validate British rule in India.
The learned William Ward calculated, with a breakup, the total number of people sacrificed annually to the Hindu gods as 10,500. “However, on the very next page, he doubled the number of satis from five to ten thousand” Not to be outdone, Rev. David Brown cited William Chambers in estimating the number of sati incidents to be “about 50,000.” Charles Grant hypothesized a number of 33,000. The British government started maintaining a registry of sati cases between 1815 and 1828 in the three Presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. In Bengal, a region not associated with sati, these government figures recorded 5,997 of 6,632 cases of sati – i.e., 90% of all sati cases from the three Presidencies were recorded in Bengal – which “raises uncertainties about the reliability of the data.” It is pertinent to note that it was Bengal where the missionaries were focusing on, and therefore unsurprisingly, from other places, sati was almost non-existent. “The Judge of Malabar notified that the practice was entirely absent in his area. ,,, The Judge of Trichinopoly informed around the same time that he could trace no instance of widow immolation for the previous ten years in the district.” But not one to let facts deter propaganda, Baptists kept up their campaign of calumny with frenzied vigour. “In 1819, Friend of India cited the figure of 100,000 satis per year. In 1829, the journal claimed that the custom had claimed over one million lives in Bengal alone!”
Sati was abolished in December 1829.
“Once the ban was announced, Company officials stopped their surveillance of sati, and the allegedly rampant practice seemed to have abruptly ceased. It was a truly unique case of prompt universal compliance of a government diktat.”
Thus we have possibly the first instance of the manufacture of “atrocity literature.” The fabrication of evidence, the wanton exaggeration of data, the shameless duplicity of foreign players, rabid evangelical motivations, and the cold-blooded manipulation of public policy – all ingredients witnessed in the eighteenth century and in the first decades of nineteenth century, and again over two hundred years later. All except the dullest of citizens and the most compromised of intellectuals would not fail to see the parallels with the manufacture of “intolerance” and other controversies today. Lessons taught by history are forgotten by those whose foremost duty it is to remember them, the lessons being inflicted a second time on a hapless nation.