OFf the shelf
Repulsion juxtaposed with admiration
V. N. Datta

Pious flames: European Encounters with Sati
by Andrea Major.
Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 258. Rs 625.

Pious flames: European Encounters with SatiTHIS scholarly study of Sati, the Hindu practice of burning widows, is a revised version of the doctoral and post-doctoral research conducted at Edinburgh University between 1999 and 2004. It does not deal with the origin, extent and abolition of Sati. It offers a different perspective from books published since Edward Thompson’s first monograph on Sati brought out in 1929.

The European writers have believed for long that the British authorities in India were inspired by high moral ideals when they enacted a prohibitory Sati Legislation on December 4, 1829. The British took this decision on the ground that the practice of Sati was cruel, savage and inhuman, a ground that Andrea Major dismisses as simplistic and sweeping.

The Western response to the rite of Sati was never uniform or monolithic. There was a variety of representations of Sati throughout the 500 years of European contacts with India. Major shows that various representations of Sati stemmed from the social and ideological trends then prevailing in Europe. To prove this, the author draws heavily from letters, journals and dispatches from ambassadors, missionaries and public men then coming from Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Scotland and England.

In the early period, especially from the time of Alexander’s invasion of India, the Europeans waxed eloquent on Sati and glorified it. A Sati burning herself on the funeral pyre began to be represented by European writers as a brave and heroic woman, who sacrificed herself fearlessly like a martyr for the abiding love for her husband.

The Mughals, too, admired her courage and devotion to her husband. The general policy of Mughal rulers was to prevent the practice of Sati through persuasion, but they seldom succeeded. The European writings of the I7th and l8th centuries represent a Sati as a brave woman, capable of taking decisions without any external influence.

From the end of the 17th century, the focus of Western writers shifts from the burning woman to the nature of the rite of Sati. The subject now is not the autonomous character of the burning woman, but the motives and circumstances leading to her self-immolation. Trying to explain why the Hindu women burnt themselves, the author relates the rite to the matrix of Hindu religious and social life.

A major portion of the book deals with the British officials’ perception of the rite, for which the author uses Parliamentary papers containing the correspondence between the British Government in India and the authorities in England.

When the British were laying the foundation of their Empire after the assumption of the Diwani in Bengal, they thought it prudent not to interfere in the religious customs of the country. In religious matters, they observed neutrality, but the missionaries felt outraged at this horrid custom.

Their publications launched a campaign against Sati.

By the end of the 18th century, the image of Sati as a heroic figure ceases to exist and another image emerges, which presents Sati as a helpless woman, a victim of oppressive religious tradition, forced by her relations to commit Sati.

When a huge number of the cases of Sati, especially those occurring around Calcutta, came to the notice of the British, they started collecting data from 1812 on number, caste, locality and economic status. The data began to be listed and catalogued to highlight the cruel nature of the rite, which the missionaries began to use to project the degeneration of the Hindu social system.

The focus on the Hindu social life led to the study and scrutiny of Hindu scriptural authority. In the early 19th century, the British began to adopt the policy on Sati in accordance with the religious texts, as interpreted by the Brahmins. Thus appears the sinister role of the Hindu priests and the family pressures for committing self-immolation. A poor, helpless woman was compelled to die on account of several vested interests. Even narcotics were used to make her insensible to the pain of burning.

There is no reason to disagree with the view that there were local variations, usages, circumstances and disparities in the practice of Sati, and that European representation of Sati was characterised by mutability and ambivalence, in which repulsion was juxtaposed against admiration. However, when it is question of the abolition of Sati, the author is on slippery ground.

The author follows the interpretation of Sir C. H. Philip, who had edited the Bentinck correspondence. Both Philip and the author ignore the utilitarian influence and Bentinck’s correspondence with the utilitarian philosopher, Bentham. The Bentham papers kept in University College, London, would add a new dimension to this study.

The author intellectualises social issues and overlooks the pragmatic aspect; and is, thus, a bit Platonic than Aristotlian. His narrative is dense and wanting in clarity, which is due to structural imbalance. Reading through this pedantic study of a challenging theme requires much patience.