I wrote this for a class called Imperialism and Modern India taught at the University of Iowa by Professor Paul Greenough. This is text, just as I turned it in, with quotes from other sources and everything. I'm noding it because as far as papers I've written go, this is a pretty good one. If you're interested in reading more about sati or would like more information about the texts I quote, /msg me and I can point you in the right direction.
Comparing today's India to the ideological world which spawned sati, is like comparing apples to oranges. A powerful tradition based on the concept of self-sacrifice has come from the past, and is now an issue in modern society. We are forced to ask if an old tradition has a place in modern times, and if so, what that place is. In 1988 with the passing of the Sati (Prevention) Act, the government has said that there is no place for sati in modern Indian society in an effort to protect and to serve the people. In this paper I hope to show that the government, by banning sati and working to prevent it, has saved lives from unnecessary death, and has restored some of the honor to tradition that has become tarnished with cynicism and morality of our times.
To completely understand the issue, we must go back to its roots and examine the religious foundation on which it is built. The practice of self-immolation by widows takes its name from the goddess Sati. Sati, a wife of Shiva, upon hearing that her father had shown disrespect to her husband by not inviting him to a sacrificial feast builds a "Sacrificial fire...into which she herself and consumed (Walker, 1968, p. 1)" As Ashish Nandi points out in his article Sati in the Kali Yuga, " the traditional concept of sati was associated with the ideas of the sacred and magical powers of woman (Nandi, 1995, p 43)"
In its original context, we see Sati, the protector of her husband's honor, burn herself as a way to protest her father's ongoing dislike and disrespect for her husband and her lord. A kind of devotion to a cause, or a loved one, that is rarely seen, and because of the purity of its intention and its determination, is hard to stomach.
The invading eyes of the Mughals and the British did not see sati, the act of a widow voluntarily burning herself on her husband's funeral pyre, in its religious context. And, as governments, knowing they were outside the realm of this custom did all that they could not to interfere with it. However, what we shall see, where religion has fallen short and refused to take off its rose-colored glasses, government has prevailed in the protection of human life.
As we see in Abul Fazl's AkbarNamah, the ruling class did what they could to remain outside of the ritual, while at the same time trying to save women from being forced into actions they did not want to take. "Inspectors had been appointed in every city and district, who were to watch carefully over these two cases , to discriminate between them, and to prevent any woman being forcibly burnt." Akbar's government, doing its best to work with the people, appointed inspectors as a way to protect the population while avoiding oppressing the cultural traditions of a certain segment of the population. As the passage in the Akbarnamah progresses, we see that, even if the safeguards in place, there was still a chance that women were being forcibly burnt to death, and that the people weren't always letting the tradition play out, as it should. Fazl gives the example of Jai Mal, an army official's funeral. After the death of Jai mal, his wife chose not to commit sati, and plans were made by outside parties to ensure that the sati took place, even without the widow's permission. In this case, Akbar himself rode out to the place of Jai Mal's cremation and stopped the sati from happening, thus saving one woman's life.
The tradition of protecting people by making sure the sati was a voluntary act continued with Jahangir. We find, on page forty-five of Nandi's essay, that Jahangir requires the women who would commit sati in the capital and its surrounding areas to appear before him and personally obtain his permission.
This is the government's job, to protect the people from harm, even if it is harm sanctioned by religion. Sati, as explained by the tradition, is a voluntary suicidal action in response to the death of one's husband. It was viewed as an act of strength and self-sacrifice that is hard to believe actually exists in modern times. Anything less than this act of voluntary self-sacrifice is murder, plain and simple. This gives rise to the distinction of authentic satis and inauthentic, coerced, involuntary self-immolation. This is what the Mughal Empire sought to do with its policy, and what the British sought to do until the practice of sati was banned in 1829.
In the setting of modern India, new forces have emerged that make viewing sati as one woman's individual decision to self-immolate next to impossible. To understand the validity of the government's actions, we must explore these new forces.
One of these forces is the force of the market. When the British came into India, they introduced a market economy, where one is judged based on what one can provide to the community-at-large, and what one can consume from the community-at -large. As Nandi points out, "Women in India...are assessed more and more in terms of their productive capacity and the market value of that capacity (44)." A woman in rural India, running a household and taking care of her family, has a relatively low "productive capacity" in that she is not working to produce a good. This low capacity has a low value, because it will bring little, if any in monetary terms.
Another force to look is the devalution and decline of non-economic powers. From a religious standpoint, we have seen a devalution of the qualities inherent to women. Nandi points out on page forty-three, "A woman was thought to be the natural protector of her man. It was taken for granted that a man could not match her in piety, power, and will." Piety, power and will are characteristics that are important and are excellent features to possess, are on an economic level, things that cannot bought and sold and thus are worth nothing.
The last force I would like to take into consideration is the force of a society's changing set of values. The British rule brought with it a European set of values. As the Hindu population interacted with the British, the value sets of the people changed. . Over time, the Indian population's value set has diversified. Some of the population holds a value set similar to that of the colonial rulers, and other a set closer to that of the traditional set. This causes disagreements among the population itself as to what is right, and what is wrong. It has also allowed the people to use traditional values as a way to gain in status in the society.
One of the values introduced was the value of equality between the sexes. With this in mind, the act of sati, especially the act of a coerced sati, is not only an act of murder but also a blatant act of sexism. Allowing sati to exist on cultural grounds, the grounds put worth by religion, is letting an institution that tarnishes India's image to exist in spite of the fact that it is sexist and harmful to half of the population. As we read in C.K. Viswanath's article Sati, Anti-Modernists and Sangh Parivar, using "social justification for sati and other anti-women oppressive practices have brutalized the civil life (2.)" However, what feminists miss in their criticisms of sati as an anti-woman act is that, traditionally, it is the woman's choice to commit this act. Sati is not an act whose purpose is to destroy a woman, but as we have seen, is an act of self-sacrifice, a show of strength, in the name of a cause beyond one's self. In the modern sense, sati has not taken on an anti-woman color as it has taken on a color of a culture trying to reassert itself, of family's trying to move up a social ladder, and of religion trying to take the power of self-government over its people and its practices. Those seeking women's rights would do better to not fight for the abolition of sati, but for an environment where a woman can make a choice, her choice, and not have to worry about it forever being questioned.
In an act of government in 1988, India did the only thing it could do to protect both its traditions and its people by passing the Sati (Prevention) Act. The act discourages sati from taking place and also the encouragement of it by outside sources. In doing this the Indian government sent a clear message that the burning of widows is not only unacceptable, but also a crime that has grave penalties for all involved. In part One of the act, the crimes one may be liable for are: "supporting, justifying, or propagating the practice of sati in any manner; or the arranging of any function to eulogise the person who has committed sati; or the creation of a trust, or the collection of funds, or the construction of a temple or other structure or the carrying on of any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony thereat, with a view to perpetuate the honour of, or to preserve the memory of a person who has committed sati.(Sati (Prevention) Act, Part 1. 2 ii-iv.)" Thus making sati not only a crime for the widow, but also for the people standing by. From a religious standpoint, this is harsh and oppressive, but as Ashish Nandi pointed out, "It is better to prevent a hundred satis than to allow one inauthentic sati to occur (1995, p. 39)."
By banning sati, the government has saved its women from horrible, burning death, and has protected a tradition from the arrows of modernism. By allowing sati to remain in the mythic past we give it a chance to become an ideal again. It allows sati to be an act, voluntarily done by a woman out of self-sacrifice and honor, because of her piety, strength and will. If sati were allowed to continue, it would have forever been colored by coercion, cost-calculation, and the market value of a human life.
Sati (Prevention) Act. 1987
Fazl, Abul. The Akbarnamah. 1596
Nandi, Ashish. Sati in the Kali Yuga. 1995
Viswanath, C.K. Sati, Anti-Modernists and Sangh Parivar. 1999
Walker. The Hindu World, Volume Two. 1968