Letter, Francois Bernier

During the 17th century, Louis XIV of France sought to strengthen the power of the monarchy in France and to enhance France’s position in world politics. In 1664, Jean Colbert, his finance minister, established the French East India Company to develop French trade with India. Besides providing information on India for Colbert, Francois Bernier’s observations on sati influenced generations of Europeans. Educated first in physiology and later in medicine at the University of Montpellier, Bernier (1620-1688) considered himself a modern man of science. In 1658 he sailed for Surat on the west coast of India, and by March 1659 he joined the entourage of Dara Shukoh, an imperial Mughal prince, as his personal physician and wrote a vivid account of the succession war among Dara Shukoh and his brothers for the Mughal throne. He then produced several long letters about economic conditions and religious and social customs in northern India.

The excerpt below is from his letter dated October 4, 1667 to Monsieur Jean Chapelain that is entitled “Describing the Superstitions, strange customs, and Doctrines of the Indous or Gentiles [Hindus] of Hindoustan” “From which it will be seen that there is no Doctrine too strange or too improbable for the Soul of man to conceive.” Colbert had employed Chapelain to draw up a list of authors who should be considered for state pensions. The title and subtitle of this letter indicate that as a scientist, Bernier was highly critical of Hindu religious practices, including sati. He claimed to have witnessed several instances of sati and to have persuaded one Hindu widow to refrain from self-immolation in order to ensure that her sons would receive a pension from the Mughal governor of Delhi. In this excerpt, Bernier contrasts one Hindu widow who exemplified the voluntary sati with more reluctant widows and the options that they pursued and their consequences.

Source: Bernier, Francois. Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-1668. Translated by Archibald Constable on the basis of Irving Brock’s version. Edited by Vincent A. Smith. 1934. Reprint, Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1994.

Letter to Monsieur Chapelain, Despatched from Chiras in Persia, the 4th October 1667. Describing the Superstitions, strange customs, and Doctrines of the Indous or Gentiles of Hindoustan; From which it will be seen that there is no Doctrine too strange or too improbable for the Soul of man to conceive.

As I was leaving Sourate [Surat] for Persia, I witnessed the devotion and burning of another widow: several Englishmen and Dutchmen and Monsieur Chardin of Paris were present. She was of the middle age, and by no means uncomely. I do not expect, with my limited powers of expression, to convey a full idea of the brutish boldness, or ferocious gaiety depicted on this woman’s countenance; of her undaunted step; of the freedom from all perturbation with which she conversed, and permitted herself to be washed; of the look of confidence or rather of insensibility which she cast upon us; or her easy air, free from dejection; of her lofty carriage, void of embarrassment, when she was examining her little cabin, composed of dry and thick millet straw, with an intermixture of small wood; when she entered into that cabin, sat down upon the funeral pile, placed her deceased husband’s head in her lap, took up a torch, and with her own hand lighted the fire within, while I know not how many Brahmens were busily engaged in kindling it without. Well indeed may I despair of representing this whole scene with proper and genuine feeling, such as I experienced at the spectacle itself, or of painting it in colours sufficiently vivid. My recollection of it indeed is so distinct that it seems only a few days since the horrid reality passed before my eyes, and with pain I persuade myself that it was anything but a frightful dream.

It is true, however, that I have known some of these unhappy widows shrink at the sight of the piled wood; so as to leave no doubt on my mind that they would willingly have recanted, if recantation had been permitted by the merciless Brahmens; but those demons excite or astound the affrighted victims, and even thrust them into the fire. I was present when a poor young woman, who had fallen back five or six paces from the pit, was thus driven forward; and I saw another of these wretched beings struggling to leave the funeral pile when the fire increased around her person, but she was prevented from escaping by the long poles of the diabolical executioners.

But sometimes the devoted widows elude the vigilance of the murderous priests. I have been often in the company of a fair Idolater, who contrived to save her life by throwing herself upon the protection of the scavengers, who assemble on these occasions in considerable numbers, when they learn that the intended victim is young and handsome, that her relations are of little note, and that she is to be accompanied by only a few of her acquaintance. Yet the woman whose courage fails at the sight of the horrid apparatus of death, and who avails herself of the presence of these men to avoid the impending sacrifice, cannot hope to pass her days in happiness, or to be treated with respect or affection. Never again can she live with the Gentiles: no individual of that nation will at any time, or under any circumstances, associate with a creature so degraded, who is accounted utterly infamous, and execrated because of the dishonour which her conduct has brought upon the religion of the country. Consequently she is ever afterwards exposed to the ill-treatment of her low and vulgar protectors. There is no Mogol [Mughal] who does not dread the consequences of contributing to the preservation of a woman devoted to the burning pile, or who will venture to afford an asylum to one who escapes from the fangs of the Brahmens; but many widows have been rescued by the Portuguese, in sea-ports where that people happened to be in superior strength. I need scarcely say how much my own indignation has been excited, and how ardently I have wished for opportunities to exterminate those cursed Brahmens.

At Lahor I saw a most beautiful young widow sacrificed, who could not, I think, have been more than twelve years of age. The poor little creature appeared more dead than alive when she approached the dreadful pit: the agony of her mind cannot be described; she trembled and wept bitterly; but three or four of the Brahmens, assisted by an old woman who held her under the arm, forced the unwilling victim toward the fatal spot, seated her on the wood, tied her hands and feet, lest she should run away, and in that situation the innocent creature was burnt alive. I found it difficult to repress my feelings and to prevent their bursting forth into clamorous and unavailing rage; but restrained by prudential considerations, I contented myself with silently lamenting the abominable superstition of these people.