Nonfiction, Rajah Rammohun Roy

Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1832), a highly educated Bengali brahman from a well-to-do landed family, had worked in the lower levels of the Company bureaucracy. Since Indians were excluded from the elite Indian Civil Service, Roy eventually left the Company service to advocate rationalist religious and social reform among Hindus. He sought to remove what he deemed later additions to Hindu religious practices such as the use of images and to improve the condition and social status of Hindu women. He helped to found the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, a reform society that had weekly congregational meetings patterned after Protestant services and promoted education and greater physical mobility for women. He considered the self-immolation of Hindu widows to be an unorthodox practice British officials and missionaries rightly condemned. His argument that Hindu scriptures did not enjoin self-immolation on Hindu widows was a significant factor in persuading British officials to prohibit sati.

In the first excerpt, Ram Mohan Roy (as the “Opponent”) argued with a generic Advocate of self-immolation by Hindu widows that there was no valid scriptural basis for this ritual. Roy claimed that the mythic lawgiver, Manu, who called for Hindu widows to lead an ascetic life, superseded the quoted injunctions of Angira and other ancient Hindu sages in support of self-immolation.

In the second excerpt, the Advocate of self-immolation provided the rationale for the socialization of Hindu women to accept self-immolation when widowed, and the use of ropes to tie widows to the funeral pyre. Roy, as the Opponent, criticized orthodox Hindu views in particular and of patriarchal views of women in general and argued that, in many ways women are superior to men in virtue, trustworthiness, and control of their passions.

Source: Roy, Rajah Rammohun. Translation of Several Principal Books, Passages and Texts of the Veds, and of some Controversial Works on Brahmunical Theology. London: Parbury, Allen, 1832.

Excerpt from “Translation of a Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive from the original Bungla”
30 November 1818.


Advocate.—I AM surprised that you endeavour to oppose the practice of Concremation and Postcremation of Widows,* as long observed in this country.

Opponent—Those who have no reliance on the Shastru [Hindu sacred scripture], and those who take delight in the self-destruction of women, may well wonder that we should oppose that suicide which is forbidden by all the Shastrus, and by every race of men.

Advocate.—You have made an improper assertion, in alleging that Concremation and Postcremation are forbidden by the Shastrus. Hear what Unggira [Angira—one of the seven rishis or sages of the Hindu tradition] and other saints have said on this subject.

“That woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven, as equal to Uroondhooti.”

“She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions.”

“As a serpent-catcher forcibly draws a snake from his hole, thus raising her husband by her power, she enjoys delight along with him.”

“The woman who follows her husband expiates the sins of three races; her father’s line, her mother’s line, and the family of him to whom she was given a virgin.”

“There possessing her husband as her chiefest good, herself the best of women, enjoying the highest delights, she partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indrus reign.”

“Even though the man had slain a Brahman, or returned evil for good, or killed an intimate friend, the woman expiates those crimes.”

. . .

Concremation and Postcremation being thus established by the words of many sacred lawgivers, how can you say they are forbidden by the Shastrus, and desire to prevent their practice?

Opponent.—All those passages you have quoted are indeed sacred law; and it is clear from those authorities, that if women perform Concremation or Postcremation, they will enjoy heaven for a considerable time. But attend to what Munoo [Manu—mythic lawgiver ca. 200 CE] and others say respecting the duty of widows: “ Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man.”

“Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to one only husband.”

Here Munoo directs, that after the death of her husband, the widow should pass her whole life as an ascetic. Therefore, the laws given by Unggira and the others whom you have quoted, being contrary to the law of Munoo, cannot be accepted; because the Ved declares, “whatever Munoo has said is wholesome;” and Virhusputi, “whatever law is contrary to the law of Munoo is not commendable.” The Ved especial-ly declares, “by living in the practice of regular and occasional duties the mind may be purified. Thereafter by hearing, reflecting, and constantly meditating on the Supreme Being, absorption in Bruhmu may be attained. Therefore from a desire during life of future fruition, life ought not to be destroyed.” Munoo, Yagnyuvulkyu [Yajnawalkya—sage and lawgiver], and others, have then, in their respective codes of laws, prescribed to widows the duties of ascetics only. By this passage of the Ved, therefore, and the authority of Munoo and others, the words you have quoted from Unggira and the rest are set aside; for by the express declaration of the former, widows after the death of their husbands may, by living as ascetics, obtain absorption.

*When a widow is absent from her husband at the time of his death, she may in certain cases burn herself along with some relic representing the deceased. This practice is called Unoomurun or Postcremation.

Excerpt from “A Second Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive. Calcutta: 1820.”


Advocate.—I alluded, in p. 18, l. 18, to the real reason for our anxiety to persuade widows to follow their husbands, and for our endeavours to burn them, pressed down with ropes: viz. that women are by nature of inferior understanding, without resolution, unworthy of trust, subject to passions, and void of virtuous knowledge; they, according to the precepts of the Shastru [Hindu sacred scriptures], are not allowed to marry again after the demise of their husbands, and consequently despair at once of all worldly pleasure: hence it is evident, that death to these unfortunate widows is preferable to existence; for the great difficulty which a widow may experience by living a purely ascetic life, as prescribed by the Shastrus, is obvious; therefore, if she do not perform Concremation, it is probable that she may be guilty of such acts as may bring disgrace upon her paternal and maternal relations, and those that may be connected with her husband. Under these circumstances, we instruct them from their early life in the idea of Concremation, holding out to them heavenly enjoyments in company with their husbands, as well as the beatitude of their relations, both by birth and marriage, and their reputation in this world. From this many of them, on the death of their husbands, become desirous of accompanying them; but to remove every chance of their trying to escape from the blazing fire, in burning them we first tie them down to the pile.

Opponent. –The reason you have now assigned for burning widows alive is indeed your true motive, as we are well aware; but the faults which you have imputed to women are not planted in their constitution by nature; it would be, therefore, grossly criminal to condemn that sex to death merely from precaution. By ascribing to them all sorts of improper conduct, you have indeed successfully persuaded the Hindoo community to look down upon them as contemptible and mischievous creatures, whence they have been subjected to constant miseries. I have, therefore, to offer a few remarks on this head.

Women are in general inferior to men in bodily strength and energy; consequently the male part of the community, taking advantage of their corporeal weakness, have denied to them those excellent merits that they are entitled to by nature, and afterwards they are apt to say that women are naturally incapable of acquiring those merits. But if we give the subject consideration, we may easily ascertain whether or not your accusation against them is consistent with justice. As to their inferiority in point of understanding, when did you ever afford them a fair opportunity of exhibiting their natural capacity? How then can you accuse them of want of understanding? If after instruction in knowledge and wisdom, a person cannot comprehend or retain what has been taught him, we may consider him as deficient; but as you keep women generally void of education and acquirements, you cannot, therefore, injustice pronounce on their inferiority.

. . .

Secondly. You charge them with want of resolution, at which I feel exceedingly surprised: for we constantly perceive, in a country where the name of death makes the male shudder, that the female, from her firmness of mind, offers to burn with the corpse of her deceased husband; and yet you accuse those women of deficiency in point of resolution.

Thirdly. With regard to their trustworthiness, let us look minutely into the conduct of both sexes, and we may be enabled to ascertain which of them is the most frequently guilty of betraying friends. If we enumerate such women in each village or town as have been deceived by men, and such men as have been betrayed by women, I presume that the number of the deceived women would he found ten times greater than that of the betrayed men. Men are, in general, able to read and write, and manage public affairs, by which means they easily promulgate such faults as women occasionally commit, but never consider as criminal the misconduct of men towards women. One fault they have, it must be acknowledged; which is, by considering others equally void of duplicity as themselves, to give their confidence too readily, from which they suffer much misery, even so far that some of them are misled to suffer themselves to be burnt to death.

In the fourth place, with respect to their subjection to the passions, this may be judged of by the custom of marriage as to the respective sexes; or one man may marry two or three, sometimes even ten wives and upwards; while a woman, who marries but one husband; desires at his death to follow him, forsaking all worldly enjoyments, or to remain leading the austere life of an ascetic.