Petition, Orthodox Hindus

The debates that led to the Company’s prohibition of sati stimulated elite orthodox Hindus to form organizations, such as the Dharma Society, to protect what they deemed traditional Hindu practices. Orthodox Hindus staunchly argued that custom as well as Hindu scriptures supported self-immolation by Hindu widows as their sacred duty. Further, they claimed that Hindu widows were willing participants in sati because of their devotion to their deceased husbands and the promised spiritual rewards for themselves and their marital and natal families. These supporters of sati viewed Lord Bentinck’s Regulation of 4 December, 1829, as an attack of the British imperial government in India on Hindu religion and undue governmental interference in the realm of religious practice and family life. Their arguments raise key questions about the legitimacy of government control of social practices and customs that people claim are integral to their religious beliefs.

Source: “The Petition of the Orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta against the Suttee Regulation.” 14 January 1830. In J. K. Majumdar, ed. Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India: A Selection from Records, 1775-1845. Calcutta: Art Press, 1941.

The Petition of the orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta against the Suttee Regulation, together with a paper of Authorities, and the Reply of the Governor-General thereto. (January 14, 1830).

To The Right Hon. Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, &c.

My Lord: We, the undersigned, beg leave respectfully to submit the following petition to your Lordship in Council, in consequence of having heard that certain persons, taking upon themselves to represent the opinons and feelings of the Hindoo inhabitants of Calcutta, have misrepresented these opinions and feelings, and that your Lordship in Council is about to pass a resolution, founded on such erroneous statements, to put a stop to the practice of performing suttees, an interference with the religion and customs of the Hindoos, which we most earnestly deprecate, and cannot view without the most serious alarm.

With the most profound respect for your Lordship in Council, we, the under-signed Hindoo inhabitants of the city of Calcutta, beg leave to approach you in order to state such circumstances as appear to us necessary to draw the attention of government fully to the measure in contemplation, and the light in which it will be regarded by the greater part of the more respectable Hindoo population of the Company’s territories, who are earnest in the belief, as well as in the profession of their religion.

From time immemorial the Hindoo religion has been established, and in proportion to its antiquity has been its influence over the minds of its followers. In no religion has apostacy been more rare, and none has resisted more success-fully the fierce spirit of proselytism which animated the first Mahomedan conquerors.

That the Hindoo religion is founded, like all religions, on usage as well as precept, and one when immemorial is held equally sacred with the other. Under the sanction of immemorial usage as well as precept, Hindoo widows perform, of their own accord and pleasure, and for the benefit of their husbands’ souls and for their own, the sacrifice of self-immolation called suttee, which is not merely a sacred duty but a high privilege to her who sincerely believes in the doctrines of their religion; and we humbly submit that any interference with a persuasion of so high and self-annihilating a nature, is not only an unjust and intolerant dictation in matters of conscience, but is likely wholly to fail in procuring the end proposed.

Even under the first Mussulman conquerors of Hindostan, and certainly since this country came under the Mogul Government, notwithstanding the fanaticism and intolerance of their religion, no interference with the practice of suttee was ever attempted. Since that period, and for nearly a century, the power of the British government has been established in Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, and none of the governors-general, or their councils, have hitherto interfered in any manner to the prejudice of the Hindoo religion or customs; and we submit, that by various Acts of the Parliament of Great Britain, under the authority of which the Hon. Company itself exists, our religion and Laws, usages and customs, such as they have existed from time immemorial, are inviolably secured to us.

We learn with surprise and grief, that while this is confessed on all hands, the abolition of the practice of suttee is attempted to be defended on the ground that there is no positive law or precept enjoining it: a doctrine derived from a number of Hindoos, who have apostatized from the religion of their forefathers, who have defiled themselves by eating and drinking forbidden things in the society of Europeans, and are endeavouring to deceive your Lordship in Council by assertions that there is no law regarding suttee practices, and that all Hindoos of intelligence and education are ready to assent to the abolition contemplated, on the ground that the practice of suttee is not authorized by the laws fundamentally established and acknowledged by all Hindoos as sacred. But we humbly submit that in a question so delicate as the interpretation of our sacred books, and the authority of our religious usages, none but pundits and brahmins, and teachers of holy lives, and known learning and authority, ought to be consulted; and we are satisfied, and flatter ourselves with the hope, that your Lordship in Council will not regard the assertion of men who have neither any faith nor care for the memory of their ancestors or their religion: and that of your Lordship in Council will assume to yourself the difficult and delicate task of regulating the conscience of a whole people, and deciding what it ought to believe, and what it ought to reject, on the authority of its own sacred writers, that such a task will be undertaken only after anxious and strict inquiry, and patient consultation with men known and reverenced for their attachment to the Hindoo religion, the authority of their lives, and their knowledge of the sacred books which contain its doctrines ; and if such an examination should be made, we are confident that your Lordship in Council will find our statements to be correct, and will learn that the measure will be regarded with honor and dismay throughout the Company’s dominions, as the signal of an universal attack upon all we revere.