This section provides primary sources that document how Indian and European men and one English and one Indian woman have described the practice of sati, or the self-immolation of Hindu widows.

Although they are all critical of self-immolation, Francois Bernier, Fanny Parks, Lord William Bentinck, and Rev. England present four different European perspectives on the practice of sati and what it represents about Indian culture in general, and the Hindu religion and Hindu women in particular. They also indicate increasing negativism in European attitudes toward India and the Hindu religion in general. It would be useful to compare the attitudes of Bentinck and England as representing the secular and sacred aspects of British criticism of sati. A comparison of Bentinck’s minute with the subsequent legislation also reveals differences in tone between private and public documents of colonial officials. Finally, a comparison between the Fanny Parks and the three men should raise discussion on whether or not the gender and social status of the writer made any difference in his or her appraisal of the practice of self-immolation.

The three sources by Indian men and one by an Indian woman illustrate the diversity of their attitudes toward sati. The Marathi source illuminates the material concerns of relatives of the Hindu widow who is urged to adopt a son, so as to keep a potentially lucrative office within the extended family. These men are willing to undertake intense and delicate negotiations to secure a suitably related male child who could be adopted. This letter also documents that adoption was a legitimate practice among Hindus, and that Hindu women as well as men could adopt an heir. Ram Mohan Roy’s argument illustrates a rationalist effort to reform Hindu customs with the assistance of British legislation. Roy illustrates one of the many ways in which Indians collaborate with British political power in order to secure change within Indian society. He also enabled the British to counter the arguments of orthodox Hindus about the scriptural basis for the legitimacy of self-immolation of Hindu widows. The petition of the orthodox Hindu community in Calcutta, the capital of the Company’s territories in India, documents an early effort of Indians to keep the British colonial power from legislating on matters pertaining to the private sphere of Indian family life. Finally, Pandita Ramabai reflects the ways in which ancient Hindu scriptures and their interpretation continued to dominate debate. Students should consider how Ramabai’s effort to raise funds for her future work among child widows in India might have influenced her discussion of sati.

Two key issues should be emphasized. First, both Indian supporters and European and Indian opponents of the practice of self-immolation argue their positions on the bodies of Hindu women, and all the men involved appeal to Hindu scriptures to legitimate their support or opposition. Second, the voices of Indian women were filtered through the sieve of Indian and European men and a very few British women until the late 19th century.

Discussion Questions:
  • How do the written and visual sources portray the Hindu women who commit self-immolation? Possible aspects range from physical appearance and age, motivation, evidence of physical pain (that even the most devoted woman must suffer while burning to death), to any evidence of the agency or autonomy of the Hindu widow in deciding to commit sati. Are any differences discernible, and if so, do they seem related to gender or nationality of the observer or time period in which they were observed?
  • How are the brahman priests who preside at the self-immolation portrayed in Indian and European sources? What might account for any similarities and differences?
  • What reasons are used to deter Hindu widows from committing sati? What do these reasons reveal about the nature of family life in India and the relationships between men and women?
  • What do the reasons that orthodox Hindus provide to European observers and to Indian reformers reveal about the significance of sati for the practice of the Hindu religion? What do their arguments reveal about orthodox Hindu attitudes toward women and the family?
  • How are Hindu scriptures used in various ways in the debates before and after the prohibition of sati?
  • What is the tone of the petition from 800 Hindus to their British governor? Whom do they claim to represent? What is their justification for the ritual of self-immolation? What is their attitude toward the Mughal empire whose Muslim rulers had preceded the British? What is their characterization of the petitioners toward those Hindus who support the prohibition on sati? How do the petitioners envision the proper relationship between the state and the practice of religion among its subjects?
  • Who or what factors do European observers, British officials, and Indian opponents of sati hold to be responsible for the continuance of the practice of sati?
  • What were the reasons that widows gave for committing sati? Were they religious, social or material motives? What is the evidence that the widows were voluntarily committing sati before 1829? What reasons did the opponents of sati give for the decisions of widows to commit self-immolation? What reasons did opponents give for widows who tried to escape from their husbands’ pyres?
  • What are the reasons that Lord Bentinck and his Executive Council cite for their decision to declare the practice of sati illegal? Are the arguments similar to or different from his arguments in his minute a month earlier? What do these reasons reveal about British attitudes toward their role or mission in India? Do they use any of the arguments cited by Ram Mohan Roy or Pandita Ramabai?
  • What do these sources, both those who oppose sati and those who advocate it, reveal about their attitudes to the Hindu religion in particular and Indian culture in general?