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Whose Sati? Widow Burning in Early 19th Century India Anand A. Yang Intentionally interrogatory, the title of this essay emphasizes the speculative nature of my remarks regarding the phenomenon of sati. Derived from the Sanskrit term for pure or chaste (sef)—the very term "sati," therefore, is a misnomer—sati has come to signify both the act of immolation of a wife on the funeral pyre of her husband (in some areas a widow was buried with her deceased husband or took poison) and the victim herself rather than its original meaning of "a virtuous woman."1 Generally, a woman was burnt together with her deceased husband, a practice termed sahamarana or sahagamana (dying together with). But if concremation was not possible, such as when a husband died in a distant place or a woman's pregnancy required that she wait till after delivery, a sati conformed to the practice of anumarana or anugamana: burning with the husband's ashes or with some other memento representing him, for example, his sandals, turban, or piece of clothing. * The title also has another meaning, a double trajectory: an interrogation of the historical literature on the subject and an interrogation of sati as a practice involving women of different times, places, and backgrounds. Both lines of inquiry seek to converge on the same objective: better questions and answers regarding the phenomenon of sati. Hitherto, much of the literature on sati has tended to favor an institutional approach.3 Not surprisingly, the most familiar aspect of sati is the British campaign against it culminating in the promulgation of Regulation XVII in 1829 "declaring the practice of suttee, or of burning or burying alive the widows of Hindus, illegal and punishable by the criminal courts."4 Viewed from this angle, the history of sati has been appropriated by some scholars to represent the beginnings of "a deliberate policy of modernizing and westernizing Indian society," as embodied in the person and policies of Governor-General Lord Bentinck who directed the official campaign against sati, and in the emergence of a Bengal "Renaissance" under the guiding hand of the "Father of Modern India," Raja Rammohun Roy, who acted as the Indian architect of this and other social reforms.s The legislative prohibition of sati has also "become a founding moment in the history of women in modern India." To continue in the words of this scholar, colonial rule, with its moral civilizing claims, is said to have provided the contexts for a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of Indian "tradition" along lines more consonant with the "modern" economy and society ©1989 Journal of Women-s History, Vol. ι No. 2 (Fall)____________________ 1989 Anand A. Yang believed to have been the consequence of India's incorporation into the capitalist world system. In other words, even the most antiimperialist amongst us has felt forced to acknowledge the "positive" consequences of colonial rule for certain aspects of women's lives, if not in terms of actual practice, at least at the level of ideas about "women's rights."6 But as Lata Mani's deconstruction of the colonial discourse on sati reveals, women were neither the subjects nor the objects of this discourse, "but rather the grounds of the discourse on sati .... For the British, rescuing women becomes part of the civilizing mission. For the indigenous elite, protection of their status or its reform becomes an urgent necessity, in terms of the honor of the collective—religious or national."7 For the political and ideological context in which the government campaign for social reforms was waged, whether focusing on sati, infanticide , lhagi (ritual murder), or human sacrifice, aimed at entitling the British with the right to proclaim the superiority of their own values, and ultimately , to justify their right to rule. Only they could usher in the morality they found wanting in the indigenous civilization. Consider the tenor of the following government pronouncement on sati: Of the rite itself, of its horror and abomination not a word need be said. Every rational and civilized being must feel anxious for the termination of a practice so abhorrent from humanity. . . . But to the christian and to the Englishman, who by tolerating sanctions, and by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 8-33
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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