British Abolish Suttee in India Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Suttee, the Hindu custom of widows burning themselves to death on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres, was frequently practiced in India from ancient times until the nineteenth century, when a British governor-general outlawed it. However, the British prohibition did not end the practice completely, and Hindu resentment of the prohibition has been considered a contributing cause of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Summary of Event

In many ancient cultures, women—especially favorite wives and concubines—were buried, either voluntarily or by force, with their dead husbands or lords. The voluntary self-immolation of wives and concubines after the deaths of their husbands and lovers was a custom of the Hindus of India that began in ancient times. The Hindu epic Mahabharata Mahabharata (Hindu epic) (second millennium b.c.e.) mentions the practice, and foreign observers of Hinduism remarked on this custom as early as the fourth century b.c.e. Suttee India;suttee Hinduism;suttee Widow burning British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [kw]British Abolish Suttee in India (Dec. 4, 1829) [kw]Abolish Suttee in India, British (Dec. 4, 1829) [kw]Suttee in India, British Abolish (Dec. 4, 1829) [kw]India, British Abolish Suttee in (Dec. 4, 1829) Suttee India;suttee Hinduism;suttee Widow burning British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [g]India;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [g]British Empire;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [c]Religion and theology;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [c]Anthropology;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [c]Women’s issues;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 4, 1829: British Abolish Suttee in India[1470] Bentinck, William Ray, Rammohan Deb, Radhakanta

Derived from the Sanskrit adjective sat (good or true), sati, or the more common term “suttee,” means the “ideal woman.” In India, suttee was the practice whereby Hindu women would immolate themselves along with the corpses of their husband—an act also called sahamaran, or dying together. When the women could not burn themselves with their husbands’ bodies during their cremation, they would commit suicide later on funeral pyres while holding objects belonging to their dead husbands—an act called anumaran, or dying later. In some Hindu communities women were buried alive with their dead husbands, believing that by so doing, they were guaranteed great rewards and pleasures in the afterlife. Such acts brought fame to the families of the women and their husbands. Huge crowds assembled to watch the suttee (or satidaha, the burning of a suttee), and the ashes of the pyres as well as the ground where the satidaha occurred were treasured as holy relics. Often memorial pillars, or satisthambhas, were erected on the spots with the suttees’ handprints.

The reasons behind suttee are diverse. In addition to wishing to follow their husbands to the afterlife, some women wanted to avoid living as widows. Hindu widows were forbidden any type of pleasurable activity and lived lives of constant toil unless they were independently rich. The relatives of some rich widows forced them to undergo suttee to obtain their property, and there is evidence that some women were administered drugs to overcome their resistance. In some royal families, especially among the Rajputs in west-central India, India;Islam women committed communal death by fire (jauhar brata) to avoid falling into the hands of victorious enemies, generally Islam;in India[India] Muslim conquerors.

From the earliest available records, relatives and local rulers, including Muslim rulers and the British in India, tried to dissuade women, without force, from performing suttee. It was rare to see the forced rescue of a woman by the British. Job Charnock Charnock, Job (d. 1693), the English merchant who founded Calcutta, is said to have rescued and then married a Hindu widow preparing for suttee. Jules Verne Verne, Jules ’s popular novel Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1873; Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), describes its protagonist, Phineas Fogg, saving Princess Aouda from forced immolation on her dead husband’s funeral pyre.

In 1757, the British established a political foothold in Bengal in eastern India and started to increase their holdings. The first few governors-general of the British East India Company British East India Company followed a policy of least interference with the customs of the local people. They had no specific policies against satidaha, and local British magistrates were advised to dissuade, but not force, a widow from committing suttee. In 1813, a Brahman priest, addressing the religious basis of suttee after being asked to do so by the British government, answered that suttee was indeed a part of the Hindu religion.

In 1815, the British government began keeping accounts of how many satidahas occurred within its territory and found that the practice was prevalent in all Hindu castes and was particularly common in the district of Calcutta, which had a high number of educated and wealthy Hindus. The police were ordered to attend all such acts and to stop the immolations if the women were children or were pregnant, unwilling, or drugged. Satidahas often occurred before local authorities could arrive, but conspirators sometimes faced fines or corporal punishment. Published figures show that in 1824 there were 335 satidahas in fifteen districts; the local police attended 255 (76 percent). Of 433 satidahas in 1825, the police attended 391 (90 percent). In most cases, therefore, the acts seem to have been voluntary.

The British were in control of territories on the northern side of the Ganges River that extended from Bengal to Delhi and smaller tracts on the southeastern and southwestern coasts of India. The extent to which suttee was in practice in the rest of the country has not been recorded. The number of women who committed the act was minuscule compared to the overall population. Each act was greatly admired by a section of the native Hindu population, though the majority of the Hindus were against the practice.

Missionaries, Missionaries;and Hinduism[Hinduism] along with some local people, voiced their disapproval of this custom, but to little effect. With the arrival of William Bentinck as the governor-general of Bengal (later governor-general of India) in 1827 came a change in government attitude concerning Indian customs. Bentinck was strongly influenced by British utilitarianism and introduced many reforms in the interest of the people. He admitted Indians to important office, fostered communication and education, and revised the system of landholding.

Less tolerant, however, of Indian customs, Bentinck abolished suttee by law in 1829, making it a punishable criminal act. Three years later an attempt to overturn the law failed in an appeal to the Privy Council, the ultimate Court of Appeals in Great Britain. He was helped by a determined group of Hindus spearheaded by Rammohan Ray Ray, Rammohan , an independently wealthy Hindu reformer who knew Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit, and English. Ray was a pioneer in promoting female education and was also one of the earliest authors in Bengali and one of the first Hindus to travel overseas, which orthodox Hindus considered a sin.

Born Hinduism into an orthodox Hindu Brahman family, Ray was later disowned by his immediate family because of his apostasy. He had read the Qur՚ān and the Bible and became a monotheist. Reading the Hindu scriptures showed him that Hinduism was originally monotheistic. From the old Sanskrit texts he found that women traditionally had a much more exalted position in society. All these factors led him to start working actively for the improvement of a woman’s place in contemporary Hindu society.

Ray is said to have become convinced of the need to abolish suttee also after seeing his elder brother’s wife die on the pyre of her husband, but this is an unsubstantiated claim. Ample documentation exists, however, that Ray attended many satidahas in and around Calcutta trying to dissuade widows from committing suicide. Starting in 1812 he wrote a number of pamphlets in Bengali, Hindi, and English, arguing that suttee was not advocated in the scriptures; rather, widows were advised by scripture to live chaste and fruitful lives. The scriptures even advocated widow remarriage. Marriage;in India[India] Another great Hindu reformer, Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, tried to make Hindu widow remarriage legal in 1856.

Ray was joined by a group of progressive Hindus who actively worked for the legal abolition of suttee. The conservative Hindus banded together to oppose the reform, claiming suttee was an established aspect of their religious practices. Ray was publicly reviled and was threatened with personal harm, including death, but he persisted in his efforts.

Bentinck, who arrived in Calcutta as governor-general in 1833, solicited the opinions of many, including Ray, about satidaha. In the end, he decided to abolish the practice legally in Bengal on December 4, 1829. Within six months suttee was abolished in Bombay and Madras. Prior to enacting the law, Bentinck summarized his reasons to his council in a document dated November 8, 1829. In turn, the conservative Hindus, under the leadership of Radhakanta Deb Deb, Radhakanta , sent a petition to Bentinck, who politely refused their appeal. The conservatives, in July, 1832, then sent English barrister (lawyer) Francis Bathie Bathie, Francis to England to persuade the Privy Council to remove the law. (Ray also was in London at the time and attended the sessions.) The application to repeal the law was turned down, however, and satidaha remained a criminal offense of culpable homicide.

Significance

William Bentinck changed the British policy of noninterference toward satidaha with a great deal of care. He made extensive enquiries, especially about the possible effect on the Indian elements of the British army. He was reassured that there would be no significant adverse reactions. The Sepoy India;Sepoy Mutiny British Empire;Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858) Mutiny of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858);and suttee[Suttee] is said to have been fueled by suttee’s abolition, though no one has explained why this opposition came twenty-eight years later.

While satidaha was legally stopped in British India, its practice continued in the princely states for another fifty years or so. Even after India’s independence from Britain, occasional isolated instances still occurred in orthodox Hindu areas such as Rajputana and Madhya Pradesh. While the vast majority of Indians and Hindu monks decry suttee, a small minority of fundamentalists and monks still consider suttee to be legitimate religious practice. In one twentieth century case, a woman was forced to descend from the pyre by police in 1985. A temple was built for her, and she is now revered as a living suttee. In 1987 a young woman committed suttee, with tremendous repercussions. The state governor of Rajasthan was forced to promulgate an ordinance banning suttee because the 1829 act “was [considered to be] only a regulation passed by the East India Company British East India Company and could not apply to the present case.” In June, 2005, a seventy-five-year-old woman allegedly performed suttee on the funeral pyre of her eighty-year-old husband.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basham, A. L., ed. A Cultural History of India. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Contains thirty-five essays discussing almost every aspect of India’s history from ancient times to the present. Provides a broad intellectual and social context in which Ray and other reformist thinkers worked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassels, N. G. Bentinck. “Humanitarian and Imperialist: The Abolition of Sati.” Journal of British Studies 5, no. 1 (November, 1965): 77-87. A well-documented paper on Bentinck’s role in the abolition of suttee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collet, Sophia Dobson. Raja Rammohun Roy. Edited by D. K. Biswas and P. C. Ganguli. 4th ed. Calcutta, India: Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, 1988. Details Ray’s role in the abolition of suttee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, S. Cromwell. Ram Mohan Roy: Social, Political, and Religious Reform in Nineteenth Century India. New York: Paragon, 1987. Discusses the differences between Bentinck’s and Ray’s approaches to the abolition of suttee and gives a modern analysis of their roles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A history of British rule in India, including administration and policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Narasimhan, Sakuntala. Sati: Widow Burning in India. New York: Doubleday, 1992. A detailed description of satidaha as it has been practiced throughout history. Includes the complete text of Bentinck’s minutes to his council, as well as of the act. Well illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roy, Rammohun [Rammohan Ray]. “Abstract of the Arguments Regarding the Burning of Widows, Considered as a Religious Rite.” In The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, edited by Jogendra Chunder Ghose and translated by Tuhfatul Muwahhiddin. 1934. Reprint. New Delhi, India: Cosmo, 1982. The first English circular on abolishing suttee, first published in 1830.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Counter-Petition to the House of Commons to the Memorial of the Advocates of the Suttee.” In The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, edited by Jogendra Chunder Ghose and translated by Tuhfatul Muwahhiddin. 1934. Reprint. New Delhi, India: Cosmo, 1982. Ray’s petition to the British House of Commons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sen, Mala. Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry, Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. A detailed discussion of the 1987 satidaha in Rajasthan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twain, Mark. Following the Equator. 1896. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Twain spent several months in India and was fascinated by its cultures. He was particularly interested in suttee, which he vividly describes in several chapters. Chapter 48 includes an extended anecdote about a Hindu widow’s struggle to obtain permission to perform suttee.

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