The Debate on Sati: Deeper Conclusions on Tradition, Colonialism, and Women’s Rights
The issue of sati was and to an extent still is a battleground for the debate of tradition, women’s rights, and authority. The practice, which was relatively rare, has held a far larger importance in the debate surrounding it than it ever held in practice. This debate was inflamed as Sati carried on into the modern age and became a subject of colonial and feminist scrutiny. The debate on Sati raises a few important questions. To what extent can outsiders, especially colonizers, understand and regulate a nation’s culture? Does a practice being “traditional” impact its morality? How much agency did women involved in sati and other cultural and religious practices really have? How much value do men’s perspectives have in a debate that predominantly concerns women? The depth and timelessness of these questions has led to sati being a focal point of passionate debate inside and outside India. The practice and the women involved have also brought up discussions of Indian women’s femininity and agency throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods. The Sati debate provides a flashpoint for far deeper discussions and questions. While the question of whether sati should be legal or not is important, the perspectives around it represent further conclusions on traditional authority, colonial authority, female agency, religious morality, progress, and more.
Sati became a point for debate on colonialism, tradition, and the imposition of Western values when the British turned their attention to it early in the East India Company’s rule. In the very beginning of their rule, “following their declared policy of non-interference with native religions and customs, the British made no efforts to stop the practice.” The British largely turned to scripture as their source for religious and legal tradition and looked to Hindu court pundits to justify the legality and allowance of sati to continue. The pundits largely espoused the points that sati was allowed and not prohibited in scripture, and that it was legal when women were not coerced and went to their deaths willingly as an act of devotion. The British assumption that scripture was all-important in legal justification had a huge part in skewing their viewpoint and understanding of sati. This centered the viewpoints of the Brahminic elite and gave the religious elite extraordinary power over indigenous tradition and laws. It also solidified a view of India as timeless and stagnant, in which laws from ancient texts could still take precedent over practices in the modern day. According to Mani, the British operated under multiple incorrect assumptions about Hinduism and its practice and culture: that religious texts were hegemonic (in reality, the religion was not standardized by any means) and that subjects completely submitted to the religion. This portrayed Indians as subordinates and victims of their religion, especially women who committed sati, which would impact future debate. The British viewpoint on tradition, religion, and governance is exemplified in their 1813 regulating what was a legal sati: “let them know that it is not the intention of the government to check or forbid any act authorized by the tenets of the religion of the inhabitants of their dominions.”
Despite their earlier views and source material on Sati, the British changed course and banned sati in 1829. The British at this point decided that they had the authority to dictate which indigenous traditions were compatible with their rule and colonial protection over Indian subjects, and which had to be done away with. As the East India Company became more of an administrative body and the philosophical justifications of colonialism and the “White Man’s Burden” came further into vogue, the Company found justification in trying to shape India in the Western legal and cultural form. Bentinck, in his “Minute on Sati,” stresses that he believes the abolition of sati to be good for the Hindus and Indian society as a whole, and emphasizes the British belief that their rule is a benefit to Indians. He says that sati had been allowed to continue due to the threat that banning them could lead to the overthrow of the British government: “to put to hazard… the very safety of the British Empire in India, and to extinguish at once all hopes of those great improvements affecting the conditions… of millions, which can only be expected from the continuance of our supremacy… may be considered still a greater evil.” The British believed that by regulating and eventually banning sati, they were improving Indian society and contributing to the hopes for better conditions of its people. However, the British treatment of sati turned the issue into one of colonialism and anti-colonialism, along with its other effects. Ashis Nandy asserted that satis increased after the 1813 legislation as a form of “subaltern disobedience” against the British colonizers, turning satis into an anti-British act. This would have far-reaching effects on the debate on sati in the future, with proponents of sati steeping their points in nationalism and ideas of indigenous tradition. The British had turned the debate on sati and the nature of the Indian legal system into a question of scripture, religious tradition, and colonial influence, while largely neglecting the perspectives and experiences of women.
Mani asserted that in the Sati debate, women became sites where scripture, tradition, and law was debated, largely without their input. This certainly rings true, especially in reading the British proclamations on Sati, or the Orthodox Community’s 1830 petition to the British. The cultural and traditional merits and damages of this practice were discussed, but rarely were women even mentioned in this great struggle over religious justification and colonial governance. This certainly backs the point that the sati debate went far further than simply the practice and represented larger struggles of indigenous tradition and colonial influence. However, this same theme played out at a smaller scale when discussing the effect of the practice of sati on women, their rights, and conceptions of femininity. Women’s perspectives often were overlooked until the widespread feminist writings on the topic, and Indian women’s perspectives continue to have less time in the limelight than they should. Some writers and historians have sought to point this issue out and magnify women’s, and especially Indian women’s perspectives.
Indian women’s perspectives on the debate and sati itself have been brought to light far more with recent influential pieces, especially following the 1987 sati of Roop Kanwar. Influential Indian feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak asserted that the absence of women’s perspectives showed the violence of colonialism and the Indian patriarchy, both of which smothering women’s space to speak out. Spivak has criticized others, even Western feminists, for speaking for Indian women, while calling for Indian female intellectuals to speak out on women’s issues. While centering around sati, Spivak’s points illustrate how Indian and third world women in general are often silenced by oppressive structures and conditions, opening the door for others in greater positions of power to speak for them. Feminist scholar Sunder Rajan also has provided influential points in the debate’s recent past, focusing on the more human expression of pain in sati and how representations of this were better at bringing sati into the consciousness of audiences than the discourse of the debate.
Lata Mani has also presented many very influential points, and her work is often cited in the context of the debate. Mani provided a great view on how scripture was centered in the sati debate early on, how the debate changed over time, and how ideas of tradition and modernity were produced through this. Ania Loomba provides complementary views on how the sati debate influenced perceptions of Indian women’s femininity, the problems the sati debate posed for feminist theorists, and how the debate could be improved. Notably, she examines the problematic nature of nearly all sides of the argument. She asserts that British accounts focused too much on the spectacle of the burning, abolitionist accounts focused too much on the pain and ugliness of the burning, and many feminist accounts denied the sati women’s motives and agency, all these accounts and arguments making the woman into purely a victim. Indian women have had a large part in developing the sati debate and moving it out of colonial and postcolonial dogma, as well as correcting the marginalization and misrepresentation of their perspectives.
The debate on the relatively marginal practice of sati shows a lot about deeper tensions and struggles in Indian society, the ideas of modernity and tradition, and ideas women’s rights and agency. While the debate has been shaped by its colonial origins and subject to a lack of representation of many important perspectives, these underrepresented viewpoints are coming more into focus. The analysis of the historical context of the sati debate allows audiences to understand where dominant views and camps on the issue originated, as well as exposing the problems in the debate and providing suggestions and solutions on how to include relevant perspectives. The sati debate is an important one, which incorporates greater arguments over the fabric of Indian laws, traditions, and gender relations.
 Ania Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales: Issues of Female Subjectivity, Subaltern Agency and Tradition in Colonial and Post-Colonial Writings on Widow Immolation in India,” History Workshop, no. 36 (Autumn 1993): 211.
 Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Cultural Critique, no. 7 (Autumn 1987): 128–130.
 Andrea Major, ed., Sati: A Historical Anthology (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 98.
 Major, Sati: A Historical Anthology, 103.
 Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales,” 213.
 Mani, “Contentious Traditions”, 150.
 Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales,” 218.
 Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales,” 219–220.
 Loomba, “Dead Women Tell No Tales,” 221.