Two centuries ago, widows were sometimes strapped to the funeral pyres of their husbands and burned alive, historian Tanika Sarkar explains.
NEW DELHI — Recent confrontations at the Sabarimala temple have alerted us yet again to the persistent power of brahmanical Hinduism. Not only the Bharatiya Janata Party, but the Congress party, too, has paid obeisance to it. This merits a review of our cultural past and the fractious and contradictory nature of Indian modernity.
The long 19th century seeded new streams of moral and social thinking that survive even today: religious reformism, orthodoxy and cultural nationalism that involved an unquestioning acceptance of tradition and a rejection of Western culture. I will, therefore, discuss certain 19th century debates around these trends that reshaped Hindu gender. Since gender norms are embedded in religious texts, gender reform had to reckon with faith.
This was, strangely, reinforced by the colonial state. It refused to make new laws in the entire realm of belief, ritual, caste, marriage, divorce, succession, adoption and inheritance unless it could be shown that present practices actually violated sacred texts or time-honored custom — and only if maulvis, Muslim scholars, and their Brahman counterparts, pandits, pointed this out.
However much the state prided itself on its civilizing mission, imperial practice trod warily even when Indian scripture and custom offended its own sensibilities. Indian religious traditions enjoyed a rare sovereignty in the colonized world, and the sphere of "personal laws' became, therefore, an acrimonious concourse of competing cultural imaginaries.
Change occurred not because of colonial cultural modernization but because of Indian reformers who desperately gathered scriptural fragments to validate reform. Above all, new communicational resources — print culture, press, vernacular prose made widespread debates possible. Slowly, unevenly and rather messily, they eventuated into a fuzzy sense of women's rights at end-century.
Consenting to death
It began with Regulation XV11 of 1829: A Regulation Declaring the Practice of Suttee or Burning/Burying Alive of Hindoo Widows Illegal and Punishable by Criminal Courts. Controversies around the law initiated radically new ways of thinking about the lives and deaths of Hindu women. For the first time in Indian history, too, gender became a matter of popular and public debates.
Immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of husbands was an established — though not a compulsory — ritual, valorized by cardinal scriptural sources. Its glory was commemorated long after it was abolished: its hold on Hindu emotions and pride proved amazingly strong.
Remarkably, the colonial rulers allowed immolations for 60 years before the abolition law, covering about one-fourth of the total lifespan of British rule. Going by annual police reports from 1815, in the Lower Provinces of Bengal Presidency alone, 500 to 900 widows were burned alive every year. Missionaries and officials claimed that a lot more went unreported.
Polygamy being fairly rampant, scores of wives sometimes burned together.
Immolated widows came from all castes, though Brahmans provided the single-largest category and Shudra castes came next. Even "untouchables' — not meant to practice the ritual — performed immolations, probably as a route to upward social mobility.
Satis belonged to all age-groups, ranging between four and 100, though elderly widows constituted the largest age cluster — maybe because their declining capacity for domestic labor made them fairly dispensable to the family economy. They also came from all classes — from substantial landowners to beggars. Polygamy being fairly rampant, scores of wives sometimes burned together.
Holy texts promised that the Sati would reside in heaven with her husband for millions of years, and so would ancestors from her paternal, maternal and matrimonial sides. Even those who watched the holy spectacle gained much merit. So stakeholders in the ritual covered a very large range of people.
Immolations were "voluntary," supposedly a sign of exceptional female greatness, and they bred legendary tales of women who insisted on burning. Yet, how could a four-year-old agree to burn? Occasions of obvious coercion were also rampant. A haunting case came up before the Gorruckpore court in 1825. When flames began to blaze, 14-year-old Houmulia somehow leaped out of the pyre, but her uncle threw her back into the fire — and yet again tried to escape. Finally, she was beheaded.
The state eventually asked pandits about scriptural conditions for valid immolations. It asked the police to monitor and report on each incident and to verify the woman's genuine consent. Consent became, for the first time, a matter of public import: something that reformers disputed angrily, and the orthodoxy tried to claim with equal vigor.
This set up a potential division between her family's words and hers, making her stand forth as a public figure, speaking for herself. As if through a glass darkly, she gained the right of consenting to her death: her first formal legal right.
Legal rights for widows
The legal abolition of immolations came from Rammohun Roy — a cosmopolitan liberal and a Brahman, renowned for Sanskrit learning. He argued from 1818 that immolations contradicted scripture, especially Manu, who had praised chaste widowhood.
He also argued that the customary mode of burning violated the scriptural form, which described the Sati as walking freely into the flames. In practice, however, she is trussed up firmly, then tied to her husband's body, then placed under a huge pile of logs and then set on fire amidst smoke and loud music — which concealed her cries for help. This is not the true immolation, he said, but "woman murder."
Detail of painting by Mohammad Rizā depicting a sati — Source: Wellcome Collection gallery/Wikimedia Commons
Roy went beyond scripture. He said women should have access to sacred knowledge instead. Opponents replied that she was biologically disabled from receiving knowledge and Roy asked when they had tested her intelligence, that they now called her "foolish." He also argued for absolute inheritance rights for the widow.
Most important of all, he re-described not only the sati but also the woman: rich and poor, "high" and "low" caste. He talked of their hard labor and scanty food, their incarceration in the kitchen, their unjust punishments and sexual double-standards in a dense ethnographic observation of their everyday life. For the first time in our history, a male gaze emerges, shaped by guilt and shame.
In the process, nevertheless, he valorized Brahmanical texts, to make his case to the state. He created great problems for future reformers who campaigned for widow remarriage. Manu was explicitly opposed to remarriages.
If the physical death of the Hindu widow was the site for early reformist interventions, her socio-sexual death animated the rest of the century. Scripture defined the widow as half-body of her husband who lived on in her; so there could be no remarriage for her, only adultery.
Even the infant widow practiced an immense range of abstinence — sexual, dietary and sartorial. She was inauspicious, doomed to perpetual penance for sins of past birth. She had no secure property rights. An easy sexual prey within the family, she could even be murdered for pregnancy. The deprivations had spread among all castes and all ages. The orthodoxy, though, insisted that all good widows desired such lives.
Reformers focused on widow remarriage — until Pandita Ramabai tried to make them economically independent. Widows who would not or could not remarry, therefore, fell outside the loop, and their ritual, social and economic problems were largely ignored. Act No XV, July 1856: An Act to Remove all Legal Obstacles to Marriage of Hindoo Widows deprived widows from inheriting their first husband's property-share, though some "low caste" widows did enjoy such rights. The law, however, abrogated the earlier prescriptive prohibition of remarriage and legalized inheritance rights of sons born of remarriage.
Some even wanted marriage to be taken out of the religious realm.
Even though Indians were not yet represented in the legislature, the idea of remarriage had originated among a small group of Bengali reformers, led by the liberal Brahman educationist Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. To circumvent Manu, Vidyasagar located a verse in Parasharasamhita that — according to his interpretation — recommended a second marriage for the widow.
Remarried couples faced intimidation, ostracism, disinheritance and obscene press lampooning. Weddings in Calcutta and Rajahmundhry in the Madras Presidency happened under elaborate police protection. Peasants supporting remarriage were beaten up and were evicted from their land and village.
More important than the law, which was a social failure, were certain words that came to be articulated in the debates. Some liberals mentioned gender equality as natural and divine law, some even wanted marriage to be taken out of the religious realm and put into the civil one. Vidyasagar mischievously asked if widows' bodies turned into stone when their husbands died — ignoring the age-old norm that indeed they should.
By underlining sexual double-standards, he de-naturalized them. The woman's consent acquired deeper meaning when the Act provided that the adult widow did not need her guardian's consent to remarriage; her own consent would legalize it.
Child brides and marital rape
Child marriage happened among all castes, and even to tiny infants. Malabari's efforts in the 1880s to abolish it were ignored by the state, as scriptural sanction for the practice was too strong to allow for a new law. Manu had recommended that the girl be married at eight. This marriage amounted to the gift of a goddess to the matrimonial family, bestowing untold merit on her father. Incidentally, he also said that the woman has to be under her father's rule at childhood, under her husband's in youth and under her son's in old age: "Never should a woman be independent."
Though marriage rites in sacred scripture prescribed rules specifically for "upper" castes, the 16th-century legal authority, Raghunandan, had generalized Brahmanical marriage practices among Shudra castes as well. Brahmanical gender norms thus constituted a trans-caste pool of "clean" practices, creating a single Hindu community-in-law out of deeply stratified castes.
But, if child marriage could not be touched, the gruesome death of a Bengali girl of 10 in 1889 from marital rape compelled rethinking about the age of conjugal cohabitation. Since she was above 10, the husband was charged with inadvertent manslaughter and was let off with a light sentence, since the Indian Penal Code of 1860 had defined cohabitation with a girl under 10 as rape. Dayaram Gidumal now proposed that the Penal Code should raise the minimum age to 12 for all girls. Eventually, the government revised Section 375 of the Penal Code of 1860, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (10) of 1891 was enacted by the Legislative Council.
Never should a woman be independent.
Criminalizing marital intercourse below the age of 12 saw all hell break loose. Bengali newspapers raised the alarm that Hinduism stood in danger of extinction. Mammoth processions were held in Calcutta to protest the bill, and cultural nationalists thus introduced the practice of organized collective protest. They forged a highly-charged anti-colonial rhetoric — vivid, demotic, exhortative and very compelling.
They argued that the law violated the Garbhadhan ceremony, which is the first of the 10 fundamental Hindu life cycle rites and enjoins mandatory conjugal cohabitation within 16 days of her first period. Wives may attain puberty before they are 12, and unless they cohabit with their husbands immediately, consequences carried dreadful ritual consequences, tantamount to the sin of feticide.
Tilak contested the government's right to intervene in Indian traditions — an argument that gathered much resonance in the face of considerable colonial misrule. Bombay women's groups, on the other hand, sent a petition to Victoria, urging that 14 should be the minimum age of consent and not 12.
A girl's consent now came to mean her bodily capacity to bear intercourse without serious damage. The contracted meaning indicated the growing strength of Hindu revivalism. Yet, century-long debates about her consent, her entitlement to life, her immunity from death, did slowly create a new notion of the woman as a rights-bearing subject of the state. To this, conservative cultural nationalists counter-posed the figure of the Hindu woman as culture-bearing, ruled by her community — a privilege she must uphold, whatever the costs to herself.
It is a choice that still faces us.
*Tanika Sarkar is a historian who retired as professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.