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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Defending Suttee

"The main arguments of the defenders of suttee can be found in the petition against prohibition in 1830. It was signed by the founders of the Dharma Sabha, among them Radkhakanta and Gopimohan Deb. They demanded a withdrawal of prohibition because it marked an interference with the religion and customs of the Hindus - even though the Governor General and even parliament had ensured that the customs, rites, religion and law of the religious communities of India were respected. The Hindu religion was based on 'usage' as well as 'precept'. Suttee, 'the sacrifice of self-immolation', was sanctioned by both principles. The petitioners relied on several statements and measures taken by the government authorities, which showed that the British considered suttee an element of the Hindu religion...

[Learned Brahmins] had come to the conclusion that suttee was permitted by the shastras: according to Angira the only duty left for a woman after her husband had died was to burn herself with his body because her life and duties were inextricably bound with his.

The Vishnusmirli and other shastras mention concremation before the alternative of ascetic widowhood, and from this the conclusion was drawn that it was the preferred solution. Moreover, Manu permitted suttee; the version referred to by its opponents was forged. Finally, suttee was legitimized by the Veda, the highest authority.

The spiritual merits of the suttee were described: she would extinguish the sins of three families: her father’s, her mother’s and her husband’s. Personally she ‘partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indrus reign’. Moreover, she was presented as acting voluntarily for her own happiness in life after death, as well as for her husband’s and their families’ sake. It would be unjust and intolerant to forbid her to follow her religious beliefs. As an illustration, they mention the case of a woman who starved herself to death after she was prevented from burning herself.

Thus, it was argued that the British government had no right to interfere: first, because it was neither competent nor authorized to judge about the religion of the Hindus; second, because a policy of non-interference had been ensured. Finally, the Bengali suttee opponents had misunderstood the shastras and were not authorized to interpret them...

The fact that these victims were women plays an important role. The British gentlemen had to rescue the Hindu women from the cruelty of their own male relatives or, at least, from self-destruction relating to superstition. As Spivak puts it: ‘White men saving women from brown men.’...

[Edward] Thompson was astonished that even educated Hindus defended suttee and respected it as an expression of an idealized connection of husband and wife: ‘The nonsense about the wonderful purity and spirituality of the Hindu marriage ideal cannot survive examination.’ This statement can be interpreted as a swipe at Ananda Coomaraswamy, half Indian, living in America, who played an important role in Hindu-traditionalist thinking of his time. His defence of suttee, written in 1924, has been discussed in India until recently. He is still used as a reference, as well as strongly criticized and refuted. Writing about the suttee, he stated:

The root meaning of the word is essential being, and we have so far taken it only in a wide sense. But she who refuses to live when her husband is dead is called Suttee in a more special sense […] This last proof of the perfect unity of body and soul, this devotion beyond grave, has been chosen by many Western critics as our reproach; we differ from them in thinking of our ‘suttees’ not with pity, but with understanding, respect and love. So far from being ashamed of our ‘suttees’ we take pride in them; that is true even among the most progressive among us.

In this view suttee was proof of the superiority of Hinduism over the western ‘industrial’ society because it was an expression of the feeling of one’s duty (dharma) and the fulfilling of one’s social role. These roles were unequal and clearly defined: ‘When man of necessity spent his life in war or in hunting, when woman needed personal physical as well as spiritual protection, then she could not do enough for him in personal service; we have seen in the record of folk-song and epic how it is part of women’s innermost nature to worship man.’

This differentiation of roles had nothing to do with oppression or slavery. On the contrary, it offered Oriental women the opportunity to be ‘a woman’: ‘The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type.’ Thus, the superiority of the Hindu-society became visible in the superiority of Indian women.

Therefore Indian society must not seek orientation in the European mode of life, but find its own way. Coonmaraswamy sharply criticized colonial rule:

Aside from all questions of mere lust for poer […] untold evils have resulted from the conviction that it is our God-given duty to regulate other people’s lives – the effects of the current theories of ‘uplift’ and of the ‘white man’s burden’ are only single examples for this; and even when the intentions are good, we need not overlook the fact that the way to hell is often paved with examples of this.

... Coonmaraswamy saw the suttee as a symbol of the superiority of the Hindu culture with its faithful marriages, spirituality, sense for duty and sacrifice...

Even though Madhu Kishwar, editor of the feminist journal Manushi, does not support suttee she accused the western-influenced social reformers [in the 1980s and 1990s] of having interfered as arrogantly as British colonial officials in the life of India's rural population to enforce their own norms...

More radically, Ashis Nandy criticized the 'modernist' suttee critics. He claimed that they condemn suttee naively without understanding the underlying spiritual notions, that they were alienated from their own tradition while taking over the colonial perspective on Indian society"

--- Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India
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