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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [08] Theories on Suttee

Published: 15.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

We are here concerned with “orientalism” in the field of suttee, that is to say: “orientalism” (ASHCROFT) or related theoretical categories. See division II of § 1. Colonial writings on suttee are a well-defined subject for our discussion on theory, just as textual criticism (studying old texts) is a well-defined subject in GRÜNENDAHL´s criticism of Peter van der Veer (infra).

L.MANI has introduced the concept of free agency in the discussion of the satis. She criticizes the victimization of the sati (infra) in the colonial discourse (MANI Co 31: "the widow nowhere appears as a subject-in-action"; 31-32). The sati is no doubt not free in her decision: the force of external pressure (controlling, pushing, tying) is emphasized everywhere. But this is the physical plane (our expression), the plane of the colonial discourse. The satis must also be viewed on the upper plane, the heroic plane as it were, and that means that they are to be viewed (to some extent, in some cases at least) as "free agents." In spite of external compulsion they are free in their spirit. This is the post-colonial discourse.

L.MANI quotes from a long description (India Gazette 1828) of the fate of a widow who decided to commit suttee, but escapes afterwards from the funeral pile and returns to her relatives "who also appeared quite reconciled to the course that the affair had taken" (MANI Ey: 398). Apart from the happy ending the process is in no way remarkable (no special heroism of the widow), But L.MANI analyses the language of the (European?) narrator: The text of the narrator undervalues the activity of the woman. It is clear from the words of the widow, recorded by the narrator (and by the commentator), that she does not believe in the sati-ideology but has rational reasons for her escape. Even then the narrator describes the widow as "infatuated creature." Here is the lack of logic and the conflict with the modern commentator (i.e. with L.MANI). "Whilst the shock of her narrow escape might indeed have made her appear barely conscious of her surroundings, the logic of her decision-making process hardly warrants the adjective 'infatuated'. (MANI Ey 398)

The adjective infatuated ignores the free agency of the widow and presents the colonial discourse. The description "occludes the agency of the widow, both in her decision, albeit overdetermined, to submit to destruction, and in her leaping off the pyre. It fails, in other words, to acknowledge her as capable of evaluating the conditions of her life, and overlooks her part in her own rescue, not to mention the rationality of her response to fear and pain." (Ey 398). It is difficult to understand the text of L.MANI, unless one appreciates her efforts to register reactions of the persons involved (the narrator) and unless one understands her special wish to isolate the "colonial discourse" (in this case present in the expression infatuated).

NARASIMHAN's line (to mention a counterexample) is different: She calls her Chapter 4 "Lamb to the Slaughter." Also she does not criticize a narrator who describes in a few words a futile attempt to escape: "A Hindu, one of the police... raised his sword to strike her, and the poor wretch shrank back into the flames...” (79). Sati accounts of this type (force and nothing but force) are normal; they leave no room for “free agency”.

L.MANI´s example (infatuation...) demonstrates in the eyes of the authoress the alleged disastrous influence of the colonial discourse.

A related (related to L.MANI) but somewhat different view on agency is presented by J. LESLIE. J.LESLIE describes certain satis "'as the active agents of their own positive constructs.'" (SUGIRTHARAJAH 110) If we are not mistaken J.LESLIE gives to some satis the status of shining examples. "First, sati remains as an ideal. While the numbers of women who died in this way have always been statistically small, the ideal of such women and such a death is reverenced throughout traditional India today. Sati evidently needs to be practised sometimes in order to serve as a model, but it becomes irrelevant how many times it is actually practised because its social effect as a model of the good (that is, socially-valued) woman remains." (SUGIRTHARAJAH 123) However, discussing LESLIE's line, SUGIRTHARAJAH observes "What appears on the surface to be a positive construct turns out in effect to be a conventional feminine role and identity, and in the process we are offered a picture of a fixed and unchanging tradition and a frozen Hindu patriarchy." (110). In other words: the "shining examples" proclaim according to SUGIRTHARAJAH no new and progressive message.

Neither L.MANI nor J.LESLIE give a number of historical examples of active and heroic widows who boldly enter the pyre or boldly refuse to leap into the fire (MANI Ey 397 not sufficient).

Our second focus of attention is A.NANDY. We follow EMBREE and DATTA Sa. EMBREE describes NANDY's line in the following words: "At the end of the eighteenth century, in the urban world of greater Calcutta that grew up as a result of the commercial and political activities of the East India Company, upper caste Bengalis (the bhadralok) experienced, according to Nandy, a deep sense of anomie [sic], of being cut off from their roots in the traditional society." (EMBREE 152) This class encouraged sati as a substitute for older upper class norms which were irretrievably lost. NANDY derives the situation from colonial rule (involving adoption of Western mentality by the deracinated upper classes). "Sati at that time arose, as he put it in another essay, out of the 'pathology of colonialism, not of Hinduism.'" (EMBREE 150) See also NARASIMHAN 117 (similar argument but limited conclusion).

NANDY goes even one step further. He argues (according to EMBREE 150-151) "that the hundreds of cases of suttee reported in Bengal were responses to foreign [British] rule". In the eyes of NANDY this was not the first case of this type: The epidemic of suttee was not restricted to Bengal. Extending his observations on Bengal (bhadralok) to jauhar in Rajasthan and to suttee in Vijayanagara he establishes a sort of law: Suttee increased as a reaction to British rule in Bengal, to Mughal rule in Rajasthan, and to the Muslim Sultanates in Vijayanagar. Suttee was thus connected with foreign rule, whatever the mechanism. The 'response' theory is no doubt speculation.

"Akbar... thought, as did the later Mughal rulers, that the custom was barbarous but that to ban it would provoke the Hindus to rebellion, as they would see such a prohibition as an interference with their religion." (152) Refer also to WEZLER in § 2 (condemnation of Muslims).

"Nandy quotes Marshman who had written that the 'increasing luxury of the high and middling classes and their extreme imitation of European habits made them eager to avoid the expense of maintaining widows.'... Thus, according to NANDY (and Marshman), suttee was a primitive Malthusian means of population control in the famine-ridden Bengal." (DATTA 200) V.N.DATTA observes: "Nandy's thesis, though ingenious, is unconvincing. He assumes that suttee flared up suddenly during the British period and ignores the whole past history of suttee." (DATTA 200)

We do not quote D.M.FIGUEIRA but R.J.LEWIS' (§ 12.4) comment on D.M.FIGUEIRA (the same volume). LEWIS: “This last image [FIGUEIRA explains the suicide of Karoline von Günderrode], of the act of sati as an erotic climax consummated in the “lustful flames” of the funeral pyre, is very remote -- almost blithely so -- from sati's meaning in the Indian context: nothing better illustrates the essential self-absorption of Western representations of India than this transformation of the chaste sati into the author of an act of radically individualistic erotic self-indulgence. This wholesale appropriation of Indian cultural symbols suggests parallels with the material appropriation of India's wealth and labour that was taking place at the same time.” (73) LEWIS presents a long list of European misunderstandings and misuses of suttee, the “ghost of Günderrode” (FIGUEIRA 68, also 57) being in the centre. The abolishment of suttee (and the history of the abolishment) are hardly mentioned.

According to GRÜNENDAHL, „Van der Veer maintains that beneath all the philological gestures [example given], 'we may glimpse the nationalist gesture' -- which suggests a connection between the colonial, textualizing project of modernity [textual criticism] and a supposed Romantic German search for self-definition [nationalism]. Thus the search for the 'golden age of European civilization in Sanskrit Ur-texts' ultimately fed into a larger discourse of nationalism, in which Indian philologists like Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar, first editor-in-chief of the Mahabharata, used philology in the way the Germans used it in their own country. Sanskrit philology provided [Indian philologists] with the tools to dig up the origin and essence of the nation, that is, the Hindu nation“. (p.2)

In other words: German textual criticism led to Indian textual criticism, and Indian textual criticism led to Hindu nationalism, eventually to the destruction of Babar's mosque in Ayodhya.

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Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.  http://www.aswnet.de/

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