Sati Pratha: The Myth and the Reality

Sati... the mere mention of the word conjures images of widows burning on funeral pyres all across ancient and medieval India, right upto 1829 when it was outlawed by the reforming Britishers, and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The impression it creates is one of a rampant and widespread practice, and one which was virtually unopposed in Society, much like that far greater social evil - casteism as experienced by SC/ST/OBC people during those times. Our education system drills in the name of Raja Ram Mohan Roy as a social reformer, and the British who voluntarily worked to eradicate it. Well, there were decent britishers who did campaign against the practice; it is also undisputed fact that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a reformer. But that is it; rest all is incomplete history. Surprised? I was too, when I read it. But I have read enough of history to recall references to something like this in my history; and a simple google search completed the rest - and exposed the myth.

First of all, 1829 and the famous sati act. Rewind history to 1813: the reforming noble-hearted great Britishers legalised the practice of Sati. So what you say? Well, that act made them the only (I havent found a single ruler -Aurangzeb included, who legalised this barabarity) ruling power to legalise this. Fast forward to the mid-1800s, when the law was substantially diluted when murder charges could not be laid if the death was caused by own consent.

Furthermore, the official record does not state that Raja  Roy initially was against official intervention - even while vociferously campaigning against the barbarity. Neither does the record state the legalisation of sati in 1813. I wonder why? The official record makes no mention of a long list of anti-sati campaigners. Neither does it recognise that virtually every Mughal ruler had made strict laws against sati: including Aurangzeb. The first recorded law against this is by Humayun. That effectively puts paid to the "British ercadicated sati" claim. They didnt; it was the result of a centuries-long battle against this social evil directed and campaigned purely by Indians. That is what the entire record shows. So much for the much tom-tommed british claim of sati eradication!

The proof? Simple. These are the precise numbers - documented numbers - of sati cases around 1810-1840. These records very effectively destroy any such claim even  without the lecture above.

  • Between 1815 and 1828, 63% of all recorded acts of sati took place in Calcutta
  • In 1824, of the 250000 women who became widows, 600 underwent sati. 
  • In Varanasi, there were only 125 cases in 9 years from 1820.

The British exaggerated it enormously; there is evidence of this. This was since it could be used to justify their rule over us "heathens". William Carey, the great reformer, wrote : "For the first time during 20 centuries... the waters of the Ganges flowed unblooded to the seas". It is impossible that the British were not aware of the precise numbers: these figures are from their own records! As further proof: what did they do against the real social evil of the time - the plight of the Harijans? Nothing, that is what. And we Indians still believe in the their fiction, written by the Colonialists to further their own economic agenda...

And this, folks, is the reality of the Sati saga, and the attendant Myth... Please correct your several impressions...

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity by Pavan K Varma, its bibliograpghy and assorted internet resources


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