I reviewed Meenakshi Jain's book Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse for Indian Historical Review (a Sage publication). You can read a version of the article below:
It is the biggest irony of our times that while all contemporary sociopolitical discourse hinges on multiplicity of arguments, we tacitly agree to see some subjects in absolutes. The practice of sati is an example of the latter. Meenakshi Jain’s tome Sati, however, brings on record historical facts and data that build the ground for a comprehensive picture. She begins with the basics—‘Was sati a religious obligation?’—and has the academic stamina to see each thread through. In this book, Jain works with primary sources ranging from the incident witnessed by the Greeks in 326 BC to that recorded by missionaries in 1820s. This makes her work authentic and her observations pioneering. She is able to lay on the table a great expanse of research that breaks past fallacies and academic bogies.
A Framework for Discourse
Meenakshi Jain’s approach is academic and unbiased. Her key observation is that sati was used by evangelists and Christian missionaries to whet their enfeebled cause both in India and Britain. She begins by building a backdrop which shows an increase in frequency of incidents after contact with Muslim culture. Documenting and analysing the instances of sati as recorded by foreign travellers, Jain observes that by the seventeenth century, the practice of sati had turned into a ‘wonder’ that found a place in any account of India. She contends that the demand for such accounts and voyeurism compelled travellers to include these in their works even if the narratives were second-hand or fabricated. It also traces the germination of the nineteenth-century construct of heroic colonial officers saving Indian women from sati and other such ‘barbaric’ customs.
Her primary sources indicate change in the texture of practice from being voluntary to forced, honourable to disgraceful, with woman being a beatific participant to being passive victim and Brahmins transforming from preventers to promoters of the practice.
It is possible to divide foreign accounts of sati into two broad phases—a pre-and post-Baptist phase. With the advent of the Baptists, earlier sentiments of wonder and astonishment were almost entirely replaced by condemnation. Sati was labeled as murder or suicide and used as a moral justification for the British rule (p. 41).
Jain presents all facets of her research irrespective of whether it is in tune with her premise. She chooses not to whitewash sources or make them comply with the broad theme of her work. For a reader, this approach throws up some surprises, for example, the numerous descriptions of sati as being voluntary and the participating woman as intransigent.
A Political Tool
The missionary problem with the practice of sati, according to Jain, can be seen in early accounts. Unlike the Indian concept of fire, where it is viewed as positive and purifying, missionaries equated the funeral pyre to putative fires of hell. However, towards the end of eighteenth century, Englishmen—led by the likes of Warren Hastings and William Jones—had developed admiration for Hindu religion and philosophy which eventually developed into orientalism. Jain devotes a complete chapter to the ‘State of English Society at Home and in India’. At a time when Britain was witnessing ‘spiritual torpor’, the Evangelical Movement found a place in the upper classes. From this emerged the Clapham sect, which aimed to open up India to missionary enterprise, and Charles Grant, who went on to become the ‘father and founder of modern missionary effort in Great Britain’s Indian empire’.
Jain accesses the ‘Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain’ which was prepared by Charles Grant for President of East India Company’s Board of Control. ‘Grant’s Observations “gives a fair exhibition of the Evangelical mentality” (Stokes 1982: 29). It invented the reform agenda for the British and thereby provided a justification for British Rule in India. (Trautmann 2004, p. 99).’
Grant aimed to bring his influence to the renewal of East India Company’s charter. It is to Jain’s credit that she gives due space to views of other Britons who opposed overtures of the Evangelists. However, Grant continued to spearhead the evangelical cause and became the chairman of East India Company in 1805. It is important to note that soon after, in 1806, utilitarian James Mill began work on ‘History of British Empire in India’ which eventually became a textbook for candidates for the Indian Civil Services.
Mills History of British India represented the starting point for the ‘theoretical repositioning’ of India in relation to Europe following the growth of industrial capitalism. It was an attempt at the intellectual subordination of India to the ‘universalist principles’ of European social theory that accompanied European imperial expansion (p. 107).
Jain contends that together the evangelists and utilitarians converted ‘British Indomania’ to ‘Indophobia’ through their sustained campaign against sati and Hindu pilgrimages (like the Jagannath Yatra). She divides the evangelical-missionary campaign against sati into two parts: from 1803 to 1813 when the case was prepared and from 1813 to 1829 when figures were produced to validate claims. ‘Sati was the first “political” issue in which British women were directly involved to gather support for their luckless “sisters” in India (p.185).’
Facts and Fallacies
Among the greatest achievements of this work is that it exposes the erroneous figures touted to show that sati was widely practiced in India. She analyses the data collected and estimated by the missionaries under William Carey in 1803. The information was collected by ten people within 30 miles of Calcutta. Each informant was to cover an area of 800 sq. km; the presumption was that they would get to know of incidents even if they were unable to witness each by themselves. This made data collection dependent on local tales and word of mouth. The data hence collected were applied on the rest of the country and it was concluded that several thousands of widows were burnt every year. These figures were widely publicised to raise funds for missionary work and expose Hindu superstitions.
In 1815, the government began to register cases of sati. It threw up skewed figures with a majority of reports coming from Bengal, which had not been historically associated with the rite. Jain points to the essential question if the alleged high incidence of satis in Bengal was a missionary manufacture. She also unveils other inconsistencies in the data related to ‘kulin’ Brahmins and age group of victims.
Packed with facts, analysis and primary sources, this magnum opus by Meenakshi Jain will be an essential companion to any study on the subject. Jain’s book is well researched, cogent and admits a range of views and possibilities. She establishes how the already dying practice of sati was brought in the spotlight to serve specific ends. As she quotes Christopher Bayly,
The British obsession with sati was boundless. Thousands of pages of parliamentary papers dealt with 4,000 immolations wile the death of millions from famine and starvation was mentioned only incidentally sometimes only because it tended to increase the number of widows performing the horrid act (p. 188).