The social system of the Hindus contained a number of iniquitous and inhuman practises. The most barbarous of which was the burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their dead husband. It was believed by the people that if a woman could die along with her husband, she not only went to heaven but also saved her husband from perdition.
The custom of concremation was an old custom in India and it had a wide appeal. There were no security for widows and people considered it a great burden upon themselves to protect the honour of these helpless women. The religion of these conquered people could not think of anything better than the extinction of life.
Attempts were made in the past by some rulers to stop the practise, especially in the name of Emperor Akbar should be mentioned in this connection. The Peshawar Baji Rao abolished in his dominions and in the many places it became unpopular on account of its inhumanity and the barbarous method of forcible burning resorted to in most case. But still the practise continued in many places. When the Christian power was established in India, it was hoped that the cruel custom would be suppressed. But the Government was afraid of interfering with the religious customs of the people lest this led to revolution or defiance of authority. A custom which the Muslim rulers could not eradicate, the Christian Governors did not venture to touch. One official in southern India touched a hornet’s nest by attempting to save a woman. He had to face a riot of big crowd for interfering with their religions practice. This happened in 1772.
In some places Magistrates on their own authority refused to grant permission to the performance of Sati. Their action was approved by the government although no definite regulation was issued. On 28th January 1780 Magistrate of Shahabad M.H. Brooke wrote a letter to Governor General Lord Cornwallis soliciting approbation of his action. He wrote “The rites and superstition of the Hindu religion should be allowed with the most unqualified tolerance, but a practise at which human native shudders, I cannot permit within the limits of my jurisdiction without particular instruction. I beg therefore, My Lord to be informed whether my conduct in their instance meets your approbation”.
The Government of Lord Cornwallis had no other alternative but to approve of the conduct of subordinate office in the particular case. But the Government could not stop the practice by force; neither did they feel themselves sufficiently strong to oppose a system sanctioned by religion.
A case happened in 1805 during the government of Lord Wellesley similar to that of 1879. Mr. Elphinstone, a Magistrate of Bihar prevented the death of a young widow of twelve year and asked for definite instruction from the Government. A move was then made by the Government to ascertain legal opinions by referring the matter to the Nizamat Adalat. There were pundits to advise the Adalat about the Hindu Law and one of this pundit, Ghanashyam Sharma, gave following advice.
“Women who desire to going their husband in the funeral pyre can do so provided they have no infant children to look after. They are not pregnant or minor. This rule applied to woman of all caste. If a woman having an infant child, can make proper arrangements for the rearing up of the child; can burn herself along with the dead body of her husband. But it is against Sastras or custom to apply drugs or intoxicants and to make a woman lose her senses. Before she performs concremation, a woman has to take the solemn oath and to perform some other ceremony”.
In reply to further enquiries, the pundit said a woman who desists from performing the ceremony, may be taken by her people if she has not taken the solemn oath. But after taking the solemn vow, she refuses to burn herself, then she shall have to pay heavy penalties and on the performance of the purification ceremony after paying the penalty, she may be taken back. Government did not do anything beyond ascertaining the views of the pundits. Some instructions were sent to the officers in the light of the advice received. But no rules were drawn up for their guidance. The matters remained in this condition till 1812. Eminent administrators like Wellesley, Cornwallis, Barlow and Minto gave their support to the horrid practise for fear of wounding religious susceptibility.
In 1812, 3rd August a Magistrate of Bundelkhand wrote a letter to the Registrar of the Nizamat Adalat. He wrote that he failed to stop a case of Sati in his district and he was doubtful about his position in absence of definite instruction from the Government. The Nizamat Adalat refered the matter to the Governor General who after long deliberation issued a number of instruction on 17th August 1813. The instructions followed the lines of least resistance. The legality of practise was not questioned and only precautions were to be taken that no force was applied and that widow in certain cases e.g. in pregnancy, below the age of sixteen or having infant children, should not be allowed to perform the ceremony. In no case, woman be drugged on intoxicated or should be dragged in to pyre against her free will.
Government was desirous to know whether the practise of sati could be stopped without wounding religious feeling. The information obtained did not encourage the government to take any bold step. In 1815, attempts were made to collect regular statistics and detail of cases. Police and Magistrate became more active in preventing forcible burning. The Government of the Marquis of Hastings issued a series of instructions for the guidance of the officers’ in1817. But there rules and regulations were not sufficiently effective to stop the practise. The evil had taken deep root and it required the awakening of a strong social consciousness to eradicate the canker which was eating the very vitals of nation. This work could be undertaken by Indians with influence on the people. In the absence of independent Hindu Rulers who could adjust the social problems in the light of new culture and education, the task of reformation had to be undertaken by thoughtful leaders. Rammohun had felt the inhumanity of custom. A case had occurred in his own family when the widow of his elder brother Jagmohun committed suicide by burning herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband in 1811.
During his stay in Calcutta, he talked with many friends about the custom and would visit the cremation grounds to dissuade the intending Sati from such a course. But he was ridiculed by the orthodox members of the funeral parties as they thought he was trying to undermine the religious system. Rammohun found as his coadjutor in this human work, Babu Dwarkanath Tagore an influential member of Calcutta society.
A petition was got up and submitted to the Governor General in 1818 to take measures to stop the inhuman practice. The orthodox members of the community had already submitted petition to withdraw the regulations issued by the Government. The basis of the orthodox movement was that the custom was bound up as the religion of Hindus and that any interference with it would affect considerably the religious life of the people. The advisors of the Government were mostly of this view. Rammohun Roy took up the challenge and applied himself to prove that although the practise was sanctioned by some authorities, a better course of life than self immolation was prescribed by other authorities of equal, if not more important position. The method he employed to refute the fallacious arguments of the pundits was to hold discussion with the people and to publish literature on the subject.
He had faith in the intellectual honesty of people who he thought was misguided by the interested parties. His vast knowledge of the Hindu Sastras cleared-up the mystery of the age-long practise. The book he published were in the form of dialogues between an advocate for and an opponent of practice of widow burning. Rammohun Roy took his stand up on the Sastras which the Hindus mainly relied upon. He felt that there was no other method of convincing the people of the illegality of the practice except the citation of Sastras. The books were originally published in Bengali with a view to enlighten his countrymen about the right course and then translated into English to inform the Europeans about the sanctions behind the practice. These publications dispelled the ignorance of the people and gave them new ideas to think about. The first tract was published in 1818 and the second tract in Bengali in 1819 and the English translation in 1820 which was dedicated to the Marchioness of Hastings. Such dedication would not have been possible unless the Marchioness had shown her interest in the affairs of helpless widows.
An attempt was made by the government to ascertain the effects of the regulations. Instead of reducing the number, the issue of Government regulation had increased the number of cases. The evil remained in all its ugly forms. In spite of the regulations, force was applied and the widows were in most cases, dragged. With regard to sudden rise the Magistrate said that it was possibly due to the interference of the Government. The Government regulation was in a way legalising the practice and people found that the Sastras sanctioning the inhuman practices were recognised by the Government. The Governor General therefore suspended any further action. The marquis of Hastings retired in 1823. For a short time Mr. Adam acted in his place and then Lord Amherst came out as a Governor General. None of them ventured to take a forward step.
To be continued…