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Abolition of Sati Custom of Hindu Religion

Continued from last issue…

About this interview the India Gazette of July, ,27 1829 noted : “An eminent native philanthropist who has been taken the lead of his countrymen on this great question   has been encouraged to submit his views of it in a written form and has been subsequently honoured with an audience by the Governor General who are learn, has expressed his anxious desire to put an end to a custom constituting so foul a blot.”. The Gazette goes on to mention three courses as open to the Government. Either rigidly to enforce existing regulations or to suppress Sati in the provinces of Bengal and Bihar where it was most prevalent but where British rule was longest known and better appreciated or to abolish it throughout the Presidency. 

The news that the Governor General was bent upon suppressing the practise created consternation in the orthodox community. The Samachar Chandrika considered this s a bad news and requested Lord William Bentinck not to interfere with a practise sanctioned by religion. The advocates of this system tried to represent that the evidence and opinion of Rammohun Roy could not be accepted as authoritative as he has renounced his faith in Hindu religion and usages. But there still a number of Hindus who gave full support to the work of Rammohun. The Hindu community was thus divided into two camps, the party of Rammohun and those against him. Rammohun  Roy took up his  stand on the ground that the practise was not sanctioned by the Sastras, especially the best Sastras, and even those Sastras which sanctioned the practise did not prescribe any use of force which was the usual method adopted.

Lord William Bentinck felt sufficiently strong to stop the practise because he was convinced of the iniquity as explained to him by Rammohun Roy in whose scholarship he had implicit faith. When he had thoroughly prepared his ground Bentinck submitted his proposal to the Council in perfect confidence of the expediency and safety of the abolition. The of Rammohun’s advice to the Governor General has been preserved in Lord William Bentinck’s Minute of November 8,1829 Some extract from the Minute are given below

After carefully examining the opinion of Mr. Horse Wilson, he referred to Rammohun Roy.

“Mr. Horse Wilson’ thinks that the attempt to put down the practise will inspire extensive dissatisfaction. I agree also to this opinion. He thinks that success will only be partial which I doubt. He does not imagine that the promulgated prohibition will lead to any immediate or overt act of insubordination, but that affrays and much agitation of the public mind must ensue. But you conceive that once they suspect that it is the intention of the British Government to abandon this hitherto inviolate principal of allowing the most complete tolerance in matter of religion that there will rise in the minds of all so deep a distrust of our ulterior designs that they will no longer be traceable to any arrangement intended for their improvement, and that the principal of purer morality as well as of a more virtuous and exalted rule of action, now actively calculated by European education and knowledge, will receive a fatal check. I must acknowledge that a similar opinion as to the probable extinction of a deep distrust of our future intention was mentioned to in conversation by that enlightened native, Rammohun Roy, a warm advocate for the abolition of Sati and of all other superstitions and corruption engrafted on the Hindu religion which he considers originally to have been a pure Deism. It was his opinion that the practise might be suppressed quietly and unobservedly by increasing the difficulties and by the indirect agency of the police. He apprehends that any public enactment would give rise to general apprehension; that the reasoning would be ‘while the English were contending for power, they deemed it polite to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion. But having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon their own religion”  

Lord William Bentinck weighted all the arguments and wrote in the concluding part of the historic minutes.

“The first and primary object of my heart is the benefit of the Hindus. I know nothing so important to the improvement of their future condition as the establishment of a purer morality, whatever their belief, and a more just conception of the will of God. The first step for the better understanding will be dissociation of religious belief and practise from blood and murder. They will then, when no longer under this brutalising excitement, view with more calmness and acknowledged truth. They will see that there can be inconsistency in the ways of Providence that to the command received as divine by all races of men. No innocent blood shall be spilt, there can be no exception”

 He wrote “I write and feel as a legislator for the Hindus and as I believe many enlightened Hindus think and feel. Descending from these higher considerations, it cannot be dishonest ambition that the Government of which I form a part, should have the credit of an act which is to wash out a foul stain upon British rule and to stay the sacrifice of humanity and justice to a doubtful expediency, and finally as a branch of the general administration of the Empire. I may be permitted to feel deeply anxious that our course shall be in accordance with the noble example set to us by the British Government at home, and that adaption when practicable to the circumstances of this vast Indian population of the same enlightened principal, may promote here as well as there the general prosperity, and may exalt the character of our nation”.

Shortly after the publication of the Minutes, Lord William Bentinck cut the Gordian cord and on 4th December, 1829 Regulation was passed which declared the practise of Sati or of burning or burying alive the widows of Hindus illegal and punishable as a criminal offence. All persons convicted of aiding and abetting in the sacrifice of a Hindu widow, whether she were a willing victim or not, whether she requested them or not, were pronounced guilty of culpable homicide and where violence or other means of overpowering the victim’s will were employed, the death sentence might, at the discretion of Court be inflicted. Sati is abolished. The agitation which was carried on for so many years produced the required result through the robust optimism of the Governor General. The reputation of the British Government and the fair name of religion itself were redeemed from one of the foulest stains.

It would not be just to describe this result as a triumph of principal over policy. The tolerance of Sati hitherto had been due to conflict of principal. On the one side was the plain principal of humanity, which demanded the instant suppression of the rite. On the other side was the sacred principal of religious liberty, which forbade the conqueror to interfere with the religious practises of a subject race. One cannot but admit the sensitive magnanimity which mingled with the calculating prudence of the British rulers and made them shrink from doing violence even on the most barbarous and outrageous dictates of the native conscience.  

It is Rammohun’s distinctive glory that he relieved the British Government from this deadlock. He proved from the authoritative standards of Hinduism that Sati was not a religious duty. He did more than this. He showed that not religious devotion, but the avaricious desire of relatives to avoid the cost of supporting the widow, had a great deal to do with the perpetuation of Sati. Its suppression would therefore do no wrong to the faith which British honour had pledged itself to tolerate and respect. The principal of humanity and religious liberty no longer clashed. His views were therefore embodied in the preamble of the regulation which read as follows;

“The practise of Sati or of burning or burring alive the widows of Hindus, is revolting to the feelings of human nature. It is nowhere enjoyed by the religion of Hindu as an imperative duty, on the contrary, a life of purity and retirement on the part of widows more especially and preferably inculcated, and by a vast majority of the people throughout India the practice is not kept up nor observed. In some extensive districts it does not exist. In those in which it has been most frequent it is notorious that in many instances act of atrocity have been perpetrated which have been shocking to the Hindus themselves, and in their eyes unlawful and wicked. The measure hitherto adopted to discourage and prevent such acts have failed of success and the Governor General in Council is deeply impressed with the conviction that the abuses in question cannot be effectually put an end without abolishing the practise altogether”.

The preamble bears ample mark of the influence of Rammohun in shaping the policy of the Government. A departure was made in the policy but there was sufficient justification for the step taken.     

On the occasion of abolition of Sati, on16th of January, 1830 congratulatory address by Hindoo Natives, both in English and Bengali bearing about three hundred signatures was presented to the Governor General in the presence of Lady William Bentinck at the Governor House. English version of this letter is as follow: 

To the Right Honourable Lord William Cavendish Bentinck K C B G C H Governor General in Council, Fort William,

My Lord, With hearts filled with the deepest gratitude, and impressed with the utmost reverence, we the undersigned Native inhabitants of Calcutta and its vicinity, beg to be permitted to approach your Lordship, to offer personally our humble but warmest acknowledgements for the invaluable protection which Lordship’s Government has recently afforded to the lives of the Hindu Female part of your subjects and for your humane and successful exertions in rescuing us forever, from the gross stigma hitherto attached to our character, as willful murderer of females and zealous promoters of the practise of suicide.

To be continued…

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