Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sati - British India UCLA

Sati is the Hindu practice of widow immolation. When the husband dies, the widow is burned with him on the cremation pyre. The practice was made illegal by the British rulers in India in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sati was considered barbaric and oppressive for women and therefore they felt they needed to put a stop to it. So far so good, you could hardly think of any argument against the ruling. Apart maybe from some pragmatic sense that the colonials better not interfere with local customs or some cultural relativism taken to the extreme. Or so it seems.

Without making any claims in favor of Sati, Professor Vinay Lal in his UCLA series History of British India (history 174c) in the lectures of 25 March and on, gives a very critical review of this piece of legislation. Of all the social problems in India they could have taken issue with, they chose exactly this one. Not by chance, as Lal argues, a practice that is so strange to them, there is no English parallel and therefore most easily be condemned, unlike other, and probably more harmful social circumstances and practices.

It is also interesting to see a quite sudden switch in attitude towards Sati, from a reverence to the noble savage, to the puritan outrage about barbarism. If that is not indicative for a kind of hypocrisy then maybe it should be observed that no women were asked what their stance on Sati was - even though they were the alleged victims to be protected. Deeper goes the problem that the English not only did not understand Sati, but also in their search for arguments against it, went to look in the Vedas which, in Lal's view, is a very anachronistic and unfit way to go. And here is by all means a lesson to learn, even if we have to be happy Sati was banned, it is easy to condemn that which you do not understand and in order to maintain the condemnation, understanding will be continuously avoided. It serves to make a very close self-criticism before one criticizes another.

More Vinay Lal:
History of British India,
History of India - the search goes on,
8 podcasts I listened to,
History of India or Europe?
History of India.