In 1803, William Carey, the author of the Dictionary of the Bengali Language and a member of the Serampore Mission in Calcutta conducted a 'Sati census' and recorded at least 438 cases in the year within just a thirty-mile radius of the city. He was not the only European from the 19th and 20th century to note the prevalence of 'suttee' in colonial India.
From the time missionaries started arriving in India, lurid accounts of Sati were transported back to England, France, Portugal and other colonial powers in the form of manuscripts or on vividly painted canvases. By the time the then Governor General Lord William Bentinck passed Regulation XVII in 1829, effectively banning the practice of Sati —self-immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre upon his death—it was already a a practice well-documented and denigrated by Europeans. Many accounts by missionaries describing the practice, called it 'barbaric' and some reported instances in 18th-century regional newspapers in Calcutta even mentioned that the widows were sometimes forced or drugged and tied to the pyre to prevent them from moving.
Years later, on October 29, Amish Tripathi, the mythology-fiction writer, tweeted that the Sati system was a "minor practice that emerged in a few parts of India, in medieval times". Thus dismissing all the women who lost their lives to the cruel practice.
The statement came in response to a tweet by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai questioning the validity of majoritarian dissent with respect to the current protests against the Supreme Court verdict in favour of women's entry into the Sabarimala temple. This is what he said:
With all due respect @sardesairajdeep, you are wrong about Sati. Most of Hindu India did not even practice Sati. It was a minor practice that emerged in just a few parts of India, in medieval times. Check the list of widows in the Ramayana/Mahabharata; Almost none committed Sati. https://t.co/vnDEcZKg6M — Amish Tripathi (@authoramish) October 28, 2018
Responding to Sardesai's allegation that the Hindu community in the 19th century had not supported Raja Ram Mohan Roy's subsequently successful attempts to convince Lord Bentinck to ban the 'Sati system' as it later came to be called, Tripathi implied that there was no opposition because the practice was not as widespread among Hindus. This version could very well be part of the fiction-mythology books Tripathi writes as it definitely is not the truth.
The abolition of Sati was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was a steady discourse that slowly grew into a political agenda for the British administrators in favour of the larger colonial narrative of 'civilising' 'native' Indian society. But it took time to evolve. The British first put a conditional ban on Sati way back in 1798 in Calcutta. It eventually tried to regulate Sati by allowing a selective number of self-immolation cases where the woman performing was seen to not be under any pressure and was, in fact, doing it with her own will. In fact, this attitude of the British to accommodate the practice by legislating it on the basis of individual will is often seen by historians as a way to pander to the political Hindu elite in the country, whose support was important to the crown's stability in its Indian territories.
Even when Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj started advocating for the abolition of Sati in 1812, he was met with intense opposition from certain sections of the dominant Hindu populations in Bengal and northern India. While Tripathi claims that Sati was a minor practice relegated to medieval India, it has been documented that Roy was motivated to work for the abolition after allegedly witnessing his sister-in-law being burnt on her husband's pyre.
Historian and cultural critic Lata Mani in her book 'Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati' wrote that over 8,000 instances of self-immolation were recorded by the British before passing the law banning it. Several princely states took longer in banning the practice. Roy himself was hounded by Hindu groups and activists who were opposed to the ban. He wrote extensively on deconstructing Indian scriptures to prove that they did not prescribe Sati.
And, in fact, they didn't. Tripathi's argument that Sati was just a medieval phenomenon may draw from certain arguments by historians such as Anant Sadashiv Altekar and AA Yang who stated that it was not a practice that was encouraged by Vedic scriptures. Atelkar also noted the conspicuous absence of the debate against self-immolation in early Buddhist and Jain traditions which were outspokenly against physical violence against all living things. Yang believes that Sati was not practiced by all Hindus but rather by some lineages and mostly by lower-income families. But that did not stop it from being a prevalent ritual.
However, the earliest evidence of Sati in India can be found in stone seals and inscriptions known as 'satigals' dating back to 7000 BCE. In the following centuries, the practice spread to various parts of India. There is an argument that suggests that it increased during the Mughal era though historians state that this could be tied to the rise in 'jauhar' - the Rajput version of women's self-immolation after their husbands' death or imprisonment. This was also taken up by Rajput nobility of Maharashtra, though it did not gain as much currency there as in Rajasthan. While many claim that Sati was relegated to Bengal, Rajastham Orissa, Bihar and other northern states, historians have noted the Kongu Nadu, the former state region now known as Tamil Nadu had the highest number of such instances in South India. Even texts contained in Sangam literature mention a Chola queen who immolated herself.
Sati existed in varying degrees even during the Mughal rule. According to renowned German orientalist and Harvard professor Annemarie Schimmel, the Mughal ruler Akbar was opposed to the idea and may even have attempted to regulate it by banning forced Sati, though there is not enough evidence to suggest if such a ban was actually ever instituted as the practice continued in Akbar's reign as well as under later rulers.
Cases of Sati spiked considerably in the British era. After Lord Bentinck passed Regulation XVII banning it, the ban was challenged by at least one petition led by Hindus, as documented by HH Dodwell, which was rejected by the Privy Council in 1832.
Increase in cases is also sometimes attributed to the adoption of Sati, usually found to be dominant in upper-caste Hindu communities, by 'aspirational' members of lower castes communities. Historian AA Yang notes in his essay The Many Faces Of Sati In The Early Nineteenth Century that Bengal, Madras and Mumbai contained the highest incidences in British India, though about 90 percent of those cases were concentrated in Bengal and Bihar. After 1929, the British administration stopped maintaining records of the practice. Yang believes it may have taken some time for it to completely stop.
Cases of self-immolation have been recorded even in post-colonial India. According to a report in India Today, at least 30 cases of Sati have been recorded in the country within the period of 1943 to 1987, others put the number at 40. The last known case was recorded in 1987 with the killing of Roop Kanwar in Rajasthan.
So when Amish Tripathi tries to dismiss the Sati as a 'minor' phenomena, it is nothing but a thinly veiled effort to trivialise the barbaric practice in order to defend a specific political agenda. By doing so, he is not just discounting scores of sources that attest to the prevalence of the custom in several parts of India but also the lives of all the women who were mercilessly burnt along with their dead husbands.
Tripathi is disregarding as inconsequential a practice that ensured that women could systematically be denied individual freedom, identity or property rights. He, through his comments, is deriding the patriarchal tradition that for years subjugated women to the point of existing only as an accessory to their husbands' pride and well-being.
The problem is also in the attempt to paint Hindu religion as one without any variations or social ills, which is to a large extent, incorrect. Sati may not have been mentioned in Vedic scriptures but several later Hindu traditions upheld it and even celebrated it as an act of bravery and honour. It whitewashes the atrocities that for centuries were committed against widows that were very much part of Hindu society even if they were not burnt alive.
The fact that many versions of Sati were 'anumarana', i.e, dying after the husband's death but not with his body, means that the practice was internalised by women too. Some older widows would even have seen it as a way out of the life of withering poverty, lack of agency and rights that widows were subjected to, aside from the derision and seclusion.
Tripathi said in his tweet that the Mahabharata and Ramayana does not mention Sati. Two problems with that. First, inaccuracy. The Mahabharata does mention Sati and not just once. Madri, Pandu's second wife, self-immolated after the death of her husband. The four wives of Vasudeva were said to have committed Sati after his death, as did the five wives of Krishna in Hastinapur after receiving news of his death. Second, misdirection. While quoting the examples from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the fiction-writer is forgetting that these texts are mythological, not real, historical sources.
While it may not have been historically accurate for Rajdeep Sardesai to say that ALL Hindus in the country opposed the abolition of Sati, it is an even more inaccurate on Amish Tripathi's part to call it a 'minor practice'. No, Sati was not a 'minor practice'. And by calling it so, he is trying to shirk the burden of a responsibility that is all of ours to bear. Why not take some ownership and attack traditions that tried to undermine human life, whether of a woman's or a man's, for centuries in the name of religion, scripture or culture, instead of justifying them? If not, maybe he should resist giving social media classes on his versions of ancient and contemporary Indian history and just stick with what you are already good at - fiction.