Showing posts with label Sati. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sati. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Did historians blow 'Sati' & 'Jauhar' out proportion?

Secular History & Nationalism - I
If there was one thing we as a nation failed miserably, it is in forging a spirit of nationalism. The US which came into being only two hundred years ago is proud of its nationalism but we with a history of over five thousand years do not have a national ethos, national pride or national spirit. It would be nearer the truth to say that there is a concerted attempt to prevent India from forging a national spirit. A fabricated concept called ‘composite culture’ was sought to be projected by negating the nation’s achievements in the social, political, scientific and spiritual fields in the first four thousand years. Another aspect of the fabrication was to magnify and attribute all social ills to the original Hindu culture and all reformatory thought to the artificial construct called syncretic or composite culture. This series examines how some of the ills were sought to be stripped out of context and blown out of proportion.     
Eulogizing the social reforming zeal of Gurazada Appa Rao, K. Rosaiah, former A. P. Chief Minister and present Tamil Nadu Governor, made a stunning observation. He said, ‘… if we went back a little, the abominal practice of Sati comes to mind’.
Rosaiah was delivering his speech as the Chief-guest at the 150th birth anniversary of the Telugu social reformer and writer, Gurazada Appa Rao. Appa Rao became famous for his play, Kanyä Sulkam, literally, ‘bride-fee’. The play centred on the practice of buying brides prevalent among some sections of the Brahmin society. The Brahmins were reviled for a variety of ills that plague the society today and many orthodox practices, by the left-liberal intelligentsia. This was despite the fact that it was the Brahmins who not only preserved our cultural traditions through troubles and tribulations for over five thousand years but also initiated many social reform movements.
One of the social ills for which the Brahmins were - unjustly and without any basis in fact - blamed was the treatment they meted out to their women. In spite of the prevalence of such misconceptions, according to scriptures a Brahmin (even today) is ineligible to participate in religious rituals without his woman. Therefore elderly widowers had to remarry in order to be eligible to practise their profession - priesthood. Those families which had the means did not offer their daughters in marriage to elderly widowers but poor families did, sometimes in exchange for money. The money came in handy for performing another girl’s marriage or for other necessities of living. It was a practice born out economic and social necessities. It was a practice of a minuscule section of society, as Brahmins constitute not more than 2% -3% of the population. And only those Brahmins who were into their traditional role as priests had a problem with widower-hood. Nevertheless it was a bad practice which the social reformer Appa Rao sought to highlight through his play.
If one were to go by Rosaiah’s observation about Sati it was an everyday happening in Andhra Pradesh, even if it was in the past! One needn’t have bothered if some lesser mortal were to make a statement like that. People in public life have to make speeches everyday and quite a few of them are given to uttering gibberish. Either Rosaiah (or his speech writer) might have remembered a snippet from the history textbook of his school days, and used it to enliven the speech. It is in this context that one ponders over questions like ‘why is history taught in schools?’
What are the objectives of teaching history? One would expect that the prime objective of teaching history is to inculcate in the young minds a pride in their glorious past and a spirit of nationalism. At a purely academic level, W. H. Davis listed the following as the three main objectives for teaching history: ‘first, to present the past to the pupil in an intelligible fashion, capable of interpretation; second to inculcate historical-mindedness; and third to inculcate intellectual tastes.’ (‘Some Attainable Objectives in the Teaching of History.’ The High School Journal. Vol. 12. No. 4. Apr. 1929. pp. 132-134. University of North Carolina Press. Accessible from
If the objective of teaching history is to ‘present the past in an intelligible fashion, capable of interpretation’, does the history that is taught in our educational institutions factually represent the practice of Sati? Or did the British practice of concocting ‘atrocity literature’ colour our thinking?  
An Advanced History Of India’ by R. C. Majumdar, H. C. Raychaudhuri and Kalikinkar Datta (1950. Macmillan & Co. Ltd., London) has eleven references in all to ‘Sati’. A reference to the subject of Sati in the early Magadhan epoch, circa sixth century B.C.E. has this to say: Widow marriage and Levirate had not fallen into disuse even in the Ganges valley and burning of widows was not sanctioned by the orthodox lawgivers.’ (p. 75).
After Alä-ud-din Khalji’s expedition against Mewar resulted in the latter’s rout and when further resistance seemed impossible’the Rajputs of Mewar preferred death to disgrace and performed […] that horrible rite, the Jauhar […] to find security from dishounour in the devouring element.’ (Ibid. p. 302). However the practice of Jauhar consisted of the mass immolation not only of women, but also children, the elderly and the sick, at a time when their fighting men died in battle against the Muslims. It was also pointed out that the practice of Sati was prevalent only among the higher social orders.
We must admit ‘social codes of conduct and honour’ are products of the times. Several examples illustrate this point. The practice of Levirate in which a brother marries the widow of his childless brother (in order to maintain his line) was a Biblical practice and described in the Old Testament. It was common practice in ancient Greece for a king who won a war to kill his opponent and take his wife. The mythological story of Oedipus who, because of a prophesy, ‘kills his father and marries his mother’ was used as a subject by quite a few Greek dramatists like HomerAeschylus and Euripides.
At times, ‘social codes of conduct and honour’ can spread horizontally and become contagious. For instance, see this in Majumdar et al.: Some Muslims of aristocratic Hindu origin, or living in a Hindu environment, assimilated the Hindu customs of Sati and Jauhar (p. 402).
It is therefore necessary to exercise abundant caution while teaching about such ancient social practices to young minds. They were more an aberration than a norm.