William Carey’s Observations of Suttee (i.e. Sati)

I have been taking some notes on some gruesome practices in the Indian past for which missionaries played a key role in eradicating. The fact of the matter is that, contemporary India is far more sanitized than the India of yestercentury – and we have missionaries to thank for this. I post these little unseemly vignettes of the Indian past because currently many missionaries of times past are being accused of having said unkind and harsh things about Indians.  For example, they have said things like Indians were steeped in darkness or mired in ignorance. You may read the following excerpt on Sati by William Carey and my other posts on the topic and decide for yourself if these accusations against the missionaries are justified or unjustified.


sati
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“. . . As I was returning from Calcutta, I saw the Sahamoron, or a woman burning herself with the corpse of her husband, for the first time in my life. We were near the village of Noya Serai; (Rennell, in his Chart of the Hoogly river, spells it Niaserai.) As it was evening, we got out of the boat to walk, when we saw a number of people assembled on the river side.
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I asked them, for what they were met? and they told me, to burn the body of a dead man. I enquired, whether his wife would die with him? they answered, yes;and pointed to the woman. She was standing by the pile, which was made of large billets of wood; about two and a-half feet high, four feet long, and two wide; on the top of which lay the dead body of her husband. Her nearest relation stood by her, and near her was a small basket of sweet-meats called kivy. I asked them, if this were the woman’s choice, or whether she were brought to it by any improper influence? They answered that it was perfectly voluntary. I talked till reasoning was of no use, and then began to exclaim with all my might against what they were doing, telling them that it was a shocking murder. They told me it was a great act of holiness, and added in a very surly manner, that if I did not like to see it, I might go further off, and desired me to go. I told them that I would not go; that I was determined to stay and see the murder, and that I should certainly bear witness of it at the tribunal of God. I exhorted the woman not to throw away her life, to fear nothing, for no evil would follow her refusal to burn.
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But she in the calmest manner mounted the pile, and danced on it, with her hands extended, as if in the utmost tranquility of spirit. Previous to her mounting the pile, the relation whose office it was to set fire to it, led her six times round it, at two intervals;that is, thrice at each circumambulation. As she went round, she scattered the sweet-meats above mentioned among the people, who picked them up, and ate them as very holy things. This being ended, and she having mounted the pile and danced as above mentioned, (which appeared only designed to shew us her contempt of death, and to prove to us that her dying was voluntary) she then lay down by the corpse, and put one arm under its neck, and the other over it; when a quantity of dry cocoa leaves and other substances, were heaped over them to a considerable height; and then ghee, or melted, preserved butter, poured on the top. Two bamboos were then put over them, and heldfast down, and fire put to the pile, which immediately blazed very fiercely, owing to the dry and combustible materials of which it was composed. No sooner was the fire kindled, than all the people set up a great shout, “Hurree Bol, Hurree Bol!” which is a common shout of joy, and an invocation of Hurree, the wife of Hur or Seeb. It was impossible to have heard the woman, had she groaned, or even cried aloud, on account of the mad noise of the people, and it was impossible for her to stir or struggle, on account of the bamboos which were held down on them like the levers of a press. We made much objection to their using these bamboos, and insisted that it was using force to prevent the woman getting up when the fire burnt her. But they declared that it was only done to keep the pile from falling down. We could not bear to see more, but left them, exclaiming loudly against the murder, and full of horror at what we had seen. . . .”
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. . . In the evening I went to a village, called Chattera, accompanied with brother Ward. I preached to an assembly in the street; but just as I was concluding, all the people ran away. On enquiring the cause, I was informed that a man had died, and his widow, a fine young woman of the age of fourteen, was going to be burnt with him. I entreated her to desist, and remonstrated with the brammhans from their own shasters, but in vain. We left the place with horror, and she suffered soon afterwards. . .
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* One more thing needs to be added. Since polygamy was also practiced in India yestercentury, there were also cases of sati practiced where multiple wives (even up to 50) died on the funeral pyre.
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