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and, in many cases, physical compulsion were employed. Material greed and religious fanaticism joined hands to victimise innocent women and send them to their cruel doom. Thus a practice which even at its best had little to recommend itself, little that would elevate and refine human nature and increase human happiness, became inhuman and barbarous, and was properly abhorred by all right-thinking men as a human sacrifice.
The following most revolting and brutal instance of Sati was given in a debate at the India House on the 28th March, 1827, on Mr. Poynder's resolution regarding the burning of Hindu widows :
Source." Good Old Days of John Company." Vol. II., p. 129. (Wm. Carey.)
One Seethoo, a Brahmin, died when absent from his family. A fortnight afterwards his widow, Hoomuleea, a girl of about fourteen years of age, proceeded to burn herself, the pile being prepared by her nearest relations, then at the village she resided in. Her father, Puttna Tewary, was in another part of the country and does not appear to have been made acquainted with what was passing. Whether the sacrifice was originally a voluntary one has not been ascertained; it must be presumed it was so.
The preparatory rites completed, Hoomuleea ascended the pile, which was fired by her uncle, the prisoner Sheolal. The agony was soon beyond endurance and she leaped from the flame; but seized by Sheolal, Biehhok, and others, she was taken up by the hands and feet and again thrown upon it; much burnt and her clothes quite consumed, she again sprang from the pile, and running to a well hard by, laid herself down in the water-course weeping. Sheolal now took a sheet offered for the occasion by Roosa and, spreading it on the ground, desired her to seat herself upon it. No," she said, "she would not do this, he would again carry her to the fire and she would not submit to this; she would quit the family and live by beggary, anything if they would but have mercy upon her." Sheolal upon this swore by the Ganges that if she would seat herself on the cloth he would carry her to her home. She did so; they bound her up in it, sent for a bamboo, which was passed through the loops formed by tying it together, and carrying it thus to the pile, now fiercely burning, threw it bodily into the flames. The
cloth was immediately consumed, and the wretched victim once more made an effort to save herself, when at the instigation of the rest, the Mussalman Booraichee approached near enough to reach her with his sword and cutting her through the head she fell back and was released from further trial by death.
The Muhammadan rulers had tolerated the practice of Sati, though on one occasion at least Akbar intervened in person and prevented the sacrifice. And for a great many years the British, though disgusted by the cruelty of the custom, considered it unwise to take any steps beyond insisting that the action should be voluntary on the part of the widow concerned. Lord Hastings did not have the fortune to rule at a time when the Government could afford to take serious risks, but he wrote a letter to Lord Bentinck, warmly supporting his intention to suppress the evil. Lord Amherst also gave the matter his closest attention, but with much reluctance came to the conclusion that prohibition would be unwise, if not impossible. "I am not prepared," wrote he in 1827, "to recommend an enactment prohibiting Sati altogether. . . . I must frankly confess, though at the risk of being considered insensible to the enormity of the evil, that I am inclined to recommend our trusting to the progress now making in the diffusion of knowledge among the natives for the gradual suppression of this detestable superstition. I cannot believe it possible that the burning or burying alive of widows will long survive the advancement which every year brings with it in useful and rational learning."
It is to the glory of Lord William Bentinck that he faced the difficulty with the greatest moral courage. In this, as indeed in all other reforms associated with his name, he received assistance and support from his colleague, Sir Charles (afterwards Lord) Metcalfe. He realised that nothing short of total prohibition would be of any avail, and refused to countenance indirect methods of suppression. He also had little hope from the gradual progress of learning in India. Having made up his mind on this point he proPublished Papers."
1 Minute of Lord Amherst.
ceeded to act with the greatest caution and consulted those most capable of expressing an opinion. He found that a large proportion of the cases of Sati took place in the Calcutta districts, from whose inhabitants little danger was anticipated beyond passive discontent. He also took steps to convince himself that total prohibition would not invoke the active hostility of the Sepoys. He then penned his famous minute for the consideration of his Council, which for nobility of language and soundness of judgment should rank as one of the noblest State papers in existence. His bold action was followed by complete success. As Sir J. W. Kaye remarks, "the promulgation of the Act gave the death-blow to Sati throughout the Company's dominions." And, what is even more satisfactory, the Native States in the course of time, assisted by the wise counsel of such men as Major Ludlow, Resident at Jaipur, followed of their own accord the example of Bentinck. The key to his success was his very simplicity of purpose, which none who knew him could dispute. The Hindus felt that they were dealing with a man whose primary object was their improvement, and therefore accepted his actions in the spirit they deserved.
In his very difficult task Lord William Bentinck received the valuable support of Ram Mohan Roy and other social reformers. The story runs that Mohan Roy tried to persuade his brother's widow from becoming a Sati. The woman did not heed him at first but, when she felt the flames, she tried to escape from the pile. Her orthodox relations and the priests, however, forced her down with bamboo poles and kept her there to die, while drums and brazen instruments were loudly sounded to drown her shrieks. Ram Mohan, unable to save her and filled with unspeakable indignation and pity, vowed within himself, then and there, that he would never rest until the atrocious custom was rooted out.1 And he kept his vow. He spared no effort in inveighing against this evil practice both in the press and on the platform.
Actuated by this purpose Ram Mohan lost no chance of demonstrating the inhumanity and barbarism involved in
1 Collet's "Life and Letters of Ram Mohan Roy," p. 15.
Sati. He it was who strengthened the hands of well-meaning but alien administrators in their efforts at social reform by breaking down the moral power of the orthodox. When the Hindus of Calcutta sent up a petition in 1818 praying for the repeal of the orders then in force against proceedings in cases of Sati, it was through his exertions that a counter-petition was sent up warmly endorsing the humanity and fairness of these orders. Some of the chief horrors of Sati were enumerated in his forcible language. "Your petitioners are fully aware from their own knowledge or from the authority of credible eye-witnesses that cases have frequently occurred when women have been induced by the persuasions of their next heirs, interested in their destruction, to burn themselves on the funeral pile of their husbands; that others who have been induced by fear to retract a resolution rashly expressed in the first moments of grief of burning with their deceased husbands have been forced upon the pile and there bound down with ropes and pressed with green bamboos until consumed with the flames; that some after flying from the flames have been carried back by their relations and burnt to death. All these instances, your petitioners humbly submit, are murders according to every Shastra as well as to the commonsense of all nations."1 Not content with the campaign outside, Mohan Roy used to go down, at considerable physical risk, to the Calcutta burning grounds and try to avert Sati sacrifices by earnest persuasion. And, when consulted by Lord William Bentinck in 1829, he proved by authoritative quotations that Sati was not a religious duty. He did more than this, he showed that it was the avaricious desire of relatives to avoid the cost of supporting the widow rather than religious devotion which was responsible to a large extent for the perpetuation of Sati. Its suppression would therefore do no wrong to the faith which British honour had pledged itself to tolerate and respect.
1 Ibid., p. 31
The Abolition of Sati
Source.-(i) Minute by Lord William Bentinck, 1829.
Whether the question be to continue or to discontinue the practice of Sati, the decision is equally surrounded by an awful responsibility. To consent to the consignment year after year of hundreds of innocent victims to a cruel and untimely end when the power exists for preventing it is a predicament which no conscience can contemplate without horror. But, on the other hand, if heretofore received opinions are to be considered of any value, to put to hazard by a contrary course the very safety of the British Empire in India, and to extinguish at once all hopes of those great improvements-affecting the condition not of hundreds and thousands but of millions-which can only be expected from the continuance of our supremacy, is an alternative which even in the light of humanity itself may be considered as a still greater evil. It is upon this first and highest consideration alone, the good of mankind, that the tolerance of this inhuman and impious rite can, in my opinion, be justified on the part of the Government of a civilised nation. While the solution of this question is appalling from the unparalleled magnitude of its possible results, the considerations belonging to it are such as to make even the stoutest mind distrust its decision. On the one side, religion, humanity, under the most appalling form, as well as vanity and ambition-in short, all the most powerful influences over the human heart—are arrayed to bias and mislead the judgment. On the other side, the sanction of countless ages, the example of all the Mussulman conquerors, the unanimous concurrence in the same policy of our own most able rulers, together with the universal veneration of the people, seem authoritatively to forbid, both to feeling and to reason, any interference in the exercise of their natural prerogative. In venturing to be the first to deviate from this practice it becomes us to show that nothing has been yielded to feeling, but that reason, and reason alone, has governed the decision.
So far indeed from presuming to condemn the conduct of my predecessors, I am ready to say that in the same circumstances I should have acted as they have done. So far from being chargeable with political rashness, as this departure from an established policy might infer, I hope to be able so completely to prove the safety of the measures as even to render unnecessary any calculation of the degree of risk which for the attainment of so great a benefit might wisely and justly be incurred. So far also from being the sole champion of a great and dangerous innovation, I shall be able to prove that the vast preponderance of present authority has long been in favour of abolition. Past