Chapter 22: Suttee and Reform in the Twilight of the Raj


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9 thoughts on “Chapter 22: Suttee and Reform in the Twilight of the Raj

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  1. This chapter is unhelpfully disjointed as Doniger attempts to cover a lot of otherwise important topics in rapid succession: disputes over suttee vis-à-vis the British and among Hindus themselves, initiatives toward protecting cows from slaughter on the basis of Hindu piety, Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence, Gandhi’s opposition to the social costs of widespread opium and alcohol use, and the changing status of tribal peoples and Untouchable groups.

    The one invaluable discourse that Doniger imperfectly offers in this chapter is an observation that the cultural significance that lay behind suttee was polyvalent, and there were multiple reasons or motivations for Hindus to tolerate or condone the practice. Accordingly, I suspect that anyone wanting to discourage and disincentivize a practice like suttee (including native reformers) would have to cultivate the social imagination typical of an anthropologist, so as to discern why people attribute significance to a practice and why they feel not at all deviant in carrying out that practice. With regard to suttee during the Raj, some of the rationalizations for the practice appear genuinely rooted in a religious conviction that is hard to shake off (as in the belief that a woman outliving her husband would result in unhappiness for both spouses in the hereafter), while other possible explanations behind individual acts of suttee appear suspect (as in the inheritance law in Bengal, whereby the husband’s family would keep all the inheritance in the event the wife acquiesced in becoming a suttee). I think it is significant (albeit a bit morbid) that Doniger points out that the attitudes toward suttee among different British officials alternated between accommodation and opposition, in proportion to whether the officials thought they were dealing with a genuinely religious practice or with a “secular” practice: if (and only if) it were the latter case, then suttee practices would be akin to suicide or acting as an accessory to wrongful death (see p. 617).

    How far should a liberal political order go with regard to tolerating social customs (foreign or local) that its educated members find distastefully immoral?


  2. This chapter overall, was very interesting in the beginning to me and then moved to a new topic by the end. I wish that Doniger wrapped up the end of the chapter in a more satisfying way that summarized the chapter as a whole since there is a lot in here. As far as the content of this chapter goes, I really found the beginning half of the chapter on Suttee very interesting. This was not something that I heard about before this class and it was interesting to hear more about the reasoning behind this practice. From Doniger’s description about what life was like for women at the time, it seems like there was no way for them to be free from some sort of dangerous/suffering circumstance. On page 613, Doniger explains all of the hardship that women at this time had to deal with, it almost seems like Suttee was a form of escape from what they had to deal with. I really found an appreciation for women at this time from reading this section of the chapter in particular.

    I also thought that the conversation on when to interfere with religious practices was interesting. This idea can be found on pages 615-622. I was wondering what people think about outsiders preventing certain practices performed in religious groups? Is it right for people to interfere with/prohibit practices in religions different from their own?


  3. The interesting part of this chapter for me was the attitude of the British towards Suttee practice. I found it interesting in a sense that the British did not interfere if it was a religious practice but would intervene if it was a secular practice. Women ran away and avoided doing suttee practice and even if some woman “agreed” on doing it which we are not sure of as Doniger mentions “they were never there to tell us stories of their part” as they sacrificed their life. How can the British examine if it is a religious practice or a secular practice? Suttee practice is already such a horrible practice to what extent are they to evaluate what is right and what is wrong?
    This is the first chapter so far that talks about Dalits and untouchable caste, until now we have only learned about lower caste but not about Dalits in general. It is interesting how the conversion of Buddhist came into the role, even to this day the idea of untouchability exist and are Dalits are still oppressed in the society. I am not surprised at how Doniger ended the chapter leaving me confused.
    Why do you think she ended the chapter the way she did with the oppression of Dalits?


  4. One sentence that really stuck out to me in this chapter was Doniger’s response on page 612 to the question “‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (the subaltern being in this case the disenfranchised woman).” Doniger says, “my answer is yes. But that does not mean that we can hear her speak.” This statement was super interesting to me because it brought up the point that even when women have had a chance to voice their opinions/statements in history, it does not mean they are listened to. I think this discussion also brings up the debate of whether or not we should listen to the women’s claims about suttee in the past. While Doniger mentions, and I agree with, the feminist would say that a woman’s words should never be disregarded, I think it is important to take them with a grain of salt. I say this because at the time the women may not have felt comfortable to express what they really felt since men held so much of the power in society. Some women might just say what they think the men want to hear.

    This statement also got me thinking in the broader terms of history about all the times that the marginalized people either do not get a say at all or their words are twisted when making records. I think it is hard to know why the women really followed through with suttee, because like Doniger mentions, there are so many possible reasons, or a combination of reasons, or none of the reasons we think it might be caused by.


  5. I dislike this chapter’s focus on Gandhi. The focus on his non-violent ideas is very limited and does no justice to the complexity of the political and personal situations he was in. Gandhi was a very political personality who claimed that politics was inescapable in one’s life. In the tensions during the partition, Nehru (Gandhi’s political heir) and Jinnah (Pakistan’s founder), were the ones actively participating in talks leading up to the partition. While Nehru was frequently advised behind the scenes by Gandhi, Gandhi was barely involved in any of these talks. The most that he did was try to dissuade Jinnah from the division of the country. In this context, the most that he could do was go out in public and fight for his stance, which he did. After the Quit India movement (1943) turned out to be unsuccessful in terms of Gandhi’s non-violent ideals, he withdrew himself from the spotlight and allowed Nehru to take the reins of the larger Independence movement. In this context, it would prove difficult for anyone to push forward any political point other than the ones propagated by the new leaders, especially once decision making processes shifted to a level above that of a national party to the level of talks with the Crown. The decisions made by Nehru and Jinnah eventually veered toward the partition in 1947, during which multiple inhumane acts occurred in the form of communal riots. This rioting took place in the Punjab and Bengal regions, and violence peaked at one point in Calcutta, where Hindus and Muslims were hacking each other to pieces regardless of gender or age. To abate this violence, Gandhi went and fasted in the middle of the violent parts of the city, the result of which was the Hindu and Muslim rioters coming together to lay their arms down in front of Gandhi to avoid his death at their hands. To say that Gandhi’s non-violence could not avoid a bloody partition ignores the political background and to say that without mentioning the events in Calcutta seems like a self-serving argument that only diminishes the complexity of the situation. Doniger could do better by not resorting to such tactics in order to push forward her perspective in a poorly written book.


    1. It is also important to note that Gandhi was a very introverted and introspective person. Any failure in his ideas coming to fruition would lead him to long bouts of introspection, during which he would avoid most social interaction, especially public appearances. The failure of the 1943 Quit India movement led him to another one of these bouts. In this frame of mind, he would never have imagined leading another movement against partition, and so to point out that he failed in his efforts to avoid partition, Doniger seems like she’s being a contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian.


  6. Its interesting to note that Suttee only really existed in certain parts of India. As we have learned many times in this class, Hinduism is far from a homogeneous set of ideals, and it is not surprising that this is one of the practices that was didn’t catch on everywhere. Due to its violent and shocking nature to many of us who were raised on conventional western ideals, the practice of Suttee has attracted maybe more foreign attention than it might otherwise merit.
    Both Richard and Doniger are correct in pointing out the fact that Bengali inheritance laws may have played a role in the continued popularity of Suttee in the region, and may be part of why the practice never spread to other regions.


  7. One of the important themes that Doniger tries to emphasize through the whole book, also including this chapter, is again the richness and complicity of Hinduism. In this chapter, for example, she uses various different attitude towards suttee among different groups of people as an instance to demonstrate that the point.
    As for Gandhi, while it seems that Doniger does not have enough space to demonstrate more information about Gandhi, here is a website that shows some Gandhi’s philosophical ideas, such as his attitude towards the violence parts of Bhagavad Gita.
    Also, some descriptions about Gandhi are probably not really accurate. For instance, Doniger states that “Thus, in contradiction of the reasons to eat meat outlined in many Hindu texts, Gandhi felt as if the natural order […] required him to eat meat in order to defeat the British (626).” If I remember correctly, the way Gandhi talks about himself attitude towards meat is quite clear is that he is on the opposite side, despite that he is coerced to consume meat once when he is young and he drinks goat milk in some occasions when he has to drink them to recuperate.


  8. I found the section on Gandhi very interesting. Having taken the Gandhi class in a previous term, it was interesting to read how Doniger views him in a very brief context. One thing I thought was particularly intriguing about Gandhi was how his tantric practices and fasting could be seen as violence to the self. Doniger didn’t mention this idea, but she did mention some of his tantrism. If atman is Brahman and you commit violence upon yourself, are you committing violence against God and everyone? Similarly, I wonder how his use of fasting could be seen as a form of coercion.


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