In the final years of the eighteenth century, British missionaries started exaggerating the occurrence of sati in India because they wanted to make the case that burning widows at the funeral pyre of their husbands was a common practice among India’s Hindus, and that christianization and anglicization of India was necessary to save the Hindu widows from the fate of being burned alive.
The missionary propaganda turned sati into a sort of “original sin” of the Hindus even though sati had always been the rarest of the rare crimes in India.
In Hinduism, fire is seen as a purifying agent—that is why the Hindus use fire during their prayers, marriage ceremonies, and other holy occasions. They cremate their dead because they believe that fire purifies the dead person’s soul. In Christianity, fire is associated with the putative fires of hell—being burned to death is the worst form of punishment for a Christian. That is why those accused of religious crimes like witchcraft and heresy were burned at the stake in Europe during the Middle Ages—the last witch was burned in Europe in 1782.
In her book, Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse, Meenakshi Jain observes that sati was used by the Christian missionaries in their campaign against Hinduism. By insinuating that the Hindus were burning their widows, the missionaries were associating Hinduism with the Christian notion of the most extreme form of punishment—being burned in a hellfire. They were also appealing to the European Christians that It was their duty—the white man’s burden—to save Hindu widows from Hindu men.
Meenakshi Jain quotes Christopher Bayly: “The British obsession with sati “was boundless.” Thousands of pages of parliamentary papers dealt with 4,000 immolations while the death of millions from famine and starvation was mentioned only incidentally—sometimes only because it tended indirectly to increase the number of widows performing the horrid act.”
The evangelicals were the most powerful group of missionaries in India in the early nineteenth century. Evangelicalism became a politically significant movement in Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century partially as a response to the atheistic excesses of the French Revolution. The British religious and political establishment was shocked by the dechristianization of France during the French Revolution; they began to support Evangelicalism because they expected the Evangelicals to serve as a defense mechanism against any anti-Christian uprising in Britain.
At that time, the East India Company was in the process of expanding its power in India. The officials of the company feared that missionary activity in India might jeopardize their trading activities, so they did not permit missionaries to operate in the Indian territories that were under the company’s control. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the East India Company came under intense pressure from the British evangelicals to open India for missionary enterprise.
The evangelicals saw Hinduism as the source of several ills which plagued Indian society. They believed that if Hinduism was India's primary religion, the British hold on India could only be tenuous. They argued that once India was Christianized and Anglicized, British rule in the country would become permanent. Charles Grant, an employee of the East India Company since 1767, who had converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1776, was the first British official to argue for Christianization and Anglicization of India.
In his 1792 tract, "Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain,” Charles Grant argued that around 33,000 widows were being burned annually in India. It is not known how he arrived at this figure of 33,000. Some of the figures that he presents were concocted by the missionaries who wanted to degenerate Hinduism to make the Hindus give up their faith and accept Christianity. The campaign launched by Grant and other evangelicals bore fruit in 1813, when the East India Company agreed to open India for missionary activity.
Meenakshi Jain examines the colonial debate. Her book has excerpts from several primary sources which establish that before the rise of evangelicalism in Britain, the Europeans used to write positively about Hinduism. Even after the rise of evangelicalism, several high profile British officials disagreed with the missionaries about the prevalence of sati in India. Meenakshi Jain cites from the accounts of British officials who have asserted that while they had heard about sati, they had never seen one and they didn’t know anyone who had seen an act of sati.
Some writers of that time lied about being a witness to an act of sati because they wanted to impress their European readers. Meenakshi Jain notes that the French writer Anquetil-Duperron alleged in 1758 that he was a witness to sati, but later on he confessed that he had made up the incident.
If sati were popular among India’s Hindus, then its abolition would have led to an outrage in the country. But when sati was outlawed in December 1829, there was no outrage. Most Hindus had never observed an act of sati and they could not understand why the British were making such a fuss over this rare custom. Meenakshi Jain quotes the observation of English missionary William Carey: “There was no riot nor disaffection. No sepoy shot at his colonel; nowhere were magistrates or missionaries mobbed, treasuries plundered, or bungalows fired.” The banning of sati was a nonevent in India because this custom was extremely rare.
Meenakshi Jain’s book is full of facts, data, and references to primary sources. She establishes that evangelical and baptist missionaries, who wanted to christianize and anglicize India, were responsible for spreading the canard that sati was a widespread practice in Hinduism.