Influencing Culture – The Dignity of Women

Sati, or Suttee, widow burning

We’ve been examining William Carey’s career as a missionary in India.

And we’ve already seen conclusive evidence that Carey does not correspond to the standard misrepresentation of the 19th Century missionary (typically, a culturally insensitive European male, peddling, in religious guise, the agenda of his colonial masters).

But there were moments when Carey quite deliberately sought to change local customs; to bring biblical thinking to bear on the culture in which he was a guest.

The Indian Woman
Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi describes the situation in which the 19th Century Indian woman found herself:

‘The male in India was crushing the female through polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage, widow burning, euthanasia and forced female illiteracy, all sanctioned by religion.

‘The British government timidly accepted these social evils as being an irreversible and intrinsic part of India’s religious mores.’ (Mangalwadi, William Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, Mussourie, India)

Sati, or Widow-burning
Of particular horror to Carey, as well as to others, was the shocking practice of burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyre.

This practice, known as Sati, was an accepted part of India’s cultural and religious life. A widow throwing herself into the fire and being burned alive was considered an act of great devotion to her husband, purification for her and possibly salvation for her husband’s forefathers.

The stigma attached to her remaining alive, both as a financial burden and a social embarrassment to her in-laws, was a strong incentive for them to urge her to ‘do the noble thing’.

Although this was apparently not universally practiced across India it was not something uncommon. Carey personally witnessed a widow-burning in 1799.

He wrote, ‘We were near the village of Noya Serai…Being evening, we got out of the boat to walk, when we saw a number of people assembled on the riverside.

‘I asked them what they were met for, and they told me to burn the body of a dead man.

‘I inquired if his wife would be burned 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 2½ feet high, 4 feet long, and 2 wide, and 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 sweetmeats.

‘I asked them if this was the woman’s choice, or if she were brought to it by an improper influence. I talked till reasoning was of no use and then began to exclaim…that it was a shocking murder.

‘They told me that it was a great act of holiness and added…that if I did not like to see it I might go farther off…’ (Quoted in Timothy George, The Life and Mission of William Carey’, IVP, Leicester, p.151)

We’ll consider the remainder of this incident next time…

To read the first part of the William Carey story click here

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

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