Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
Contentious Traditions analyzes the debate on sati, or widow burning, in colonial India. Though the prohibition of widow burning in 1829 was heralded as a key step forward for women's emancipation in modern India, Lata Mani argues that the women who were burned were marginal to the debate and that the controversy was over definitions of Hindu tradition, the place of ritual in religious worship, the civilizing missions of colonialism and evangelism, and the proper role of the colonial state. Mani radically revises colonialist as well as nationalist historiography on the social reform of women's status in the colonial period and clarifies the complex and contradictory character of missionary writings on India.
The history of widow burning is one of paradox. While the chief players in the debate argued over the religious basis of sati and the fine points of scriptural interpretation, the testimonials of women at the funeral pyres consistently addressed the material hardships and societal expectations attached to widowhood. And although historiography has traditionally emphasized the colonial horror of sati, a fascinated ambivalence toward the practice suffused official discussions. The debate normalized the violence of sati and supported the misconception that it was a voluntary act of wifely devotion.
Mani brilliantly illustrates how situated feminism and discourse analysis compel a rewriting of history, thus destabilizing the ways we are accustomed to look at women and men, at "tradition," custom, and modernity.
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abolition analysis argued argument Baptist missionaries Bengal Hurkaru Bengal Renaissance bhadralok BMS Archive brahmanic scriptures brahmins Britain British Burning of Widows burnt Calcutta Carey caste chapter claims colonial discourse colonial officials context critique culture David Kopf debate on sati Delhi descriptions discourse on sati discussion East India Company edition European evangelical evangelists evidence Friend of India Hindoo Widows Hindu historiography History husband Ibid immolation incident India Company officials Indian society indigenous instance issue Joshua Marshman Kaviraj letter Marshman material mission missionary discourse Missionary Register Muslim narrative narrator native Nizamat Adalat noted official discourse pamphlet Periodical Accounts petition pile practice preaching pro-sati prohibition published pundits pyre question Raja Rammohun Roy Ranajit Guha relation religion religious representation Samachar Chundrika Samachar Darpan Sambad Kaumudi sati Serampore social specific Subaltern Subaltern Studies Suttee texts textual tion tradition University Press voluntary vyawasthas Ward widow burning widow immolation Wilberforce William woman women writings