The Influence of the Political, Social and Religious Measures upon Caste during British India

By Pomohaci, Maria-Daniela | International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Influence of the Political, Social and Religious Measures upon Caste during British India


Pomohaci, Maria-Daniela, International Journal on Humanistic Ideology


1. The Religious Measures

1.1. Sati and the Situation of Widows

Although at the beginning of their occupation, the British government promised that it would not intervene in Hindu religious practices, several reforms passed and were impose in India. One of these was GovernorGeneral William Bentinck's law from 1829, which made sati illegal in company territories. Sati, also spelled suttee, was the Hindu practice in which a newly widowed wife chose to be burned or buried alive with her husband's corpse. By custom high-caste widows were not allowed to remarry and a wife demonstrated her extreme devotion to her dead husband by becoming a sati. The woman who chose to become a sati, it was commonly believed, was reunited with her dead husband in the after-life. The custom was not mandatory for Hindu women and was never widely practiced, occurring mostly in the higher-caste in the Ganges River valley, Punjab and Rajasthan.1 Nevertheless, for "Christian missionaries and officials like Bentinck, an evangelical Christian, sati symbolized all that was evil and barbaric in an idolatrous Hinduism."2 Missionaries in Bengal had long campaigned against the practice, but British officials feared that interfering with a religious practice might provoke an uprising. According to Sati Regulation XVII A. D. 1829 of the Bengal Code, the burning or burying alive of a widow was a "culpable homicide". If she was drugged, obliged to be burned or buried with her dead husband, the offense was considered to be murder. Nevertheless, Bentinck's regulation provoked no mass protests or uprisings. The only protest came from a group of Calcutta Hindus, who sent an 800-signature petition to the Privy Council3 in England asking without any success for the law's repeal.4 In 1856, another law was imposed by the British, which allowed the widows to remarry. After 1829, and the prohibition of sati, the widows were expected to have an austere life as their punishment for having a bad karma, because they did not take good care of their husbands and let them die. Moreover, according to the custom widows were supposed to shave their heads, wear only simple white saris and no jewelry. They were forbidden from eating food with condiments or any type of meat.5

1.2. Caste Disabilities Removal Act and Conversion to Christianity

Another reform, which had important consequences on Indian society, was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850. This law did not, as may be expected from it its title, remove civil disabilities existing between caste but facilitates conversion to another religion or admission into another caste. According to this Act, if a person changes his or her religion, and even caste, would not loose his or her property.6 The Caste Disabilities Removal Act was encouraging the Hindus to convert to other religions, especially to Christianity.

During the British occupation, a large number of Hindus mainly those coming from the lower-castes or the untouchables converted themselves to Christianity. In order to escape their condition and due to the promises made by Christian priests, many Indians accepted to be converted to Christianity. Conversions have taken place both on their own will, but also a large number were forced by the British officials. By converting them to Christianity, the British wanted to keep the Indians under control, not only economically and politically, but also religiously. Between 1888 and 1892, the so-called Evangelical Society, did mass baptisms, but built also in the process new schools and churches. Although, the priests convinced the Hindus to convert by claiming that inside Christian communities the Indians will be equal and their rights will be respected, the distinction between castes and the discrimination against the untouchables was still felt in the Indian Christian communities. Discrimination based on caste in Christian communities was much stronger in southern India, while in the north it was almost nonexistent among urban Protestant congregations. …

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