Sati and Juggernaut Beyond Claudius Buchanan: Missionary Perspectives of Hindu Ritual Suicide

As early evangelical missionaries labored among Hindu populations of India, they began to see the impact of ritual suicide. Two practices which captured the attention of British missionaries at the end of the long eighteenth century were sati and the Juggernaut chariot festival. In sati, widows threw themselves upon their husband’s funeral pyre. In the Juggernaut chariot festival, devotees bowed before the crushing wheels of a deity’s chariot. In the recent study of early evangelical opposition to Hindu ritual suicide, scholars primarily focused on Claudius Buchanan (1766–1815). In his Christian Researches in Asia (1812), Buchanan recorded his travels in India from 1806–1808 while including graphic and exaggerated portrayals of sati and the Juggernaut festival.
In this paper, I will argue that beyond Buchanan’s exaggerated portrayal of Sati and Juggernaut, missionaries showed two other views of Hindu ritual sacrifice: a calculated condemnation, exemplified by the Serampore Trio, and an evangelical orientalism, exemplified by Henry Martyn (1781–1812). The Serampore missionaries wrote detailed studies of Hinduism—such as William Ward’s (1769–1823) four-volume Account of the Writings, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos (1811)—which researched the statistics and local legal justification of sati and the Juggernaut suicides. Martyn, an evangelical chaplain who admired the orientalist Sir William Jones, rejected idolatry and ritual suicide while finding elements to admire in Hindu culture in his letters and journal. The recently compiled Letters of Henry Martyn (2019) edited by Scott Ayler provided fresh context for Martyn’s view of Hindu ritual suicide.
This study seeks to qualify caricatures of how evangelical missionaries understood religious anthropology and Hinduism, which have grounded their analysis primarily on Buchanan’s view. This interacts with and helps to qualify studies such as: Brian Pennington’s Was Hinduism Invented? (2005), Penelope Carson’s The East India Company and Religion (2012), Gareth Atkins’ Converting Britannia (2019). For example, Pennington posited that evangelical missionaries presented “a fabricated Hinduism crazed by blood-lust and devoted to the service of devils” (77). The extent of the of the range of evangelical views is most vivid in depictions of the Juggernaut festival of 1806 by Buchanan and Martyn. While describing the same event, they portrayed vastly different scenes and drew different anthropological conclusions. Although these scholars provided detailed interactions with Buchanan’s narrative, they made no mention of Martyn’s more grounded narrative.

5 thoughts on “Sati and Juggernaut Beyond Claudius Buchanan: Missionary Perspectives of Hindu Ritual Suicide”

  1. Another solid student paper
    Paper fits our session. It could go with the other missions-centered paper on Stott if we want that in our open session.
    Paper has a coherent thesis and appears to make an important contribution.

  2. Strong proposal, better situated elsewhere
    Maybe we should consider a missions focused invited paper session next year. While I would love to see us include papers such as this, we may lose some of our focus and normally audience. I would like to see this included somewhere at ETS.

  3. Should we consider a non-Western grouping?
    I would be very interested to hear this paper. Seems well thought out. This, with Stott and the Mexican Revolution paper, could make a decent grouping.


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