Myth of Sati
Sati is described as a Hindu custom in India in which the widow was burnt to ashes on her dead husband's pyre. Basically the custom of Sati was believed to be a voluntary Hindu act in which the woman voluntary decides to end her life with her husband after his death. But there were many incidences in which the women were forced to commit Sati, sometimes even dragged against her wish to the lighted pyre.
Though Sati is considered a Hindu custom, the women, known as Sati in Hindu religious literature, did not commit suicide on their dead husband's pyre. The first woman known as Sati was the consort of Lord Shiva. She burnt herself in fire as protest against her father who did not give her consort Shiva the respect she thought he deserved, while burning herself she prayed to reborn again as the new consort of Shiva, which she became and her name in the new incarnation was Parvati.
Other famous woman in Hindu literature titled Sati was Savitri. When Savitri's husband Satyavan died, the Lord of death, Yama arrived to take his soul. Savitri begged Yama to restore Satyavan and take her life instead, which he could not do. So Savitri followed Lord Yama a long way. After a long way in which Yama noticed that Savitri was losing strength but was still following him and her dead husband, Yama offered Savitri a boon, anything other than her husband's life. Savitri asked to have children from Satyavan. In order to give Savitri her boon, Lord Yama had no choice but to restore Satyavan to life and so Savitri gained her husband back.
These two women along with other women in Hindu mythology who were exceptionally devoted to their husbands symbolized the truthful Indian wife who would do everything for their husband and they were named Sati. The meaning of the word sati is righteous. But as written earlier the women named Sati, in Hindu religious literature, did not commit suicide on their dead husband's pyre. Therefore the custom of burning the widow on her dead husband's pyre probably did not evolve from religious background but from social background.
There are different theories about the origins of Sati. One theory says that Sati was introduced to prevent wives from poisoning their wealthy husbands and marry their real lovers. Other theory says that Sati began with a jealous queen who heard that dead kings were welcomed in heaven by hundreds of beautiful women, called Apsaras. And therefore when her husband died, she demanded to be burnt on her dead husband's pyre and so to arrive with him to heaven and this way to prevent the Apsaras from consorting with her husband. There are also other theories about the origins of Sati.
Even though Sati is considered an Indian custom or a Hindu custom it was not practiced all over India by all Hindus but only among certain communities of India. On the other hand, sacrificing the widow in her dead husband's funeral or pyre was not unique only to India. In many ancient communities it was an acceptable feature. This custom was prevalent among Egyptians, Greek, Goths, Scythians and others. Among these communities it was a custom to bury the dead king with his mistresses or wives, servants and other things so that they could continue to serve him in the next world.
Another theory claims that Sati was probably brought to India by the Scythians invaders of India. When these Scythians arrived in India, they adopted the Indian system of funeral, which was cremating the dead. And so instead of burying their kings and his servers they started cremating their dead with his surviving lovers. The Scythians were warrior tribes and they were given a status of warrior castes in Hindu religious hierarchy. Many of the Rajput clans are believed to originate from the Scythians. Later on other castes who claimed warrior status or higher also adopted this custom.
This custom was more dominant among the warrior communities in north India, especially in Rajasthan and also among the higher castes in Bengal in east India. Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, who gave lot of importance to valor and self sacrifice, wives and concubines of the nobles even committed suicide, when they came to know that their beloved died in battlefield. In other parts of India it was comparatively low. And among the majority of Indian communities it did not exist at all.
A few rulers of India tried to ban this custom. The Mughals tried to ban it. The British, due to the efforts of Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy outlawed this custom in 1829.
There aren't exact figures about the number of Sati incidences. In general, before this custom was outlawed in 1829, there were a few hundred officially recorded incidences each year. Even after the custom was outlawed, this custom did not vanish completely. It took few decades before this custom almost vanished. But still there are rare incidences in which the widow demands to voluntary commit Sati. In 1987 an eighteen years old widow committed Sati in a village of Rajasthan with the blessing of her family members. In this incidence the villagers took part in the ceremony, praising and supporting the widow for her act. In October 1999 a woman hysterically jumped on her husband's pyre surprising everyone. But this incidence was declared suicide and not Sati, because this woman was not compelled, forced or praised to commit this act.
In different communities of India, Sati was performed for different reasons and different manners. In communities where the man was married to one wife, the wife put an end to her life on the pyre. But even in these communities not all widows committed Sati. Those women who committed Sati were highly honored and their families were given lot of respect. It was believed that the woman who committed Sati blessed her family for seven generations after her. Temples or other religious shrines were built to honor the Sati.
In communities were the ruler was married to more than one wife; in some cases only one wife was allowed to commit Sati. This wife was normally the preferred wife of the husband. This was some kind of honor for the chosen wife and some kind of disgrace for the other wives. In other communities some or all of the wives and mistresses were immolated with the husband. And in some cases even male servants were immolated with the kings. This kind of Sati in which the wives and servants were treated as the ruler's property intensifies the theory that Sati was introduced to India by the Scythian invaders of India.
In some very rare incidences mothers committed Sati on their son's pyre and in even more rare cases husbands committed Sati on their wives pyres.
Sati the Goddess
Shiva carrying the dead Sati.17th/18th-century bronze. Gwalior Museum. Photograph curtesy of the Archelogivcal Survey of India. The myth of Sati appears to have little to do with the practice of sati. Sati is said to be an earlier incarnation of the goddess Paravati. Both are the wives of the acetic god ´Siva, and both are known as paradigmatic good wives. Sati committed suicide, but not by throwing herself onto ´Siva's funeral pyre as the name suggests. Sati killed herself when her father insulted her and ´Siva by refusing to invite them to a sacrifice he was performing, on account of ´Siva's acetic appearance and odd behavior. Sati was so enraged at her father's snub, that she threw herself into a fire. Yet she did not burn alive, ´Siva is said to have pulled her intact body from the fire and proceeded to carry her body throughout the universe in his grief. Vishnu finally relieved ´Siva of his grief by slicing off pieces of her body until Sati's body was gone. Shrines are established at scared places, pithas, where a piece of Sati's body landed4.
There are several ways that the myth of Sati does not relate to the practice of sati. Sati commits suicide in response to her fathers' snub, not her husband's death. She is not a widow when she throws herself into the fire (not a pyre) and she does not actually burn, proven by the fact that ´Siva is able to carry her complete body. This myth seems to have nothing to do with the idea of joining a husband in the afterlife since ´Siva is very much alive when Sati dies5. Yet many things about Sati's origins connect to the practice of sati and a satimata. ´Siva may not have been dead when Sati committed suicide, but if the object of the practice of sati is to transform oneself through death and pain in order to transform one's husband, then Sati did accomplish this. Sati's death is often viewed as the catalyst that caused the evolution of ´Siva from a purely ascetic god, into one who became involved in the world. Because of Sati's death, ´Siva became involved with Sati's father's sacrifice, symbolizing his creative participation in the world6.
If a man dies before his wife, his wife is said to have not followed the proper rituals that work to protect her husband. By committing sati, the wife is able to correct this situation. Her sacrifice is what enables her not only to remain with her husband in the afterlife, but to also grant blessings on him, ensuring his good welfare. So by performing sati, a wife changes an inauspicious event into one of great honor. In this way, she transforms herself and her husband through her pain and the sacrifice of her body. Sati accomplishes this in her act. She reconstructs ´Siva from an ascetic god into a god of this world, thereby connecting established religion with asceticism.Sati's pain and suffering allows humans to gain contact with ´Siva in another way. As pieces of her body fall to the earth, Sati sacralizes the earth, allowing humans to feel the power of ´Siva through the linga (´Siva follows sati to the earth by embedding his linga into her yoni)7. In this way, Sati's body is transformed intohe sacred earth through an act of pain (Vishnu's cutting of her body). Sati's body then transforms the earth into a place where humans can gain contact with her husband ´Siva. These acts of transformation are what connect the seemingly unrelated myth of Sati to the practice of sati. It is pain and the destruction of a good wife's body that allows a metamorphism to occur. An inauspicious situation becomes a celebratory event, a woman becomes a goddess, and the husbands themselves are changed into better beings. It is the sacrifice of a woman's body that creates these transformations.
From Sita to Sati
By Chaitali Dasgupta -
Myths and their power over human psyche is historic. However since they resonate as populist views, ideals and mores which haunt us through time, unraveling and re-interpreting them throws up interesting facets of how man yearns for ideals and then also manipulates them to create social structures and power hierarchies.
In Indian mythology, Shiva and Parvati, rule as the ideal celestial couple whose union is symbolic for the cosmic fusion between the masculine and the feminine. No myth has dogged Indian ‘womanhood’ as resolutely as that of Sita, Lord Ram’s wife. As the ubiquitous earthly conjugal ideal, Lord Ram and Sita, have ruled as icons of what ideal man/woman should reflect. However Ram being a ‘God’ placed little stress on men to emulate, for they could easily excuse their frailties as ‘mortal’. Sita is altogether another matter. She has hovered as the wife ‘ideal’ fashioning if you will, the term ‘pati-vrata’ as of immaculate obedience, chaste and forever supine before every absurd act and desire of her husband for he is her lord and Master.
Since myths are vulnerable to populist interpretations, much has been subverted in this great tale to suit masculine versions of what indeed may be a very different Sita, symbolizing a completely different ideal.
Interestingly in the epic Ramayana, Ram’s role as the ‘maryadapurushottam’ (upholder of traditions) centers squarely on Sita’s chastity. According to the myth Ravana kidnaps Sita from the forest (where Ram, Sita and Lakshman were living during their 14 years of exile from the kingdom of Ayodhya) and Ram rescues Sita by defeating Ravana. The tale is a fireball of the forces which unite to vanquish evil (Ravana depicted more as demon than the awesome scholar sage that he was), the convoluted war and finally the victory. Celestial celebrations (which we know as the modern day Diwali) marked the victory and Ram’s return to his kingdom and his coronation.
However now the tale gets absurd. After all that verve and valour to rescue his wife, Ram then turns to confront her with ‘doubt’ that she may no longer be chaste. Well I guess even male God’s suffer from suspicious, petty heads as Ram displays. But rather than chastise him for his narrow-mindedness, or extol the virtues of Sita being Goddess mother, the kingdom joins in clucking their gossipy tongues and asking her to prove her ‘purity’. Championing further this absurdity, Ram tells Sita that he would be willing to accept her but his kingdom has questioned her chastity and he owes ‘them’ proof. Right! Moving along this tale of exalted Gods and their venerable ways, Sita hurt but stoic, assures Ram that she is chaste and has not been touched by Ravana. Nope! Says Ram, won’t do, why don’t you skip through some burning flames which, if they do not turn you to ash will prove that you are virtuous and untainted.
Sita agrees and does survive the flames but imagine that not just her word, but her fearlessness in jumping into the flames causes no mortification or shame to any of the concerned players.
Ram’s role as a dutiful king, sensitive to the demands of his subjects, is obviously poised on how far he goes to define Sita’s sexuality and autonomy. Unmoved by what he has been asking his wife to endure, he broods some more (after the fire purification scene) and finally tells Sita that a subject (a washer-man) is still not convinced. Finally fed up Sita opts to leave the kingdom (even when she is pregnant) which our matchless Lord Ram agrees to. This after she spends 14 years in the forest with him, gets kidnapped as revenge for an act done by his younger brother against Ravana, is reclaimed obviously to lend valour and honour to Ram and his allies. Now she is cast off so that Ram can appear as a King dedicated to the ‘wishes’ of his subjects, even when it means wronging his own wife. Ahem! Quite a tale and an even harder standard set for men to live up to!
Sita takes refuge with Maharishi Valmiki at his ashram in the forest and gives birth to twin boys, raising them up as a single mother. Obviously her parenting skills were remarkable for they grow to be powerful warriors and the story finally climaxes when the boys are able to catch the sacred horse of Ram’s ‘yagna’, an act which could amount to war. The truth finally spills out and the estranged father gushes over his newly found sons and the heirs to his throne. This is where the story really stamps Sita’s identity and character. She refuses to return with what appears to be a chastised Ram, hands over the sons and says clearly that she is quite finished with her business and the only space, which can truly contain her is the Earth. Apparently in one interpretation, Sita was actually discovered as a baby in a container buried in the Earth, by King Janak (who then became her father). The import of the end then being, that she either returns to her source or that the largesse of the earth being the only requisite space to contain one such as she. Done as she was with mortal relationships and their games.
In interpretation little is said about why she chooses not to return with Ram, especially so when as a meek, witless woman she should have now gone scurrying back when her husband demanded so. The final dialogue between the two is apparently a powerful rendition of Sita’s clarity, dignity and contempt for male myopia.
Nevertheless Sita was deified since then as the ‘wife’, who never questions, endures all and still venerates her husband as Lord and God. An interpretation, particularly suitable for justifying any and all suspicion of Indian women’s chastity and sexuality. In as much, as in common parlance one often heard that ‘ if a woman is not of the highest virtue no man will tolerate her. Why even Lord Ram sent her packing just because the ‘washer-man’ was suspicious of Sita.’
This pre-occupation with Sita’s sexuality- her virtue, chastity, purity- is hammered into the minds of young girls in our society. Sita is made the role model for girls to imbibe (especially as wives) attributes such as loyalty, obedience and above all chastity. A mantra that young girls must learn to chant ‘ to their husband’s funeral pyre where they will burn along with their husbands’ (read this metaphorically) and attain the status of ‘Sita Maiya’- the ‘virtuous’ woman. From being Sita they become Sati.
But is there a reason how the twisted interpretation of Sita finds a logical ending in Sati? Is it mere coincidence that both names are merely the rearrangement of the same four letters? In my final post I will examine the myth of Sati further to delve into the connection or what is easily a logical continuum to Sita.