Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Sati, symbol of an empowered woman

Illustration by Satwik Gade   | Photo Credit: Satwik Gade

The myth of Sati and Siva is one that lurks on the margins of our imaginations in this century, primarily because somewhere in the past, it became the support story for sati, the practice by which a woman, ostensibly of her own free will, burns herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre.

The myth itself has nothing to do with a husband’s pyre, even less to do with a widow. On the contrary, it’s about a married woman’s anger and frustration.

In its most generic version, the myth goes like this: Sati was one of the daughters of Daksha, himself a son of Brahma. Sati wanted to marry Siva but Daksha was not pleased because he considered Siva an outsider — wild, dirty, ill-mannered and with all the wrong friends. Siva’s followers consisted of ghouls and goblins and he spent his time in cremation grounds covered with ash.

Sati, clearly a determined and strong-willed woman, decided to marry Siva anyway.

One day, Daksha started preparations for a massive and magnificent sacrifice. He invited everyone that he could, his many sons-in-law were given pride of place. But he did not invite Siva. Sati was incensed, believing that her husband had been humiliated. She stormed into her father’s sacrifice, demanding that her husband be acknowledged. When that did not happen, she immolated herself in in a fire born of righteous anger. Siva heard of his wife’s death and was bereft, mad with grief. He placed her charred body on his shoulders and began the dance of destruction.

As he danced, parts of Sati’s body fell to the earth and became sacred places, sakti peethas, where the goddess could be worshipped.

Utter cruelty

It’s not clear how the myth of a woman who kills herself in rage could elevate to venerable tradition the utter cruelty of burning a widow to death, even if we are to believe that the widow herself would rather be dead than suffer under the inhuman strictures that would be placed upon her if she lived. Sati’s anger is against her father. She kills herself, if at all we want to see it that way, for her husband’s honour, because he has been insulted.

Perhaps the problem with the sanctification of the story and thereby, with the glorification of a particular kind of female behaviour, lies in the word ‘sati.’ At its most basic in Sanskrit, it means ‘good woman.’ Hence, what the good woman, Sati, does, should be worthy of imitation by all women who want to be good. But even this does not relate to sati, the practice.

If a good woman were to live by the myth, she would use her righteous rage to insist that her husband’s difference, his ‘outsiderness’ from the norm, does not warrant his exclusion from the rituals and customs of society.

This Sati would be an empowered woman, not a wilful one nor one who ceases to be of any importance after the death of her husband.

Arshia Sattar works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub -continent

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Printable version | Oct 7, 2021 11:56:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-myth-of-sati-and-siva-is-about-a-married-womans-anger-and-frustration/article17393570.ece

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