Sati, Savitri and Sita : Role-Models For The Ideal Indian Woman- Part 1

There is no dearth of role-models for the Indian woman in Hindu mythology– it is, after all,  replete with instances of women who sacrificed/’were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their husbands. The names of Sati, Savitri and Sita evoke more reverence than the rest, though, and each of them have captivated our collective imagination for generations. Of these three, Sati was arguably the mightiest in stature.

Sati was the daughter of Daksha Prajapati. She had married Lord Shiva, apparently against her father’s wishes, and lived with him on the mountain of Kailasha. Once her father Daksha organised a huge yajna to which all the gods were invited.

[Allow me to digress a little at this point. Hindu mythology is delightfully vague about the distinction between  gods and mere mortals–quite a few gods were positively decadent, including Indra, the king of gods, and mere humans were sometimes more virtuous than the gods themselves. Another recurring motif in Hindu mythology is the virtuous being forever put to test by the gods, which confounded me somewhat as a child–I gathered it must be better to not be too conspicuous in one’s virtuosity so as not to attract the attention of the gods and be put to test after arduous test , no? (By the way, this idea of being put to test is apparently prevalent in Christianity too, as the line ‘do not bring us to the test but deliver us from evil‘ from the Lord’s Prayer seems to indicate.) Another point that strikes one is that gods and humans interacted quite freely and frequently.Daksha prajapati inviting all the gods, and the gods attending, is a case in point. It was also quite normal for gods to marry humans and vice-versa, which blurred the lines even more. ]

Okay, back to Daksha Prajapati’s yajna. So he invited all the gods to his yajna, all except his son-in-law Shiva. Sati was incredulous–how could her father not have invited Shiva? It must have been a mistake , she reckoned and decided to attend the yajna uninvited, despite Shiva’s advice to the contrary, hoping to get her father to rectify the mistake.

Once she arrived at the venue of the yajna, it became quickly apparent to Sati that Shiva’s omission had not been a mistake but a deliberate attempt to humiliate him. She had a heated exchange with her father and in a fit of temper, she invoked her own divine powers and immolated herself, swearing that she would be reborn only to a man who was worthy of her respect.

When Shiva sensed what had transpired, all hell literally broke loose. He arrived at the scene and killed everyone present at the yajna, including Daksha Prajapati himself, threw his wife’s charred remains over his shoulder and ran around the world in furious, all-consuming grief.

It fell upon Lord Vishnu to pacify Shiva, and he did so by dismembering Sati’s dead body bit by bit with his Sudarshan Chakra until nothing remained of it. This somehow brought Shiva back to his senses and while still grieving, he restored those whom he had killed to life (err.. why couldn’t he bring Sati back to life?) and returned to Kailasha.

True to her word, Sati was thereafter reborn as Parvati–to Himavan, a Shiva devotee–and grew up to marry Shiva.

Moral of the story? Quite a few, actually.

1. No points for guessing whose side to take in the unfortunate event of a tiff between the husband and the natal family. It is quite obvious–the husband must always have the unstinting support of the wife in all such cases, just as Shiva had the support of Sati. In any case many Indian women frequently have no choice but to take the husband’s side since she cannot really forsake her marriage over anything, so it might well be the case of making a virtue out of a necessity!!

2. There is no sacrifice too big for the cause of the husband’s honour. Sati, after all,  gave up her life for what she perceived to be an insult to the dignity of her husband.

3. If the father of a woman fails to treat her husband with utmost respect, he is apt to lose the respect of his daughter–not to mention attract widespread condemnation.

Sati has exercised a hold over the consciousness of an entire civilization. The barbaric medieval practice of sati. wherein widows were expected to burn themselves alive on their husband’s funeral pyre, was actually inspired by the legend of Sati.

The story of Sati may not be as well-known today as, say, the stories in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata but even today, the Hindi word sateetva (literally Sati-ness or the quality of being Sati),  stands for nobleness/virtuosity in a woman. A very desirable quality, undoubtedly.

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22 Responses to Sati, Savitri and Sita : Role-Models For The Ideal Indian Woman- Part 1

  1. Swati Murti says:

    well, no one in the world is a Shiva or Sati so as you said, it is more of a necessity now rather than a choice. well, yes, any wife would expect her husband to be treated with respect. but, i do think that equating indian women to the status of Sati or rather quoting these as examples of standards is really cruel. its not fair on mere mortals and as you said hindu mythology is definitely vague but probably that’s what makes it more relatable. in fact, greek mythology is equally vague and full of gods who are so humane and succumb to temptations of the mortals.

    • You have a point–Hindu mythology is probably vague on purpose, to make it more relatable. And yes, it is definitely not fair on mere mortals to be held up to these examples!!
      Welcome here, Swati.

      • The term ‘God’ might not be an accurate one- perhaps the term ‘Demigod” is better as a translation of the word ‘Deva’.
        The other point is that with the advent of the legends of Vishnu and Shiva and later on Ram and Krishna, the Devas were really relegated to the background. Krishna himself specifically targeted Indra when he (mythologically) lifted the Govardhan mountain.

  2. Ashwathy says:

    The barbaric medieval practice of sati. wherein widows were expected to burn themselves alive on their husband’s funeral pyre, was actually inspired by the legend of Sati.

    Er…it still doesn’t make sense, the way I see it. She was furious over the humiliation of her husband by her father and then killed herself. How does that translate to a woman being pushed into the funeral pyre of her husband once he dies??? 😯

    • Yeah doesn’t make sense really. Maybe the logic was that if her husband’s humiliation could provoke Sati into killing herself, surely women should treat their husbands’ death as an event calamitous enough to warrant such a step. How terrible 😦

    • It might have been inspired by the legend of Sati- but it was by no means a commonly followed practice. Notice Mahabharata- after Pandu died, only Maadri commited Sati- and that too because of the guilt for being responsible for her husband’s death. Kunti remained very much alive till the end.
      Sati really became a malpractice only in the darkness and decadence of 17th-18th century when widows began to be forced to commit Sati.

      • Ashwathy says:

        Yes, exactly the point. “Being forced to commit sati” 😐
        And they just related it to back to this story since this seemed a close example of how outraged a woman should be if her husband is humiliated or unhappy in any form. So then death would mean the ultimate cause.

      • @Ashwathy- There are n no of stories. The point is, if there is ignorance and spiritual darkness among the masses, then some vested interests will always exploit some of them. The story of Sati has been there for thousand of years- it became a malpractice only in 17-18th Century. It tells us that there was something wrong with the people and their thinking (or lack thereof), not the story itself.

      • If you think there’s nothing wrong with the story as such, then I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

        In my opinion the legend has always been a potent tool in the hands of patriarchy. Sati and her supreme sacrifice have always been lauded through the millenia, with women being exhorted to live up to her example in life and if possible even in death. In that sense it has greatly harmed the cause of women.

        I do not think Sati the practice was ever completely voluntary even pre-17th–18th century– there is likely to have been social pressure even if the widows were not physically pushed into the pyres the way it came to pass later.

  3. R's Mom says:

    oh so thats how Sati came into existence is it? but logically, (thats the problem if you are the mother of a 4 year old, you want everything to be explained logically!) if Sati was angry with her dad, why did she burn HERSELF! weird lady..she should have just burned everything in the yagna na..and then her father would have apologised…or rather the yagna wouldnt have happened..na rahegi baas, na bajegi basuri…I wish I was there to tell Sati all this..imagine how many lives it would have saved in the past 100s of years!!!

    Is there any hidden meaning in the story which the simple mind of mine is missing out?

  4. Deeps says:

    I have heard this story many times before SH, from my grandmother and sometimes my mother narrated them to me while growing up, and still it failed to make any sense to me, no matter how many times I had heard it.

    “This somehow brought Shiva back to his senses and while still grieving, he restored those whom he had killed to life (err.. why couldn’t he bring Sati back to life?)” Some of the stories and incidents in Hindu Mythology beat all possible logic ,I tell you! And we base our faith on such illogical beliefs! 🙄

    • We do not base our faith on mythologies. If we do, it means we are living in darkness of the medieval ages. As educated, enlightened beings, we are expected to seek the truth and the divine and our scriptures like Upanishads and philosophies like Advaita Vedanta (started by Adi Sankaracharya in the 8th century and popularized in the West by Swami Vivekanand) have enough details. Even the much maligned Tulasidas and his RamCharitManas has many Vedantic elements.
      BTW, talking about logic, every fantastical tale has its own world whose reality is different than ours. In this case, since it was Sati herself who had immolated herself using her Yogic powers, so Shiva could not bring her back. Another point- more philosophical- even gods can control only their own actions. They do not have any leash on free will. So Shiva could bring back only those who were killed due to his anger and not those who had died out of their free will.

      • @Analyseabhishek, I am inclined to feel that a substantial part of our faith–at the popular level anyway– is indeed largely based on mythology. We may be educated and enlightened but very few of us have had the time or inclination to peruse our scriptures like the Upanishads–and most of these few would probably be scholars of Sanskrit/ comparative religion with an academic interest in the subject. Our faith is certainly pretty medieval in that sense.

        You have a good point about gods not having much of a leash on free will and events that follow a Karmic chain. That’s an interesting perspective.

      • Deeps says:

        “Another point- more philosophical- even gods can control only their own actions. They do not have any leash on free will. So Shiva could bring back only those who were killed due to his anger and not those who had died out of their free will.” Very interesting perspective indeed.

        And I agree with scribblehappy. We may be educated and enlightened but not many of us show the inclination to read the scriptures and seek the truth in them. Most of us follow beliefs blindly because of fear of societal rejection and also because its convenient, or so I feel.

      • I’ll quote Alberuni, the Persian/Uzbek scholar who is regarded as the first ever Indologist- “…The Hindus believe with regard to God that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by freewill, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, preserving ; one who in his sovereignty is unique, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and that he does not resemble anything nor does anything resemble him”

        Where can a lay person find such a description of God in Hinduism? Simple! You can start from Ram Charit Manas! Now it is a different matter that popular tastes scarcely delve into those nitty-gritties and prefers the simple, miracle laced and mythologically spiced version. But then, it is our job to rise above them. Ridiculing the religion itself because of some tales grand mothers told isn’t good.

      • I am pretty sure that only a very few Hindus today subscribe to the kind of idealised Hinduism Alberuni may have pointed to. The way I see it, it has less to do with the majority of Hindus not taking the trouble to seek the truth and more to do with Hinduism being an unwieldy, esoteric, pantheistic faith with too many scriptures, all of them open to any number of interpretations.

        It is fallacious to dismiss mythological stories as not-quite-proper Hinduism just because our grandmothers were fond of telling them–these stories do have a textual presence and were not merely a figment of our grandmothers’ imaginations. It is also equally fallacious to anoint any one school of Hinduism as ‘true’ Hinduism, IMO.

        I think there is nothing wrong in criticizing aspects of religion which you do not agree with or which make you uncomfortable. Protestantism wouldn’t have come into being if nobody had problems with certain aspects of Roman Catholicism. Many Christians have difficulty agreeing with the idea of immaculate conception, but that hardly makes them any less Christians.

    • Adi Shakti says:

      The reason behind Sati’s self-immolation was to sever all ties with Daksha, and this wasn’t possible until she quit the body born out of Daksha. As the author writes, “she invoked her own divine powers and immolated herself, swearing that she would be reborn only to a man who was worthy of her respect”. But Lord Shiva didn’t resurrect Sati because this would have falsified Sati’s vow.

  5. Arch says:

    I have never heard this story. Also, all the other stories of mythology I heard came with a regular dose on how it cannot be applied today. I usually change my opinions on mythological characters after I learn the entire story :O, so will read on it soon.

    • Knowing the entire story can sometimes be crucial in order to see it in the right perspective, though in this case I’m not sure if there is a larger context to the tale–do read on it and let me know what you think.
      Welcome here, Arch.

  6. camel says:

    As I understand, sateetva has less to do with the story of sati but more with the fact that a loving wife through her prayers for the wellbeing of her husband is able to create a devine protection shield for her husband which even the gods cannot break through. Sateetva is not a weakness but a power within a woman.

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