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.