Satī as an Ideal Hindu Woman

Satī as an Ideal Hindu Woman

The stories of Satī and Sāvitrī are among those which have been have been held up as ideals for Hindu women. But in the popular Hindu imagination they have not merely been held up as ideals for Hindu women. They have been held up as upholding a particular kind of ideal for Hindu women—that of devotion to the husband. There are good reasons for this. Both the stories are heavily freighted with conjugal devotion. But is that the only ideal they hold up to women?

Let us consider only one of them for the time being—the story of Satī. The story is found in many versions but the following account should suffice. One begins with the general background of the story:

Very long ago there was a chief of the gods named Daksha. He married Prasuti, daughter of Manu; she bore him sixteen daughters, of whom the youngest, Satī, became the wife of Shiva. This was a match unpleasing to her father, for he had a grudge against Shiva, not only for  his disreputable habits, but because Shiva, upon the occasion of a festival to which he has been invited, did not offer homage to Daksha. For this reason Daksha had pronounced a curse upon Shiva, that he should receive no portion of the offerings made to the gods. A Brāhman of Shiva’s party, however, pronounced the contrary curse, that Daksha should waste his life in material pleasures and ceremonial observances and should have a face like a goat. [1]

This may be followed by an account of their wedding.

Meanwhile Satī grew up and set her heart on Shiva, worshiping him in secret. She became of marriageable age, and her father held aswayamvara, or own-choice, for her, to which he invited the gods and princes from far and near, except only Shiva. Then Satī was borne into the great assembly, wreath in hand. But Shiva was nowhere to be seen, amongst the gods or men. Then in despair she cast her wreath into the air, calling upon Shiva to receive the garland; and behold he stood in the middle of the court with the wreath about his neck. Daksha had then no choice but to complete the marriage; and Shiva went away with Satī to his home in Kailās. [2]

It is however the following sequence of events which has made the name of Satī a byword for devotion to the husband in Hindu mythology and Hindu homes.

One day Daksha made arrangements for a great horse sacrifice, and invited all the gods to come and share in the offerings, omitting only Shiva. The chief offerings were to be made to Vishnu. Presently Satī observed the departure of the gods, as they set out to visit Daksha, and turning to her lord, she asked: “Whither, O Lord, are bound the gods, with Indra at their head?” Then Mahādeva answered: “Shining lady, the good patriarch Daksha has prepared a horse sacrifice, and thither the gods repair.” She asked him: “Why dost thou not also go to this great ceremony?” He answered: “It has been contrived amongst the gods that I should have no part in any such offerings as are made at sacrifices.” [3]

This led to trouble.

Then Satī was angry and she exclaimed: “How can it be that he who dwells in every being, he who is unapproachable in power and glory, should be excluded from oblations? What penance, what gift shall I make that my lord, who transcends all thought, should receive a share, a third or a half, of the oblation?” Then Shiva smiled at Satī, pleased with her affection; but he said: “These offerings are of little moment to me, for they sacrifice to me who chant the hymns of the Sāmavada; my priests are those who offer the oblation of true wisdom, where no officiating Brāhman is needed; that is my portion.” Satī answered: “It is not difficult to make excuses before women. Howbeit, thou shouldst permit me at least to go to my father’s house on this occasion.” “Without invitation?” he asked. “A daughter needs no invitation to her father’s house,” she replied. “So be it,” answered Mahādeva, “but known that ill will come of it; for Daksha will insult me in your presence.”

So Satī went to her father’s house, and there she was indeed received, but without honor, for she rode on Shiva’s bull and wore a beggar’s dress. She protested against her father’s neglect of Shiva; but Daksha broke into angry curses and derided the “king of goblins,” the “beggar,” the “ash-man,” the long-haired yogi. Satī answered her father: “Shiva is the friend of all; no one but you speaks ill of him. All that thou sayest the devas know, and yet adore him. But a wife, when her lord is reviled, if she cannot slay the evil speakers, must leave the place closing her ears with her hands, or, if she have power, should surrender her life. This I shall do, for I am ashamed to own this body to such as thee.” Then Satī released the inward consuming fire and fell dead at Daksha’s feet. [4]

The story certainly testifies to Satī’s devotion to her husband and her unwillingness to stand by when he husband is insulted. But there is much more to the story than this. First of all, Satī chooses her own husband, despite paternal opposition to the choice. There is indeed an element of irony in the fact that Satī should be held up as a model wife to those women, whose husbands have not been chosen by them but by their families! Second, Satī shows great physical courage in insisting on going to the father’s house in full awareness of what her father thought of her husband. It is again ironical that such a person should be held up as a model for young women who are usually reared in a sheltered environment and will hardly have had occasions to witness displays of physical courage by women—given the kind of cloistered existence led by most. Third, not only does Satī exhibit physical courage, she also displays great mental toughness. Very briefly, she is self-willed. She tried to have her way. She asserts he rights and reacts strongly when she sees them compromised. Finally, there is this tremendous devotion displayed toward her husband.

Why is it only one of these four aspects of Satī’s character-profile—the last—so dominates our perception of her? Is it because historical trends have left this as the only aspect of her example Hindu women could follow—when avenues of self-selection of mates, display of physical courage and expression of will-power were closed to them. And if such is the case then is the last ideal viable in itself—without being nourished by the other three?

[1] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita, The Myths of the Hindus and the Buddhists (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) p. 288-289.

[2] Ibid, p. 288.

[3] Ibid, p. 288-289.

[4] Ibid, p. 288-289.


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