Hinduism Sati
by
Paul B. Courtright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0082

Introduction

The word sati (Skt. satī) may refer to one of three categories. First, sati is one of the terms for a good woman, one who exemplifies the highest dharma. The term may also be used as an honorific title for a goddess or heroine: Satī Sāvitrī. While the term sati may refer to an unmarried ascetic, the more general context is that of marriage. Hence, the sati is the wife who embodies through her devotion to her husband the ideal of the pativratā, the chaste wife. Second, as a proper name, Satī is a goddess in Hindu mythology, the wife of Shiva, who immolated herself in her father’s sacrificial fire in response to his rejection of her husband Shiva’s exclusion from the sacrifice. In some versions of the story, she is reborn as Parvatiand marries Shiva in that life; in others, Shiva takes her smoldering body from the fire and wanders off into the mountains consumed with grief and performs his doomsday (taṇḍava) dance. Vishnu and the gods pursue them and cut her body into pieces. Each piece falls to the ground and Satī is established whole in each place. Shiva remains with each Satī in the form of the liṅga. These body parts of Satī are knows as the śāktapīṭhass, or “seats of power” of Śakti, the goddess. The third context for the term sati is that of the devoted wife who immolates herself on the funeral fire of her deceased husband. The sati has been and continues to be venerated as the ideal of wifely devotion in some parts of Hindu India. It has been a controversial topic both within Hindu discourses since around the 6th century CE, and it became an important focus for British debates on social policy and religion in the 1820s leading up to the abolition of the practice in British India and later across the subcontinent. During the colonial period, the Sanskrit term satī (spelled in English suttee or sati) came to refer to the ritual of immolation as well as the wife undergoing it. In central and western India, satis have been remembered by families, villages, and communities as goddesses or mahāsatīs. Stone slabs with the iconic upraised right hand and wrist, often located in cremation grounds, are decorated with garlands of flowers as part of the practice of lineage deities. The immolation of Roop Kanwar, an eighteen-year-old Rajput wife on 4 September 1987, in the otherwise obscure small town of Deorala, Rajasthan, provoked a national and international resurfacing of the subject of sati in the Indian and international media in the context of postcolonial India, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the foregrounding of women’s issues in Indian society. For Hindu nationalists, Roop Kanwar emerged as an icon of traditional values; for advocates of a modern secular India, she became an icon of women’s victimization by a retrograde patriarchy.

General Overviews

Overviews of the topic generally focus on either the goddess Satī, the wife of Shiva, or sati, the immolation of wives. On Satī, the goddess, Kinsley 1986 offers an overview of the major goddess traditions. Sharma, et al. 1988 is a collection of essays on aspects of sati from Sanskrit sources. Major 2006 reviews the history of Western encounters with and interpretations of sati. Major 2007 includes many of the important primary materials on sati. Mani 1998 presents a pathbreaking discourse analysis of British colonial and elite Hindu sources in early-19th-century Bengal. Weinberger-Thomas 1999 examines the practice of sati in India and Southeast Asia with an in-depth focus on Rajput culture. The book brings together historical and extensive ethnographic research that locates sati within the Hindu ideology of self-sacrifice as applied to both sexes. Hawley 1994 is a collection of essays that look at the tradition of sati. Thompson 1928 is the first book-length study of sati and is important historically in that it articulates the British polemic against sati, written at the time of intensified Indian resistance to colonial rule. Sunder Rajan 1993 explores a range of issues around how the subjectivity and agency of the sati are represented in colonial discourses in the 19th century and the public responses to the immolation of Roop Kanwar in 1987. Especially important is the author’s discussion of the sati’s experience of pain.

  • Hawley, John Stratton, ed. Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays by distinguished Indian and American scholars on the tradition of sati, with particular focus on the Roop Kanwar case, gender issues, and the discourses around sati in contemporary India. Hawley’s introduction and epilogue are especially useful.

  • Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book provides a comprehensive presentation of multiple goddess traditions and the underlying meanings of feminine power within the mythologies of Hinduism’s major goddesses.

  • Major, Andrea. Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati, 1500–1830. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thorough and well-written historical overview of European travel narratives, literary themes, and colonial sources on the reception of sati in European discourses.

  • Major, Andrea. Sati: A Historical Anthology. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides primary materials on sati ranging from dharmaśāstra discourse, colonial debates, scholarly essays, and public responses to the 1987 immolation of Roop Kanwar.

  • Mani, Lata. Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent discourse analysis approach to British colonial and elite Hindu sources in early-19th-century Bengal. Mani develops a finely nuanced feminist critique of how the debate over the abolition of sati was more about the limits of colonial rule than it was about the fate of women.

  • Sharma, Arvind, with Ajit Ray, Alika Hejib, and Katherine K. Young. Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays on aspects of sati from Sanskrit sources along with a concluding essay on the religious dimensions of self-willed death in the Hindu tradition.

  • Sunder Rajan, Rajeshwari. Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1993.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203359662E-mail Citation »

    Brings postcolonial theory to several feminist concerns regarding cultural representations and practices focusing on women. In her discussion of sati (pp. 15–60), Sunder Rajan explores a range of issues around how the subjectivity and agency of the sati are represented in colonial discourses in the 19th century and the public responses to the immolation of Roop Kanwar in 1987. Especially important is her discussion of the sati’s experience of pain.

  • Thompson, Edward John. Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning. London: Allen and Unwin, 1928.

    E-mail Citation »

    A polemical colonialist overview of the history of sati written at the time of the emerging nationalist noncooperation movement in the 1920s. An important example of how the sati issue was used to imply that Indian society was not ready for independence.

  • Weinberger-Thomas, Catherine. Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and David Gordon White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A highly original and insightful inquiry into the religious logic of sati in the context of Rajput culture, drawing on historical and extensive ethnographic research. French edition: Centres d’immortalite: La cremation des veuves en Inde (Paris: Seuill, 1996).

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