Paul B. Courtright

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:

Show Summary Details


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.

Article.  6347 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.