Pain in Sati: The Making of a Goddess

Cover illustration designed by Shakuntala Kullkarni for Trial by Fire, a publication of the Women and Media Comittee of the Bombay Union of Journalists.

In 1987, in the Indian village of Deorala, Roop Kanwar, a cosmopolitan, educated 18 year old burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre.1 This event raised tremendous controversy in India and in the West. Anti-sati feminists responded with protests and marches, condemning the glorification of sati, yet they barely influenced the 300,000 pilgrims who came by the busloads to worship at the site of the cremation. The devotees not only paid homage but also created a perfect commercial setting for selling sati by buying cheap reproductions of the couple's wedding portrait, taking tour's of Kanwar's bedroom, and bringing business to the many sati memorabilia stands that had suddenly cropped up all over Deorala.2

While Indians debated over "tradition" versus "modernity", while feminists protested and pilgrims prayed, Roop Kanwar was becoming a goddess. Through the act of Kanwar's burning body, a divinity was born. Although all Indian women are seen as forms of the one Goddess, Devi, not all women are worshipped as divine beings. Kanwar had not become merely a form of Devi, or even an incarnation of the Goddess Sati, Kanwar had become a goddess in her own right. By burning alive, Kanwar had transformed from a human being into a goddess, a satimata.3

I will refer to Elaine Scarry's theories on pain to explain how a woman who performs sati is transformed through the pain of her burning body into a goddess (a satimata). I will also show how Sati the goddess, sati the practice, and sati as it refers to the woman herself are linked through the experience of pain and destruction of the female body.