The Practice of Sati

For Westerners the word sati has meant the act of the burning of a widow rather than the Goddess Sati, or the woman who becomes a goddess, satimata. The practice of sati has always been the exception rather than the rule15, but the idea of sati seems as powerful now as it ever was.

A testament to the power of the practice of sati is the glorification of sati. Feminists protests against the glorification of sati seem to make little impact to the 300,00 people who came to Roop Kanwar's chunari celebration, (a celebration held to worship the satimata held after her death). The practice of sati is not only glorified in India, but in the West. Until well into the nineteenth century almost every report of a western's travel through India included an account of a sati they had witnessed16 .

"Procession of Hindoo Woman to the Funeral Pile of her Husband," by William Hodges. From his Travels in India During the years 1780-1783.

Sati as a practice fascinates yet repulses the audience. The spectacle of sati objectifies the woman who is burning alive. The audience is compelled to watch her in pain, yet does nothing to come to her aid. An account of the Roop Kanwar case describes how the onlookers watched as Kanwar's arms flailed in agony. The crowd interpreted her as not in pain, but instead to be showering blessings on them. Elaine Scarry theorizes that pain is wordless, this is nowhere more true than in the language of Kanwar's burning arms.

The practice of sati depends on the audience. It is only when worshipers come to witness the pain of the widow that she becomes a satimata, a goddess. It depends on the silent language of pain. The onlookers must be aware of a satimata's pain, and it is the spectacle of her ability to withstand pain that fascinates, yet horrifies the crowd. But it is their ability to ignore her pain that allows the sati to continue. If they can interpret her pain as a blessing, her pain is used as a force to propel into the realm of goddess.