Preferred Citation: Harlan, Lindsey. Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 4 Satimata Tradition the Transformative Process

Chapter 4
Satimata Tradition
the Transformative Process

On the outskirts of Udaipur is Ahar, the dusty one-lane town that is the site of Udaipur's royal cremation compound. Entering the compound, a walled area of perhaps ten acres or so, the visitor passes constellations of large stone monuments (chatris ) in memory of Mewar's deceased monarchs. Further on are older cenotaphs, most of which have started to crumble. Field grass has sprung up between the stones in their long staircases; weeds and vines attack their bases. At the top of each staircase is a large covered platform in the middle of which is set a carved stone depicting a monarch and the women who shared his funeral pyre. Below the monuments are small platforms (cabutras ) supporting more such memorial stones—some of them comparatively crude—dedicated to less illustrious ancestors (figs. 21, 22).

Although commemorating the deaths of male ancestors and of their queens, they are often referred to simply as sati stones.[1] They celebrate the loyalty women have shown in abandoning life to join their husbands in the afterworld.[2] Thus each is marked at its apex with a relief carving

[1] This is particularly true when they are referred to in English, whether by foreigners or by Indian historians and journalists. On these stones and their significance in Maharashtra, see Gunther D. Sontheimer, "Hero and Sati-stones in Maharashtra," in Memorial Stones , ed. S. Settar and Gunther D. Sontheimer (Dharwad: Institute of Art History, Karnatak University and Heidelberg: South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, 1982); on Karnataka and Maharashtra, see Romila Thapar, "Death and the Hero," in Mortality and Immortality , ed. S. C. Humphries and Helen King (London: Academic Press, 1982).

[2] What percentage of Rajput women have died as satis is unknown. Informed estimates, based on extant sati monuments, range between 1 and 2 percent, but no one really knows about medieval times.


of a woman's hand, the general representation of auspiciousness and in this narrow context the symbol for a sati . To one side of the hand is the sun, to the other the moon, which together are taken to mean, "So long as there shall be a sun and a moon, let this event be remembered." The satis ' stylized faces and postures are serene. They look peaceful. In fact, with their palms joined in an anjali (a prayer gesture with palms open and fingertips touching), the satis seem lost in meditation.

The inner peacefulness of their expression mirrors the tranquility of the surroundings. Whenever I have visited Ahar, and I have done so often, I have shared only the company of furtive chipmunks in the underbrush and yawning buffalo off in the muddy stream bordering the cremation platform. True, I have seen at Ahar evidence of active veneration of the sati stones, many of which are adorned with vermilion and silver foil, but because most worship of satis is done by women, who venerate satis at simpler shrines in their households, such stones are left unattended most of the time. They may only be worshiped, in fact, when there is a marriage or a birth in the family, in which case they are given special tribute (dhok ).

The composure of the sati images and the calm of their surroundings always strike me as oddly disquieting.[3] The serenity stands in ironic contrast to the violent way in which these women died. Sometimes as I have contemplated these stones I have imagined the scene that each commemorates. I have thought of a woman stepping out from the security of parda into a once somber, now expectant crowd of spectators, jostling one another to catch a glimpse of her mounting the pyre and becoming a sati . I have wondered: how could she stand the pain? Death by fire is unthinkable.

Be that as it may, my purpose in this chapter is to construct how it is that a sati 's death is "thinkable." I do not propose to assess the phenomenon historically:[4] I leave to others the task of addressing the political, economic, and social implications of sati immolations and assessing the extent to which such immolations were voluntary.[5] Rather, I intend to

[3] In the village where I worked, the sati stones (one for each of the Rajput kuls , Jhala and Rathaur) were also situated in sedate surroundings. They sat on a cabutra under a tall shade tree on the village outskirts near the communal well.

[4] For historical information, see Datta, Sati ; Meena Gaur, Sati and Social Reforms (Jaipur: Publication Scheme, 1989); Romila Thapar, "In History," Seminar 342 (February 1988); Arvind Sharma, Sati (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988); Veena Das, "Gender Studies," Berkshire Review (1986); and Courtright, Dreadful Practice .

[5] See Veena Das, "Strange Response," Illustrated Weekly of India , 28 Feb. 1988; Thapar, "In History"; and other articles in Seminar 342 and Manushi , nos. 42–43. These are only a few of the many articles analyzing the controversy erupting from the Rup Kanwar case mentioned in the introduction. For further theoretical perspectives, see Lata Mani, "Multiple Mediations," Inscriptions (Santa Cruz: University of California, 1989); and Rajeshwari Sundar Raian, "The Subject of Sati," Yale Journal of Criticism , vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 1990.



Sati monuments at Ahar.



Detail from a sati stone, Ahar.

explain the ways in which Rajputs have understood sati immolation and analyze specifically what the sati has represented, what she has meant , to the women I came to know in Rajasthan during my time there (figs. 23, 24).[6]

In the minds of Rajputs the transformation of a woman into a sati does not, as is often assumed, result from the act of self-immolation. The word sati means "a good woman" and not, as English speakers tend to think, an act.[7] We may speak of sati as something one commits, but Hindi speakers define sati as that which one becomes (sati ho jana ). This usage reflects the understanding all Rajput women have of the sati : becoming a sati is a process, a process instigated at the moment of marriage or occasionally even at the moment of betrothal. As we shall see, because there is parallel fire symbolism in the marriage ritual and sati cremation, circumambulating a funeral pyre transforms a fiancée into a

[6] No study of sati tradition takes into account the testimony of living devotees and the community context; see remarks in the introduction.

[7] English generally spells the word it uses to describe immolation "suttee."



Sati image from Ahar.



Popular depiction of a sati
(from an icon shop at the gates of the gates of the Ekling Ji temple).


wife, who can then become a sati . Thus the transcendent powers that a sati wields are thought not merely the consequence of the act of dying; they are the result of her successful development of pativrata character as a married woman or even as a fiancée. In short, the sati serves women as an accessible ideal, for she has become a sati by fulfilling the role that they aspire to fulfill, that of the pativrata .

Before investigating the standard scenario that is thought to transform a woman into a sati , let me reiterate that today the practice of dying as a sati is largely extinct.[8] It is also illegal. On those rare occasions when it does occur, both the government and the press vigorously condemn it.[9] The near elimination of the custom, however, has not caused the worship of satis to diminish. On the contrary. Rajput women continue to revere past satis and admire their spirit as pativratas , but most women now reject self-immolation as an option for themselves—not least of all, they readily say, because their relatives could be tried as accomplices. Becoming a sati would harm rather than help the family. The women in one thikana told me that not long ago a sati simultaneously appeared in all the dreams of the women in their household and ordered the family to allow no more satis .

Nevertheless, Rajput women remain visibly proud of the courage and conviction that satis have shown in dying and remain steadfast in their sati veneration. Because of this continuing reverence (and because self-immolation of this type still occasionally occurs), I use the present tense in describing sati tradition. When speaking of self-immolation, however, I intend the present largely in its historical sense.

Stages of Sati Transformation

The transformation of a woman into a sati comprises three stages. The first of these is the pativrata stage. A woman becomes a pativrata when she marries. Thus the word pativrata sometimes simply refers to a wife. But as we have seen, even when used in this basic way it bears an ideological nuance, for it literally means someone who has made a vow, a vrat , to a husband, a pati . The substance of this vow is devotion, which is understood primarily as protection. If a wife is devoted to her hus-

[8] Comparative work on contemporary instances of sati immolation includes Courtright, Dreadful Practice ; and K. Sangari and S. Vaid, "Sati in Modern India," Economic and Political Weekly , 1 Aug. 1981, 1285–88.

[9] Examples of condemnation include "Sati: A Pagan Sacrifice," India Today 15 Oct. 1987; and Bakshi, "Shame," The Illustrated Weekly of India 4 Aug. 1987, 20–23.


band and so protects him, he will prosper. If not, he will suffer and perhaps even die, which will bring misfortune to his family as well.

As a pativrata , a woman protects her husband in two basic ways. She serves him: she sees to it that her husband's meals are hot and his clothes are cleaned, obeys the commands of her senior in-laws, and tends to her children. Second, she performs religious rituals, such as fasts. By doing so she pleases various deities, who compensate her by protecting her husband and helping her to be a better pativrata , thus increasing her personal capacity to protect her husband.

If despite her devotion her husband dies before she does, she can escape culpability by following his body onto his cremation pyre. She makes a vrat , a vow, to burn her body along with his.[10] By this vow she is transformed from a pativrata into a sativrata , one who, as a good woman (sati ), has made a vrat to die with her husband.[11] In formulating an intention to die she enters into the second stage of the satimata transformation process.[12]

When the sativrata perishes in her husband's cremation fire, she becomes a satimata . In this last stage, she joins other family satimatas in protecting the welfare of the family she has left behind. Her protective services are basically those performed by the kuldevi in her maternal aspect. Yet the kuldevi is a bilocal, bifunctional being; the satimata stays in one place and performs what is fundamentally one function. The kuldevi serves on the battlefield as a kul protector and within the household as a family protector; the satimata devotes her undivided attention to family protection.

Whereas the kuldevi is a goddess, the status of the satimata is far less clear. Women I interviewed generally explained her status as lower than that of a goddess (devi ) but higher than that of an ancestor (pitrani ).[13] In some communities in Rajasthan people of various backgrounds may

[10] In conversation women occasionally substituted the term sankalp for vrat .

[11] As chapter 3 notes, a pativrata cannot intend, much less vow, to be a satimata while her husband is alive: to do so would be to will his death before hers and to betray her prior vow to protect him.

[12] The terms pativrata and satimata are common but sativrata is not, though its meaning is clear to all. It seems analogous to such "high Hindi" terms as sakahari (vegetarian) and viseshkar (especially); everyone knows these but few employ them in everyday speech. People usually speak of the pativrata or satimata , not the sativrata , as deciding to die. It is not especially significant that "sativrata" is seldom used colloquially; what is important is that the sativrata period, the time between the sati 's vow and her death, is a discrete period of transition. As this chapter shows, during this time a woman displays supernatural powers and lays down rules for her future veneration. For convenience, I employ sativrata when discussing this interim stage.

[13] As I learned by blundering, it is rather insulting to refer to a satimata as a pitrani .


understand satis to be goddesses or at least associate them with divine (goddess-like) power.[14] In either case a satimata seems not to have the range of character that goddesses generally have. Lacking the fierce animalian iconography of the battlefield kuldevi , she is ever the lovely and devoted wife, the embodiment of the pativrata ideal. In this form she protects pativratas and encourages them, and sometimes coerces them, to perform their duties of protecting and increasing the family. Moreover, she functions as paradigm; she represents utter perfection of the pativrata role.

The Satimata as Ideal

In the satimata is found the pativrata so perfected in pativrata virtue that she has transcended pativrata status. She stands for all that is appropriate in a married woman's behavior, all that is admirable in a married woman's character. Rajput women explain that she is the ideal woman and as such, the ideal Rajput woman.

What this boils down to is that Rajput women identify the perfection of the pativrata role as a Rajput capacity or talent. They feel that as Rajputs, they are endowed with the raw fiber that inclines them to become satimatas and that valid sati transformations are overwhelmingly Rajput.[15]

Because Rajputs associate satimata status with Rajput caste, they have often been leery of non-Rajput satis . Their suspiciousness stems from the belief that inasmuch as non-Rajput women lack the innate

[14] This conclusion I draw from conversations with Paul Courtright about shrines (mostly new ones) in eastern Rajasthan. In Mewar as elsewhere, some sati memorials depict satis and their spouses as Shaiva devotees: they face Shaiva ling s. This context could be interpreted as identifying husband and wife with Shiv and his wife rather than as portraying devotion, but there is little evidence that women see it this way, especially as they identify the sati not as a devi but simply as a sati , a distinctive sort of being. Whereas women often homologized kuldevis to the Goddess, they never did so for satimatas in interviews or informal conversations. Just as they corrected my insult of referring to satis as pitranis , they corrected my reductionism toward higher divinity. The spectrum of Hindu divinity is simply richer than that of many other, especially western, traditions. Incidentally, not once during my stay was a sati story placed in the context of the Sanskritic story of Shiv and Sati, who killed herself when her father, Daksha, insulted Shiv.

[15] One woman summed up the situation: "Rajput women have the most of the qualities that an Indian woman should have." Still, Rajasthanis understand sati immolations as originally and predominantly a Rajput practice and disagree only on whether non-Rajput women can become legitimate satis . The sati monuments in cremation grounds would indicate that sati immolations were most common among Rajputs, but there is no way of verifying this fact from physical evidence as not all satis are represented by sati monuments. On the spread of sati tradition, see Thapar, "In History."


character with which Rajput women are endowed, they must find it difficult to formulate the heartfelt conviction essential to becoming a sativrata . Many Rajputs said to me that many non-Rajputs want to die as satis only because they hope to improve their personal or caste status. By emulating this and other Rajput customs such as wearing Rajput dress, eating meat, and drinking wine, low-caste groups try to prove their claims that they are actually Rajput or at least Rajput-like.[16]

Rajput women eagerly condemn this imputed motive not only because they disapprove of caste mobility but also because they feel it makes a travesty of the sati transformation, the only legitimate motivation for which is unadulterated devotion to a husband. Since sati transformation represents self-sacrifice, to be valid it must result from pure selflessness, a condition realized only through sincere and skillful pativrata devotion.

The often voiced Rajput conviction that Rajput women are predisposed toward selflessness is predicated at least in part on the assumption that Rajputs are naturally inclined and bound by duty to sacrifice and give. As soldiers, Rajputs have had to sacrifice their lives, and as kings, they have had to provide for their subjects. Rajput women explain that just as sacrificing and giving have characterized the history of Rajput men, so they have characterized the history of Rajput pativratas . Stipulating the meaning of these activities vis-à-vis caste duty will reveal more specifically the rationale of identifying true satis as Rajput. Because, as we have seen, Rajputs think of caste duty, which is both martial and administrative, as primarily male, we should begin this endeavor by looking at the way in which the code of sacrificing and giving is thought to have directed the behavior of Rajput men.

Once again, to the Rajput, battle means sacrifice. It also means giving, for the ultimate gift a Rajput could give was his life. As Ziegler points out, death in battle has always constituted the fulfillment of duty and guaranteed personal salvation:

Another term which was used to describe the great warrior, the vado Rajput, was datar (literally "the giver"), for the Rajput was seen as being the giver of gifts (damn, dat ) to the Brahman, Caran, and Bhat, the giver of grain and sustenance (annandata ) to those who served him, and the giver of protection

[16] Throughout the Rajput community there is a particularly strong fear that daughters will unknowingly marry Darogas, persons descended from liaisons between Rajput men and non-Rajput consorts. Many Darogas have assumed Rajput manners, styles, and customs.


to all. He was also the giver of his life in the preservation of the moral order of society. This particular act of sacrifice was exemplified most clearly in the saka , the great battle, to the death, in preparation for which the Rajput adopted the saffron turban and the saffron robes of the sannyasi in order to show his unreserved commitment to battle and death in battle. Death in battle was itself seen as salvation, the fulfillment of the appointed task, and is expressed in the following terms—vado Rajput to kamn ayo : "the great warrior fought and died in battle," that is, fulfilled his appointed duty and task (kamn ayo ).[17]

Although this characterization is based on a study of Rajput history only through the midseventeenth century, the ideals described remain meaningful today. Rajputs no longer fight in Rajput armies but understand the ability and willingness to give their lives as a living heritage. One thakur , pointing to the respect he receives when he visits the villages once part of his father's estate, comments that respect is an enduring tribute to the sacrifices of royal blood that his family and ancestors made on villagers' behalf. Such sacrifices, he believes, have been an integral part of the Rajput way of life. Their symbolic summation is the saka , the battle unto death. Preparing for the saka (the cutting down), Rajputs donned the garb of ascetics, which showed that they intended to sacrifice their lives in accord with duty and with the reward of a place in warrior heaven. Today the saka remains a powerful symbol of caste identity and personal integrity and represents to all Rajputs the idea that sacrifice is both a natural proclivity and a moral imperative.

The ideal of sacrificing or giving one's life was linked with the duty to give throughout one's life.[18] As members of the royal caste, Rajputs were accountable for the sustenance and prosperity of those whom they ruled. Thus Rajputs have traditionally been addressed by the honorific annadata , "giver of grain." The survival of the conception of the Rajput as benefactor is exemplified by the popular adage that whereas a Brahman approaches a Rajput with his palms up (seeking alms), a Rajput approaches a Brahman with his palms down (giving alms). Rajputs enjoy explaining that their dispositional tendency toward generosity made them fit to rule even over Brahmans, their superiors in terms of caste purity. They also frequently contrast this generosity with what they see as the inherent greediness of baniyas , members of merchant castes. As one nobleman explained to me, the Rajput makes a better politician than the baniya because Rajputs are not naturally motivated by a desire

[17] Ziegler, "Action, Power," 69. On the asceticism of Rajput warfare in ancient and medieval times see Kolff, "The Rajput."

[18] Ziegler, "Action, Power," 69.


for personal profit; they strive for the welfare of those whom they govern.[19] These days the Rajput legacy of patronage has been preserved in some minimal ways, perhaps the most visible of which is the continuing Rajput sponsorship of various traditional festivals and rituals.[20]

In short, sacrifice and donation—yielding up life and property on behalf of subjects—are closely related elaborations of selflessness. They constitute endowments and commandments, representations of what Rajputs are and what they ought to be. They demonstrate the underlying assumption that whereas a Rajput is Rajput by nature, he becomes a realized Rajput, a valiant Rajput, through action in accord with his nature, action that develops his character.[21]

Just as Rajput men have retained the saka , women have retained the sati as a paramount source of inspiration in adapting to modern times and circumstances. In discussing the sati ideal and in describing their everyday lives, Rajput women speak of sacrifice and giving. They explain the sati 's death as the ultimate sacrifice, the balidan that follows a life full of sacrifices.

They believe that this death requires a life of sacrificial devotion to the husband. It consists of giving everything to him, to his family, and to those related to his family through blood or friendship. In this vein, Rajput women often mention the hospitality they offer invited visitors as visible evidence of their ingrained code of giving.

Hence though men and women share the ideals of sacrifice and giving, the contexts and contents of these ideals differ considerably. Rajput women translate the caste duty of generosity within their domestic context: a Rajput woman gives to her family as her husband gives to his subjects.[22] The inherent capacity and duty of Rajput women to give and sacrifice domestically constitute the basis for their claim to have the best prospects for becoming sativratas . They say that the Rajput wife is incomparably devoted to her husband while he lives and so is optimally disposed toward following him when he dies. Moreover, by following

[19] His conviction echoes the position of the Sanskrit Hindu legal texts, the dharmashastras , which hold that the proper aim for a warrior (kshatriya ) is dharma (law, duty, order), whereas the proper aim for a merchant (vaishya ) is artha (material success).

[20] Various royal and aristocratic families hold such festivals at their residences.

[21] Ziegler, "Action, Power," 25.

[22] Rajput women have endowed charities such as temples and girls' schools but have understood their families as their primary arena of giving. Gayatri Devi, a well-known member of the Jaipur royal family, told me of her frustration during World War II when she tried to convince some Rajput noblewomen to knit sweaters for Indian soldiers fighting in Europe. The women refused; it would be improper to give such things to strange men.


him in death she demonstrates to herself and others the sincerity and success with which she has lived as a pativrata .

In this way the sati 's death has served a validating function. Not every Rajput develops into a military hero (vir ), and not every Rajput woman becomes a faultless wife. In fact, even though a woman who is faithful to and protective of her husband is called a pativrata , the term still states an ideal, one she can only approximate during her life. Furthermore, the extent to which a woman approaches this ideal is difficult, if not impossible, for her and others to assess. In her roles as wife and as Rajput a woman faces conflicts she must resolve. Choosing among priorities and interests often creates lingering uncertainty. Yet by dying as a sati a woman acquires the insight and confidence that she has done her duty and done it well.

This understanding of her accomplishment also reconfirms the presumption that becoming a sati is anything but an instantaneous and rash act. It is thought to constitute proof of the existence of character cultivated throughout life as an aspiring pativrata . To appreciate this fact fully we need to scrutinize the content of character. When Rajput women define pativrata or explain what a good Rajput woman is (the two, as we have seen, amount to the same thing), they often say, "a woman with good character (accha caritra )."

This character is not an abstract construct representing the sum total of excellent personal qualities. It is itself a quality. Moreover, it is a quality understood substantively. We speak of a good person, a person with integrity, as a "person of substance." Rajputs also say this but mean it literally. They think of a good person as having sat , a quality that is not abstract but concrete. It is a thing, a material developed through compliance with duty. In the context of women's duty, it refers to the moral fabric enabling a woman to become a sati , a woman incorporating sat . Thus Rajput women will say of a sati that she had tremendous sat in her body.

Sat is not an exclusively female quality. Carrying all the connotations of the English colloquialism "the right stuff," it also defines the realized character of Rajput males. Sat is the agent resulting from and catalyzing compliance with the Rajput code of military chivalry and administrative generosity. Understanding the term in both its female and male contexts is essential to constructing a fully nuanced meaning of the term as it applies in either context.

We can elucidate this term most economically by drawing on the Nainsi ri Khyat , a Marwari text that recounts a number of well known Rajput traditions. The text's version of the story of Guha, founder of


the Guhils, beautifully illustrates the conceptual connection between sat and sati on the one hand and sat and male duty on the other.[23]

It will be recalled that when Guha's pregnant mother, who was returning home from a pilgrimage, learned that her husband had been slain, she determined to become a sati right away. She was dissuaded from doing so by a Brahman, who insisted that she first bear her child.[24] Some time after the queen had given birth to Guha, she desired to fulfill her intention to die as a sativrata . She asked the Brahman who had first counseled her if he would raise her son as a Brahman so that her husband's enemies would not be able to identify and slay the boy. The Brahman, however, was not eager to accept custody of the child. He objected that because the boy was a Rajput, he would grow up wanting to hunt animals and fight wars. That would be abhorrent to a Brahman such as himself.[25] He felt that in taking responsibility for the boy, he would be morally accountable for the consequences of un-Brahmanical activities in which the Rajput boy would doubtless engage.

The queen was sympathetic but said she could do nothing about his predicament, because burning was the result of her very nature. Having been a devoted wife, she could no longer control her urge to die as a sati . She managed to console the fearful Brahman, however, by assuring him that her son and his descendants would be well behaved because their Rajput character would enable them to act appropriately as wards of Brahmans, just as it would enable them to act as Rajput kings when the appropriate time arose for them to conquer territory and rule as kings:

If I am burning because of my nature (satsum balum chum ), then the descendants of the family of this boy will be Rajas: they will pass ten generations (pidhi ) following the manner of life of your clan (kul ). They will give you much happiness and prosperity.[26]

Citing this passage of the Nainsi ri Khyat , Ziegler notes that the word sat carries multiple related meanings, chief among which are "nature, essence; marrow; strength; virtue; courage," and it derives from the

[23] Ziegler, "Action, Power," 113–15.

[24] It is unclear whether the Brahman's reason is disapproval of self-immolation by a pregnant woman or hope that a pregnant woman might bear a son who would preserve her husband's line and inherit his title as king. This uneasiness over the idea of a pregnant sati is apparent in a story one woman told me about a sati in her family. She said that when the sati approached her husband's pyre, some people criticized her for intending to kill her unborn infant. In response, she grabbed a dagger from a bystander and carved the child out of her womb before immolating herself. The child died anyway, the story concludes, leaving unsettled the issue of whether a pregnant woman should die.

[25] Being a vegetarian, the Brahman would wish nothing to do with hunting animals or with the bloody business of battle.

[26] Ziegler, "Action, Power," 114.


Sanskrit sattva , meaning "true essence, the principle of being; substance, any natural property, quality, characteristic, disposition." He concludes that sati immolation "is part of the Ramni 's [Rani's] code of conduct, inherent in her nature or quality of being, just as being a ruler is of her son's descendants who are of the substance and code of a Rajput and possess the potential to fulfill their codes."[27]

Here and elsewhere, the word sat has two distinct though related meanings. First, sat conveys a generic sense of "goodness at." Here goodness is tied to caste-affiliated virtue and duty. For men it means perfection of the duty to act as a Rajput and observe Rajput conventions. Guha's sat creates the urge to fight and hunt, but allowing this behavior violates the Brahman's code of conduct (karm-dharm ).[28] Even if Guha and his descendants manage to control their urges to behave as Rajputs while hiding out at Nagda, a future generation is certain to reveal the Rajput character that its progenitors repressed. It will conquer a kingdom and found a line of rajas.

This generic use of the term sat , however, exists alongside the more specific meaning of sat as goodness, truth, and purity.[29] This same definition of sat is articulated in the Indian notion of the three guns or qualities.[30] According to popular wisdom, sat is the virtue associated with Brahmans whereas rajas (passion, activity) belongs to Rajputs, and tamas (darkness, torpor) to baniyas .

Despite the formal distribution of the three qualities among high-caste groups, Rajputs with whom I conversed on the topic said that Rajputs have both rajas and sat and that both are essential to the performance of caste duty. It is tempting to speculate that this double identification arises from the fact that Rajputs are both warriors and rulers. As warriors they require rajas , but as rulers they require sat . A ruler who is good at being a ruler governs as a king who is generous and good, in accord with sat . Thus, the attribution of sat to Rajputs explains the frequently voiced Rajput contention that by caste tendency and duty they were best suited to be kings and are now well suited to be politicians.

This association of sat with Rajput character comports with Marvin

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 119.

[29] Apte's Sanskrit dictionary defines sat as what is "real, essential, true" and as "good, virtuous, chaste . . . best, excellent" (The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary , rev. ed. [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978] s.v.); Lalas lists very similar definitions under sat and under the related terms satya and sac (Sitaram Lalas, Rajasthani; Sabd Kos , vol. 4, pt. 3 [Jodhpur: Capuasni Shiksha Samiti, 1978], s.v.).

[30] The gun theory is important in Samkhya philosophy, which Samkhya-inspired passages in the Bhagavad Gita have popularized.


Davis's findings in his study of caste rivalry in Bengal.[31] Davis says that the public perceives sat as dominant in Brahmans and tamas as dominant in baniyas , but sat and rajas as jointly dominant in Rajputs. Thus, returning to Rajasthan, for a Rajput to have sat does not mean that he simply embodies and manifests the kshatriya (warrior) quality of rajas (i.e., that he is "good at" rajas ), but that along with rajas he embodies and manifests sat , which is why Rajput sons could live as Brahmans for seven generations.

In discussions of meat and wine this distinction comes out clearly. Both are appropriate fare for Rajputs but not for members of other high castes. Throughout India meat and wine are considered necessary for Rajputs because they build passion. They incite readiness for battle as well as the lust essential for intercourse, the source of children and hence soldiers. Furthermore, to have many sons Rajput men need many wives, which means they need a lot of sexual passion.[32] In sum, Rajputs embody sat , the quality informing good judgment and the benignity catalyzing discipline and control, in addition to rajas .

With this in mind, we can educe the generic and specific meanings of sat in the case of women. A look at women's attitudes toward eating meat and drinking wine gives us sat 's generic sense. As men do, Rajput women partake of meat and alcohol, but their consumption is far more moderate. In responding to questions about meat and alcohol, Rajput women stressed that whereas it is proper for Rajput men to imbibe quantities of liquor, women who do so tend to lose their dignity. As one noblewoman put it, "If a lady drinks too much, she will allow her hair to fall loose on her shoulders and she may say too much, both of which are unbefitting a Rajput woman." Loose hair and loose lips characterize a loose woman, the opposite of the pativrata and the Rajput ideal.[33]

It is not, then, surprising to discover that for Rajput women the pri-

[31] Marvin Davis, Rank and Rivalry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 49, 51.

[32] Carstairs reports the belief that meat and wine helped the Rajput build semen (virya ) "and with it the qualities of courage and strength which its possession conveyed" (Twice-Born , 109). He records a villager's affirmation: "Rajputs are very lusty, Sahib. It is because of their food and their drink. It makes them so that they have to have their lust, poor fellows" (ibid., 188). The tale of the Sisodiya founder, Bappa Rawal, also exemplifies virility; he became a great warrior and king and had a hundred sons. While maintaining that meat and wine enhance strength and passion, however, Rajputs warn that overindulgence in food or wine brings on weakness and laziness, the opposites of strength and passion.

[33] Even apart from discussions of alcohol consumption, Rajput women mentioned covering the head and soft speech as primary characteristics of a well-bred Rajput wife. Inattention to these conventions conveys moral and sexual laxness.


mary associations of drinking liquor and eating meat are sexual rather than martial. These women feel, as their husbands do, that wine and meat enhance fertility. They, however, have no need for military passion. As will be seen in chapter 6, the participation of women in battle has always been exceptional and undesirable because it has occurred only where men have been unable to fulfill their protective roles and then only under unusual circumstances. Thus for women the military justification for consuming wine and meat has been a pale one.

Nowadays many Rajput women drink very occasionally and perhaps only ceremonially. Some explain that younger women in particular find it unfashionable to indulge. Nevertheless, during wedding celebrations all women must accept the manvar , the ritual toast (as in fig. 7), for it celebrates the fertility of the newly married couple.[34]

Just as married women must accept manvar at weddings, they must also cease consuming alcohol and meat if they become widows. Because Rajput women do not remarry, they have no legitimate need for passion. Drinking is restricted to pativratas , women whose husbands are still alive.

In following such Rajput customs as drinking alcohol and eating meat, Rajput women reveal the sense in which being a good Rajput equates with being a good woman. Meat and wine incline the Rajput woman to be a passionate and adoring wife. Taken in moderation they enhance personal virtue. In this way the generic sense of sat blends with the specific.[35]

Inasmuch as caste duty is primarily male duty, it is easy to see how among women the specific sense of sat predominates. Being a good woman may be facilitated by Rajput identity, but the norm directs behavior that is the task of all women, Rajput or not. Thus one common synonym for sat is the term pativrata .[36]

Sat , though defined in two ways, is a single substance. The story of Guha recounted from the Nainsi ri Khyat , as we have seen, explicitly states that the same sat manifested in the queen's death will be manifested in the son's desire to act as a Rajput. As a good Rajput woman,

[34] In former days men also took opium as manvar . Conversations with and wedding photographs of nobles indicate that over the last twenty to thirty years this practice has gradually diminished.

[35] Rajput women frequently used the term gun to classify sat but named no other guns . Rather than rajas they spoke of the raja ka caritra , "king's character," which being brave (bahadur ) is that of the hero (vir ).

[36] See sat in Lalas, Sabd Kos , s.v.; and Nainsi ri Khyat (Jodhpur: Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, 1960), 1: 2 n. 30.


the mother will die a sati ; as a good Rajput male, the son will want to hunt and fight and will sire a line of rulers. To reiterate the queen's claim, "If I am burning because of my nature [satsum balum chum ], then the descendants of the family of this boy will be Rajas." In other words, since the queen has been a pativrata , her son's sat and her male descendants' sat will be reflected in their realization of the Rajput duties of conquest and rule.

This passage not only demonstrates the connection between sat in the sense of pativrata and sat in the sense of caste duty, it also clearly shows that dying as a sati validates previous actions. The queen feels conflict as to whether she should die when she first hears of her husband's death or after giving birth. Her death as a sati demonstrates the sincerity of her intention to die despite her decision to give birth before doing so. It shows that she has been a pativrata all along. From the moment of her marriage she has accumulated the sat required to follow her husband into the afterlife. Thus dying as a sati manifests the queen's sat , which shows her to be a pativrata (a good woman) and guarantees that her son's descendants will be kings (good Rajputs). Sat constitutes her character both as a Rajput and a woman. Moreover, it beautifully illustrates the identification of sat 's two meanings in its one material form.

This examination into the implicit meanings of sat allows us now to address the question of sat 's effect and function. Sat is essentially an autogenerative moral fuel. Produced by good activity, it generates good activity. In generating good activity, it also produces heat (garmi ). Because of sat , the great warrior of times past, having fortified himself with opium or alcohol, charged onto the battlefield hot with battle frenzy.[37] If he was decapitated while fighting, his sat enabled him to continue fighting and even to kill his assailants before falling to the ground. He became a jhumjhar , a "struggler," a Rajput so perfected in character as to have transcended merely human heroism.

The pativrata also generates heat. As she fulfills her duties, she accumulates stores of sat . If she finds herself widowed, this sat becomes manifest. Her temperature rises. As her body heats, she experiences the urge (bhav ) to die as a sati and makes a vrat to this effect. In the process she acquires superhuman powers (which are described below). Finally, hav-

[37] Opium or alcohol were thought to enhance their natural battle fury. On alcohol consumption Carstairs quotes a Rajput village informant: "Every Rajput has two pegs of whisky before going to war, it is a general custom. Still it is this way" (Twice-Born , 188). See also Rudolph and Rudolph ("Rajput Adulthood," 179) on the use of alcohol and opium in celebrating war.


ing processed to her husband's pyre and taken his head in her lap, she spontaneously bursts into flames. The passion of her commitment to her husband consumes both their bodies.

A sati 's death reveals the sat that has resulted from and contributed to a woman's performance of prior sacrifices of selfish desires. The sati 's flames exhibit her perfected pativrata character, a perfection that complements, but is not synonymous with, the perfection of the warrior who dies in battle. The death of a vir is clearly a sacrifice to the kuldevi , his lineage protector. Although the sati undeniably sacrifices her life for her husband, it is not obvious from the narratives and comments of Rajput women whether she is thought to sacrifice herself to her husband, her family protector. This seems to me not simply a matter of language (ko and ke liye ) but one of conceptualization, which is vivid in the case of the vir and vague in the case of the sati . Rajput women simply do not speak of sati sacrifice in terms of consumption; they usually discuss it in terms of validation (in life) and benefit (through death). Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate about symbolism of the rituals described in narratives and conversation and to decipher possible underlying assumptions.[38]

Let us ponder for a moment the notion that the sati balidan represents a wife sacrificing herself to her husband. From this perspective the sacrifice is similar in kind to the sacrifices made by the pativrata , who leads a life of pati ki seva . This phrase, used often by Rajput women to explain the notion of wifely duty, means literally "service of one's husband," but it also means "worship of God." In Rajasthan as elsewhere, women say that one's husband is one's god; he grants salvation. If a woman worships her husband during life, it seems consistent that she do so at the moment of death. In ascending his pyre she appears to be offering herself up to him as a sacrificial victim.

This explanation, however, is not complete. Weighing against the exclusive assignment of such a meaning is the fact that the regular rituals a woman performs for her husband during his life (vrats, pujas, ratijagas , and dhok ) are ones she directs to deities for her husband, not to him. She worships them for her husband's welfare. Even at the moment of marriage, where the groom is worshiped as a god, the metaphorical

[38] Because only few and widely scattered sati immolations have occurred during their lives, contemporary Rajput women base their ideas of ritual on narrative. I am not generally interested in the Brahmanical interpretations of ritual prescriptions, but rather in the assumptions Rajput women may hold given their notions of pativrata, seva (service or worship), and balidan .


aspect of husband as deity is retained; the wife treats her husband as a god, but she is perfectly aware that he is still—or at least also—a man. Moreover, no ritual performed during a woman's life formally depicts the sacrifice of a woman to her husband in the vivid way that Navratri depicts the sacrifice of a man to the kuldevi . The sacrifice of a sati to her husband is not a straightforward and unambiguous parallel to the sacrifice made in the ritual of battle.

The positions of the sati and her husband in the ritual of immolation suggest another set of associations. The sati is always described as dying with her husband's head in her lap. In taking her husband's head, the sati seems to be as much a recipient of sacrifice as she is its victim. At this awesome moment, the wife who sacrifices her life is becoming a supernatural being. The sat that she has gained through goodness manifests as power, the same sort of protective power wielded by the kuldevi . Moreover, even if not called a devi , the sati holding her husband's head seems reminiscent of the classic pose in which the Sanskritic Goddess accepts the head of a male sacrificial victim.

Although such connotations appear likely, they cannot stand by themselves, for they fail to convey the crucial notion of sati as self-sacrifice. Suggestive as the sati 's posture is of receiving a sacrifice, her dying with her husband's head in her lap also represents a certain tenderness. She has been, after all, his most intimate protector; now she is dying with a man she is assumed to have loved.[39] Moreover, because (as we shall see) the most venerated Rajput heroes have actually lost their heads in the sacrifice that is battle, the sati holding her husband's head would seem to imply that her husband is a hero. In this case the vir beheaded in the saka and the sati become parallel or joint victims. The man's death, however, is clearly an offering to the kuldevi , but the wife's sacrifice is at best indirectly associated with the kuldevi . Lacking verbal testimony or iconography to the contrary, we can assume that the sati sacrifices herself to the kuldevi only to the extent that she shares her husband's fate.

Another possible meaning of the ritual is that the sacrifice is not simply a sacrifice to someone but a sacrifice unto itself. By this I mean that it seems rather like the Rig Vedic sacrifice of Purusha (cosmic man), in which sacrifice sacrifices itself to itself that creation may occur.[40] The

[39] Perhaps the most vivid depiction of this intimacy and tenderness I found is a stone that shows the sati reading to her husband from the Bhagavad Gita as she dies.

[40] Rig Veda 10:90, the "Purusha Sukta." For a translated version, see R. C. Zaehner, Hindu Scriptures (London: Dent, 1966), 8–10.


sati , who joins her husband in the flames that she circumambulated with him when they married, loses her human body but becomes a being who produces family welfare and continuity. As a protector, she oversees its re-creation. Such an association is explicit in the Dharmasindu text.[41]

In sum, the sati ritual, which is known to women through household stories, not through personal observation, is rich with possible associations. These are not, however, the subject of women's own speculation any more perhaps than the underlying meaning of blood turning to wine is a subject of speculation for the vast majority of the Christian laity. In the narratives they tell women are simply less concerned with what sati immolation is than with who the woman is (a woman who has been good) and what she does (by way of practical benefits to her devotees). The proof of who she is and the protection she can provide lie in the flames that emerge from her body and accomplish the balidan .

For practical reasons the proof is usually assumed, not demonstrated. Before a sati ascends her husband's pyre, the pyre has likely been ignited. This sequence makes it impossible for witnesses to determine the source of the flames that envelop a sati and her spouse. Nevertheless, if the sati is a Rajput, the presumption will be that her intentions were pure and therefore without doubt it was her sat that consumed her husband and herself. Conversely, if the sati is not a Rajput, Rajputs will conclude that her intentions remain unproven and dubious.

There are, as we shall see, rare cases when the sat of a non-Rajput woman causes flames that are witnessed. These exceptional satis are regarded as valid by all, including Rajput women. Lacking proof to the contrary, however, Rajput women regard the capacity to develop the stores of sat sufficient to transform a woman into a sati as overwhelmingly Rajput.

One last aspect of the identification of sati character as essentially Rajput is worth considering. The primary convention that Rajput women regard as responsible for the development of sat is parda , which, they say, has preserved their inherent modesty. Moreover, it has functioned as the preeminent symbol of their ethos and identity. Asked what distinguishes Rajput women from other women, they predictably respond, "Rajput women do not go out; they observe parda ." Parda is the predominant means by which their sat is generated and stored.[42] As one

[41] Paul Courtright, personal communication to author, March 1990.

[42] Explaining parda , one woman said, "Many restrictions help us maintain our character." The vast majority of informants singled out parda as the critical distinguishing characteristic of Rajput women. Responding to the interview's request to describe the

character of Rajput women, informants focused on modesty (sharam, laj ), a virtue they especially associated with parda , and on the institution of parda .


noblewoman made clear, parda not only requires many sacrifices, it is itself a sacrifice. As she explained to me, "One thing about Rajput women—sacrifice is very important to us. We make a lot of sacrifices in our lives. Even the parda we keep is a sacrifice." Thus sacrifice builds character, which in turn makes further sacrifice possible.

The fact that most Rajput women identify parda as the institution most responsible for the realization of their character does not mean that they practice it now as their mothers and grandmothers did. When a Rajput woman says that she keeps parda , she may mean that she stays within the female section of the household; she may mean that she inhabits the entire household but does not go out in public; she may mean that she seldom goes out in public but is veiled and escorted when she does. To whatever extent individual Rajput women still practice parda , it remains a key symbol, a highly condensed representation of their basic values and way of life.[43] While locating the feminine within the household, it communicates the Rajput criteria for pativrata status: modesty and chastity, generosity and sacrifice.

In sum, dying as a sati is considered to be only the final consequence of a life dedicated to household duty. It manifests the moral substance that a woman has developed through the performance of duty. Paradoxically, it symbolizes both the perfection and the transcendence of duty. It transforms a woman who was once a pativrata into a satimata , a supermundane protector of family. The satimata 's character now requires scrutiny. Examining the satimata stage in the context of its ideological relation to the pativrata stage will then let us discern the theoretical contours of the sativrata stage that connects them.

The Satimata: Family Protector

Like the domestic kuldevi , the satimata is benevolent toward those under her guardianship—she is the very embodiment of goodness, sat .[44] To wish or do anything that is not ultimately good for her protégées is simply not seen as possible given her sattvic nature. Moreover the protective actions she performs are similar, if not identical, to those of the

[43] Ortner, "On Key Symbols," 1344.

[44] Unlike a pitr or purvaj (ancestor), the sati does only good things. She does not make trouble: "Taqlif kabhi nahim karti ."


kuldevi . She appears in dreams in order to warn women of impending household crises. She comes to women to reprimand them for neglecting to perform proper ritual observances on her behalf. Furthermore, she provides protection to those aspiring to live as pativrata s but withdraws protection in order to teach them when their efforts have lapsed. Although the satimata is good, she allows children to contract fever and cows' udders to wither if pativrata s neglect her protection-securing rituals. When properly worshiped, she reverses the negative consequences of women's oversights. She restores sick children and cows to their previous health and reextends her protective shadow.

Not only does the satimata act like the maternal kuldevi , she also looks like her. As a result, women say that sometimes they are unsure whether the dreams or visions they have had are of satimata s or kuldevi s. If the message that the heavenly suhagin (pativrata ) gives does not implicate her identity, women must consult a bhopa , a shaman, to ascertain it. All accounts of satimata visions describe a woman dressed in an auspicious color (red, pink, orange) of the very finest type of Rajput dress. She is inevitably bejeweled and beautiful.[45]

Some representative accounts women gave of appearances by satimata s demonstrate the standard circumstances under which a satimata makes herself manifest. The first account exemplifies the dream warning. One prominent noblewoman living in Udaipur described an appearance by a satimata in the dreams of her Brahman purohit (family priest), whose job it was to perform household rituals under her direction. The woman said that the satimata 's appearance coincided with the arrangements she was making for the marriage of her niece. She had intended to organize a ratijaga (night of singing) for the niece, but days slipped by and she had still not made the necessary arrangements. It finally dawned on her that she had left herself too little time to prepare for the ratijaga . She conveniently decided it would not be essential to perform the ceremony before the wedding. That night the priest received a dream of his patroness's satimata , who ordered him to make sure that the aunt undertook the preparations for the ratijaga . When he awoke, he set about fulfilling this command.

The circumstances of the satimata 's appearance are identical to those under which a kuldevi would appear. The story is standard in every way, except perhaps for the detail that on this particular occasion the satimata chooses to appear to a purohit in the service of a Rajput woman

[45] As we shall see, the satimata is conceived as a realized pativrata (though technically she has passed that stage since her husband has predeceased her).


and not to the woman herself. Although usually a satimata appears directly to the woman in charge of ritual responsibilities, once in a while she may enlist the aid of an intermediary—sometimes a shaman, here a purohit , elsewhere a relative—to persuade her. The channel of communication that the sati uses is not thought to alter the content of the message.[46]

A second account illustrates the way in which a satimata compels a negligent woman to fulfill her ritual responsibilities by withdrawing a measure of protection. A woman tells of a time when her husband had taken ill. Soon after this a satimata came to him in a dream and said, "You have forgotten to venerate me." Just at that moment the hot-water bottle that he was using burst. The bursting of the bottle was a miracle (camatkar ) attesting to the power of its generator. Here again the satimata appears directly to a man. The woman narrating the story, however, subscribes to the generally shared viewpoint that satimata worship is primarily the responsibility of women. The illness of a husband can only reflect badly on a wife whose foremost responsibility as a wife is to protect her husband. This and other instances in which a satimata , or a kuldevi for that matter, appears to a male but responsibility for a ritual lapse lies wholly or partly with a woman, support the hypothesis that a wife is accountable for any ritual negligence that occurs.

A third example of a satimata 's appearance illustrates the role a satimata takes in preparing a woman to meet an impending crisis. As in the case of such appearances by kuldevi s, the typical crisis that occasions a satimata 's appearance is the imminent demise of a close relative. The satimata gives darshan (a vision) that will help a woman cope appropriately and productively when the crisis occurs. Here a well known Mewari noblewoman describes such an encounter:

It is good when one's satimata appears in dreams. She brings peace (shanti ). One time, a month and a half before my father-in-law died, I had a dream. In it my husband and I were in the mahasatiyam (cremation ground). The eleven satimata s of our family appeared and began to approach us. We were seated on a chatri [elevated cenotaph]. . . . They kept coming closer and closer. They came all the way up the steps of the chatri . One of the ladies said to my husband "Your paddonti will soon occur" [paddonti (promotion) refers to the ritual occasion on which a son takes over the kul and familial responsibilities of his deceased father]. Then all the sati s applied kumkum (saffron rouge) to our foreheads.

Six weeks later, my father-in-law died.

[46] I continue to explore the intriguing power of such intermediaries in my work on heroism.


In sum, the major purposes for which a satimata appears are those for which a kuldevi appears. She comes to encourage a woman to rectify a ritual blunder. Alternatively, she withdraws some of her protection to prod a woman into compliance with ritual responsibilities and then, if necessary, appears in a dream to verify that family problems are related to the lapse of ritual responsibilities. Finally, she reveals herself to prepare a protégée for assuming ritual and other responsibilities in conjunction with a crisis.

As we saw in chapter 3, the satimata does not make her will manifest by possessing protégées. One woman remarked, "Satimata s don't possess people: they're higher than pitr-pitrani s (ordinary ancestors)." Even when women consult bhopa s to interpret dreams in which sati s appear, a bhopa is not possessed by the sati but by a deity (almost always Bheru or Dharmaraj) who reveals to the bhopa a sati 's identity and purpose.

Concerning worship, the satimata is honored much as a maternal kuldevi is honored. In most places family members customarily go to their satimata and kuldevi to show respect (dhok dena ) before leaving for a journey or when returning from one. In this way, they demonstrate that they are mindful of their guardians when crossing out of and into the guardians' jurisdiction. The satimata is also worshiped when a new bride enters a household. After she has visited the kuldevi , whose shrine is her principal destination after her arrival, the bride pays respect to other divine and ancestral spirits worshiped by her husband and his family. Foremost among these is the satimata . Women say that visiting the satimata is essential after coming to the new home because, if they ignore her, she may cause havoc. One thikana queen I came to know well, a very spirited and independent woman in her late twenties, told me that when she first went to her thikana she did not venerate the satimata right away. For various reasons she just kept putting it off. Several nights after her arrival, she had a nightmare: she dreamed she was being strangled. The next day she realized that the dream was a warning sent by the satimata , so she put on her wedding clothes and went straight to the satimata 's shrine to pay her respects. Afterward she had no recurrence of the dream. The satimata had been satisfied.

In addition to the occasions above, there may be other regular scheduled showings of respect or performances of puja . Often, however, the satimata is left alone except on days sacred to her. These days vary from family to family. In all families songs are sung in honor of Satimata (as we shall see, however many satimata s a family might have, it generally collapses them into one personality and refers to them in the singular)


during the night wakes (ratijaga s) women keep to celebrate births and weddings.

Satimata worship may be done with the help of a trusted family pujari , but he is not essential.[47] In some families, women encourage other family members to join them in their satimata devotions. In some households women attend to these responsibilities by themselves. Other families even prohibit men from entering the satimata 's shrine (usually a room containing a thapana ), because the satimata keeps parda . In one of the great thikana s outside Udaipur the family priest is forbidden to enter the satimata shrine. He must perform devotions to her from outside the shrine's closed door.

Along with the mode of worship, the place of worship varies among families. Some veneration takes place in the mahasatiyam . Its distance from the household poses problems for women who keep strict parda and cannot go out to the cremation ground. If women leave the thikana to go on a journey, however, they often order their drivers to stop near the mahasatiyam and from the car perform veiled obeisance to the satimata before proceeding.[48] More accessible is the zanana 's thapana (crude shrine), which is similar to the thapana dedicated to a kuldevi except that usually instead of a trident it shows a red handprint, which symbolizes the auspiciousness of a pativrata .

Then there are the ratijaga s, typically performed in the zanana courtyard. Rajput women join Dholhins (female drummers), Brahmanis (usually the wives of Brahman priests employed by the household), and Darogas (members of a caste of palace servants whose ancestral fathers were Rajput and ancestral mothers non-Rajput) in singing to satimata, kuldevi , and other members of the pantheon of family-protectors.

The most important way in which the satimata is venerated, however, is specific to satimata s. Protégées observe ok s (restrictions, customs) that are common to their family lines. These are established during the period just before a woman mounts a funeral pyre. I treat them in the following section, which examines how the sativrata stage links the ideals of the pativrata who venerates the satimata and those of the satimata

[47] Zananas often employed female Brahmans—purohitanis (female purohits ) or pujaranis —to help with the puja . People often use the terms pujari (a person, usually a Brahman, responsible for offering puja ) and purohit (a Brahman advisor) interchangeably; they do the same for the terms' feminized forms. I met one such Brahman woman, a widow employed in the Jaipur royal zanana , in that part of the zanana where a few elderly residents still maintained parda .

[48] Located outside the bounds of the village or town, the mahasatiyam frequently offers more privacy than an exterior kuldevi shrine, which is usually found just outside the household.


who serves as the pativrata 's retrospective paradigm and prospective protector.

Sativrata: the Transitional State

The metamorphosis into a satimata , as we have seen, proves that the sati has perfected the pativrata role. Thus what the satimata was is what the pativrata should be. In graduating from pativrata status, however, the satimata becomes larger than the pativrata ideal. More than a paradigm, she is an autonomous and powerful family protector. Moreover, the satimata issues commands. She requires of her devotees not simple emulation of her protective services but obedience and faith.[49]

The satimata sets the terms of obedience before she in fact becomes a satimata , that is to say, between her vow of sati and her death. Unlike the satimata , who directs individuals through dreams or visions, the sativrata can communicate her will directly to the many who witness her procession. Having abandoned her old life and now standing on the threshold of a new existence, she attains the powers to compel her protégées and so change the course of their history.

The powers that she acquires in this condition are essentially two: the power to give a curse (shrap ) and the power to confer a blessing (ashirvad ). Because curses last many generations their impact is generally severe. Causing inconvenience, even tragedy, the shrap s are not easily forgotten. They become part of oral history.

Blessings, however, are soon forgotten. As is the case everywhere, devotees concentrate on their problems rather than count their blessings. Granting the happinesses that women would normally achieve with any luck—enough money, sons, a loving husband—blessings simply do not stick in the minds of their recipients' descendants. Although individualized blessings are not recalled, however, the general blessing that the satimata gives, the extension of her protection to the family line, is always remembered. This extension is symbolized by the sati 's imposition of an ok , a custom, practice, ordinance, that takes the form of a prohibition. As the sativrata prepares to die, she designates an ok , a special way in which she wishes to be honored. By reverencing the satimata as she wishes, protégées renew their end of the protective covenant.

[49] Many women, of course, die before their husbands do and so could never directly emulate her.


The shrap and the ok are crucial elements in the establishment of sati guardianship. They form the foundation for the sati -devotee relationship.

The Shrap

If for some reason a sati is vexed at the time she is preparing to die, she pronounces a shrap . She curses one or more persons, usually close relatives, to suffer bad fortune and to have their descendants share their bad fortune for a number of generations. For example, there once was a sativrata whose sasural (conjugal household) for some unknown reason declined to provide a horse and a drummer (Dholi) for her procession to her husband's funeral pyre. A sati is supposed to process to the cremation ground in grand style. Because a proper procession requires these two things, the sati , furious, pronounced a curse. She said that from then on whenever her in-laws might have need of a good horse or a Dholi, neither would be available. The curse proved to be a tremendous hardship, for drummer and horse are essential to many ritual occasions, including weddings and coronations.

This curse is unconditional. The family has erred; it must suffer the consequences. Many shraps , however, append to unconditional curses implicit and contingent curses. A good example comes from a Mewar estate. Many generations ago, the reigning thakur took a bride. After a while he found that he liked being married so well that he decided to take another wife. When he returned home after his second marriage, his first wife, enraged by jealousy, ambushed and murdered him. At that point the second wife took a vow to become a sati . Later, while preparing to mount her husband's pyre, she pronounced a curse that from then on no thakur of the family could be married to two women at the same time. Nevertheless, a few generations later a thakur disregarded the curse. Not long after the second wedding, he suddenly and mysteriously died.

Hence the curse described in this story imposed two related punishments, one explicit, the other implicit and conditional. The explicit punishment, the ban on polygamy, is itself severe. Rajput women often point out that in times past polygamy was necessary in order to ensure that at least one son would survive as heir. Because battles, illnesses, and court intrigues (including not a few poisonings) all took their toll on progeny, to have many sons was essential.

In addition, the curse contains an implicit "or else"; it portends sec-


ondary punishment if the restriction is flaunted. In the instance of the foolhardy thakur , that punishment was death. Family members do not know if disregarding the ban will always bring on death. They undoubtedly feel it is best not to find out.

Another good example of such a conditional curse is the story of a husband who fell off a roof and died inebriated. As a sativrata , his wife forbade all males in the family to touch alcohol—or else. Since that time, the women in that family told me, all men have abstained.

Whatever form such curses may take, they inevitably affect the lives of women. The absence of a good horse and Dholi means serious inconvenience for the satis of later generations. It also represents interference with religious celebrations for which women are wholly or partially responsible, such as Gangaur, Tij, and Navratri.[50] The ban on remarriage of thakurs meant exposing the entire family to the threat of a lapsed lineage. Adoption, though accepted by Rajputs and frequent in Rajput history, has always been lamented as an undesirable necessity.[51] It has often disrupted family harmony, the preservation of which is a paramount responsibility of pativratas . The ban on drinking has led women in the family to give up drinking, lest they tempt their husbands to resume the habit.

Often not the primary victims of the sativrata 's displeasure, women still share the consequences, for a woman must always share her husband's fate. It is a harsh one when the shrap is an infertility curse, by far the most common variety. Biologically, infertility is considered a woman's problem. If a husband is cursed to be heirless, his wife is understood to be infertile; however many women a man so cursed may marry, they will all be infertile. Thus the curse imposes a heavy burden of suffering on wives, who are denied the opportunity to bear sons or, in some cases, any children at all. Both fates are considered catastrophic.

In one case a sati caused a family to be barren for six generations, which necessitated many adoptions. In another, a sati gave a shrap that every third generation of the line would be barren. This curse, which has ended with the present generation, is assumed to have lasted seven generations. When a sati does not specify the duration of a curse, it is generally believed to fade after seven generations.

[50] All these occasions celebrate the Goddess.

[51] Six successive adoptions in the Udaipur line are attributed to a curse of infertility by the princess Krishnakumari, who was inadvertently engaged to suitors from two royal households. The insult of an alliance with one household over the other would have precipitated a war with the other, so Udaipur decided to avoid choice and allow its daughter to take poison. She did and pronounced her curse.


Up to this point the targets, whether primary or secondary, have all been members of a sati 's conjugal family. Although the most common targets of a shrap are members of the conjugal family, the focus may shift to persons who are or will be outside the sasural . One Mewari noblewoman told me that at her estate a sativrata uttered a curse that for three generations the first-born daughter of the household would never attain happiness or bear children. The effect of this curse meant that when the daughters married out of the family they took their misfortune with them. Trouble spread out from the in-laws' homes like an amoeba.

A second example of a curse that applies outside the conjugal family was told by another Mewari noblewoman. She said that once a man from her thikana had a daughter who became engaged to the son of the Maharana. Unfortunately, shortly after her engagement the daughter's fiancé died. The girl asked her father to take her to her fiancé's pyre, but the father was reluctant. He did not want his little girl to die.

The two argued on and on until the father, exasperated, agreed to help his daughter become a sati . He rigged a curtain around the outside of a bullock cart so that she could maintain parda during her trip. By the time he accomplished this, he had again become heavyhearted. He simply could not bring himself to drive her to her destination.

Miraculously, the cart started on its own and drove itself to the fiancé's cremation site. There in Udaipur, the girl circumambulated her fiancé's pyre seven times. In this way she married her intended.[52] Then she mounted the pyre and took her husband's head in her lap. Flames emerged from her body. Before dying, she pronounced a curse on her father's family. Today no one in the family recalls the nature of that curse. The narrator said that it lasted seven generations, then lapsed.

This story is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that no one, not even a father, may interfere with a sati 's plan to share the fate of her husband or even of her betrothed; from the perspective of the bride-to-be, at the moment of engagement she is his.[53] Second, it reveals that the nature of the curse is no longer important to the family. What matters is that engagement itself institutes a tradition of venerating the satimata and of receiving the satimata 's protection. She becomes

[52] In the central ceremony of a Hindu wedding the groom and bride circumambulate a sacred fire. Here the bride circumambulates an unlighted pyre.

[53] After an engagement is broken by either side, the groom will face no difficulty in becoming engaged to another girl, but the girl may well face great difficulty, for her engagement to marry is a commitment of fidelity to one man alone. On this situation in Bengal, see Fruzetti, Gift of a Virgin , 35.


the family's guardian. Since the time of the curse, the satimata has dutifully protected the family against harm.

Whether a sativrata curses her husband's family—the frequent target—or other relatives and their families, she utters a curse that is taken to be benevolent and protective. The sativrata intends her curse as a lesson to those whom she loves. She wants to deter them from making future blunders.

At times, however, a sativrata curses persons with whom she shares no ties of blood whatsoever. Then she punishes without providing protection. To outsiders she is malevolent and vengeful. The following story provides rich illustration of this point.

At my father's estate there is a satimata . When she was alive she was a kept [local English for a kept woman] of one of my ancestors. She was a Gujar [from an agrarian caste, which is lower than the Rajput]. In those days all the thakurs had to stay many months of the year in Udaipur in order to serve the Maharana. The thakur from our estate died while he was in Udaipur. By the time the news of his death reached the estate, his funeral had already taken place. A sati is supposed to burn with her husband's head on her lap. Because this was not possible, the Gujar girl, who had determined to die a sati , fetched her lord's turban (pagri ) so as to immolate herself with that on her lap.

The family's purohit , Nai [barber], and Dholi [drummer] [all three figure in the procession and ritual] refused to believe that a mere consort would seriously consider becoming a sati . The sister of the deceased rao sahib [the thakur ] taunted her: "My brother is dead and you have taken your bath and put on your finery?"[54] The consort called the purohit , Dholi, and Nai, but they refused to come. Nobody from the family showed up for her procession.

The kept [woman] then went to the family cremation ground. She took the turban and a coconut as an offering to God. She prayed and her body began to burn by itself. The people who happened by saw by this that she was a true sati . Everybody came running to watch.

The sati was so furious with the "sister-in-law" [the king's sister] for teasing her that she cursed her, saying, "You and all future daughters of this family will have no husbands. Because of this you will have no sons. Also, you will have no wealth." Everyone was stunned. The crowd pleaded for mercy. Moved, the sati changed the curse so that the sister and future daughters of the family would be without one of the three items mentioned. If a daughter had a husband and wealth, she would have no son. If she had a husband and a son, she would have no wealth. If she had a son and wealth, she would lose her husband. This curse lasted for seven generations.

In our generation we are on the margin. I have only one son but I have a husband and enough money. My family has complete faith in Satimata.

[54] She took the purificatory bath (required before processing to a pyre) and put on auspicious pativrata garments.


Whenever we go to the thikana , we pay our respects to her [the implication: the satimata is now pleased with the family].

The satimata also cursed the purohit , Nai, and Dholi. To the purohit she said, "In each generation your family will have only one son and he will be half-cracked [an imbecile]." This is still true of that family. To the Nai she said, "Your family will not have sons." This also has held true. That family has always had to adopt. To the Dholi she gave a curse that was really not too much of a curse. She said, "If you or your descendants are playing your drum at one end of the village, people will not be able to hear the music at the other end of the village." This has remained true to this day.

This story exemplifies ways that a satimata may condemn nonrelatives who cross her. The pronouncements she makes upon them are not tempered by the mercy that she intends toward family members. The fact that she sees them as outsiders is emphasized by the character of the curses she directs toward them. She tailors her curses to relate to the performance of caste duty. Hence the Brahman, whose duty is to learn and teach philosophy and ritual, is condemned to bear the knowledge that his male descendants will be few and afflicted by imbecility. The barber, many of whose ritual functions take place during childbirth ceremonies, is deprived of male children. Finally, the drummer and his descendants will be diminished in their capacity to make music. The sativrata renders them incapable of performing the very services they failed to provide her when she needed them.

In short, the sati can devastate nonrelatives who anger her. Such acts do not cause Rajputs to think of her as having a dark side. The "good mother"—sati mata —may cruelly destroy others who injure her family or who insult it by interfering with its proper performance of tradition. She seeks vengeance against enemies just as the heroic jhumjhar seeks vengeance as he pursues enemies who have decapitated him.[55]

We might ask whether the satimata has a dark side, at least from the perspective of nonrelatives who have crossed her. Tradition does not really address this question. In all the stories of satis ' curses I gathered during my research, not one explained family misfortune as a result of other people's satimata . Family misfortune is regularly explained by one's failure to perform proper puja to one's own satimata , not by the power of someone else's satimata . This misfortune is never understood as final or complete; if its duration is unspecified, it is assumed to lapse after seven generations. Satimatas simply do not ruin their relatives by

[55] On the pervasive motif of revenge in Rajput culture, see Hitchcock, "Martial Rajput," 12; and Ziegler, "Action, Power," 79–80.


blood and marriage. They punish their "naughty children" but do not destroy the lot of them.[56]

We might also ask whether, narrative and ideological exegesis to the contrary, Rajput women "really" or "deep down" think of a sati as exacting revenge on her own family for the submission required of her when she was a pativrata . This question too is hard to answer. Whenever I tried to suggest the notion of spite (one that seemed to me an obvious aspect of a curse) I found myself being corrected. One elderly woman refused to discuss satis with me any more; she felt a suggestion like this was insulting to her satimata .

If sativratas have felt vengeful toward their families, their feelings are simply not interpreted as such by their families, who pass traditions of sati veneration down through the generations. A curse may in fact accomplish vengeance, but a sati cannot be seen as intending vengeance because self-serving intentions belie the very definition of sati and pativrata .[57] A sati who curses out of spite would not be seen as validating her life as a pativrata , a woman who sacrifices selfish desires on behalf of her husband and his family. An idealized representation of sat , she is seen as benign toward those who are her own.[58]

Given this notion of protecting "one's own," the story narrated above is especially interesting in that it provides a rare example of a non-Rajput woman who becomes a satimata for Rajputs. The family that doubted her vow's sincerity not only accepts this Gujar woman as a valid sati but venerates her. When she erupts into flames, the family comes to realize that she has made a proper vow, which unfortunately means that her curse too will be valid. Because the Gujar woman is a

[56] It would be interesting to ask members of other castes whether their families have suffered from the curses of Rajput satimatas . Because I was interested in the perceptions of Rajput women, not others, I did not undertake this task, which would be a fascinating though time-consuming one. Recently people have celebrated satis (many from non-Rajput castes and most from eastern Rajasthan) in new melas (fairs), which most Rajput women dismiss as non-Rajput or unnecessary—Rajput families have their own satis . I came across stories of miracles attributed to these satis , but not curses. Journalists and academics have stressed the novelty of these melas , which seem to be more populist and politically charged than the private Rajput sati veneration; see Manushi 42–43; and Seminar 342. Cf. my brief description in chapter 6, note 5, of the Jauhar Mela at Chitor, a festival distinct from the family traditions of Rajput women.

[57] The following chapter explores the satimata 's intentions in detail.

[58] Coccari also notes the attribution of unequivocal goodness to the satis of Banaras. She speaks of the "pure and uplifted character of the Sati." She concludes: "The enshrined Satis in the Banaras area are idealized, honored and revered, yet do not seem to evince the powerful ambivalence which would make them more riveting objects of devotion" ("Bir Babas," 124–25).


consort of a family member and thus part of the household, she magnanimously grants the family her guardianship.

The question arises, how was the Gujar woman able to become a sativrata ? One conjecture can be dismissed immediately. Being the consort of a Rajput did not transfer the Gujar into a Rajput. The Rajput community would not have accepted her children as Rajputs. They would be Darogas (also called Ravana Rajputs), who constitute an endogamous caste of palace servants.[59]

Rather, the answer has to do with living in a Rajput environment. By associating intimately with Rajputs, especially her Rajput lover, the Gujar woman became Rajput-like. While a consort, explain the Rajputs who worship her, she learned to behave as a Rajput wife does. In other words, through her loving devotion to her lord she attained a higher moral and physical makeup. She acquired large reserves of sat , the sine qua non of a sati .[60]

Such a thoroughgoing transmutation is, as has been stressed, unusual. A non-Rajput woman's association with her lord does not by itself transform her character. The perfection of the pativrata role is difficult even for Rajput wives. How much less likely it is for a consort, who lacks not only Rajput caste but also the benefits and privileges of wifehood. Thus, more typically, the women of another Rajput family have discredited the death of a non-Rajput consort of an ancestor. Although their family has commemorated her death with a marker, it says that it does not reverence her as a sati and has suffered no harm on this account.

Paradoxically, because the Rajputs think it unlikely that such a consort would accumulate the sat sufficient to become a valid sati , they recognize her as a particularly powerful paradigm. Having received fewer advantages than her married harem mates, she can demonstrate more gratitude than they can. Overcoming an inherent disadvantage, she comes to represent the epitome of pativrata selflessness. In this she compares closely to very young Rajput wives who die as satis . Lacking the

[59] Often Rajput men took women from other castes as consorts and sometimes as wives; Rajput women married only Rajput men. During medieval times the offspring of Rajput men and consorts were not accepted as Rajput, but those of Rajput men and lowercaste wives occasionally were (Ziegler, "Action, Power," 52–55). More research is needed on where and when the marriage of a non-Rajput woman legitimized her offspring as Rajput. Contemporary Rajputs disapprove of all marriages between Rajputs (female or male) and non-Rajputs.

[60] On personal mobility in the traditional Rajasthani context, see ibid., 21–26.


status and privileges of their senior co-wives and having a newer attachment to their husbands, they therefore show greater gratitude in becoming sativratas . If the youngest wife is the only wife who takes sati's vrat , she puts her elders to shame. Her glory stands in heightened contrast to their petty insincerity.[61] Becoming a sati , the youngest wife, like the sincere consort, illustrates the very purest of intentions.

Ignored or vexed, a sati is a dangerous woman. The nature of her wrath, however, must be interpreted according to its targets and the intentions she holds for them. Even the consort and the young bride, only partially or newly integrated into a household, can prove earnest sati guardians. What qualifies them is the unreserved love and respect they have given those men to whom they have dedicated themselves as pativratas .

The Ok

Whether or not a sativrata pronounces a curse on the family (or families) she will protect, she invariably confers a specific means by which they can communicate their reverence for her. This is the ok (custom). Oks may ban the use of certain items or the performance of customary pativrata activities.

The most common restriction designated by a satimata is of designated colors of clothing. Typically, these shades are of pink or red, the colors worn at the time of marriage. For example, because of one satimata 's pronouncement, Jhala Rajputs have had to give up red wedding dresses for green ones.

Also common is a prohibition on the pilya (literally, yellow), a deep yellow half-sari head covering with a red border and red tie-dyed speckles that women wear in the period following childbirth. Hence when women of many lineages emerge from the seclusion that is mandatory at childbirth, they must substitute for the pilya some other attire. That restrictions on red shades and the pilya dominate the oks for clothing is telling. Red is the color of passion, the pilya the color of fertility. Both represent auspiciousness.

The second most common prohibition is on types of jewelry. The item restricted is inevitably some ornament associated with marriage.

[61] The youngest wife's enhanced virtue and power emerges in stories I collected. One example tells of a maidservant from a Mewar Solah Thikana who drinks water from her young mistress's purificatory sati bath; the water magically compels the servant to join her mistress on the cremation pyre but others restrain and save her.


An unmarried girl wears a minimum of jewelry in order not to draw to herself the attentions of men. A wife, on learning of the death of her husband, breaks the glass bangles she is wearing and gives away the remainder of her wedding ornaments. Because remarriage is not considered an option for Rajput women, widows wish to discourage men's attention by forsaking ornamentation. Although nowadays these restrictions are slightly relaxed, most unmarried girls and widows wear little, if any, jewelry.

Examples of jewelry oks are plentiful. The most common bans the noisy ankle bracelet (gughari ), a chain to which many tiny square bells (caurasi ) are attached. The jingling of these bells is considered alluring. Many Indian poems tell of a lover whose anticipation of a tryst with his beloved is heightened by the tinkling sound of her approaching footstep. Here also the interdicted item is associated with auspiciousness. The anklet symbolizes marriage; the woman awaited in poetry is married to someone else.

Other oks preclude the wearing of specific kinds of arm bangles. The most frequently prohibited bangles are of ivory, either natural-colored or red-dyed, that a bride receives at the time of her wedding. Some women may wear red but not the natural shade. For other families the natural is the acceptable hue. In a number of households, the bangles prohibited are thin glass bracelets with tiny facets. Because these facets sparkle in the sunlight, they are thought particularly captivating. The same holds true in other families for bangles with gold inlay or gold painting. Moreover, gold symbolizes affluence, which enhances the symbolic value of the bangles' auspiciousness. Finally, many families observe oks that prohibit various shades of glass bangles. Some families do not wear red ones. Others must forswear purple or green. All these shades, like the items themselves, represent auspiciousness.

Although most of the oks connected with dress involve clothing and jewelry, one unusual ok bears mention in passing because, more radically than any other prohibition, it ties an ok to auspiciousness. This is the ban on sindur , the red powder worn by married women in the parting of their hair. Not only the quintessential mark of a pativrata, sindur is used in the worship (puja ) of deities. A denser symbol of auspiciousness could not be found.

All the ok s discussed thus far apply directly to women. A second class of prohibitions applies to women through the children in their charge. In this case the ok s apply to women not as wives, or potential mothers, but to those who have already had the good fortune to bear children.


This class of ok s largely prohibits the use of baby cradles, though there are isolated instances of other child-related ok s. A notable example is the ok prohibiting mothers in one family from dressing their children in clothing until the children have gone through their hair-cutting ceremonies.[62] It means that children are supposed to go naked during the first months, even the first year, of life.

The overwhelming majority of ok s, then, apply to women in their auspicious roles: wife and mother. Curiously enough, a satimata 's ban on designated auspicious items is itself auspicious; observance of the ban brings a devotee under the protection of the satimata , the ultimate pativrata . The ok , which never lapses, establishes a permanent relationship between the family and a sati . The honoring of prohibitions represents continuing acceptance of and appreciation for a satimata 's protection. Moreover, observing ok s is an important means for the pativrata to accumulate sat . Whereas the curse is something that she must suffer, the ok allows her to endure a curse, to face the hardships and disappointments of life, and to advance in her aspirations toward meeting the ideal that the sati embodies.

Up to this point I have discussed the shrap and the ok as distinct features of a sativrata 's power and her devotees' response. Often, however, the relation between shrap and ok is an intimate one. This is true when the curse is conditional. In the story narrated above, when a sati cursed her thakur husband (the one murdered by his first wife) and all his reigning descendants, she simultaneously established an ok : the abstention from multiple marriages.

A second illustration of the association between shrap and ok is presented by the following story from an Udaipur estate.

One time a husband and wife from our family were playing caupad .[63] The wife was winning. The husband was irritated by this and joked that he would kill her brother and father. She became angry and wrote a letter to her brother and father to send soldiers to attack her husband. The soldiers came. There was a big battle in which the husband was killed. The wife became a sati . She made the ok that no husband and wife should play caupad together.

Though this account has no explicit mention of a shrap , the family understands that a curse has occurred. The sati intends to teach the family a lesson; her ok implies an "or else." The story relates no instance of violation, but the family assumes that to do so would be perilous. Ig-

[62] The hair is usually offered to a goddess (a kuldevi or sometimes a village goddess) or, less often, to her attendant, Bheru Ji.

[63] This Indian board game looks like a cross between chess and parcheesi.


noring an ok conjoined to a curse is simply more dangerous than ignoring an ok in isolation. The consequence of violating an isolated ok is only the satimata 's withdrawal of a modicum of protection. If the family renews its observance, the protection resumes. By contrast, if a sati utters a prohibition when she is angry (when stating or insinuating a curse), the consequences of violation may be much greater, and perhaps irreversible. The nobleman who married and should not have, received no second chance. By punishing the individual, the sativrata instructed the family, the preservation of which is always her foremost interest.

The relation between conditional shraps and ok s is so close that the words are sometimes used interchangeably. A woman may say that a sati was angry and imposed an ok . When asked if this means that the sati pronounced a curse, the answer will be, yes, obviously (zarur ). The conclusion that the sati must have been angry may, however, be deduced. If punishment for violation of an ok is known to be severe, the ok is thought to involve a curse. Thus the grounds on which a curse is adjudged to have occurred are either the initial motivation of the sati , anger, or the consequence of an ok 's violation, a severe punishment, which indicates anger.

Conveying a fuller sense of the variety of forms that shrap together with ok can take is this final example of sati narrative. One time a wife was preparing to die as a sati . She tried to persuade her co-wife to join her. The co-wife responded, "I'd love to, really, but you see I have all these dishes to do. You go on ahead." Unimpressed by the flimsy excuse, the sati forbade all the household's women from doing dishes at night so that they would be free to tend to more important responsibilities. Because becoming a sati is the expression of ultimate devotion, the work that was used as a reason for not becoming a sati is interdicted.

In this story, as in so many others, the activity banned by the ok is an auspicious activity: no good pativrata leaves the dinner dishes undone. I have stressed the connection between ok and auspiciousness throughout. I now wish to clarify the rationale behind banning auspicious activities, from the wearing of certain clothes to the doing of dishes at night. First, although given items and activities are auspicious, their usage or performance is inauspicious in specific contexts. Anything that should be associated with being a pativrata but that becomes meaningful in itself—and so potentially, if not actually, harms a husband—is no longer acceptable. The excuse that a devoted wife must do the dishes rather than die as a sati simply will not do. It is meaningless. Playing caupad with a husband in order to entertain him is not a valid activity if it brings


about the husband's death. Finally, the donning of clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics symbolic of pativrata status is not acceptable if a woman is not prepared to sacrifice these symbols of household life when her husband dies.

This explanation, however, is but half the answer. Although becoming a sati is an affirmation of the auspicious role of the pativrata , it results in death. The sati is auspicious but death epitomizes inauspiciousness. The activities connected with death and the items worn at death or explicitly prohibited at the time of death are necessarily associated with death. However blessed, death is inescapably a tragedy.

Furthermore, the sati 's immolation is part of a double death. There is the death of the sati , an intentional death, and there is the death of the husband, a death utterly non-normative from the female point of view. Even where the male sacrifices his life in battle and thus attains the glory and honor that are the goals of the Rajput warrior, his death is inauspicious for his wife and family. Women's religious rituals and women's household tasks are directed toward protecting the husband against such an untimely end. Thus death as a sati is characterized by inharmonious associations. The act of immolation is meritorious; the reason for the act is not. In sum, becoming a sativrata is on one level auspicious—hence the potency of the beneficial ok —and on another inauspicious—hence the dangerousness of the sati 's wrath.

The strangely liminal condition of the sati -to-be specifies the sativrata 's double nature. The sativrata is a woman who has lost her husband but is not a widow. She is neither still in this world nor beyond it. During this marginal and fleeting existence her power of sat culminates and becomes manifest.[64] She has renounced life but is not yet dead. In this she resembles the sannyasi , the ascetic who has renounced the world but continues to live in it. As the sannyasi has symbolically performed his own funeral rites to symbolize his freedom from social responsibilities, the sativrata , having learned of her husband's death, has taken a vow to die, which relieves her of her duties as wife and mother. Out of her devotion springs the will to renounce the rules that in life are inseparable from devotion. That is to say, she renounces her status as a pativrata , which, in the absence of a husband, is meaningless, in fact impossible. Nevertheless, in becoming a sati she is affirming her erstwhile status as a pativrata while she transcends it. In this time of suspension and renun-

[64] For the classic structuralist perspective on marginality, see Victor Turner, "Betwixt and Between," in The Forest of Symbols , ed. Victor Turner (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 93–111.


ciation, the sati is both powerful and dangerous. Her decisions to apply her powers to bless and to curse are understood to derive from a vantage point of transcendent wisdom born of renunciation.

The ambiguity of the dutiful wife whose husband has died shows up in accounts of sati processions.[65] In some the sati , having first broken her bangles, gives away all her precious jewelry. She is performing the actions of a widow, acknowledging that her husband has died and that she is no longer a wife in the normal sense. She goes to the pyre devoid of ornamentation. This scenario, the basics of which my informants often described, matches the perceptions of Robert De Nobili, an early seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary who reported from Madurai on the sati immolations performed by wives of a deceased monarch. In narrating the story of one particular sati , he says:

Then she rose . . . and went to the river, where she bathed, and put on a cloth dyed with saffron; she distributed her necklace, ear-rings, and arm-rings among her relations, came close to the pit, round which she walked once, speaking to each of her acquaintances, and then, raising her hands, jumped with a cheerful face into the fire.[66]

As in many other Rajasthani narratives, this description of a sati 's death shows a woman who wears jewelry until she is ready to ascend the pyre, but it lays emphasis on her giving her jewels away. Similarly, many Rajput women make much of the fact that the sati , no longer the wife of a living husband, renounces her most precious possessions. In such descriptions renunciation connotes widowhood.

In other sati accounts, emphasis rests not on renouncing jewels but on wearing them, at least until immolation is imminent. In this vein, Rajput women note that a sati prohibits auspicious jewelry, clothing, and cosmetics because she is wearing these at the time of her sacrifice, not because she gives them away before her sacrifice. Some women believe that sati s wear their jewels into the fire. Others emphasize that their families' sati s dress up in the finery that pativrata s wear.[67] Putting on

[65] Dennis Hudson's compilation of sati ceremonies includes prescriptions by the nineteenth-century Bengali ritualist Raghunathan: "Let those women, not widowed . . . being wives, ascend . . . to the proper place . . . (and) enter the fire with the body of their husband." Cited as "Translated by Yogendra Chunder Ghose, editor of The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy , compiled and published by Eshan Chunder Bose, 2 vols., [Calcutta, 1885], Vol. I, footnote one, pp. 353–54, translation slightly modified," in Hudson's annotated "Examples of the Ritual Act of Sati."

[66] From Vincent Cronin, A Pearl to India (New York: Dutton, 1959), 53–54 in Hudson.

[67] See the account given by John Scudder, a Protestant missionary in the 1820s, as quoted from May Pauline Jeffry, Ida S. Scudder of Vellore , Jubilee Edition (Mysore City:1951), 9–10 in Hudson. Some informants said that sati s wore their finery into the fire, except their bangles, which were kept and put into a bundle with the ashes and bones and then were stored in a domestic temple.


wedding dresses or pilya s, two common subjects of ok s, these sati s act as pativrata s, as is implied by the sati act. But the narratives give stress to renunciation with minimal reference to the technicality of widowhood. Wearing jewelry into the fire or giving it up—either act conveys renunciation.

In accounts of sati immolation the symbolism of widowhood may be pronounced or minimized, but the interpretation of the sati ritual is bound by the concept of widowhood. The symbols of sacrifice may be those of widowhood that in turn draw on sannya s, ascetic renunciation; unmediated, they may stress sannya s or simply imply widowhood. The underlying premise remains: before she ascends the pyre, the sati is either both wife and widow or neither wife nor widow. The two formulations employ the same discourse. Both reveal a mutually implicating tension between auspiciousness and inauspiciousness.

The auspicious items and activities tied to the sativrata , whose status is ambiguous, remain auspicious. But their usage or performance is inauspicious because it indicates bad intentions: it reveals a lapse in the vow of the pativrata , which is the very foundation of the sati transformation. This distinction between the auspiciousness of the items and activities and the inauspiciousness of their usage or performance is subtle and vital. And, as we shall see, it illuminates the tradition of sati veneration.

In sum, investigating ok s has divulged the deeper aspects of sativrata character. It has provided a symbolic basis for interpreting the sativrata 's goodness and dangerousness. Moreover, in detailing the transition that the sativrata stage represents, it has elucidated the conceptual connection between the pativrata , who sacrifices personal desires to fulfill those of her husband and family, and the satimata , who protects the husband and family directly and also indirectly, by helping the pativrata to protect them. Finally, it has shown how the sativrata , not yet a fully transcendent being, publicly communicates with those whom she intends to protect. Manifesting her sat , she demonstrates that her acquisition of sativrata power results from a cultivated attitude of selfless sacrifice, only the final expression of which is the sacrifice she will make on her husband's pyre.

In the course of describing the basics of sati transformation, I have


presented two fundamental propositions. I have stated that the satimata is a paradigm that integrates within a wholly domestic context the competing aspects of the Rajput woman's identity as a Rajput and as a woman. This integration is a reflection of the goodness, the sat , that the satimata realized while she herself pursued the ideal of the pativrata .

Second, I have characterized the satimata as a protector who protects her family members, even when she curses. To aid protégées she issues commands that establish customs, which condition her continuing protection and provide means for veneration. On the basis of these propositions, chapter 5 explores the motivations women have as they interpret the satimata 's orders and assimilate the paradigm of duty that she represents. Its overarching purpose is to examine the paramount role of intention in the protective actions that pativrata s perform.


Chapter 4 Satimata Tradition the Transformative Process

Preferred Citation: Harlan, Lindsey. Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.