Sati literally meant “good one,” or, since it had a feminine ending, “good woman.” It was extended to mean “pure one,” especially a wife who had purified herself in the funeral pyre of their husband. By the modern era sati (suttee in nineteenth-century literature) came to mean “widow burning” (which reformers like Rammohan Roy called “widow murder”). A number of myths presented sati as a natural response of the wife to the death of her husband. Such a death would be in conflict with prohibitions of suicide in the law codes. Whether or not these matter-of-fact accounts of wives leaping into their husbands’ funeral pyres were a glorification of the practice of sati in the mythology is open to question, as well as whether or not one gained heaven (svarga) or achieved liberation (moksha) through the practice. The aged parents of Sravana jumped into their son’s funeral pyre: but there was no judgment as to whether or not that could be called a sati for both or either of them. There are a number of temples where sati used to be performed in Rajasthan.
See also Aurva; Daksha; Kunti;
Mahisha; Renuka; Rukmini; Sita
(2) The wife of Siva
Sati (goddess of purity, or faithfulness) was the daughter of Daksha (god of ritual skill), one of the adityas. When Sati came of age, Daksha organized a svayamvara in order for Sati to choose her own husband. All of the gods were invited except Siva. As she circled the gods, Sati thought only of Siva. And as she placed the garland that indicated her choice of a husband, Siva manifested with the garland around his neck. Daksha had to accept Siva as his son-in-law. Later Siva showed Daksha no respect, when Daksha entered the hall and Siva did not rise. Their enmity grew.
The culmination came when Daksha invited all the gods except Siva to a sacrificial feast. Siva told Sati that he was not bothered by the slight. But Sati went to her father’s celebration and ended her life in protest of her father’s rejection of Siva. One version stated that she burned herself in the heat (tapas) of her own yoga. Another had her committing suicide in the Brahmanical fire pit so sacred to orthoprax Vedic religion. (Although later myths used her act as an example of sati in the sense of widow burning, she was not a widow throwing herself upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.) For a different ending, see the entry on Siva.
Siva was so upset that he picked up her corpse and danced with her on his shoulders. The dancing was about to destroy the universe. Therefore Vishnu hacked up Sati’s body with throws of his discus. The number of pieces that fell to the earth varies—5, 51, 52, 72, 108—in any case, each piece became a tirtha (a place of pilgrimage). A thousand places claimed to be where one of her parts fell, and each had one or more parts preserved in its temple. Kamarupa in Assam claimed that her most private part, her yoni, fell there, so Sati is worshipped there in her yoni form. The Daksha Mahadeva temple in Hardwar claims to be the site of the sacrifice (yajna).