Per Mahabharata, the epic Hindu mythology, Savitri was Satyavan’s beautiful, loyal and devoted wife, who was able to revive him after his demise by outwitting Yama (the God of Death). Side note: she was also deemed ‘Sati’, a title conferred to the most chaste of all women. Sati practice (widow burning) on the other hand emerged when the original Sati from another tale sacrificed her life for the love of Shiva, the Hindu God. Sati practice dictates that the widow must immolate herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre should he die. The husbands do not need to burn themselves if their wives die of course. We abolished that in 1829, so I’m grateful for that! (I’m aware of oversimplifying this- it started as a voluntary tradition for widows, progressing quickly to become a forced practice that did not discount a widow’s wishes, much like every other blast from the past – topic for another day!)
The tale of Sati Savitri persists even today and informs the Indian society at many different levels. Savitri is synonymous with the ideal Indian woman whose duty is to look after her husband, their children, and the husband’s family. She must be docile, chaste, coy, obedient, virtuous, submissive, pious and of course pretty. Women who do not embody these qualities may have questionable characters.
Every year, married women like my mother across many states of India observe a fast for the well-being and long lives of their husbands as a way to commemorate Savitri and Satyavan’s eternal love. There’s a huge demand for Savitris in the Indian arrange marriage markets. A ‘modern’ working Savitri is one who works full-time and takes care of the entire household chores without any participation from her partner. In pop culture, the Savitri-ish Diana Pentys get picked by Saif Ali Khans of Bollywood over the ‘liberated’ Deepika Padukones in blockbusters like Cocktail.
We have also made some progress in recent decade after the wave of feminism and taken it to another extreme. Savitri is not ‘cool’ anymore with the young adults and resonates with the seeds of patriarchy. So, when your friends ask you to drink that glass of scotch next time and you say no, you’re instantly tagged the ‘Sati Savitri’ of the group. The nicknaming also persists when you say no to guys you’re not interested in, prefer dressing modestly/ traditionally, or you’re not the first one to take that swig of cigarette in your group.
So, we’ve managed to come a long way from the aggressive ‘Slut shaming’ to the passive aggressive ‘Savitri shaming’. Pick your demon and while you debate on that, think about men just being men throughout history.
“The feminist agenda… is not about equal rights for women… it is about a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
– Pat Robertson (television evangelist), 1992