Contemporary Jain Sati-Narratives

By Fohr, Sherry | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Jain Sati-Narratives

Fohr, Sherry, Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Drawing from interviews with Jain nuns in India, Sherry Fohr explores a traditional--yet continually expanding--narrative tradition that links chastity to supernatural power.

Genre of the Sati-Narrative in India & the Power of Chastity

Frequently a character in a South Asian narrative will tell a story to another character, and this story may contain another character telling yet another story. In this way, stories are embedded in stories, which themselves are embedded in other stories. Jain narratives are not exceptions to this rhetorical mode. Moreover, Jain nuns' lives are stories in and of themselves; and their lives include telling stories when they preach to the laity. (1) Much of my research in India has centered on learning Jain narratives about women--from nuns (sadhvis or aryikas) of almost every sect and sub-sect of Jainism--and learning how these women have interpreted these stories.

The stories that Jain nuns wanted to tell me most often were about satis (virtuous women), also referred to as mahasatis (great virtuous women); they also related these narratives to their own experiences and lives as Jain nuns. Sati-narratives are told in ancient and medieval Jain texts and are among the most popular and widely known of Jain literature among renouncers and laity in both of the main Jain sects, Svetambar and Digambar. (2) In Hinduism, the term sati is most often used to denote a faithful wife (also called a pativrata)--and in some contexts refers to the ritual burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband; but, in Jainism, the term refers to a "virtuous woman" who is either a faithful wife or female renouncer. Most Jain sati-narratives are about faithful wives who eventually renounce in order to become nuns. Although the main parts of these narratives are about "virtuous women"--women who, while married, have remained faithful to their husbands, sometimes in the face of great hardships or potential rapists--nuns described them as inspirations for their own celibacy after renouncing such householder lives. Some of these narratives are shared with Hinduism-such as those about Sita, Kunti, Damayanti, and Draupadi--but, unlike their Hindu counterparts, end with the heroine renouncing. However, the sati-narratives about Candanabala, Raji mati, Brahmi, Sundari, Subhadra, Mainasundari, Puspacula, Prabhavati, Siva, Silavati, Sulasa, Cellna, Anjana, Madanarekha, Mr gavati, and Padmavati are unique to the Jain tradition. (3)

As Jain nuns told me many times, stories about satis are not just stories; they are considered to be historical events about Jain women of the past. To many Jains, these satis are as real as the nun-satis with whom I conversed on a daily basis during my fieldwork in India. A few of these nuns have become quite influential and famous in various Jain communities. And, when this happens, someone or some group within the Jain community writes their hagiography--their life-story--which refers to important or pivotal events in their lives and how they taught and lived the Jain tradition. (4) However, a renouncer does not need to be famous for her or his story to be told. Some nuns and laypeople told me about their gurus' lives and how their gurus inspired them. This storytelling process augments the sati-narrative tradition so that the number of satis within this tradition is always increasing to include those who are still alive or who have died only recently.

However, I noticed a discrepancy between narratives about satis in Jain history and the lives of satis living now. Jain nuns repeatedly told me narratives about satis of the past that ascribe miraculous power to these virtuous women. For example, Sati Damayanti was able to save a merchant from a band of thieves and convert a demon to nonviolence, and Sati Anjana was able to crack a boulder in two. Nuns told me that these satis were powerful because chastity, as either a wife or a renouncer, produces supernatural power. …

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