I grew up in a Hindu household in the United States. The first child to freshly minted immigrants from India. My father, in his own way, is a Bhakta. He has a devotional and ritualistic practice of prayer to God that is part of his everyday routine ever since I can remember. You will never catch him reading spiritual texts. My mother, on the other hand is a Jnani. She is all about obtaining knowledge and learning through texts. Idol worship is not her thing. They are both Hindus, practicing Hinduism. They agree that Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life. Their personal practices could not be more different and they are like most Hindus I know. They tend to their spiritual needs in the way that best suits their nature (pakriti). No one is persecuted for this.
To this day, I find Hinduism incredibly confusing. It is not a philosophy of one person’s making. There is no one text to learn from. While its knowledge persists through time, time has been the space of its fragmentation. There is nothing linear about it. Trying to understand Hinduism for me is like trying to understand chaos. I can’t. After all my dalliances with other wisdom traditions, it is also the wisdom stream I consistently return to. I guess there is a reason why I was born to Hindu parents. The issue is, I am completely put off by the word Hinduism. It is a relatively new word popularized by British scholars in the late 1800’s and is not mentioned anywhere in the Vedas, Upanishads, or Puranas. These are the core foundational texts of “Hindu” wisdom and its subsequent philosophical schools. These texts refer to their wisdom stream as Sanatana Dharma, which means the eternal truth….a person’s eternal duty. Dharma encapsulates truth, law and duty all in one. English does not have a word to communicate this.
Hinduism evolved as a derivative from the Persian language to describe the people living around the Indus River and later the spiritual faith of those people. The Persians were amongst the first foreign invaders to conquer the region. As a person with one leg in the West and another in the East, I get why Hinduism feels so disorienting and confusing. It feels wrong because it is not native to the people or the place. It also does not have the fixed nature of all other “isms” I know. Just like the word is a distortion so is how it is understood. More generations than can be counted have been interpreting their religion through a western filter, with a western ideal and orientation. A consequence of millennia of foreign rule that leaves a different flavor that is completely different from the original taste, the actual sensibility of those steeped in its tradition. How does one make sense of a thali (plate) of daal (lentils), chawal (rice), subzi (vegetables), curry, dhai(yogurt), roti (bread), achaar (pickle) with its complex blend of spices through the lens of meat and potatoes, salt and pepper. You can try and good luck with that. I personally feel it is time for this to change in the post imperial world of British conquer-ism. When you read this blog, know that when I refer to Sanatana Dharma, I am referring to what many people relate to as Hinduism today.
In the early literature of Sanatana Dharma is the lost memory of Sati’s story. It is part of the origin stories of creation told in the Puranas that tells us about pantheon of Devas and Devis forming the Sanatana Dharma’s cosmology. In the Puranas, there are numerous versions of Sati’s story and they do not all match. There are 18 major Puranas and 18 minor Puranas. There is also disagreement on which are the 18 major and 18 minor. There are additional Puranas that get excluded off the various versions of lists floating around. Puranas read like Gospels. The stories are about various aspects of creation through the perspective of the narrator and the central figures in the part of history they are sharing. Puranas were orally passed down until they were committed to written Sanskrit by people who wrote them down starting around 250 CE. It is no shock that some of the stories contradict themselves in what became the longest game of telephone in human history. The Puranas are smritis. They represent what is remembered. We all know the reliability of memory. This literature is very different from the earlier teachings of the Vedas or Upanishads, that are referred to as srutis, meaning what is experienced.
I want to offer up this context before I dive into my own version of the story of Sati. It is an amalgam of the many versions I read from the Shiva, Devi Bhagvatam, Markendaya, Vishnu, Brahma and Brihaddharma Puranas. These are not the only texts citing Sati’s story but enough to get her significance and how inexplicable it is that the physical Shakti Peethas tied to her really exist and persist today. They continue to have the power to magnetize people toward them for worship and pilgrimage centuries later while also hosting newer layers of significance as Sanatana Dharma evolved and adapted to time, its people and shifting consciousness. I struggled with these various versions, their contradictions, the perspectives of the narrator and even the English translations centuries removed from the original context. I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to know the most accurate version of a story that feels so true and alive to me, and it disturbs me. Sati means truth in Sanskrit. Truth is important. Especially in the landscape of fake news and propaganda which distorts reality and leads to divisions between us. I wish I had it to offer here. The story I’ll share is what feels true to me with the limitations of time and perspective. I own the limitations of the truthfulness I’m expressing here.