Hindu culture conceives of self-sacrifice as a form of power. The submissive feminine role has more complexity than in the West. In fact, according to Margaret Egnor, a special, positive power comes from suffering. The goddess Sakti embodies this power; action of this sort is considered inherently female.
To begin with, sakti, like our word "power" is often defined as the ability to act, to make others act, to make things happen, and as action itself. . . . Inasmuch as spiritual power of sakti is believed to be acquired through suffering, especially the suffering of servitude, one apparent contradiction is resolved: if women have more sakti than men, this is (at least in part) because women stand in the position of servants with respect to men. This also helps to explain why women, rather than trying to undo the sexual hierarchy, are often its staunchest supporters. ["On the Meaning of Sakti to Women in Tamil Nadu," The Powers of Tamil Women, ed. Susan S. Wadley (New York: Syracuse University Maxwell School, 1980), 22].
Egnor sees elements of choice and pride in women's emulation of the Sita-Savitri image. Whereas the Tamil women whose stories she presents obviously did not enjoy suffering, they did not see themselves as victims but rather women with sakti: "None of these women saw a contradiction between her possession of sakti and her subordinate role as female. . . . On the contrary, for each woman the possession of extraordinary sakti came as a consequence of her subordinate status, or more accurately, as a consequence of the suffering that that subordination entailed" . Such a complex concept of suffering and spiritual power explains better why the Sita-Savitri image has persisted in literature until recently, when women writers affected by Western feminism have explored the alternative ideal of self-assertion.
Hindu culture's construction of suffering and giving makes clear how in Nectar in a Sieve Rukmani's daughter could prostitute herself yet uphold the feminine ideal. Ira finds the power to defy her father and social norms, only because she acts out of self sacrifice: she goes out to make some money so that she can feed her dying brother during a famine. Her selling of her body does not violate the ideal of wifely loyalty and virtue, since her husband had divorced her for not bearing children. Yet again, as in the case of Rukmani's enraged rebellion against a tomentor, Markandya punishes the suffering woman's defiance and makes it futile. With the cruel irony of the story Ira's brother dies despite her attempts, and she finally becomes pregnant from one of her customers, bearing an defective-looking child who increases her shame. Yet she cares for him with love and accepts him as she would a child born to happier circumstances. Just like her mother, no end comes to her endurance and caring for others in her family.
[This contribution derives from work written for Professor Ranjini Obeysekere's Anthropology 302, South Asian Women Writers: Another Approach to Feminism, Princeton University, 1989/]