A legend on how love cheated death
Today, June 20th 2020, we celebrate the Hindu festival of Vat Savitri Vrat, during which perseverance, truth and devotion are highlighted by the story of Savitri, retold in the great epic Mahabharata.
A long time ago in the kingdom of Madra (today’s Punjab) ruled the good king Ashwapati. He had many wives, as was the custom in those days, and the palace echoed with their happy voices — but Ashwapati was unhappy, because he had no children.
During 18 long years he prayed to the Solar deity Savitr, and finally the god blessed him. A few months later, a baby girl was born to the king, and she was named Savitri in honour of the god.
Being the king’s only child, Savitri was taught music, literature, astronomy, and philosophy — in a time when women received little or no education, this was quite unusual. She grew up to be a sweet, beautiful and intelligent young woman.
However, when the time came to find a suitable husband for her, none of the neighbouring kings wanted her hand in marriage, as they had no desire for a wife who was more knowledgeable than them.
A wise minister advised king Ashwapati to let the princess choose her own husband. And so it was arranged that Savitri, accompanied by the king’s minister, would set out on a pilgrimage through many kingdoms, visiting all the holy places along the way. She was instructed by her father to seek for a husband that would be worthy of her.
After many months, on their way back from the sacred city of Varanasi, Savitri and the minister were journeying through a forest when they met a young man named Satyavan. He was the son of the exiled king Dyumatsena, who had become blind and lost his kingdom to a usurper. The king and queen had escaped with their infant son and made their home in the forest, leading a simple, ascetic life there.
Savitri and Satyavan were drawn to each other, and she went home a few days later with a joyful heart.
“Father!” Savitri happily exclaimed upon arriving at her father’s palace, “I have made my choice : Satyavan, the son of king Dyumatsena, will be my husband. Although poor, he is the most noble man I have ever met.”
The celestial sage, Narada, who was visiting the king at that time, overheard her, and a look of sadness came into his eyes as she spoke. He was gifted with divine vision, and the future was often known to him.
“Child,” he said, “Satyavan indeed has every virtue, being truthful, noble, brave and intelligent. But he is destined to die exactly a year from today…”
In those days in India, the life of a widow was not enviable, even for a princess : remarriage was not permitted, and widows were a burden to society and often shunned. Satyavan’s family being exiled and poor, Savitri would have nobody to take care of her if she were to marry him.
“I have already chosen him, O sage. Just as death comes but once, and just as a person gives a gift but once and would not ask it back, I have chosen my husband and it will be only once, whether his life span be long or short.”
Seeing her resolve, sage Narada and king Aswapati both blessed her, and the marriage was soon celebrated. Savitri and Satyavan took seven sacred steps together around the holy fire to sanctify their union, and the bride bid farewell to her parents before leaving with Satyavan and his parents to their humble forest dwelling.
Accepting that she had but a short time with her beloved husband, she enjoyed every moment spent with him. Exchanging her rich clothes for simple forest garments and her life of luxury for one of simplicity, she was very happy during the following year.
Three days before the fated day, Savitri solemnly took the Tritara vow to purify herself : she would neither eat nor sleep during three days. The morning of Satyavan’s predicted death, she accompanied him into the forest — she had never done this before, and Satyavan was very happy for her company.
As he was chopping wood that afternoon, his body bathed in perspiration, Satyavan suddenly felt ill. Lying down to rest under a banyan tree, he felt terrible pain shooting through his limbs. He lay his head on Savitri’s lap, hoping to sleep a while… but soon his body became still and he stopped breathing.
The next moment, a figure appeared. Dressed in red and crowned with gold, it was Yama, the Lord of Death. Placing a noose on Satyavan’s body, he gently pulled and drew out his soul — it appeared as a small figure, the size of a thumb.
At once, Satyavan’s body lost its brightness, becoming still and grey like a stone. Yama turned and walked away. Savitri quietly got up and started to follow him. After a while, hearing the tinkle of her anklets, the god turned his head and saw her.
“Why are you following me, child?” he said.
“Where my husband goes, Lord, I too must go.”
Yama sighed. “Go back, child. You have walked with him as far as it is possible to accompany a human.”
Savitri bowed her head and answered, “Lord, it is said that walking seven steps together makes friends — I have walked more than seven steps with you. It is a great honour to have a friend such as you.”
The Lord of Death was charmed by these words. “You are sweet, child. Ask me for a boon — anything but Satyavan’s life, for that I cannot give you.”
“Please, Lord, then give my father-in-law Dyumatsena his sight back.”
“It is done,” he said. “Now you must go back.”
But Savitri did not turn back. She abundantly thanked Yama, and flattered, he offered her a second boon. Savitri asked for her father-in-law’s kingdom to be given back to him.
“So be it,” said Yama with a smile, surprised that she did not ask anything for herself. “Now, go back. You cannot come any farther.”
“In life and death I am wedded to Satyavan. I have to follow him,” replied Savitri.
“But he is lying there in the forest — you must go back and arrange for his funeral.”
“O noble Dharmaraja, Lord of Truth and Justice, why do you test me? What good is the body when the soul leaves it?”
Yama, pleased by her wisdom, offered her another boon.
“My father has no children other than myself,” murmured Savitri with downcast eyes. “Will you grant him sons to carry on his line?”
“So be it. But you must return now, for you have come too far already.”
Savitri bowed, “O Dharmaraja, who measures out the Law of Life and Death equally to all living beings, being in your presence is a great blessing indeed. I am most fortunate.”
Her words melted Yama’s heart. He decided to offer this remarkable young woman one last boon. “Child, ask me for one last thing, anything but your husband’s life.”
Savitri shyly said, “Please grant that I have many sons, too, O great Lord.”
“So be it, child. Now go back.”
“But Lord, how can I have children if my husband is dead?”
Yama caught his breath. Savitri’s honeyed words and selfless requests had lulled him — the Lord of Death, Truth and Justice was cornered, and he knew it. He smiled slowly, and then laughed.
“Ah, Savitri, you have a great heart and a brilliant mind! I free your husband. Live long in happiness, both of you!” And with these words, Yama departed.
Her heart beating wildly, Savitri ran back to where Satyavan lay under the banyan tree. She sat down and took his head again on her lap. Colour had come back into his cheeks. He opened his eyes and gazed lovingly at her. “It seems I have been asleep a long time. Look, it is already night!”
Savitri laughed. As they made their way back to the small hermitage where his parents waited for them, she told him all that had happened.
Upon arriving at the house, they were greeted by an amazed Dyumatsena. Earlier in the day, the blind king had suddenly regained his sight! Just as he was wondering at this miracle, an envoy arrived bearing news — the usurper had been defeated and the people called for their dear king’s return. A procession was on its way to bring the exiles back to their kingdom.
In the years that followed, to Savitri’s delight, she received news that many sons were born to her parents. She and Satyavan too were blessed with many children. One after the other, all of Yama’s boons were fulfilled. Through intelligence, perseverance, humility and devotion, Savitri had brought good fortune to all her loved ones.
When asked how she had accomplished such a miracle, she simply replied,“I praised the Divine Lord, but I did it truthfully.”
To this day, Savitri’s memory is celebrated. Married women fast during three days, as Savitri did, and wind thread seven times around a banyan tree while praying for the well-being of their loved ones. The sacred Vat (banyan tree), under which Savitri and Satyavan sat in the forest, is worshipped in memory of their great love.