A popular myth and story of faithfulness and never dying love is the center of a story found in the Mahabharata, one of two major Sanskrit epics. The story of Savitri and Satyavan is about a legendary couple and the love of Savitri for her husband and her devotion to Satyavan.
The legend tends to be told in two parts with the princess Savitri marrying an exiled prince Satyavan who is destined to die early. The latter part focuses on how she would go on to save him from Yama, the God of Death.
This is a popular story in the teachings of Hinduism and is sung even today by married women in traditional homes. It is claimed in the Mahabharata that King Yudhisthira asked Bhagavan Krishna which ritual would create happiness for married women. But why has it lasted so long and just how did Savitri cheat death and survive with her husband?
Tale as Old as Time
Many years ago, in the territory known as Madra, a king called Aswapati and his wife Kaushalya were a childless couple. To try and bring a child into the world, they asked the saints what they should do.
The saints claimed that they should do Savitri Yajna, a ritual, and offer it to the gods. The king did this for over 18 years but to no avail. It was at the end of these long 18 years that the Devi Savitri rose from the fire altar. She blessed the king and his wife which led to the birth of a baby girl named Savitri.
Unsurprisingly, Savitri grew to be a beautiful and utterly charming lady. It was not long before she was due to marry someone. In order to fulfill this, the king organized a swayamvara.
This was a method of marriage in ancient India in which a woman chose a husband from a collective group of suitors. It could include marriage proposals from people outside of the kingdom as well as those within it. However, no suitor came forward who was suitable and who could match the aura that Savitri created in any room she entered.
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It was prophesied that Savitri would find her partner should she seek him out across the mountains and rivers. Eventually, she came across a young, spirited man, and she instantly fell in love with him.
Despite Savitri’s jubilation at finding a suitor, she was soon to be disappointed by her prophecy giver, who told her that she should banish the young man from her mind as she had found ill-fate rather than a good partner. The prophesier explained that years ago there was a king of the Salya kingdom named Dyumatasena.
He lost both of his eyes and was exiled from his kingdom along with his wife and son. Savitri had made the mistake of falling in love with the son of Dyumatasena, Satyavan.
Savitri was unperturbed by this and demanded Satyavan be accepted as her husband. It was impossible for her to love anybody else, she claimed she would not stop loving him even if she could only love him for only a year. The wedding was organized and Savitri moved to exile with her new husband.
They lived happily and to the fullest for a year. At the end of this year, Savitri knew that death would come for Satyavan. On the appointed day, Satyavan fell very dizzy. This was despite the alms offered by Savitri to the poor and the gods, the meditation she did or the fast that she kept. It was not long until Satyavan lay dead on her lap.
Savitri’s cries could be heard throughout the forest they were in. Her heartbreak thundered all around her. It attracted the attention of a shadow in the dense forest. It was not until the shadow was above her that Savitri recognized it was the Lord of Death Yama.
This was unusual as normally Yama would send his minions to collect the souls of the dead. However, they were all too afraid to approach the virtuous Savitri. Thus, he had come himself. He demanded the release of Satyavan’s soul. Savitri refused unwilling to be parted from her beloved.
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Yama took Satyavan’s soul anyway but was pestered by Savitri. She followed Yama and refused to leave him alone. Yama offered her multiple wishes in order to get her to leave him alone.
Crucially, Yama dictated that she was unable to wish for Satyavan to be returned to life. A sparkle of an idea came to Savitri. First, she wished for her father-in-law to have his eyes and kingdom restored.
Next, she wished for her own father to have one hundred sons. Finally, she asked for a hundred sons for Satyavan and herself. In order to grant this wish, Yama would have to return Satyavan to life. Yama had been tricked.
Yama conceded his defeat and impressed by Savitri’s wit and cleverness offered her new terms to the wishes. She could wish for anything at all with no restrictions. She very quickly wished for Savitri to be returned from the clutches of death.
Satyavan returned to life as if he had been in a deep sleep but had no knowledge of what had happened. It was not until their return to his family and his father’s restoration as king that his eyesight revealed what had happened while he “slept”. All of the kingdoms sang for Savitri and have done ever since.
From the beginning, Savitri is presented as a unique woman. Not only is she beautiful, wise, and determined but she seems to strive toward virtue while the men around her flee from it. It is only Yama that recognizes her qualities. She defeats him with wit and cleverness.
However, these all happen while she is a wife but acting outside of the usual capacities of a wife. Clearly, marriage in this story expects the woman to be much more than just the wife of a husband.
Top Image: Savitri begs Yama, the God of Death, not to take her husband Satyavan. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman
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