Long long ago, there ruled a king named Ashvapati. He was a pious and virtuous man. However, he had no offspring. To acquire the same he resorted to a rigorous regimen of discipline, which included eating only a minimal amount of food at a specific time of the day and keeping the mind and body under strict control. Every day he would pour offerings into the sacred fires, accompanied by a hundred thousand chantings of the Gayatri mantra. After eighteen years, the goddess Gayatri was finally pleased with his devotion and manifested herself before him saying: "King! I am happy with your self-discipline and control over the senses. Ask whatever boon you want.”
The king replied: "Kindly grant me a son to carry on my family name forward. The goddess gave an intriguing reply: "Dear king, I have already spoken to Lord Brahma regarding your desire for a son. However, he has instructed me to instead grant you a daughter who will outshine the world with her qualities. We should not question nor doubt Brahma’s judgement.” The king bowed and with folded hands accepted the divine plan laid out before him.
Soon a daughter was born to him, whom he named Savitri, another name for goddess Gayatri, by whose grace he had been blessed. Savitri grew up to be so beautiful that anyone who saw her took her for a divine being rather than human. Her personality was powerful and luminous, so much so that she outshone all princes who thought of winning her hand.
One day, she made an appearance before her father to pay obeisance to him. She stood before him with folded hands. Seeing his fully grown daughter who had not yet been sought out by a suitor made the king extremely sad and he spoke out: "Dear daughter, the time is ripe for me to hand you over to a suitable husband. However, none has come forward to ask for your hand. Therefore, as per the scriptures, please go ahead and choose a husband yourself, someone who equals you in qualities. Let me know of the person of your choice and after due consideration, I will marry you off to him. Don’t worry, whatever I am asking you to do is strictly according to Dharma only because the scriptures say: ‘A father who does not give away his daughter at the suitable age is contemptible; a husband who does not have physical relations with his wife just following the days of her monthly cycle is contemptible; and the son who does not look after his widowed mother is contemptible.’ Hence, for my sake, so that I am not a culprit in the eyes of the gods, please go ahead and start looking for a suitable boy yourself.”
The king then instructed his elderly ministers to make necessary preparations for the trip and also asked them to accompany Savitri on her journey. The princess, though bashful, did not even for a moment doubt her father’s words, and set immediately out to fulfil his wish. Accompanied by her father’s mature and trusted advisors, she sat on a golden chariot and set out to the forests and various places of pilgrimage to seek out a husband for herself.
Some days later she returned to her father’s house. By chance, the great sage Narada too was visiting them at that time. The virtuous Savitri touched the saint’s feet with her head. On her father’s enquiry she revealed that she had seen a king who had lost his eyesight and consequently his kingdom, and who had retired to the forests to practice severe penances there. He had a son named Satyavan, who though born in the city, had been raised and brought up in the forests only. It was him that Savitri had chosen as her husband.
Hearing this, Narada exclaimed that Savitri had unknowingly brought misfortune on herself. Even though undoubtedly Satyavan was unmatched in terms of qualities, he was destined to live for only one more year. The king pleaded with his daughter to select another man for marriage. To this the great Savitri replied: "Father! Just like wealth is divided between brothers only once, a daughter too is given only once. Whether he have a long life or a short one, whether he is full of virtues or devoid of them; I have already chosen him as my husband and can therefore never chose another. First it is the mind that decides what’s to be done, then the speech utters it and finally we perform the action. It is my mind’s firm decision to have him and only him as my husband.”
Narada applauded Savitri’s speech saying that she had a firm mind and could not be deviated from the path of Dharma. He then told the king that it was best that she be married to Satyavan only. The king answered: "O sage! You are my guru. Your wish is my command. I will start off immediately to seek the permission of the groom’s parents.”
Savitri’s father used his chariot only till the edge of the forest. From there he proceeded on foot to where the hut of the blind king was. He introduced himself with all humility and requested Satyavan’s father to accept his daughter as a wife for his noble son. The blind king replied: "Sir, we have lost our kingdom and now live in the forest as reclusive hermits performing severe penances. It is not befitting that your princess be subject to the hardships of the forest.”
Savitri’s father replied: "Dear Sir! Pain and pleasure come and go. Me and my daughter both are aware of this. I have come to you with a firm resolution and with great expectations. Please don’t disappoint someone who has taken refuge under you with great hope.” Hearing these humble words, Satyavan’s father was greatly satisfied and respectfully agreed to the match. Savitri and Satyavan were then married in the forest and king Ashvapati, having handed over his daughter along with a large number of gifts to Satyavan, returned to his palace.
Satyavan was delighted to receive the glorious Savitri as his wife and so was she to have him as her husband. After her father had gone, Savitri removed all her ornaments and rich clothes and donned clothes made of barks and leaves as befitting forest-dwellers. Very soon she won the heart of all the residents of the hermitage by her spirit of service, humility, restraint and by acting according to the wishes of the elders. She satisfied her mother-in-law by physical service and gifts of clothes etc. and her father in law by maintaining restraint of speech in his presence. Similarly she gave immense satisfaction to her husband through sweetness of speech, efficiency of her work, maintaining peace in the house and through pleasurable activities when they were alone. Some time elapsed in this manner.
However, Savitri, who could not for a single moment let Narada’s words out of her mind, was in constant turmoil. The day soon approached when Satyavan was to give up his body. His devoted wife was counting each day and four days before, she took a severe vow (Vrata) that she would remain standing for three nights and days without taking any food. On seeing her strict regimen the father in law was extremely pained and addressed her thus: "O Princess! You have taken up a very tough Vrata. It is very difficult to be without food for three days.”Savitri said: "Father, please don’t worry. I will complete this Vrata. The cause of success of a Vrata is the firmness of one’s resolve only. I have taken it up only after making a firm decision.” Satyavan’s father then blessed her for the successful completion of her Vrata.
Savitri, reduced to a lifeless piece of wood, spent the last night standing immersed in the thought that tomorrow would be the last day of her husband’s life. The next morning, after finishing her early morning chores, she went down to seek the blessings of her in-laws and the elderly Brahmins of the hermitage. All answered her with words which blessed her with a long married life. Savitri became situated in Dhyana Yoga and received these words into her heart with the silent acceptance: ‘This is how it will be’.
Sometime later in the day, her in-laws addressed lovingly said to her: "Dear Daughter! You have successfully finished your Vrata. Now the time has come for you to take food.” Savitri replied: "Father, after sunset when I have achieved my desire, only then will I take food.This is my firm resolve.”
As she was speaking these words, Satyavan, putting an axe on his shoulders was setting out to gather wood for the sacred fires (Agni) from the forest. Savitri requested that she too wanted to accompany him. Satyavan tried to dissuade her by pointing out that the trails of the forest were difficult and as it is she was considerably weakened by her severe fast. Savitri however replied that she was not feeling any weakness at all due to the fast and was very desirous of accompanying him and therefore he should not say no to her. Seeing her enthusiasm, Satyavan agreed but asked her to take the permission of his parent’s first. She went before her in-laws, bowed her head before them and said: "Dear Parents, it’s been a year and I have never stepped out of the hermitage. It is my heart’s desire to go along with my husband today and see the beauty of the forest.” Her father-in-law replied: "Daughter, ever since you have come here you have not asked for anything. This is the first time you expressed a desire for something. Go daughter, May God fulfil your desire.”
Thus did Savitri, after having obtained permission from both her in-laws set out with her husband towards the deep forests. Outwardly she seemed normal and happy but inside she was burning in the fire of torment. Her loving husband meanwhile, oblivious of his impending fate, set out to entertain his wife by pointing out the beauties of the forest. Savitri was constantly watching over her husband. She was convinced that Narada’s words were definitely going to come true. Walking slowly, Savitri seemed to be divided into two parts - one which followed her husband and the other which dreadfully waited for the looming moment.
Within a small time, Satyavana, with his wife’s help, had collected a basket of fruits. Then he set to split wood with his axe. The hard labor made him sweat and his head began aching. Tormented by the pain he went to his beloved wife and said: "Savitri, today the job of cutting wood tires me out and my head and body are aching. My heart too seems to be burning and I feel as if someone is piercing my head with needles. Dear, I want to sleep. I don’t seem to have enough power to remain standing.”
Hearing this, Savitri rushed to his side and sitting down, placed his head in her lap. Just then there appeared in front of her a divine being wearing red clothes. He was of dark complexion and fierce disposition, and was holding a noose in his hand. He was continuously looking towards Satyavan. Seeing him, she gently placed her husband’s head on the ground and stood up with folded hands. With her heart pounding and voice faltering she said: "Sir, it seems you are a divine being. If you wish can you let me know who you are and what you want to do here?” The divine personage replied: "Savitri, you are a devoted wife (Pativrata) and also lead an ascetic-like life. Therefore, I can converse with you. I am Yamaraja – the god of death. Your husband’s life is over, hence I am going to tie him up and take him with me.” Saying this, Yamaraja tied up the jiva who was the size of a thumb (angushtha-matra), and extracted him from Satyavana’s body. Then, because of losing his Prana, Satyavan stopped breathing, his body lost all lustre and lay lifeless on the ground like an undesirable object. Yamaraja carried off with the jiva in the southern direction. Savitri, beside herself with grief, kept on following him. On way, the following conversation took place between the two - a conversation unparalleled in the annals of world literature:
Yamaraja: Savitri, you should return now and prepare for your husband’s last rites. You gave him company till the very last possible and are now free from any debt towards him.
Savitri: It is a wife’s eternal Dharma to go wherever her husband takes her or go wherever he is going; and this is what I am doing. Due to Tapasya, Guru-Bhakti, love for my husband, performing Vratas and your blessings, I have access to all worlds and hence can follow my husband and you. Wise persons say that two people become friends even if they have walked seven steps together (and we have already covered more ground). Keeping this friendship in front of me I will say something, please hear: Situated in one’s own Dharma one reaches the highest goal. One should not desire to follow Dharma other than one’s own. Therefore, virtuous people give preference only to Dharma.
To Savitri’s these words, soaked as they were in Dharma, Yamaraja, also known as Dharmaraja (The King of Dharma) replied:
Yamaraja: Your words are almost like poetry to my ears. Ask any boon you want except for your husband’s life.
Savitri: Lord, my father-in-law has to suffer a lot because of his blindness. I request that his eyesight be restored.
Yamaraja: So be it. You should return now as you look very tired.
Savitri: How can a wife feel any tiredness when she is near her husband? I am going to end up wherever my husband does. Wherever you take him, it is mandatory that I follow you there. Lord, listen to my one more thing. The company of saints (like you) is greatly desirable, even if it be for once only. It is even better to have friendship with them (which I have already developed with you). The company of saints is never futile, it is bound to always yield some happy fruit. Therefore, one should always strive to be in the company of the great.
Yamaraja: Savitri, you have uttered words which are beneficial for all. It conforms exactly to what is held by me too. I am extremely happy at your words. Ask for another boon except that of Satyavan’s life.
Savitri: Please restore my father-in-laws lost kingdom.
Yamaraja: So it will be; and now that your wish has been fulfilled, you can go back.
Savitri: Dear Lord! It is you who control the world through the various rules (Niyama) laid down by you. That is why you are known as Yama. Please listen to what I have to say. Never hurting others either mentally, verbally or physically is the eternal Dharma practiced by virtuous people. Dharma also has compassion and charity as its necessary components. Saints (like yourself) have compassion even towards your enemies who come under your refuge (then how cannot you have compassion upon us who have gained your friendship?).
Yamaraja: Your words are as soothing to me as water is to a thirsty man. Go ahead and ask for any boon except Satyavan’s life.
Savitri: Dear Lord, my father is without a son. Please grant him a hundred sons who can carry his family name forward.
Yamaraja: So will it be. Dear Lady, now that your wish has been fulfilled, go back as you have already come too far.
Savitri: How can I be far from anywhere when I am near my husband? We can keep walking as you listen to me. You treat all equally according to Dharma, hence you are known as Dharmaraja. Actually, man does not have as much faith in himself as he has in saints like you. One person trusts another due to sympathy and compassion and saints have the maximum compassion in them and so all have faith in them.
Yamaraja: The type of words I have heard from you I have never heard from anyone else. I am very satisfied with what you have said. Ask for a fourth boon, other than his life and then you can return from here.
Savitri: May there be born from me and my husband Satyavan a hundred sons to expand our family name. This is the fourth boon I want from you.
Yamaraja: So be it. There will be born to you a hundred sons who will be a source of immense joy to you. Now go back before you are exhausted.
Savitri: Virtuous people are always engaged in the performance of Dharma. They desire the company of saints and never fear them. Actually, it is the Dharma of the virtuous and Tapasya of the saints which holds up the world. Living under such saints (like you), followers of Dharma (like us) are never subjected to grief. The blessings of saints never go waste. Indeed, they are the ones protecting this world.
Yamaraja: O Chaste Woman! Your voice, loaded with serious import and populated with beautiful words pleases me and my devotion towards you continues to increase more and more. Ask any boon from me.
Savitri: Sir, the boon you have given me of a hundred sons is not possible alone without my husband being with me. This boon is not like the other boons I had asked for. Therefore, I request that my husband be restored to life because I am as good as dead without him. If there is any pleasure in this world without my husband I don’t want it. I don’t wish for a heaven without him. I don’t want any riches without him. What more can I say, I do not wish to live without my husband. You have blessed me with a hundred sons, and you yourself are carrying away my husband from me. Therefore, I repeat my request for being reunited with my husband.
Yamaraja replied in the affirmative and released the soul of Satyavan from his bond, blessing Savitri that her name would be immortalized as a source of inspiration till eternity.
Conclusion: In the annals of history if there is one story which illuminates the true nuances of love with vividness it is that of Savitri. She expresses the two most subtle yet fundamental ingredients of love: selfless devotion and sacrifice. These are not two lovers forgetting the bigger picture embroiled only in the physical aspect of love. The sequence in which Savitri asks her boons reveals to us the depth of her character. Her first concern is towards the suffering of her father-in-law, and only later does she ask a boon for her own father. What greater example can there be of complete surrender? Glory to Indian womanhood, shaped as it is by divine literature like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Truly did Savitri demonstrate how a virtuous woman can exalt two families at the same time.
(The story of Savitri occurs in the Mahabharata in the Book of Forests (Vana Parva), chapters 293-299).
This article by Nitin Kumar.
References & Further Reading:
- Satwalekar, Sripad Damodar. The Mahabharata (Hindi Translation): Gujarat, 1985.
- Pandey Ram, Ramnarayandatt Shatri. The Mahabharata (Hindi Translation): Gorakhpur.