The story of Savitri is told in the Mahabharata to illustrate the power of woman’s chastity and devotion to her husband and is called pativrata mahatmya. It appears as a minor episode, upakhyana, in seven sections in the Book of the Forest of the Great Epic. Rishi Markandeya narrates it to exiled Yudhishthira to console him out of his plight of melancholy, distressed as he was by the sufferings of Draupadi; the sage assures him that in the manner of Savitri she too will prove a saviour and fortune-bringer to the desolate Pandavas.
King Aswapati of Madra is issueless and performs, over a period of eighteen years, Savitri-Yajna and receives a boon of a radiant daughter from the Goddess. The girl grows into full and beautiful maidenhood in due time, but no noble prince of heroic valour approaches her to claim her in marriage. The King suggests to the Princess to seek a husband of her own choice and she sets out on the missioned task, accompanied by the elderly counsellors of the royal Court. Savitri travels to distant lands and visits several ashramas, and holy shrines, and proud capital cities on river banks. She offers her prayers to the deities in pilgrim-centres and gives away great charities to the learned and worthy ones as she moves in her quest from place to place. Finally she comes to the deep Shalwa Woods where she meets Satyavan and at once chooses him as her life’s partner, as does Satyavan too in regard of Savitri. In the meanwhile, sage Narad visits Aswapati and, as they are engaged in conversation, returns Savitri to the Palace after accomplishing her mission. On being asked by her father, Savitri discloses that it is in Satyavan that she has made her choice. But immediately Narad, as if to make it firmer, speaks of it as unfortunate; for Satyavan is destined to die one year after the marriage. Aswapati advises his daughter to make another choice, but she is unswerving in her resolve. Savitris choice is made only once and not again. Narad knows that her determination is in conformity with the Dharma and that there is hence a heavenly sanction for it; he in fact blesses the marriage and wishes it to pass off without any ill- happening. Then Aswapati, following the age-old tradinon, makes a formal proposal to Satyavan’s father Dyumatsena and the wedding of Satyavan and Savitri is solemnised in the presence of the Rishis of the Forest. One year is about to end and Savitri is greatly afflicted when only four days are left in the life o her husband. She decides to undertake an austere vow of standing at a given place continuously for three days, without taking food. On arrival of that fated day she worships the Fire- God and, after receiving benedictions from the elders, accompanies Satyavan to the wood where he has to go for his usual work. But, while engaged in the work, he suddenly feels tired and begins to perspire profusely. Savitri takes him in her lap and, as foretold by Narad, reckons the coming of the appointed moment. Soon Savitri sees in front of her a bright God snatching the soul of Satyavan and carrying it away with him, even as he started moving in the southerly direction. Savitri follows him and offers great eulogies to the shining divinity in Yama and in the process receives several boons from him; finally she wins back the soul of Satyavan. Returning to earth, the young couple realise that it has already grown dark in the evening. The; decide to make haste and get back to the hermitage where the elders must be waiting for them with all anxiety in their heart. In fact, Dyumatsena is very much disturbed and is appropriately consoled by the wise sages of the ashrama. Then, not too long after that, arrive at the premises Satyavan and Savitri and there is great jubilation. On the insistence of Rishi Gautama Savitri reveals to them the several details, beginning with Narad’s prophecy of Satyavan’s death on that particular day, Yama’s arrival and taking away his soul, and hi5 granting her five boons including a long life of four hundred years for Satyavan to live with her.
Such is the essential substance of the Mahabharata Savitri, recounted in 300 shlokas or 600 hemistichs While the immediate purpose of the poet in giving us the story is to emphasise the power of love and wifely devotion even in the face of death, he goes far beyond the moral, ethical, or religious considerations. Actually the poem is a spiritual document and the simple episode a significant assertion of the inner law in transactions of everyday life. Indeed, the poet is suggesting that the path of truth-virtue is really the path of everlasting happiness and salvation. Values that are soul-charged are the only ones which will ultimately prove beneficial in the context of the worldy affairs as well. Savitri’s soul had recognised the truth in Satyavan the moment they met in the Forest and she clung to it in the extreme adverse circumstance too; it was by the power of love that her soul had conic out and made the choice, even so much as her nature was ready to accept it as a luminous and infallible guide. She was “driven from within” and with that force triumphed over all that stood between her and the sole good she knew by the wonderful alchemy of the newly awakened love in her. The entire thrust of the narrative is on inner perception and the fortitude required to abide by it. That is really the nature of Satya-Dharma, which has always the sanction of heaven, to walk as well through the peril and disaster of life. Savitri’s true greatness is that she upheld it gloriously even in her darkest hour when the mid-day sun stood above her head. Satyavan’s death was not an ordinary mortal’s death and Yama himself had come, on that specified noon, to seize his soul. It is in that extraordinariness rose Savitri’s indomitable spirit and claimed divinity in the earthly mould giving to it its own marvellous glow. To establish this victory Savitri had prepared herself fully by doing long and difficult tapasya. She was not only a fiery princess. kanya tejasvini, but was a masterly adept in the Yoga of Meditation and she was as much proficient in the occult workings too. She alone could effect transformation in the Power of Darkness standing in the way of the supreme event of Love. In giving us such a Savitri the poet himself has climbed extraordinary heights.
The composed and dignified manner of Vyasa is evident in every line and in every description of the upakhyana. He is austere in purity of the artistic taste and there is a complete wholesomeness in its self-sufficient and exact delineation. Vyasa is too precise a writer to be paraphrased hurriedly. It is a maturer and nobler work, perfect and restrained in details” — this Savitritale, full of vigour and in reaching its objective direct. Though written in the “morning of his genius”, it has already a surer stamp of his Rishihood on it. Assessing the quiet grandeur of it Sri Aurobindo exclaims, “... in the Savitri what a tremendous figure a romantic poet would have made of death, what a passionate struggle between the human being and the master of tears and partings But Vyasa would have none of this; he had one object, to paint the power of a woman’s silent love and he rejected everything which went beyond this or which would have been merely decorative. We cannot regret his choice. There have been plenty of poets who could have given us imaginative and passionate pictures of Love struggling with Death, but there has been only one who could give us a Savitri.’” It is this story which Sri Aurobindo found charged with the profoundest spiritual contents and took it up in its several dimensions to give us his epic of the bright evolutionary fulfilment. 1 he story, though ancient, thus remains ever compelling.
About symbolic possibilities of the Savitri-tale this is what Sri Aurobindo has written: “The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle. Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of being within itself but descended into the grip of death and ignorance; Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save:
Aswapati, the Lord of the Horse, her human father. is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes; Dyumatsena, Lord of the shining Hosts, father of Satyvan, is the Divine Mind here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision, and through that loss its kingdom of glory. Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.”2 Tradition handed down to Vyasa the symbolic myth of the Vedic cycle and he recreated it in the sublimity and splendour of his spiritual attainments; this creation itself has the beauty and form of the damsel of heaven, devarupini, to use Vyasa’s own epithet for Savitri.
Thus the story of Savitri as a spiritual symbol is the story of conquest of death by the divine Might incarnating herself in this creation. A supreme moment has arrived in the evolutionary process when such an action is categorically imperative. Man’s thousand ills, and all the falsehood enveloping his soul, cannot be redeemed or removed and what is there is only the harrowing question lived again and again, interminably. The sacrifices made over the long painful aeons do not seem to appease the Deity seated in the deep heart of the terrestrial darkness. Implacable is the hunger of this enormous shadow-built, rather shadow-assumed, Being and even the gods of heaven are helpless. This cannot be accepted as the eternal fact of existence and Savitri has come to tackle the fundamental issue, tackle it by accepting the load of the death-prone creature, the lot of mortality:
Awake she endured the moments’ serried march
And looked on this green smiling dangerous world,
And heard the ignorant cry of living things.
Amid the trivial sounds, the unchanging scene
Her soul arose confronting Time and Fate.
Immobile in herself, she gathered force.
This was the day when Satyavan must die.
She bore the agony of Satyavan’s death, duhkham mahan, the great sorrow, and fulfilled the creation in God. In it is the full implication of Narad’s prophecy when he says ‘Satyavan must die’ and not ‘Satyavan will die’; and it is this which renders to the story a certain luminous massiveness to be able to bear the whole weight of spirituality in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri.
The death of Satyavan epitomises the travail of earthly existence and Savitri accepts it in order to give the solution that lies only in vanquishing the all-devouring Dread present in its fullest proportion in and around us. The certitude is that her action will save the creation — by making the Truth-conscient Light its real guiding sun.
If this is the theme and significance of the Savitri-episode, then certainly it is pregnant with the possibility of a new future that can be initiated by the might of the creative Word itself, the mantra. When such a Word comes from the highest region, from the causal plane where the speech is Para Vani, then it brings with it also its effectuating dynamism. The tale is at once a legend and a symbol, a fact of history so old in time that it has become a legend and a symbol belonging to the occult workings of the affirmative spirituality even in material life. This is what we see in Vyasa’s upakltyana, and also in Sri Aurohindo’s Epic. Being the creation of a rich Rishihood, each event, each turn of phrase, each verse, and sound of word, and sight of image, the entire poetic art including the plot and structure of the poem, everything has the authenticity of expression that comes only from those who are “seers and hearers of the poetic truth and poetic word”, kavayai satyasrutah. That is why it also becomes aesthetically most satisfying and compellingly delightful, needing not one addition or alteration anywhere. Such is the “wonderful poem of faithful Savitri” —. if we are to use Winternitz’s felicitous phrase.
Unfortunately, however, there is an enormous medievalism that has crept in several narratives of the Savitri— tale. It leads not only to confusion and distortion; it also considerably lowers the calm and poised dignity that Vyasa had given to it in his masterly measure. Thus, Roniesh Chunder Dun made the fiery heroine of the virile poet a feehie and weeping housewife, “taking away the very strength of which she is built”, as was pointed out by Sri Aurohindo. It is inconceivable that such an emotional weakling could have truimphed over the stern Ordainer of the Worlds and resurrected the soul of her husband, drawn him back horn the fearsome jaws of living death. There are many small details too that have been added by the later authors, depicting the tastes of their times; hut these, instead of enriching the poem, tend to diminish, if not tarnish, its diamond-like flawlessness, its purity and coherence. Even to say that a woman can achieve the impossible by the virtue of her chastity, gained through service to her husband, is to moralise the issue and offer a particular brand of social philosophy which cannot satisfy the keenest and deepest instincts of humanity; it becomes, in the strain of a God- fearing religion, an aspect of belief in the efficacy of loyalty which could easily turn out to be a dangerous vital attachment. It is too simplistic and cannot win our admiration on many scores. Certainly it cannot be the thought of a seer-poet who has the complete power of revelatory expression at his command and whose vision is always life-ennobling.
Take one or two more examples, the first in the context of Narad’s visit to Aswapati. Savitri has returned to the Palace after her discovery and discloses that she has chosen Satyavan for her husband. In one strange version the heedful father asks the heavenly sage to cast the horoscopes of the young couple and read what the stars foretell about their future; he wants to make sure that the match will be happy. And imagine Narad complying to this request and, after looking at the constellational configuration, announcing the death of Satyavan one year from that day! That would make him blind to his native sight and bring him down to the level of a village Brahrmin-astrologer. If the horoscope is to govern the life of this exceptional pair then there is no doubt that it is the starry destiny, and not Savitri, who is going to gain signal victory over Yama. But the “blithe conjunction of two stars” has another purpose in the spiritual unfolding. If this is not recognised then it again leads to the same Duttian result it takes away all the strength the incarnate Goddess had gathered in herself to settle the for boding dark’s issue for ever. In yet another version it is also mentioned, without textual support, that Goddess Savitri had not only granted to Aswapati the boon of a son, but in her enthusiastic response gave an extra one, of a radiant daughter! Such inanities definitely weaken the force of the narrative and dim and attenuate the many shades that are there in pristine glory in the original. The Rishi-poet has no intention to queer any pitch or else dramatise or romanticise what is classically solid and tight and most appropriate in every aesthetic and spiritual sense or detail. In it are not the preaching’s of a moralist, but elevating wisdom and virtue depicting the power of love that can overrule destiny and death.
It is not that the Legend of Savitri is a legend only to the common multitude and that there is nothing more in it to the illuminati. Indeed, it is a very intense and living symbol too, bright and heaven-ascending like the sacrificial fire itself. Its structural framework offers full scope to hold in it spiritual contents of a wide-ranging richness and its vibrant and gleaming soul benedictive delight in possibilities of the Infinite growing in the earthly life. If the great Sacrifice of the Purusha, the self-renunciation of the Primal Being or, to put it more boldly, his first death, hymned loudly and cheerfully in the Vedas, gave rise to the creation, then it is the supremely forcible Holocaust of Prakriti, of the executive Might, which shall recreate this creation in Divine Body of the Primal Being. That truly seems to be the purport and significance of Savitri as a Legend and a Symbol seen Transcendentally. The Being’s death and then his resurrection by the executive Consciousness-Force to usher in a New World Order in the triple Delight is what is envisaged. And this envisioning has already advanced, and has taken the subtle-physical shape of the Truth- Word, and is now operative in its dynamism to get itself luminously materialised here: the body of the dead Being has already become in evolution sufficiently immortal to emerge and breathe the sun-bright intensities of the Super conscience’s wonders. Thus he who is great, mahãn, in the world of immortality also becomes great, mahãn, in the world of transformed mortality.
In order that this be achieved on the human plane, in mrityu-loka, it is necessary that Satyavan should die; that is the second death of the supreme Being, but now in this creation. In creation, again, it is Savitri who is going to bring the splendours of immortality by removing the death of her spouse. Such are they as incarnate persons amidst us. She who was silent in the Absolute has sprung up into action to awaken the one who is in a deathful repose, who has accepted the passive role of a witness here. To put it metaphorically in Jnaneshwara’s language: “When the Lord goes to sleep the Mistress remains awake and plays herself the part of both.” The spiritual- metaphysical Purusha and Prakriti become the tangible and endearing Satyavan and Savitri in human flesh and blood to work out the stupendous alchemy of converting untruth into truth, darkness into light, mortality into immortality.
If this is the multifold imperative, then let us read the Ancient Tale of Savitri again to live in its fullness and to let it live in its Mani festive glory in us.
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