The Story of Savitri
There was a king called Ashvapati. The king had a daughter, who was so good and beautiful that she was called Savitri, which is the name of a sacred prayer of the Hindus.
When Savitri grew old enough, her father asked her to choose a husband for herself. These ancient Indian princesses were very independent, you see, and chose their own princely suitors. Savitri consented and travelled in distant regions, mounted in a golden chariot, with her guards and aged courtiers to whom her father entrusted her, stopping at different courts, and seeing different princes, but not one of them could win the heart of Savitri.
They came at last to a holy hermitage in one of those forests that in ancient India were reserved for animals, and where no animals were allowed to be killed. The animals lost the fear of man – even the fish in the lakes came and took food out of the hand. For thousands of years no one had killed anything therein.
The sages and the aged went there to live among the deer and the birds. Even criminals were safe there. When a man got tired of life, he would go to the forest; and in the company of sages, talking of religion and meditating thereon, he passed the remainder of his life. Now it happened that there was a king, Dyumatsena, who was defeated by his enemies and was deprived of his kingdom when he was struck with age and had lost his sight. This poor, old, blind king, with his queen and his son, took refuge in the forest and passed his life in rigid penance. The boy’s name was Satyavan.
It came to pass that after having visited all the different royal courts, Savitri at last came to this hermitage, or holy place. Not even the greatest king could pass by the hermitages, or Ashramas as they were called, without going to pay homage to the sages, for such honour and respect was felt for these holy men. The greatest emperor of India would be only too glad to trace his descent to some sage who lived in a forest, subsisting on roots and fruits, and clad in rags. We are all children of sages. That is the respect that is paid to religion. So, even kings, when they pass by the hermitages, feel honoured to go in and pay their respects to the sages. If they approach on horseback, they descend and walk as they advance towards them. If they arrive in a chariot, chariot and armour must be left outside when they enter. No fighting man can enter unless he comes in the manner of a religious man, quiet and gentle. So Savitri came to this hermitage and saw there Satyavan, the hermit’s son, and her heart was conquered. She had escaped all the princes of the palaces and the courts, but here in the forest – refuge of the King Dyumatsena, his son, Satyavan, stole her heart. When Savitri returned to her father’s house, he asked her, `Savitri, dear daughter, speak. Did you see anybody whom you would like to marry?’ Then softly with blushes, said Savitri, `Yes, father.’ `What is the name of the prince?’ `He is no prince, but the son of King Dyumatsena who has lost his kingdom – a prince without a patrimony, who lives a monastic life, the life of a Sannyasin in a forest, collecting roots and herbs, helping and feeding his old father and mother, who live in a cottage.’ On hearing this the father consulted the Sage Narada, who happened to be then present there, and he declared it was the most ill-omened choice that was ever made. The king then asked him to explain why it was so. And Narada said, `Within twelve months from this time the young man will die.’
Then the king started with terror, and spoke, `Savitri, this young man is going to die in twelve months, and you will become a widow: think of that! Desist from your choice, my child, you shall never be married to a short-lived and fated bridegroom.’ `Never mind, father; do not ask me to marry another person and sacrifice the chastity of mind, for I love and have accepted in my mind that good and brave Satyavan only as my husband. A maiden chooses only once, and she never departs from her troth.’ When the king found that Savitri was resolute in mind and heart, he complied. Then Savitri married prince Satyavan, and she quietly went from the palace of her father into the forest, to live with her chosen husband and help her husband’s parents. Now, though Savitri knew the exact date when Satyavan was to die, she kept it hidden from him. Daily he went into the depths of the forests, collected fruits and flowers, gathered faggots, and then came Backto the cottage, and she cooked the meals and helped the old people. Thus their lives went on until the fatal day came near, and three short days remained only.
She took a severe vow of three nights’ penance and holy fasts, and kept her hard vigils. Savitri spent sorrowful and sleepless nights with fervent prayers and unseen tears, till the dreaded morning dawned. That day Savitri could not bear him out of her sight, even for a moment. She begged permission from his parents to accompany her husband, when he went to gather the usual herbs and fuel, and gaining their consent she went. Suddenly, in faltering accents, he complained to his wife of feeling faint, `My head is dizzy, and my senses reel, dear Savitri, I feel sleep stealing over me; let me rest beside thee for a while.’ In fear and trembling she replied, `Come, lay your head upon my lap, my dearest lord.’ And he laid his burning head in the lap of his wife, and ere long sighed and expired. Clasping him to her, her eyes flowing with tears, there she sat in the lonesome forest, until the emissaries of Death approached to take away the soul of Satyavan. But they could not come near to the place where Savitri sat with the dead body of her husband, his head resting in her lap. There was a zone of fire surrounding her, and not one of the emissaries of Death could come within it. They all fled Backfrom it, returned to King Yama, the God of Death, and told him why they could not obtain the soul of this man. Then came Yama, the God of Death, the Judge of the dead. He was the first man that died – the first man that died on earth – and he had become the presiding deity over all those that die. He judges whether, after a man has died, he is to be punished or rewarded. So he came himself.
Of course, he could go inside that charmed circle, as he was a god. When he came to Savitri, he said, `Daughter, give up this dead body, for know, death is the fate of mortals, and I am the first of mortals who died. Since then, everyone has had to die. Death is the fate of man.’ Thus told, Savitri walked off, and Yama drew the soul out. Yama having possessed himself of the soul of the young man proceeded on his way. Before he had gone far, he heard footfalls upon the dry leaves.
He turned back. `Savitri, daughter, why are you following me? This is the fate of all mortals.’ `I am not following thee, Father,’ replied Savitri, `but this is, also, the fate of woman, she follows where her love takes her, and the Eternal Law separates not loving man and faithful wife.’ Then said the God of Death, ‘Ask for any boon, except the life of your husband.’ `If thou art pleased to grant a boon, O Lord of Death, I ask that my father-in-law may be cured of his blindness and made happy.’ `Let thy pious wish be granted, duteous daughter.’ And then the King of Death travelled on with the soul of Satyavan.
Again the same footfall was heard from behind. He looked round. `Savitri, my daughter, you are still following me?’ `Yes, my Father; I cannot help doing so; I am trying all the time to go back, but the mind goes after my husband and the body follows. The soul has already gone, for in that soul is also mine; and when you take the soul, the body follows, does it not?’ `Pleased am I with your words, fair Savitri.
Ask yet another boon of me, but it must not be the life of your husband.’ `Let my father-in-law regain his lost wealth and kingdom, Father, if thou art pleased to grant another supplication.’ `Loving daughter,’ Yama answered, `this boon I now bestow; but return home, for living mortal cannot go with King Yama.’ And then Yama pursued his way. But Savitri, meek and faithful, still followed her departed husband. Yama again turned back. `Noble Savitri, follow not in hopeless woe.’ `I cannot choose but follow where thou takest my beloved one.’ `Then suppose, Savitri, that your husband was a sinner and has to go to hell.
In that case goes Savitri with the one she loves?’ `Glad am I to follow where he goes, be it life or death, heaven or hell,’ said the loving wife. `Blessed are your words, my child, pleased am I with you, ask yet another boon, but the dead come not to life again.’ `Since you so permit me, then, let the imperial line of my father-in-law be not destroyed; let his kingdom descend to Satyavan’s sons.’ And then the God of Death smiled. `My daughter, thou shalt have thy desire now: here is the soul of thy husband, he shall live again. He shall live to be a father and thy children also shall reign in due course.
Return home. Love has conquered Death! Woman never loved like thee, and thou art the proof that even I, the God of Death, am powerless against the power of the true love that abideth!’ This is the story of Savitri, and every girl in India must aspire to be like Savitri, whose love could not be conquered by death, and who through this tremendous love snatched Backfrom even Yama, the soul of her husband. complete works (4: 85-90)