There was once a fair princess in the country of Madra, and her name was Savitri. Be it told how she obtained the exalted merit of chaste women by winning a great boon from Yama.
Savitri was the gift of the goddess Gayatri, wife of Brahma, the self-created, who had heard the prayers and received the offerings of Aswapati, the childless king of Madra, when he practised austere penances so that he might have issue. The maiden grew to be beautiful and shapely like to a Celestial; her eyes had burning splendour, and were fair as lotus leaves; she resembled a golden image; she had exceeding sweetness and grace.
It came to pass that Savitri looked with eyes of love upon a youth named Satyavan “the Truthful”. Although Satyavan dwelt in a hermitage, he was of royal birth. His father was a virtuous king, named Dyumatsena, who became blind, and was then deprived of his kingdom by an old enemy dwelling nigh to him. The dethroned monarch retired to the forest with his faithful wife and his only son, who in time grew up to be a comely youth.
When Savitri confessed her love to her sire, the great sage Narada, who sat beside him, spoke and said: “Alas! the princess hath done wrong in choosing for her husband this royal youth Satyavan. He is comely and courageous, he is truthful and magnanimous and forgiving, he is modest and patient and without malice; honour is seated upon his forehead; he is possessed of every virtue. But he hath one defect, and no other. He is endued with short life; within a year from this day he must die, for so hath it been decreed; within a year Yama, god of the dead, will come for him.”
Said the king unto his daughter: “O Savitri, thou hast heard the words of Narada. Go forth, therefore, and choose for thyself another lord, for the days of Satyavan are numbered.”
The beautiful maiden made answer unto her father the king, saying:
“The die is cast; it can fall but once; once only can a daughter be given away by her sire; once only can a woman say, ‘I am thine’. I have chosen my lord; once have I chosen, nor can I make choice a second time. Let his life be brief or be long, I must now wed Satyavan.”
Said Narada: “O king, the heart of thy daughter will not waver; she will not be turned aside from the path she hath selected. I therefore approve of the bestowal of Savitri upon Satyavan.”
The king said: “As thou dost advise, so must I do ever, O Narada, because that thou art my preceptor. Thee I cannot disobey.”
Then said Narada: “Peace be with Savitri! I must now depart. May blessings attend upon all of you!”
Thereafter Aswapati, the royal sire of Savitri, went to visit Dyumatsena, the blind sire of Satyavan, in the forest, and his daughter went with him.
Said Dyumatsena: “Why hast thou come hither?”
Aswapati said: “O royal sage, this is my beautiful daughter Savitri. Take thou her for thy daughter-in-law.”
Said Dyumatsena: “I have lost my kingdom, and with my wife and my son dwell here in the woods. We live as ascetics and perform great penances. How will thy daughter endure the hardships of a forest life?”
Aswapati said: “My daughter knoweth well that joy and sorrow come and go and that nowhere is bliss assured. Accept her therefore from me.”
Then Dyumatsena consented that his son should wed Savitri, whereat Satyavan was made glad because he was given a wife who had every accomplishment. Savitri rejoiced also because she obtained a husband after her own heart, and she put off her royal garments and ornaments and clad herself in bark and red cloth.
So Savitri became a hermit woman. She honoured Satyavan’s father and mother, and she gave great joy to her husband with her sweet speeches, her skill at work, her subdued and even temper, and especially her love. She lived the life of the ascetics and practised every austerity. But she never forgot the dread prophecy of Narada the sage; his sorrowful words were always present in her secret heart, and she counted the days as they went past.
At length the time drew nigh when Satyavan must cast off his mortal body. When he had but four days to live, Savitri took the Tritatra vow of three nights of sleepless penance and fast.
Said the blind Dyumatsena: “My heart is grieved for thee, O my daughter, because the vow is exceedingly hard.”
Savitri said: “Be not sorrowful, saintly father, I must observe my vow without fail.”
Said Dyumatsena: “It is not meet that one like me should say, ‘Break thy vow,’ rather should I counsel, ‘Observe thy vow.’”
Then Savitri began to fast, and she grew pale and was much wasted by reason of her rigid penance. Three days passed away, and then, believing that her husband would die on the morrow, Savitri spent a night of bitter anguish through all the dark and lonely hours.
The sun rose at length on the fateful morning, and she said to herself, “To-day is the day.” Her face was bloodless but brave; she prayed in silence and with fervour and offered oblations at the morning fire; then she stood before her father-in-law and her mother-in-law in reverent silence with joined hands, concentrating her senses. All the hermits of the forest blessed her and said: “Mayest thou never suffer widowhood.”
Said Savitri in her secret heart: “So be it.”
Dyumatsena spoke to her then, saying: “Now that thy vow hath been completed thou mayest eat the morning meal.”
Said Savitri: “I will eat when the sun goes down.”
Hearing her words Satyavan rose, and taking his axe upon his shoulder, turned towards the distant jungle to procure fruits and herbs for his wife, whom he loved. He was strong and self-possessed and of noble seeming.
Savitri spoke to him sweetly and said: “Thou must not go forth alone, my husband. It is my heart’s desire to go with thee. I cannot endure to-day to be parted from thee.”
Said Satyavan: “It is not for thee to enter the darksome jungle; the way is long and difficult, and thou art weak on account of thy severe penance. How canst thou walk so far on foot?”
Savitri laid her head upon his bosom and said: “I have not been made weary by my fast. Indeed I am now stronger than before. I will not feel tired when thou art by my side. I have resolved to go with thee: do not therefore seek to thwart my wish—the wish and the longing of a faithful wife to be with her lord.”
Said Satyavan: “If it is thy desire to accompany me I cannot but gratify it. But thou must ask permission of my parents lest they find fault with me for taking thee through the trackless jungle.”
Then Savitri spoke to the blind sage and her husband’s mother and said: “Satyavan is going towards the deep jungle to procure fruits and herbs for me, and also fuel for the sacrificial fires. It is my heart’s wish to go also, for to-day I cannot endure to be parted from him. Fain, too, would I behold the blossoming woods.”
Said Dyumatsena: “Since thou hast come to dwell with us in our hermitage thou hast not before asked anything of us. Have thy desire therefore in this matter, but do not delay thy husband in his duties.”
Having thus received permission to depart from the hermitage, Savitri turned towards the jungle with Satyavan, her beloved lord. Smiles covered her face, but her heart was torn with secret sorrow.
Peacocks fluttered in the green woodland through which they walked together, and the sun shone in all its splendour in the blue heaven.
Said Satyavan with sweet voice: “How beautiful are the bright streams and the blossoming trees!”
The heart of Savitri was divided into two parts: with one she held converse with her husband while she watched his face and followed his moods; with the other she awaited the dread coming of Yama, but she never uttered her fears.
Birds sang sweetly in the forest, but sweeter to Savitri was the voice of her beloved. It was very dear to her to walk on in silence, listening to his words.
Satyavan gathered fruits and stored them in his basket. At length he began to cut down the branches of trees. The sun was hot and he perspired. Suddenly he felt weary and he said: “My head aches; my senses are confused, my limbs have grown weak, and my heart is afflicted sorely. O silent one, a sickness hath seized me. My body seems to be pierced by a hundred darts. I would fain lie down and rest, my beloved; I would fain sleep even now.”
Speechless and terror-stricken, the gentle Savitri wound her arms about her husband’s body; she sat upon the ground and she pillowed his head upon her lap. Remembering the words of Narada, she knew that the dread hour had come; the very moment of death was at hand. Gently she held her husband’s head with caressing hands; she kissed his panting lips; her heart was beating fast and loud. Darker grew the forest and it was lonesome indeed.
Suddenly an awful Shape emerged from the shadows. He was of great stature and sable hue; his raiment was blood-red; on his head he wore a gleaming diadem; he had red eyes and was fearsome to look upon; he carried a noose…. The Shape was Yama, god of death. He stood in silence, and gazed upon slumbering Satyavan.
Savitri looked up, and when she perceived that a Celestial had come nigh, her heart trembled with sorrow and with fear. She laid her husband’s head upon the green sward and rose up quickly: then she spake, saying, “Who art thou, O divine One, and what is thy mission to me?”
Said Yama: “Thou dost love thy husband; thou art endued also with ascetic merit. I will therefore hold converse with thee. Know thou that I am the Monarch of Death. The days of this man, thy husband, are now spent, and I have come to bind him and take him away.”
Savitri said: “Wise sages have told me that thy messengers carry mortals away. Why, then, O mighty King, hast thou thyself come hither?”
Said Yama: “This prince is of spotless heart; his virtues are without number; he is, indeed, an ocean of accomplishments. It would not be fitting to send messengers for him, so I myself have come hither.”
The face of Satyavan had grown ashen pale. Yama cast his noose and tore out from the prince’s body the soul-form, which was no larger than a man’s thumb; it was tightly bound and subdued.
So Satyavan lost his life; he ceased to breathe; his body became unsightly; it was robbed of its lustre and deprived of power to move. Yama fettered the soul with tightness, and turned abruptly towards the south; silently and speedily he went upon his way….
Savitri followed him…. Her heart was drowned in grief. She could not desert her beloved lord…. She followed Yama, the Monarch of Death.
Said Yama: “Turn back, O Savitri. Do not follow me. Perform the funeral rites of thy lord…. Thine allegiance to Satyavan hath now come to an end: thou art free from all wifely duties. Dare not to proceed farther on this path.”
Savitri said: “I must follow my husband whither he is carried or whither he goeth of his own will. I have undergone great penance. I have observed my vow, and I cannot be turned back…. I have already walked with thee seven paces, and the sages have declared that one who walketh seven paces with another becometh a companion. Being thus made thy friend, I must hold converse with thee, I must speak and thou must listen…. I have attained the perfect life upon earth by performing my vows and by reason of my devotion unto my lord. It is not meet that thou shouldest part me from my husband now, and prevent me from attaining bliss by saying that my allegiance to him hath ended and another mode of life is opened to me.”
Said Yama: “Turn back now…. Thy words are wise and pleasing indeed; therefore, ere thou goest, thou canst ask a boon of me and I will grant it. Except the soul of Satyavan, I will give thee whatsoever thou dost desire.”
Savitri said: “Because my husband’s sire became blind, he was deprived of his kingdom. Restore his eyesight, O mighty One.”
“The boon is granted. I will restore the vision of thy father-in-law…. But thou hast now grown faint on this toilsome journey. Turn back, therefore, and thy weariness will pass away.”
Savitri said: “How can I be weary when I am with my husband? The fate of my husband will be my fate also; I will follow him even unto the place whither thou dost carry him…. Hear me, O mighty One, whose friendship I cherish! It is a blessed thing to behold a Celestial; still more blessed is it to hold converse with one; the friendship of a god must bear great fruit.”
Said Yama: “Thy wisdom delighteth my heart. Therefore thou canst ask of me a second boon, except the life of thy husband, and it will be granted thee.”
Savitri said: “May my wise and saintly father-in-law regain the kingdom he hath lost. May he become once again the protector of his people.”
Said Yama: “The boon is granted. The king will return to his people and be their wise protector…. Turn back now, O princess; thy desire is fulfilled.”
Savitri said: “All people must obey thy decrees; thou dost take away life in accordance with divine ordinances and not of thine own will. Therefore thou art called Yama—he that ruleth by decrees. Hear my words, O divine One. It is the duty of Celestials to love all creatures and to award them according to their merit. The wicked are without holiness and devotion, but the saintly protect all creatures and show mercy even unto their enemies.”
Said Yama: “Thy wise words are like water to a thirsty soul. Ask of me therefore a third boon, except thy husband’s life, and it will be granted unto thee.”
Savitri said: “My sire, King Aswapati, hath no son. O grant that a hundred sons may be born unto him.”
Said Yama: “A hundred sons will be born unto thy royal sire. Thy boon is granted…. Turn back, therefore, O princess; thou canst not come farther. Long is the path thou hast already travelled.”
Savitri said: “I have followed my husband and the way hath not seemed long. Indeed, my heart desireth to go on much farther. Hear my words, O Yama, as thou dost proceed on thy journey. Thou art great and wise and powerful; thou dost deal equally with all human creatures; thou art the lord of justice…. One cannot trust oneself as one can trust a Celestial; therefore, one seeketh to win the friendship of a Celestial. It is meet that one who seeketh the friendship of a Celestial should make answer to his words.”
Said Yama: “No mortal hath ever spoken unto me as thou hast spoken. Thy words are indeed pleasing, O princess. I will grant thee even a fourth boon, except thy husband’s life, ere thou dost depart.”
Savitri said: “May a century of sons be born unto my husband and me so that our race may endure. O grant me this, the fourth boon, thou Mighty One.”
Said Yama: “I grant unto thee a century of sons, O princess; they will be wise and powerful and thy race will endure…. Be without weariness now, O lady, and turn back; thou hast come too far already.”
“Those who are pious must practise eternal morality, O Yama. The pious uphold the universe. The pious hold communion with the pious only, and are never weary; the pious do good unto others nor ever expect any reward. A good deed done unto the righteous is never thrown away; such an act doth not entail loss of dignity nor is any interest impaired. Indeed, the doing of good is the chief office of the righteous, and the righteous therefore are the true protectors of all.”
Said Yama: “The more thou dost speak, the more I respect thee, O princess. O thou who art so deeply devoted unto thy husband, thou canst now ask of me some incomparable boon.”
Savitri said: “O mighty One, thou bestower of boons, thou hast already promised what cannot be fulfilled unless my husband is restored unto me; thou hast promised me a century of sons. Therefore, I ask thee, O Yama, to give me back Satyavan, my beloved, my lord. Without him, I am as one who is dead; without him, I have no desire for happiness; without him I have no longing even for Heaven; I will have no desire to prosper if my lord is snatched off; I cannot live without Satyavan. Thou hast promised me sons, O Yama, yet thou dost take away my husband from mine arms. Hear me and grant this boon: Let Satyavan be restored to life so that thy decree may be fulfilled.”
Said Yama: “So be it. With cheerful heart I now unbind thy husband. He is free…. Disease cannot afflict him again and he will prosper. Together you will both have long life; you will live four hundred years; you will have a century of sons and they will be kings, and their sons will be kings also.”
Having spoken thus, Yama, the lord of death, departed unto his own place. And Savitri returned to the forest where her husband’s body lay cold and ashen-pale; she sat upon the ground and pillowed his head upon her lap. Then Satyavan was given back his life…. He looked upon Savitri with eyes of love; he was like to one who had returned from a long journey in a strange land.
“Long was my sleep; why didst thou not awaken me, my beloved?… Where is that dark One who dragged me away?”
Savitri said: “Yama hath come and gone, and thou hast slept long, resting thy head upon my lap, and art now refreshed, O blessed one. Sleep hath forsaken thee, O son of a king. If thou canst rise up, let us now depart hence for the night is already dark….”
Satyavan rose up refreshed and strong. He looked round about and perceived that he was in the midst of the forest. Then he said: “O fair one, I came hither to gather fruit for thee, and while I cut down branches from the trees a pain afflicted me. I grew faint, I sank upon the ground, I laid my head upon thy lap and fell into a deep slumber even whilst thou didst embrace me. Then it seemed to me that I was enveloped in darkness, and that I beheld a sable One amidst great effulgence…. Was this a vision or a reality, O fairest and dearest?”
Savitri said: “The darkness deepens…. I will tell thee all on the morrow…. Let us now find our parents, O prince. The beasts of the night come forth; I hear their awesome voices; they tread the forest in glee; the howl of the jackal maketh my heart afraid.”
Said Satyavan: “Darkness hath covered the forest with fear; we cannot discover the path by which to return home.”
Savitri said: “A withered tree burneth yonder. I will gather sticks and make a fire and we will wait here until day.”
“My sickness hath departed and I would fain behold my parents again. Never before have I spent a night away from the hermitage. My mother is old and my father also, and I am their crutch. They will now be afflicted with sorrow because that we have not returned.”
Satyavan lifted up his arms and lamented aloud, but Savitri dried his tears and said: “I have performed penances, I have given away in charity, I have offered up sacrifices, I have never uttered a falsehood. May thy parents be protected by virtue of the power which I have obtained, and may thou, O my husband, be protected also.”
Said Satyavan: “O beautiful one, let us now return to the hermitage.”
Savitri raised up her despairing husband. She then placed his left arm upon her left shoulder and wound her right arm about his body, and they walked on together…. At length the fair moon came out and shone upon their path.
Meanwhile Dyumatsena, the sire of Satyavan, had regained his sight, and he went with his wife to search for his lost son, but had to return to the hermitage sorrowing and in despair. The sages comforted the weeping parents and said: “Savitri hath practised great austerities, and there can be no doubt that Satyavan is still alive.”
In time Satyavan and Savitri reached the hermitage, and their own hearts and the hearts of their parents were freed from sorrow.
Then Savitri related all that had taken place, and the sages said: “O chaste and illustrious lady, thou hast rescued the race of Dyumatsena, the foremost of kings, from the ocean of darkness and calamity.”
On the morning that followed messengers came to Dyumatsena and told that the monarch who had deprived him of his kingdom was dead, having fallen by the hand of his chief minister. All the people clamoured for their legitimate ruler. Said the messengers:
“Chariots await thee, O king. Return, therefore, unto thy kingdom.”
Great was their wonder to find that Dyumatsena was no longer blind.
So the king was restored to his kingdom, in accordance with the boon which Savitri had obtained from Yama. And sons were in time born unto her father. Thus did the gentle Savitri, by reason of her great piety, raise from misery to high fortune the family of her husband and her own father also. She was the rescuer of all; the bringer of happiness and prosperity…. He who heareth the story of Savitri will never endure misery again… (Excerpts from “Indian Myth and Legends”)