The Story of Satyavaan-Savitri
Once upon a time in the lands near the Himalayas, there lived a king who had many wives, but none of them could give him a child. Morning and evening for eighteen years, he lit the fire on the sacred altar and prayed for the gift of children.
Finally, one day, a goddess rose from the flames.
“I am Savitri, I am the daughter of the Sun. I am pleased with your prayers, you will soon have a daughter.”
Within a year, a daughter was born in the king's palace. It was this favorite Queen who borne him a child . He named her Savitri, after the goddess.
Beauty and intelligence were the princess Savitriʼs defining features, and she had eyes that shone like the sun. So splendid was she, that people thought she herself was a goddess. Yet, when the time came for her to marry, no man asked for her hand in marriage.
Her father told her, “Weak men turn away from radiance like yours. Go out and find a man worthy of you. Then I will arrange the marriage.”
And so, in the company of servants and councilors, Savitri traveled from place to place. After many days, she came upon a hermitage by a river crossing. Here lived men and monks who had left the towns and cities for a life of prayer and study.
Savitri entered the hall of worship and bowed to the eldest teacher. As they spoke, a young man with shining eyes came into the hall. He guided another man, who was old and blind.
“Who is that young man?” asked Savitri softly.
“That is Prince Satyavan,” said the teacher, with a smile. “He guides his father, a king whose realm was conquered. It is apt that Satyavanʼs name means ‘Son of Truth,ʼ for no man is richer in virtue.”
When Savitri returned home, she found her father sitting with the holy seer Narad.
“My dear daughter,” said the king, “have you found a man you wish to marry?” “Yes, father. His name is Satyavan.”
Narad gasped. “Not Satyavan! Princess, no man could be more worthy, but you must not marry him! I know what is going to happen to him. Satyavan will die, one year from today.”
The King said, “Do you hear, my dear daughter? Choose a different man as your husband!”
Savitri trembled but said, “I have chosen Satyavan, and I will not choose another. However long or short his life, I wish to share it with him.”
Soon the king rode with Savitri to arrange the marriage.
Satyavan was overjoyed to be meet such a beautiful woman who would be his bride. But his father, the blind king, asked Savitri, “Can you bear the hard life of the hermitage? Will you wear our simple robe and our coat of matted bark? Will you eat only fruit and plants of the wild?”
Savitri said, “I care nothing about comfort or hardship. Be it a palace or a hermitage, I am content.”
That very day, Savitri and Satyavan walked hand in hand around the sacred fire in the hall of worship. In front of all the priests and hermits, they became husband and wife.
For a year, they lived happily. But Savitri could never forget that Satyavanʼs death was drawing closer and closer.
Finally, only three days remained. Savitri entered the hall of worship and stood before the sacred fire. There she prayed for three days and nights, without food
“My love,” said Satyavan, “prayer and fasting are good. But why be this hard on yourself?”
Savitri gave no answer.
The sun was just rising when Savitri at last left the hall. She saw Satyavan heading for the forest, carrying an ax on his shoulder.
Savitri rushed to his side. “I will come with you.”
“Stay here, my love,” said Satyavan. “You should eat and rest.” But Savitri said, “My heart is set on going.”
Hand in hand, Savitri and Satyavan walked over wooded hills. They smelled the blossoms on flowering trees and paused beside clear streams. The cries of peacocks echoed through the woods.
While Savitri rested, Satyavan chopped firewood from a fallen tree. Suddenly, he dropped his ax.
“My head aches.”
Savitri rushed to his aid. She laid him down in the shade of a tree, his head on her lap.
“My body is burning! What is wrong with me?”
As he uttered these words, Satyavanʼs eyes closed, and his breathing slowed.
Savitri looked up. Coming through the woods to meet them was a princely man. He shone, though his skin was darker than the darkest night. His eyes and his robe were red of, resembling the colour of blood.
Trembling, Savitri asked, “Who are you?”
A deep, gentle voice replied. “Princess, you see me only by the power of your
prayer and fasting. I am Yam, the god of death. Now is the time I must take the spirit of Satyavan back with me.”
Yam took a small noose and passed it through Satyavanʼs breast. He drew out a tiny likeness of Satyavan, which was no bigger than a thumb.
As soon as Yam did this, Satyavanʼs breathing stopped.
Yam placed the miniature likeness of Satyavan inside his robe. “Happiness awaits your husband in my kingdom. Satyavan is a man of great virtue.”
Then he turned and headed south, back to his domain. Savitri rose and started after him.
Yam strode smoothly and swiftly through the woods, while Savitri struggled to keep up. She fell over slippery rocks, and cut herself as she went through thorny bushes.But not once did she lose sight of Yam. At last, he stopped to face her.
“Savitri! You cannot follow to the land of the dead!”
“Lord Yam, I know your duty is to take my husband. But my duty as his wife is to stay beside him.”
“Princess, that duty of yours has come to an end. Still, I admire your loyalty. I will grant you a favor— you can ask me anything but the life of your husband.”
Savitri said, “Please restore my father-in-lawʼs kingdom and his sight.”
“His sight and his kingdom shall be restored.” And in no time was the old king able to see. He as overjoyed to find that his Kingdom had been restored to him.
Yam again headed south, and Savitri followed.
Along a river bank, there was a thicket of thorns and tall sharp grass. They parted ways and let Yam pass untouched. But they tore at Savitriʼs clothes and skin.
“Savitri! You have come far enough!”
“Lord Yam, I know my husband will find happiness in your kingdom. But you carry away the happiness that is mine!”
“Princess, even love must bow before fate. Still, I admire your devotion. I will grant you another favor. You can ask me anything but the life of your husband.”
Savitri said, “Grant many more children to my father.I wish to have many more brothers and sisters.”
“Your father shall have many more children.”
Yam once more turned south and began proceeding in that direction. Once again, Savitri followed.
Up a steep hill Yama glided, while Savitri clambered after him. At the top, he halted.
“Savitri! I forbid you to come farther!”
“Lord Yam, you are respected and revered by all. I do not wish to insult you or earn your wrath by disobeying you. Yet, no matter what may come, I will remain by Satyavan!”
“Princess, I tell you for the last time, you will not! Still, I can only admire your courage and your firmness. I will grant you one last favor. As always, you can ask me anything but the life of your husband.”
“Then grant many children to me. And let them be children of Satyavan!”
Yamaʼs eyes grew wide as he stared at Savitri. “You did not ask for your husbandʼs life, yet I cannot grant your wish without releasing him. Princess! Your wit is as strong as your will.”
Having uttered these words, Yam took out the spirit of Satyavan and removed
the noose. The spirit flew north, quickly vanishing from sight. “Return, Savitri. You have won your husbandʼs life.”
Yam and Savitri began their journeys in opposite directions. Savitri went climbed downhill, and through the grass and the thorny bushes, and the plains and on and on. The sun was just setting when Savitri reached the forest and again laid Satyavanʼs head in her lap.
His chest rose and fell. Slowly, his eyes opened.
“Has the day already come to an end? I have slept long. But what is wrong, my love? You smile and cry at the same time!”
“It's nothing, my love,” said Savitri, “let us return home.”
Yam was true to all he had promised. Savitriʼs father became father to many more children. Satyavanʼs father regained both sight and kingdom.
In time, Satyavan became king, and Savitri his queen. They lived long and happily, blessed with many children. Many years later, when Yam came again to carry them to his Kingdom, Savitri and Satyavan willingly did so. There were no tears or crying or pleading or following Yam this time.
The story of the princess Savitri is one of the best-known and best-loved tales of India. Traditionally, Hindu women celebrate an annual festival in Savitriʼs honor to secure a long and happy married life.
The story is found in the Mahabharat one of the two great ancient epics of Indiaʼs Hindus. It appears in Book 3, “The Book of the Forest,” where it is related as an instructive tale to Yudhisthir, one of the epicʼs heroes, by the wise hermit Markandeya.
The story of Savitri itself most likely started out as a folktale before its insertion in the epic. Along with the rest of the Mahabharat, it then underwent a number of changes and additions over the centuries.
In its final version, the story shows elements of a number of historical periods, and with very different cultures. The story likely was first written around 800 B.C. The Mahabharat places the story in “the kingdom of the Madras,”
No, not the Madras in Southern India, but the region between the present-day rivers Chenab and Ravi, tributaries of the Indus. This region is today situated mostly in northeast Pakistan, and partly in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir. In the ancient times, the capital of this kingdom was Sakala—near the modern Pakistani city of Sialkot, in the foothills of the Himalayas.