The Hindu myth of Savitri and Satyavan, found in the Mahabharata, is a tale of the love and devotion a Hindu wife was expected to have for her husband. In the Hindu tradition women are expected to show this devotion to their husbands above all else, and the tale of Savitri’s devotion is one of the most poignant and significant examples of this.
The story begins with Aswapati, a king, who was virtuous and lived what could be considered a perfect dharmic lifestyle. Despite this, Aswapati could not conceive a male heir; as he grew older this became more and more of a concern. After 18 years of a perfect dharmic lifestyle, including performing ten thousand oblations daily and reciting Mantras in honour of Savitri, Aswapati was visited by the goddess Savitri herself, who is also called Gayatri. Savitri could not grant him a son, but instead granted him a daughter, who the king named Savitri after the goddess. In some versions Savitri did not grant him the child herself, but informed Aswapati that Brahma was granting him a child (Sarma 329). Savitri grew up to become a beautiful woman, compared by the people to a goddess, and because of her intimidating beauty none would marry her. Aswapati sent her off in search of a husband, as none in his land would marry her. (Ganguli 570-571)
When she returned, she tells her father of another king, Dyumatsena. Dyumatsena was a wise, virtuous kshatriya king. Dyumatsena grew blind, and thus his kingdom was overthrown by an old enemy, ousting Dyumatsena and his family and forcing them into a hermitage. Dyumatsena’s only son, Satyavan, grew up in this state of hermitage. Savitri met the adult Satyavan, and chose him as the one she would marry. She praised his virtues to her father, listing his energy, wisdom, bravery, and forgiveness. She compared his noble attributes to those of various gods, to further emphasize just how perfect a match Satyavan was. Her father’s counselors, who accompanied Savitri on this journey supported her statements. The king asked his trusted advisor if this seemingly perfect youth had any defects, and it is revealed that Satyavan was to die exactly one year from this meeting. Aswapati urged Savitri to choose another, but she had already made up her mind and refused to change it, stating that she had already selected Satyavan and will not select again. The king relented on seeing the full extent of her devotion, and the two were wed. (Ganguli 572-574)
As the day of Satyavan’s death approached, Savitri offered prayers and ascetic observances for the three days prior to Satyavan’s preordained demise. Savitri and Satyavan went out in the woods on the day in question to pick fruits and cut down tree branches. Satyavan began to feel weak, and Savitri laid him on the ground with his head in her lap. The next moment, Yama, the god of death, appeared to Savitri. He had come to personally take Satyavan’s soul. He did so and departed, but Savitri proceeded to follow him out of her devotion to her husband. She spoke to Yama of Satyavan’s virtues, and he was impressed by her words and her devotion and granted her a boon, anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life. She requested that her father-in-law, Dyumatsena, regain his eyesight and his strength. Yama granted this, and continued on his way. Savitri followed him still, telling Yama more of Satyavan. Yama granted her a second boon, and she asked for Dyumatsena to regain his kingdom. She continued to follow him, this time speaking of mercy, and Yama granted her a third boon. She asked to beget children to continue her father’s line, and Yama granted her that she may have a hundred sons. She proceeded to speak about justice. Yama had heretofore been very impressed with Savitri’s devotion and extensive wisdom, and he granted her a fourth boon. She asked for a century of sons, begat by her and Satyavan, and Yama granted this before realizing the implication. He realized Savitri had tricked him and, impressed with her cunning, granted Satyavan’s life back, as she could not father sons with him if he was dead. This differs, as in some versions it is not by Savitri’s cunning, but by her continued devotion that she convinced Yama to give Satyavan back (Sarma 334). When Savitri and Satyavan returned, they found Dyumatsena’s eyesight and strength had returned, and he ascended once again to his rightful place at the head of his kingdom. Savitri and Satyavan had many children, and all was well (Ganguli 576-585).
Savitri’s devotion to her husband is the key theme of this myth. Even before they are married, she is unshakeable in her conviction to stand by Satyavan despite his impending death, and this devotion is what impresses her father so much that he allows the two to be wed. This is especially significant due to the inauspicious status of widows in the Hindu tradition, and the prohibition of remarriage (Rodrigues 127-128). She also shows devotion towards her husband’s family, who in the Hindu tradition essentially becomes her new primary family. Her requests of Yama to return her father-in-law’s sight, strength, and kingdom exemplify this ideal. Lastly, her devotion to Satyavan even in death is impressive. She follows Yama, death himself, and he grants her multiple divine boons, eventually even giving her Satyavan back. It is interesting to note however, that Savitri is not a helpless damsel following Yama because she is incapable of anything without her husband. If anything, after Satyavan’s death she shows her many other impressive characteristics in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.
The ideal of pativrata is described by Rodrigues as “ascetic dedication to [the woman’s] husband” (Rodrigues 124). It is the highest vrata, or ascetic observance, that Hindu women follow. The pativrata is closely related to sakti, spiritual power, and the husband was dependent on this spiritual power for his survival and strength. The story of Savitri exemplifies this, as Savitri’s devotion is very closely tied to her husband’s strength and survival, literally bringing him back from death. Savitri initially tries to prevent his death, performing vrata for three days just prior to the promised time. When this fails, she follows Yama, an extraordinary display of ascetic devotion, and her spirituality is a key factor in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.
Some scholars explore the similarities and differences between Savitri and Draupadi. Indeed, the entire reason this myth was told in the Mahabharata was in response to Yudhisthira asking if there had ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s (Ganguli 570). Weiss looks at Savitri’s marriage as a sort of inversion of Draupadi’s. Savitri is an ascetic wife, while Draupadi is married to five men, both deviations from the Hindu norm. As Weiss states: “Savitri lowers her social status by an act that creates social discontinuity (ascetic practices terminate social lineage), and Draupadi limits the natural capacities of her husbands by marrying all of them.” (Weiss 268-269). The feminist scholar Lohia gently criticizes Savitri in comparison to Draupadi, stating that loyalty was important, but only as a single aspect of a woman’s personality (Yadav 110). Ultimately, both women represent distinct aspects of the Hindu ideal.
The story of Savitri and Satyavan exemplifies Hindu ideals of a wife’s devotion to her husband. Savitri marries the man she chooses regardless of his impending death, and refuses to let him go. When he does die, it is her devotion and strength of character that brings him back to life. In my opinion, she epitomizes the ideal of pativrata, and is an example of how the Hindu epics teach how one should live through tales with simple moral principles.
Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1990) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Vol.III (5th Edition). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Weiss, Brad (1985) “Mediations in the Myth of Savitri.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 53, No. 2: 259-270. www.jstor.org/stable/1464922
Yadav, Kumkum (2010) “Draupadi or Savitri: Lohia’s Feminist Reading Of Mythology.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 48: 107–112. www.jstor.org/stable/25764190
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This article was written by Thomas Hill (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.