The myth of Savitri and Satyavat is the fictional love story of a Hindu wife following her husband through death and saving him with her great dharmic wisdom. The origin of the story dates back to the Mahabharata. The sage Vyasa had written the Mahabharata with the help of the god Ganesa to give to the world as a gift. Within Vyasa’s telling of the Mahabharata the ideology of dharmic character is clarified and expanded on through side stories such at Savitri and Satyavat. The Mahabharata tells the epic story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas were battling each other, and at one point, the Pandavas were exiled to live in the forest for 13 years. During this time, the brothers meet with the rishi Markandeya. The most dharmic brother, Yudhisthira, was lamenting the kidnapping of Draupadi, the Pandava’s wife, as she had been taken by Jaydratha (Anand 2). He asked the rishi if he had ever met a more dharmic woman than Draupadi. The rishi responded with the myth of Savitri and Satyavat, answering his question by telling of the most dharmic woman possible.
The king Asvapati of the land Mudra had no heirs. Worried that he would die before his bloodline would be carried on, he devoted himself to prayers and sacrifices, asking the gods for many sons. After eighteen years, the sun Goddess Savitri answered Asvapati’s hundred thousand hymns to her (Narayan 182). The goddess explained that although she knew he requested for many sons, she would instead bless him with a single daughter, for whom he should be grateful (Anand 3). Soon after, Asvapati’s eldest wife gave birth to a baby girl, whom he named Savitri after the goddess. When Savitri had grown up, her beauty was so astounding that suitors would not ask for her hand in marriage. When the king requested a reason, they responded she must be an incarnation of a goddess and could not be married. The princess Savitri then began a penance, as she waited for a proposal. However, none appeared. The king decided Savitri must be married, and came up with a plan for her to find a husband. Savitri was told to search for her own husband that was well suited and that was as good to her as she was to her father (Narayan 183). Savitri was unsure how to do so, but agreed to do his bidding. The king sent an assembly of his men to accompany his daughter who were under the order not to interfere with her decision.
A year later, she returned to her father who was with the heavenly sage Narada. Narada did not understand why she did not have a husband yet, but the king was ready to receive her answer. Savitri reported that she named Satyavat her husband [often called Satyavan]. Narada strongly advised against her decision. He explained that although Satyavat was perfectly suitable, he was cursed to die in exactly one year from that day. Asvapati tried to persuade his daughter to find another husband, but Savitri refused. Satyavat was her first and only choice for husband, and she would not choose again.
Satyavat was son of the exiled, blind king Dyumatsena, and he took care of him and his mother in their forest hermitage. Before the wedding, Asvapati asked the exiled king for his blessing on the marriage (Nadkarni 2012:np). Dyumatsena was hesitant but agreed. Once the blessing was given, Savitri married Satyavat and joined him in his forest home. Savitri was the ideal wife and daughter in-law, and brought joy to the household (Narayan 185). However, she always remembered the curse and silently counted down the days. When four days were left before the cursed day, Savitri began a triratra vow, a severe penance of fasting, praying, and standing, for three days and nights. Her parents in-law were worried for her and insisted she end this penance, but Savitri refused. On the fourth day, when Satyavat was to begin his daily journey into the forest, Savitri begged him to allow her to join him. Satyavat was hesitant but agreed only if Savitri gained approval from her in-laws. Asking her parents in-law, they granted her wish as Dyumatsena knew she had never asked for anything before (Narayan 186). Travelling deep into the forest, Satyavat was unaware of his fate, but Savitri could not focus on anything else (Narayan 186). As Satyavat was swinging the axe to cut trees, he suddenly felt fatigued. Savitri went to his aid and brought him to rest his head in her lap. She realized this must be the hour that Narada had foretold. Satyavat soon fell into a deep sleep. Savitri continued to hold him when a figure came to hover over them. As Savitri focused on this figure, she saw that it was the God of Death, Yama, coming to take Satyavat’s soul. Savitri rested Satyavat’s head on the ground, and rose to address the God of Death. Savitri asked the God why he himself had come (Dutt 423). Yama answered that because Satyavat was such a distinguished person, he wanted to honour Satyavat in his death by bringing him to death’s halls himself. Yama recognized Savitri as an auspicious wife with a rare gift of being extraordinarily sensitive. But unwavering, Yama continued to take Satyavat’s soul to his kingdom against Savitri’s requests.
However, Savitri had begun to follow him to the land of death, a place where she could not go. Yama tried to persuade her to turn back, but Savitri was refused, knowing that where her husband went, she went, as it was her dharmic duty as a wife to accompany her husband through life and death. Impressed by her knowledge of dharma, Yama told her to ask for any boon other than the life of her husband and he shall grant it (Nadkarni 2012:np). Savitri asked for the return of her father in-law’s sight. They continued their conversation and Yama is repeatedly impressed, granting 3 more boons. Savitri asked for Dyumatsena’s kingdom to be restored, her father to have a hundred noble sons and for a hundred sons for herself and Satyavat. Yama granted these, but then realized too late that for the final boon to be granted Satyavat must be returned to earth. Yama kept his word and gave his blessing and Satyavat’s soul back to Savitri to return to his body (Nadkarni 2012:np).
Restoring his soul to his body, Savitri and Satyavat hurried home to his parents’ hermitage as they were late to return. Dyumatsena, with his sight recently restored, and his wife were worried when Satyavat and Savitri had not returned at their normal time. Neighbours had come to comfort them. When Savitri and Satyavat finally arrived, a celebration was thrown in their honour. Questioned on their reason for such a late arrival, Savitri began her story of all the transpired events, beginning with Narada’s prophecy up until their return home. She explained in detail her interactions with Yama, the God of Death, and the boons he had granted her (Dutt 429). The next day, Dyumatsena was informed his enemy, who had seized the throne, had been killed by the hands of one of his own ministers. Dyumatsena was once again declared king of the Shalwa kingdom. Savitri and Satyavat had their 100 sons who were brave, noble, and never fled from war (Dutt 430). Asvapati was also blessed with 100 sons who kept his bloodline and lineage strong for generations.
Savitri is used as the example of the ideal Hindu wife; a woman who is willing to follow her husband through death and back. Savitri symbolizes the dharmic wisdom that overcomes death (Anand 2). The perfect wife is to maintain her position beside her husband for all of time. In each dharmic marriage the man has the responsibility to take care of his family in all the physical aspects of life, while the wife “embodies the power to sustain their existence” (Rodrigues 125). She must maintain this power by being as auspicious as possible, and by being loyal by following orders from her husband. This enhances her personal spiritual power, or sakti. Her whole family depends on this spiritual power for their survival. By having this power, she is responsible to take part in sati, the ritual where the wife is required to lie on her deceased husband’s pyre, showing that she is willing to die with him and to use her sakti to cleanse his soul in a spiritual sense (Pitchman 26). Savitri is the ideal wife because when she completed sati she brought Satyavat back to life with her, proving she was purely dharmic. Her higher understanding of the dharmic teaching and her commitment to Satyavat is what brought her husband back to life (Verma 67). As they are two parts of a whole, both the husband and wife rely on each other to live a dharmic life. Their devotion to each other, especially Savitri’s, deems her the ideal wife in Hindu culture.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Anand, Subhash (1988) Savitri and Satyavat: A Contemporary Reading. Pune: Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
Dutt, Manmatha Nath (1895) A Prose English Translation of the Mahabharata: (translated Literally from the Original Sanskrit Text). H.C. Dass.
Nadkarni, Mangesh V. (2012) Savitri-The Golden Bridge, The Wonderful Fire: An introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s epic. Auroville: Savitri Bhavan
Narayan, R. K. (1964) Gods, Demons, and Others. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Pintchman, Tracy (2011) Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism–The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Verma, K.D. (1977) Myth and Symbol in Aurobindo’s “Savitri”: A Revaluation. Michigan: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University
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Article written by: Abby Neudorf (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.