Princess Savitri chose the simple hermit, Satyavan, for her husband, though she knew that he was destined to die within a year. They were married. With each passing hour, Savitri’s sorrow grew. On the fated day, in the forest, Satyavan suddenly became ill and lay down. Savitri took his head in her lap. A dark figure appeared before her. There was a noose in his hand. Savitri looked into his red fearsome eyes. Continuing the story …
“Who are you?” Savitri asked the being who stood before her. “Your mighty form tells me that you are a god. What has brought you here?” “I am Yama, god of death. It is because of your devotion and pure character that you are able to see me, Savitri, and actually speak with me. Your husband’s time on earth is over. I will now bind him in my noose and take him away. It is to perform this task that I have come.”
“I have heard that you send your assistants to do this work. How is it that you have come yourself?” Savitri asked. “Satyavan is no ordinary man; he is full of noble qualities. I come personally to carry away such souls,” Yama replied. Placing the noose on Satyavan’s body, Yama drew out his essence — it appeared as a small figure, the size of just a thumb. At once, Satyavan’s body lost its brightness and became stone-still and grey. Yama turned and walked southwards.
Stricken with grief, Savitri began to follow him. After a few steps, Yama stopped. “Do not come after me, Savitri,” he said. “Go back and arrange for Satyavan’s funeral.” Savitri came up and stood by him. “You walked with him as far as it is possible to accompany a human. Your relationship with him is now at an end.” Yama continued on his way. Savitri walked with him.
“Such a relationship does not end,” Savitri replied. “Wherever my husband goes, I will go with him.” Yama sighed. What was she going to do now? Beg and plead with him for Satyavan’s life? Flatter him? But feeling rather curious, he waited…
Savitri said, “There is a saying that walking seven steps together cements friendship between two companions. I have walked many more steps with you.” Yama’s footsteps slowed. The charm of these words touched him. “I take the support of this friendship with you to say to you that you have done my husband and me a favour by coming yourself, and letting me see you and speak to you. We have both lived a simple life, devoted to doing good to all. If we lead a life governed by wisdom and knowledge, that is a life worthwhile. No additional rules and regulations need be followed if one is just, generous and good.” Yama glanced at Savitri. She was thanking him for coming in person, but also gently stressing that this was because Satyavan and she, by leading pure lives, had earned it. Charmed again, Yama said, “Your thoughts are beautiful, Savitri, and full of reason. Ask a boon from me. Except for Satyavan’s life, I will give you whatever you wish for.”
“My father-in-law is blind and has grown feeble. Please grant him sight and health again.” “They are granted. Now go back. You are looking weary. Don’t tire yourself further,” Yama said.
“I cannot feel tired when my husband is by me,” Savitri replied. “Wherever you take him, I will come too. Whatever fate may befall him, I will share in it.” Did Yama feel a twinge of envy at the great love Savitri bore for Satyavan? Did she not also feel something for the friend who walked beside her? It was as if Savitri sensed this. She said, “Kind and wise god, listen again to my words as I walk with you. Even a single meeting with a wise person enriches the mind. Friendship with such a wise one, then, would be even more enlightening. So we should always try to be in the company of wise and good people.”
Moved by these delicate words, Yama said, “You delight me, Savitri. Ask for another boon, excepting your husband’s life.” “My father-in-law lost his kingdom to a usurper. Please let him regain it, and rule over it honourably.” “I grant this boon too. Now trouble yourself no more and go back.”
But Savitri said, “Please listen to what I say one more time. You have made a law of life and death for all beings. You do not try to interfere with this law, and even you are controlled by it. This is why they call you Yama, the controlled one. You see all impartially. But, merciful god, the duty of the noble is to protect all creatures; to cause them no harm in thought, word or deed; to extend love to all and grant them what they deserve. The noble always show mercy, even to enemies, and bestow protection on those who ask for it.”
The hidden appeal in these words stirred Yama deeply. “Wise and wonderful is all that you say, Savitri. It refreshes me, just as water quenches thirst. Ask for a third boon — anything, but not your husband’s life.”
“My father has no children other than myself. May sons too be born to him to carry on his line.” “It will be so. You must return now. You have come too far already.”
But Savitri did not give up. “No road is too long when by husband is by me. Please let me continue to speak to you. You are the son of the Sun God, Surya or Vivaswat. This is why one of your names is Vaivaswat. Just as the sun shines for all, you too measure out the law equally to all living beings. This has given you a third name, Dharmaraja, lord of justice and right behaviour. We repose our faith and confidence in righteous people, even more than on ourselves. To always be in the presence of the righteous is everyone’s wish, because their goodness inspires the confidence of all. We know that we can rely utterly on them.”
“Never have I heard such fine words from anyone, except you, Savitri. I cannot help but give you another boon. Ask for anything, excepting Satyavan’s life.” Yama was almost in a trance of pleasure.
“May many children be born to me.” “All right. I grant that boon too. Now go back.”
Savitri’s heart was flooded with joy. “I thank you, great Lord of Justice. When the good are appointed to a post, they will carry out their work diligently and cheerfully. By never going back on their word, they become the saviours of all. The good and truthful, by their conduct, make the very sun move in the sky and cause the earth to become fruitful.”
“It is nectar that falls from your lips, Savitri. The more I hear your beautiful thoughts, the more my respect for you increases. You have so devotedly followed your husband. Ask for a boon; for some really incomparable boon”.
“You have already given me the boon of many children. But this boon cannot see fulfilment unless my husband returns to life. Without him, I do not want even Heaven. So, you who have given me so much, grant me the fifth and last boon: restore my husband’s life, so that your earlier promise will bear fruit.”
Yama stood stock-still! This honey-tongued enchantress had got the better of even him. He did only what the good and the truthful do. He cheerfully kept his word. As the righteous God of Justice, he gave Savitri the protection she asked for and the fruitfulness she deserved.
He untied the knot in his noose. “I free your husband, Savitri. Live long in happiness, both of you. Satyavan will become well known in connection with your name.” And Yama departed.
Her heart beating wildly, Savitri ran back to where Satyavan lay under the banyan tree. She sat down and took his head again on her lap. Blood had begun to flow through his body. He opened his eyes and gazed lovingly at her. “It seems I have been asleep a long time. It is already night. After I lay down, everything went dark. I saw a great, shining figure. He began to drag me away.” “It was the divine Yama. But he is gone now. I will tell you all that happened later. Stand up, if you can.”
Afraid that their elders would be full of worry about them, Savitri hung the bag of fruits on a tree, to be collected the next day. She picked up the axe and placed it on her right shoulder. Satyavan supported himself on her left shoulder. They went as quickly as they could back to the hermitage, finding their way by the light of the moon.
Earlier in the day, at the ashram, Dyumatsena had blinked his eyes again and again. Joyously, he said to his wife, “Saivya, something magical has happened. I have got back my eyesight. I can see you… I can see the sky outside, the birds, the trees…”
Late that night, Savitri and Satyavan returned to the ashram, to the great relief of everyone. Savitri narrated to them the happenings of the day. They were amazed. How could anyone return from the dead? they all asked. “I praised the divine lord, but I did it truthfully,” Savitri answered. Praises were heaped in turn on Savitri, over and over again.
The next morning, news arrived that Dyumatsena’s loyal minister had defeated the usurper and regained the kingdom. The people wanted their dear king back. They all returned to a jubilant welcome. In the years that followed, to Savitri’s delight, she received news that many sons were born to her parents.She and Satyavan too were blessed with many children. One after the other, all Yama’s boons became fulfilled. Savitri had turned the fortunes of all her loved ones.
To this day, ladies perform the Vata Savitri Ceremony in her memory. They believe that it was the blessings of the sacred banyan tree, the Vata, under which she and Satyavan sat in the forest, that helped Savitri win back her husband from the Lord of Death.