Savitri and Satyavan

Savitri and Satyavan

The oldest known version of the story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in "The Book of the Forest" of the Mahabharata.

The myth occurs as a multiply embedded narrative in the Mahabharata told, most immediately, by Markandeya. When Yudhisthira asks Markandeya whether there has ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s, Markandeya replies by relating this myth. The childless king of Madura, Aswapati, lives ascetically for many years and offers oblations with to Goddess savitri . Finally the Goddess Savitri appears to him and grants him a boon, cautioning him not to complain: he will have a daughter. She is born and named Savitri in honor of the Goddess. Savitri is born out of devotion and asceticism, traits she will herself practice. We learn that the king is joyful at the prospect of a child, but the story hides his internal thoughts from the audience, allowing them to provide their own interpretation. When Savitri reaches the age of marriage, no man asks for her hand, so her father tells her to find a husband on her own. She sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena, living in exile as a forest-dweller. Savitri returns to find her father speaking with Narada who announces that Savitri has made a bad choice: although perfect in every way, Satyavan is irretrievably destined to die one year from that day. In response to her father’s pleas to choose a more suitable husband, Savitri insists that she will choose her husband but once. After Narada announces his agreement with Savitri, Asvapati acquiesces. This is Savitri’s first conflict with a powerful male figure: her father the king. Savitri’s argument rests on the authority of her mind. She says, “Having made the decision with my mind, I am stating it with my speech, and shall accomplish it with my actions later. My mind is my authority.” Savitri overcomes worldly power by appealing to the spiritual authority of her family’s guru and her own interior self. Savitri and Satyavan are married, and she goes to live in the forest. Immediately after the marriage, Savitri takes on the clothing of a hermit and lives in perfect obedience and respect to her new parents-in-law and husband. She goes beyond all expectations of proper behavior.

Three days before the foreseen death of Satyavan, Savitri takes a vow of fasting and vigil. Her father-in-law tells her she has taken on too harsh of a regime, but Savitri replies that she has taken an oath to perform these austerities, at which Dyumatsena offers his support. This is her second conflict with a powerful man, and she again appeals to a higher, spiritual commitment that he must recognize. The morning of Satyavan’s predicted death, Savitri asks for her father-in-law’s permission to accompany her husband into the forest. Since she has never asked for anything during the entire year she has spent at the hermitage, Dyumatsena grants her wish. The story juxtaposes the devotion of Savitri to her father, parents-in-law, and husband with several critical moments where she defies their wishes. She justifies her defiance, which takes the form of devotion and asceticism, through an appeal to a higher authority. She is being even more self-sacrificing and more devoted than the people around her expect, but she simultaneously demonstrates her strength and independence. While Satyavan is splitting wood, he suddenly becomes weak and lays his head in Savitri’s lap. Yama himself comes to claim the soul of Satyavan. Savitri follows Yama as he carries the soul away. When he tries to convince her to turn back, she offers successive formulas of wisdom. First she praises obedience to the Law, then friendship with the strict, then Yama himself for his just rule, then Yama as King of the Law, and finally noble conduct with no expectation of return. Impressed at each speech, Yama praises both the content and style of her words and offers any boon except the life of Satyavan. She first asks for eyesight and a return to the throne for her father-in-law, then sons for her father, and then sons for herself and Satyavan. Finally Yama offers any boon without exception, and Savitri chooses Satyavan’s life. This is Savitri’s final and most dramatic conflict with a powerful male figure: Yama, the god of death. Yama clearly occupies the position of strength, but Savitri manages to overcome even death. Her argument lies in appealing to the Law, above even Yama. Savitri returns to Satyavan’s body who awakens as though he has been in a deep sleep. In order to console his parents who they fear must be worried, they set out to return that evening, Satyavan assisted by his wife. Meanwhile at their home, Dyumatsena regains his eyesight and searches with his wife for Satyavan and Savitri. As the ascetics comfort and counsel the distraught parents, Savitri and Satyavan return. Since Satyavan still does not know what happened, Savitri relays the story to her parents-in-law, husband, and the gathered ascetics. As they praise her, Dyumatsena’s ministers arrive with news of the death of his usurper. Joyfully, the king and his entourage return to his kingdom. Likewise, all the other boons happen. Markandeya assures Yudhisthira and the other exiles that Draupadi will also save them.

Source: The Mahabharata vol. 2, tr. J.A.B. van Buitenen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975)

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