Ladies of Legend: Savitri

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Savitri, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savitri_and_Satyavan, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, https://www.mahabharataonline.com/stories/mahabharata_story.php?id=11, http://www.indianscriptures.com/vedic-society/women-of-bharat/puranic/savitri,

For the penultimate Lady of Legend, I have chosen Savitri from ‘Savitri and Satyavan’. The first known version of this story comes from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic. The birth of Savitri was the result of kindly divine intervention after her parents’ many years of hoping and praying for a baby, and she was named after her parents’ benefactor, the sun god Savitr. Her father was King Asvapati and her mother was his queen Malavi.

Savitri’s default state was intimidating perfection. She was polite and devout and very obedient…except when she was right and you were not. No man dared to ask for her to be his bride, so Asvapati told Savitri to find a husband herself, which she duly went and did. She encountered Satyavan, a prince hacking out a living in the forest with his exiled father, the blind king Dyumatsena of the Salwas. Satyavan had absolutely no prospects. What was more, upon Savitri’s return home, the Sage Narada informed her that Satyavan was doomed to die in exactly a year’s time. Asvapati begged his daughter to choose a different husband. Savitri would not budge: she had picked Satyavan and nothing could sway her away from him.

Instead of bringing him to live with her in the palace, Savitri went to live and work with Satyavan in the forest. Three days before her husband’s prophesied death, she took up a devoted vigil and fast, so rigid in its austerity that her father-in-law expressed his concern. On the morning of the dreaded day, however, when she asked permission to follow Satyavan into the forest, Dyumatsena gave Savitri her way, because it was the first favour she had asked of him in the year they had lived together.

Satyavan was cutting wood when he abruptly grew faint and lay down to rest with his head on Savitri’s lap. It was more than a passing weakness; he died there in her arms. Servants of the god of death appeared to take his soul, but Savitri’s personality burned so fiercely that they could not get near her. Eventually Yama himself had to come for Satyavan. He kindly explained that death was an inevitability and that Savitri had to let go.

Savitri did not let go. She followed Yama and would not be turned back, insisting that her love was faithful and eternal. She kept talking, giving speeches praising obedience to the law and friendship to the strict, then praising Yama as a fair ruler, the god of Death being the ultimate judge and therefore King of the Law. The subject of her final speech was ‘noble conduct with no expectation of return’. Yama was so affected by her eloquent wisdom that he offered her whatever favour she chose to ask – anything except her husband’s life. He had a job to do here, after all.

Savitri’s first request was for the kingdom of her father-in-law to be returned to him, along with his sight. Yama granted it – still Savitri followed him. Her next wish was for a hundred siblings, because apparently that’s something her parents wanted? Anyway, Yama agreed. Savitri did not stop following him. Lastly, she wished for a hundred children to be born of her marriage to Satyavan. Yama was put in a bit of quandary. He had, after all, told Savitri she could have anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life – only how could she have a hundred children without him? Channelling the ‘why am I even bothering to argue about this’ kind of exhaustion that gods of death tend to have when faced with epic love stories, he allowed Savitri a free choice of wishes and she asked, of course, for her husband’s life. Yama not only restored Satyavan, he honoured her other wishes in genuine goodwill and gave her his blessing.

For Satyavan, death was like a brief and passing sleep. When he and Savitri returned home, they found Dyumatsena with newly restored eyesight, and a procession of royal ministers arrived shortly afterwards to announce the sudden death of the enemy who exiled him. Savitri was once again a princess – more importantly, she was the woman who outwitted Death.

The festival of Vat Savitri is still celebrated by married women, who fast through the night and pray for their husbands. After all, if there is anyone you’d want on your side to protect your loved ones, it would certainly be her.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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