Feminine Mythique History & Culture

When Death doffed its hat

Arshia Sattar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Savitri was more dazzling and beautiful than any other woman in the world. When it came time for her to be married, she had no suitors because all the men around her were intimidated by her beauty and her sharp mind.

Her father washed his hands off the responsibility to get his daughter suitably married and asked her to find a husband for herself. Savitri found handsome Satyavan, whose father was not only blind but had lost his kingdom. Then, Narada tells her that Satyavan will live for only one year from the day they marry. Her father does not object to this most unsuitable husband and Savitri leaves the luxuries of the palace to live with Satyavan and his parents on the edge of the forest where Satyavan earns a living as a woodcutter.

On the day that Satyavan is supposed to die, Savitri goes with him into the forest. As he is chopping wood, he is overcome with fatigue and falls asleep in her lap. Savitri knows that this is the moment of his death.

When Yama comes to claim his body and soul, Savitri refuses to leave her husband and follows the god of Death. Yama repeatedly tells her to go back and each time, she argues with him, extolling first, the virtues of obedience to dharma and then, the company of good people. Eventually she praises Yama himself, wielder of the rod of punishment, dispenser of justice.

Yama is impressed not only with her devotion to her husband but also by her intellect. Each time she defeats him with one of her arguments, he offers her a boon — any boon except the return of her husband’s life.

First, Savitri asks that her father-in-law’s sight be restored, then she asks that his kingdom be returned to him. And finally, she asks Yama that she be the mother of a hundred sons. Yama is happy to grant her that until he realises that the boon cannot be fulfilled unless Satyavan comes back to life as her husband. He admits defeat and Satyavan wakes as if from a deep sleep.

We are told to believe that Yama restored Satyavan to life only because Savitri was so devoted, she was willing to follow her husband even into the realms of the dead. It was this single wifely virtue, more than any other, that compelled the god of Death to acquiesce in to her demand.

It is clear from the beginning that Savitri is a most unusual woman — she is beautiful, she is learned, she is determined. But while all the men around her seem to pull away from these virtues, Yama recognises and acknowledges Savitri’s other special qualities. She defeated him with her arguments and with a cleverly worded boon — it is her iron will, her intellect and her quick wit that Yama honours when he gives Satyavan back. These qualities are not predicated on her being married to Satyavan. Yama obviously sees Savitri as more than just a wife.

The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent


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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 8:30:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-story-of-savitri-sathyavan/article19414814.ece

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