Thursday, July 15, 2010

Satyavan - Savitri

Once upon a time, in Madra desh (now Punjab, India) lived a king called Ashwapati. He had many wives but no children. After 16 years of worshipping goddess Savitri, the daughter of Lord Surya (sun) appeared before him and granted him a boon saying, “O King, I am pleased with your worship. You will have a child soon. You’ll be the father of a virtuous and beautiful daughter.”

As per the boon, days passed by and queen Malavi gave birth to a daughter. Happy beyond words, King Ashwapati named her Savitri, in honor of the goddess. Just like the goddess had predicted, she turned into a fine young woman. She studied many scriptures and arts. Her eyes were radiant like the Sun himself.

Now the old king and queen were looking for suitable husband for their loving Savitri. But no man came forward, fearing her radiance and skills. Finally, the king one day said to Savitri, “Dear daughter. Men fear your beauty and your virtues. So it is becoming difficult for us to find a suitable  match for you. Go out in the world and find a man worthy of you. I’ll arrange for your marriage.”

So Savitri set out. Along with her trusted servants and councilors, Savitri traveled near and far. While travelling, she came upon a hermit’s ashram in the Shalwa country. There she met the exiled, blind Shalwa King Dyumatsen and his young son, Satyavan. Savitri and Satyavan saw each other and fell in love.

When Savitri returned to her father and told him of her decision to marry Satyavan, King Ashwapati got worried. “O daughter, I know after many hardships and tiring travels you have found a man to get married with. But sage Narada has foretold a fault with him. Satyavan has only one more year to live. Please dear Savitri, find someone else to marry.”, he pleaded.

But Savitri had already made up her mind.

With preparations that would only suit a princess as graceful and learned as herself, Savitri married Satyavan and went to live with his family in the forest. King Ashwapati and queen Malavi bade farewell to their daughter with tearful, worried eyes.

For about a year Savitri and Satyavan lived happily. When the day for the predicted demise of her husband was three days ahead, Savitri resolved to face the future. She started fasting and praying for her husband’s health.

On the very day of his death, she accompanied him into the forest where he was going to chop some wood. She sat below a Vat Vriksha (Banyan tree) and wove flowers into garlands. By noon, Satyavan felt tired and restless. He rested his head on Savitri’s lap and fell asleep.

At that time, Savitri saw a princely man coming through the woods to meet them. He looked darker than the darkest night, but had an aura of divine power about him.

“Who are you, o nobleman?”, Savitri asked trembling.

“I am Yama, the lord of death. Satyavan is a virtuous man, but his time has come. I’ve come to take his life.”, he replied and took Satyavan’s soul. He walked away leaving Savitri with the lifeless body of her beloved husband.

Knowing it was useless to sit in the forest, Savitri rose from her place and started following Yama.

“Princess, your time has not yet come. I cannot allow you to come to the land of the dead. Please return back to your home.”, Yama warned her.

But Savitri was firm. “I will go wherever my husband goes.”, she said and kept on the path. Rough stones, sharp thorns tore at her skin and clothes but she persisted nonetheless.

“I am impressed with your courage, Savitri. I’ll give you one boon. After that please do go back.”, Yama said to her.

“If you are pleased with me, please restore the kingdom and eyesight of my father-in-law.”, Savitri requested. So it was done.

Even then Savitri continued on her journey. After some time, Yama spoke to her again, “Your duty as a wife has ended. Satyavan must go with me. He has lived a good life and will be happy in my kingdom too. For your persistence I grant you another wish. Ask, my child.”

Savitri replied, “O lord of the dead, may my father be blessed with many children.”. Yama said, “Tathastu.” meaning “so be it” and it was done.

On went Savitri not caring for the blood that trickled from her foot or for the sweat that ran down her forehead.

“Princess Savitri, I am really awed by your love for your husband, but I cannot take you along with me any further. Ask for another boon and go back to your life.”, Yama told her.

“Lord Yama, may I have many children.”, she replied. Yama granted her wish but then realized that this seemingly fragile young woman had tricked him. How could she have many children when he was taking her husband away? He was dumbstruck.

“Savitri, you are as witty as you are wise. I am returning your husband’s life due to your relentless efforts. May you both live long happy lives before I come to fetch you again. You will always be remembered for your pure love for your husband.”, Yama said and returned the soul of Satyavan back to his body.

So it happened. A young unarmed woman, conquered death and restored happiness to her husband, her father and in-laws.

To this day, women across India celebrate this day with fasting, prayers and offering to the sacred Vat tree under whose shade, Satyavan rose back from death. They tie white thread seven times across the trunk of banyan tree wishing for the same husband's company in seven births.

Indian literature abounds in such love stories. These are also symbolic and convey a much deeper meaning. Yama is a symbol of adversities, of problems. Satyavan is the human being who, in spite of leading a virtuous life, is bound to face adversities. Savitri is the spirit of tireless effort, faith and love. The three essential things that can conquer any adversity. The Vat vriksha (Banyan tree) is the symbol of long life and good health. Ayurveda, the Indian science of medicine abounds in examples of its usage to heal diseases.

Amazing, isn't it?

Here's to our rich and varied cultural heritage!!!

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