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The woman who outwitted death: A retelling

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AARTHI MUTHUKUMAR | SENIOR STAFF

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NOVEMBER 19, 2022

I
t’s considered a minor cog in the wheel of time: an episodic tale of the virtue of loyalty, as most folk tales go. It’s a myth that blurs the lines between human and the celestials, fusing portions of divine immortality with the fragmented emotions of being human. Even with its otherworldly nature, the story is achingly human: Two mortals fall in love, and share a powerful bond which makes them inseparable, even by Death himself.

Her name was Savitri, the most celebrated princess of the Madra Kingdom of Northern India. Time isn’t kept very well in the mythologies, but it doesn’t matter. The mythologies are ever present, running alongside the entire course of mortal time. For simplicity, however, let us assume that Princess Savitri’s story is set thousands of years ago, during the period of Ancient India.

Her name was Savitri, the most celebrated princess of the Madra Kingdom of Northern India. Time isn’t kept very well in the mythologies, but it doesn’t matter. The mythologies are ever present, running alongside the entire course of mortal time.

Savitri’s heavenly father was the sun god Savitr, a personification of the sheer energy of the sun; the Sun was Princess Savitri’s celestial father. Though her godly patronage defined her purpose and personality, Savitri was born on Earth as completely human. She sprung from a holy fire, a gift from Savitr to the mortal King Ashvapati of the Madra kingdom. Savitri grew up in the Madra Kingdom, and when she became of age, her father decided that she should go out into the world and choose a husband that she felt lived up to her standards. This was partly due to Savitri’s beauty, both physical and intellectual. Like any father, he believed no one would be good enough for Savitri, so she should be the one to select the lucky man who would marry her.

Savitri and her royal entourage scoured the world for her one true match. After a long search, they fell upon the Shalva Forest, where Savitri encountered an exiled prince named Satyavan. In the moment that Savitri gazed upon Satyavan, her very soul knew the truth. She would only marry Satyavan. It was love at first sight.

Satyavan was the son of a former King Dyumatsena. Long before Satyavan’s birth, King Dyumatsena had gone blind. His throne was usurped by enemy countries, and he was left to flee into the Shalva Forest. Dyumatsena, his wife and little Satyavan, lived among the trees, hidden from the outside world. Satyavan then, was the true Prince of the Shalva Kingdom, but he spent his life quietly in the forest.

Princess Savitri was the true daughter of the Sun God, and the Sun sees everything. It was a moment of divine truth, and she knew it.

Savitri returned home, and declared to her father that she had found her husband. The Divine Saint Narada sat as a part of King Ashvapati’s court, and both Savitri’s father and Narada asked Savitri if her search had been fruitful. Savitri explained to her father that her match had been found.

“The former Prince Satyavan will be my husband,” she declared, and Narada’s attention was captured, for Satyavan was no ordinary prince. Although virtuous and loyal, he was the recipient of a terrible curse: exactly one year from the day he married, he was destined to die.

King Ashvapati begged Savitri to change her mind. After all, what father wants to see his daughter widowed in only a year? What was worse, in this case, was that she would be left alone in a dark forest, away from the comfort she had known her entire life.

सावित्र्युवाच ।

सकृदंशो निपतति सकृत्कन्या प्रदीयते ।

सकृदाह ददानीति त्रीण्येतानि सकृत्सकृत् ॥

दीर्घायुरथ वाल्पायुः सगुणो निर्गुणो ऽपि वा ।

सकृद्वृतो मया भर्ता न द्वितीयं वृणोम्यहम् ॥

मनसा निश्चयं कृत्वा ततो वाचाभिधीयते ।

क्रियते कर्मणा पश्चात्प्रमाणं मे मनस्ततः ॥

“And Savitri said,

Only once can one fall down, only once can a woman be given away

Only once can a person say “I will give,” only once, only once.

In a life, whether it be short or long, filled with virtues or lack of

Once a husband has been selected by me, I will not choose another.

It has been decided by my mind, and expressed by my words

It will be done through my actions. My mind is an example of this!”

Her choice was made, he realized, and not simply on a whim. The choice was sanctioned by heaven itself. Recognizing this, the divine saint wished her well, leaving her with a blessing of prosperity.

Savitri and Satyavan got married in the Shalva Forest, surrounded by their families, in a ceremony fit for royalty. They lived their days in the forest, in Satyavan’s little cottage with King Dyumatsena and his wife. Savitri counted the days; she knew her time with her Satyavan was limited and that she had to appreciate what she had. But she couldn’t help nervously awaiting the dreaded day, terrified by what would come next.

A year passed, and the one-year mark came — too quickly. Savitri watched the sun rise that day; she watched as Savitr the sun god emerged from behind the dark forest. She had been praying for four days straight, hadn’t touched a morsel of food or drank any water. She was desperate, and she prayed for any god, any diving being to come to her aid.

 तथास्तु

So be it! ,

Savitri whispers to herself,

तथास्तु

It shall be!

Satyavan left to work in the forest, his ax resting on his shoulders. Savitri could not bear to see him leave; but she also could not bear to see him die. She asked if she could come with him, to stay with him until the very end. She helped him pick fruit off trees and break branches for firewood. Every second that passed, she wondered if it was the moment of fate.

Suddenly, Satyavan cried out, and fell to the ground. He had a terrible headache, so asked if he could rest for a bit. She knelt to the ground and placed Satyavan’s head in her lap, memorizing every last detail of his face. Satyavan closed his eyes, and moments later, stilled.

He was dead.

Out of the shadows, a dark figure appeared. His true name shall never be spoken, but he is known as Dharma-rājā, or “the King of Justice”. All mortals are judged by Dharma-rājā after death, and we must all pay the price for our actions on Earth. It’s a story that’s paralleled across countless religions. In some, it is known as the Judgement Day, in others, it is the weighing of your heart against a feather of truth. All things considered, two things are true: Death is inescapable, Death will deliver.

So the King of Justice had arrived, noose in hand. It was rare really, for Dharma-rājā to come in person to claim a life. It was an honor bestowed upon those who were truly illustrious in their lives — for those who were virtuous. Dharma-rājā knew that Satyavan didn’t deserve to die, so he had come himself to claim his life. He captured Satyavan’s soul in his noose, and Savitri felt her husband turn cold. As Dharma-rājā walked away, Savitri followed him silently. He turned.

“You know you cannot follow me Savitri. Where I am going, a human can only be dead.”

Savitri was devastated, but she wouldn’t give up.

“Wherever my husband goes,

whether he is carried or dragged,

I will follow.”

“I have walked seven steps with you, and in the custom of my kingdom, I am considered your friend,” Savitri said, and she continued on to display her understanding of morality to  Dharma-rājā. She delivered a winded speech on morality, and what it meant to be virtuous and good. She was trying to impress to Dharma-rājā. Miraculously, it worked.

Savitri’s intelligence surprised Dharma-rājā. Death is always awed by displays of philosophical judgment, being the figurehead of the subject himself. He granted Savitri two blessings. She could ask for anything she wanted, except for Satyavan’s life. Savitri asked for King Dyumatsena’s eyesight, and to give him back his kingdom. Dharma-rājā waved his hand, and just like that she had her wishes.

“Savitri, you must be tired. Go home, rest, be in the company of your family. You will live a comfortable life, free from pain”

But Savitri’s speech wasn’t over. She continued to speak philosophically of the virtues of mankind, and how to be free of sin and suffering. It was a novel argument, spanning hours of critique from the highest authority on Judgement. Death and Savitri played a game of moral judgment, and Savitri flaunted her intelligence.

Again, Dharma-rājā was astounded by her intelligence and perception. He granted her yet another blessing, except of course, Satyavan’s life. Savitri told Dharma-rājā that she was the only child of the Sun God, and that she herself would like many children. The King of Justice faltered.

“You will have one hundred sons, and your sons will all be princes. It shall be.”

But Savitri would never remarry. Satyavan was her one true love, and she could not, and would not, ever marry again. But even if she wanted to, she was not legally allowed to remarry as a widow.

So how would she give birth to one hundred sons, without a father?

Dharma-rājā was stunned. But he was the King of Justice; he could not go back on his word. Savitri had played him for a game of wits, fair and square.

तथास्तु  सावित्रि तथास्तु

Let it be, Savitri, it shall be

Death released his noose off Satyavan, and as Savitri cradled his head, she felt his soul slip back into his body. Death had been impressed by a simple human, and it was no easy feat. Along with Satyavan’s life, Dharma-rājā gave Satyavan and Savitri four hundred years of life together. He left, retreating into the shadows. In a classic ending, Savitri and Satyavan lived happily ever after.

She is passionate, fiery, and determined in her choices; not even celestial beings can prevent her path. She chose her husband and family herself, because she saw the ultimate truth of her destiny.

Savitri is a human that stood tall and faced the God of Death himself, even in her darkest hour. By some, Savitri is hailed as a form of a goddess on Earth, but that does not change the fact that she is undeniably human. She’s often misconstrued as a perfect example of female subservience; of how a wife should serve and be completely devoted to her husband and family. It’s an analysis that makes Savitri two-dimensional and powerless. She is passionate, fiery, and determined in her choices; not even celestial beings can prevent her path. She chose her husband and family herself, because she saw the ultimate truth of her destiny. Her resolute choice of spouse is a reflection of how an individual must be guided by their soul. If you make every choice, guided by your soul, you will continuously make the best choices for yourself in the moment. You will always follow the path that the universe has laid out for you, and you will always prevail.

Contact Aarthi Muthukumar at 

LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 19, 2022