Mahābhārata – Episode 41 – The Story of Sāvitrī (Part 1)

This article is part 41 of 44 in the series Mahābhārata

In the kingdom of Madra, there lived a king named Aśvapati who always abided by dharma and truth and was loved by everyone. He did not have any children even though he grew old. With a desire to obtain offspring, he undertook many rigorous vows and vratas. He would lead a life of self-restraint, eating little, and performing ten thousand homas daily in praise of goddess Sāvitrī. After eighteen years of strictly adhering to this ritual, one day he had a vision of goddess Sāvitrī, who appeared before him, pleased with his devotion. She asked him, “What do you want?”

He replied, “Mother! I undertook this penance for the sake of children; I want many children!”

“I’ve spoken about this with Brahmā; as per his decision, you will soon have a brilliant daughter. Beyond that, I can’t say anything further!” she said, and disappeared.

As per her words, in due course, his senior queen became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in good time. Since the girl was born due to the blessings of goddess Sāvitrī, she was given the name ‘Sāvitrī.’ She grew up; she reached the age of youth and began shining like a resplendent golden statue; everyone thought that she was a divine damsel; looking at her matchless brilliance, many princes decided against asking her hand for marriage. The king said, “My daughter! It’s time for you to get married; but nobody is coming forward to seek your hand; therefore, go and find a suitable husband for yourself. I will get you married to him. A father who doesn’t marry off his maiden daughter, a husband who doesn’t lead a family life with his wife, a son who doesn’t take good care of his widowed mother – all these invite criticism from the world.” So saying, he sent his daughter with an elderly minister to tour the land. She didn’t think of anything else; she merely bowed down to her father and set out on a journey. She sat in a golden chariot and roamed about all the beautiful āśramas where the rājarṣis lived. She paid her respects to all the elders whom she encountered on her voyage. She visited pilgrimage spots and gave away a lot of money in charity. In this manner, she roamed about the land and returned home. When she returned home, she found that Nārada was seated in the palace and was engaged in a discussion with Aśvapati. Sāvitrī bowed down to both of them and paid her respects. Nārada asked, “What’s this? Where had your daughter gone, O king? Why haven’t you got her married off as yet?”

Aśvapati said, “I had sent her for the very same purpose; let us hear from her own mouth whom she has chosen to be her husband. Tell us, Sāvitrī!”

Sāvitrī replied, “There was a righteous king called Dyumatsena who ruled over the kingdom of Sālva; he lost sight in both eyes and the enemy king of the neighbouring kingdom seized his lands. He went away to the forest with his wife and son, and began a life of meditation and penance. That child of his has grown up and become a youth. His name is Satyavanta; I think he is ideal for me and I’ve chosen him.”

Nārada said, “Oh no! Mahārāja, without her knowledge Sāvitrī has done such a grave mistake. His parents utter the truth—satya—at all times; therefore they named him ‘satyavanta.’ From his childhood, the boy loved horses; he would make horses out of mud and he would draw pictures of horses; therefore he is also called Citrāśva.”

Aśvapati asked, “Is that Satyavanta a brilliant boy? Is he intelligent? Does he have the quality of patience? Is he heroic?”

“He is as brilliant as the sun! In intelligence, he is verily Bṛhaspati! His patience is like the earth! In valour, he matches Indra!”  

“Is he endowed with an attitude for charity? Is he good-looking? Does he have the quality of magnanimity? Is he smart and charismatic?”

“In matters of charity, even Rantideva cannot come close to him; in looks, he is like the Aśvinīdevatās; in magnanimity, he is like Yayāti; in smartness and charishma, he is like the moon! Not only that, he is restrained, gentle, heroic, self-controlled, friendly, free from jealousy, endowed with fortitude and compassion, and straightforward – this is the opinion of elders who perform penance and are of good character.”

“You have listed so many of his qualities. Now, tell me, if he has any defects.”

Nārada said, “He has only one defect! And that is, a year from today, his time on this earth will come to an end and he will leave his body.”

“Go Sāvitrī!” said Aśvapati. “Go and find another! This one defect drowns all other qualities of his!”

Sāvitrī said, “Father! I have given my heart to him already. Whether he is bestowed with long life or a short one, whether he is endowed with good qualities or not, I shall not set out to find another to give my heart to. I am uttering these words after making a decision about this in my mind, and I will also execute it in practice.”

Nārada said, “Looks like your daughter’s decision is firm; it is not possible to shake her; the good qualities that Satyavanta has, no one else does; so give her hand in marriage to him, and to him alone!”

The king replied, “You are a venerable elder; once you have shown us the path, then that is what we shall do.”

Nārada said, “Let Sāvitrī’s wedding take place without any obstacles! Welfare and prosperity to all of you! I take my leave.”

After Nārada left, Aśvapati made all the necessary preparations for the wedding; picking an auspicious day, he set out with his daughter as well as elderly brāhmaṇas, ṛtviks, and purohitas to Dyumatsena’s āśrama. Looking at the blind Rājarṣi, who was sitting on a seat made of darbhā grass under a Sal tree, the king told him about the matter.

Aśvapati said, “This resplendent girl Sāvitrī, is my daughter. You must accept her as your daughter-in-law.”

Dyumatsena replied, “Mahārāja! Having left the kingdom, we have made the forest our home and spend our time in tapas. How can your daughter endure this strain?”

“Joys and sorrows, comforts and discomforts – these come and go; both me and my daughter are well aware of this; one needn’t tell me about this; I’ve come here after having ascertained all this. This alliance is verily appropriate. We are old friends; therefore don’t reject our proposal.”

“Much earlier, I had desired to establish this relationship with you; however, having lost my kingdom, I decided against proposing it and remained silent. Well, let that earlier thought prevail!”

All the inhabitants of the āśrama came together; the wedding took place as per all the prescribed rules; the father of the bride gave her whatever he was able to give her, handed her over to her new family, and returned to his capital. Satyavanta was delighted to be married to a woman of such wonderful qualities while Sāvitrī was delighted to be married to the man she chose, having lost her heart to him.

After her father left, Sāvitrī set aside all her ornaments and rich clothes; she donned ochre-coloured clothes made of natural fibre. Through her service, goodness, obedience, and restraint of senses, she brought happiness to one and all, doing what each person liked, fulfilling each one’s desire. She took care of her mother-in-law’s health, helped her father-in-law in his various rituals and worship; her words would be few, but pleasing; she showed a great deal of patience and intelligence in her work; she would serve her husband while the two of them were alone, and thus brought him great joy. Thus the time went by in the āśrama. Sāvitrī alone was haunted by the words of Nārada, day and night, while lying down or being seated. Therefore she kept a count of every single day she spent there. When there were but four days for her husband’s death, she undertook a rigorous vow that lasted three days and three nights. When Dyumatsena heard about this, he said in a gentle tone, “O princess! Why are you undertaking such a rigorous vrata? It is extremely difficult to fast for three full days!” But Sāvitrī’s thoughts didn’t waver, her decision was firm.

“Father, don’t worry; I will complete this vrata successfully. This needs determined effort, that’s all!”

Dyumatsena replied, “I am incapable of asking you to stop the vrata; may you have the strength to successfully complete it! This is what people like us should say.” Having said this, he remained silent.

Until the day before the fatal moment, Sāvitrī sat still like a log of wood, unflinching; she did not move from the place where she was seated. Her agony on the eve of the fateful day was unspeakable. On the day of the impending death, she woke up early in the morning, lit the fire, finished all the tasks of the morning, and paid her respects to all the brāhmaṇas, the elders, and her parents-in-law by bowing down to them. They all blessed her with a long life along with her husband, uttering the words, “Dīrgha sumaṅgalī bhava!” She told herself, “Oh if only these words were to come true, O almighty!” and awaited for the fatal moment that Nārada had told her about. Her parents-in-law said, “O daughter, the time of your rigid vow has come to an end, now please eat something!”

She replied, “I will eat after dusk today. That is what I had decided to do!”

In the meantime, carrying an axe on his shoulders and with a view to chop some firewood, Satyavanta got ready to depart to the forest. Looking at that, Sāvitrī said, “Don’t go alone! I will accompany you. I cannot leave you!”

Satyavanta said, “Sāvitrī! You have never been to the forest before; the path is extremely difficult; further, having fasted for three days as part of your vrata, you have become so weak. You will not be able to walk.”

Sāvitrī replied, “I haven’t become weak because of the fasting; I won’t get tired walking. I really want to come with you; please don’t stop me.”

“If you really want to come, if that is your desire, come along. You be happy, but this is a matter between you and my parents; I don’t want to be blamed for this!” said Satyavanta.

Listening to her husband’s words, Sāvitrī went to her parents-in-law and said, “My husband has set out to bring some fruits from the forest. Since they are needed for the Agnihotra ritual, I can’t tell him not to go, and also I can’t let him go alone; I can’t leave him and stay alone; if you will permit me, I too will go with him. It has been about a year since I came here; I have never left the āśrama and gone outside. I am desirous of seeing all the flowers in the forest.”

Dyumatsena said, “Child, ever since you became my daughter-in-law, I don’t remember you asking me for any favours. I grant you permission, go on; but be careful on the way!”

Thus having obtained permission from her parents-in-law, Sāvitrī went along with her husband with a joyful smile on her face but with pain in her heart. As they walked along, everywhere she looked the forest was filled with wonder. The cry of the peacocks; sacred rivers; flowering trees with fresh blossoms – as they walked along, Satyavanta kept pointing to different beautiful objects in the forest and in a sweet tone he would ask her to see here, see there. Every second, she was aware of his condition; concentrating totally on his well-being, she followed him slowly. When the time predicted by Nārada finally came, she thought that her husband was dead; her heart felt like it split into two; she felt like she was face to face with Time.

To be continued…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.

Author(s)

About:

Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

Translator(s)

About:

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. He research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.

About:

Hari is an author, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Hindu scriptures, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.