Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Savitri -- the embodiment of 'never give up' and 'never say die' attitude

Savitri, the legendary character, is the ideal of womanhood (and of humanhood), the embodiment of 'never give up' and 'never say die' attitude. The oldest known version of the story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in Vyasa's Mahabharata. The following is the story of Savitri as told by Dr. Prema Nandakumar in her article "The Kanyā Tejasvinī of Indian Culture", published in the September 2008 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.


Ashwapati, the king of the Madra country, is pious, virtuous, and a protector of his people. He has only one sorrow—no child has been born to him to continue his line. Therefore he performs tapasya for eighteen years and prays to goddess Savitri for the boon of a child. The goddess appears and grants his wish: "You will soon have a radiantly beautiful daughter, kanyā tejasvinī." When the girl child is born, Ashwapati names her Savitri. She grows up to be a divine damsel. Since she is very brilliant, no suitor dares to ask for her hand.

One day she approaches Ashwapati with the prasada of her puja, and he, feeling that the time has come for her to find a bridegroom, asks her—who looks like Goddess Lakshmi, śrīriva rūpiṇī—to go and choose her husband: "Tell me then of him whom you would choose and after giving due consideration to it, I shall make the marriage proposal; choose him whom you will acceptably desire."

Savitri goes out on her quest. When she returns home after some time, she finds Rishi Narada conversing with her parents. Asked by the king, she says that she has chosen Satyavan, the son of the exiled and blind king Dyumatsena of Shalwa. Narada exclaims that the choice is a mistake, though Satyavan is a fine young man. Asked to explain himself, the sage says that Satyavan has only one more year to live. Ashwapati asks Savitri to reconsider her choice, but she is firm: "May he be of a short life or a long life, with virtuous qualities or else without them; I have chosen him as my husband and I shall choose not again. By perception does one first come to a certain conclusion, and then one holds it by speech; only afterwards is it put into action. That perception of mine for me is the one single authority here."

Finding her unyielding, Narada tells Ashwapati to go ahead with the marriage and suggests that all would be well. Ashwapati obtains Dyumatsena's permission, and the marriage is celebrated. After Ashwapati and his entourage return to Madra, Savitri settles down to the simple and hard life of the forest. Placing aside her ornaments and rich garments, she looks after her parents-in-law and husband with great devotion and care. Thus she wins the love and respect of her family and others who are living in the hermitage.

Three days prior to the dire end foretold by Narada, Savitri performs the difficult tri-rātra vrata, the penance of three nights. She fasts for three days, at the end of which she offers oblations to the fire, salutes the elders of the hermitage, and obtains their blessings. According to Vyasa she is now dhyāna-yoga-parāyaṇā, one who has entered the yoga of meditation. On the fated day she accompanies Satyavan to collect firewood from the forest. When he falls down in a swoon, she finds a god-like person near her. She salutes him and wants to know who he is. Her reaction is just what it should be. Even in that dire moment, she stands up with folded hands, kṛtānjali, salutes the stranger, and says: "I take you to be some noble god as you have a form other than the human; if it pleases you, pray tell me who you are and what you propose to do, O god!"

Yama compliments her as one who is devoted to her husband and is full of tapasya—pativratāsi sāvitri tathaiva ca tapo’nvitā—and tells her that he has come to take the life of Satyavan away. He instructs her to return to her people. But Savitri has performed her vrata well: she is able to follow him. She tells Yama that she considers him a friend because they have walked seven steps together and utters the first of her righteous statements, dharma-vacanas.

The dharma-vacanas make a compendium for faultless living: One must have self-discipline to achieve anything worthwhile. Those who do not have self-possession cannot follow dharma. Following one's dharma is the only excellent way of life. Sat-sanga, company of the righteous, is most important for achieving a blameless life. One must not have malice towards anyone nor hurt anyone in thought or deed. One must always give in charity. One should be kind even to an enemy. Men put their trust in sages more than in themselves, for sages never fail to help. Sages do not have ill will or selfishness and never regret the good they have done. Hence sages are the protectors of the world.

At the conclusion of each dharma-vacana, Yama expresses his joy—"You speak as a reasonable person; your words are like water to a thirsty man", and so on—and grants her boons. He is delighted when she says finally that the sages protect the world. He says: "O devoted and chaste lady, the more in well-adorned verses, full of great significance and agreeable to perception, you speak of the noble things conformable to the dharma, the more does my excellent devotion for you increase; therefore, choose yet another but appropriate boon from me."

Savitri takes the cue and asks for the life of Satyavan. Yama grants Satyavan's life and blesses them both with long life and happiness. The way in which Savitri gently guides Satyavan back to the hermitage is described beautifully by Vyasa. ... "That is how Savitri had saved and upraised herself, her father and mother, her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and extricated the whole house of her husband from calamity. ...."

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