One often finds Savitri mentioned in the same breath as Sati. Savitri apparently comes fairly close to Sati in terms of ideal-ness. She did not quite come to the point of sacrificing her life for her husband as did Sati but set a shining example nonetheless by snatching her husband from the jaws of death, as it were–an achievement awe-inspiring enough to guarantee her a place alongside Sati.
I have been quite familiar with the legend of Savitri since childhood–the reason being that we have a festival in the eastern states called Vat-Savitri which is celebrated by married women with much devotion and which involves, amongst other things, a telling of the story of Savitri .
For those of you who do not know the story, it goes like this–Savitri was the only child of the king of Madra. She grew up to be an exceptionally wise, accomplished and beautiful young woman , and her father felt unequal to the task of finding a suitably worthy groom for her. So he asked Savitri to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, travel the length and breadth of the land and choose for herself the man she would like to get married to.
Upon her return after several months, Savitri told her parents that the one person who had impressed her the most in the course of her travels was Satyavaan. He lived in the forest with his blind parents (his father was actually a king who was forced to live in exile) and took care of his parents with great devotion and love. [now where have we heard that before ;-)]
Savitri’s parents were not really pleased with her choice–who wants to marry off their darling daughter to someone who lives in the forests? On top of that Rishi Naarad called on them to tell them that Satyavaan was not good choice since he was destined to die early– he had exactly one more year of life left. Savitri’ parents desperately tried to dissuade her but found her determined to marry only Satyavaan and nobody else. (Just as a fruit can fall down from the tree only once, I can also choose my mate only once, and I have already made the choice, Savitri is supposed to have said 🙄 This analogy made me cringe even as a child.)
And so Savitri got married to Satyavaan and went to live in the forest with him and his parents. The couple were very happy with each other. Like a good, dutiful daughter-in-law, Savitri took wonderful care of her in-laws. All the while, though, she was acutely conscious of Naarad’s prediction, and kept count of the days. On the day which was meant to be Satyavaan’s last, she insisted on accompanying him when he went to chop some firewood. While chopping wood Satyavaan suddenly felt faint and fell down unconscious with a cry.
Satyavaan was dying and Savitri knew it. She calmly sat down under the shade of a Banyan tree with Satyavaan’s head on her lap.
Since Satyavaan was such a noble person, Lord Yama, the god of death, himself came to collect his soul . Yama, however, found himself unable to do so because of Savitri’s aura and had to request Savitri to put Satyavaan’s head down on the earth so that he could claim his soul. Savitri begged Yama to spare Satyavaan’s life, which Yama said was not possible. He explained to Savitri how every person was destined to die on a pre-determined day and that it was his duty as the god of death to ensure that all souls went to Yamalok on the appointed day. This was Satyavaan’s day–his time was up and he had to go.
Savitri put down Satyavaan’s head to enable Yama to collect the soul but began to follow Yama to the netherworld, much to Yama’s consternation. He entreated Savitri to go back, she demurred. Yama let her be, thinking she would not be able to keep up with him on the difficult terrain and would have to stop anyway. But when he looked back sometime later, he found her very much there behind him, following him and showing no signs of fatigue.
Now Yama was truly alarmed. He stopped and told Savitri that living beings were not allowed to go any further and insisted that she return. He was,nevertheless, pleased with Savitri’s devotion to her husband and told her that he would grant her a boon–she could ask for anything except Satyavaan’s life and then return.
Savitri thought for a while and told Yama that all she wanted was to see her parents -in law watch their grandson play with his maternal uncle in their palace. Yama, desperate to make Savitri go back quickly, promptly granted her the boon and moved on. A little while later he noticed that he could still hear Savitri’s footsteps.
Exasperated, Yama turned to her and demanded to know why she was still following him. To which Savitri asked him how he supposed her parents-in-law could beget a grandson when he was taking their son away with him.
Yama realized that he had been cleverly tricked into granting Satyavaan’s life. He could not but marvel at Savitri’s presence of mind–apart from her husband’s life, she had managed to recover her parents-in-law’s eyesight, their lost kingdom and a son for her own parents. Since Yama could not go back on his word, he had no option but to do the impossible–restore a dead person to life.
Back in the forest, Satyavaan woke up as if from a deep slumber. Savitri nad Satyavaan returned to their home to find that Satyavaan’s parents had recovered their eyesight. Also that the usurper of their kingdom had died and their kingdom was being restored to them. All of them made their way to the palace together where they lived happily ever after with Savitri and Satyavaan being blessed with many sons (no daughters, mind you. As far as I know, everyone in Hindu mythology only ever had sons. Parvati had two sons and so did Sita. Daughters were either never born or were not considered worthy of mention. Even our gods appear to be son-obsessed.)
To be honest, I used to quite like the character of Savitri per se –she came across as a sensible and confident woman with the ability to think on her feet. But the story and the way it was told made me feel vaguely uneasy, though for a long time I could not quite put a finger to just what it was I didn’t like. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in a woman moving heaven and earth to save her beloved husband from death . I know even today most people, men and women ,would do everything in their power to make their loved ones live longer .
It dawned on me only gradually that the problem actually lay between the lines. It is only now, with the benefit of the insight that comes with growing older, (some credit is also due to IHM’s eye-opening blog, no doubt 😉 ) that I can see it for what it is– a subtle exercise in the social brainwashing of women that the Great Indian Culture (TM) excels in.
In Savitri we have a woman who not only defied death itself to bring her husband back to life, she also brought him immense luck by bearing him (only)sons, making her blind parents-in-law see again and playing a pivotal role in the recovery of their lost kingdom. Now who wouldn’t want a daughter-in-law like that? But it is not the parents-in-law who pray to be blessed with a DIL like Savitri. It is the DILs themselves who are made to pray to be blessed with Savitri-like qualities.
Savitri also remembered to ask for a son for her own parents in her boon. How considerate! She was the only child of her parents, a daughter, remember? And what good is a daughter? Even kings need to have a son, you see–to look after them when they’re old, to carry forward the lineage… you get the drift. It is not mentioned in the story but I am sure Savitri ‘s parents couldn’t thank her enough for the favour.
And then there is the aspect of Savitri choosing to get married into a poor family that had fallen on hard days. Women who seek material comforts for themselves are condemned while women who take on a hard life are praised to high heavens.
And so women are made to worship Savitri. So that they can at least try to emulate her in real life–to not look for personal comfort and riches, to bring good luck and prosperity into the family they’re married into, the good luck part including not just a long life for her husband and everyone in the family but also bearing him sons. Only when all these conditions are fulfilled will they find true acceptance and salvation. Now everyone knows that these things are beyond their control, hence the need to pray and fast. Not to forget telling stories too, so that the young girls in the family imbibe these glorious sanskaars well.