Monday, June 30, 2008

To Hell and Back: Savitri and Satyavan

Our second tale to deal with the theme of decent into the underworld comes from the Hindu epic The Mahābhārata (c. 4th-Century C.E.). Like the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, the Indian tale of Savitri and her husband Satyavan involves an attempt to bring a loved one back from the great beyond. The difference here, however, is that rather than the husband going after the wife it is Savitri who seeks the return of her husband, Satyavan’s, soul…

Savitri and Satyavan, as retold by Justin M.

Savitri was the bride of the exiled prince Satyavan, son of the blind king Dyumatsena. The couple lived together, peacefully, in the deep forests of India. Now Savitri was greatly skilled in the art of divinization, so there was no secret the future could keep from her. But her husband, Satyavan, did not give heed to her fortunes and believed them to be untrue. So it came to pass that one day while scrying, Savitri learned that her beloved husband was to die while chopping wood in the forest.

Savitri tried to warn her husband, but he would not believe a single word she said. He told her that no one, except the gods, knew what the future held and that she was doing no favors by worrying about it. But still Savitri feared for her husband’s life and asked if she could accompany him into the forest that day when he went to cut wood for their fire. Satyavan said yes, though he still thought his wife was being silly.

So with that Savitri and Satyavan set off into the forest, and while they were there a cobra sprang up and bit Satyavan on the leg, killing him. Savitri then fell to her knees and wept for her husband, and when she looked up she saw Yama, the god of the dead, standing before her.

Yama was an imposing figure. He had green skin and three eyes. Horns like a bull and he carried in one hand a mace and in the other a noose with which he lassoed the souls of the dead. He rode on the back of a pitch black buffalo and on that day he had come to collect the soul of Satyavan.

Normally, mortals can not see Yama until after they are dead, but on that day Savitri saw Yama and spoke to him without fear or hesitation. She asked Yama to return her husband’s soul so that he might live again. Yama, naturally, denied her offer saying that Satyavan’s time had come and he had lived a good and honest life and would be richly rewarded in the afterlife.

This did not satisfy Savitri, who knew that a wife with no husband could not fulfill her dharma, her sacred call of duty. So again she pleaded with Yama to return her husband’s soul, and again Yama refused, but this time, having been impressed by the devoutness of Savitri, he said that he would allow her to follow him to the river Vaitarani which separated the land of the living from that of the dead. And so, Savitri followed.

When they reached the river Vaitarani, Yama was sure that Savitri would stop there, for no living mortal had ever crossed the river before. However, as Yama, on the back of his buffalo, began to tread across the river, Savitri began to follow. Yama then began to grow nervous. He whipped his steed and ordered for it to cross faster, but no matter how deep the waters got Savitri would not stop following. Finally, Yama turned around and faced the woman. He ordered her to return to the other side of the river. He told her that what she was doing was forbidden, that the living could not enter the realm of the dead, that to do so would cause chaos in his realm. But Savitri would not be moved.

Yama, then in an attempt to pacify the determined woman offered to grant her three boons of her choosing if she would only return to the land of the living. The only condition was that she could not ask for the return of her husband’s soul. Savitri, satisfied with the dread gods offer, accepted and proceeded to name her three boons.

Savitri’s first boon was for her parents to be blessed with a second child, so that if anything should happen to her that they might have another son or daughter to take care of them in their old age. Yama granted her request.

Her second request was for her in-laws, Satyavan’s mother and father, to have their sight restored so that they would longer be infirmed and could rule once more. Again Yama granted her request.

Savitri then asked for her third and final boon, children of her own who would carry on her late husband Satyavan’s legacy. And for the third and final time Yama granted Savitri’s request. It was only after he had done so that he realized what he had just agreed to…for how was it possible for Savitri to bear her husband’s children if her husband was dead.

So Yama, a god of his word, was obligated to return the dead Satyavan to life and in doing so bound together the souls of Savitri with that of her husband so that they should not leave the mortal realm without one another, together forever.

At Top: Savitri and Satyavan by artist Ardhenduprasad Banerji.

Center: Yama, the god of death, is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. This temple painting comes from Tibet.

Sources: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2007) by Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm

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