The Mahabharata Story
Savitri was the only child of Madra’s wise and mighty king. Hers is a peculiar tale in ancient subcontinental myth : She won over Yama (Lord Of Death) and her husband’s soul, which Yama was carrying, taking away, while her husband Satyavan’s body lay lifeless in the forest !
Sri Aurobindo introduces his own lyrical magnum opus of the same title in these words : “The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle.
“Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of Being within itself but he descended into the grip of death and ignorance; Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun and goddess of the supreme Truth, who comes down on earth and is born to save Satyavan; Aswapati (lord of the horse), her human father, is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes; Dyumatsena (lord of the shining hosts), father of Satyavan, is the Divine Mind here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision and, through that loss, its kingdom of glory.
“Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to the state woth divine consciousness and immortal life.”
King Ashvapati of Madra reigned over a prosperous kingdom in north-west India, in Himalayan foothills covering areas about the present-day boundary between Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
Even stern-faced warriors in his palace would smile when they would see the happy and benignly lit countenance of Savitri, who glowed as a mountain flower in spring. Fair as a lotus she seemed, like its moon-kissed petals before dawn, with a light tread and a happy heart. Strangers who chanced upon her would linger for a second look and bless her for the joyous innocence she would invariably cast upon them.
Mirrored in dawning woman-hood, Savitri went about her ways as she chose with her young companions, roaming in the woods for fruit or flower or loitering in a nearby hermitage where its renunciate residents, usually gray and old and engrossed in their spiritual pursuits, would welcome her presence as they would the morning sunshine; and they taught her wonders many by the best they were capable of.
Her father, Aswapati, let her have her way in all things, whether high or low. He feared no harm as he knew no ill could touch a nature pure as snow. Long childless, he regarded her as a priceless boon, obtained at last as a result of prayers made in morning, night and noon, with many a vigil, many a fast to complete them. Would Shiva, the Lord Supreme, allow harm or ever leave his own gift unprotected ? No, he had faith; he gave her all she wished and never doubted or feared for her.
And so she wandered where she pleased in boyish freedom and happy times. No small vexations ever teased nor crushing sorrows dimmed her prime. One care alone, her father felt : Where should he find a fitting mate for one so pure ?
His thoughts long dwelt on this, as with his queen when he would query aloud, “Ah… whom, dear wife, should we elect to husband our lovely daughter, take forward our lustrious heritage, and couple best along her conjugal destiny ?”
“Leave it to God,” she’d say. “Savitri may herself elect some day her future lord and guide.”
Months passed, and lo, one summer morn Savitri went visiting the hermitage, through smiling fields of waving corn, when she saw some youths intensely engaged in their sport. They were all hermit sons and peers. One among them was tall and lithe, and royal of port. Age had lent to him a grace so blithe and the nobility he bore struck such as the eye was loathe to quit the sun-tanned face of his. She looked and looked, then gave a sigh and moved on, but not without feeling a drag upon her heart that instantly slackened her pace.
What was the meaning of what she had felt just then, she thought. “Is this love that draws me towards him, though I would not dare to look back ? Is it that strange happening which poets have often sung of : love at first sight ?”
Heaven itself was witness, her heart had found its own in a flash. We play, we jest, we have no care, when hark a step, there comes no crash but life is set persistently aflutter. Savitri entered a friendly hermit’s hut. In her conversation with the gray-haired sage she learnt the story of the youth : he was of a royal lineage, his father was Dyumatsen, king of Salva, and Satyavan was his name. The king became old and blind, and had weakened enough for his opponents to snatch the royal sceptre from his hand. Now, with his queen and only son, he lived a gentle hermit’s life.
The story she heard overwhelmed her young heart with sadness, and tears rolled down her cheeks though she willed them not. However, every time she heard of Prince Satyavan, she felt a strange swell that flushed her flesh.
Soon, she had to leave for her home but, as even she did, she felt she was leaving something of herself behind, to regain which she would have return at the earliest the next day. On the way back, she saw a special ray of light from heavens had tinged all objects with suparnal glow : thatches had a rainbow fringe to them and the corn growing the fields seemed more green and golden.