There was once a noble young princess called Savitri who was to be married. Her father, King Ashwapati of Madras, asked if she would like to choose her own husband. Thus, Savitri took a royal entourage and travelled far and wide. She visited kingdoms and the sacred forest homes of the sages to give gifts and receive blessings.
When Savitri returned to her father’s palace she found him talking with the great sage Narada Muni. She told them of a young man named Satyavan whom she had seen living in the forest. Satyavan was son of Dyumatsena, an old blind king who had been deposed by enemies. Savitri meekly revealed that she had given her heart to Satyavan, who had shown exemplary strength and character.
Narada Muni, who was expert in astrology, elaborated on the honourable character of Satyavan and his family, but then shared other information that was very upsetting.
“Dear king, Satyavan is a perfect match for your daughter. He is kind, generous, strong, handsome and intelligent. But it is predicted that he will die one year from today.”
The king wanted Savitri to change her mind but she remained steadfast.
“Just as death comes once, so a person gives away their heart only once,” she said.
Seeing his daughter so resolute, the king met Satyavan’s family and soon the couple were wed. Savitri and Satyavan began a happy life together. They loved each other dearly. Savitri also took care of her elderly parents-in-law and brought joy to their hearts. But she always remembered Narada Muni’s prediction in quiet distress. She couldn’t speak of it because no one else knew. She performed many fasts and religious activities to protect her husband.
On the fateful day of Satyavan’s predicted death, Savitri insisted that she accompany him into the forest. After collecting fruit, Satyavan began chopping branches but soon paused, feeling unnaturally out of breath.
“Dear wife, I feel weary. My head throbs and every part of me aches. I can hardly stand up. I think I will go to sleep for a while,” he said.
Savitri felt sheer dread in her heart. She knelt by her husband and gently rested his head on her lap. As she watched her husband’s body slowly become lifeless, she saw a sinister figure walking through the trees towards them.
The man was frightening. He was dressed in a red robe, wore a shining crown and carried a noose and a club. His eyes were fiery red and shone brightly against his dark skin. He gazed over Satyavan without noticing Savitri; she trembled and asked who he was.
Startled, the stranger said, “I am Yama Deva, the Lord of Death. No one alive has ever seen me or talked to me. You must be able to do this because you have performed many religious sacrifices. I have come personally to take away this prince’s soul because he was of such excellent character. Now my lady, please go and perform the proper funeral rituals. Your relation and obligations towards this man are now over.”
Savitri was aghast as she watched Yama Deva fasten his noose around the soul and pull it out of Satyavan’s body. Her husband’s body instantly became dull and limp, losing its brightness.
Yama Deva began walking southwards. A few steps on, he looked back and was shocked to see Savitri following him. He ordered her to go home but Savitri told him she would faithfully follow her husband as she had done since marriage. Appreciating her virtuous character (and in an attempt to send her home), Yama Deva offered to fulfil any wish that Savitri had, except to restore Satyavan’s life.
“Please let my father-in-law regain his sight and strength,” she asked.
Yama Deva agreed and turned to continue his journey.
A few steps further, he was taken aback to see Savitri was still behind him.
“Dear lady, do you not understand that I am taking your husband’s soul to my court where I will decide his next birth?” he said.
“It is my duty to seek the protection of saintly people so I will stay near my husband’s soul,” she said.
Yama Deva was again impressed and offered her another boon.
“Please let my father-in-law regain his kingly power and position.”
Hoping to shake off Savitri, Yama Deva gladly agreed but was astounded to find her still walking behind him.
“You cannot possibly come one step further. I am taking Satyavan to a dark and terrible place. You do not belong in that realm of death,” insisted Yama Deva.
“For me, everything in the world is dead without my husband. I will go wherever he goes. You are the virtuous lord of justice and give protection to all,” replied Savitri.
Pleased with Savitri’s courage and loyalty to her husband, the demigod offered her one last boon. She could have anything except her husband back.
“Then please let my father-in-law see my son raised as the future king,” said the princess.
Yama Deva agreed and turned to go when Savitri called him and gently said, “Lord, you have been so kind and generous to grant my wish, but how can I have a son without my husband?”
The Lord of Death was taken aback.
“My dear lady,” he said, “you have defeated me and indeed I must return life to your husband. What’s more, I am extremely pleased with the love and devotion you have shown him. The goodness of a pure soul can move the Supreme Lord to intervene and adjust circumstances and I can see that he wishes a long and happy life for you both.
“Go back home Savitri, for I have freed your husband. You both will flourish for four hundred years. Your husband will perform many sacrifices and attain great renown. Together, you will have powerful celebrated sons and all your families will live happily.”
Yama Deva gave his final blessings and disappeared. Back in the forest, Savitri lifted Satyavan’s head on her lap. With prayers of gratitude, she watched him gain consciousness again.