Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Death and the Wishes

True heroism is not a thing which only resides on the field of war, in the face of oppression, or in the words of great speakers. It can manifest all around us, every day, in the most startling form, from the most unexpected of people. Here is the story of a woman, who through her devotion and virtue, overcame the last enemy that will be defeated, death.

Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
A long time ago, in the forgotten kingdom of Madra, a land in the north western reaches of India, there lived a young princess. Savitri, as she was called, was a most unusual princess. Whilst the other girls of the court made merry in the palace, dancing and enjoying themselves, Savitri was quite the opposite. A shy, studious and intelligent girl, Savitri preferred to read and hear the stories of the great sagas of the past over song and dance. Indeed, Savitri's father, old King Ashwapati, began to grow concerned for his daughter. For she had now turned eighteen, the age when most princesses had to marry, and none had come to make a proposal. The old King cared dearly for his daughter, remembering all too well how precious a gift she was, for many years ago, the ascetic King had longed for a child. Savitr, god of the sun, was impressed by the King's ascetic lifestyle, and the many offerings he faithfully made. Coming to the King in a dream, he promised him a daughter. Nine months later, the Queen gave birth to Savitri. Lost in his memories for a moment, the King suggested to Savitri that she seek out a suitor. Savitri gently declined. She was not yet ready, she told him. First she must embark on her travels, learning from the holy men who walked the land and praying at the sacred shrines so that she may grow closer to the Righteous Spirit. The old King reminded her that she was eighteen, and that it was expected of her. With a laugh, Savitri reasoned that if she found no one on her travels, he could arrange something on her return. Satisfied, King Ashwapati agreed, and Savitri set out into the wilderness.

Casting aside all the panoply of royalty, and the luxuries of the court, Savitri wandered through the land. Hearing the teachings of the holy men, seeking only the simplest foods for sustenance, and sleeping under the stars, she was a model of temperance, and none could have guessed for a moment when looking upon her that she was a princess at all.

Image taken from an 18th century painting - artist unknown
For a year the young princess lived the ascetic life, until one day, she found herself walking in a great forest. Just then a heavy thud rent the air. Savitri turned to see the source of the disturbance, and saw before her a man chopping wood. Savitri was intrigued by the man, for though he bore an axe in one hand, and a stack of firewood in the other, there was something in his bearing, an indescribable essence of nobility. The man's clothes were threadbare, and his appearance rugged, yet Savitri could not help wondering whether this man was like herself - perhaps high born once? Consumed by curiosity, and something else, Savitri approached the woodsman, and asked him of his past. Laying aside the heavy axe, and wiping the sweat from his brow, the kindly man introduced himself as Satyavan. He told an enraptured Savitri that he had once been raised in a palace, waited on by a vast array of courtiers. His father was the King of that domain, but as he grew old in body, he had lost his sight. Seizing advantage of this disability, the courtiers had conspired and schemed and deceived. Satyavan confessed his sorrow that he himself was not old enough to protect his father, as he was overthrown and his kingdom seized. Banished and exiled, Satyavan and his father now lived in the forest, and Satyavan was cutting wood to take back to his father in the hut. Savitri was utterly enthralled by Satyavan, and hung on to every word as the unfortunate woodsman finished his tale.

Some time later, with much jubilation, Savitri returned to the palace of her father King Ashwapati. The old King was overjoyed to see her again, and even more astonished when she told him of her choice of husband. Turning to Narada, a wise and holy man whose travels had brought him to court, the King asked him of Satyavan. "Is he a good man?" the King asked. "Yes", replied the sage. "Is he strong in body, and wondrous to behold?" the King asked. "He is magnanimous like Yayati, and beautiful like the Moon", Narada replied. Ashwapati was delighted, but the old prophet had one, devastating, revelation:

     "He hath only one defect, and no other. Within a year from this day, Satyavan,
      endued with a short life will cast off his body..."
                                          - NARADA FORETELLS SATYAVAN'S DOOM

Yama - The God of Death
Image taken from a mid 17th to early 18th
century Tibetan piece - artist unknown
Dismayed, the King reluctantly requested Savitri to choose another, lest she live a life of sorrow and grief. For if there was one being on Heaven or Earth who always kept his promise, it was the god of death. Undeterred, Savitri was adamant "With a life short or long, possessed of virtues or bereft of them, I have, for once, selected my husband". The old sage was humbled by her devotion, and applauded the King for having such a noble daughter. Attempts to dissuade her will be fruitless, Narada told the King, but be thankful for the time they will have. Honoured, but uneasy, the King gave his permission, and the Savitri and Satyavan were wed. Abandoning her precious jewels and majestic silks once again, Savitri went to live with Satyavan, happily wed, in the forest with his father. Savitri never spoke of the the macabre prophecy she had heard to husband, but not a day went by when she did not remember it. After some months, their tranquillity was absolute, and Savitri prayed that Death would not come. But Death never breaks his promise.

Summer came, and the sun rose high in the sky, heralding a year to the day since Savitri had returned to her father. The grass was dappled with golden light, and the sky a brilliant blue. Satyavan had gone out to cut some wood for his father, and Savitri was singing merrily to him. For a while, Savitri began to wonder, perhaps the prophecy would not come true after all? The thought of it welled up inside her. Just then, Satyavan stopped, putting a hand to his head. The axe fell to the floor with a thud, and Satyavan complained of dizziness. He staggered, and, terror flooding through her, Savitri ran to him. Tears streamed from her eyes, as Satyavan fell, and his head came to rest in her lap. Looking up, she saw a cloud pass in front of the face of the sun, and the glade was plunged into shadow. Time seemed to stand still, and the land was thrown into eerie silence. Death never breaks his promise.

Savitri pleads with Death
Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
Not a sound pierced the silence. No wind in the trees, no birdsong. With a start, Savitri looked back and saw a figure standing over them. Clad in robes the colour of blood, with dark skin stretched tightly over his visible bones, Death stood in deafening silence, his crimson eyes fixed on Satyavan. Savitri, ravaged with grief, saw in one withered hand that he carried a noose. Death never breaks his promise. Desperate for any chance that what had been foretold might never come to pass, Savitri, shaking with fright, asked the horrifying apparition who he was. Death turned slowly to face her, and spoke. Savitri was surprised, for Death spoke with a voice that seemed musical, both distant and close. "Oh Savitri, thou art ever devoted to thy husband, and thou art also endorsed with ascetic merit. It is for this reason that I hold converse with thee". Death continued, and told the weeping Savitri that he was indeed Yama - the god of death. Since Satyavan was a model of virtue and a wonder to behold, Death himself had come to claim him. Leaning slowly forward, his robes billowing in an ethereal wind, Death claimed Satyavan's soul and bound it in the noose. Turning, Death ambled southwards, his latest soul borne effortlessly in his skeletal hand. Just then, a crack rent the silence, as a twig snapped. Death turned, and saw Savitri following him:

  " Desist, O Savitri! Go back, and perform the funeral obsequies of thy lord!
    Thou art freed from all obligations to thy lord.
    Thou hast come as far as it is possible to come"
                        - DEATH WARNS SAVITRI NOT TO FOLLOW 

Savitri refused to leave Satyavan. Death, impressed by her devotion, and that any mortal would choose to follow the god of death, offered her one wish, provided that she not ask for the life of her husband. Savitri tearfully told Death of her father-in-law, how fortune had deprived him of his sight, and asked that Death restore his sight. "It is done", Death declared, warning her to come no further. Death continued his march through the forest, as the shadow grew darker, and the silence heavier. A rustle sounded in the bushes. Death turned and saw Savitri there once again. At once angered and warmed, Death asked if she was not weary from taking this road. "What weariness can I feel in the presence of my husband?" Savitri replied, refusing to leave his side. As much to be rid of her as to reward her admirable loyalty, Death granted her a second wish, provided that she not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri told Death of the betrayal her father-in-law had fallen afoul of, his throne usurped by cruel men. Savitri asked Death if he would restore her father-in-law to his rightful throne, and that his fortunes might be whole again. "It is done", Death commanded, impressed once more at the selflessness of Savitri, "Do thou now desist! Return! Do not take any future trouble". For the third time, Death turned South, and continued on the road to shadow. For an age he marched slowly on, as the forest grew wilder, the shadow darker and the silence louder.

The Redemption of Satyavan
Painting by Mahadev Dhurandar
Death turned once again, and found Savitri still there. Incandescent, Death offered her a third wish, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri replied "that lord of Earth, my father, is without sons. That he may have a hundred sons begotten of his loins, so that his line may be perpetuated, is the third wish I would ask of thee". "It is done", Death commanded, and for the third time he bid her leave. But Savatri refused to abandon Satyavan. Since Savitri had wished only for others, Death offered her a fourth wish, but this time, one for her, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. "Both of me and Satyavan's loins, begotten by both of us, let there be a century of sons possessed of strength and prowess". "It is a good wish, and it shall be done", Death commanded, turning to face her fully for the first time. Savitri steadfastly refused to depart her husband, for "The righteous are never cheerless in the company of the righteous". At last, moved by her unwavering devotion and virtue, Death joyfully spoke "Oh thou that art so devoted to thy lord, ask for some incomparable boon!". This time, Savitri smiled. For Death had promised her and Satyavan a hundred sons, yet how could this come true if was in Death's grasp? "Beyond all other wishes, I ask for this, may Satyavan be restored to life!" Savitri cried. Death smiled, and happily declared that all she had wished for would come true. Unravelling the noose, Death released Satyavan, declaring that Savitri's father-in-law sight restored, his usurper defeated, and his fortunes high once more. Her father would beget a line of a hundred sons, whose might would be known throughout the world. Her and Satyavan would live for four hundred years, and beget a noble line, spoken of far and wide. Bidding them a warm farewell, Death departed, and the cloud lifted, the sun shone and the birds sang once again. Satyavan opened his eyes, and Savitri wept with happiness...

The tale of Savitri and Death is an ancient one. It can be found in it's entirety in a book known as the Mahābhārata. An ancient work of literature from India, the Mahābhārata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Rāmāyana). With a story dating to at least the ninth century BC, the Mahābhārata is one of the cornerstones of human literature, and being ten times longer than both the Homeric epics combined, it is a gargantuan mine of stories, set against one dramatic war story. The story of Savitri can be found in Book Three of the Mahābhārata, but do not let it's length intimidate. It is quite possible to dip in and out of it - there are plenty of short stories throughout it, of which you have just read one. So why not give it a go? For a work so truly titanic in scale, it is easily obtained for a very good price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

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