The earliest source referring to Savitri and her accomplishments is found in the Van Parva, Forest Book, of the Mahabharat. Pandavas were spending their twelve-year exile in the forests. Various sages visited Pandavas during this period and narrated motivating stories to soothe their feelings over their misfortune.
Once sage Markandey visited Pandavas after Draupadi was freed from king Jayadrath who had abducted her during their absence. Yudhishthir recounted the tale of their tribulations and told him about the incidence of Draupadi’s abduction. Markandey narrated the story of Ram who was exiled for fourteen years. His wife Sita was abducted in the forest. Ram recovered her, returned home and eventually became a king. Ram had only one brother with him in the forest. His conditions were harsher than that of Pandavas.
Yudhishthir noted that he was not grieving for himself or brothers but for Draupadi who was subjected to unforgiving treatments. Subsequently Markandey narrated the story of princess Savitri who endured challenging tasks and situations. She overcame them and attained all the greatness that wellborn women might aspire to.
There was a king named Ashvapati who ruled over Madra, an ancient kingdom in India. He was merciful, truthful and devoted to the wellbeing of all creatures in his kingdom. He was childless and longed for progeny to fulfil his obligations to his ancestors as per tradition. He performed severe penance and offered oblations with recitation of Savitri Mantra, also known as Gayatri Mantra, to acquire his progeny. After a long period of penance, goddess Savitri became pleased with his devotion and appeared before the king in person.
Goddess Savitri is the daughter of the solar deity Savitur. She and Gayatri are identified as consorts of Brahma. The goddess offered the king to ask for a boon. The king requested her to bless him with offspring. The goddess conceded that the king would soon have a magnificent daughter and promised that his wish would be fulfilled.
Soon the queen Malava, wife of Ashvapati, became pregnant and in due course delivered a baby girl. As the baby was born as a result of the boon from goddess Savitri, the king named the baby, Savitri. Savitri grew up with time and attained a resplendent form with all the splendours of an intelligent princess.
When Savitri reached a marriageable age, despite her extraordinary beauty and attributes, there were no proposals for marriage from suitable candidates. Suitable princes were shy of her beauty and accomplishments, and did not dare to approach her or her parents to ask for her hand. Savitri’s parents became worried about her future.
One day Savitri came to the king’s court to pay him respect. After traditional civilities, the king introduced the issue of her marriage. Savitri opted to select her husband herself, following the system of Svayamvar, a recognised process for a woman to choose her husband. The king consented to her choice and arranged for her travel to various regions to select a suitable spouse. Savitri supported by priests and assistants left in search of her potential partner.
Sometime later, when the roaming sage Narad was with the king Ashvapati, Savitri returned home after completion of her mission and presented herself to the king. Looking at the princess, Narad enquired about the actions being taken to arrange her matrimonial relationship. Ashvapati spoke to him about her trip and asked Savitri to describe the progress of her journey in detail.
Savitri told them that she had found a proper person for marriage. His name was Satyavan, and he lived in a forest with his parents. His father Dyumatsen was a king of Shalva kingdom. When Satyavan was still a child, his father lost his sight. A bordering king, former enemy of Dyumatsen, attacked the blind king and seized power from him. Dyumatsen along with his wife and infant son took shelter in the forest, where they practiced austerity. Now Satyavan, born in a palace and raised in a forest hermitage, was available for marriage.
Hearing her account, Narad became apprehensive. The king asked Narad about the reason for his anxiety. Narad said that Savitri had unknowingly erred. The king suspected that Satyavan might lack attributes necessary to be a partner of Savitri. He requested Narad to elaborate further. Narad described Satyavan’s attributes, which were highly noble. He said, “Satyavan has the ardour of the sun. He is Brihaspati’s equal in intelligence. He is as brave as Indra and as forbearing as the earth.” Narad also listed other qualities that Satyavan possessed. Then the king asked Narad about Satyavan’s weaknesses. Narad said that his one and only weakness that undermined his strength was his short life. Satyavan would die in one year from now.
The king was alarmed and along with Narad asked Savitri to reconsider and nominate another person for groom. Savitri refused to change her decision. Finally the king conceded and gave her his blessing to marry Satyavan. To formalise the relationship, the king visited Dyumatsen in his forest hermitage and confirmed Savitri’s wedding with Satyavan. The wedding of Savitri and Satyavan was solemnised in the forest with royal rituals.
Ashvapati offered gifts to his daughter appropriate to his position. After the wedding, Savitri began living with her husband and in-laws in their forest hermitage. She discarded her royal jewelleries and dresses, and embraced plain and rough clothes. She performed her duties diligently. Despite being busy with chores of family responsibilities, she remained always conscious of Narad’s prediction about her husband’s death.
As time passed and the expected date for her husband’s death remained only three days away, Savitri requested permission from Satyavan and in-laws to fast, chant prayers and observe mental and physical purity. They agreed. She took vows to perform her penance for the welfare of her husband and observed fast for three days.
When three day fasting was over, her husband and in-laws insisted that she should ingest fluids and food. She declined to break her fast and convinced them that she would eat and drink after sunset that day. This was the predicted day of Satyavan’s death and this impending event tormented her.
In the morning, Satyavan started for the forest to collect eatable roots and fruits and firewood for the family. Savitri was worried about him and did not wish to leave him alone. She followed him into the forest. In the forest, Satyavan collected eatables and then started splitting wood near a Banyan tree for fuel. Suddenly he felt extreme pain in his chest and fell to the ground unconscious. Savitri went to him and started massaging him to soothe his pain.
As she was helping Satyavan, Savitri noticed a terrifying person with red eyes and noose in hand coming towards her husband. She asked him to identify himself, as his form was not of a common human being. He responded in a human voice that he did not normally talk to creatures, but had made an exception in her case due to her moral purity. He introduced himself as Yamaraj, the lord of death, and told her that he had come to take away Satyavan’s life. Normally his assistants performed this task but as Satyavan was righteous, handsome and virtuous, Yamaraj himself had come. Yamaraj tied Satyavan’s life in the noose and started toward the direction of his realm. Savitri followed him.
Yamaraj noticed her behind him. He asked her to return to her husband and perform his funeral rites. Savitri responded by stating that it was her Dharma to follow her husband. As Yamaraj was taking away her husband’s life, she needed to follow him. Yamaraj became very pleased with her intention and told her to request a boon, other than the return of her husband’s life. Savitri requested that her father-in-law regain his eyesight and become as mighty as the blazing sun.
Yamaraj accepted her request and advised her to turn back as she was already very tired. Savitri responded that she could not be tired when she was near her husband. She said, “It is known that even a single meeting with a virtuous person is greatly desired, but she was blessed with friendship and marriage with such a person.”
Yamaraj said, “Your speech pleases my heart and enhances the wisdom of wise. Choose a second boon, other than the life of Satyavan.” Savitri asked that her father-in-law regain his lost kingdom and never stray from Dharma.
Yamaraj conceded to her request and asked her to turn back. Savitri said, “All beings on earth are governed by you and your ordinances and it is by ordinance that you take them away. The eternal Dharma of the virtuous is to do no harm to any creature by deed, thought and word, and practice kindness and generosity. Mostly people follow this according to their capability, but it is only the virtuous people, who show compassion even to their enemies.”
Yamaraj said, “Your words are to my ears like water to a thirsty person. Choose a further boon, other than the life of Satyavan. Savitri answered, “My father has no son. May my father be blessed with sons to continue his patriarchal lineage.
Yamaraj granted her this request and asked her to return as she had now travelled far. Savitri replied that she was not far when she was close to her husband. She requested Yamaraj to listen and said, “You are a mighty son of Vivasvan. You are known on earth as Vaivasvat and Dharmaraj. People trust virtuous people even more than they trust themselves. Everyone desires the friendship of the virtuous.
Yamaraj said, “I have never heard such words as you have spoken. Choose a fourth boon, other than the life of your husband.” Savitri requested, “May numerous sons be born to Satyavan and myself.” Yamaraj bequeathed the requested boon and patiently asked her to return.
Savitri again lauded the importance of virtues and Dharma. Yamaraj felt obliged to grant her another boon of her choice. Savitri responded, “Please return life to Satyavan. To make your fourth boon true, my husband has to be alive.” Yamaraj realised the import and approved her request and released Satyavan’s life from his noose. He said to Savitri, “Lady, you are delight of your family. I have released your husband. He will have a long life and you will have sons with him.”
Having secured her husband’s life, Savitri returned to where Satyavan had fallen on the ground. As she touched him, Satyavan regained consciousness. He opened his eyes as if he awoke from sleep. It was already late in the night and they hurried back to their hermitage. Dyumatsen and his wife were relieved after seeing their son and daughter-in-law safely returned.
Soon Dyumatsen regained his eyesight and his kingdom. King Ashvapati was blessed with sons. Satyavan and Savitri became parents of many sons. After his father, Satyavan ruled his kingdom for a long period.
Sage Markandey concluded the story by telling Yudhishthir that Savitri rescued herself, her parents, parents-in-law and her husband from calamity. In the same way Draupadi, like Savitri, is also a highborn woman renowned for her character, and she would save you all. The story demonstrates the importance of having patience, hope and caring attitude.
The story of Savitri has become a part of Hindu tradition and is celebrated as the Vat-Savitri festival. Women perform rituals during this festival for the welfare and long life of their husband. They fast, worship Vat or Banyan tree and tie a sacred thread around it. They also listen to the story of Savitri. Venerating the banyan tree also exhibits the significance of plants and trees in our lives. The celebration continues over three days in the Vikram Samvat calendar month of Jyestha (May–June). Observance of this festival highlights the determination, courage, devotion and love for her family displayed by a woman.