Savitri's Love - From The Maha-Bharata
( Originally Published 1939 )
Now, there was a king in India, whose name was Aswapati (As-wa-pah-tee), and his people loved him, for he gave help to all in need, and he served the shining gods in prayer and sacrifice.
But he had no son or daughter in whom his name and line could live on, when the time came for him to die, and his heart was grieved, and he fasted oft, and said hymns to the shining gods, and burned offerings on their holy altar, and hoped they would grant him the gift he asked. When sixteen years had thus passed, his prayer was heard. In the red fire of the altar he beheld a Iady of fair Iook and ways, and she said to him:
"Thy faith hath pleased me, 0 Raja, and if thou wilt say thy desire, it shall be given thee."
"Goddess," replied the king, "my wish is to have a child to live after me."
"The Lord of heaven," she said, "will grant thee what thou hast prayed."
She was gone and the Raja saw only the red flame.
A babe was born a girl, with bright eyes, bright like the lotus lily, as the Indian people say and she was the glory of her mother and father. She grew to be so sweet a maid that her father made sure that kings would come from far and near to seek her as a wife. But none came, for she the lotus-eyed had a soul that seemed too great for even kings, and her serious ways and speech kept men in awe.
Now, one day, this maid of grace Savitri (Sah-vee-tree) by name had knelt at the altar of Agni, god of the red flame, and had laid there an offering of cakes and drink. Then she took up a bunch of flowers in the holy place, and came and gave them to her sire, Aswapati. He gazed upon her with tender eyes and said:
"Daughter, it is time you should be wed after the manner of high-born Iadies, lest folk should think that I am at fault in not choosing a husband for you. And since no man comes to pay suit to you I pray you go where you will and choose for yourself."
So she bowed herself before her sire, and took her leave, and rode in a splendid car along with elders and wise men, whom the king had told to go with her up and down the land. The car passed through forests and along the streets of great towns, and among the hamlets of the hills, and wherever she went the princess gave alms to the poor and greetings to the high and low, and the people blessed her.
At last she came back and the Raja was on his
throne, and the wise man, Narad, sat at his side.
"Father," she said, "I have done as you bade, and I have found my choice. It is the Prince Satyavan. Prince he is, yet he dwells not in a royal house."
"Wherefore," asked the Raja.
"He has no kingdom, and lives in a cottage in the woods with his father and mother. A noble pair are they, but sad is their lot. The old man is blind, and he and his queen have had their home many years, ever since their son was a babe, in this jungle, for enemies drove them from their kingdom, and took from the king his rightful throne. My prince is noble, and his name shows what he is, for at his birth the Brahmans called him Truth lover. Gay and strong is he, and a rider of horses, and his hand has a gift for painting horses in pictures that are a wonder to see."
"What think you?" asked the king of Narad, the wise.
"Alas!" answered Narad, "ill has she, chosen? The old king indeed is a just man, and the Prince Satyavan is a noble youth, but there is a dark fate that waits for him, for it has been shown to me by the shining gods that in a year from this very day he shall die."
"Hear you that, my daughter?" cried the king. "0 choose some other, choose some other, for the Lord of Death, even Yama, will come in a year and claim your husband for his own. Choose some other.
"I can choose none other, father dear," said the maid. "To Satyavan alone is my heart given, and though Death will take him in a year, yet him only will I wed."
"Let it be so, child," sighed the Raja. "Strange will your bridal be. You will have your home in the wilderness, and in twelve months be Ieft a mourner."
The king and his courtiers and priests set forth to the woods, carrying with them much treasure, and they found the blind old king seated on a grass mat beside a sal tree.
Be seated, sir!" said the blind Raja, when he knew that a king had come to see him.
So Aswapati sat on the grass mat, and the blind king offered him water from a jar, for he was poor, and had neither wine nor silver cups. And the two kings agreed upon the marriage, and soon the prince and the maid were wed in the forest, and when she was made lady of the little cot among the trees of the jungle, her sire kissed her with many tears, and her friends said farewells, and they departed. As soon as they were gone, she took off her jewels and sparkling dress, and she put on a plain robe made of bark of trees, and a cloak of yellow cloth. Her queenhood was not in her jewels or her dress, but in her kind soul and the sweet service she did to the blind old king and his wife, and in the love she bore to the prince of her choice.
So passed the happy year, and only four days more would go by ere the Shadow of Death would glide into the forest kingdom of her Iord, and take him from her arms. For three days she fasted and she had no sleep, and her heart was in pain at the dread of that which was to come. But Satyavan, the noble prince, knew naught of the fate that waited for his life.
On the morning of the last day rose Satyavan, in blithe mood, and he took his woodsman's axe for felling trees, and said, smiling:
"Dear wife, I go forth to hew down trees, and at set of sun, I shall be home again."
Her heart smote her at the words, for she knew that the black-robed Yama would lay his thin hand upon her love and take him hence.
"I will go with you this day," she said.
"Nay," he cried, "the ground is rough for your feet, and the way will be long, and you will be faint."
"Let me go, Satyavan," begged the princess in the robe of bark.
He said her nay no more, and they walked to the distant spot where grew the trees he meant to fell, and the wild fruit that she would gather in her basket.
The hour of noon had passed, and the dusk was creeping upon the great forest. The sound of the axe echoed in the grove. Basket in hand, Savitri plucked ripe berries from the shrubs, but often and often she paused and she looked at the woodcutter, and she looked again...
"Oh, wife," he called.
She ran to his side and set her basket down.
"My head, my head! A pang shoots sharp through my brain. Hot is my blood. I must lie down."
She sat beneath a tree and laid his head upon her lap, and fanned his face. His eyes were closed, his pulse was slow, and now it was still.
The year had flown.
Before her stood a tall shadow that had the shape of a man, and its robe was black, and a red light was in its eyes, and a crown was on its head.
"Are you one of the holy gods?" she asked in a low voice.
"Lady," it said, " I am Yama, the Lord of Death, and I am come for the prince you love."
He lifted his hand, and in it was a cord, and he flung the cord, and lo!it caught the life of the prince in its noose, and drew it from his bosom, and Satyavan was dead, and Death turned its face towards the south, for the south (so the Indian fables tell) was its kingdom.
Dark was the jungle.
Strong was Death.
But the woman was brave.
She rose up and followed in the steps of Deatn. Presently the black god, hearing her footsteps, turned and spoke:
"Go back. You have come far from home. Go back, and do those sad rites in which mourners show their sorrow for the dead."
"I must go," she replied, "where my husband goes. That is my duty. The wise men say that to walk seven steps with another makes them friends. So Iet me walk more than seven steps with you. And the wise men also say that the best road to walk is that of right."
"Well have you convinced me," said the Lord of Death, "and in return for the good words, I promise that, except the soul of Satyavan, I will give you what you will."
"Then give me a gift for my prince's father, and Iet the eyes of the old king once more behold the light of day, and let his strength be as the strength of the sun."
"It shall be done," said Death; "but now you must turn back, for you have far to go ; and my way leads only to Doom."
"I shall never be weary of the way that my husband goes. There is no sweeter fruit on earth than the company of those we love."
The black god smiled, for her words were good and precious.
"Once again, I wiII give you a gift, except the soul of Satyavan."
"Thanks again, 0 Death; and now I will ask that the kingdom of the old Raja shall be restored to him, so that he may have his Iand as well as his sight."
"Lady, it shall happen as you wish. And now go back. The forest is wide, and home is distant."
"Master of Death, hear me once more. What is the goodness of the good man? Is it kindness to all things in earth, air or sea? It is indeed, and even if the enemy seeks help, the good man will be ready to grant him aid."
"Fair is your saying, princess; and for these blessed words I will promise yet another boon. Speak."
"0 Death, I would be mother to noble children, and teach them to walk in the steps of their dear father, Satyavan. Give me my prince."
Then Yama, King of Death, shook the cord that he held in his hand.
"Lady, your husband shall reign long years with you, and your sons shall reign after you."
The dark shade that wore the crown had floated into the gloom of the jungle.
With quick feet she ran. Breathless, she flew. And when she reached the tree under which the body of Satyavan lay, she knelt, she placed the head on her lap, she watched; and the eyes opened, and the lips said :
" I have slept a long time. Just as I was falling into slumber, I seemed to see a vision of a shadow that seized my very life in a magic noose, and bore it away I know not where."
"It was Yama, Lord of Death. But he is not here. Rise, Satyavan, for it is night, and we must go home."
"Ah!" he said, "now I call to mind that a sharp pang shot through my brow.
"Tomorrow let us talk of what has happened today. Let us go.
"The night is dark. We could not find the path."
"Look!" she said, "some way off a fire has been burning today in the forest the work of the blazing sun at midday, perhaps. I will fetch a brand, and we wiII wave it as we walk, so as to scare away the beasts of the jungle. Or, if you will, let us stay here till your pain is all gone."
"It has gone, Savitri. I am strong again. My father and mother will grieve at our absence."
As he thought of his blind father (ah! but was he blind now?) the prince's eyes filled with tears.
So he sprang to his feet, and brushed off the dry leaves that clung to his clothes.
"There is your basket of fruit," he cried.
"Fetch it tomorrow, Satyavan. We have enough to do to find our way in the dark. But I will carry the axe."
She carried the axe in her left hand, and her right arm was about his waist; and his left arm was about her neck; and so they wended their way through the jungle; nor did bear or tiger harm them.
The sky was becoming grey when they reached the hamlet where the old king and queen and their few companions lived. They heard voices crying eagerly. A shout arose when the prince and princess were seen.
"My children!" cried the king.
"Father!" exclaimed Satyavan. "How is this? You were able to see me?"
"My son, my eyes can see once more. I know not how the marvel came about, but I do know I can see my son. And you, dear Savitri, for the first time can I now look upon my faithful daughter!"
After he had held them for some moments, and gazed at them both with joy, he asked:
"And where have you been all the night? Tell me, Satyavan, what kept you so long?"
"Father," said Savitri, "he does not know all that took place in the night. Let me tell the tale."
So they sat down king, queen, prince, princess, and their comrades and loyal friends, and the soft voice of Savitri told :
How they wandered in the forest;
How the curse had been foretold by Narad, the sage, and how it must be fulfilled at the end of the year;
How Satyavan died;
How Death came;
And how she had followed Death and what had been said.
Now, while the king and his friends thus listened, and their hearts were moved by the story, a great noise was heard in the forest. Along the glade they saw a crowd of people approach soldiers, officers, citizens.
"News, good news!" the people cried. "The tyrant who took the throne by unjust means and cruel power has been overthrown. Come back to us, dear king. Blind though you are, you shall at least know that we gather round you in true service."
"Thanks be to the shining gods, my people," said the old king, " I can see you all; and I will go with you, and see my kingdom once again."