Satyavan & Savitri



Of all the love stories in Hindu scriptures, the story of Satyavan and Savitri is one of the most wonderful and very human. 

Savitri, the only daughter of an aged king, falls in love with Satyavan, a hermit prince who is destitute but devastatingly handsome.  Savitri, though knowing that Satyavan had only a year to live, wants to marry him and shares his poverty and hard life in the forest.   

Till now, the story is one of normal Bollywood fare – a beautiful, wilful, spoilt daughter (baday bap ki beti) of a typically compliant father falls for a handsome blue collar hunk.  Every actor from Raj-kumar to Hritik Roshan has acted well in that part of the story.  Typically, though not always in an Indian movie, the father abandons the girl to a life of grinding poverty as this is her choice !  He could have taken the married couple home and made Satyavan his “ghar-jamai” (plenty of Indian movie directors have taken that route).  Ashwapati was “filthy” rich, he could have made his new damaad just a little “dirty” rich !  But no !!  But, like a cold hearted father, he lets her rot in the jungle, returning to his vast, but empty palace.  (You can almost hear the heavy foot-steps on marble stairs). 


Now here is where the story changes from scripture to screen.


On the fatal day, Savitri accompanies Satyavan to the forest and watches him die in her lap.  (tissues and handkerchiefs come out to wipe away eyes wet with tears and noses dripping sympathetically)

Instead of the usual Bollywood song and drama about “Hey Bhagvan, ye tumne kya kiya ?  Meri khushi kyo chhin lee ? etc etc etc ”  (Basically blaming God for ruining the only bit of joy she had in her life), Savitri gets up, gently lays down his head on the forest floor (scripture is very clear about the “gentle” part – actresses beware) and follows her husband’s soul.  Savitri follows the God of death because she has done enough austerities to be able to see and feel the God of Death – Yama.  (even Bollywood directors couldn’t have been bolder !)  

Yama, surprised at being followed, that too willingly, by a soul, turns around and asks her to go back.  The dead have no ties to the living, he reminds her.  He advises her to carry out the death rituals for Satyavan to find her own closure on this relationship and move on with life.

Savitri, typically female, avoids the topic and charms Yama by calling him a “friend”.  Anyone who accompanies you beyond seven steps is your friend, she reminds him and speaks sweetly about various intellectual, philosophical and religious topics.  Disarmed by being called a “friend” by a mortal for the first time, Yama listens to her and during their journey, one by one, grants her five favours.  Wise and gracious Savitri first asks for the good health of her father-in-law.  What else but good health can you ask from the God of Death !  It is such an easy win, Yama wants to grant his new-found-friend another boon.  She now asks for her father-in-laws kingdom to be restored to him.  On the third occasion, she asks for her father’s linage to be carried on by sons of his own loins.  (once again, scripture is very clear about her future brothers being sired by her own father !  Thus ensuring his long life and good health.)

Charmed by Savitri’s generous nature – she helped her invalid in-laws and cruel father who abandoned her, Yama asks her to ask again.  Each time, Yama reminds her, she can ask for everything except Satyavan’s soul.  Savitri smiles and asks for 100 sons to be born of her from Satyavan.

Like a gambler who keeps recklessly increases his stake in hope to win more, or a rider trying to speed his steed at ever increasing pace without seeing the obstacles in the road ahead, Yama asks Savitri to ask one more, incomparable boon !!  Boons granted so far have been too tame for so great a Lord as Yama to grant.  Health, wealth, sons are but trifles for a God like Yama to gift his new friend.  This time Yama does not preclude Satyavan’s life.  Intoxicated by feeling of having found a friend for the first time in his life, Death hasn’t heard the “subtle details” of what Savitri asked – sons by her AND Satyavan !  Savitri gently draws his attention to this and asks, without completing the last wish, how can Yama grant her a new boon ?

Caught in the clever play of word, Yama must have smiled to himself and realised why others were so weary of marrying this daughter of the king of Madra.  Savitri had managed to enrich her family, secure her father’s family and keep the last “incomparable boon” unsaid and incomplete for another time !

Feeling generous, by the grace of Yama, Satyavan was resurrected and restored to full bloom of health, after all, he had to sire 100 sons !

What stands out in this story is the courage, clarity of thought, cleverness and abundant charm of Savitri. 

Very early on in her marriage, she must have figured out she can not fight death.  No one can.  Death will win out in the end.  It always does. 
She can not hide her beloved from death.  No one can play hide and seek with Yama for long. 
She did not have sufficient time to appeal to Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva – only a year in which to plan and save her husband from certain death. 
So she used one of the oldest adages of all time – If you can’t beat them, join them !  Savitri planned to do the next best thing – befriend Death itself !!

Very few people befriend Death.  Most people fear it.  Some loath it.  Some develop an unhealthy (no pun intended) desire for it.  A huge percentage of humanity prefers to just “bury their heads in the sand” and pretend Death will not come to them just yet.  But no one till now had “befriended” death.  Nichiketa was the only other person to actively cultivate a relationship with Death.  He decided to become a “guest” of Death !!  Such courage is rare and hence richly applauded by the scriptures.

Savitri befriended death and spoke like a true friend, never asking for things, but instead speaking her mind freely and sweetly to him.  Disarmed by the sudden turn of events – first off, no one had ever “followed” Death.  Secondly, no one had ever dared expound dharma to Dharma himself !  (Yama is famed for being Dharma incarnate).  Indeed, Dharma praises Savitri openly and remarks how her words are like “water to a thirsty soul” and “words you speak have not been spoken to me by others before.”  Yama was unused to such carefree dialogue.  Everyone else had been very cagey in his presence before.  So, feeling generous to a new found “friend”, Yama granted some incomparable boons indeed !

Savitri’s patience paid off.  Not only did she benefit from having made Death her “friend”, so did both sides of her family (husband’s side as well as her father’s).  Through her firm and steady resolve, she managed to resurrect her dead husband and secure innumerable progeny ! 

No Bollywood director could better that !!  Villains don’t come bigger than DEATH himself !  (Mote nay tuze meray hath se chhin liya !!)  To tie a rakhi to a goonda’s hand and secure your suhag – well, that’s a Bollywood plot yet to be written (remember you read it here first !)


Satyavan and Savitri continue to inspire us through their strong bonds of love.  To this day, during the height of Indian summer, women fast and tie cotton threads around the pipal tree in hope of securing long life for their husbands.  Let us hope such grand gestures of “love” continue to be practised in ritual as well as reality.

Source Links :-

Story of Savitri - as narrated in the Mahabharata to the Pandavas by Markandyeya

Story of Savitri - in verse by Sir Edwin Arnold (along with other stories)



© Bhagwat Shah   
[email protected]


Return to Index

Return to Bhagwat's main page

Return to ShriNathji's Haveli