HomeVolume 7April 2022A story of everlasting love

A story of everlasting love

- 10 Mins Read

A story of everlasting love

DR. V. RAMAKANTHA retells the legend of Savithri and Satyavan, which is centered around the Banyan tree, also known as the Tree of Life in India. The story is accompanied by a beautiful mural by the German artist, CHRISTIAN MACKETANZ.

The Banyan tree is an evergreen fig which is known in Hindu mythology as the wish-fulfilling tree and the tree of life and fertility. Every year, in many parts of India, the festival of Vat Purnima1 is observed. During those three days, women fast and pray for the well-being of their husbands, as they walk around a chosen Banyan tree and tie a thread around its trunk. This festival is associated with the legend of Savithri. 

The legend of Savithri

The noble king Aswapati reigned over Madra, a prosperous country. As the years rolled by, worry gripped his mind, for he had no children. With the aim of seeking a boon, Aswapati undertook austerities and prayed to the goddess Savithri to appear before him. After eighteen years of penance, one fine day the goddess Savithri appeared and offered to grant the king a favor.

When Aswapati asked for many sons worthy of his lineage, the goddess Savithri smiled and said that he would soon beget a daughter of great energy. Saying so, she disappeared. Soon, the king’s wife had a daughter, and he named her Savithri in honor of the goddess who had bestowed the gift.

When she came of age, Savithri resembled a celestial being, but she also possessed such a burning splendor that no man came forward to marry her. Ultimately, her exasperated father Aswapati told Savithri to find a partner for herself. Taking her father’s words as a command, Savithri set forth on a journey to find her life partner.

In a distant forest, Savithri came upon a handsome young woodcutter. He was graceful in limb, tall, broad-shouldered, gifted with the strength of mad elephants, and free from fear or affliction. He had sparkling eyes and great sensitivity. It was love at first sight. 

His name was Satyavan, and he was just as happy to see this extraordinarily beautiful princess. He was unaffected by her burning aura, and they talked for hours. Satyavan told Savithri that he was passing through a lean period, but he took her to his hut and introduced her to his parents. His father, Dyumatsena, was an old man who had lost his kingdom and been blinded in both eyes. On being introduced to his ageing mother, Savithri figured out that she was in the company of saintly people. Savithri returned to the palace to tell her father that she had found her life partner.

The sage Narada was with her father, and told Savithri that she was making a terrible mistake. He foretold that Satyavan was destined to die exactly one year after the marriage. Despite the warning, and the knowledge of impending catastrophe, Savithri chose Satyavan to be her husband.

Living deep inside the forest, the couple led a minimalistic but blissful life, however the words of sage Narada were ever-present in the mind of Savithri, and as one year drew near, realizing that her husband would die in four days’ time, Savithri took to fasting.

On the day Satyavan was expected to die, Savithri followed him into the jungle and watched over him as he worked. A moment came when Satyavan felt exhausted and lay down under a Banyan tree. Savithri gently placed his head on her lap and stayed alert. Suddenly, she felt the presence of a large being of bluish hue clad in red attire, his head decked with a diadem. Savithri gently placed Satyavan’s head on the ground, stood up, and after salutations inquired who it was. It was indeed Yama, the Lord of death.

Yama did not stand on formality. He took the soul and subtle bodies of Satyavan in his noose and started his journey towards the region inhabited by the Pitris, a heavenly destination for the departed soul of Satyavan. Sad but determined, Savithri ran behind Lord Yama and followed her husband’s soul. Seeing Savithri following him, Lord Yama asked Savithri to return to where she belonged and make arrangements for the funeral of her husband.

Savithri offered great eulogies to the shining divinity in Lord Yama. With folded hands she said, “O, son of Vaivasvan the great, you are the dispenser of justice. Snatching away the life of my youthful husband, who was leading a virtuous life on Earth, can in no way be considered an act of kindness on your part. Please have mercy on me and my husband’s ageing parents. Please spare my husband’s life or else take me also to the land of the dead.”

Lord Yama is known to treat the virtuous with respect and sinners with rudeness. Savithri’s humility and wise words pleased the god of death.
He said, “You are virtuous, so you could behold me with your eyes,” said Yama. “You are ascetic, so you could follow me where no mortal could travel. I agree that Satyavan was indeed an ocean of noble qualities, and my assistants could not seize his soul. Hence, I am here.” Lord Yama then concluded, “As your time has not yet come, you cannot come to the land of the dead. Nevertheless, I am pleased with you. You may ask a favor of me – anything except the return of your husband.”

Savithri asked that her father-in-law, Dyumatsena, regain his eyesight. Lord Yama happily granted her wish and asked her to return to Earth and not tire herself further. On the path taken by Lord Yama there was no shade where Savithri could rest, and no foods with which she could satiate her hunger, however, she pursued her soulmate Satyavan, much to the frustration of the god of death.

Upon Lord Yama again asking her to return, Savithri spoke of the duty and responsibility of a virtuous wife and explained what compelled her to follow him. The logic in her reply mightily pleased Lord Yama. He granted her a second favor, except the life of Satyavan. Savithri asked that her father-in-law regain his throne. Yama granted her wish and appreciated her all the more for her selflessness.

Never suspecting that a human could continue to follow him, Lord Yama proceeded without glancing backward. Savithri followed him to where twelve suns blazed. There was no water to quench her thirst, but nevertheless she followed with sheer determination. When Lord Yama noticed her presence for the third time, he advised her to return to the material world, telling her that she had come too far, but Savithri had something special to say which surprised Lord Yama. He realized that he was happy to be interacting with the virtuous Savithri. He offered her yet another favor, except the life of her husband, and this time Savithri asked that her father be granted a hundred sons. Lord Yama had no difficulty in granting that wish.

Savithri then followed Lord Yama beyond the Vaitarani River, the mere sight of which inspires misery. Unmindful of the hostile environment and the torments of her body, Savithri kept pace with Lord Yama.

Lord Yama could not believe that Savithri was still following him. Yet again, he paused and looked at her with great astonishment, mockingly saying, “You want your husband back on Earth?” and letting out a loud laugh that was like thunder in the sky. “Most of humanity does not know the divine laws that govern life, death, the aftermath of death, and the reincarnations of souls. No one seems to have time to reflect on those things.” Lord Yama concluded, “Divine laws are strict and unsparing. It would be wise to go back where you still have a role to play.”

With all humility, Savithri pointed out that Lord Yama was carrying out his duty as a functionary of Nature, but that his heart was not in his deeds. She wondered if he could have some say in this business. Bemused Yama, who had started enjoying this conversation with Savithri, pondered over what she said and had to agree with her logic. He was merely carrying out tasks dictated by Nature, and he was surprised that no one till now had requested that he intervene in the tasks he carried out automatically. Appreciating her unique perspective, Lord Yama granted her yet another favor, except for Satyavan’s life. Savithri expressed her gratitude. This time, she asked to be the mother of one hundred children, to which Lord Yama agreed; soon he realized the implication of this gift.

The company of Savithri, her devotion to her husband, and her wise words impressed Lord Yama beyond measure. He told Savithri that intellect and willpower are the two most distinctive characteristics of human beings, that they are rare even among gods and angels, and that Savithri had utilized both for the good. He granted her the life of Satyavan, and then blessed the couple with an enjoyable earthly existence for a further four hundred years. Love was overflowing in the heart of Lord Yama.

Before departing, he addressed Savithri with compassion saying, “Once in a while, gently remind your husband that he should not forget the other world while living in this sensory world; that giving a small portion of each day to spiritual sadhana will beget him an eternal life of bliss. You,” concluded Yama, “do not need any advice.”

Gently remind your husband that
he should not forget the other world
while living in this sensory world;
that giving a small portion of each day
to spiritual sadhana will beget him
an eternal life of bliss.

Lord Yama happily returned to his abode. When Savithri returned to the Banyan tree, Satyavan’s body came back to life. Savithri had chosen to confront her destiny, and she was successful in weaving it through her indomitable will. The Banyan tree plays a very small role in this story, which comes from the epic Mahabharata. However, it takes a great deal of strength to give birth to one hundred children, and we may conjecture that the banyan tree played a role in this. Since time immemorial, Indian women have used different parts of the banyan tree for gynecological issues, so the connection between Savithri and the banyan tree becomes a little clearer. During the Vat Purnima festival, eating a shoot apex of the Banyan tree is an integral part of the ritual performed by the women of India. It is also a ritual that heralds the importance of the Banyan tree in their lives. 

1 Vat Purnima usually falls on the 13th, 14th, and 15th days in the month of Jestha (May–June) of the Hindu calendar.


Dr V Ramakantha

Dr. V. Ramakantha

Ramakantha was a Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in the Indian Forest Service. He is an academic, author, and wildlife photographer, who manages species-rich ecosystems in India. He is also a member of the Heartfulness Green initiative at Kanha Shanti Vanam.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here