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Posted by: Aaron Shepard (AaronShep@aol.com)

Subject: SAVITRI: A TALE OF ANCIENT INDIA (free story)

A Tale of Ancient India

Retold by Aaron Shepard

In memory of Will Perry

Reprinted from _Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India,_ retold by Aaron Shepard,
illustrated by Vera Rosenberry, Whitman, 1992. If you like the story, check
out the picture book! Available through your local bookstore or library.

Copyright 1992 Aaron Shepard. This story may be duplicated for any
non-commercial purpose. Please help spread it around.

Storytellers: Please feel free to tell this story in any live performance or
broadcast. No additional permission is needed, though I'd love to know you're
using it. For permission to make a recording for sale, contact the publisher.

Aaron Shepard
AaronShep  (America Online)
AaronShep@aol.com  (Internet)

Etext Version 2.1

The story of the princess Savitri is one of the best-known and best-loved
tales of India. It appears within the _Mahabharata,_ India's great national
epic, which is much like an Old Testament to the Hindus.

This epic, written down at around the time of Christ, had already been passed
on orally for centuries. It arises from a time when legends were born -- an
age of walled cities, of sun and fire worship, and of women far more
independent than later Indian culture allowed.

In India, in the time of legend, there lived a king with many wives but not
one child. Morning and evening for eighteen years, he faced the fire on the
sacred altar and prayed for the gift of children.

Finally, a shining goddess rose from the flames.

"I am Savitri, child of the Sun. By your prayers, you have won a daughter."

Within a year, a daughter came to the king and his favorite wife. He named
her Savitri, after the goddess.

Beauty and intelligence were the princess Savitri's, and eyes that shone like
the sun. So splendid was she, people thought she herself was a goddess. Yet,
when the time came for her to marry, no man asked for her.

Her father told her, "Weak men turn away from radiance like yours. Go out and
find a man worthy of you. Then I will arrange the marriage."

In the company of servants and councilors, Savitri traveled from place to
place. After many days, she came upon a hermitage by a river crossing. Here
lived many who had left the towns and cities for a life of prayer and study.

Savitri entered the hall of worship and bowed to the eldest teacher. As they
spoke, a young man with shining eyes came into the hall. He guided another
man, old and blind.

"Who is that young man?" asked Savitri softly.

"That is Prince Satyavan," said the teacher, with a smile. "He guides his
father, a king whose realm was conquered. It is well that Satyavan's name
means 'Son of Truth,' for no man is richer in virtue."

When Savitri returned home, she found her father sitting with the holy seer
named Narada.

"Daughter," said the king, "have you found a man you wish to marry?"

"Yes, father," said Savitri. "His name is Satyavan."

Narada gasped. "Not Satyavan! Princess, no man could be more worthy, but you
must not marry him! I know the future. Satyavan will die, one year from

The king said, "Do you hear, daughter? Choose a different husband!"

Savitri trembled but said, "I have chosen Satyavan, and I will not choose
another. However long or short his life, I wish to share it."

Soon the king rode with Savitri to arrange the marriage.

Satyavan was overjoyed to be offered such a bride. But his father, the blind
king, asked Savitri, "Can you bear the hard life of the hermitage? Will you
wear our simple robe and our coat of matted bark? Will you eat only fruit and
plants of the wild?"

Savitri said, "I care nothing about comfort or hardship. In palace or in
hermitage, I am content."

That very day, Savitri and Satyavan walked hand in hand around the sacred
fire in the hall of worship. In front of all the priests and hermits, they
became husband and wife.

For a year, they lived happily. But Savitri could never forget that
Satyavan's death drew closer.

Finally, only three days remained. Savitri entered the hall of worship and
faced the sacred fire. There she prayed for three days and nights, not eating
or sleeping.

"My love," said Satyavan, "prayer and fasting are good. But why be this hard
on yourself?"

Savitri gave no answer.

The sun was just rising when Savitri at last left the hall. She saw Satyavan
heading for the forest, an ax on his shoulder.

Savitri rushed to his side. "I will come with you."

"Stay here, my love," said Satyavan. "You should eat and rest."

But Savitri said, "My heart is set on going."

Hand in hand, Savitri and Satyavan walked over wooded hills. They smelled the
blossoms on flowering trees and paused beside clear streams. The cries of
peacocks echoed through the woods.

While Savitri rested, Satyavan chopped firewood from a fallen tree. Suddenly,
he dropped his ax.

"My head aches," he said.

Savitri rushed to him. She laid him down in the shade of a tree, his head on
her lap.

"My body is burning!" said Satyavan. "What is wrong with me?"

Satyavan's eyes closed. His breathing slowed.

Savitri looked up. Coming through the woods to meet them was a princely man.
He shone, though his skin was darker than the darkest night. His eyes and his
robe were the red of blood.

Trembling, Savitri asked, "Who are you?"

A deep, gentle voice replied. "Princess, you see me only by the power of your
prayer and fasting. I am Yama, god of death. Now is the time I must take the
spirit of Satyavan."

Yama took a small noose and passed it through Satyavan's breast, as if
through air. He drew out a tiny likeness of Satyavan, no bigger than a thumb.

Satyavan's breathing stopped.

Yama placed the likeness inside his robe. "Happiness awaits your husband in
my kingdom. Satyavan is a man of great virtue."

Then Yama turned and headed south, back to his domain.

Savitri rose and started after him.

Yama strode smoothly and swiftly through the woods, while Savitri struggled
to keep up. At last, he stopped to face her.

"Savitri! You cannot follow to the land of the dead!"

"Lord Yama," said Savitri, "I know your duty is to take my husband. But my
duty as his wife is to stay beside him."

"Princess, that duty is at an end," said Yama. "Still, I admire your loyalty.
I will grant you a favor -- anything but the life of your husband."

Savitri said, "Please restore my father-in-law's kingdom and his sight."

"His sight and his kingdom shall be restored."

Yama again headed south. Savitri followed.

Along a river bank, thorns and tall sharp grass let Yama pass untouched. But
they tore at Savitri's clothes and skin.

"Savitri! You have come far enough!"

"Lord Yama, I know my husband will find happiness in your kingdom. But you
carry away the happiness that is mine!"

"Princess, even love must bend to fate," said Yama. "Still, I admire your
devotion. I will grant you another favor -- anything but the life of your

Savitri said, "Grant many more children to my father."

"Your father shall have many more children."

Yama once more turned south. Again, Savitri followed.

Up a steep hill Yama glided, while Savitri clambered after him. At the top,
he halted.

"Savitri! I forbid you to come farther!"

"Lord Yama, you are respected and revered by all. Yet, no matter what may
come, I will remain by Satyavan!"

"Princess, I tell you for the last time, you will not!" said Yama. "Still, I
can only admire your courage and your firmness. I will grant you one last
favor -- anything but the life of your husband."

"Then grant many children to _me,_" said Savitri. "And let them be children
of Satyavan!"

Yama's eyes grew wide as he stared at Savitri. "You did not ask for your
husband's life, yet I cannot grant your wish without releasing him. Princess!
Your wit is as strong as your will."

Yama took out the spirit of Satyavan and removed the noose. The spirit flew
north, quickly vanishing from sight.

"Return, Savitri. You have won your husband's life."

The sun was just setting when Savitri again laid Satyavan's head in her lap.

His chest rose and fell. His eyes opened.

"Is the day already gone? I have slept long," he said. "But what is wrong, my
love? You smile and cry at the same time!"

"My love," said Savitri, "let us return home."

Yama was true to all he had promised. Savitri's father became father to many
more. Satyavan's father regained both sight and kingdom.

In time, Satyavan became king, and Savitri his queen. They lived long and
happily, blessed with many children. So they had no fear or tears when Yama
came again to carry them to his kingdom.

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