The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Pativrata Mahatmya Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Pativrata Mahatmya Parva begins with Yudhishthir asking Markandeya, ‘Have you ever heard of a wife more virtuous than Draupadi, O Sage?’
Markandeya says yes, and he begins the story of Savitri.
The city of Madra is once ruled by a king named Ashwapati who is childless. With the object of procuring offspring, he performs a long series of austerities and pleases Savitri, the wife of Brahma.
When the goddess appears, he asks for a hundred sons. But Savitri refuses the boon and says, ‘O King, your destiny has already been written, and there are no sons in it. But I will grant you a daughter who will bring you great renown with her deeds on Earth.’
Ashwapati wants to protest, but how does one protest against the wife of Brahma himself? Seeing him downcast, Savitri assures him, ‘This daughter will bring you more glory than all the sons in the world, Ashwapati. Do not worry.’
After Brahma disappears, Ashwapati’s wife bears a girl child that they name Savitri, after the goddess who granted them the boon.
Marriage to Satyavan
Savitri grows up to be a beautiful and wise woman, so intimidating, in fact, that none of the men of the land dare approach her for marriage.
A couple of groom-choosing ceremonies come and go without success, and Ashwapati tells Savitri that he is unable to find a man for her. ‘I will let you travel with my courtiers and soldiers in a golden car through the breadth of Aryavarta, my daughter.
‘Please choose a husband worthy of you in all respects. It has been proclaimed by the gods that a father who cannot give away his daughter can never attain heaven.
‘So please find a husband and bring him back to me so that I can perform your wedding with the correct rituals.’
Savitri thus sets out accompanied by a small band of courtiers, and in the course of her travels, meets a prince called Satyavan, the son of King Dyumatsena of the Salwas.
She falls in love with him and professes a desire to marry him, but her father refuses because Dyumatsena is blind and has been tricked out of his kingdom by usurpers.
They have been living in the forest like ascetics, and it is not a home into which a father might willingly send his daughter.
The Curse of Satyavan
On top of it all, Ashwapati also comes to know that Satyavan is cursed to die in exactly one year from the time of his marriage. ‘Come, Savitri,’ he tells his daughter.
‘This one defect, I cannot overlook. Choose someone else for a husband, because what use is wedding a man who is sentenced to die in one short year from now?’
But Savitri is adamant. ‘A maiden chooses her husband but once, Father, and I have made my choice. Besides, it is not the length of life that matters as much as the virtue that fills it. I intend to marry this man regardless of what defects you say he possesses.’
Giving in to the wishes of his daughter, albeit reluctantly, Ashwapati blesses the couple and oversees their wedding. Savitri then leaves the royal palace to live with Satyavan’s family in the hermitage.
It is here that they live for a year longer, and here that she performs her rather famous feat of bringing her husband back from the dead by winning a battle of wits with Yama.
The Fatal Day
The year of togetherhess passes much too quickly for Savitri and Satyavan. Three nights before the day on which Satyavan is supposed to die, Savitri begins to fast, intending to break it on the fourth day provided her husband is freed from the curse.
Dyumatsena calls her to his side and says, ‘This vow is a tough one for even men, my child. A maiden such as you will be stricken ill by it. Please eat something at sundown so that your body might not wither.’
But Savitri does not listen. She continues her fast, and on the day of doom, she requests her father-in-law to allow her to accompany Satyavan into the forest. Dyumatsena allows her to do so, despite Satyavan’s reservations.
The two of them walk along, hand in hand, with Savitri glancing at her husband every now and then, as if to make sure that the blow of death would not fall on him.
They reach a deep section of the woods, where Satyavan begins to chop wood for the fire with his axe. After working for a while, he realizes that he is perspiring.
He comes to where Savitri is sitting and tells her, ‘I think this hard toil is making my limbs ache, my dear. I would like to rest for a while.’
The Death of Satyavan
Savitri knows instinctively that this is perhaps the time, but he keeps her face steady. ‘Come, my lord,’ she says, ‘lie down on my lap. Let me fan you to sleep.’
In a short while, Satyavan’s eyes close, and he slips into unconsciousness. Savitri continues to fan him, and watches his breath slow down with each passing second until it finally stops. Without fuss.
A deep shadow falls over them at that moment. When Savitri turns, she finds herself looking up at a large, red-hued man with a diadem on the head, his person as effulgent as the sun.
She lays Satyavan’s head gently on the earth and stands up to salute this man, for she guesses that it must be a celestial.
‘From your appearance, it looks like you are a god of some sort, good sir,’ she says. ‘Accept my salutations.’
‘I am Yama,’ says the man. ‘I have come to take your husband away to the land of the dead.’
‘I have heard that your minions carry out this task for you,’ says Savitri. ‘Why did you come here on your own this time?’
‘This prince, Satyavan, is a sea of virtue and accomplishments. He deserves not to be borne away by my emissaries. So I have come for him personally.’
With these words, he extends his noose in the direction of Satyavan and separates his soul from his body. At that moment, Satyavan lets out one last breath and dies.
Yama sets out on his return journey now, but Satyavati goes with him.
Conversation with Yama
Over the course of walking with Yama, Savitri engages the celestial in a conversation about wisdom and morality, and at each step, impresses Yama enough to extract from him a boon.
She begins with the following statement when Yama first commands her to go back to the hermitage and perform Satyavan’s funeral rites.
‘It has been declared that walking seven steps with another person makes them your friend, O Lord. Keeping that in mind, let me muster the courage to say this. My vow is to go wherever my husband goes.
‘And it has been said that those who do not have control over their souls cannot attain merit from the four modes of life – celibacy, domesticity, retirement, and renunciation.
‘The wise have therefore deemed religious merit to be of the highest importance. And my own hope of attaining this lies in staying true to my vow.’
Yama is pleased with the wisdom of the girl. ‘You speak like a sage, Princess,’ he tells her. ‘Ask me for a boon; anything but the life of your husband.’
Savitri asks that Dyumatsena, her father-in-law, should regain his eyesight and become a whole man again. Yama grants her wish and hopes that she would now return. But Savitri still follows him.
The Boons of Savitri
‘Walking with me for this long must have wearied you, Princess,’ Yama says. ‘Stop now and go back to your husband’s hermitage.’
‘Why will I be weary when I am in the presence of my husband, O Lord?’ asks Savitri. ‘And you are the most virtuous of all beings. Has it not been said that there are few pleasures in this world that exceed the company of a virtuous person?
‘I find no weariness, therefore, in following you and conversing with you.’
‘I am pleased with your perseverance,’ Yama says. ‘Ask me for one more boon, anything but the life of your husband.’
Savitri now asks that her Dyumatsena should regain his lost kingdom. Yama grants her this wish too.
Cue some more wise words from Savitri: ‘The eternal duty of all beings in the world is to not cause harm in thought, deed or speech. My husband lived in such a manner, but men are often known to be destitute of such skill and devotion.
‘Good men show mercy even on their enemies, do they not, when they ask for protection?’
‘Your words are like pure water to a thirsty man,’ says Yama. ‘Ask for one more wish!’
This time Savitri asks that her father, Ashwapati, should be given a hundred sons to rule after him, and Yama once again agrees.
A Hundred Sons
Savitri continues: ‘You are the lord of justice, O Yama. And you are the most righteous of all the gods. Everyone in the three worlds desires the company of a righteous man because he can always be relied upon.
‘Of all types of wealth that are available to man, it is goodness of the heart that is the most precious, and the hardest to acquire too.’
This brings out Yama’s offer of a fourth boon. ‘Except the life of Satyavan, O Princess, ask me for anything.’
‘Then make it so that I have a hundred sons of my own by Satyavan, O Lord.’
Yama grants her the wish, but Savitri then asks him how she could have sons of her own when her husband is dead.
Yama realizes then that he had been tricked, and gives Satyavan’s life back. This becomes his fifth boon.
‘You have shown remarkable persistence in your devotion to your husband, Savitri,’ he says. ‘May you live a long life with your husband and sons. Go back now to where your husband has fallen. You will find that he will awaken presently.’
And indeed, it happens just as he says. Savitri runs back to where Satyavan has been lying down, and just as she reaches him, he blinks open his eyes and asks, ‘How long have I been asleep for, my dear?’
Markandeya finishes the story and tells Yudhishthir that Draupadi is as chaste a wife as Savitri was, and that the Pandavas do not need to worry on her behalf at all.
Thus ends the Pativrata Mahatmya Parva.