Amongst the five Satis of Hindu dharma, Savitri depicts the image of a loyal and devoted wife who could bring back her husband from Yama (the God of Death) because of her dedication and clever thinking. The oldest description of this story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in Aranya Parva (the Book of the Forest) of the mythological epic Mahabharata. The story occurs is told by the ancient sage Markandeya to the elder pandava Yudhisthira. When Yudhisthira asks Markandeya whether there has ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s, Markandeya replies by telling this story:
Once upon a time, there was a king named Aswapati who ruled the great and glorious kingdom of Madra. The king had everything at his disposal… wealth, power and luxury. But he wished to live ascetically and offers oblations to the Goddess Savitri by chanting Savitri Mantra and sought from the goddess the boon of begetting a son. Finally after many years, pleased by the prayers, Goddess Savitri appeared and grants him a boon: he will soon have a daughter. The king was joyful at the prospect of a child.
The king and his entire kingdom were jubilant when his daughter is born and named Savitri in honour of the goddess. Savitri, born out of devotion and asceticism carried the simplicity and divinity throughout her childhood and grown into a beautiful young woman. The fame of Savitri’s beauty spread far and wide, and royal families around the country asked for her hand by sending marriage proposals to the king. However Savitri refused to marry, saying that she would herself go out in the world and find a husband for herself. She sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena, who after he had lost everything including his sight, lives in exile as a forest-dweller.
Hearing that Savitri has chosen a penniless prince, her father was severely disappointed. But Savitri was keen on marrying Satyavan. Further Sage Narada who met the king and announced that Savitri had made a bad selection: although Satyavan is perfect in every way, he was destined to die one year from the day of their marriage. The king Aswapati pleaded to Savitri to forget Satyavan and choose a more suitable husband. But Savitri insisted that she had already accepted Satyavan as her husband and cannot think of anyone else. The king finally agreed and got Savitri and Satyavan married. Although the king Aswapati wanted to make Satyavan his inheritor, Savitri declined the wish of her father and went off to the forest wearing the clothing of a hermit and lived in perfect obedience and respect to her new parents-in-law and husband.
Three days before the predicted death of Satyavan, Savitri started to observe a fast and vigil. Her father-in-law warned her that she had taken on too harsh a regimen, but Savitri assured him that she had taken an oath to perform these austerities and Dyumatsena offered her his support as well.
The morning of Satyavan’s predicted death, Savitri asked for her father-in-law’s permission to accompany her husband into the forest. Since she has never asked for anything during the entire year she has spent at the hermitage, Dyumatsena granted her wish.
The couple went into the forest. Under a tall tree, Satyavan made a seat of soft green leaves and plucked flowers for her to weave into a garland while he chopped wood. Towards noon Satyavan felt a little tired, and after a while he came and lay down resting his head in Savitri’s lap and within no time he was on the verge of death. Suddenly the whole forest grew dark, and soon Savitri saw Yamdoot standing in front of her to take Satyavan’s soul from his body. She looked towards Yamdoot in rage and resentment. Yamdoot was frightened with the anger of Savitri and returned back to Yamlok to inform Yama, the king of death about his inability to touch the body of Satyavan.
Finally Yama, the God of Death, had to come to claim the soul of Satyavan. Yama convinced Savitri that death is a natural phenomenon and no one can avoid it. It is a part of his job to take the souls and requested Savitri to leave the body so he could take the soul with him. Savitri agreed and Yama carried the soul of Satyavan with him and proceeded towards Yamlok.
When Yama was about to leave, Savitri walked after him, pleaded Yama to take her too along with him to Yamlok, the land of the dead, or give back the life of Satyavan. Yama replied that he can’t take her to Yamlok because her time has not yet come. He advised Savitri to go back to her home and offered her any boon except the life of Satyavaan. She first asked for eyesight and restoration of the kingdom for her father-in-law. Yama granted the boon and moved towards Yamlok.
Instead of returning, Savitri continued to walk behind Yama. Observing this Yama tried to convince Savitri again to turn back and return to her house. Savitri praised Yamraj for his obedience to Dharma. Yama was impressed with her noble conduct. Impressed at her Yama offered her another boon, except the life of Satyavan. She asked for a hundred sons for her father. Yama granted the boon and again proceeded towards Yamlok. Savitri still continued to follow him instead of returning.
Yama was about to reach at the gate of Yamlok saw Savitri still following him. He was irritated with this act of Savitri and warned her that what she is doing is against nature and she should immediately return. Savitri praised Yama as he is the king of Dharma and for his determinations to abide the principles of nature with no expectation of return. Yama was impressed by her praise and at the same time quite annoyed by her following him to the doors of Yamlok. He offered her a final boon with a promise from her to return immediately. She asked for a hundred sons for herself. Out of distraction, Yama granted the boon. Savitri instantly asked Yamraj how she could gave birth to 100 sons without Satyavan? She is a Sati and can bear the child of no other man than her husband. This caused a dilemma for Yama and he granted life to Satyavan and blessed Savitri’s life with eternal happiness.
Satyavan awoke as though he had been in a deep sleep. Meanwhile Dyumatsena regained his eyesight even before Savitri and Satyavan’s return. Savitri retells the story to her parents-in-law, husband, and the gathered ascetics. As they praised her, Dyumatsena’s ministers arrived with the news of the death of his usurper. The king and his entourage returned to his kingdom.
From then Savitri has always been idolised as the ideal woman who used her wits to win back the life and riches of her husband. Her love, divinity and determination have always been the inspiring element for women of India. She selected a noble young man as her husband, knowing that he had only a year to live and married him with all confidence. Even the God of Death had to surrender, and bowed to her love and devotion.
In Odisha, married woman observe Savitri Brata on the Amavasya day in the month of Jyestha every year. This is performed for the well-being and long life of their husbands. A treatise named Savirti Brata Katha in Odia language is read out by women while performing the puja.