Vat Savitri Vrata Katha or the story of Vata Savitri Vratham is mentioned in the Mahabharata as a conversation between Markandeya and King Yudhishtira (Dharmaraja).
The oldest known version of the story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in ‘Aranya Parva’ of the Mahabharata. This story told by Markandeya. When Yudhisthira asks Markandeya whether there has ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s, Markandeya replies with this story.
Asvapati was the king of the Madra kingdom. He was a popular king. He had one worry. He had no children. He was growing old and there was no one to be heir to his kingdom. So he prayed and observed tapas and offered every day ten thousand oblations in the sacred fire repeating the Gayatri mantra. For eighteen years, he repeated this performance. The goddess Savitri, the presiding deity of Gayatri mantra was pleased with Asvapati’s devotion and appeared before him, “Tell me, what boon do you want?”
“If you are pleased with my prayers, please bless with many sons worthy of my clan.”
“No”, said Savitri. “You shall have only a daughter. But she will be equal to many sons.”
The goddess disappeared. Before the end of the year, the queen gave birth to a female child. The child was named Savitri. The king was very fond of her; gave her full freedom to do what she liked. Savitri grew up as a beautiful girl and became the darling of the entire kingdom. She became an expert in all the games in which boys normally excel. She was intelligent, courageous and had been given by her parents full freedom to shape her own career. When the time came to marry her, the king left the choice to Savitri. So he asked her to go and select a prince who would be worthy of her.
Savitri traveled with an escort and visited many capitals of many countries. She finally chose Prince Satyavan who was living in a forest hermitage with his father, the blind king Dyumatsena of the Salvas. Dymatsena had lost his kingdom.
When Savitri returned home, she found her father in the company of the famous sage Narada. Narada asked, “O King! When are you celebrating Savitri’s marriage.” The king replied, “Savitri has gone on a search tour for the same purpose. Savitri, have you selected your husband?” The princess replied, “Yes, father, I have.” When Narada heard the full story of her choice of Satyavan, he looked into the future with his supernatural powers and exclaimed, “Alas, King, your daughter has committed a mistake without knowing everything about Satyavan.”
“Why, what is wrong with Satyavan?” asked Asvapati.
“Satyavan is a noble prince with excellent qualities, full of energy and wisdom. He is truthful, generous and modest. He respects his gurus and elders. He is a handsome man and a warrior. He has only one defect. He does not have long life. A year from this day, Satyavan is destined to die.”
All were stunned at this pronouncement of the sage Narada. Asvapati said in panic: “O Savitri, Satyavan is no good for you. Choose someone else.”
Savitri was deep in thought. After a few minutes of prayer, she looked up and said in a firm tone: “Father, I have given my heart to Satyavan. Short-lived or long-lived, good man or bad, he shall be my husband. This is my resolve.”
Narada admired her steadfastness and counseled Asvapati to trust in the mercy of the gods and go ahead with the marriage. “May this marriage bring all peace and happiness,” said Narada before departing.
Asvapati proceed to the hermitage of Dyumatsena in the forest. In a proper form, he asked Dymatsena to accept Savitri as the bride of Satyavan. “Dymatsena! Savitri knows that prosperity and adversity are transient. Honor, virtue, love and friendship are abiding things; Savitri has come to you searching these. Please do not disappoint us; let the marriage be celebrated.”
“So be it, ” replied Dyumatsena. With Dyumatsena’s consent, the marriage was performed that very day in the hermitage in a simple ceremony. Savitri and Satyavan went round the sacred fire hand in hand as the priests chanted the vedic mantras. The prescribed seven steps were taken. Savitri became Mrs. Satyavan.
Savitri adapted herself to life in the hermitage. Savitri and Satyavan loved each other. Savitri kept Narada’s secret to herself so as not to upset the happiness of Satyavan.
Days went by. Seasons changed. The marriage was in Spring. Summer came, followed by torrential rains; autumn cleared the skies and the moon shone bright; fruits were aplenty on bushes and trees. Winter came and went giving place to spring. Savitri knew that Satyavan’s death was approaching. Four days before the appointed day, Savitri started the Triratra vow, fasting day and night for three days and nights, with absolute faith in the Devata worshipped by her. She lay at the feet of the Mother Goddess, praying with abject devotion and prayed for her husband’s wife. “O Mother, today is the day, I need your help.” Her parents-in-law wanted her to give up the fast. “Yes”, replied Savitri, “I will after sunset, if all goes well. This is my vow.”
As Satyavan set out to the woods with axe upon his shoulder, Savitri requested that he should allow her to accompany him. “I pray to you, please do not prevent me; I will have to come with you.” Savitri also sought the permission of her parents-in-law. They asked Satyavan not to go too far and to return quickly from the forest.
Satyavan was in a very happy mood as he enjoyed the rows of champaka trees and showed them to Savitri. Hand in hand they traversed the woods. He repeated asked Savitri, “What was your vow for? Was it to repent for some sin? Was it to get fame for sanctity?”
He felt a sense of pain after he began chopping wood. Savitri rested his head on her lap. She touched his cold hands. A shadowy figure was seen nearby, carrying a noose in his hand. He was Yama, the god of death. Trembling in voice, Savitri asked, “O god, what do you want to do here/”
“Know me, O Savitri. I am Yama, the god of death. You are devoted to your husband. Your husband’s allotted days on earth are over; it is my duty now to bind his soul with my noose and carry him away.” So saying, Yama went about doing his job and started carrying Satyavan away. Savitri followed Yama and told Yama in a firm tone: “O god of death. Whither my husband goes, I go. We are one in life and in death. That is the eternal Dharma. O god, bind my soul too and take me. The goal of human life here on earth is to become as much god-like as possible. That goal can be reached in the sanctity of domestic life. Why do you want to deny me this life? My love for Satyavan is divine and will take us to the goal of life. Why do you take me away from him and deny the very goal for which we are created to achieve/”
Yama was impressed with the pleading. “I admire your keen intellect and the purity of your heart. You may ask for any boon you want except the life of your husband; I will grant it.”
Savitri had a remarkable presence of mind and practical wisdom. She immediately demanded: “Grant me the boon that my husband’s father will gain his eyesight.”
Yama responded: “I grant your wish. At this very moment Dyumatsena is getting eyesight back. You are tired. Now you go back.”
“No, Yama,” replied Savitri, “I feel no fatigue in the presence of my husband. I will go wherever you carry Satyavan.”
Then Savitri waxed eloquent on the glory of righteousness, on law, justice and mercy and appealed to Yama as the embodiment of all these. Yama then granted her four more boons. The first boon had already been granted: that Dyumatsena got his eyesight back. As the second boon, Savitri asked for the restoration of his kingdom. This was granted. Her third boon demanded was that her own father should be blessed with a hundred sons. This too was granted. As the fourth boon, she herself should bear a hundred sons.
Yama granted that except for her husband’s life she can ask for the fifth boon. Savitri smiled and said that she needed no more boons granted. She pointed out to Yama that the god had already granted the life of her husband by the fourth boon. For, how could she have hundred sons without her husband being restored to life? Yama laughed noting that he has been outwitted by the cleverness of Savitri. He confirmed the fourth boon with the fifth. He granted both the couple four hundred years of happy life on earth. He then released the soul of Satyavan from his noose and disappeared.
Savitri now ran back to the place where the body of Satyavan lay. She took his head on her lap as before. In a moment, Satyavan regained consciousness, “Oh! How long have I slept? I heard you talking with someone in my dream as I was being carried away; but, I could not understand a word of what was said. Was it really a dream?”
“No man came here”, said Savitri, “Come, let us go. Your father and mother will be waiting and getting anxious.”
Meanwhile, in the hermitage Dyumatsena having regained his eyesight could see everything clearly. He suddenly realized that his son and daughter-in-law had not yet returned even though it was past midnight. He and his wife started crying in utter anxiety. After a frantic search, the inmates of the hermitage heard approaching steps. They heard Satyavan’s voice responding. Their joy knew no bounds as they found Savitri and Satyavan.
Satyavan explained to his parents how he had slept for many hours after a sudden sickness. Gautama the sage in the hermitage asked, “Then you do not know about Dyumatsena regaining his eyesight? Maybe, Savitri knows more.”
“I have no secrets to keep, O Gautama. You know it all; you want me to confess. I am now prepared to narrate the whole story.” So said Savitri.
Then she narrated how Narada had foretold the death of Satyavan even before her marriage, her Triratra vow, her pleadings with Yama and the boons the latter granted. The sages were astounded by the single-minded devotion of Savitri and praised and blessed her.
As the dawn broke, a company of riders came from the Salwa country with the report that the usurper to the throne of Dyumatsena was murdered by his people and with the request that Dyumatsena should take over the reigns of the kingdom again. The riders were joyous to find out that Dyumatsena had regained his eyesight.
Dyumatsena was installed again as the king and Satyavan as the crown prince. Savitri came to get a hundred brothers and a hundred sons. Satyavan ultimately ruled the Salwa kingdom and led a happy life for 400 hundred years on earth.