After rescuing Draupadi from Jayadratha, the Pandavas — especially Yudhistira — are morose, and need sage Markandeya to tell them uplifting stories. The first story he tells them — that of Sita’s abduction and rescue by Rama — can be thought of as addressing the Pandavas’ warring spirit and equating it with Lord Rama’s. The second story addresses the purity of Draupadi and the effect she has and shall have on the welfare of the brothers. It is the story of Savitri, the devoted wife who saved her husband from Yamaraja — the incarnation of Death — himself.
Savitri is the princess of Madra, daughter to king Ashvapati. When her blazing qualities begin to daunt potential suitors, Ashvapati allows Savitri to find her own match. She chooses Satyavan, son of Dyumatsena, who happens to be the exiled king of Shalva. When Savitri divulges her choice to her father, Narada is also present in the assembly hall. Narada points out that it might not be the perfect choice after all, for Satyavan is set to die after a year. Dyumatsena then asks Savitri to choose someone else, but Savitri has made her mind. No matter the consequences, she will wed Satyavan only.
After the wedding, she moves to the forest. Her dedication is not limited to her husband alone, but to her parents-in-law as well. The year passes, and eventually the day of Satyavan’s death arrives. He picks up an axe and moves towards the jungle to fetch firewood and other essentials. Savitri insists that she accompany him. Apparently, it is the first time that she is requesting to leave the hut, so Satyavan demands that she seek permission from her in-laws. The permission is granted. (Just why Savitri chose this life for herself — limiting her freedom, foregoing her privilege, and taking the great risk of becoming a widow — is not something that Markandeya’s narration pauses to consider, though we are to understand that it is all for love.)
In the jungle, Satyavan collapses and Yamaraja plucks his life and walks southward with the little flame clasped in his fingers. Savitri follows the god of death and impresses him with her words of wisdom. Yamaraja provides progressive boons to Savitri, till she eventually traps him in a paradox: she is to gain a hundred sons from Satyavan’s loins. Yamaraja is left with no option but the grant Satyavan’s life back, and thus is added another name in the list of great wives in mythology: wives whose devotion surpasses bounds of reality, and who therefore become a sort of unattainable but useful idea, one that patriarchy can repeatedly employ to remind women how their lives must necessarily serve and protect those of their husbands.
And not only husbands. Mythology tells us that the ideal wife is ideal for the in-laws, too. Among the many boons that Yamaraja grants Savitri, one of them is the reinstatement of her father-in-law as the king of Shalva. Needless to say, the boon comes to pass and Savitri lives her remaining life in a palace.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata