While writing a new book on the afterlife, (Life After Death: The Burden of Proof) I kept being drawn back to stories that I'd heard in India as a child. In these stories the abstract issues of death, immortality, and eternity acquire a human face as ordinary people confronted the mystery of death. I hoped that reader will be intrigued by a world where heroes battle darkness in order to emerge into the light.
In this case the hero is a woman named Savitri, and the enemy she must defeat is Yama, the lord of death. Yama shows up in her front yard one day, waiting to take away her husband the moment he returns from his work as a woodcutter. Will she succeed? What strategy can possibly turn Death away from his inexorable mission?
The following tale is a framing device for the main content of Life After Death, which concerns deep issues from the world's spiritual traditions as well as advanced science. These issues appear in parable form in the story of Savitri.
Long ago, in the dense forests that once encircled the holy city of Benares, there was ample work for woodcutters. One such was the handsome Satyavan, who was all the more handsome because he had so much love for his wife, whose name was Savitri.
One day Savitri lay dreamily in bed contemplating her happiness, which seemed complete. Suddenly she noticed a figure sitting cross-legged in the dusty clearing that served for a front yard. A wandering monk, she thought to herself. She put rice and vegetables in a bowl and rushed out to offer them to the holy man, since hospitality is a sacred duty.
"I need no food," the stranger said, pushing away the bowl that Savitri had placed on the shade-dappled ground before him. "I will wait here."
Savitri drew back in horror, because suddenly she knew who her guest was. Not a wandering monk at all but Death himself, who is known in India as Lord Yama.
"Who are you waiting for?" she asked, her voice trembling.
"For one named Satyavan." The lord of death spoke politely. He was used to having absolute authority over mortals, and he approached them simply, with just a touch of arrogance.
"Satyavan!" the loving Savitri cried. She could hardly keep from fainting when she heard her husband's name." But he's strong and healthy, and we love each other dearly. Why should he die?"
Yama shrugged. "Everything will be as it will be," he said indifferently.
"But if you care so little," Savitri said, her wits coming back to her, "then why not take someone else? There are sick and wretched people begging for the release of death. Visit them and leave my house in peace."
"I will wait here," Yama repeated, unmoved by her plea and the tears welling in Savitri's eyes. In Yama's face she saw a world where everything is nameless and without pity.
The young wife rushed back into the hut. She paced the floor, frantic in the knowledge that her husband would come home to meet his doom. Tigers feared the swing of brave Satyavan's axe, but here was an enemy no blade could touch. Then she had an idea born of desperation. Throwing a cloak around her shoulders, she ran out the back door through the woods.
Savitri had heard that there was a sacred place, a space in the earth as large as a cave, somewhere on the mountain. It was formed by the roots of a huge banyan tree. A reputed holy man had lived in the hole for years. Savitri would beg for his help. She didn't know her way and soon found herself following deer paths and washed-out gullies. Fear drove her as hard as breath and strength would allow, and so she wandered, higher and higher, until she was totally exhausted. She collapsed on the ground and slept for a time, she couldn't tell how long. When a shaft of sunlight opened her eyes, Savitri found herself at the foot of a huge banyan tree. She spied the cavernous hole among the roots and peered into it anxiously. Before she found the courage to enter, a voice from inside said, "Go away!" It was so loud and sudden that she jumped.
"I can't go away," Savitri replied, her voice trembling. She explained her desperate plight, but the voice from the darkness said, "How are you different from everyone else? Death is always two steps behind us, from cradle to grave."
Tears welled up in Savitri's eyes. "If you are wiser than ordinary people, you must have something more for me."
The voice said, "You wish to bargain with death? All who have tried that have failed."
Savitri got to her feet with dignity, wiping away her tears. "Then let Yama take me in my husband's place. What everyone says is true. Death is absolute. My only hope is that he will kill me and spare someone who doesn't deserve to die." The voice was more gentle this time. "Be calm," it said. "There is a way."
Savitri heard a stir in the darkness, and then the holy man emerged from his cave. He was an ascetic dressed in a loin cloth and a monk's silk shawl thrown over his shoulders. He looked surprisingly young, however, and he told Savitri that his name was Ramana.
"You know a way to defeat death? Tell me," Savitri implored.
The monk Ramana squinted in the sunlight, ignoring her for the moment. He looked at Savitri with a gaze that she couldn't read, then he stooped down to pick up a worn old reed flute lying on the ground.
"Come," he said. "Perhaps you will be able to learn. I make no promises,
but you are desperate enough."
As if forgetting her, Ramana began to play to himself on his flute and wandered down a nearby deer path. Savitri stood for a moment, dismayed and confused, but as the notes of the flute faded into the forest, she had no choice but to run after them.