This article, the last in a 12-part series, is reprinted with permission of IntentBlog.
Note: 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?
Part 12 (Begin at part 1 by clicking here)
How does Savitri’s tale end? The sun had already dipped beneath the treetops when she ran into the hut and peered out the front window. Yama was still sitting in the dust, only now the long shadows of the pines completely covered him. Savitri braced herself, saying one last prayer, and went out to face him.
And then? In one version Savitri puts on a great show of welcoming Yama. The lord of death is so pleased that he grants her a boon. Savitri asks for the boon of life, which confuses Yama. “You are already alive,” he points out. But Savitri insists, and Yama grants her wish. Savitri rises to her feet, saying, “You have given me life, but I cannot live without Satyavan.” At which point Death is outwitted and must give her husband a reprieve.
But few would be satisfied with such a simple trick. I can tell you what I believe. Savitri had conquered all her fears, and so she went outside and danced for Yama. She danced so exquisitely that when she ended up with her head resting in his lap, she whispered, as one lover to another, “Time isn’t long enough to satisfy my longing for you.”
To which the enchanted Yama replied, “But we have eternity together.”
Savitri shook her head. “If you are all-powerful, add one second to eternity so that I can love you more than anyone has ever loved. That’s all I ask.”
Yama had never been offered any kind of love, certainly not by a young woman who had every reason to fear him. So he granted Savitri a single second more--and thus he was defeated.
A second to the gods is a hundred years to mortals. In that extra second, Satyavan returned home and embraced Savitri. They went inside their hut and lived as before. They had children and grew old together. In time Savitri’s father, the king, relented and welcomed them both back to his palace. In old age, Savitri wondered if she had asked for too much time, because she survived long after Satyavan left this world. She spent her final years in meditation and became enlightened, so when the extra second was up, Yama was amazed to find that Savitri hadn’t tricked him after all. She actually did love him as one loves the wholeness of life rather than one aspect alone.
This ending is beautiful and consoling. I would like it to be read when I have no more days left. In the spirit of Savitri I’ve already written this note, which I will leave for my family to read: "No matter what, don’t cry for me. I’m all right, and I’ll go on loving you no matter what happens. This is my road to travel."
Every once in a while I look at those words for a moment. Somehow, like Savitri, I’ve won nothing more than an extra second of existence. It will be enough.