Cradle Tales of Hinduism is a collection of tales from ancient India, by Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble, 1867–1911). The stories come from the long poems that are called Mahabharata and Ramayana, and from other Hindu sources.
Once there were five brothers. One of them was an archer. One day he won a bride as a his price in a shooting-contest. The moment he came home with her he eagerly told his mother that he had won a great price in a contest, and the mother, who was busy otherwise, said to him, "Fine. Now share the price with your brothers."
The mother's word had to be obeyed, so the woman became the wife of the five brothers. Later the brothers engaged in a devastating war, which they won. But nearly everyone in their army got killed first, and the opposite side was wiped out. Their world seemed dark and bleak since then on. And finally they understood that their time was ended. The brothers had lived for long, and now it was time to leave the world. They wanted to go up in the heights of Himalaya to do it.
The eldest of the brothers was Yudisthira. He and the other brothers bade farewell to all assembled and then left on foot, only followed by their wife and Yudhistira's dog that would not desert him.
Their journey was long and arduous, and they soon felt that their clothes of birch bark were not ideal either. Thus many days passed. At last they reached the Himalayas. Here were great forests and mighty snow-peaked mountains. Their minds could find peace in these surroundings, and be better centred. In the dim north, lay Mount Meru, where they were headed. But as they climbed toward the top, one by one of the aged brothers succumbed to the hardships in high altitudes and died. Only Yudhistira remained. He did not look back, but went on alone, followed by the dog.
Suddenly came an overwhelming peal of thunder, and Heaven opened. There, standing in his chariot, was a heavenly being who said.
"You may now come into Heaven in this chariot in your human form," said the great being.
"My brothers have all fallen dead. Without them by my side I have no desire to enter Heaven," said Yudhistira. "And our delicate wife shuld go with the five of us also."
"But you shall see them all when you reach heaven yourself," said the being. "By dying they got to heaven before you."
Yudhistira now accepted the invitation, and stood aside to let the dog go first into the chariot. But the heaven-being said. "You have climbed into immortality this day. Great happiness and a throne is to be yours. But send away this dog!"
"Without my devoted dog, how can I enjoy heaven at all?"
"For men with dogs there is no place in heaven. Abandon the dog. That is not cruel."
But Yudisthira answered, "To abandon one who has loved us is too bad. Therefore do I refuse to abandon this dog." Yudisthira had made up his mind.
The heavenly being argued, "By the presence of a dog, heaven itself would be made unholy! Oh, why are you so stubborn? You have renounced your own brothers and your wife. Why not your dog too?"
Yudisthira answered, "My brothers and our wife are dead, and one cannot but renounce the dead. I did not abandon them as long as they were living. I only left them when I was unable to revive them. But to leave my little dog behind is out of the question for me."
The shining being said, "You have now renounced a ride into heaven on behalf of a dog. That is so great a doing that inexhaustible happiness is now yours, and you may take the dog with you."
Then Yudisthira climbed the car after his dog, and went to heaven in his mortal body. On entering he was met by many immortals who were eager to welcome him. But Yudisthira now looked around and saw nowhere his brothers or Draupadi. "Where are they?"he asked. "I want to be with them."
"Why do you still cherish human affections?" said the shining being who had taken him to heaven in one piece. "Your brothers are happy too, each in his own place. But look around right here, this is heaven!"
Yudisthira only said, "I cannot be apart from them. Wherever they have gone, I will go too." At that very moment he caught sight of the army he had been part of defeating. They were seated on thrones like gods. Yudisthira was filled with rage. "I will not," he shouted angrily, "live in a heaven of happiness with these vain and reckless evildoers. Friends and kinsmen were slaughtered by them, and our our common wife insulted. Listen, I will not even look on such as these. So let med go to join my brothers!"
"But," said one of those about him, smiling, "in Heaven all feuds cease. Forget your woes. This is heaven, man!"
"If such bad guys have deserved this," answered Yudisthira, not at all appeased, "what must not my friends and kindred have deserved! What are the celestial regions to me without my brothers? Where they are, must in itself be Heaven. This place, in my opinion, is not so."
Seeing the king so determined, the arch-beings of heaven turned and gave orders to the celestial messenger, "Show to Yudisthira his friends and kinsmen," and so the divine guide went forward, followed by the king.
Dread and terrible was that road they now journeyed. Dark and polluted, filled with foul odours, dangerous and fearful by roaming beasts and skirted on either side by a running fire. Here and there lay human bones. and signs of terror.
On went the messenger of the gods, and behind him followed the king, his mind every moment sinking deeper and deeper into anguish. At last they reached a gloomy region where waters appeared to boil, foaming, and throwing up clouds of vapour. The leaves of the trees, there were sharp as swords. Here also were deserts heated to white heat. There were terrible thorns also, and boiling oil.
Yudisthira said to his guide, "How much further must we travel along paths like these? The messenger stopped. "Thus far is your way! But if you are weary of this sight already, you have the right of return with me!"
Stupefied by noxious vapours Yudhistira took a few steps backwards. As he did so, moaning voices and sobs broke out in the thick darkness about him. "Stay! stay!" sighed the voices. "Our pain is lessened by your presence. A sweet breeze, a glimpse of light, come with you. Oh, do not leave us like this!"
"Alas!" said Yudisthira in compassion, and immediately stood still amongst these souls in Hell. As he listened, the voices seemed strangely familiar. "Who are you? Who are you?" he exclaimed to one and another, as he heard them, and great beads of sweat stood on his brow as their unbodied groans shaped themselves out of the darkness into answers: they were his brothers and wife.
"I in heaven!" he pondered, "and my kinsmen in hell! Is all this some disorder of the brain? What justice can there be in the world? For this crime shall I abandon the gods themselves." Anger once again rose in the heart of Yudisthira. "Go!" he thundered to his guide. " Return to those who sent you and tell them I will not return to their side. Here, where my brothers suffer, here, where my presence helps, here and not there, will I stay."
The messenger passed swiftly out of sight. Up to high heaven he passed while Yudhistira stood brooding over the untold sufferings in hell and of his relatives.
Not more than a moment had passed when a cool and fragrant breeze began to blow. Light dawned. All the repulsive sights disappeared. The thorny plants vanished from sight. And Yudisthira, raising his eyes, saw himself surrounded by the shining beings again.
Then there were no more illusions of heaven for Yudhistira. His sound moral could not be done away with.
Once a king and queen had a daughter, Savitri. She was good and strong, gentle and pious. She used to keep her word, and stood by those who were in need. Then one day her father began to feel that it was time to think of her marriage. She was now seventeen. Savitri herself wanted to go to a pilgrimage to get directions as to who to marry.
Preparations were made. Grey-headed old courtiers were told off to watch over the princess, and she was to drive in a gilded carriage, surrounded by curtains of scarlet silk, through which she could see everything without being seen. A long row of men and elephants were to follow, carrying tents and furniture and food and a palanquin for Savitri to use when travelling in the forest. She was taken well care of.
They started early one starlit night. After daybreak they reached the edge of a forest beside a stream. There Savitri could bathe and stay the rest of that day. Next day they went on. At times they would encamp for a whole week at a place, and young Savitri would enter her palanquin every morning and have herself carried.
One day in the forest she saw a tall, strong young man. There was something about him that made her hold her breath. Savitri felt that he was just the right one for her; he might be a forester or he might be a king. In any case she wanted him for her husband.
She sped home to her father, and he bade her speak freely before him. "Have you determined where you will bestow yourself?" he asked. Savitri flushed crimson as she replied.
"Tell me all about this youth," said her father.
"In a certain woodland," said the princess, "we met a young man who is living the life of a forester. His father is a blind king who has been driven from his throne in his old age, and is living in the forests in great poverty. His son's name is Satyavan."
A councellor who was sitting there, at once held up one hand suddenly saying, "Oh no! not he!"
The king looked at him anxiously. "Why not?" he said. "My daughter has wealth enough for two."
"Well, it is not that," said the sitting councellor; "but if Savitri marries him she will certainly become a widow, for Satyavan is under a curse, and twelve months from this day he is doomed to die."
The princess turned very pale, and her father said to her, "This is sad news, you must choose again."
She said, "No, dear father. One gives one's faith but once. Having chosen Satyavan, I must face whatever comes to me with this man of my choice."
Both the king and Narada felt that her words were true, so they sent for the young man and his father in the forest and announced the wedding. After the wedding ceremonies the couple went away into the forest to live, and Savitri put away all the robes and jewels of a princess, and set herself to be a faithful and loving daughter to her new parents. But she could not forget the terrible doom that had been pronounced on her husband, and the date of his death. The dreadful moment drew nearer and nearer. At last, when only three days remained, the young wife thought she had best stay awake, and pray for her husband.
At last the fourth morning dawned. She went into the jungle with her husband,. As the hour drew near she suggested that they should stop in a shady spot. Satyavan gathered grass and made a seat for her. Then he filled her lap with wild fruit; and turned to his work of hewing wood. But very soon Satyavan came tottering up to her, saying, "Oh, how my head pains! " Then he lay down with his head on her lap, and passed into a heavy swoon.
At this moment she became aware of a stately personage who was carrying a piece of rope with a noose at the end. He smiled kindly at Savitri. "My errand is not for you, child," he said to her, stooping at the same time and fixing his loop of rope around the soul of Satyavan, that he might thus drag him bound behind him.
Savitri trembled all over as he did this, but when the soul of her husband stood up to follow, then she trembled no longer. She also stood up, with her eyes shining and her hands clasped, prepared to go with Satyavan.
"Farewell, child," said the man with the noose, turning to go and looking over his shoulder; "do not grieve overmuch."
Away he went, down the forest-glades. But as he went, he could distinctly hear the patter of feet behind him. Was she following him? He decided to soothe her grief by gifts. "Savitri," said the strange figure, suddenly turning round on her, "ask anything you like, except the life of your husband, and it shall be yours. Then go home."
Savitri bent low. "Grant his sight once more to my father-in-law!" she said.<
"Easily granted!" said the man with the noose. "Now, good-bye! This is not the place for you."
But still she followed him.
"Another wish shall be yours!" said Yama. "But you must go!"
Savitri then said, "I ask for the return of my father-in-law's wealth and kingdom."
"OK," said the man with the noose, turning his back. But he could not shake her off. Boon after boon was granted her, and each time she added something to the joy of her new home, where she had lived for less than a year. The man with the noose noticed it and said, "This time ask something for yourself. Anything but your husband's life shall be yours. But when this last request is given, that's it."
"Grant me, then, that I may have many sons, and see their children happy before I die!" said Savitri.
The man with the noose was delighted when she agreed to his term. "Of course! Of course! A very good wish!" he said.
Savitri raised her head and smiled, "A widow does not remarry!"
The man with the noose looked at her for a moment. First he hesitated. Then he stooped and undid the noose, saying, "It is a brave heart that follows the husband even to the grave and recovers his life from death itself."
An hour later Prince Satyavan woke up with his head on Savitri's knee, under the same tree where he had swooned. "I had a strange dream," he murmured feebly, "and thought I was dead."
"It was no dream, "said his wife, comforting. "But the night falls. Let us hasten home." And so they did. Very soon the father of the prince got back his old kingdom, and all of them could live well.
The man with the noose is the King of death. And Savitri means 'inspiration'. By heeding forewarnings and doing her best, the newly wed woman could prolong the life of her dear husband.