According to Savithri’s telling, the original Savithri was a queen married to the King Satiyan. After a few years of marriage, their kingdom was lost and they were banished to the forest. One day, Satiyan was bitten by a snake. The lord of death arrived on a buffalo and tried to take him away. Savithri begged Death not to, but he was relentless. After several attempts to take Satiyan away, however, Death realized he could not. Death told Savithri that he would give her anything she wants in exchange for her husband’s life. Savithri told Death that she wanted three things. First, she asked for her kingdom back, and Death returned it. She then asked him for her parents to be restored to the kingdom, and he did that as well. For her third wish, Savithri asked Death for a child and he agreed. Death told Savithri that since she had her three wishes, he would now be taking her dead husband away. “You can’t,” Savithri told him. “You promised me a child. Satiyan is my husband. How can you expect me to have a child without him?” Death realized his mistake, and was forced to revive Satiyan in order to fulfill his promise to Savithri.
Among the Hindu community in Tamil Nadu, there is a day in March when Savithri is celebrated. This is supposedly the day that she cleverly won her husband back from Death. On this day, women fast wear a yellow thread around their necks as a symbol of marriage and chastity. At an auspicious time, they make a meal out of simple food Savithri would have eaten in the forest and they serve it on a plantain leaf.
After she told me the story, I asked Savithri about this name and why it was given to her. She thought for a while and then she told me she thought that Indian Hindus traditionally name their kids after gods and goddesses with a particular goal in mind. “When people hear Savithri,” she told me, “they remember her story. They remember her chastity. The purpose of names is so you are reminded of these stories.” I asked Savithri if she felt a special connection to this story or a special connection to the day when Savithri is celebrated and she shook her head. “The name is not about me,” she said, “the name is to help us all remember to give thanks.” She believes these naming traditions act as a way for daily reality to be combined with spirituality. She told me that, unsurprisingly, the tradition of naming one’s children after gods and goddesses is becoming less and less common as more people name their children after cultural icons or give them names that are popular in the west.
In the United States, so much emphasis is placed on giving names to represent an individual. It seems like a drastically different approach to choose names not for the sake of the individual, but for the sake of remembering a common virtue or story. In some ways, however, it might not be so different in practice. All names carry stories. Some of these names carry specific stories; names like Savithri or Holden or Hermione or Ophelia. But stories also form around the names of the people we know. When I hear the name Savithri, even if the name itself doesn’t immediately stand for a symbol of chastity and a story about an almost-fallen King, it does come to stand for another story that is created by the individual who bears it. Savithri, to me, will always carry the story of my time in Mysore and evenings spent talking in a living room and warm dosas and walks to the temple. As we speak these names aloud, our minds fill in what they come to represent, whether it is religious stories passed down for generations, or merely our own memories.
Savithri making dosas.