Vata Savitri

Vata Savitri

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: May-June; last three days (or last day) of the bright half of Jyestha
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Banyan Tree

ORIGINS

Vata Savitri is a tradition in Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Vata Savitri is a fast observed by Hindu women who want to avoid widowhood. During the Middle Ages, being left a widow was the most dreaded misfortune that could befall a Hindu woman. Even now, orthodox Hindu women all hope to die before their husbands. On Vata Savitri, therefore, they perform special ceremonies designed to promote the health and longevity of their husbands.

Savitri was the daughter of King Ashvapati. When she was old enough to marry, her father told her she could choose the man she wanted as her husband. She chose Satyavan, a hermit who lived in the jungle. The seer Narad warned Savitri that Satyavan was destined to die within a year. But she refused to let this knowledge change her mind and married him anyway. She got rid of all her jewels and fancy dresses and wore the coarse garments of a hermit. During the last three days of his life, she vowed to fast. Then, on his final day, she followed him as he went out to cut wood. He was so tired he lay down with his head in her lap and fell asleep.

There are several versions of what happened next. One says that the branch of a tree fell on his head, while another claims he was bit by a snake. In any case, when Yama, the god of death, appeared to snatch his soul out of his body, Savitri chose to follow. Yama was so impressed by her devotion that he restored her husband to life and blessed them with a hundred sons.

Savitri is regarded as a symbol of marital fidelity. The festival held in her honor takes its name from the vata or BANYAN TREE , which she worshipped on the day of her husband's death. Hindu women get up early on this day and, after bathing, go out in groups to worship the banyan tree. They water the tree, sprinkle vermilion (red powder) on it, wrap raw cotton threads around its trunk, and then circle it seven times. They also observe a fast and make an offering of sugar and ghee (clarified butter). Women who are unable to get to a banyan tree worship a twig of it at home and distribute sweets to their family members and neighbors. They also pray for their husbands' prosperity and good health.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Banyan Tree

The banyan tree, also known as the Indian fig tree, is a symbol of immortality because it never dies. Its aerial roots support new branches, and it can go on growing for hundreds of years. Savitri is usually shown holding a branch of the banyan in one hand and the tree's aerial root in the other. An offshoot of the banyan tree can be seen growing over her head.

Hindu women believe that worshipping the banyan tree on Vata Savitri will guarantee a long life for their husbands.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gupte, B.A. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1919. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.

WEB SITE

Hinduism Today www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/2005/1-3/56-57_women.shtml