For life's counsel and consolation, I turn often to spiritual and philosophical classics – the Meditation of Marcus Aerulieus Caesar, the Dhammapada, the mystical poems of Rumi, the Tao Te Ching and the Sayings of Chuang Chou, Plato's Dialogues, the Book of Job, and the Bhagavad Gita.

One day in 1990, I re-read a passage from the Mahabharata (p112 retold by William Black) of the love of a wife that conquers even death. I was so moved by the story I handcopied it into my diary then, before returning the book to the National Library. Here's the excerpt:

Savitri the woman was holding the body of her dying husband, Satyavan, when she saw Yama, the king of death approaching. Yama's skin was dark green and he wore a red robe with a red flower in his loose black hair. He was holding a small noose of silver thread in his left hand. He said: "The days of Satyavan's life are full and I have come for him."

The Death Lord reached into Satyavan's breast, on the left side somewhere near the heart, and drew forth his soul, a person no larger than a thumb and bound the soul in his noose. Yama withdrew into the forest but the woman Savitri followed him. He stopped and said: "Go back; you cannot follow any further."

"All who are born must one day follow you," she replied. "Let me only go a little further as your friend."

Yama stopped and slowly turned and looked at Savitri. "It is true you have no fear of me. I take you for my friend and do you take in return whatever I can give. But I cannot give his life again to Satyavan."

"Friendship may come after only seven steps taken together," said Savitri. "Let Dyumatsena's blindness fall away from him." Dyumatsena was her blind father-in-law.

"It falls. Now return for you are tired."

"But I am not," said Savitri. "I am with Satyavan for the last time. Give me leave to walk on awhile."

"I give. Always I take away, and again take away. It is good to be giving. Follow then if you will, and take another gift from me, except only as before."

"Let Dyumatsena regain his kingdom."

"He will," said Yama. He and Savtri walked on, to the south, and the branches and hanging vines parted for them to pass and closed behind. They came to a stream and Yama held water in his hands for Savitri to drink. "It is not hard to give," said Yama, "for when life is finished and all must be given up, it is not difficult. There is pain in life but none in death. What is very hard is to find one worthy of giving anything to."

He looked at Savitri. "Yet this water is not clearer than your heart. You seek what you want, you choose and it is done, you do not wish to be anyone else. Ask another gift, anything but this life of Satyavan."

"Let my father have one hundred sons."

"He shall have them," said Yama. "But ask of me something more, for yourself, anything but Satyavan's life."

Savitri answered: "Then may I too have one hundred sons by my husband."

Yama sat down on the riverbank and watched the water flowing by. "With no thought you answered me. You told the truth. How can you have sons if Satyavan is dead? But you did not think of that."


"I know you didn't. But he has no more life. It is all gone."

"That is why I asked nothing for myself, for I am one half dead, and I do not wish even for heaven."

Yama sighed: "How much is your life worth without Satyavan?"

"Nothing, Lord."

"Will you give me half your days on earth?"

"Yes. You may have them."

Again Yama's unblinking, unmoving eyes rested long on Savitri. At last he said: "It is done. I have taken your days and given them to your husband as his own. Shall I tell you the number of those days?"

Savitri said: "No. Will we go back now?"

The Death Lord held up his silver noose and it was empty. "His soul rests with you. You will carry it back yourself." Yama stood up and walked on alone, to the Land of the Dead, with an empty noose.

Granny's funeral | Meditation on Death | Will anyone cry at your funeral?
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The surf at the Twelve Apostles, Australia. Picture by Francis Chin