The legend of Savitri and Satyavan can be traced back to the Mahabharata, where the sage Markandeya narrates the story of Savitri to Yudhishthira. Sri Aurobindo has taken up this legend almost in its entirety without adding any upakhyanas, any sub-plots or stories to it, but he has made some significant alterations, not in terms of the story, but in terms of the importance he has given to different events in the story.
For example, in the original Mahabharata story, Aswapati performs a tapasya seeking progeny. Now, Sri Aurobindo has taken up this idea and we have here Aswapati’s yoga. As I pointed out earlier, where Vyasa devotes 10 lines to describe Aswapati’s arduous 18 years long tapasya, Sri Aurobindo devotes to this enterprise 10,968 lines; almost 22 cantos out of 49. Why does he do so? Who is this Aswapati, what was his quest? If you want to find out what Sri Aurobindo was doing here in Pondicherry for 40 years between 1910 and 1950, even after having acquired the highest siddhis of traditional yoga, you have to go to Aswapati’s yoga and try to understand Aswapati’s quest and what was it that Aswapati was trying to do. Aswapati’s yoga then has been used as a symbol for the quest of man for perfection on earth, perfection of life on earth.
The second departure, the second twist that Sri Aurobindo gives to the original story, is that in the Mahabharata Savitri performs a triratra vow, the austerity she performs for three days and three nights. During these three days and three nights she has to stand in one particular place, without taking any food. In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, this has been transformed into Savitri’s yoga, which is the theme of Book 7, with six of its seven cantos devoted to Savitri’s yoga. So out of 49 cantos of the book, 29 cantos are directly devoted to a description of two yogas, namely, Aswapathi’s yoga and Savitri’s yoga―in many ways, Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and the Mother’s yoga.
Now the third development. In the original story, Aswapati finds that no suitable young man has come forward to claim Savitri’s hand in marriage, and like the traditional Indian father, he too is very worried about his daughter’s marriage. She has come of age, so he sends her out into the open world to find a companion for life. Immediately after that, in the next scene, Savitri has already completed her journey and her quest, and she is coming back to her father to report to him that she has found the young man called Satyavan. This is the original story. Sri Aurobindo takes great interest in the quest itself. He describes the quest in great detail. For example, a major part of Book 4 is devoted to Savitri’s quest: Where did she go? What did she find? Here you have glorious descriptions of the various seasons, Sri Aurobindo’s favourite seasons being the spring and the monsoon.
The whole of Book 5 talks about love: where Satyavan and Savitri meet, how they recognise each other, how they discover each other, and then enter into what is called gandharva vivaha, they get married to each other. In the original story nothing of this is found, and Sri Aurobindo takes great delight in describing this. If Sri Aurobindo had written nothing else but just this Book 5, The Book of Love, I think he would still have made a mark, because nobody has written about human love in this most fulfilling manner. As he says, the touch of heaven doesn’t cancel but fulfils the earth. The claims of the earth are recognised, the claims of heaven are not overriding, they don’t cancel them. So he handles this theme of love with such great beauty, with such great finesse, that it’s a great delight to read Book 5. For most people, especially the young at heart, a good starting point of Savitri would be Book 5 where Satyavan and Savitri come together. That may ignite the fire of aspiration.
Then, Savitri’s mother is only mentioned by name by Vyasa, she has no particular role in the story. In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri she has a very important role. And when Savitri’s mother comes to know that Savitri has chosen this young man Satyavan who has just one year to live, she is flabbergasted like any mother. She is very anxious, very worried, and tries to dissuade Savitri from going ahead and asks her to go out once again and choose a second time. And Savitri, of course, refuses to do that and is adamant: If one year is all I have with Satyavan, then one year is enough for me, she says.
Then Savitri’s mother, who is not named here but in the original Mahabharata story is called Malawi, turns to Narad and asks him this basic fundamental question: What has Savitri done to deserve this misfortune? She is a young girl of 18, she has hurt nobody, she has done no harm, she has done no evil. Why then should her life be cursed? There are at this point of time at least a thousand eligible young men in this country. Why did Savitri’s chariot drive her just to this one young man who had only one year to live? What happened to the other 999 young men? Why didn’t the chariot go to any one of them? In other words, what is this mysterious thing called fate? Why does it strike us in the way it does? Why is it we have so much pain and suffering in this world? If God whom we describe as the ocean of kindness, as omniscient, as omnipotent, God who is so perfect, God who is the very definition of perfection, why has he created this imperfect world, this world which is a vale of tears and suffering? Couldn’t God have created a slightly better world? This is a question Savitri’s mother asks Narad, and Narad tries to explain how evil has come about, what is pain, how does it originate, what is its place. All this which Sri Aurobindo describes in great detail in The Life Divine in a metaphysical treatment, here the same theme is taken up once again and analyzed in the most poetic way. This is something you do not find in the original Mahabharata story.
Now the next major departure. In the Mahabharata story, Yama is just the God of Death, like other gods. But in Sri Aurobindo’s story, Yama represents not just the God of Death, he represents all the forces that oppose evolutionary progress: Yama is Hitler, Yama is Mussolini, Yama is everybody that dampens human enthusiasm, the human spirit for progress, for harmony. Just as Savitri symbolises the upward movement, the divine love that has come down from the supreme heights so that the human aspirant can progress, all that represents obstacles to this human progress is represented by the God of Death.
The final departure, a very significant one, is that in the original story there is a kind of a dialogue, a colloquy between Savitri and the God of Death. It is a very interesting discussion and Savitri emerges as a very smart, very well-spoken, very well-read young woman who dazzles Yama by her eloquence, her diction, her good manners, her reading. And Yama, who is very pleased with the performance of this young girl, keeps giving her boon after boon. Before Yama knows what he has done, he has already blessed Savitri to be the mother of 100 sons. Now, she says, the righteous way for me to have 100 sons is to have my husband back and you are Dharmaraja yourself, so don’t you think it’s proper for you to return Satyavan’s soul? The God of Death, like a benign grandfather, smiles and agrees. So Savitri comes through as an advocate of righteousness, of dharma.
Now, Sri Aurobindo takes up this idea of dharma and dharma in the 20th century, which is a century of great complexities. If you want to define dharma today, you can’t define it in the terms Vyasa defines it 3000 or 4000 years ago. Vyasa did not know of all that was to happen between then and now. The human mind has become so complex, so many new issues have come up, and so this time, this debate between Yama and Savitri in Sri Aurobindo’s epic is a dazzling display of all kinds of intellectual positions. Yama takes various intellectual positions and tries to argue with Savitri. And here in this enterprise Yama takes almost every conceivable philosophical position one could take against Sri Aurobindo’s own enterprise. Nobody has said it is possible to establish on earth the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, of course, can be, but always on the other side of death, not here and now.
This is Sri Aurobindo’s claim: this terrestrial life will be made perfect here and now; this was and is the aim of his yoga. And as you can see, he was talking about a new level of consciousness emerging, the supermind coming down and so on. If you go around and ask people if they accept what Sri Aurobindo has said, most people, if they are sympathetic, will say, Oh, he was a great dreamer but I don’t think it is possible. Why is it not possible? There are a number of reasons. Why did Shankarachraya not talk about it, Madhavacharya not talk about it, somebody else not talk about it, and why does Sri Aurobindo talk about it?
If you want to find the strongest arguments against Sri Aurobindo and his views, you don’t have to read any of his critics, you just have to read Savitri where Yama expresses them so powerfully. He at one time argues from the point of a nihilist, and you wonder whether he is not himself arguing against Sri Aurobindo. At another time he argues from the position of realism; a third time, he takes the position of absolute Vedanta, absolute Advaita. At another point he takes the Buddhist viewpoint. And as Yama takes these various positions, Savitri confronts him and tries to answer, tries to clarify why what she is trying to do is still probable for what has to be done. Thus, this is a very interesting part of the epic. Books 9, 10 and 11 are comprised of the God of Death and Savitri engaged in this debate. That is something new, new in spirit, because Sri Aurobindo was writing in the 20th century. These are the different ways in which the story of Savitri in Sri Aurobindo’s epic comes out as different from the original story in Vyasa’s epic.
I tried to point out earlier what Sri Aurobindo must have found fascinating about this story of Savitri. Remember, I referred to two other poems of his: one is Urvasi and the other Love and Death. In both these poems there are three characters: love, death and life on earth. There is a confrontation of these three and Sri Aurobindo takes up and develops this story in different ways. What fascinates me most about Savitri is that Savitri is not willing to bargain life on earth for anything the God of Death is willing to give her. She says, if you want to give me anything at all, it must have meaning in terms of earthly existence. Nothing here has any value in terms of earthly existence unless it has a material manifestation. It is quite surprising! Nobody in the entire spiritual history of mankind affirmed the claims of matter so unequivocally as Sri Aurobindo. Even if God has to come down here, God has to first of all to prepare matter―the laws of matter have to be recognized, have to be respected. God chose to create this world out of matter, so matter also is divine. Matter also has its very important claims, therefore, any perfection you can think of must be realised in material terms here on earth.
As I pointed out, the story of Savitri begins as a Vedic myth and what Sri Aurobindo must have found in that story he himself talks about it in a note. I’ll read that note. If you have the new edition of Savitri, it’s printed at the very beginning, but it is found in other writings also.
The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle.
When a Vedic myth becomes a Puranic story, very often it takes a popular form. In taking a popular form, the central thrust of the myth is lost and that’s why the Satyavan and Savitri story is generally regarded as a story of the glory of parthiva [earthly, material, etc.] love. However, the original point is as Sri Aurobindo points out,
Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of being within itself but descended into the grip of death and ignorance;
I often tell people that there are three stories in this: one is, of course, the inner story of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and quest; two, the Mother’s yoga and quest; and three, each one of us is a character in this story. We all begin our lives with the aspiration for truth but in time we get lost, waylaid as it were, by forces of ignorance, and caught up finally by death. That is Satyavan—each one of us carries Satyavan within us. This is the Satyavan who is here, caught up in material ignorance, and
Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save;
Savitri is the Divine’s Grace which comes down and tries to save the human soul which is an aspirant to truth, which is always, as we say tamasoma jyothirgamaya, asathoma satgamaya. This is the soul, this is the aspiration we all carry within us. The quest for the Infinite is the only quest that we all have. It is very often camouflaged. We go after finite things, but why do the finite things never really satisfy us? This simply means that nothing will satisfy the human soul except the Infinite. The human soul looks for the Infinite, that is the source of Light, that is the source of Bliss, that is the source of Immortality. But since we don’t know what we are looking for we think we are looking for wealth, we are looking for faith, we are looking for name, we are looking for power and until this entire journey is finished, we won’t hear the call of the enchanting flute of the Lord. And this divine Grace, this Savitri comes down to help this aspiring soul of man to evolve further. That’s what Sri Aurobindo is saying.
Who is Aswapati?
Aswapati, Lord of the Horse, her human father is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes;
Even before Savitri can be born you require a ground prepared by Aswapati. You need this concentrated spiritual energy. This has to be produced first, then only can Savitri be born.
Who is Dyumatsena?
Dyumatsena, Lord of the Shinning Hosts, father of Satyavan, is the Divine Mind, here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision, and through that loss its kingdom of glory.
The story of Savitri is not something that once happened and is finished. The story of Savitri is enacted in every age. It is being enacted in this age, it was enacted in the ages past. It is enacted every time when the human soul is arrested in its progress and doesn’t know how to rise beyond where it finds itself. Savitri is born as the divine Grace to help Satyavan go beyond this impediment. Therefore, he says,
Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.
Now, as I said, Satyavan is this aspiring human spirit caught here in the mesh of ignorance and death, while Savitri is the Divine’s Grace, the Divine’s love which has come down. If you want beautiful words, Sri Aurobindo explains it very clearly. The context is not important for our present purposes. Here, he refers to Satyavan:
He is my soul, that climbs from nescient Night
Through life and mind and supernature’s Vast
To the supernal light of Timelessness
And my eternity hid in moving Time
And my boundlessness cut by the curve of Space.
It climbs to the greatness it has left behind
And to the beauty and joy from which it fell,
To the closeness and sweetness of all things divine,
To light without bounds and life illimitable,
Taste of the depths of the Ineffable’s bliss,
Touch of the immortal and the infinite.
He is my soul that gropes out of the beast
To reach humanity’s heights of lucent thought…
And the vicinity of Truth’s sublime.
He is the godhead growing in human lives
Bk 11, Canto 1, p. 702
Who is Satyavan?
He is the godhead growing in human lives
And in the body of earth-being’s forms:
He is the soul of man climbing to God
In Nature’s surge out of earth’s ignorance.
Bk 11, Canto 1, p. 703
If this is Satyavan, then who is Savitri? Sri Aurobindo himself explains: “O Savitri, thou art my spirit’s Power.” Satyavan is the consciousness, Savitri is the power.
The revealing voice of my immortal Word,
The face of Truth upon the roads of Time
Pointing to the souls of men the routes to God.
Bk 11, Canto 1, p. 703
Savitri is the one who points the souls of men to the routes to God. She is the one who helps, she is the one who directs, and that’s why she is the Mother.
While the dim light from the veiled Spirit’s peak
Falls upon Matter’s stark inconscient sleep
As if a pale moonbeam on a dense glade,
And Mind in a half-light moves amid half-truths
And the human heart knows only human love
And life is a stumbling and imperfect force
And the body counts out its precarious days,
You shall be born into man’s dubious hours
In forms that hide the soul’s divinity
And show through veils of the earth’s doubting air
My glory breaking through clouds a sun,
Or burning like a rare and inward fire,
And with my nameless influence fill men’s lives.
Bk 11, Canto 1, p. 703
This is Savitri: this supreme Grace, this Ishwari has descended from the transcendental heights because the Ishwara is caught in the meshes of ignorance. This is the Radha who comes down to rescue the Krishna who mischievously is lost here amidst the lila of ignorance. This then is the central symbolism.
This Satyavan, struggling helplessly, very often giving up of ever rising beyond where he is, and then comes the divine Grace in whatever form, directing him, helping him: this is what happens in life to all of us. This is an important part of the symbolism of Savitri.
Earlier I talked about Aswapati’s yoga and said that Aswapati is basically representative of modern man who is blessed with all that the East and the West have to offer, and yet looking around he finds human life is miserable. The burden of suffering of mankind still remains undiminished: exploitation, cruelty, disharmony can be found in various forms.
Why is all this happening? On page 609 you have beautiful lines which express this bewilderment, this puzzlement, in the very last two lines:
The Avatars have lived and died in vain,
Vain was the sage’s thought, the prophet’s voice;
In vain is seen the shining upward Way.
Earth lies unchanged beneath the circling sun;
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 609
“She loves her fall.” The tragic thing about this earth, about the human condition, is that man seems to love his fall:
She loves her fall and no omnipotence
Her mortal imperfections can erase,
Force on man’s crooked ignorance Heaven’s straight line
Or colonise a world of death with gods.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610
This is Aswapati’s puzzlement. Almost all the forces have been tried—forces of intellect, education we have tried, science we have tried, religion we have tried, philanthropy we have tried, morality, spirituality. Spirituality gets hold of the soul within but everything else is lost. The earth is lost, the very purpose for which God built this beautiful world and the evolutionary nature invested such tremendous creativity to create a man out of a handful of dust. What are we? We are a handful of dust, but our destiny is to represent here, manifest here in this creation as God’s perfection. If you want this perfection here, you need to bring a transcendental Power. That is what Aswapati finds out. We are not talking about electric power or nuclear power―these are powers of a secondary nature—the primary powers are the powers of consciousness in man.
Is it the purpose of spirituality to bring this creation nearer to perfection? For that what do you need? If the human mind had the capacity, by now we would have made a happy world. But we have not been able to make a happy world; we make a mess of everything. Why? This mess-making tendency is a characteristic feature of the human mind. Something beyond the human mind has to come and that is something that is not yet available.
The transcendental supreme Mother has to come down for it, she has to be born and make it possible for man to realise here, to manifest here, the supramental consciousness, which alone has the capacity to annihilate all the negations, all the limitations which come with the tremendous capacities that the mind has. The mind has built up a wonderful civilisation, no doubt about it, and mind is a wonderful thing, but it’s not a complete thing. It has to be energised, it has to be made perfect. Aswapati finds there is no power here now that can bring man to perfection. All revolutions failed, all revolutions will fail, because these revolutions do not do anything basically to human consciousness, the constitution of human consciousness. That is left exactly as it is. We change the outer surroundings, but the man remains untouched. This will not do. Therefore, the new man who is going to come will be very much like us—he will not have two heads and four hands―but he will have a new power of consciousness which will make discord impossible. There won’t be discord or disharmony. It is this new power that has to come and that is one of the meanings of Aswapati’s symbol.