“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 04: How to Read Savitri

Talks by Prof. Mangesh V. Nadkarni in Pondicherry in 1995. All posts can be found HERE. A ZIP archive for off-line listening and reading is HERE

The very enterprise that somebody in the 20th century can write an epic looks incredible to most people, for generally it is believed that epics are written during the infancy of a culture. You have the Ramayana, you have the Mahabharata, you have the great Greek epics, you have epics in Latin. You have epics in all cultures, but most of them were written and used during the infancy of those civilisations or cultures. The 20th century has been a century when life has been so much fragmentised that there is nothing whole left anymore. Anything sublime necessarily sounds bombastic and so the temper of the time probably demands a different kind of poetry. An epic is a holistic vision of life which is now lost. We have almost reached the point of no return in the senility of our civilisation and culture.

So at a point like this for Sri Aurobindo to write an epic remains to many people something of a mystery. They can’t take anyone seriously who thinks of writing an epic now. For now you can write haikus, you can write little poems, at best five pages, 10 pages. Where do people have time for 720 pages of poetry? You can just forget about it! My colleagues in the universities have such wrong notions about these things. Now, very often a half-truth is very dangerous, and that an epic cannot be written now is a half-truth; it’s a very dangerous half-truth. Sri Aurobindo has always been saying that we are now on the threshold of a new age, a new age of civilisation where the old barriers are crashing down. Man is realising his entire universe is a global village, and caste, creed, religion, race—these things have no intrinsic value to the inner life of an individual.

So after this rationalism, individualism, we’re probably going into the subjective age. A new civilisation is going to come to us, a new man is being born, a new culture is coming. Therefore, just as this is a transitional period which marks the end of one cycle of civilisation, it also marks the beginning of another cycle of civilisation which is the subjective civilisation―a civilisation in which man’s interior landscape is going to mean a great deal, and man’s psychological problems, his spiritual problems are going to assume a greater importance. If you look at the present time, at the beginning of a new cycle of civilisation, you’ll see that we are already at the infancy of a new civilisation. And since we are at the infancy of a new civilisation, this is the right time for an epic of a subjective kind.

Now, Sri Aurobindo has written an epic, and all epics basically describe a journey. The Ramayana is Rama’s journey. The Odyssey also is a journey. All epics are based on describing a journey. But the journeys until now were journeys on the outer surface of this earth. Now there is no more outer surface that remains to be explored, we have gone as far as the moon and we are thinking of going beyond. So there is nothing in the outer space to explore anymore. But the one space man has not yet explored—I’m not talking of individuals but of humanity as a whole, as a group, as a collectivity—is the inner space of man.

Sri Aurobindo devoted 50 to 60 years of his life to an exclusive pursuit of this, his primary occupation was exploration of the inner regions of man. That is why if he cannot write an epic of this kind of an inner exploration of man, the spiritual dimension of man’s life, of human civilisation, who else can? So it is therefore incorrect to say this is not the time for an epic. This is not the time for the old kind of epic. But this is the right time for a new kind of epic, and Savitri represents this new kind of epic. As you will see, as I pointed out earlier, out of the 49 cantos, 29 are directly devoted to the inner exploration of Aswapati’s yoga and Savitri’s yoga.

Sri Aurobindo was thinking of the social structure for the subjective age, and was looking at various aspects, so he wrote The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity. He also looked at poetry, mainly English poetry, in some detail, and saw the evolutionary trend even within English poetry, beginning with Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, 17th century, 18th century, the Romantics, Tennyson, Swinburne, Meredith, some of the 20th century writers. He was not producing a textbook history of English literature, that was not the purpose, he was giving a perspective on English literature which will enable you to see it as an expression of this evolution of consciousness. English literature also represents this evolution of consciousness. And he was trying to say, no matter whether you are English, American, German or Indian, whoever you are, the primary thrust a poet will develop will be a thrust inwards, and spiritual poetry will be a new kind of poetry, and that poetry will have a prominent place in the coming age. What the trends of that poetry will be, what the marks of excellence of that poetry will be, these are things he discussed in some detail in his book called The Future Poetry.

Sri Aurobindo describes poetry as the mantra of the real. Poetry essentially is a mantra, and how does he describe a mantra? The mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, is only possible when three highest intensities of poetic speech meet and become indissolubly one. What are these three highest intensities? One, a highest intensity of rhythmic movement; two, a highest intensity of verbal form and thought substance; and three, a highest intensity of the soul’s vision of truth. So, sound value, thought value and soul value. When these three values come together and fuse, the highest musical sound value emerges, and with it comes the vibration, the rhythm, and the highest thought value, thought substance, emotional substance, plus what he calls the highest intensity of the soul’s vision of truth. He also says that poetry is born at the heights of the superconscient, but it finds its reflection in what is called man’s irudhayasamudra, that is, it gets reflected in the innermost sanctum of the human consciousness.

Thus, the birth of a mantra has a kind of twin origin—it is born in the highest supraconscient level and simultaneously it is projected in the heart of the poet. All great poetry comes about by a unison of these three elements. It is insufficiency of one or another which makes the inequalities in the work of even the greatest poets. So you need sound value, thought value and the soul’s vision of truth. When does then poetry become a mantra? It is only at a certain highest level of the fused intensities of these three values that the mantra becomes possible.

The notion of mantra is not alien to the Indian tradition. We all know of Vedic mantras, when mantras came out in a symbolic form. Mantras very often look as if they are describing external rituals, homas and yagnas and so on. These are only an external form, but in fact they have a deeper meaning, a spiritual content. So that kind of poetry was produced in the Vedic time, which was a symbolic age. Now we have gone beyond the rational age. The mantric poetry that is now going to be produced will not be exactly like the Vedic poetry, but will have the same soul values.

How do you derive great benefit from poetry like this? For instance, let’s say Savitri is mantric poetry. How do you respond to it? How do you read it? How do you open yourself to it? Well, Sri Aurobindo’s bounty is such that he has given you guidance at every stage and he has given a beautiful description of how a mantra is to be received, how it works in the proper receptacle.

As when the mantra sinks in Yoga’s ear,
Its message enters stirring the blind brain
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

When you first hear a mantra, naturally, being a mental being, you will try to understand it in intellectual terms. Your first approach is through the mind; it creates some kind of a stir at the intellectual level.

And keeps in the dim ignorant cells its sound;
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

Every mantra has a sound body, and you can’t leave out the sound body and take only the meaning. Mantra has no meaning, mantra is itself its own meaning. The entire thing comes with this body. So when we receive it, we try to receive the physical sound, the sound body of it at one level, and the meaning of it we try to analyse. Now, as you know, many of us have probably chanted the Gayatri mantra and the meaning of Gayatri itself is very simple, very straightforward. And you wonder what is the great potency in this Gayatri mantra because intellectually all it asks for is illumination, the highest light to illuminate your intellect.

What the mantra says, your outer ear cannot hear, your outer mind cannot perceive. Before you can really perceive what the mantra says, as the poet himself explains here, the outer mind, the outer consciousness has to settle down to what is called a receptive hushed silence. He says:

The hearer understands a form of words
And, musing on the index thought it holds,
He strives to read it with the labouring mind,
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

You look at the etymological meaning of this word and that word, you read commentaries on this and that, there are big fat books on each one of these mantras. You read all those and become a pandit, you know the meaning of everything and yet you haven’t really understood the potency of the mantra, the power of the mantra, you haven’t yet felt it.

He strives to read it with the labouring mind,
But finds bright hints, not the embodied truth:
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

You have not yet been able to get into touch with the truth that the mantra embodies. Then comes the stage when you are ready to receive the mantra. Receptivity, to be a good listener, is itself a difficult art. To be able to listen to the mantra, the first thing is to be able to cultivate this silence. That’s why he says:

Then falling silent in himself to know
He meets the deeper listening of his soul
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

Once you are given to the chanting of this mantra, after a while your physical mind doesn’t have to pick it up, it keeps repeating itself from within. And gradually, if you are really poised in the right mood of receptivity,

He meets the deeper listening of his soul:
The Word repeats itself in rhythmic strains:
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

You don’t have to repeat it, the word itself has got hold of your being. Then, once that stage comes,

Thought, vision, feeling, sense, the body’s self
Are seized unutterably and he endures
An ecstasy and an immortal change;
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

Every mantra is supposed to bring great potencies to your consciousness and change it. It’s not a mechanical activity: go on saying ten million japa Rama, or you keep a diary. All this probably helps a little, but that’s not the primary thing. The primary thing is the ability to open yourself up in an absolute mood of surrender, silence, receive it, let it work within yourself such that thought, vision, feeling, sense, the body’s self are seized unutterably and endure an ecstasy and an immortal change. Then what happens?

He feels a Wideness and becomes a Power,
All knowledge rushes on him like a sea:
Transmuted by the white spiritual ray
He walks in naked heavens of joy and calm,
Sees the God-face and hears transcendent speech:
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

Every mantra is the outer body of a transcendent word and you hear the bija, the seed of it.

An equal greatness in her life was sown.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

This refers to Savitri. This is what happens to Savitri when she received―as the context shows—Aswapati’s words like a mantra. This is how the mantra works and you have to qualify yourself to be a practitioner of a mantra in this way. Sri Aurobindo has talked a great deal about overhead aesthetics, the higher levels of the mind, their characteristics and so on. A detailed description of it is given in The Life Divine. In Savitri itself there are passages where he talks about this:

On summit Mind are radiant altitudes
Exposed to the lustre of Infinity,
Outskirts and dependencies of the house of Truth,
Upraised estates of Mind and measureless.
There man can visit but there he cannot live.
Bk 10, Canto 4, p. 659

He says that there are levels of consciousness above the mind which are not native to man yet. Man can visit them by an effort of his consciousness but he can’t live there at the moment. This is a description―on this page and the next one―of cosmic thought, of illumined mind, intuition, overmind, supermind and so on.

There are a couple of samples where Sri Aurobindo himself has recognised his own writing in Savitri as coming from the highest level of inspiration. Of these examples, here’s one which is a description of Savitri:

Ardent was her self-poised unstumbling will;
Her mind, a sea of white sincerity,
Passionate in flow, had not one turbid wave.
As in a mystic and dynamic dance
A priestess of immaculate ecstasies
Inspired and ruled from Truth’s revealing vault
Moves in some prophet cavern of the gods,
A heart of silence in the hands of joy
Inhabited with rich creative beats
A body like a parable of dawn
That seemed a niche for veiled divinity
Or golden temple-door to things beyond.
Bk 1, Canto 2, pp. 14-15

This entire passage, Sri Aurobindo has acknowledged, shows a stamp of the inspiration coming from very high sources. Another very interesting passage I would like to draw your attention to is on page 343. Here again, not much need be said about the context except to say that it is now Aswapati talking to the Divine Mother and saying that he has already seen in the occult world a new race being made ready to come down and occupy the earth. The Divine Mother is very happy to see Aswapati and she says: Whatever you have gained is yours, don’t ask that I give all this to mankind right away. Man has to wait, he is so much in love with ignorance, he loves his present position so much he has no value for all this, let him wait. In the course of evolution, he will also come and see this great effulgent perfection that you have seen. Let man wait.

Aswapati is unwilling to go back empty handed, he pleads on behalf of mankind and one of the things he says is: Why should we delay because I’ve already seen the new race is ready in the occult world; it’s all there, it just has to be precipitated. Why don’t you give this push? That’s what Aswapati is saying, and in describing this new race, there are very wonderful words of great poetic power and beauty:

I saw the Omnipotent’s flaming pioneers
Over the heavenly verge which turns towards life
Come crowding down the amber stairs of birth;
Forerunners of a divine multitude,
Out of the paths of the morning star they came
Into the little room of mortal life.
I saw them cross the twilight of an age,
The sun-eyes children of a marvellous dawn,
The great creators with wide brows of calm,
The massive barrier-beakers of the world
And wrestlers with destiny in her lists of will,
The labourers in the quarries of the gods,
The messengers of the Incommunicable,
The architects of immortality.
Into the fallen human sphere they came,
Faces that wore the Immortal’s glory still,
Voices that communed still with the thoughts of God,
Bodies made beautiful by the spirit’s light,
Carrying the magic word, the mystic fire,
Carrying the Dionysian cup of joy,
Approaching eyes of a diviner man,
Lips chanting an unknown anthem of the soul,
Feet echoing in the corridors of Time.
High priests of wisdom, sweetness, might and bliss,
Discoverers of beauty’s sunlit way
And swimmers of Love’s laughing fiery floods
And dancers within rapture’s golden doors,
Their tread one day shall change the suffering earth
And justify the light on Nature’s face.
Bk 3, Canto 4, pp. 343-344

Sublimity in poetry is one thing modern man distrusts the most. Unless you are Sri Aurobindo, you shouldn’t try to write this kind of poetry. Only a person who has that kind of vision can write this kind of poetry and ring true. In the hands of any other poet this is an impossible feat to achieve. So when modern readers doubt sublimity and very often mistake it for bombast, I don’t blame them, but they haven’t yet met the light of Sri Aurobindo. That is why it is wrong to apply the same standards to any other poet which are applied to Sri Aurobindo. His vision was different, his level of consciousness was different, and therefore, this is the kind of sublime poetry he can produce and it sounds very genuine. It’s only by opening yourself to poetry of this kind that you yourself—that was Sri Aurobindo’s hope—will grow, i.e. in this transcendence of mental limitations. In man’s upward ascent, poetry of this kind probably will be of help. That’s why he was hoping that more and more people will cultivate poetry of this kind.

I wish to bring to your attention certain things that the Mother has said about Savitri. If you don’t refer to these things, I don’t think any introductory talks on Savitri will ever be regarded as complete. I’ll read out some things that the Mother has said about Savitri―what in her view is the importance of Savitri and how one should receive Savitri. There has to be a concentrated receptive silence in which Savitri should be read, for it is not a book to be seen, it’s a book to be read in a kind of subdued voice. You have to read it to yourself, not to other people. It helps to read it to oneself because the poetry has to have this sound body.

There are many, many passages of Savitri you don’t understand, but don’t feel discouraged by what you don’t understand. Concentrate on passages you do understand, and no matter who you are, if you have a wide enough acquaintance with Savitri, you will find at least half a dozen passages which are already beginning to make sense to you. If they do, go back to those passages again and again. Once you do that, you’ll find a surprising thing happening. You know, you have a dark background against which there are dots of light, a few; everything else is black, you don’t understand it. Gradually as you begin to read, as your acquaintance grows with these passages, the dots gradually expand. You’ll find that the lines preceding the lines that you understand, but which you didn’t understand earlier on, and the lines following the passages you understand, begin to make sense to you. So you’ll find on all sides these light circles expanding until the whole screen is well lit. This is the way to do it.

As I said, Sri Aurobindo waited for Savitri to descend en masse as it were from some other level. You shouldn’t try to say, Oh, I’ll try to read Savitri during the weekend. It is something you cultivate, you devote your life to. We have old an Indian tradition of parayan (complete recitation of a sacred book), you go back to it again and again. But it should not be a ritual, it should not be mechanical. Your heart’s adoration, heart’s love, should all be there and one should do it little by little, and you’ll find Savitri takes you up and makes you understand.

And this is what the Mother says:

Savitri alone is sufficient to make you climb to the highest peaks. If truly one knows how to meditate on Savitri, one will receive all the help one needs. For him who wishes to follow this path, it’s a concrete help as though the Lord himself were taking you by the hand and leading you to the destined goal. And then, every question, however personal it may be, has its answer here, every difficulty finds its solution herein; indeed there is everything that is necessary for doing the yoga.

It may be said then that Savitri is a revelation, it’s a meditation, it’s a quest of the infinite, of the eternal. If it is read with this aspiration for immortality, the reading itself will serve as a guide to immortality. To read Savitri is indeed to practise yoga. Spiritual concentration; one can find there all that is needed to realise the Divine.

Each verse of Savitri is like a revealed mantra which surpasses all that man possess by way of knowledge and, I repeat this, that the words are arranged in such a way that the sonority of the rhythm leads you to the origin of sound, which is om.

Everything is there, mysticism, occultism, philosophy, the history of evolution, the history of man, of the gods, of creation, of Nature., How the universe was created and why, for what purpose, for what destiny, all is there.

Indeed, Savitri is something concrete, living, it is all replete, packed with consciousness, it is the supreme knowledge, above all human philosophies and religions. It is the spiritual path, it is yoga, tapasya, sadhana, everything in its single body. Savitri has an extraordinary power, it gives out vibrations for him who can receive them, the true vibrations of each stage of consciousness. It is incomparable, it is the truth in its plenitude, the truth Sri Aurobindo brought down on earth.

          [From The Supreme, by Mona Sarkar]

I’ll end by referring to these lines from the invocation to the Divine Mother:

She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire.
The luminous heart of the Unknown is she,
A power of silence in the depths of God;
She is the Force, the inevitable Word,
The magnet of our difficult ascent,
The Sun from which we kindle all our suns,
The Light that leans from the unrealised Vasts,
The joy that beckons from the impossible,
The Might of all that never yet came down.
Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 314



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