“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 05 Book 1 Canto 1

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

We’ll start with Book 1, Canto 1. Many people have said that this is a difficult canto and it looks as if Sri Aurobindo has posed this question at the very beginning: if you can take this, you can take the rest. But the point is, it’s not sufficiently realised how appropriate an introduction to the whole epic this canto is. As you can see, it is called “The Symbol Dawn.” This is an introduction, the overture as it were, to the whole epic, which is itself a symbol.

What’s being described here is the dawn of that particular day on which Satyavan was destined to die. Now why did Sri Aurobindo begin the story at that point? This is a western tradition: he respects what are called the three unities. If you really look at the entire epic, there is unity of time, unity of place, unity of action. The entire story takes place between one dawn and the following dawn. Everything described here takes place within 24 hours. It takes place also on the verge of the forest in which Satyavan and his father had their hermitage. And there is the unity of action—there are no upakhyanas here, no side stories, sub-stories—one simple story of Savitri meeting Satyavan and their finding love together, the God of Death snatching Satyavan away from Savitri, and Savitri claiming Satyavan back for herself and for the earth.  This is the story.

Now, Sri Aurobindo begins mid-way—not with the birth of Savitri, not with the birth of Satyavan, not with the birth of Aswapati—but on the dawn of that day on which Satyavan was destined to die. This canto has 341 lines, and the first 185 lines is a section that is a description of the dawn of that particular day. Now why is this description of a dawn difficult? It is because in the whole of the English language there has been no attempt to write this kind of poetry. How is it different from other kinds of poetry? The primary difference lies in the fact that most poets primarily describe the outer scene in terms of metaphors, similes. They defer to the feelings, the inner aspects basically to embellish, to make prominent the physical scene. For Sri Aurobindo the physical reality is only skin deep. He describes the physical reality in such a way that a multi-layered inner reality automatically unveils itself. Other poets describe the inner reality so as to make the outer reality more prominent. In Sri Aurobindo’s case, exactly the reverse happens. And this is true of the epic as a whole, because Sri Aurobindo was not primarily interested in telling us the story of Satyavan and Savitri, which every Indian knows, he was interested in using this story as a framework for the great message, for the great vision that he had to deliver.

So on the one hand he is telling us the story―this is Satyavan, this is Savitri, this is Aswapati, this is what they did, this is what happened to them―but in describing the story a whole world of reality is opened up: all the major problems that confront man in the 20th century―man’s past, man’s future, do we have a future at all, if we have a future what kind of future is it, what is the explanation for all the inadequacies, the play of ignorance that you see all around us; if you are realistic, if you really look at life, look at fate, look at all the suffering, the turmoil, the clashes, is there still a place for a God or is God only a fiction?

Sri Aurobindo is in fact providing answers to these questions, but he is not doing it directly. What he is doing is telling us a story, but in such a way that this multi-layered symbolism behind the story gradually opens up. And exactly the same technique he is using in describing the dawn.

At one level he is describing something that happens between 4 am and about 6.15–6.30 am, what is called the brahmi muhurtam, when in south India the pujaris ring the temple bells for the first time. The belief is that gods of the various powers who keep this world in harmony—there is a god for rain, there is a god for wind, all these various gods in the occult world—are supposed to retire and then resume early in the morning. This is why the temple bells are struck early in the morning at 4 am. At that time it is very pitch dark. As you know, the night is darkest just before dawn. And gradually, slowly, there is a glimmer of light in the eastern horizon, and slowly this glimmer becomes brighter and brighter, until you see dawn with all its promise, all its beauty, all its glory, and then comes the day. This is what it is, but in describing it, he is talking about multi-layered dawns, depending on your sensitivity. You can see here a physical dawn, a psychological dawn, an occult dawn, a spiritual dawn, the dawn of consciousness in this creation, in this very world. All these things are suggested. But what is Sri Aurobindo practically doing? He is describing the dawn of that particular day.

Now, to bring this richness into the English language, to describe the outer scene in a way that a multi-layered inner reality is revealed, is in fact reversing the ordinary poetic process. And that is what makes Savitri difficult to the modern reader, but if he has to deal with Sri Aurobindo, he has to learn how to deal with this kind of poetry. As the entire epic narrates a story with the purpose of bringing out the symbolism behind the story, exactly the same technique is used here in describing the dawn of that particular day, but in a way which suggests many dawns: the dawn of consciousness in you, the dawn of spiritual illumination in you, basically anything that is symbolized by light breaking into darkness. Depending on the richness of inner life, the richness of imagination, you can create several dawns, and that’s what Sri Aurobindo is doing. And this is a part of the difficulty. Sri Aurobindo himself was aware of it and in one of his letters he has written: “The whole of Savitri is, according to the title of the poem, a legend that is a symbol, and this opening canto is, it may be said, a key beginning and announcement…” Many people have asked, why does Sri Aurobindo have to write five pages to describe a dawn, a dawn is a dawn? Why are all these details necessary, couldn’t he have given us something more snappy, maybe a paragraph? A graphic description in one paragraph, wouldn’t that have not served his purpose? Sri Aurobindo’s answer is, “No, that would not have served my purpose.” That is why he says “there is nothing here otiose or unnecessary; all is needed to bring out by suggestion some aspect of the thing symbolised and so start adequately the working out of the significance of the whole poem.”

The point I am trying to make is that in whatever way you look at it, the first canto is one of the greatest things he ever did, and as an introduction to this epic he could not have written anything better. It is difficult for readers of the ordinary kind of poetry, but if you can cultivate a taste for this poetry, if you know the technique, then things become easy.

As I said, there are 341 lines in this canto, which is in two parts. The first part ends on page 6, and second part on page 10, and the description of the dawn is the first part. Many people have studied this canto in some detail, and one of the students has pointed out something very interesting. If you look at page 6, you will find there, in the first line, the second word is ‘Savitri’. So Savitri is introduced right in the middle of that canto. And if you look at the last line of that canto, there you have Satyavan for the first time. Now, it’s not as if Sri Aurobindo was counting with a computer, ‘Now how many lines have I written, 180, now I must introduce Savitri.’ That’s not the way it goes; this kind of poetry comes from a depth or height of perfection, where these things are automatically provided for. If you have a taste for these things, you can take up the study of Savitri and see what kind of complex rhythm, what kind of patterns Sri Aurobindo has built up.

And the same student has pointed out something very interesting. Why should the first canto have 341 lines, 341 is neither here nor there? But he points out that on page 11, line 25, it says: “Twelve passionate months led in a day of fate”—so at that point 12 passionate months of Savitri’s married life are completed. How many days do we have in a year? So 341 lines of the first canto and 24 lines of the second canto makes it 365!

Let us talk about the first part, which is the description of the dawn. And about the very first line, “It was the hour before the Gods awake”, K.D. Sethna wrote a brilliant article on this which came out some years ago and is worth reading. So in talking about the hour, Sri Aurobindo is talking about the time, not the hour as in one hour: this is the brahmi muhurtam. Immediately the poet takes that moment, and then from that point on gradually the dawn begins to break. First there is pitch darkness, which reminds you of the inconscient. Gradually in this pitch darkness there is a stir of aspiration. Aspiration is not associated with the dawn, it is associated with the dawn in human consciousness. See how he transfers things? So there is this slight movement, slight disturbance: from the inconscient you move to the subconscient, from the subconscient you move to ignorance. That’s where we are, the world of ignorance. And from ignorance you move to the world of the psychic being, from the psychic being to the spiritual being, from the spiritual being to the supramental being. So this is the progress, and somebody has pointed out that you can see this also in the structure of the description of the dawn. And what is interesting is that these breaks come exactly after 30 lines.

So the first section begins:

It was the hour before the Gods awake.
Across the path of the divine Event
The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone
In her unlit temple of eternity,
Lay stretched immobile upon Silence’ marge.
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 1

He says, “Across the path of the divine Event. What is the divine event? The divine event is the coming of the dawn, the coming of the light. Next, “The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone.” Why is it foreboding? Even in the darkest of night there is the awareness that after the night will come the day. Even in the very heart of the inconscient there is this hope. The night doesn’t want to end; the night doesn’t want the light to come: that’s why Sri Aurobindo uses the word ‘foreboding’. For the night, the coming of the dawn is foreboding.

“Alone / In her unlit temple of eternity.” The inconscient is still a temple of eternity. Sri Aurobindo doesn’t want to compromise anywhere. There’s nothing here but the Divine, even the inconscient is Divine except that it is inconscient, that it is unlit. “Lay stretched immobile upon Silence’ marge”: no sound has begun, no creation has come. In the Indian tradition creation comes with sound, with OM. Even that has not begun; we are still in the margins of silence. “Almost one felt, opaque, impenetrable,”: it felt as if the darkness was so thick that you could dip your hands and grab a handful of it, that kind of inconscient. The inconscient for you and me is a just word, but for a mystic the inconscient is not just a word, it’s a living reality. Sri Aurobindo very often says in his letters that when I talk about the inconscient and the darkness, they think I’m just using abstract words, but for me nothing is abstract. All these things are concrete realities. He says that at one point he was on the first floor, and there was somebody on the ground floor at the entrance to the Ashram who was in great rage against Sri Aurobindo for whatever reason. Sri Aurobindo says, I could see his anger climbing up the stairs. You see, the mystic’s ability to see is a totally different. Our expectation is that Sri Aurobindo should be like us, his expectation is that we should be like him. Which would we prefer? So surrendering yourself to this kind of poetry is a discipline in trying to be like him. And so developing sensitivity to this kind of poetry enables you to do that, it is not simply a matter of speaking.

Sri Aurobindo says,

Almost one felt, opaque, impenetrable,
In this sombre symbol of her eyeless muse
The abysm of the unbodied Infinite;
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 1

The darkness he describes as “The abysm of the unbodied Infinite; A fathomless zero occupied the world.” If you have time, if you sit down and read it aloud to yourself, there is so much here. It’s not all so difficult.

Then on line 30 the second movement begins:

Then something in the inscrutable darkness stirred;
A nameless movement, an unthought Idea
Insistent, dissatisfied, without an aim,
Bk 1, Canto 1, pp. 1-2

There is some vague disturbance even in the inconscient. You don’t know why, you don’t know what it wants, but it’s somehow not happy. That’s the human condition, isn’t it? We don’t know what we want, but there’s some vague unhappiness all around.

Something that wished but knew not how to be,
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 2

Something that wants to take a concrete form but doesn’t know what form to take.

Teased the Inconscient to wake Ignorance.
A throe that came and left a quivering trace,
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 2

The next 30 lines is a description of the first stir in this inconscient. This may be called also, in our case, the first stir of aspiration.

The next movement begins 30 lines later, from line 60:

A scout in a reconnaissance from the sun,
It seemed amid a heavy cosmic rest,
The torpor of a sick and weary world,
To seek for a spirit sole and desolate
Too fallen to recollect forgotten bliss.
Intervening in a mindless universe,
Its message crept through the reluctant hush
Calling the adventure of consciousness and joy
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 2

Now this is the world of ignorance. The vital being, the mental being is getting ready for this adventure of consciousness. All this entire world, the whole creation: what is it? Sri Aurobindo says it is an adventure of consciousness; consciousness wants to manifest more and more fully. Matter, one form of consciousness, one form of God, wants to be fully awake. That is what all this creation is all about: this an adventure of consciousness.  “And, conquering Nature’s disillusioned breast”: this is another stage, the disturbance in the sky has become more pronounced.

Then the fourth stage, exactly 30 lines later:

A wandering hand of pale enchanted light
That glowed along a fading moment’s brink,
Fixed with gold panel and opalescent hinge
A gate of dreams ajar on mystery’s verge.
One lucent corner windowing hidden things
Forced the world’s blind immensity to sight.
The darkness failed and slipped like a falling cloak
From the reclining body of a god.
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 3

Darkness suddenly came down like “a falling cloak  /  From the reclining body of a god.”

Then through the pallid rift that seemed at first
Hardly enough for a trickle from the suns,
Outpoured the revelation and the flame.
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 3

All the glory of dawn begins to pour itself out.

Then you have the next stage of the description, and it comes exactly 30 lines later on line 120. This is the fifth movement in the description of the dawn:

Once more a tread perturbed the vacant Vasts;
Infinity’s centre, a Face of rapturous calm
Parted the eternal lids that open heaven;
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 4

The next comes on line 150. So every 30 lines Sri Aurobindo is making another movement towards the full revelation of the dawn. You can come back and read how this description is built up, but there is one point I would like to draw your attention to. Even in describing this dawn—one can describe dawn in different ways—Sri Aurobindo concentrates on one particular way. It’s very interesting. He says the dawn comes like an Avatar. Dawn is an Avatar: it brings a new day, a new opportunity. She is bringing all these gifts and is willing to pour them down on man and on earth but what happens? Dawn finds the earth is not ready. On page 4:

All grew a consecration and a rite.
Air was a vibrant link between earth and heaven;
The wide-winged hymn of a great priestly wind
Arose and failed upon the altar hills;
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 4

Then you have the description, the whole earth, as it were, is standing in adoration, looking at Usha the goddess of dawn, welcoming her. Suddenly you find the dawn feels unwanted:

Then the divine afflatus, spent, withdrew,
Unwanted, fading from the mortal’s range.
A sacred yearning lingered in its trace,
The worship of a Presence and a Power
Too perfect to be held by death-bound hearts,
The prescience of a marvellous birth to come.
Only a little the god-light can stay:
Spiritual beauty illumining human sight
Lines with its passion and mystery Matter’s mask
And squanders eternity on a beat of Time.
As when a soul draws near the sill of birth,
Adjoining mortal time to Timelessness,
A spark of deity lost in Matter’s crypt
Its lustre vanishes in the inconscient planes,
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 5

This stage of the description ends on line 179. The point I’m trying to make is that before Sri Aurobindo comes to the conclusion, the end of the dawn, he makes the point that the dawn felt unwanted. Dawn brought the gifts to give to man but found man didn’t want them. This is one of the central themes in Savitri, and this is something I’ve been talking about in various different ways. God’s light comes down to earth, it has come down several times, but man has not accepted it. A few people will look around and say, “Is the world still what it is after God’s great gifts like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, or Ramana Maharshi, or J. Krishnamurthi?” How many more Ramakrishnas will have to come? When will the world recognise this? This is the problem. Suppose 10 people, 100 people, 1000, 10,000 people are influenced by the coming of a Ramakrishna. In the world’s population, what is 10,000? The root cause of all this is man’s reluctance to accept light. Can that be changed? Sri Aurobindo said until that can be done, until that is done, my yoga is not complete. Once that is done man will have no option but to accept light. Until then light comes, feels unwanted, goes back. So the aim of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is to make sure that man has the capacity to accept light, to recognise Grace when it comes. So this is the message even here in the description of the dawn.

So, as you can see, this is not only an appropriate introduction to the epic from the point of view of technique, but also thematically. The Avatar comes and the Avatar is rejected. As I read out from the passage, “Vain is the sage’s light”: Avatars have come and gone, but basically the human nature hasn’t changed. Twenty-five hundred years ago Gautama Buddha walked on this earth, and 2500 years ago modern science began in a very elementary way in the Greek city states. Look at the tremendous progress we have made in science. As I said, we can go to the moon for the next holiday, that’s the progress we have made. But how many Buddhas have we produced in the 20th century: 100, 500? Why we are still where we are in spite of all the Avatars, in spite of all the good people, in spite of all the saints? What is missing? That was Sri Aurobindo’s quest; that was his life’s mission. He didn’t want himself to be accepted as a guru. He didn’t want a band of people who are ready for nirvana. He wanted a handful of people who are willing to give all they are so they can be recipients of the new consciousness. And once this consciousness finds lodging here, in human instruments, the human being will automatically change. Strife, discord, hatred, exploitation will be alien to human consciousness. This is the attempt Sri Aurobindo had behind this: not the writing of books, not the writing of poetry, not the setting up of an ashram. All these are preliminaries, necessary for this ultimate cultivation of a new race of human beings who are capable of receiving this glory, this light, so that the Grace from heaven is not rejected.

The same point he makes in the middle of page 7.

Hard is it to persuade earth-nature’s change;
Mortality bears ill the eternal’s touch:
It fears the pure divine intolerance
Of that assault of ether and of fire;
It murmurs at its sorrowless happiness,
Almost with hate repels the light it brings;
It trembles at its naked power of Truth
And the might and sweetness of its absolute Voice.
Inflicting on the heights the abysm’s law,
It sullies with its mire heaven’s messengers:
Its thorns of fallen nature are the defence
It turns against the saviour hands of Grace;
It meets the sons of God with death and pain.
Bk 1, Canto 1, p. 7

We worship the sons of God after we have buried them. We raise great temples, we raise big statues. Look at all the pathetic statues of Gandhiji! We find them everywhere. Finished, they are all gone: we have made statues of them. This is what has to change.

This second part is a beautiful description of Savitri on that day, and how she gradually—she was also sleeping like everybody else, and she wakes up, as you can see on line 186, “And Savitri too awoke among these tribes.” Everybody wakes up, and all these people Sri Aurobindo calls ‘tribes’. We are all like tribals, whereas Savitri is the only human being in that tribe, and he describes how she is different from other people. This canto is a wonderful overture, a wonderful introduction to a wonderful epic.