“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 02: The Original Savitri Legend

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

On the title page of Savitri you will find a description which calls it ‘A Legend and a Symbol’. The legend, of course, is the story of Satyavan and Savitri, which is known to all of us in its Puranic and popular version. The original story goes back to the Mahabharata, where the Pandavas are spending a lot of time in the forest. And Yudishthira is very depressed that he has been living a life of righteousness and still has to undergo all these privations, defeats. On one occasion, when rishi Markandeya comes and visits them, Yudishthira asks him: has there ever been a parallel to my case? We have been five brothers living such a virtuous life, and yet we have to suffer so much humiliation, privation, defeat. Markandeya obliges and tells him the story of Rama: Rama was also like you, and yet look at his life. He had to spent 14 years, lose his wife, and fight this war against Ravana, etc.  Yudishthira is not satisfied. He asks: has there been a case like Draupadi’s, a woman of such an exceptional virtue, and who yet had to suffer disgrace and humiliation recently? Jayadratha tried to abduct her and she had to be rescued. Do you know any parallel to this at all? Markandeya then tells him the story of Savitri. This is how the Savitri Upakhyan comes into the Mahabharata.

But the Savitri Upakhyan did not originate with the Mahabharata. It is one of the Vedic myths, and when a Vedic myth is taken up in the Puranas, very often it loses its original point and gets a popular body. So the story of Savitri as we know it is primarily a saga of a righteous woman’s chastity and how much merit, force, power she can acquire through chastity. So in the popular mind Savitri is associated with that kind of thing. Very often my modern friends wonder why Sri Aurobindo, writing an epic for future humanity, did he have to choose the story of Savitri. This again in some sense is a symbol of male chauvinism, where you are only talking about a wife’s duty towards her husband, a wife’s chastity towards her husband. Why couldn’t Sri Aurobindo for a change reverse it and talk about a husband’s duty towards his wife, a husband’s chastity towards his wife, and how great merit it accumulates? People who quibble on this point do so because they haven’t taken the trouble of reading Savitri. It has nothing to do with chastity, whether it is a husband’s or wife’s. This emphasis on chastity as a primary virtue of the Savitri story is a later popular edition.

In the Vedic myth it primarily comes through as man’s aspiration to immortality. Man’s soul which descended here, is caught up in Ignorance. This is a purusha who is caught up here, and the Supreme Prakriti, the Divine Mother, has to come down to rescue this purusha. Ultimately, it is man’s aspiration for immortality that the Savitri story was all about in the Vedic myth. But when it came to the Puranic story its emphasis got slightly changed. And the Puranic myth, when it came to medieval India and the typical male mentality of the Indian husband, is very often used as a kind of argument of how the wife should behave towards him―the wife should be like Savitri.

These are all things which somehow have accumulated around the Savitri myth, and the point is why did Sri Aurobindo take up the story. What did he find in this story? As you can see, love conquering death is a theme that Sri Aurobindo was fascinated by―love conquering death. Death stands for all limitation, it stands for all negation―it doesn’t simply stand for disintegration of the human physical frame―death symbolizes all these things. Love is the highest power that has come down to earth and it is only through love that death can be conquered.

This was the great theme that Sri Aurobindo took up. And if you look at Sri Aurobindo’s completed plays, like Perseus the Deliverer, The Viziers of Bassora, and Rodogune, all these plays of Sri Aurobindo are variations of the same theme: love conquering death. Sri Aurobindo was so fascinated by it that he has written two other works on the same theme. The first he wrote when he was a young man of about 22 or 23, a poem called Urvasie. Then later, when he was about 27 years of age, he wrote a poem called Love and Death. Savitri was taken after this, but all these three have the same theme. And if you look at the development of the theme in these three stories, you will see why Sri Aurobindo was fascinated by the story of Savitri.

In Urvasie, Pururavus, a human mortal of this earth, falls in love with an Apsara. When this Apsara goes back to her world, Pururavus, who madly loved her, goes looking for her, and finally ends up in the heavens, where Urvasie belongs. The gods there are kind. They say, all right we’ll grant you your love on one condition, provided you are willing to forego your life on earth and you are willing to come and stay here in the heavens. Pururavus is so madly in love, he thinks it is a good bargain. Anyway, who wants life on earth, where electricity fails, where there is garbage, problems of all kinds, taxes have to be paid, corrupt officials have to be pleased and so on? In heaven there are no officials, there is no sunset, there is no electricity, no bills to pay and so on. So he prefers heaven.

Now, in Love and Death the same theme is repeated with a slight modification. This time the beloved, whose name is Priyumvada, is bitten by a snake, and she is carried to the Patala-loka. And Ruru goes in search of her to Patala, and the powers that be do recognize that he has a valid case. They say, all right, we are willing to give you back Priyumvada on one condition: you have to forego half the life span of your life on earth. Wonderful, he says, I’m more than happy to do it.

In Savitri, the God of Death is willing to offer Savitri and Satyavan a special heaven. But Savitri is not willing to make a compromise. She says, I want to go back on earth, I want to realise the fulfillment of love here on earth. This is Savitri’s insistence. And Sri Aurobindo found this feature, the insistence on realisation of all human dreams of perfection on earth, especially attractive.

As you know, the Mother first came to Pondicherry in 1914, and during the First World War she had to go back to Europe, to Paris, and then she went to Japan. During that period, in one of the letters, Sri Aurobindo says, Heaven we have always possessed, heaven is our birthright, we have come from there; it is the earth that we have not yet possessed. We have yet to possess the earth, while we are all worried about heaven. And he says, it is the aim of my Yoga to make heaven and earth equal and one. The aim of my Yoga is to bring perfection here on earth. This has been Sri Aurobindo’s great emphasis. There has been no philosopher who has been a greater materialist than Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo accepts that even if God has to come down here on earth, he has to accept the limitations of matter, he has to wear a form made of matter. For Matter for him is not an antithesis of Spirit. Matter is also another form of Spirit, of the Divine. So this emphasis that the Savitri story implicitly contains of the value of life here on earth, that is what must have attracted Sri Aurobindo a great deal, and that is why he decided to take this up as a framework for the great epic that he was going to write.

If you take up the Mahabharata’s Savitri story, which Vyasa narrates with great elegance, the entire story takes 700 lines. Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri follows the same story with even a little fewer details. He has omitted what happens to Satyavan and Savitri after Satyavan returns from the kingdom of Death, how they meet their parents, which in the original story takes up to one third of the entire length. In Sri Aurobindo’s epic this is dismissed briefly in about four or five pages in Book Twelve as an Epilogue. But the rest of the story which Vyasa is able to tell in about 400 lines, Sri Aurobindo tells in about 23,500 lines. If one takes the whole epic, it is about 24,000 lines.

The question arises if Vyasa could do it in 700 lines, why does Sri Aurobindo require 24,000 lines? The answer is, what Vyasa was trying to do was different from that Sri Aurobindo was trying to do. Let us take some of the ways in which Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of this legend is different. In Vyasa’s story, Aswapati is a noble virtuous king who has all the benefits and blessings of life except progeny; he doesn’t have children. As it used to happen in earlier days, if one doesn’t have children, then one is not very sure that one will get a passport easily stamped to go into heaven. So you have to have a son or a daughter at least. So Aswapati performs a yagna. In the original story he performs a yagna for 18 years and each day he offers to goddess Savitri 10,000 oblations. Vyasa describes Aswapati’s tapasya in 10 lines. Sri Aurobindo has the section here on Aswapati’s yoga, and he devotes to Aswapati’s yoga 10,968 lines. So what Vyasa was able to convey in 10 lines, Sri Aurobindo requires 10,968 lines. If you look at the contents page, Aswapati’s yoga begins on page 22, Canto III of Book One, and ends with Canto IV of Book Three, it makes 22 cantos. Why does he require all these lines? Is he describing each Purohit, his girth, his height, his weight, how many Purohits were there, or does he have a guest list, how many people are invited? No. Then you immediately begin to see that this is a different kind of enterprise, because the quest of Vyasa’s Aswapati was progeny, and the quest of Sri Aurobindo’s Aswapati is something entirely different. What was Sri Aurobindo’s Aswapati’s quest about? Very briefly: the quest Sri Aurobindo had, which he pursued during the 40 years he spent in Pondicherry. What was Sri Aurobindo doing for 40 years? If you want to see an answer to this question, read Book 1 of Savitri, it will give you an answer.

Sri Aurobindo’s Aswapati is not an ancient king. The spirit of this Aswapati is as modern as a professor of Harvard or any Indian university, who is asking this question: Man has at his command all the sciences, all the technology, all the spiritual lore the East and the West have to give. We have the accumulated wisdom of several cultures and civilizations, and yet the load of suffering on the human head remains undiminished. Why? Religion came, science came, and yet the agony, the pain, the injustice. It is only the location that is different. Revolutions have come, the Russian revolution trying to bring in a paradise for the working man. After 80 years of this attempt to bring paradise, people said we don’t want this paradise. What happens? In the times of the Tsar there was such a great deal of exploitation in Russia which Marx wanted to eliminate. Did he succeed in doing that? Exploitation and the tendency to exploit remain undiminished, except the exploiters are different, the exploited are different, that is all.

Education has come, the education that we thought would change man, would transform the person. Germany is a paradigm example of an educated nation. And yet one mad man called Hitler was able to brainwash a major part of Germany, and made decent Germans do horrible things. What guarantee has education that it will prevent you from being a beast? I don’t think education is a guarantee. Where is the answer?

We have philanthropy. Mother Theresa coming from Poland, working in slums of Calcutta, was such a great lady―if I find her I’ll touch her feet―and yet the question is, how many more Mother Theresa’s are we going to need? We need Mother Theresa not only for Calcutta but everywhere, and if this Mother Theresa goes everywhere, do you think the tears in human eyes will disappear? That there won’t be any more exploited people? That there won’t be any more hungry people discarded on the garbage heap of society? Probably we should start a university preparing Mother Theresas, because we seem to need more and more of them. Where is the way out? Aswapati is asking this question.

Religion tells you that the world you want to change is like the dog’s tail, and the dog’s tail is crooked. A wise man is he who doesn’t waste his time in straightening out a dog’s tail. Then what should I do? Get a railway guide, find out the shortest route to an ashram somewhere. Buy the ticket, go to the ashram, close your eyes, look within yourself. There you will find the Kingdom of God, there you will find the world of Sachchidananda. There you find there is no turmoil, no revolutions. There is peace, there is bliss, there is happiness. Shivoham, Shivoham, everything is Shubham Satyam. But when you go out, it is the same poverty, the same ugliness, the same exploitation. That is all Mithya, that doesn’t exist. Reality is here within. For Sri Aurobindo this answer is not acceptable.

I very often tell a little story to my friends. There are so many paths to realisation. First of all, you should have mumukshutvam, a strong desire for self-realization. Then you must have vairagyam. How many lives does it require? Oh, it may require 10-15 lives before you get real mumukshutvam and real vairagyam. And then you turn within and find the Kingdom of God. This is the way all our teachers have been telling us. You first of all have to get mumukshutvam, vairagyam, and then turn within and some day you will find the Kingdom of God and you will be alright. Great teachers came: Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo himself was here. How many people directly benefited from their coming?

The Light from heaven keeps coming down; God is in love with this world, he keeps coming. We don’t seem to want him. Aswapati realises this. Is there way out by which you can rid man of this stupidity, that when a Light comes he cannot even receive Light? What’s the way out? This is not a medieval king performing a yagna for children, this is a question asking for fulfilment of life here on earth: that is Aswapati’s yoga. He is trying to find the answer to the question: ‘Is there a way out?’ We are not talking about saving one individual―that’s not the question―we are trying to save humanity as a whole. This was Aswapati’s quest. And naturally, as you can see, if this is your quest, then to find the answer to this question you cannot do it in 10 lines as Vyasa did. It requires 10,968 lines or even more. I have a feeling that probably Sri Aurobindo meant Savitri to be 50,000 lines long. If there were more time, he probably would have enriched that part. And you can see that 10,968 lines is not a long stretch, if you want to condense this quest of Aswapati on behalf of mankind as a whole and find an answer to this quest.

This is, as one can see already, from a legend, this legend is now being used as a symbol. Aswapati’s quest is a symbolic quest: it is the quest of humanity as a whole. This is a first change that one finds that Sri Aurobindo has made in Savitri.

The second change is that in the Mahabharata story, Savitri performs a vow called the Triratra vow. For three nights and three days she undergoes a very rigorous vratham: standing in one place, not taking any food, etc., which Vyasa describes in eight lines. In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, this becomes Savitri’s yoga. Sri Aurobindo devotes to this the whole of Book 7, The Book of Yoga, which has seven cantos and all these seven cantos talk about Savitri’s yoga.

Very often people have said, “Aswapati’s Yoga is Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga, Savitri’s Yoga is the Mother’s Yoga.” This is a little too simplistic and too glib, but there can be seen some parallels of that kind. I won’t stick to it too much and say this is exactly what Mother did, nothing more and nothing less. That is not a good way of going about it. But this is another change. Vyasa describes it in eight lines and Sri Aurobindo requires for it 100 pages and nearly 3000 lines. This is a second change.

A third major change is that in the original Mahabharata story, Aswapati realizes that as a father it is his duty to find a proper husband for his daughter, and since he is unable to find somebody whom he approves, he asks Savitri to go out into the world and find her life’s companion. From there suddenly the scene changes. Savitri comes back and reports to her father, ‘Father, I have found Satyavan’. But in Sri Aurobindo epic, most of Book 4 and Book 5, which is called The Book of Love, where Satyavan and Savitri meet, recognise each other and go through what is called a Gandharva marriage, all this is new. Sri Aurobindo has added this; it was not there in the original Mahabharata story.

The next one is Savitri’s mother. Her name is Malawi, but it is not mentioned here. Vyasa mentions her name, but she has no part in his Savitri story. But here she has an important part and role. What role that is, and what its significance is, and in what other ways is this story is different from Vyasa’s story, we will have to wait until the next talk.



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