“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 12: Book 3 Cantos 1-2

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

Last time we looked at the first part of Book 2. We noticed that after Canto 2, there were a number of cantos dealing with the worlds of life, the worlds corresponding to the consciousness of the vital. After that were Cantos 7 and 8, which talk about Aswapati’s descent into Night, and in Canto 8, “The World of Falsehood, the Mother of Evil, and the Sons of Darkness,” from which I read out a couple of passages. Then we have Cantos 9–15; all these are cantos dealing with the worlds of the Mind, the mental level worlds. Of these we are familiar with the world described in Canto 10, “The Kingdoms and Godheads of the Little Mind.” But the worlds described in Cantos 11-15 have been accessible to great saints, yogis and so on. They are not ordinarily accessible to us and Aswapati now undertakes an exploration of these worlds as well. So until the end of Canto 15 he is still in the mental worlds, some of them accessible to us and some of them not accessible to us ordinarily. At the end of Canto 15 he finds himself in a region where all mentalisation comes to an end, and we have this description:

He communed with the Incommunicable;
Beings of a wider consciousness were his friends,
Forms of a larger subtler make drew near;
The Gods conversed with him behind Life’s veil.
Neighbour his being grew to Nature’s crests.
The primal Energy took him in its arms;
His brain was wrapped in overwhelming light,
An all-embracing knowledge seized his heart:
Thoughts rose in him no earthly mind can hold,
Mights played that never coursed through mortal nerves:
He scanned the secrets of the Overmind,
He bore the rapture of the Oversoul.
[Bk 2, Canto 15, p. 301-302]

This is the region of the Overmind, which is probably the highest range in the mental region, and Aswapati finds himself at that point. He suddenly realises that although he now has a fairly good idea of the various ranges of consciousness man has already arisen from: the physical, the vital, and some levels of mind which are still strangers to man in general. As I said, these are ranges to which saints and yogis generally have access. He is now familiar with all these, and yet he does not find there what he has been looking for. He has been looking for a secret, a power, a truth that will be able to transform human life, that will be able to cut the knot of ignorance, death, insufficiency which has incapacitated man’s life and made human life a curse in spite of all the blessings that have come down to us. And so on the very first line of the next book, the next canto, on page 305, Sri Aurobindo says:

All is too little that the world can give:
Its power and knowledge are the gifts of Time
And cannot fill the spirit’s sacred thirst.
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 305]

The sacred thirst of the spirit cannot be quenched by anything that he has so far come across.

A few lines later, Aswapati reaches that point when you are overcome by a feeling that all this effort has been in vain. Mind builds up logic, theories. It has a tremendous advantage of having the ability to use reason, and thus reason is our god. Aswapati analyses what are the strengths and weaknesses of reason, and he is overcome by a feeling of futility. In spite of this, we have not yet been able to get to this creative principle. So he says, a few lines later:

The labour to know seemed a vain strife of Mind;
All knowledge ended in the Unknowable:
The effort to rule seemed a vain pride of Will;
A trivial achievement scorned by Time,
All power retired into the Omnipotent.
A cave of darkness guards the eternal Light.
A silence settled on his striving heart;
Absolved from the voices of the world’s desire,
He turned to the Ineffable’s timeless call.
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 305]

Now at this point he suddenly becomes aware of something which is in the Ineffable’s region, which is the transcendental region. And he must go there because nothing which he has so far found has been of any consequence. So he transcends this limit and tries to go beyond it. Now when you do this—traditionally this is called the experience of nirvana—all mental structures, all mental formations are completely dissolved, and you have a feeling that nothing exists here except a bare emptiness in which you have merged yourself. The world that you have been talking about, the ideals that you have been talking about, nothing really exists. And this experience of nirvana in which you feel your entire being has merged itself, is like the drop that has merged itself in the ocean, and there is no more the existence of the drop, all that remains is this ocean of peace, of joy. It is a tremendous experience which is called the experience of kaivalya. What exists? Just That exists. And where are you? There is no answer to this question. I have never existed, I don’t exist, I’ll never exist. The entire individuality has reached a point of absolute extinction. By and large, this has been regarded as the highest experience; this is the highest nirvana, moksha, kaivalya. Various spiritual disciplines prescribe various ways of getting here, and this is what descends on Aswapati at this point.

A Vastness brooded free from sense of Space,
An Everlastingness cut off from Time;
A strange sublime inalterable Peace
Silent rejected from it world and soul,
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 308]

A silence that he felt descending on him rejected the world; he felt the world never existed. It is a mithya. This is the realisation that if there is Brahman there is no world, and if there is world there is no Brahman, so you have to make a choice. If you have this world, the absolute reality doesn’t exist, but if you face the absolute reality then there is no world. So there is no world, there is no soul, there is no individual being.

A stark companionless Reality

You are all alone, that’s why it’s called kaivalya.

Answered at last to his soul’s passionate search:
Passionless, wordless, absorbed in its fathomless hush,
Keeping the mystery none would ever pierce,
It brooded inscrutable and intangible
Facing him with its dumb tremendous calm.
It had no kinship with the universe:
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 308]

You feel that you never belonged to this creation, you had nothing to do with this creation, you are no part of this creation. Where is the creation? The creation is a distant shadowy figure floating somewhere; it has no reality at all.

There was no act, no movement in its Vast:
Life’s question met by its silence died on her lips,
The world’s effort ceased convicted of ignorance
Finding no sanction of supernal Light:
There was no mind there with its need to know,
There was no heart there with its need to love.
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 308]

So in that world there is no God, there is no bhakta; there is only the experience of oneness with this emptiness.

All person perished in its namelessness.
There was no second, it had no partner or peer;
Only itself was real to itself.
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 308]

It’s therefore called ‘That’; it’s neither he nor she, it is just ‘That’.

A pure existence safe from thought and mood,
A consciousness of unshared immortal bliss,
It dwelt aloof in its bare infinite,
One and unique, unutterably sole.
A Being formless, featureless and mute
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 309]

It’s niraghar: formless, featureless, mute, silent.

That knew itself by its own timeless self,
Aware for ever in its motionless depths,
Uncreating, uncreated and unborn,
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 309]

You ask these people, “Who created the world?” The answer is, “Where is the world? I don’t see the world.” There is no question of the world being created. As soon as you have this experience the world simply disappears.

The One by whom all live, who lives by none,
An immeasurable luminous secrecy
Guarded by the veils of the Unmanifest,
Above the changing cosmic interlude
Abode supreme, immutably the same,
A silent Cause occult, impenetrable,—
Infinite, eternal, unthinkable, alone.
[Bk 3, Canto 1, p. 309]

The next canto also begins with the same experience. Sri Aurobindo has also written a beautiful sonnet called “Nirvana,” which describes the same experience; if you have time you can look into it.

A stillness absolute, incommunicable,
Meets the sheer self-discovery of the soul;
A wall of stillness shuts it from the world,
A gulf of stillness swallows up the sense
And makes unreal all that mind has known,
All that the labouring senses still would weave
Prolonging an imaged unreality.
Self’s vast spiritual silence occupies Space;
Only the Inconceivable is left,
Only the Nameless without space and time:
Abolished is the burdening need of life:
Thought falls from us, we cease from joy and grief;
The ego is dead; we are freed from being and care,
We have done with birth and death and work and fate.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 310]

This is the ultimate, punarapi jananam, punarapi maranam; there is no birth, no death. We have done with birth and death, everything is annihilated, even the individual is annihilated; we have become one with this absolute silence, absolute joy. This is the experience which is so overwhelming in its intensity. All of us very often in life feel like little drops of water which the wind can blow off or the sun dry off in no time. But when this drop merges with the ocean, the ocean’s strength, the ocean’s immortality is a part of the immortality and strength of this drop of water. That’s the kind of feeling, it’s overwhelming in every way. For some people it comes predominantly as peace, for some people it comes predominantly as bliss, but it’s an experience that is so overwhelming that most people are convinced there is nothing beyond this. This is it, this is the ultimate, there’s nothing beyond this. This is the experience of nirvana.

Sri Aurobindo has always maintained that the nirvanic experience is an essential stage, but only a stage, on an onward journey. There is a journey after nirvana. There have been many debates, discussions about this: can there be anything beyond nirvana? People say, if you think there is anything beyond nirvana, then probably what you felt was not nirvana, because there can’t be anything beyond it. Since you and I haven’t been there, there is no point discussing this in any great detail. But Sri Aurobindo has written about this and he says, “I was no stranger to nirvana. Nirvana came to me without so much as knocking at my door, didn’t even ask me, may I come in. It simply possessed me and I was under its spell for months and months.” There was a time when he was in such absolute yogic trance, partly in Alipore jail and partly before that. Sri Aurobindo had to be fed, he didn’t even remember that he had to eat. He was absolutely possessed by this experience. He said that it’s not as if he didn’t know the nirvanic experience, there is the nirvanic experience, but he always maintained that the nirvanic experience is not the ultimate.

There is a lot that can be said about this point, many things which are controversial. Many people don’t like this because somehow they have the impression that we are going against the tradition. The nirvanic experience is the highest experience posited by most spiritual disciplines. It is basically an experience of negativity, an experience of escaping from the world, and it doesn’t seem to have any kind of issue. In India there are many theories, there is the Shankara Adwaita, and there are various kinds of Dwaitas, Vishishta Adwaita, Madhvas and so on. And so Shankara’s Adwaita is not the only or the most predominant Indian school of thought. But somehow after Westerners started taking interest in Indian philosophy they have tended to regard Shankara Adwaita as the predominant school of Indian thought.

When they look upon Indian metaphysics, they always have looked at Shankara metaphysics. But Shankara to me is a great mysterious figure. Shankara, for example, is a great saint, a great Acharya who wrote commentaries on the Gita, on the Upanishad, on the Brahmasutra.  He is also the person who wrote Soundarya Lahari. He is also the person who wrote absolutely rapturous lyrics in adoration of the Divine Mother. Now it is very difficult for you to combine these, combine this Adwaitin with this great devotee of the Divine Mother. So I have a feeling that there is a Shankara who you don’t understand. There is a Shankara who provided metaphysics and this metaphysics had generally been regarded by Westerners as very rigorous. Sri Aurobindo himself has pointed out that probably the world has hardly ever seen a more brilliant mind than Shankara’s; that is what he says in Life Divine. But Sri Aurobindo doesn’t accept nirvana as the ultimate stage in the spiritual journey. He, however, does emphasize that nirvana is an essential stage.

Until you annihilate all the constructions of the human mind, you cannot go beyond the human mind. You have to go beyond the human mind, and to be able to do that, you have to destroy all constructions the mind has made. We don’t realise to what extent our worldview, our understanding of reality, of life, is all conditioned by our mind. But there is a Reality beyond the mind, and if you want to get to that more comprehensive Reality, you have to let go all that the mind has given you. Therefore, this process of annihilating mental constructions, making yourself a zero, is absolutely essential. But that is not the destination, that’s only a stage in our journey. Now if you regard nirvana as the destination, as Westerners have very often said, the Indian viewpoint, Indian metaphysics is generally life-negating, it is not life-affirming. After all, you say, “oh, the world has no reality.” The world has reality until you have found the Brahman. When you have found the Brahman, the world immediately loses its reality. So ultimately our destination is Brahman. So since Brahman is our destination, this world is a kind of pragmatic reality. You have to put up with it somehow or the other, but you know someday you are going to reject it and go beyond, so why make a big fuss about it. This has generally been the attitude of Indians. So Indians generally are life-negating, Indians therefore do not take life seriously. All these things have been said by Western critics about Indian metaphysics.

But Sri Aurobindo points out that this is just one particular school of thought; there are other schools of thought which do not regard this as the highest experience, they do not regard life negation as primary to the Indian viewpoint. I would like to say one thing more. In the history of Indian philosophical thought, Hindu ideology, Hindu metaphysics has had to face several challenges, and depending on what challenge it meets, the person propounding the Hindu ideology tends to give it a different shade. Take, for example, Mahatma Gandhi, or to some extent if you read Swami Vivekananda, they both make Hinduism sound Christian. Now you can’t help it; they were at that time facing the challenge from Christianity. There was a school of thought at that time that Indian spirituality had no meaning, it was absolutely worthless, so these people were trying to establish the credentials of Hindu religion in the face of this criticism. And in trying to answer those critics they had to say, “Are these the highest values? We also have these.” This tends to be the case.

In exactly the same way, when Shankara was trying to re-establish Hinduism, he was meeting the challenge of Buddhism. Therefore, when Shankara interprets Hinduism, he makes it look almost like Buddhism, and by doing this, he was able to establish the Hindu view of life, Hindu metaphysics, Hindu religion. As you know, by about the 2nd or 3rd century AD, Hinduism had almost disappeared from the face of India. There was Buddhism and Jainism. All over the south you had Jainism, all over the north you had Buddhism. Hinduism was on the verge of extinction. Shankara was the man who brought it back, and he brought it back by doing exactly this. He took up Hindu metaphysics and answered the challenges of the time. Therefore, in my view, it is erroneous to pin down Shankara to what he said at that time and say this is all that Shankara is. For me, Shankara is far greater than his metaphysics, Shankara is far greater than his commentaries on the Brahmasutra, Gita or Upanishads.

Although Sri Aurobindo respects what Shankara has said, and although he regards nirvana as an essential condition, that you can’t get far in the spiritual life without nirvana, he says that there is a stage beyond nirvana where you affirm the world, you go back to this world and realise that God is this world itself. The world itself is throbbing with God. That is a positive experience, nirvana is a negative experience. Nirvana says none of this is God, but after going back, then you realise everything here that you have left behind is pulsating with God, vibrating with God, this entire world is God. That is the experience Aswapati now is on the verge of breaking into. He has this experience where

The ego is dead; we are freed from being and care,
We have done with birth and death and work and fate.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 310]

And then suddenly, you have this:

O soul, it is too early to rejoice!
Thou has reached the boundless silence of the Self,
Thou has leaped into a glad divine abyss;
But where hast thou thrown Self’s mission and Self’s power?
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 310]

So Aswapati is being asked this question: “You are negating everything―the world is not true, there is no reality in the world―but why did we come here, what was the purpose of our coming here? Why did God create this world, and create it in this particularly funny way in which everybody is miserable most of the time? Why did He create this terrible world, where there is so much pain, so much suffering?” And after we are done with all this, we are told, don’t take this suffering too seriously, don’t take this world too seriously, this is all a mithya, we all have to go back there. This is the question and he says:

But where hast thou thrown Self’s mission and Self’s power?
On what dead bank on the Eternal’s road?
One was within thee who was self and world,
What hast thou done for his purpose in the stars?
Escape brings not the victory and the crown!
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 310]

We all seem to be eager to escape; life is a prison, life is a trap, let’s all escape from it. This kind of attitude can make a civilisation entirely inward looking, entirely world shunning, and then it doesn’t matter who comes and occupies your country. The British came and occupied India, and our attitude was “Oh, that’s a mithya, it’ll go away some day. The British empire? Don’t take it too seriously. Who rules the country? What does it matter?” Invaders attacked the Somnath Temple many times and we said: “What does it matter: it’s all a mithya; the attacker is a mithya, the temple is a mithya, we are all mithyasShivoham, Shivoham.” We all sat with our eyes closed looking inside, when for a whole thousand years anybody who wanted to came into the country and occupied it while we said, “We are all safe. God is inside, God is above. All this is a maya, a mithya, a fleeting thing, a passing thing. Nobody need take this very seriously.”

To some extent, this kind of thing has hurt the Indian psyche, the Indian mind. Sri Aurobindo points out, the Vedic ideology was to realise the world is imperfect and the Vedic prayers were for the gods to descend in us so that with these powers we can exert ourselves and make this world perfect. Somehow, as I’ve always maintained, Indian spirituality has two major branches. One branch takes you towards the monk, the other takes you towards the rishi. The monk tradition become strong after Buddha and the rishi tradition gradually got forgotten. The rishi is one who lives in the world, who exerts for the world and who wants to bring perfection to the world, who wants to make this world a heaven. That is the rishi ideal, and that was the Vedic ideal. Then came Buddhism and along with it came a phase of about a thousand, two thousand years when somehow, we didn’t realise that the world was important. This is the world, this is the God, we are all here, we have been invited to participate in this great sacrifice, the holocaust of the Supreme. The Supreme has taken this plunge, we are going back, the world had to be made perfect—this was forgotten.

Sri Aurobindo has brought back this Vedic ideal once again, and this assertion that the world is important, bringing God to this world is the primary purpose of existence, and not running away from life. This has been the Vedic revival Sri Aurobindo has been talking about. He did not talk about Vedic revival in the sense we should all give up English, go back to the Vedas and study nothing but the Vedas. That’s not what he was talking about; it’s the Vedic spirit, it’s the Vedic love of life, this life.

This is a life which has to have a spiritual foundation but a material structure. You can’t have a spiritual foundation and a spiritual structure. This is a mistake. This world is a material world and nothing succeeds here which has not paid its dues to matter. In the West, what are they trying to do? They are trying to build a material structure on a material foundation. That will not stand. You need to build a material structure but on a spiritual foundation. This was the Vedic ideal and we must go back to it, that’s what Sri Aurobindo has always insisted. That was his quest and it is, as you can see, reflected in Aswapati’s ideology.

One was within thee who was self and world,
What hast thou done for his purpose in the stars?
Escape brings not the victory and the crown!
Something thou cam’st to do from the Unknown,
But nothing is finished and the world goes on
Because only half God’s cosmic work is done.
Only the everlasting No has neared
And stared into thy eyes and killed thy heart:
But where is the Lover’s everlasting Yes,
And immortality in the secret heart,
The voice that chants to the creator Fire,
The symbolled OM, the great assenting Word,
The bridge between the rapture and the calm,
The passion and the beauty of the Bride,
The chamber where the glorious enemies kiss,
The smile that saves, the golden peak of things?
This too is Truth at the mystic fount of Life.
A black veil has been lifted; we have seen
The mighty shadow of the omniscient Lord;
But who has lifted up the veil of light
And who has seen the body of the King?
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 310-311]

There are two veils on the face of truth—one is the veil of avidya, the other is the veil of vidya. Both have to be lifted. The Isha Upanishad says the face of truth is also covered by swarna, a golden lid, that golden lid has also to be removed. Just because it’s a golden lid it doesn’t become our ideal. A golden lid is still a lid, that also has to be separated, to be taken away. Therefore, the poet says, the black veil has been lifted, the veil of avidya, of ignorance, has been lifted and we have seen the mighty shadow of the omniscient Lord. When the first veil is lifted, you see the shadow of the Lord, you don’t see the Lord. This nirvana, this negation, is a shadow of the Lord. What do you have to do then? The veil of light has to be lifted. Then what happens? Then you see the body of the King.

The Isha Upanishad very clearly says you have to go beyond vidya and avidya; and you have to cultivate both vidya and avidya. You need the knowledge of the one and also the knowledge of the many. We can’t do with just the knowledge of the many, nor with just the knowledge of the one. In India we ignored the knowledge of the many and therefore this is what has happened to this country. In the West, there was a tendency to ignore the knowledge of the one behind the many. What we need is one and many. Both have to be simultaneously cultivated.

A high and blank negation is not all,
A huge extinction is not God’s last word,
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 311]

Extinction, negation, getting out from this world, nirvana from this world―that is not all there is.

Life’s ultimate sense, the close of being’s course,
The meaning of this great mysterious world.
In absolute silence sleeps an absolute Power.
Awaking, it can wake the trance-bound soul
And in the ray reveal the parent sun:
It can make the world a vessel of Spirit’s force,
It can fashion in the clay God’s perfect shape.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 311-312]

And finally in two lines, very beautifully he says:

To free the self is but one radiant pace;

To free our inner being from ignorance is only one step. What do we have to do? We have also to free our body, our mind, our life energies from the hold of ignorance.

Here to fulfil himself was God’s desire.

God created this world with this idea of fulfilling himself, and we are bent upon frustrating God’s plan. Instead of helping, of trying to fulfil God here on earth, we are short-changing him as it were by winding up our business and saying let’s all head back to that place. And so he says:

To free the self is but one radiant pace.
Here to fulfil himself was God’s desire.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 312]

Well, Aswapati is determined that he will not rest in this realm of nirvana, he has to go beyond it. Then what happens? He immediately begins to feel the presence of the Divine Mother. The Divine Mother is the transcendental Shakti. She is beyond this world.

Across the silence of the ultimate Calm,
Out of a marvellous Transcendence’ core,
A body of wonder and translucency
As if a sweet mystic summary of her self
Escaping into the original Bliss
Had come enlarged out of eternity,
Someone came infinite and absolute.
A being of wisdom, power and delight,
Even as a mother draws her child to her arms,
Took to her breast Nature and world and soul.
Abolishing the signless emptiness,
Breaking the vacancy and voiceless hush,
Piercing the limitless Unknowable,
Into the liberty of the motionless depths
A beautiful and felicitous lustre stole.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 312]

This a fairly long description. On page 314 you have the culmination of the description, about seven lines from the top. These are the lines we read out on the very first day as an invocation; they are very well known lines. I’ll read that invocation and conclude.

At the head she stands of birth and toil and fate,
In their slow round the cycles turn to her call;
Alone her hands can change Time’s dragon base.
Hers is the mystery the Night conceals;
The spirit’s alchemist energy is hers;
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.
All Nature dumbly calls to her alone
To heal with her feet the aching throb of life
And break the seals on the dim soul of man
And kindle her fire in the closed heart of things.
All here shall be one day her sweetness’ home,
All contraries prepare her harmony;
Towards her our knowledge climbs, our passion gropes;
In her miraculous rapture we shall dwell,
Her clasp shall turn to ecstasy our pain.
Our self shall be one self with all through her.
[Bk 3, Canto 2, p. 314]

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