“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 19: Book 6 Canto 1

The 19th of 31 talks from “Invitation to Savitri” series by Prof. Mangesh V. Nadkarni, recorded live in Pondicherry in 1995.

The first canto of this book describes Savitri’s coming back to her father’s court to report to him that she had met this young man and she has decided to marry him. In fact, she is already married to him in what we know as the gandharva system and she just has to go back and report to her father. But as the original story has it, she finds her father has a visitor. This visitor is Devarshi Narad, who has the uncanny habit of being present when he is least expected. As we may remember, when we were kids, in all the Puranic stories, our favourite character would be Narad. When things got a little dull, insipid, and Narad arrived, it was like an announcement: Get ready for some action. That is what he always meant. In all the Puranic stories, he has a very important role, that whenever there is a higher harmony that has to be achieved, wherever there is a hidden conflict that has to be resolved, Narad comes to bring issues to a head so that the issue can be resolved and a higher harmony can be reached. This is what he always does. He is always in some sense an emissary of fate. Whenever anybody’s resolution is to be strengthened, you’ll find him there doing things which our earthly wisdom would say he should not have done, but ultimately, with hindsight we realise that because he did what he did or said what he said, things turned out the way they did. Here too, as the original story says, Savitri finds Narad in her father’s court.

Now, Sri Aurobindo has generally been very close to the story, he doesn’t introduce any additional story material, but here this entire dialogue which will come up in Canto 2 between Savitri’s mother and Narad you will not find in the original Mahabharata story. This is something Sri Aurobindo develops, where you have such important problems like fate, evil, pain—what are these, how do they arise, what purpose do they serve―things of this kind are discussed in some detail. But you must bear in mind this is not a philosophical treatise. Sri Aurobindo has a metaphysical and philosophical answer to this question in The Life Divine. He doesn’t repeat that here in a poetic form. This poetry has a different function. Some aspects are brought out, highlighted. We’ll come to that in Canto 2, so Canto 2 is very important. But Canto 1 is very dramatic. Sri Aurobindo begins by introducing this singer from the heavens, Narad the heavenly sage from paradise, and as I said, this is an incredibly rich canto and any amount of time you are willing to spend on this canto, you’ll find it very rewarding.

It begins very simply:

In silent bounds bordering the mortal’s plane
Crossing a wide expanse of brilliant peace
Narad the heavenly sage from Paradise
Came chanting through the large and lustrous air.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 415]

Now as Narad is coming down, you’ll see the themes and tone of what he is singing change, and that is described very beautifully here. At the same time, on this very page, there is an implication of the various steps in physical creation, how was the world created, particularly from lines like these:

Across an intangible border of soul-space
He passed from Mind into material things
Amid the inventions of the inconscient Self
And the workings of a blind somnambulist Force.
Below him circling burned the myriad suns:
He bore the ripples of the etheric sea;
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 415]

Sri Aurobindo talks about ether, air, fire, water, earth—these are the pancha maha bhutas—out of which this earth was made, this material creation was made. There is a kind of implicit reference to it in these lines. We just have time to indicate this; we don’t have time to develop this here. We will go on to the next point which is a little more direct, easier to appreciate, on page 416, about six lines from the top.

A change now fell upon the singer’s mood,
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 416]

As Narad was coming down, he underwent a change in mood, and the themes of the songs that he sang also changed. A rapture and a pathos moved his voice. Naturally, when you come near the earth there is a rapture and a pathos. As I have been saying here repeatedly, man is the most tragic of God’s creations. Man, poised as he is between the beast and the gods, doesn’t have the innocence of beasts, nor the perfection of the gods. He has been blessed or cursed with a mind and all the complications that mind has given rise to, as a result of which, the human being is the most tragic of these creatures, and therefore pathos is a constant companion of human life. But there is also this rapture, because if perfection is going to be realised anywhere at all, it’s going to be realised here on earth. So earth is the scene where perfection, God’s perfection is going to be realised. All the other worlds, whatever their beauty, whatever their strengths, they are all in some sense frozen, typal worlds. This is the only world which is full of imperfections, and yet, the only world where there is hope for evolution. And that’s why there is rapture for the future that is already implicit here on earth, for man, for this creation, and pathos for the current existential struggle that man has been waging. So Narad’s songs now are primarily along these two lines: the rapture and the pathos.

A rapture and a pathos moved his voice;
He sang no more of Light that never wanes,
And oneness and pure everlasting bliss,
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 416

As he comes down the earth atmosphere changes him.

He sang no more the deathless heart of Love,
His chant was a hymn of Ignorance and Fate.
He sang the name of Vishnu and the birth
And joy and passion of the mystic world,
And how the stars were made and life began
And the mute regions stirred with the throb of a Soul.
He sang the Inconscient and its secret self,
Its power omnipotent knowing not what it does,
All-shaping without will or thought or sense,
Its blind unerring occult mystery,
And darkness yearning towards the eternal Light,
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 416

That’s what this struggle on earth is: darkness yearning towards eternal light.

And Love that broods within the dim abyss
And waits the answer of the human heart,
And death that climbs to immortality.

A few lines down the page:

He sang of the glory and marvel still to be born,
Of Godhead throwing off at last its veil,
Of bodies made divine and life made bliss,
Immortal sweetness clasping immortal might,
Heart sensing heart, thought looking straight at thought,
And the delight when every barrier falls,
And the transfiguration and the ecstasy.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 416-417]

When he sang of this great future that was just described that is awaiting earth, the poet says,

And as he sang the demons wept with joy

All the demons, the asuras, who are waiting to be transformed, wept with joy because Narad was singing about this future. In this future, all these demons and asuras would be transformed. This is the great future, the bright future lying ahead for this earth about which Narad is singing. And therefore the poet says:

And as he sang the demons wept with joy
Foreseeing the end of their long dreadful task

They have been appointed to a long and dreadful task. They are not too happy doing this task, but the Divine has said they will be the examiners. That’s what the demons and asuras are doing and if they find more than two spelling mistakes they’ll just throw the script out the window, no chance of your passing. We want them to be lenient, but they are not. This is the job of death, the job of all the so-called hostile powers, in some sense. In the Indian way of looking at things, there is nothing really hostile to the Divine. The Divine is the absolute Supreme Reality, so you can’t bring in some other power, you can’t smuggle in some other power who can defy God. There is nothing here that can defy God. If there is evil, as you will see in the next canto, they are all appointed by the Divine for a specific purpose which they have to fulfil in the present conditions of the earth, and therefore:

And as he sang the demons wept with joy
Foreseeing the end of their long dreadful task
And the defeat for which they hoped in vain,
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 417]

They had all been waiting to be defeated by man, that man would be able to overcome, transcend them, but they are disappointed. This is the idea.

And the defeat for which they hoped in vain,
And glad release from their self-chosen doom
And return into the One from whom they came.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 417]

They would like to go back to where they came from and resume their normal activity of adoration of the Divine and not of hostility to the Divine. They were appointed here to be hostiles at the Divine’s command, as it were, as long as the necessity for such hostility remains.

A few lines down the same page, Narad is coming very close to the earth and he sees in the distance Aswapati’s palace:

King Aswapati’s palace to the winds
In Madra, flowering up in delicate stone.
There welcomed him the sage and thoughtful king,
At his side a creature beautiful, passionate, wise,
Aspiring like a sacrificial flame
Skyward from its earth-seat through luminous air,
Queen-browed, the human mother of Savitri.
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 417

King Aswapati and his wife ― whose name is not mentioned here, but whose name I learned is Malawi ― she is by his side, and they welcome the great sage. Now, as I said, this should be enough to indicate what kind of things Sri Aurobindo can pack these lines with. There is no canto he hasn’t taken seriously. He might have spent lots of time on some parts, not enough on others, but wherever his hand has worked, he has worked wonders, particularly here. For example, even this small event like Narad’s coming down. As you can see, Savitri is not a book for people in a hurry. How did Narad come? You could say it in one line, Narad came from here, and that is all. But how he came, what he sang about, what effect this song had on the elementary forces, all these things Sri Aurobindo describes in great detail.

Even as he sang and rapture stole through earth-time
And caught the heavens, came with a call of hooves,
As of her swift heart hastening, Savitri;
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 418]

He was just seated there in the court with Aswapati and his wife, and they were about to ask him about all kinds of things—what do you ask Narad, he is a kind of commuter between earth and heaven: how is Vishnu these days?—when suddenly they hear the hooves of the chariot horses.

Her radiant tread glimmered across the floor.
A happy wonder in her fathomless gaze,
Changed by the halo of her love she came;

The Savitri who is now coming back is a transformed Savitri, a fulfilled Savitri―fulfilled by love.

Her radiant tread glimmered across the floor.
A happy wonder in her fathomless gaze,
Changed by the halo of her love she came;
Her eyes rich with a shining mist of joy
As one who comes from a heavenly embassy
Discharging the proud mission of her heart,
One carrying the sanction of the gods
To her love and its luminous eternity,
She stood before her mighty father’s throne
And, eager for beauty on discovered earth
Transformed and new in her heart’s miracle-light,
Saw like a rose of marvel, worshipping,
The fire-tinged sweetness of the son of Heaven.

Sri Aurobindo doesn’t leave out any opportunity of describing Savitri. There are at least five long descriptions of Savitri. One is later on as seen by the god of Death. One we read the other day as Aswapati sees her, when Aswapati hears this voice asking man to rise beyond his limitations and so on, and by the time the voice has finished speaking, he sees Savitri approaching him. That was an opportunity Sri Aurobindo saw to describe Savitri in great detail. It is the second description. In Canto 2, when Savitri woke that morning along with everyone else and got busy with her work, there is another long description of Savitri. Then there is a description of Savitri as the Supreme Mother, where you have: “O strong forerunner, I have heard thy cry…”, there is a long description of the supreme form of Savitri as the Divine Mother.

But here is a different description of Savitri: Savitri as a maiden fulfilled by love. And I don’t think any other poet could have written this kind of a description: I don’t think Shakespeare or Keats or anybody. Only somebody who is drenched with Kalidas, drenched in the Indian tradition of poetry could have written this. Nobody has this perfection, this command over English like Sri Aurobindo, and only he can combine these. He has drunk very deep at the very fountainhead of Sanskrit poetry, Indian tradition, Indian aesthetics, and he is the only one who has the gift to translate it into English. Now what happens is, he is not trying to do in English what an English poet does, and this is very often held against him as a blemish. There are a number of people who are trying to do that, but Sri Aurobindo is trying to do in English something totally different, even when it comes to this kind of poetry. He wants to bring to the English language a different kind of expressiveness, an expressiveness of a quintessentially Indian sensibility. Somehow our minds are such that when you use English, you are expected to express through English an English sensibility. We are Indians, English sensibility is alien to us. When you try to do that, it becomes neither Indian nor English. We fall between these two. But Sri Aurobindo sticks to the Indian sensibility and he has total command over the language, so in the process, he creates a new aesthetics, he creates a new language, and this is what has baffled people. Oh, this is something I have never read in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English poetry. No one writes like this: Tennyson didn’t write like this, Swinburne didn’t write like this, Browning didn’t. Sri Aurobindo wasn’t like writing like anyone else, he was writing like Sri Aurobindo. It is a different kind of poetry, and that’s what you see here. He’s describing in gorgeous words this Savitri who is now approaching him, a different Savitri.

He cried to her, “Who is this that comes, the bride,
The flame-born, and round her illumined head
Pouring their lights her hymeneal pomps
Move flashing about her? From what green glimmer of glades
Retreating into dewy silences
Or half-seen verge of waters moon-betrayed
Bringst thou this glory of enchanted eyes?
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 418]

Try very hard, you can do research of any duration, you won’t find anything comparable to this anywhere in English; it’s a totally different kind of poetry. Therefore, instead of trying to apply to it the usual tenets of aesthetic sense, we must admit we need different tools to come to terms with poetry of this kind. Since there is a lot more in this canto, I just have to contain myself by pointing to them, to this great treasure that is laying here and then move on. This particular passage is fairly long, nearly two pages long. Only Sri Aurobindo could bring up this kind of miracle in verbal expression.

Now, we go on with the story to see what happens. For that we have to skip a number of pages. Towards the end of page 423, Narad asks:

“On what high mission went her hastening wheels?
Whence came she with this glory in her heart
And Paradise made visible in her eyes?
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 423]

Where had Savitri gone that she has such glory on her face and paradise in her eyes?

What sudden God has met, what face supreme?”

What god did she meet, what supreme face did she encounter that her face is so bright? On the next page, let us listen to what Savitri has to say, and see how precise she is:

“Father and king, I have carried out thy will.
One whom I sought I found in distant lands;
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 424]

Simple enough; her father had told her, trust your soul and your soul will prompt you right. Therefore she says,

I have obeyed my heart, I have heard its call.
On the borders of a dreaming wilderness
Mid Shalwa’s giant hills and brooding woods
In his thatched hermitage Dyumatsena dwells,

She doesn’t hide any facts. He is no prince; he is living in a thatched hermitage. But the fact is:

Blind, exiled, outcast, once a mighty king.
The son of Dyumatsena, Satyavan,
I have met on the wild forest’s lonely verge.
My father, I have chosen. This is done.”

That’s it: “This is done.” Now when she says this, a number of things are happening. There is Devarshi Narad himself, and Savitri’s father Aswapati, who had anticipated something of this already. Remember the benediction he had given: you will meet this companion and you will find all fulfilment of life, but also remember that he and you will have to take on the challenge of death, of this disguise, and you will have an important task to perform together. All this he had indicated very vaguely. So he knew this, he half-anticipated this. And Narad, of course, is deva rishi, so he knows exactly who Satyavan is and what is awaiting.

The father first speaks and says:

“Well hast thou done and I approve thy choice.
If this is all, then all is surely well;
If there is more, then all can still be well.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 424]

Double terms: If this is all, it is well; if there is some more that we don’t know, that you don’t know, I’m sure it will all turn out very well.

Whether it seem good or evil to men’s eyes,
Only for good the secret Will can work.
Our destiny is written in double terms:
Through Nature’s contraries we draw nearer God;
Out of the darkness we still grow to light.
Death is our road to immortality.

When Aswapati says this, he is almost giving out the whole of it. He is telling you fate works in double terms: There is a surface meaning of the working of fate and an inner meaning of the working of fate. This whole idea of what fate is, how it works, how to understand the promptings of fate, the workings of fate, is a major theme in Savitri. Sri Aurobindo talks about it in various places.

As I pointed out earlier on, where he says, do not try to find coherence in the outward happenings of life. Outward happenings of life by themselves have no coherence. They look absolutely unrelated, uncoordinated, but whatever happens outside on the surface of life is the response to a deep felt necessity of our inner being. It is our inner being which in fact calls these outer consequences. Thus, it is only the inner being’s growth that is the primary concern of life. So, one who is turned within can ask himself: What has this experience to do with my inner growth? Only that person will be able to find some coherence in life. Otherwise the outward happenings of life by themselves are incoherent. Fate makes no sense, it looks totally anarchic, but there is no anarchy in this world. There is a secret will that is working itself out but since we are all immersed in this kind of ignorance it has to look as if it has two levels: one is the outer level we are conscious of, worried about, and then there is the inner working, and this is how fate works. So what may look immediately as something that is leading to success, to triumph, may not in the long run prove beneficial to the inner growth of a person. And whatever may look as if it’s leading to unhappy consequences, may in the long run be something that has brought you that much closer, that much higher in your evolutionary growth and development. So fate, Sri Aurobindo says, works in double terms:

Our destiny is written in double terms:
Through Nature’s contraries we draw nearer God;
Out of the darkness we still grow to light.
Death is our road to immortality.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 424]

In the finite, the only way to immortality is through death. That’s something Sri Aurobindo keeps saying in The Life Divine. As long as there is this finite; the only way to immortality in a finite form is through death.

‘Cry woe, cry woe,’ the world’s lost voices wail,
Yet conquers the eternal Good at last.”
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 424-425]

There is nothing that is evil here; everything in this world is either good or something which is working itself out towards good. Its present appearance may not be good, but in God’s world there cannot be any evil by itself. It is something that is now disguised, but ultimately will work out, and when it’s fully worked out you’ll find it’s all leading to good. Then why was this phase, this suffering, necessary? This is the question Savitri’s mother is going to raise and we’ll talk about it in the next canto.

After Aswapati says this, Narad is about to say a little more but Aswapati intervenes and says, don’t give humans foreknowledge, it’s dangerous for human beings. It is good that we don’t know our future. We all want to see tomorrow, nobody is interested in today. Tomorrow is uncertain, but what is important is today. Today, the eternal present, is important. Instead of that, we are always thinking of tomorrow or yesterday. We either feel regret for yesterday or hope for tomorrow. What about today? Who is going to live today? That’s God’s business.

Narad is about to say something, but Aswapati says it is no use telling all these things to human beings. On page 426, Savitri’s mother who has heard what Narad had to say, says

But now the queen alarmed lifted her voice:
“O seer, thy bright arrival has been timed
To this high moment of a happy life;
Then let the speech benign of griefless spheres
Confirm this blithe conjunction of two stars
And sanction joy with thy celestial voice.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 426]

You have come here at a most auspicious time, Savitri has just come back and whatever she has just now revealed to us must have an auspicious end because you are here. It is almost a golden moment, as it were, for the life of our country. Savitri, I’m sure, has made the right choice, and I’m sure nothing ill-toward is going to happen.

Here drag not in the peril of our thoughts,
Let not our words create the doom they fear.
Here is no cause for dread, no chance for grief
To raise her ominous head and stare at love.
A single spirit in a multitude,
Happy is Satyavan mid earthly men
Whom Savitri has chosen for her mate,
And fortunate the forest hermitage
Where leaving her palace and riches and a throne
My Savitri will dwell and bring in heaven.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 426]

I suppose everything is going to be alright: the sacrifice Savitri is going to make, leaving behind her this palace, this kingdom, her status as a princess, and be a commoner lost in a forest hermitage. I’m sure all this will be worth it. It’s interesting. Narad really wants to say what he has come to say. In fact, he has come just to say this, to announce that Satyavan has just one more year to live. But he can’t just blurt it out, particularly after Aswapati has asked him not to say anything. But he has to say this. Why does he have to say this? Why can’t he just keep his mouth shut? The poet uses hints to show why Narad has to say this at this point. He says,

Then cried the sage piercing the mother’s heart,
Forcing to steel the will of Savitri,
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 429]

Narad has to say this at this moment because it is forcing Savitri to steel her will. He knows nothing he says will frighten Savitri, but will only help her to steel her will, because the challenge Savitri has to face is not any ordinary woman’s challenge. It’s a challenge nobody has yet faced successfully, that nobody has even thought of facing. Nachiketa at best wanted to understand the secret of death, but to go into the kingdom of death and conquer, vanquish death in its own kingdom, I don’t think any human being has ever thought this would be possible and this is what Savitri is supposed to do. That’s why she needs tremendous will, and against the will of millions and millions of years when death has become a habit of mankind and suggestions of death are being thrown out at us all the time through our friends, society, public opinion. Against all this she has to steel her will, and to enable her to steel her will, that was the purpose why the god of Fate, as it were, chose to send Narad to that place at that point.

Then cried the sage piercing the mother’s heart,
Forcing to steel the will of Savitri,
His words set free the spring of cosmic Fate.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 429]

Narad was not saying things merely to Savitri, or merely for Aswapati and his wife to listen to. By saying these things he was also, at an occult level, setting the springs of cosmic fate free. Something I’ve always been saying, Sri Aurobindo didn’t write Savitri just to give us a feast of poetry. He wrote Savitri, and by writing it he simultaneously, in the occult level, did something else. Savitri is a kind of a blue print in a language that you and I understand of this golden bridge that he had already built in the occult world. One of the by-products of this yogic sadhana is Savitri. Exactly the same way, when Narad is talking to Savitri or talking to Aswapati and his wife, he is simultaneously doing something else in the cosmic world. He is setting free, as it were, the constraints on cosmic fate.

His words set free the spring of cosmic Fate.
The great Gods use the pain of human hearts
As a sharp axe to hew their cosmic road:
They squander lavishly men’s blood and tears
For a moment’s purpose in their fateful work.
This cosmic Nature’s balance is not ours
Nor the mystic measure of her need and use.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 429]

If you read this passage, this entire canto, in a hurry, you are likely to miss out on many significant details. Narad now is going to give out the final verdict. He says, I have no doubt that Satyavan is:

A sapphire cutting from the sleep of heaven,
Delightful is the soul of Satyavan,
A ray out of the rapturous Infinite,
A silence waking to a hymn of joy.
A divinity and kingliness gird his brow;
His eyes keep a memory from a world of bliss.
As brilliant as a lonely moon in heaven,
Gentle like the sweet bud that spring desires,
Pure like a stream that kisses silent banks,
He takes with bright surprise spirit and sense.
A living knot of golden Paradise,
A blue Immense he leans to the longing world,
Time’s joy borrowed out of eternity,
A star of splendour or a rose of bliss.
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 430]

Then, on the next page:

His sweetness and his joy attract all hearts
To live with his own in a glad tenancy,
His strength is like a tower built to reach heaven,
A godhead quarried from the stones of life.
O loss, if death into its elements
Of which his gracious envelope was built,
Shatter this vase before it breathes its sweets,
As if earth could not keep too long from heaven
A treasure thus unique loaned by the gods,
A being so rare, of so divine a make!
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 431]

This is the problem. What is the problem?

In one brief year when this bright hour flies back
And perches careless on a branch of Time,
This sovereign glory ends heaven lent to earth,
This splendour vanishes from the mortal’s sky:
Heaven’s greatness came, but was too great to stay.
Twelve swift-winged months are given to him and her;
This day returning Satyavan must die.”
[Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 431]

There is a whole series of articles on this: Why Satyavan must die. Deshpande wrote these articles and they came in Mother India long ago. If you find old issues of Mother India it is worth reading. Why doesn’t Sri Aurobindo say Satyavan will die, why does he say must die? Why must he die? This is the question Sri Aurobindo raises and he develops it in a very leisurely fashion.


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