“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 24: Book 7, 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


Devarshi Narad performed his destined task: he has steeled Savitri’s will. Incidentally, he has also enlightened us on a number of questions, such as what is fate, why is there pain, how did evil come about, how was the universe created, and so on. Savitri presumably returns to Satyavan’s hermitage and they begin to live together. That one year is described in Canto 1, “The joy of union; the ordeal of the foreknowledge of death and the heart’s grief and pain.” This is what this canto describes in some detail, but even at the very beginning you have a few glorious lines which summarize after a fashion Sri Aurobindo’s views on fate: What is fate, and how does fate work? He begins this canto by saying,

Fate followed her foreseen immutable road
Man’s hopes and longings build the journeying wheels
That bear the body of his destiny
And lead his blind will towards an unknown goal.
                                                       Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465

I just draw your attention to this passage without dwelling on it at any length. He says our destiny is born as it were on a chariot or in a vehicle of which our hopes and desires are the wheels. That is the vehicle that our destiny rides. This vehicle has wheels that are made up of our desires and our longings.

And these wheels of desire and longing lead this chariot, this vehicle to an unknown goal, because the will seems to be blind.

His fate within him shapes his acts and rules;
Its face and form already are born in him,
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465

Already are born within him what may be called his karma, his destiny, where he’s supposed to go, the grooves along which these wheels will role.

Its parentage is in his secret soul:
Here Matter seems to mould the body’s life
And the soul follows where its nature drives.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465

It looks as if, when we look on the surface, that we are driven blindly along the grooves of our karma, and our past karma determines our present desires and longings. So it looks as if everything is predetermined, and what determines these things are our outward acts. Here matter seems to mould the body’s life, and the soul follows where its nature’s drives. It looks as if the soul has no choice, the soul blindly follows where the body―your desires, your longings―pull it, drag it. Nature and fate compel the free will’s choice. That’s what it looks like: man’s own nature and man’s fate seem to be the arbiters. But Sri Aurobindo points out,

But greater spirits this balance can reverse.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465

We are bound by karma, we are bound by what we have accumulated as long as we live under the control, the guidance of the ego. There is no escape as long as we are in the realm of the ego. Greater spirits who can rise above the ego come under the domain of another force. Only those people can reject their karma, can rise above their karma. So it says:

But greater spirits this balance can reverse
And make the soul the artist of its fate.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465

The soul calls the shots. You can enjoy what is called free will, but not within the domain of the ego. Ego is nature-bound, ego is nature’s product. It’s produced by nature and therefore will be nature’s product. Therefore, as long as you are within the realm of the ego, you have no free will. What you think is free will is already predetermined by your personality, which has been formed by the samskaras that you have already inherited from your past birth and the surroundings which have moulded your life, and so on. So you don’t seem to have anything of your own; everything seems to be a function of your past or a function of your early upbringing. But this can be rejected, you can really exercise your freedom. It says,

This is the mystic truth our ignorance hides:
Doom is a passage for our inborn force,
Our ordeal is the hidden spirit’s choice,
Ananke is our being’s own decree.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 465 

Ananke is the Greek notion of fate. Fate basically is our being’s own decree. It is fate that ultimately determines what our future is going to be. So it’s not that we are led blindly by karma. The ultimate power is within our soul, and also there’s a notion of grace. If the grace comes, the grace can also cancel the past karma. So there is this grace, and there is also the soul’s will. This is basically Sri Aurobindo’s position to the question, “Is there free will or is everything determined?” His answer would be, “it all depends.” The answer is not either yes or no, it is yes and no. As long as you are, as we have been saying, within the bounds of nature, of ego, you have no free will. You may feel it is your free will that you are exercising, but it is … you are just a puppet. Your nature makes you dance up and down, and you find that dancing happy, pleasant, and you think it is your free will. It is not your free will. Free will can only come when you have risen above this. Ultimately, the free will belongs to our inner being.

Now notice, this is just a beginning. He didn’t have to say all this. He is now introducing it to us. Savitri is going back to the forest and spending one whole year with Satyavan. That was the topic, but just in the beginning he has thrown in this summary statement which beautifully presents his viewpoint in about 10-12 lines. As I said, this canto basically describes her first year. Let us read a little bit. On page 468, where the new section begins:

At first to her beneath the sapphire heavens
The sylvan solitude was a gorgeous dream,
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468 

Savitri, having met the man of her choice, has gone back and is spending her days and her nights within the company of Satyavan. So therefore he says, at first, in the beginning,

At first to her beneath the sapphire heavens
The sylvan solitude was a gorgeous dream,
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468
 

The solitude that the forest afforded―naturally in the forest you are all alone―it looked like a gorgeous dream:

An altar of the summer’s splendour and fire,
A sky-topped flower-hung palace of the gods
And all its scenes a smile on rapture’s lips
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468 

Life there looked like, you understand, rapture. If rapture were to have a face and rapture were to smile, how would that smile look? So the year there looked like a smile on the face on rapture:

And all its scenes a smile on rapture’s lips
And all its voices bards of happiness.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468 

All the voices in the forest, the streams flowing, the birds chirping, all these for her were bards of happiness. They all sang; they are poets of happiness.

There was a chanting in the casual wind,
There was a glory in the least sunbeam;
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468 

“There was a chanting in the casual wind.” Even when the wind blew, it sounded as if it brought along a chant.

Night was a chrysoprase on velvet cloth,
A nestling darkness or a moonlit deep;
Day was a purple pageant and a hymn,
A wave of the laughter of light from morn to eve.
His absence was a dream of memory,
His presence was the empire of a god.
A fusing of the joys of earth and heaven,
A tremulous blaze of nuptial rapture passed,
A rushing of two spirits to be one,
A burning of two bodies in one flame.
Opened were gates of unforgettable bliss:
Two lives were locked within an earthly heaven
And fate and grief fled from that fiery hour.
But soon now failed the summer’s ardent breath
And throngs of blue-black clouds crept through the sky
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 468 

Remember when Satyavan and Savitri met? As you may remember, he describes it as if it was a time where spring and summer were locked arm in arm, and didn’t know whether it is springtime or summer. Soon after that, Savitri went back, and she’s back now. The summer is now gone and now comes the rainy season, the monsoons.

But soon now failed the summer’s ardent breath
And throngs of blue-black clouds crept through the sky
And rain fled sobbing over the dripping leaves
And storm became the forest’s titan voice.
Then listening to the thunder’s fatal crash
And the fugitive pattering footsteps of the showers
And the long unsatisfied panting of the wind
And sorrow muttering in the sound-vexed night,
The grief of all the world came near to her.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, pp. 468-469 

At night when it rained―and he describes the howling storm, the rain pattering on the roof, the wind howling―at that time Savitri still lay awake in bed. Satyavan probably was fast asleep because he didn’t know that he had this calamity round the corner. Only Savitri knew, nobody else knew, neither Satyavan nor Satyavan’s parents knew that Satyavan was destined to die in a short period of time. Only Savitri knew this, and therefore Savitri can’t just go to sleep. So she is tossing around restlessly on her bed. Therefore, he says that at that time,

Night’s darkness seemed her future’s ominous face.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

So the darkness all around her looked like her future. Her future’s face was as dark as the dark night.

The shadow of her lover’s doom arose
And fear laid hands upon her mortal heart.
The moments swift and ruthless raced; alarmed
Her thoughts, her mind remembered Narad’s date.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

Her thought and her mind remembered what Narad had said.

A trembling moved accountant of her riches,
She reckoned the insufficient days between:
A dire expectancy knocked at her breast;
Dreadful to her were the footsteps of the hours:
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

Every passing hour for her brought that time, that moment that much closer. So time’s footsteps were dreadful to her.

Grief came, a passionate stranger to her gate:
                                                           Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

Until now, Savitri knew no grief. So grief in fact was a stranger.

Grief came, a passionate stranger to her gate:
Banished when in his arms,
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

And when Savitri found herself in the arms of Satyavan, there was no grief; grief was banished.

Banished when in his arms, out of her sleep
It rose at morn to look into her face.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

But when she woke up the next morning, the first thought that confronted her is this, that Satyavan was going to die in a few months’ time. So he says, when she was with Satyavan, the thought of grief just disappeared, there was no grief; but when she was all alone, when she woke up next morning, the first thought that confronted her was this.

It rose at morn to look into her face
Vainly she fled into abysms of bliss
From her pursuing foresight of the end.
The more she plunged into love that anguish grew;
Her deepest grief from sweetest gulfs arose.
Remembrance was a poignant pang, she felt
Each day a golden leaf torn cruelly out
From her too slender book of love and joy.
                                                         Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

So he says her book of love and joy was very slender. It has very few pages left, and each day that passed was like tearing off a page from that book, which had already become very slender.

Each day a golden leaf torn cruelly out
From her too slender book of love and joy.
Thus swaying in strong gusts of happiness
And swimming in foreboding’s sombre waves
And feeding sorrow and terror with her heart,—
For now they sat among her bosom’s guests
Or in her inner chamber paced apart,—
Her eyes stared blind into the future’s night.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 1, p. 469 

I thought I should read these few lines to give you a sample, an idea, of how Sri Aurobindo describes this, a very tense year. In one sense, it is a fulfillment of a life. In other sense, each moment of fulfillment brings her that much closer to the dreaded hour of Satyavan’s death. This is the whole canto.

We go on now to Canto 2. In the original Mahabharata story, Savitri is supposed to have performed a vow, what is called a triratra, which is three nights and three days―a very strict austerity―standing in one place, not eating, not drinking. She had to stand in one place and meditate. This is supposed to be very strict, very difficult vratam. And the original story says that Satyavan’s father, Dyumatsena, tried to dissuade her. He said, “you shouldn’t undergo all such hardship, this is not necessary.” But Savitri said, “no I would like to feel pure from inside.” She did not tell them why she was undergoing all this hardship. This is the original story. Sri Aurobindo uses that here as Savitri ‘s yoga. Now Savitri’s yoga begins.

Now here in the beginning, as you have in the Gita, Arjun’s vishada yoga, that itself is a yoga. Not all vishada, not all crises, can lead to this kind of inner tension. So the Gita describes in its first canto when Arjun looks at the two armies, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and is overcome with this tremendous feeling that why should he kill his own elders, his own gurus, his own dear ones, just for the sake of a kingdom? “I would rather be a sannyasi, I would rather give up everything than kill my own people,” and so saying, when he says this, his entire body begins to shake and his bow and arrow begin to slip, and so on. That is described as Arjun’s vishada yoga.

Savitri also goes through a similar experience in the beginning. In the beginning she says, “how can anybody vanquish death?” A voice says, “why camest thou,” when she was sitting at night thinking to herself, meditating, around her body stillness. On page 474, middle of that page:

Around her body’s stillness all grew still:
Her heart listened to its slow measured beats,
Her mind renouncing thought heard and was mute:
“Why camest thou to this dumb deathbound earth,
This ignorant life beneath indifferent skies
Tied like a sacrifice on the altar of Time,
O spirit, O immortal energy,
If ’twas to nurse grief in a helpless heart
Or with hard tearless eyes await thy doom?
Arise, O soul, and vanquish Time and Death.”
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 474 

Something within her says, “arise Savitri, don’t just sit quietly moping and worrying about the future. Arise, this is the time for you to realize your full potential. Arise to the fullest state of your inner being and vanquish death.” Something within her says this, but like Arjun’s vishada yoga, you have here:

But Savitri’s heart replied in the dim night:
“My strength is taken from me and given to Death.
Why should I lift my hands to the shut heavens
Or struggle with mute inevitable Fate
Or hope in vain to uplift an ignorant race
Who hug their lot and mock the saviour Light
And see in Mind wisdom’s sole tabernacle,
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, pp. 474-475

Why should I do anything? Because she had not come for herself. Why should I do anything at all? Why should I raise a protest against a fate that man has so willingly accepted? Man has made a compromise with death and ignorance and is quite happy to be what he is. So she says, why should I in vain uplift an ignorant race?

…..in vain to uplift an ignorant race
Who hug their lot and mock the saviour Light
And see in Mind
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

In mind, as we are now, we see the highest point, the highest temple, the most sacred temple. That’s what our mind is:

In its harsh peak and its inconscient base
A rock of safety and an anchor of sleep?
Is there a God whom any cry can move?
He sits in peace and leaves the mortal’s strength
Impotent against his calm omnipotent Law
And Inconscience and the almighty hands of Death.
What need have I, what need has Satyavan
To avoid the black-meshed net, the dismal door,
Or call a mightier Light into life’s closed room,
 A greater Law into man’s little world?
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

Well, I and Satyavan came from some other region. We have had some time here, one year we are living together, and he is destined to die. I know how to follow him, so I will follow him. That’s about all. We will forever be united there wherever we came from. Why should I, why should we be here? Why should I struggle against death? For whom should I do it? Man doesn’t seem to be particularly unhappy to be with the present lot.

Why should I strive with earth’s unyielding laws
Or stave off death’s inevitable hour?
This surely is best to pactise with my fate
And follow close behind my lover’s steps
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

I will make a pact with my fate and when Satyavan dies, I also will give up my life. So what is the big thing about it? Like Arjun saying, “who wants to fight this war? I will take sannyasa, wander in the forest. Why should I fight?” Savitri refuses to fight like Arjun refuses to fight.

This surely is best to pactise with my fate
And follow close behind my lover’s steps
And pass through night from twilight to the sun
Across the tenebrous river that divides
The adjoining parishes of earth and heaven.
                                                    Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475

There is this river called Vaitarani which separates earth from heaven, I will cross this river and go to the other side. In heaven I will be united with Satyavan.

Then could we lie inarmed breast upon breast,
Untroubled by thought, untroubled by our hearts,
Forgetting man and life and time and its hours,
Forgetting eternity’s call, forgetting God.”
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

We won’t even bother. Why has God created this world? It’s too much, too messy for anybody to concern himself with. The best thing is to escape from this world. We made a mistake in coming to this world. There is a tax we have to pay for coming here, which is ignorance and death. Satyavan has to pay it very soon. I will also pay it prematurely and retire. We will go back to heaven and lie together forever and ever, forgetting the world, forgetting God. We will have nothing to do with this. The voice replied, something from within Savitri now replies:

…. “Is this enough, O spirit?
And what shall thy soul say when it wakes and knows
The work was left undone for which it came?
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

Then why did you come here if you want to go back like this? When you realize who you are, then you will certainly find that the purpose for which you had come down here on earth has remained unfulfilled, the work was left undone for which you came.

Or is this all for thy being born on earth
Charged with a mandate from eternity,
A listener to the voices of the years,
A follower of the footprints of the gods,
To pass and leave unchanged the old dusty laws?
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475 

Are you just putting your signature and saying that all these old dusty laws that nature has created, ignorance has created, they’re okay? Are you going to pass them and go on?

No greater light come down upon the earth
Delivering her from her unconsciousness,
Man’s spirit from unalterable Fate?
Cam’st thou not down to open the doors of Fate,
The iron doors that seemed for ever closed,
And lead man to Truth’s wide and golden road
That runs through finite things to eternity?
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 475-476 

Is this not why you came here? Because the going is tough you just want to abandon everything and go back?

Is this then the report that I must make,
My head bowed with shame before the Eternal’s seat,—
His power he kindled in thy body has failed,
His labourer returns, her task undone?”
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 476 

This is the final report:  the avatar was sent down to earth and found the task too formidable and therefore went back the way she came with empty hands. Mission failed before it began! Is that what we should say? This is what the spirit is asking her. And this is a question that we must ask ourselves. We also left the paradise of satchidananda, we took a plunge here into matter, we accepted ignorance, we accepted death. We have been evolving for the last billions and billions of years, and we have now come at a midpoint. Shall we now abandon this entire thing as it is and go back to nirvana and moksha? God will say, “You spent a considerable time down there on earth. I’m sure you’ve fulfilled our task.” “No sir, I found the last two stages very difficult and so I came back in a hurry!” This is what you’re supposed to be saying? It’s a kind of paradigm case.

Then Savitri’s heart fell mute, it spoke no word.
But holding back her troubled rebel heart,
Abrupt, erect and strong, calm like a hill,
Surmounting the seas of mortal ignorance,
Its peak immutable above mind’s air,
A Power within her answered the still Voice:
“I am thy portion here charged with thy work,
As thou myself seated for ever above,
Speak to my depths, O great and deathless Voice,
Command, for I am here to do thy will.”
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 476

Now Savitri’s real being comes to the front and says, “Sorry that was an aberration, now I am ready to listen to you. What is your command?” The voice replies. This is, in brief, Savitri’s yoga. The voice gives Savitri the path, the yoga she has to traverse:

“Remember why thou cam’st:
Find out thy soul, recover thy hid self,
In silence seek God’s meaning in thy depths,
Then mortal nature change to the divine.
                                                          Bk 7, Canto 2, p. 476 

There are two steps. First of all, the voice says, “In silence seek god’s meaning in thy depths,” and “Find out thy soul.” The first thing we have to do is to find out who we are. When you know who you are, you will know why you are here. See, most of the time all of us we want to live a life, we want a life of fulfillment. Who’s fulfillment is it?  The fulfillment of our outer personality. The outer personality is such a shallow thing that whatever fulfillment you achieve in life either doesn’t bring you any happiness or brings it only for a short while. You know something is still missing.

So what is it we want to do in this life? Be a successful something. A successful what? You see, most of the time we want to be something that is regarded in our society as a good thing, as an ideal thing. To talk about it at another level, at one time being a doctor was a great thing; everybody wanted to be a doctor. Then came a time when everybody wanted to be an engineer; every father wanted his son to be an engineer, the son was not even consulted. What do you want to be? You have to be an engineer, because this is the age when everybody becomes an engineer. Then now is a time when everybody has to have an MBA. We never ask, do I really want to be an MBA or I would rather be an artist or whatever? Nobody is ever asked this question. You see, in India the economic compulsions are so strong, and therefore we don’t even have the freedom to ask this question: “What is it I would like to do in life?”

Now if this is one kind of a predicament, even where there are affluent circumstances, you don’t reach deep enough within you to ask what is it you want to be. There are various kinds of fashions:  I want to be a pop singer, that may be a very popular thing at that time. You want to be a pop singer, there is no harm in being a pop singer provided it is your deepest urge. Most often we don’t know what we are supposed to do because we don’t know who we are.

So the beginning of life, the first thing in life is to find out who we are, and when we find out who we are then it makes sense, then we decide, this is what I want to be. Or you can say, look, I want to be so and so, but this is a tentative goal. In trying to be so and so, I will also simultaneously try to find out who I am, and when I know who I am, then I will change my goal. That’s a reasonable thing to do. And therefore, it seems some students here in the ashram school who grew up and were taking leave of the ashram and going out into the world, the Mother very often used to tell them, “The most important thing is to find out who you are, a psychic being.” She would say, “It’s not just a theoretical concept.”

That’s the primary thing. Once you bring it to the front, then all the guidance is available right there. So without knowing who we are, there is no point in trying to say, “I want to be successful in life.” That can begin only after we know who we are. And therefore, even for Savitri, in many ways, this question of who we are is very important.

For example―I’ll be brief since our time is almost up―we all want to help the world. There are many do-gooders in this world. You want to help the world. You want to bring in an era of prosperity, and we all have our little programs and projects. The Mother said that somewhere she met Tolstoy’s son, somewhere in Japan or some place. And Tolstoy being a great writer, his son also had a kink. He wanted human unity, he wanted everybody to come together, and for that he had one project. What is it? Human unity can be established overnight if everybody decides to wear the same clothes! Let all women wear saris or whatever. Let all men wear whatever they want to wear. By doing this, all humanity will be one. I had a friend, I won’t name his name, his pet project is selling T-shirts, and on the T-shirts you have this symbol, ‘All religions are one.’ Fantastic idea, but how do you become one by wearing those T-shirts?

We have these little projects of how to help the world, and all our projects, all our attempts are bound to go wrong because we don’t, we can’t understand the world’s problems because we are looking at the world’s problems through the grid of our own ego. That is why each one of us has a different solution. Somebody says communism is the answer, somebody says capitalism is the answer, somebody says anarchy is the answer. There are various answers given to this question. And each answer is correct because one looks at the world’s problems through the grid of one’s ego.

And only when you get out of this grid of the ego, then real objectivity becomes possible. Nobody who is within the influence of ego can ever be objective. You can just forget about objectivity as long as you are within the realm of the ego. That is why in ancient India, when Dashrath had a problem, he of course went to his financial expert. There are also Dashrath’s Reserve Bank, Dashrath’s Manmohan Singhs, all these people are available. But whenever a critical moment came, he went to Vashishtha. Vashishtha didn’t have a Phd either from Harvard or Stanford or Cambridge. One thing Vashishtha had―what is it?―he had found his soul. And because he had found his soul, he would look at any problem in the right perspective, in the objective way, and therefore he was able to give the right advice. All the other Manhmohan Singhs that he had were not of that stature. They were experts in their own field, but these were all specializations in the domain of the ego. That is why the first project anybody has to have is to find one’s soul. Before you can save the world, make sure you have saved yourself.