“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 28: Book 9, Canto 2 and Book 10, 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


The passage that we just read presents the nihilistic attitude, a critique of what Savitri proposes to do, and we have seen how effective the words of the God of Death are in terms of the precision, the biting sarcasm of the basic inadequacy of the human enterprise. As I said in the very beginning, in these three or four books, it’s almost a miracle how Sri Aurobindo takes various intellectual positions, philosophical positions, and gives them a body and converts them into poetic passion as it were, and makes them real in terms of poetic experience. Making a philosophical position feel real in terms of poetic experience is a very difficult thing. You can do it about human emotions, but about intellectual propositions this is a very difficult job, and Sri Aurobindo has the capacity to do it. Very often I found that what someone like Shakespeare could do at the vital level, at the level of vital beings―you know Shakespeare’s characters are so varied and the characterization is so rich―similarly at another level Sri Aurobindo shows the same kind of creativity, the same power that Shakespeare exhibited at another level. Shakespeare was a great poet, but he worked at another level. Sri Aurobindo has the same creativity, the same mastery, and from that point of view, I guess these few books are quite a miracle. This is what we find.

We have read a few lines from Death’s statement of his position, why he wants Savitri to give up the enterprise. Now we’ll read a few lines of Savitri’s, the kind of reply that she gives to this question, and then we’ll go on to something else. On page 588,

“I bow not to thee, O huge mask of death,
Black lie of night to the cowed soul of man,
Unreal, inescapable end of things,
Thou grim jest played with the immortal spirit.
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 588

Savitri hardly takes him seriously. She says, You are a jest. You are a big joke, except that it’s a grim joke.

Thou grim jest played with the immortal spirit.
Conscious of immortality I walk.
A victor spirit conscious of my force,
Not as a suppliant to thy gates I came:
Unslain I have survived the clutch of Night.
My first strong grief moves not my seated mind;
My unwept tears have turned to pearls of strength:
I have transformed my ill-shaped brittle clay
Into the hardness of a statued soul.
Now in the wrestling of the splendid gods
My spirit shall be obstinate and strong
Against the vast refusal of the world.
I stoop not with the subject mob of minds
Who run to glean with eager satisfied hands
And pick from its mire mid many trampling feet
Its scornful small concessions to the weak.
Mine is the labour of the battling gods:
Imposing on the slow reluctant years
The flaming will that reigns beyond the stars,
They lay the law of Mind on Matter’s works
And win the soul’s wish from earth’s inconscient Force.
First I demand whatever Satyavan,
My husband, waking in the forest’s charm
Out of his long pure childhood’s lonely dreams,
Desired and had not for his beautiful life.
Give, if thou must, or, if thou canst, refuse.”
Bk 9, Canto 2, pp. 588-589

Now, this is in reply to the earlier statement which we didn’t read which the God of Death makes. And now he says to Savitri, You have come this far, you have shown great courage, great fortitude, great idealism, I’m very pleased with you for this, so choose any boon you want and I can give it to you. Savitri says, I’m not particular about any boons, but if you want to give any, this is what I want:

My husband, waking in the forest’s charm
Out of his long pure childhood’s lonely dreams,
Desired and had not for his beautiful life.
Give, if thou must, or, if thou canst, refuse.”
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 589 

All that my husband must have missed as he was growing up. As you know, Dyumatsena was blinded, he was living in exile and in the indigent circumstances of a hermitage. So Satyavan must have missed all this rich environment for his upbringing, for his growth. So restore all that, restore to Dyumatsena the lost empire, the kingdom that he has lost, the eyesight that he has lost. If you can give this, that’s all I need, I don’t want anything for me. That’s what she’s saying. Then the God of Death, of course, grants to her this first boon. But Savitri says,

“World-spirit, I was thy equal spirit born.
My will too is a law, my strength a god.
I am immortal in my mortality.
I tremble not before the immobile gaze
Of the unchanging marble hierarchies
That look with the stone eyes of Law and Fate.
My soul can meet them with its living fire.
Out of thy shadow give me back again
Into earth’s flowering spaces Satyavan
In the sweet transiency of human limbs
To do with him my spirit’s burning will.
I will bear with him the ancient Mother’s load,
I will follow with him earth’s path that leads to God.
Else shall the eternal spaces open to me,
While round us strange horizons far recede,
Travelling together the immense unknown.
For I who have trod with him the tracts of Time,
Can meet behind his steps whatever night
Or unimaginable stupendous dawn
Breaks on our spirits in the untrod Beyond.
Wherever thou leadst his soul I shall pursue.”
Bk 9, Canto 2, pp. 589-590

Wherever you take him, I will pursue. The God of Death has an adversary who proves more than a match to him. There are wonderful passages here, as I told you. This particular 50-60 pages are full of marvelous passages, of great beauty and strength, of two kinds: one is criticizing Savitri’s enterprise, the other is justifying Savitri’s enterprise. You have passages of both kinds.

Take, for example, this passage on page 590. You know, the God of Death at one point says, I am God. The God of Death says he is the ultimate God.

I, Death, created them out of my void;
All things I have built in them and I destroy.
I made the worlds my net, each joy a mesh.
A Hunger amorous of its suffering prey,
Life that devours, my image see in things.
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 590

This eternal hunger that constantly devours, gobbles everything, that destroys everything, that negates everything, that is the ultimate God, that is me. And Savitri says, I don’t know this God! On page 591:

“Who is this God imagined by thy night,
Contemptuously creating worlds disdained,
Who made for vanity the brilliant stars?
Not he who has reared his temple in my thoughts
And made his sacred floor my human heart.
My God is will and triumphs in his paths,
My God is love and sweetly suffers all.
To him I have offered hope for sacrifice
And gave my longings as a sacrament.
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 591

Later on she says,

Who shall prohibit or hedge in his course,
The wonderful, the charioteer, the swift?
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 591-592

A few lines later she says,

Love’s golden wings have power to fan thy void:
The eyes of love gaze starlike through death’s night,
The feet of love tread naked hardest worlds.
He labours in the depths, exults on the heights;
He shall remake thy universe, O Death.”
Bk 9, Canto 2, p. 592

I have in me this power of love, and this power of love will remake the world. You have made your world, but this world will be eliminated. A new world will be made, and that power which makes the new world, the power of love, that is what I symbolize, that is what I have brought.

Well, let us leave this book. This is one kind of dialogue. You see the God of Death taking the position of a nihilist, and Savitri arguing against this. The second kind of position the God of Death takes is ridiculing all ideals. There are no ideals. Ideals are just, you know, fancies. A good example of that you find here on page 610. Let’s begin at the end of page 609. The God of Death is essentially saying all these great ideals are just empty words. People have come down with great missions trying to save the world, trying to bring succor, help, light to mankind, but nothing really has changed here. The world goes on as it always has been going on, with its load of suffering undiminished.

Therefore, he says, “The Avatars have lived and died in vain.” That Bhagawan, this Bhagawan, they all come and disappear. Maybe a few people get some help towards salvation, but what about the human lot? The oppression, the exploitation, the hunger, the terror in the night, all these things have continued as always they have been. The beating of the war-drums, which is the one constant note, you listen, you hear down the corridors of human history, that still hasn’t been silenced. Now the war-drums have a kind of muffled note, there are no world wars, but there are skirmishes all over; the suffering is still there.

The Avatars have lived and died in vain,
Vain was the sage’s thought, the prophet’s voice
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 609 

What did the sage get?  How many people was he able to save―any mahatma, any avatar―how many people compared to the world’s population? What has he done?

In vain is seen the shining upward Way.
Earth lies unchanged beneath the circling sun;
She loves her fall….
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

This is a constant theme of the God of Death. Man loves his ignorance, there is nothing you can do about it.

She loves her fall and no omnipotence
Her mortal imperfections can erase,
Force on man’s crooked ignorance Heaven’s straight line
Or colonise a world of death with gods.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

A few lines later, Death says, What is this you are saying: “I personify, I symbolize the great love, love will recreate the world”? What is this big thing called love?

What is this love thy thought has deified,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

You’re making almost a god of love! Now, what is this love?

This sacred legend and immortal myth?
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

Don’t you know?

It is a conscious yearning of thy flesh,
It is a glorious burning of thy nerves,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

This is all it is, and you give it some fancy name―call it love and write poetry about it, build Taj Mahals about it. What is this? It’s a yearning of the flesh! It is nothing special to man, animals also feel it. It’s all over. What is so special about this love? And you want me to be impressed because your basic argument seems to be love? That is no argument!

It is a conscious yearning of thy flesh,
It is a glorious burning of thy nerves,
A rose of dream-splendour petalling thy mind,
A great red rapture and torture of thy heart.
A sudden transfiguration of thy days,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

I do admit love is a madness that comes over people and suddenly transforms everything for a brief while.

It passes and the world is as before.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

When you think you are in love, the world looks as if it is all colored with rainbow colors. But the funny thing about this is, it doesn’t stay for very long! It disappears and once again you begin to notice all the inadequacies, all the warts on the face.

A ravishing edge of sweetness and of pain,
A thrill in its yearning makes it seem divine,
A golden bridge across the roar of the years,
A cord tying thee to eternity.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

This is what people have said: this is what makes me eternal. You know what makes me eternal? I know I’m made of clay, I know I’ll live a short period of time, but the capacity, the fact that I have this love in me, that makes me eternal. Love is eternal. People have written poetry like this. The God of death says,

And yet how brief and frail!….
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

Love has a very frail constitution. Anything can break it. And even if it is the strongest, its duration is very brief.

how soon is spent
This treasure wasted by the gods on man,
This happy closeness as of soul to soul,
This honey of the body’s companionship,
This heightened joy, this ecstasy in the veins,
This strange illumination of the sense!
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

God of Death is never short of words, he can go on, he can mesmerize. This is sophistry of a supreme kind. He says, Savitri, let me tell you, you have to be grateful to me. Why? Because in the human world love doesn’t last very long.

If Satyavan had lived, love would have died
But Satyavan is dead and love shall live
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610

Now before love died, I have taken away Satyavan, so you can live forever under the illusion that love is immortal.

You can write a few more poems about love, but even that he doesn’t grant. The English language and the master’s command over it is such, this is only the end of a line, it is not the end of a sentence, you read the sentence a little more:

But Satyavan is dead and love shall live
A little while in thy sad breast, until
His face and body fade on memory’s wall
Where other bodies, other faces come.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

Isn’t this what’s going on all the time? And then the God of Death writes a little novel as it were, how people come together, fall in love, there is a transformation of the whole world. The whole world looks grand and beautiful, as if you are living in a paradise! And how gradually it cools off, then the ardor is gone, the passion is gone. Then it’s too late for you to withdraw. How it becomes a convenient arrangement: you do your things, I do my things. Gradually, even this becomes colder and colder. You hate each other’s sight, you despise each other, and yet you are forced to live in the same house. And then he says, have you ever seen two dogs tied to a single leash? Perpetually they either bark at each other or try to pull in different directions. Most marriages, most loves end at that point. This is your love? And you want an elderly man like me, the God of Death, who has to look after the whole world, God’s arrangement, to be swayed by things like this? How convincing is it?

When love breaks suddenly into the life
At first man steps into a world of the sun;
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 610 

When love breaks suddenly into your life everything is sunny,

In his passion he feels his heavenly element:
But only a fine sunlit patch of earth
The marvellous aspect took of heaven’s outburst;
The snake is there and the worm in the heart of the rose.
Bk 10, Canto 2, pp. 610-611 

Right from the beginning there is the snake, there is the worm in the heart of the rose. He says, it doesn’t take very much to destroy this fragile vase of love, even a little breeze is enough to topple it, upset it. And he says,

A word, a moment’s act can slay the god;
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

One wrong word uttered by either of the two, that is enough in many cases to destroy this magic, this enchantment.

Precarious is his immortality
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611 

He says, even if it’s immortal, it’s a kind of precarious kind of immortality. 

Precarious is his immortality
He has a thousand ways to suffer and die.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611 

Love can be destroyed a thousand different ways, and lead to thousand different hells. There may be only one heaven, but the hells that love frustrated can create are multifarious.

Love cannot live by heavenly food alone,
Only on sap of earth can it survive.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

Ultimately, how strong it is, how long it will last, will depend on how fat your salary package is. It’s as simple as that. You can’t fan the fire of love by just reading out your poetry and showing your painting. So what is it you have brought? So, the sap of earth is needed.

For thy passion was a sensual want refined,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

For what is it? It’s an animal sensual want. In man’s case it has become a little refined, a refinement.

A hunger of the body and the heart;
Thy want can tire and cease or turn elsewhere.
Or love may meet a dire and pitiless end
By bitter treason, or wrath with cruel wounds
Separate, or thy unsatisfied will to others
Depart when first love’s joy lies stripped and slain:
A dull indifference replaces fire
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

In the early days, there’s fire in love. Gradually the fire gets cold and is replaced by indifference.

A dull indifference replaces fire
Or an endearing habit imitates love:
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611 

You still keep on calling her darling, dear, and all that, but it doesn’t mean anything. It is just a word. It’s an endearing habit. It’s become a habit, so the habit continues.

An outward and uneasy union lasts
Or the routine of a life’s compromise:
Where once the seed of oneness had been cast
Into a semblance of spiritual ground
By a divine adventure of heavenly powers
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

This is what love looks like, ultimately this is what happens:

Two strive, constant associates without joy,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

Constant companions, but there is no joy left anymore in this companionship.

Two egos straining in a single leash,
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

 The leash always reminds of two growling dogs, like two growling dogs tied to a single leash,

Two egos straining in a single leash,
Two minds divided by their jarring thoughts,
Two spirits disjoined, for ever separate.
Thus is the ideal falsified in man’s world;
Trivial or sombre, disillusion comes,
Life’s harsh reality stares at the soul:
Heaven’s hour adjourned flees into bodiless Time.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

Savitri, I have saved you from this entire story of despair by taking away Satyavan from you.

Death saves thee from this and saves Satyavan:
He now is safe, delivered from himself;
He travels to silence and felicity.
Call him not back to the treacheries of earth
And the poor petty life of animal Man.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 611

 Don’t call him back. What is it that the earth has to offer? What is it that you have to offer?

This is, of course, Savitri’s response. It is a fairly long one, and is equally spirited. By the time you have read that, you probably are converted to Savitri’s viewpoint. Let’s read a few lines on page 612, about 7-8 lines from the bottom:

But Savitri replied to the dark Power:
“A dangerous music now thou findst, O Death,
Melting thy speech into harmonious pain,
And flut’st alluringly to tired hopes
Thy falsehoods mingled with sad strains of truth.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 612

Your music has lot of falsehood in it, but also there is some truth in what you are saying. You cleverly combine some strains of truth with a lot of falsehood.

But I forbid thy voice to slay my soul.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 612

That’s what the God of Death really wants to do. By throwing cold water, by throwing all this sarcasm, he wants to slay, he wants to blunt her determination.

But I forbid thy voice to slay my soul.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 612

He had said love is basically a yearning of the flesh, it has something to do with the burning of the nerves; that is what he had said. So Savitri says,

My love is not a hunger of the heart,
My love is not a craving of the flesh;
It came to me from God, to God returns.
Even in all that life and man have marred,
A whisper of divinity still is heard,
A breath is felt from the eternal spheres.
Allowed by Heaven and wonderful to man
A sweet fire-rhythm of passion chants to love.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 612-613

She says love is what has saved mankind from utter damnation. Between all that misery, everything that you associate with man, the history of man, I grant all these things, but the fact that man is still alive, still keeps hoping, suggests that something is still making life bearable. The entire human enterprise still looks tolerable. That is because somewhere, unseen by people, unsung by newspapers, there is this constant touch of love. There is the constant flow of love. That is what has kept us together: a sweet fire.

There is a hope in its wild infinite cry;
It rings with callings from forgotten heights,
And when its strains are hushed to high-winged souls
In their empyrean, its burning breath
Survives beyond, the rapturous core of suns
That flame for ever pure in skies unseen,
A voice of the eternal Ecstasy.
One day I shall behold my great sweet world
Put off the dire disguises of the gods,
Unveil from terror and disrobe from sin.
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 613

Savitri says this, our relationship didn’t begin here in this life….

For we were man and woman from the first,
The twin souls born from one undying fire.
Did he not dawn on me in other stars?
How has he through the thickets of the world
Pursued me like a lion in the night
And come upon me suddenly in the ways
And seized me with his glorious golden leap!
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 614

It’s such an impassioned line here! I’d be quite surprised if you find anything comparable to this anywhere in world literature. She says, Satyavan is not just my companion in this life, he has pursued me through several cycles of birth.

How has he through the thickets of the world
Pursued me like a lion in the night
And come upon me suddenly in the ways
And seized me with his glorious golden leap!
Unsatisfied he yearned for me through time,
Sometimes with wrath and sometimes with sweet peace
Desiring me since first the world began.
He rose like a wild wave out of the floods
And dragged me helpless into seas of bliss.
Out of my curtained past his arms arrive;
They have touched me like the soft persuading wind,
They have plucked me like a glad and trembling flower,
And clasped me happily burned in ruthless flame.
I too have found him charmed in lovely forms
And run delighted to his distant voice
And pressed to him past many dreadful bars.
If there is a yet happier greater god,
Let him first wear the face of Satyavan
And let his soul be one with him I love;
So let him seek me that I may desire.
For only one heart beats within my breast
And one god sits there throned. Advance, O Death,
Beyond the phantom beauty of this world;
For of its citizens I am not one.
I cherish God the Fire, not God the Dream.”
Bk 10, Canto 2, p. 614

Fire, symbolizing purity, aspiration: “I cherish God the Fire,” that’s my god, andnot God the Dream.” The God of Death tried to show earlier on to Savitri that all these ideals that we’re talking about, they are all dreams, meaningless dreams. When you open your eyes and see reality, the dream has vanished and the ugly facts of life stare us in the face. But she says, my god that I cherish is not the God the Dream, my god is God the Fire: that which purifies, that which aspires, that which constantly burns upwards! The agni of the Vedas, which always keeps mounting higher and higher, that’s my god! My god and your god are two different gods.

Then we move on to the next canto as I said we have just enough time for a few passages, it’s better to read the passage through and talk about it a little bit rather than just mention a passage and rush on to the next one.

So Savitri now tries to explain to the God of Death something that not many people seem to realize about this world. You see, all the imperfections this world has, Sri Aurobindo has seen them. Many people have the funny idea that what does Sri Aurobindo know about the ugliness of this world, of its limitations? He was in Pondicherry for 40 years. He must have forgotten how stupid, how limited the human being is. That’s why he probably has these high hopes, dreams for mankind. He didn’t have any illusions about man. He sees man’s future in spite of the fact he can see clearly man’s past. He can see much farther down the line, he can see much farther up into the future, and what he has seen has given him enough hope and certitude to declare that the world is not going to remain what it is.

The perspective that allows Sri Aurobindo to do this is basically the evolutionary perspective. Today man is bound by ignorance, today man is bound by death, today man is limited by desire, incapacity, disharmony. He doesn’t deny any of these things. But to say that today we have these things is no argument that it will always be like this, because this an evolutionary world.  If we held this argument, at one time we could have said, the inconscient matter is the only reality about this world. There was a time when there was not even a blade of grass on this earth, there was no life on this earth, all that you had on this earth was just matter:  stones, hills, without any form of life. But, lo and behold, after many millions of years, life blossomed in this wilderness. That itself is a first miracle. And then what if somebody had said, this is not the whole of the story, this is only a beginning? There’s going to come higher forms of life, more conscious forms of life, freer forms of life. Like what? Oh, like the dinosaurs, like the horse, like the peacock, the parrot. People wouldn’t have believed that, but they also came. Then before man evolved, if somebody were to say that out of this animal world, whose joys and sorrows are limited to physical wants and their fulfillment, a creature is going to come who will write poetry, create music, wonderful forms of architecture, write Hamlet, Othello, create Beethoven’s music, Keats’s poetry, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. An animal doesn’t understand any of these things, it has no taste for any of these things. No animal world has ever built any civilization, any culture. But if somebody were here to tell somebody else, look from this a new being is to come, a new being, a new kind of perfection, nobody would have believed that man either.

Very often, I develop it into a little story, getting the hint from the Master himself. And many audiences have found this story fairly interesting. You may not be an exception, particularly as the lunch time approaches and people get hungry, it’s the time for stories.

The story is that a long, long time ago, before man appeared on this earth, there was a United Nation of monkeys. I don’t know, they probably didn’t have headquarters in New York; they probably had headquarters somewhere in Africa. And they met every year several times. And there was a monkey representing India, maybe from Tamil Nadu. He was on the verge of retirement. He had served as a career diplomat, and he had served in that for about 25-30 years. It was his last appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, and the usual proceedings began. His secretary from this country, an ambassador, a representative of country X spoke very brilliant English. He said, these are the problems that the ape world faces: disharmony, not enough to eat, wars, we must do something about it. Others clapped, some other monkeys spoke, he listened quietly.

And then he says, “Sir, can I have a word?” “Alright.” He says, “I’ve been here, coming here to this assembly for the last 25 years and when I listen to these people, I have heard, I feel as if I have heard the same speech 25 times. You are all making the same resolutions, making the same complaints, discussing the same problems. We haven’t made any progress whatsoever.” “What do you suggest then?” “In my country, people have a belief that out of all these apes one day a new species is going to come and he’ll be called man.” “What?” The American representative there makes a phone call to Stanford and Harvard, “Is there any research evidence man is going to come?” The reply comes, “No evidence whatsoever.” So somebody asks “What is this man, what will he be able to do?” “Oh,” he says, “man will build civilization, culture, poetry, music.” If you talk about culture, music, civilization to monkeys, what will they be understand of it? “This must be a very dull species, there is no jumping from trees to trees, there is no, you know, this nice long tail that we have, so beautiful. We are not interested. Please sit down.”

Then another monkey says, “I am a pragmatic monkey, I don’t want vague answers, vague questions, this chap from India is always talking in vague terms. I want a precise answer. I have a precise question.” “What is it?” The question is, “During the last monkey Olympics, the highest broad jump recorded was 35 feet 6 inches―one monkey jumped from one tree to another tree which is 35 feet 6 inches―suppose we become human, will we be able to jump from one tree to another which is 40 feet apart? If we can do that, I will regard being human is a worthwhile enterprise, because so far we have only been able to jump 35 feet. Can we jump 40 feet? I would like a yes or no answer, nothing vague from the representative from India.” “I assure you when you become man, you’ll be able to jump from New Delhi to New York in one hop.” “New Delhi to New York, unbelievable! Please ask him to sit down, it’s absolute nonsense!”

That’s what Sri Aurobindo has been saying, “I assure you, you will be able to walk this earth like gods.” And what have you been saying, “Impossible, unbelievable!” That’s what Savitri is going to say to the God of Death. We’ll come back to it after a break.

 

 

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