“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 01: Introduction

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

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.
In her confirmed because transformed in her,
Our life shall find in its fulfilled response
Above, the boundless hushed beatitudes,
Below, the wonder of the embrace divine.
                 Book 3 Canto 2 p.314

Among all of Sri Aurobindo’s writings, Savitri occupies a very special place. Of course, chronologically, it happens to be the last of the major works he was to write. But there was something peculiar about the way he went about writing Savitri, as if all the time he was waiting for Savitri to get ready to come down.

As you know, most of Sri Aurobindo’s writings, which eventually came to about 29 or 30 volumes in the centenary edition, came out in the Arya between 1914 and 1920. And during these six years, at any given time, Sri Aurobindo used to write simultaneously five to six books. Just imagine this feat, somebody writing simultaneously six books! If you want evidence of this, you just have to go to any issue of the Arya. I happened to check up the August 1916 issue, and what do you find there? You find in that single issue the following, each one of them written by Sri Aurobindo: Chapter 25 of The Life Divine, Chapter 29 of The Synthesis of Yoga, Chapter 1 of The Human Cycle, Chapter 1 of Essays on the Gita, a translation of a few of the Vedic Hymns, and Chapter 12 of The Ideal of Human Unity.

Just imagine somebody writing six books at the same time! And people who lived in those days with Sri Aurobindo have noted that invariably he waited for a telegram to come from Madras asking for material to go to the press, and then he sat and between breakfast and lunch a chapter of The Life Divine was ready, between lunch and afternoon tea a chapter of The Human Cycle was ready, between afternoon tea and evening dinner a chapter of Essays on the Gita was ready. I have written myself one measly thesis. It took me two years and I made everybody’s life a hell―my wife’s, my neighbor’s, my friend’s! What was I doing? I was doing a thesis. Here was somebody who was writing at any given time during this period of 1914-1920 six different books.

I think in the entire history of writing nowhere will you find a work of the magnitude of The Life Divine coming out without even a framework, without any plan, without any scheme. It was as if the goddess of inspiration was waiting for his command and a Niagara of creativity just flew down his fingers onto the typewriter.

Now a person who had this kind of tremendous creativity worked on Savitri for 50 years. For many years he wrote it himself; after 1945 he used to dictate it to Nirodbaran who was by then his secretary. And he used to dictate and Nirodbaran used to take it down to his dictation. Nirodbaran reported that Sri Aurobindo hardly had half an hour for Savitri. Sri Aurobindo never regarded writing as his primary job; however, he wrote this over 50 years. A man who could write six books at one time, how did it take him 50 years, why did it take him 50 years? Sri Aurobindo himself explains why.

In one of his letters he says,

I used Savitri as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level. Moreover I was particular―if part seemed to me to come from any lower levels, I was not satisfied to leave it because it was good poetry. All had to be as far as possible of the same mint. In fact Savitri has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s own yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative.
          Letters on Poetry and Art, CWSA, Vol. 27, p. 272

This is a letter that you find on page 727 at the end of Savitri [SABCL edition]. Now the best thing is to go to someone who is qualified to interpret Sri Aurobindo, and who else can that be if not Amal Kiran? Amal Kiran has this comment on this little passage in the letter. He says,

We can gather several points here. First and foremost Savitri is an adventure in poetry but the aim is not merely to write good poetry. The poetry has to be good from the highest spiritual plane possible. This plane has to be creative in terms of poetic values. Savitri should express poetically the peak reached by Sri Aurobindo’s progressive spiritual ascension. Therefore we cannot consider it either as sheer poetry or as sheer spirituality. It must help us at the same time to ascend to Sri Aurobindo’s own peak and do so with the full awareness of the poetic way in which the peak has been communicative of its truth, its power, its delight. Savitri has to be taken as Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual autobiography, which is meant to make us re-live his inner life of both poetic creativity and creative spirituality.
          Srinvantu, August 1986 issue

In simpler words, what it means is that in writing Savitri, Sri Aurobindo has left behind for mankind a verbal embodiment of his own consciousness. In reading Savitri, it is not so much the poetry, not the vision, not the philosophy, not the great verbal mastery that he shows in each line of Savitri. That is important, but these are all means of getting beyond to the very core, and the real core of Savitri is this consciousness of Sri Aurobindo with which it vibrates. So the ultimate reason for reading Savitri is to get for oneself into contact with Sri Aurobindo’s own consciousness. Very often people ask, after writing The Life Divine, the Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Secret of the Veda, The Upanishads, “why did Sri Aurobindo have to write Savitri once again.” Let us regard all this body of works, like the Gita, that the Lord wrote in a previous Avatar. But how many people can benefit from the Gita? You’d have to be an Arjuna, a Bhishma, but there are many people who can’t benefit from the Gita. For them the Lord left something else, the magic enchantment of his flute. In the middle of the night, the Gopis sleeping in their own houses heard this distant call of the Lord’s flute, left everything, abandoned themselves to its call, and almost effortlessly they were able to find union with the Lord’s consciousness.

So Sri Aurobindo wrote Savitri out of sheer love for people like you and me who have the soul of the Gopis, who find The Life Divine daunting, The Synthesis of Yoga difficult. But if you have a heart and if you can give your heart’s adoration, here is the Lord’s flute: submit yourself to its enchantment. You don’t have to do anything at all except keep the temple clean so that the music is received, the enchantment is felt. So this is the primary purpose for which one reads Savitri. Very often people ask, he is not even a graduate, how he can read Savitri? I am a double graduate and I don’t understand it. The reason, you fool, you don’t understand it is because you are a double graduate. Because if you are a double graduate, there is a double impediment between you and Savitri. So it is this that’s the magic of it, and therefore, your understanding of Savitri is not a function of how well trained you are, even how well trained you are to receive poetry. It seems to me very often that you need the Grace of the Divine to open yourself to Savitri. Nothing less than that will help.

So in writing Savitri, Sri Aurobindo was doing something unique. He was leaving for posterity a verbal embodiment of his own consciousness; with the help of it we can get in touch with his consciousness and proceed in our sadhana.

Now Sri Aurobindo also has said in one of his letters:

There have been made several successive revisions, each trying to lift the general level higher and higher towards a possible overmental poetry. As it now stands there is a general Overmind influence, I believe, sometimes coming fully through, sometimes colouring the poetry of other higher planes fused together, sometimes lifting any one of these higher planes to its highest or the psychic, poetic intelligence or vital towards them.”

                                       Letters on Poetry and Art, CWSA, Vol 27, p. 275

Amal Kiran once again says, “Mention of Overmind aligns Savitri to the top reach of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita, and the enormous mass of it, nearly 24,000 verses, renders it a super-scripture, an unparalleled storehouse of spiritual wisdom. But we must remember that this wisdom comes at its best in the form of what the ancients called the Mantra.” (Srinvantu, August 1986 issue)

Now, there is something very puzzling about Savitri. Savitri is so important for all of us, but even in 1931 and 1934 Sri Aurobindo writes in letters to his disciples, mainly to Amal Kiran, I have no time for Savitri. There are plenty of other things. And he says, I can come to Savitri maybe once in a month. Even when Nirodbaran started taking it down to his dictation, he hardly had half an hour for Savitri. You wonder what Sri Aurobindo was really doing. He had written most of his major works between the period of 1914 and 1920. Some of those he revised, but what was it that he was doing that he was so busy that he didn’t have time to devote himself to the completion of Savitri? What is it that he was doing?

This has puzzled many people. Even before he came to Pondicherry in 1910, he had had some of the highest yogic realisations. He didn’t come to Pondicherry to become a yogi; he had already had these realisations. What did he do for 40 long years? His stay in Pondicherry was a puzzlement to everybody. Mahatma Gandhi wondered why this man who was such a vibrant leader of the national freedom struggle, alas, is lost to this country. Jawaharlal Nehru wondered “when Gandhi came from South Africa and led the freedom struggle, gave the call for the non-cooperation movement, we expected Sri Aurobindo would come back from his retirement and join our struggle. That he didn’t do so disappointed us a great deal.” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote this in the forward to Karan Singh’s Ph.D. thesis, “Sri Aurobindo, The Prophet of Nationalism.”

Sri Aurobindo wasn’t primarily concerned at that stage with whether India was going to be free. He was concerned with a greater problem: when will man be free from the shackles of ignorance, from the shackles of death, from the shackles of all the limitations which have bound him down? For so many centuries people have been trying, struggling hard to free man, to find a perfect life for an individual in society. We have not succeeded in finding this. When will man be free? Can man be free? This was his quest, and he spent 40 years trying to find out if there is an answer.

Great religious teachers have come―Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharishi―they all brought glorious light from heaven. How many people want this light? How many have benefited from this light? Five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand people would you say have benefited from the coming of Ramakrishna Paramahansa? Such a great light come down from heaven! How many people benefited? Once in a century a Ramakrishna comes, once in 500 years a Ramana Maharishi comes, and yet nothing basically happens to this world! The world goes on forever bound to ignorance, bound to death, not even prepared to see the light, not even willing to accept the light. How long is it going to go on? Can something be done to help mankind?

This was his quest, and in these 40 years Sri Aurobindo made sure that what he had come for was achieved, that the descent of the Supermind in the earth consciousness was achieved. He gave towards this task his life as well as his death. Writing all the books, whether it was The Life Divine or Savitri, was secondary to this primary objective. Sri Aurobindo’s 40 years of sadhana, as it were, was to clear all the impediments, all the obstacles in the occult world, for the descent of the supramental consciousness down onto this earth. And if you remember this, that bringing down the supramental consciousness was the primary work of this Avatar, then you see that writing all these books was secondary to this primary enterprise that he took up.

In writing Savitri Sri Aurobindo did something very wonderful. The 20th century primarily has been a century of nihilism. This was a century when people have talked about human life as a wasteland. T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland is a very good representation of the 20th century mentality. This is a century when people have found spiritual desolation, metaphysical emptiness, life that is not worth living. In 1968, during Paris’s students’ movement, an underground movement, they say there was a slogan written on one of the underground stations in Paris: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Nothing is true, there is nothing like truth here, there is no truth and you can do what you like. This was the depth of despair. The 20th century is primarily an age of despair or desolation. If you read 20th century literature, the central question it asks, is human life worth living? As somebody said, the only philosophical metaphysical question worth discussing was how best to end life.

That has been the tone of 20th century literature everywhere in the West. And it is against this that Sri Aurobindo was writing Savitri! He inundated the earth atmosphere with the vibrations of hope. Man has to live the human enterprise, and it is a wonderful enterprise. This creation, he says, is not an unfortunate accident; it’s a miracle gradually blossoming towards perfection. Even for one man to say this and inundate, flood as it were, the earth’s atmosphere with vibrations of hope, with vibrations of love―it was a wonderful thing, a great thing Sri Aurobindo did. It was as if Sri Aurobindo stood against the whole of the western world talking about desolation, talking about despair, talking about the worthlessness of life, the meaningless of life. He kept asserting that life has a meaning, life has a purpose, man’s life is a wonderful thing, it’s wonderful to be alive, it’s wonderful to be here on earth, it’s a great adventure of consciousness. And in writing Savitri, this is what he was doing: he was inundating the earth atmosphere with these vibrations of hope, with these vibrations of love.

Also, the writing of Savitri in many ways is a record of something he did elsewhere. Savitri to me is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire. Remember these lines we read at the beginning, the invocation of the Mother:

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.
Bk 3 Canto 2, p. 314

These are lines which not only describe the Divine Mother, these are also lines that describe Savitri. It’s a wonderful bridge, a golden bridge that Sri Aurobindo built between this world of our limitations, human limitations, and the future world that he has opened up. The writing of Savitri, therefore, is a very, very significant event in human history. So in studying Savitri, we are not simply reading another great work of literature. Great works of literature the world already has: Goethe wrote great poetry, Dante wrote great poetry, there is a lot of great poetry in the world. We do not come to Savitri primarily because it is great poetry; of course, that it is great poetry is a bonus.

Speaking of Dante, it is said that he was exiled from his native Florence in 1302 and for 20 years he kept wandering from one place to another place and during this time he also wrote his Divine Comedy. People who saw his tragic and sombre form go by would say to one another, “this is a man who has been to hell and back again.” You could see it on his face, he looked like he had been to hell.

For Sri Aurobindo, let us take the testimony of somebody whose words carry great weight for Indians: Tagore. Like Mahatma Gandhi, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Tagore also concluded that Sri Aurobindo was a great loss to the country here; he was in Pondicherry by that time for 15-16 years. What was he doing there? So he expressed his misgivings. Dilip Kumar Roy wrote to Tagore, “Before you make up your mind, why don’t you go see for yourself.” So on September 29, 1928, Tagore came to Pondicherry and met Sri Aurobindo. People say after seeing Sri Aurobindo, Tagore came out and for three days he didn’t say a single word. He locked himself up in the room, and later on, referring to this meeting, this is what he has said:

At the very first sight I could realise he had been seeking the soul and had gained it, and through his long process of realisation had accumulated within him a silent power of inspiration. His face was radiant with an inner light, and this serene presence made it evident to me that his soul was not crippled and cramped to the measure of some tyrannical doctrine which takes delight in inflicting wounds upon life. I felt the utterance of the ancient Hindu Rishis spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human Soul its freedom of entrance into the All. I said to him, ‘You have the word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world, Hearken to me…’  Years ago, I saw Aurobindo in the atmosphere of his early heroic youth, and I sung to him: ‘Aurobindo, accept the salutations from Rabindranath.’ Today, I saw him again, in a deeper atmosphere of a reticent richness of wisdom, and again sung to him in silence: ‘Aurobindo, accept the salutation from Rabindranath.’

Now it is this divine person who wrote this great epic. We have seen how he wrote it, I have speculated why he wrote it, I also said what it represents. It represents the verbal embodiment of Sri Aurobindo’s own consciousness. And this is the reason that our attitude will be different from the attitude we normally take to the study of any great work of literature.

I submit that the world lacks the theory of aesthetics which is adequate to come to terms with a book like Savitri. Sri Aurobindo, in The Future Poetry, of course, has given us some basic framework how to deal with poetry that comes from higher levels of inspiration. But a complete aesthetics of it has yet to be worked out and therefore we will not attempt the usual kind of critical study of a literary work. As I said, this will be a heart’s adoration of Savitri, and that I promise it will be.


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