“Invitation to Savitri” Pt 11: Book 2 Cantos 2-15

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

We have now some idea of what these worlds are, why Aswapati wants to explore them, and how he goes about doing it. Those lucky people who had an opportunity of spending some time with Sri Aurobindo have left records which say that his meditation was of a different kind. There were times when he just paced up and down the hallway until the cement floor wore off—14 hours a day he walked up and down. Of course that gave him plenty of physical exercise, but I don’t think he was doing it primarily for physical exercise. That was his way of meditating. And even later on after 1938, after the accident, for hours and hours he just sat on the sofa or bed with his eyes open. This was his way of meditating, and that was how he travelled through all these worlds that he describes here.

This is a very fascinating journey. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to look at all these levels. I will just look at one or two levels in some detail.

The first world that he enters is the world of subtle matter. The world that you and I are aware of is the world of gross matter, but there is also a world of subtle matter. It is that world that Aswapati enters first. What does he find in that world, and why does he find that world inadequate?

Aswapati goes to each one of these worlds and tries to understand what exists in it, what are the laws that operate in that world. Then he asks himself whether there is anything that he could take from that world back to this earth which the earth requires. Since he finds that what he needs isn’t found in that world he goes on to the next world, and from there to the next world, and the next and the next until he goes to levels of mind beyond the present mental consciousness that man has reached. They are all fascinating worlds, worlds of great joy, of great peace. Any number of saints and rishis have visited and live in those worlds, but what the earth needs is something different, a different kind of power, and that is the power that Aswapati is looking for. He finds that that power is not available anywhere in these worlds. That is why he prays to the Supreme Transcendental Divine to come down here to this earth with that power.

The first world we’ll look at briefly is on page 104. This is the world of subtle physical matter. This is the world where everything is beautiful, the world of dreams, the world that Plato was talking about, of ideal forms. By the time these ideal things descend into our world they lose their perfection.

Whatever is here of visible charm and grace
Finds there its faultless and immortal lines;
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 104

Whatever is charming here in our world, has its original form in that world where it is faultless and immortal.

All that is beautiful here is there divine.
Figures are there undreamed by mortal mind:
Bodies that have no earthly counterpart
Traverse the inner eye’s illumined trance
And ravish the heart with their celestial tread
Persuading heaven to inhabit that wonder sphere.
The future’s marvels wander in its gulfs;
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 104-105

There are many realities which have not yet appeared on this earth but they are already there, they just have to precipitate themselves and they will be realised here on earth. They all are waiting in that subtle physical world.

The future’s marvels wander in its gulfs;
Things old and new are fashioned in those depths:
A carnival of beauty crowds the heights
In that magic kingdom of ideal sight.
In its antechambers of splendid privacy
Matter and soul in conscious union meet
Like lovers in a lonely secret place:
In the clasp of a passion not yet unfortunate
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 105

It’s a beautiful way of putting things. On this earth, when things begin to manifest themselves, suddenly, because of the consciousness of this earth, things go wrong. There is no perfect expression of anything here, everything gets marred by the time it reaches the earth consciousness. But there, Sri Aurobindo says, the soul and the form could meet in secret like lovers, without being disturbed. On the earth the same union turns out to be unfortunate.

They join their strength and sweetness and delight
And mingling make the high and low worlds one.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 105

This is a world of great beauty that he sees here, the subtle physical world, and if you have access, if you can reach into that world, you can thrust your hand and produce a mango in a season when mangoes are not found. If you have access to those worlds, you can reach out to those things and manifest them here. These are worlds of great siddhis, they are available in the subtle physical. But Aswapati finds that world very unsatisfactory. Why? We have it on page 113.

In that fair subtle realm behind our own
The form is all, and physical gods are kings.
The inspiring Light plays in fine boundaries;
A faultless beauty comes by Nature’s grace;
There liberty is perfection’s guarantee:
Although the absolute Image lacks, the Word
Incarnate, the sheer spiritual ecstasy,
All is a miracle of symmetric charm,
A fantasy of perfect line and rule.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 113

For everything there, the form is perfect. What is missing? He says,

Intact it lives of its perfection sure
In a heaven-pleased self-glad immunity;
Content to be, it has need of nothing more.
Here was not futile effort’s broken heart:
Exempt from the ordeal and the test,
Empty of opposition and of pain,
It was a world that could not fear nor grieve.
It had no grace of error or defeat,
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 113

Our world may be an imperfect world, but the one great beauty of this world is that it’s an evolutionary world.

In the Indian Puranas it is often said that if the gods want to evolve any higher they have to come down here and be born in the human shape and form. The human world may be imperfect, but this is the only evolutionary world, and so although there is grief and imperfection here, there is also hope for growth. That is our special privilege. But in this world of perfect forms, of perfect beauty, the poet says:

It had no grace of error or defeat,
It had no room for fault, no power to fail.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 113

You don’t have power to fail, you don’t even have power to do any better than what you are.

Out of some packed self-bliss it drew at once
Its form-discoveries of the mute Idea
And the miracle of its rhythmic thoughts and acts,
Its clear technique of firm and rounded lives,

Then on page 114, the last few lines:

The beautiful body of a soul at ease,
Like one who laughs in sweet and sunlit groves,
Childlike she swung in her gold cradle of joy.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 114

It’s like a minor paradise, a kind of children’s wonderland where adults can’t go. Disneyland is wonderful but you can’t make your home there. You need something real, something that grows. So this subtle physical world with all its beauty, with all its charm, is like a play world, it’s not a real world.

The spaces’ call reached not her charmed abode,
She had no wings for wide and dangerous flight,
She faced no peril of sky or of abyss,
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 114-115

There is no scope for growing, there is no scope for fall.

She knew no vistas and no mighty dreams,
No yearning for her lost infinitudes.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 115

Then Sri Aurobindo fixes it in one phrase for all time to come:

A perfect picture in a perfect frame,

That is not reality; it’s beautiful, you can hang it on the wall and when you are bored once in a while look at it, but that’s no substitute for reality.

A perfect picture in a perfect frame,
This faery artistry could not keep his will:

All this artistry, the magic of this world, did not appeal to Aswapati, and after some time he felt bored.

A careless hour was spent in a slight bliss.

Aswapati went around looking at all the beautiful things, and then Sri Aurobindo says,

Our spirit tires of being’s surfaces,
Transcended is the splendour of the form,
It turns to hidden powers and deeper states.
So now he looked beyond for greater light.
His soul’s peak-climb abandoning in its rear
This brilliant courtyard of the House of Days,
He left that fine material Paradise.
His destiny lay beyond in larger Space.
Bk 2, Canto 2, p. 115

So Aswapati had looked at this world, spent an idle hour, was happy to be there for some time, finally getting tired of the cloying sweetness. There is no issue from that world. There is nothing it can offer to us, and so he goes beyond this world.

Then he goes into the world of the vital. If you look at the contents page you’ll find something very interesting: the vital worlds are innumerable. Canto 1 of Book Two is The World-Stair; it is an introduction: where are these worlds from, what do they represent, how does one go there, what are they made of—all these are briefly indicated in Canto 1. Canto 2 is the kingdom of subtle matter. Then Cantos 3–9 are of the vital level and something very close to the vital level. Aswapati looks at these worlds of life, the great activity there, the great hope there, the great zest in that life world. The Divine has manifested Himself in many forms of life, right from the unicellular amoeba to the dinosaur, to human beings. So there is such a great range of activity. But still, wherever there is life, there is pain; wherever there is life, there is death. So Aswapati wonders where all this comes from and then he suddenly finds that there are worlds of darkness, worlds of ignorance, worlds of squalor and dirt which also have access to this world. They can react to this world and they can send forces to this world. These are the terrible worlds that he describes in Cantos 7 and 8.

After that you have two cantos devoted to the mental world, Cantos 10 and 11. Cantos 12, 13, 14 and 15 are a description of the overmental worlds. These worlds have already manifested themselves; they are not like the supramental world which has not manifested. Aswapati explores those worlds also, but as I have been saying, he doesn’t find any ultimate issue in these worlds as well, and that is why he goes to the Divine Mother, the Transcendental Shakti. So there are the subtle physical worlds, there are the vital worlds, there are worlds of Darkness, there are mental worlds, and there are Overmental worlds. All these Aswapati explores, and the most fascinating exploration is the exploration of the vital worlds.

Sri Aurobindo depicts these worlds with great care, almost with great love. After all, this is about life, how life manifested, how life grew. All these things he describes from Canto 3 onwards. It is difficult to give you a flavor of these worlds unless you start at the very beginning, and then go on to some representative passages. But that will not be possible here. Still, I will give you one or two passages which will give some idea of what Aswapati found in these worlds.

The world he describes on page 117 is a world of restlessness. One characteristic feature of life here is constant creativity, constantly creating new forms, new desires, new wants, new fulfilments, but nothing satisfies you. Scientists will tell you there are innumerable forms, species of plants, innumerable life-forms in this world, there has been so much creativity. Many of these life forms have died and there is infinite activity going on there. This is all in the life world and Sri Aurobindo gives you some flavour of the tremendous creativity going on in this world. He says,

Amid a tedious crawl of drab desires
She writhed, a worm mid-worms in Nature’s mud,
Bk 2, Canto 3, p. 117

The worms that you find in Nature’s mud, you may not have any use for them, you probably would like to run away from them, but they are all our ancestors. If they were not there this creation would not have come about.

Then, Titan-statured, took all earth for food,
Bk 2, Canto 3, p. 117

Then life also can take titan-like shapes, dinosaurs, huge shapes which can take the entire earth for food.

Ambitioned the seas for robe, for crown the stars

Life has such ambitions. How much would you like to drink? I would like to drink all the oceans. That’s the appetite life has. What would you like to wear? I’d like to wear all the stars in my crown. That is the ambition, that is the zest for life. So Sri Aurobindo says, life has these manifestations.

And shouting strode from peak to giant peak,

Life when it gets to this form doesn’t walk, it strides from one peak to another peak and asks

Clamouring for worlds to conquer and to rule.

I have conquered all the worlds; where are more worlds for me to conquer? That is the appetite for life. All the worlds she gave and I have already conquered them. Are there any more worlds for me to conquer, is the world so small? That is the characteristic feature of life, always conquest, always gobbling things, always eating, always devouring. This is the flavour of the life world. Life has also another characteristic feature. What is it?

Then, wantonly enamoured of Sorrow’s face,
She plunged into the anguish of the depths
And, wallowing, clung to her own misery.
Bk 2, Canto 3, p. 117

There is ambition, but life also has a close association with misery, with sorrow.

In dolorous converse with her squandered self
She wrote the account of all that she had lost,
Or sat with grief as with an ancient friend.
Bk 2, Canto 3, p. 117

Life sits with grief. How? Like an ancient friend with whom you can gossip and exchange everything. So life always needs this little dose of sorrow, of sentimentality, of misery; this is the picture of life.

A romp of violent raptures soon was spent,
Or she lingered tied to an inadequate joy
Missing the turns of fate, missing life’s goal.
Bk 2, Canto 3, p. 117

On page 135 there are a few lines I would like to draw your attention to, which explain why exactly Aswapati is doing this, why he is exploring these worlds. This is the beginning of the new section.

In this slow ascension he must follow her pace
Even from her faint and dim subconscious start:
Bk 2, Canto 4, p. 135

Sri Aurobindo says Aswapati wanted to go to the very beginning of the growth of consciousness, right from subtle matter. Why did he want to do that?

So only can earth’s last salvation come.

Only then will he be able to figure out what is it that is holding back man’s aspiration, what is it that is preventing man from reaching his destination?

For so only could he know the obscure cause
Of all that holds us back and baffles God

What is it that constantly frustrates us here? As I was saying, Aswapati’s quest was about this, that with all the revolutions that have come about, with all the grand glorious plans that man has for reaching a life of perfection, all the intellectual plans, the manifestos, all the scholars sit and draw plan after plan, but nothing works here. Everything fails in this world. Why is God constantly frustrated in this world?—that is the object of Aswapati’s search. That is why he says,

So only can earth’s last salvation come.
For so only could he know the obscure cause
Of all that holds us back and baffles God
In the jail-delivery of the imprisoned soul.

Why is it that Krishna is always born in the prison house of Kamsa? Why is this happening in this world?

Aswapati wants to find out and that is why he has undertaken this journey. Aswapati finds the various life worlds fascinating, but he also feels that there is something holding back, a kind of unwanted influence constantly filtering through and baffling man’s efforts. He descends into the worlds of ignorance and what he finds there is terrible, it’s chilling. On page 208, there is a passage which Sri Aurobindo must have written in the 1940s. This is one of things that he says about the world of darkness that Aswapati explores:

A capital was there without a State:
It had no ruler, only groups that strove.
He saw a city of ancient Ignorance
Founded upon a soil that knew not Light.
There each in his own darkness walked alone:
Only they agreed to differ in Evil’s paths,
To live in their own way for their own selves
Or to enforce a common lie and wrong;
There Ego was lord upon his peacock seat
And Falsehood sat by him, his mate and queen:
The world turned to them as Heaven to Truth and God.
Injustice justified by firm decrees
The sovereign weights of Error’s legalised trade,
But all the weights were false and none the same;
Ever she watched with her balance and a sword,
Lest any sacrilegious word expose
The sanctified formulas of her old misrule.
In high professions wrapped self-will walked wide
And licence stalked prating of order and right:
There was no altar raised to Liberty;
True freedom was abhorred and hunted down:
Harmony and tolerance nowhere could be seen;
Each group proclaimed its dire and naked Law.
A frame of ethics knobbed with scriptural rules
Or a theory passionately believed and praised
A table seemed of high Heaven’s sacred code.
Bk 2, Canto 7, p. 208-209

The whole description is the rule of night, the rule of ignorance that you find even prevalent in our present times.

Here is another description of the same world.
Around him crowded grey and squalid huts
Neighbouring proud palaces of perverted Power,
Bk 2, Canto 7, p. 211

Wherever there are multi-storied mansions, around them it has become a common sight in India to have squalid huts, slums. This juxtaposition of palatial multi-storied buildings and squalid huts is also found in that world of ignorance that Aswapati explores.

Inhuman quarters and demoniac wards.
A pride in evil hugged its wretchedness;
A misery haunting splendour pressed those fell
Dun suburbs of the cities of dream-life.
There Life displayed to the spectator soul
The shadow depths of her strange miracle.
A strong and fallen goddess without hope,
Obscured, deformed by some dire Gorgon spell,
As might a harlot empress in a bouge,
Nude, unashamed, exulting she upraised
Her evil face of perilous beauty and charm
And, drawing panic to a shuddering kiss
Twixt the magnificence of her fatal breasts,
Allured to their abyss the spirit’s fall.
Across his field of sight she multiplied
As on a scenic film or moving plate
The implacable splendour of her nightmare pomps.
Bk 2, Canto 7, p. 211-212

It’s a terrible, terrible picture that Sri Aurobindo gives here. Very often people who have read something that Sri Aurobindo has said of the glorious dreams he has for mankind, quickly come to the conclusion that he knows nothing of the ugliness of this world―the squalor, the cruelty, the injustice of this world. They say, “He was there for 40 years in Pondicherry, in blissful retreat, lost in some kind of ecstasy. Whereas I, I have faced the world, I know its ugliness, its stupidities. How can you ever think of this great, bright, wonderful future that Sri Aurobindo dreams about if you really know the world.” It is very impressive oration so we must clap! People who say this should read Savitri, for some of the darkest, ugliest pictures of man, what he is capable of doing to his fellow men, are all found here. Savitri was not written by somebody who doesn’t know this world. The yogi who sat here in Pondicherry knew before the first atomic device was exploded even experimentally, what the explosion was going to bring. He has mentioned in a poem the devastation that nuclear power is going to bring. Because if you are yogi and you sit here, you can see New York, you can see Paris. A yogi doesn’t have to go there.

So Sri Aurobindo, when he talked about the glorious dreams of man, never forgot how limited man is, how beast-like he is. He knew all this, and yet he dared to hope, he dared to dream. And when he talked about the future, when he talked about the supramental consciousness, he says nothing on earth can prevent its advent. “I’m absolutely certain that it will come.” He says, “Even if the entire world were to say that I’m wasting my time I won’t be deterred. I am absolutely convinced that this dream is going to be one day a reality.” And he said this in spite of his knowledge of all the limitations of man, his tendency to hurt himself, to hurt his fellow man.

Wasn’t Sri Aurobindo the very first person who knew what Hitler was, wasn’t he the first statesman who cautioned the whole world at that time? He said, “this is a representative of the asura; this man must be defeated.” The national leaders at that time thought the British were our enemies, and Hitler was our enemy’s enemy, so common sense tells you that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. But Sri Aurobindo made a token contribution to the war effort. He asked his disciples, whoever could, to join the war effort. Many people joined as doctors and engineers in the Second World War. And for those people who were here, he took great interest in detailed commentary about what was happening in the war, as if he himself was conducting the war. That is the kind of interest he had. He knew man’s limitations, he knew what Hitler was capable of doing, and yet he had his firm belief, a firm conviction, that man will transcend all these limitations—and Savitri is a token of his faith in man and his future.

These two passages, if you really read them—I didn’t spend time to explain them—they are horrid passages. You won’t find passages which give you such an ugly picture of man anywhere in literature. He is also capable of writing sublimely about man and his future, but he is not ignorant about man’s limitations.

After this, Aswapati comes to the world of the Mind, and there are wonderful passages which talk about reason, its strength and its weaknesses. Then Aswapati goes above the Mind to other worlds and finds there peace and joy, but not the power that is needed to solve the problem that confronts mankind. For that he has to go to the Supreme Divine Mother, the Transcendental Force.

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