Savitri, the Ancient Story

Savitri is an ancient Indian tale of conjugal love conquering Death. The story, belonging to the Vedic cycle is, like many other such stories, clearly symbolic. It has been preserved in the memory of the race through tradition and ritual. Even though its deeper meaning often remains veiled to the common understanding, yet it points to a possibility of the future as well as inspiring us to live with courage and hope, love and faith. Unlike the later fatalistic thought that we see creeping into the Indian mind, Savitri (and other such tales of earlier times) show us how to face and take on the challenge of Destiny. Destiny can be changed though not through wishful thinking or crying to evoke sympathy of the gods. The greatest Godhead, the Lord and Master of Existence dwells within us and it is through His intervention that destiny can be changed. This is one of the powerful messages of Savitri.

savitri-mahabharatThe persona of Savitri is often regarded as the quintessence of ideal womanhood whose love has the power to change destiny and bring back the dead to life. The story is a stark contradiction to later Indian thought that became fatalistic. The Rishis of the Vedic Age however believed that man can change his fate if he discovers the strength that resides within his soul. They had discovered a way to make this discovery which was for them the most important discovery, one that could change not only their inner orientation of life, their psychological being but also impact and influence outer events and circumstances however challenging they may be. This indeed is the beauty of this story that it integrates our inner and outer life. Savitri’s yoga is not done for her own sake, not for finding some peace or the silence of nirvana here or in an after-life. It is undertaken rather to establish the supremacy of love over all else, to find the pathways to immortality even while surrounded by the shadow of death, to master the most external being and outer nature to the extent as to make it escape from the ‘seemingly inescapable’ law of death.

In the ancient story, the legend is narrated to King Yudhisthira, the eldest of Pandavas when he along with his brothers and wife is wandering through the forests. He has lost his kingdom in the game of dice through the cunning and deceit of Duryodhana, the eldest son of Dhritrashtra, the Kuru emperor. During their sojourn through the forest, the Pandava brothers meet the sage Markandeya, reputed to have won immortality. On seeing him, the eldest Pandava asks if there ever was one as unfortunate as his wife Draupadi, the princess of a royal lineage of King Drupada, who has been humiliated at the hands of Kaurava brothers and has to now wander through the forest for no fault of hers. In reply, the sage narrates the story of Savitri, who not only faces but overcomes an adverse Fate.

It is interesting to note the strange parallels between the story of Savitri and Draupadi. Both are born through a yajna performed by their father for a progeny. While King Aswapati, Savitri’s human father has performed the yajna to bring down a portion of the Divine Mother upon earth, King Drupada (Draupadi’s father) performs the yajna to beget a child who would destroy his arch rival (earlier a bosom friend) Dronacharya. Savitri is born embodying the Divine Mother’s power of victorious Love. Draupadi is born embodying the Divine Mother’s power of victory over evil, Her Kali aspect. Both are warriors in their own right and are instrumental in changing destiny of mankind.

Savitri is regarded as the ultimate word in chastity along with Lord Rama’s wife Sita and seer Atri’s wife Anusooya. On the other hand Draupadi has been married to five men due to a strange twist of fate. Yet in her heart she bears only Krishna, her Lord and friend whom she calls during every crisis in her life and finds the needed response. Savitri is chaste in her body and soul, Draupadi is chaste in her inner being and her soul that is given only to the Lord. Both must meet the challenge of adverse fate in spite of their divine origin.

Savitri, when she comes of age is sent forth by her father to find for herself a suitable mate. This is so much in contrast with later day India where conservatism took a strong hold of the mind and women were made subservient to males. But in the hey-days of Indian civilization women had an equal status. They composed the Vedas, excelled in arts and letters as well as participated in wars and the governance of Kingdoms. Savitri, in course of her journey discovers Satayavan, the son of a blind king who has lost his kingdom and now lives on the forest verge along with his wife and son. Satyavan manages their life and his own as a woodcutter and yet he has developed a deep and profound inner knowledge through his daily contact with mother Nature in her pristine purity. Savitri choses Satyavan as her husband and returns back to the kingdom for approval of her parents.

The parents are happy to approve of her choice except for one big issue that they suddenly discover. Narada, the heavenly sage prophesies that Satyavan, though a wonderful person will die in an year from now. Savitri however sticks to her choice and take the challenge of adverse fate and try to change destiny rather than change her lover and beloved. Thus she engages in a threefold austerity (tapasya of three nights as described in the legend). This gives her he power to confront Death when it arrives to take away Satyavan. She follows Death who repeatedly cautions her against such an impossible venture. However soon enough he is touched by Savitri’s persistence and is ready to grant her whatever boon she may desire except her husband. Savitri, at first asks for the return of sight and kingdom of Satyavan’s parents. Having exhausted two boons, as a last boon she asks for a hundred offsprings. Yama, the lord of Death cannot refuse it since she has not breached the conditions as she has not asked for Satyavan’s return to life. But now another dilemma, the dilemma of dharma grips the lord of Death, who, in earlier Indian thought is also the king of justice, dharamraja. How can Savitri beget a hundred offsprings if she does not marry again. The only way is to return Satyavan from the land of Death to Earth. Pleased and impressed by Savitri’s wisdom, he reluctantly changes his own law for the sake of a greater law. His law is the law of Death that once dead one cannot return to earth in the same body. But Savitri challenges this law by the law and power of Love that remains steadfast and one-pointed in her love for her husband. Thus the story ends on a happy note. Savitri and Satyavan return to see their father’s sight and kingdom restored, and all due to the strength and wisdom and love of one woman, Savitri.

This ancient legend preserved in the memory of the race through millenniums is clearly a symbol of the victory of Love over Death. Savitri, as the name suggests is the supreme creatrix Power, bearer of the Sun’s Light and Energy. Satyavan is the soul of man that carries truth within itself but is here entangled with the law of death that stifles all its dreams of beauty and truth and love upon Earth. The parents of Satyavan is the fallen state of nature, sightless and powerless. The desired offsprings of the last boon are the children of immortality who shall inhabit Earth due to the dual labour and mutual love of Divine and the human soul, Savitri and Satyavan.

Such is this powerful and significant ancient Indian tale which assumes a new and vaster significance with the Light shown upon it by the seer vision of Sri Aurobindo. Not only does Sri Aurobindo give us a deeper understanding but it also gives us a new power to take upon the challenge of life and fight the battle against all that denies its divine right. According to Sri Aurobindo life is divine in its origin even though it struggles and has become severely limited in its expression here. This is partly due to the restrictions imposed upon it by the laws of matter and physical existence and partly due to the Ignorance of lower nature that limits its power and will-to-be. But since it has leaped out from the Transcendent Itself, life is destined to eventually discover its inherent divinity and breaking free from the magic circle of Ignorance and conquering the laws of physical nature transmute this earthly life into life divine. This is in fact the story of the slow evolutionary emergence of life, a story yet not finished; a story half-written so far, often ending with a tragic close. Yet the last chapters of life are yet to be written and though already held in some divine conception man is destined to be the part author or at least an instrument to complete this half-written tale. Provided of course he exchanges his surface egocentric conceptions and preoccupations of life with a new diviner conception and orientation. Savitri reveals to us the goal and way to do so. It gives us the deeper Knowledge and the Power to participate in the great evolutionary adventure and fulfil our divine destiny.

Savitri is not just a book but a consciousness, an embodiment of Sri Aurobindo’s Wisdom and Power that he had won through an intense and unprecedented tapasya (spiritual austerities). It is thus a prasada, a gift of Grace for mankind.  Moved by a divine Compassion at the fate of earthly beings and a will to find the radical remedy for our lasting ills, Sri Aurobindo had engaged in an intense yoga that has come to be known as the Integral Yoga or the Supramental Yoga. Its object is not personal mukti or individual salvation (since that has already been done before) but a transformation of earthly life, here and not elsewhere, a radical change in our everyday living and not some beatific experience or an ecstatic realization of the Beyond achieved through a withdrawal from life and its manifold activities. He had seen this possibility in the course of his own sadhana but aspired for the results of his yoga to have a wider scope. His individual yoga therefore turned into a collective yoga taking along with him more and more individuals as a representative humanity towards the Great Future for Earth that was lurking behind the present darkness. In the words of Savitri:

His single freedom could not satisfy,
Her light, her bliss he asked for earth and men.
                                         Savitri: 315

He reveals this wonderful Future waiting for us, nay being prepared for us through the present darkness and turmoil, thereby making Savitri a song of Divine Hope. Thus it differs from other traditional spiritual scriptures that often promise a state of salvation to the faithful few but often predict a dismal end to the civilization at large. To once again share some immortal lines from Savitri itself:

Thus will the masked Transcendent mount his throne.
When darkness deepens strangling the earth’s breast
And man’s corporeal mind is the only lamp,
As a thief’s in the night shall be the covert tread
Of one who steps unseen into his house.
A Voice ill-heard shall speak, the soul obey,
A Power into mind’s inner chamber steal,
A charm and sweetness open life’s closed doors
And beauty conquer the resisting world,
The Truth-Light capture Nature by surprise,
A stealth of God compel the heart to bliss
And earth grow unexpectedly divine.
In Matter shall be lit the spirit’s glow,
In body and body kindled the sacred birth;
Night shall awake to the anthem of the stars,
The days become a happy pilgrim march,
Our will a force of the Eternal’s power,
And thought the rays of a spiritual sun.
A few shall see what none yet understands;
God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep;
For man shall not know the coming till its hour
And belief shall be not till the work is done.
CWSA 33 – 34: 55

Above all, Savitri is a song of Love. Love indeed is the central theme, keynote message of Savitri. But this is not the love that humanity experiences, a brief turmoil in the heart or moments of high uplifting emotion and sublime passion that can hardly sustain itself.

Sri Aurobindo reveals to us about the truth behind this legend:

The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle. Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of being within itself but descended into the grip of death and ignorance; Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save; Aswapati, the Lord of the Horse, her human father, is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes; Dyumatsena, Lord of the Shining Hosts, father of Satyavan, is the Divine Mind here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision, and through that loss its kingdom of glory. Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.

Thus Savitri and Satyavan are not beings confined to a single body but immortal beings that take earthly form from Age to Age, in different places and climes assuming different names and forms. In our Age they have come once again to us in the divine persona of Sri Aurobindo and the Divine Mother. As revealed in Savitri itself:

O Satyavan, O luminous Savitri,
I sent you forth of old beneath the stars,
A dual power of God in an ignorant world,
In a hedged creation shut from limitless self,
Bringing down God to the insentient globe,
Lifting earth-beings to immortality.
In the world of my knowledge and my ignorance
Where God is unseen and only is heard a Name
And knowledge is trapped in the boundaries of mind
And life is hauled in the drag-net of desire
And Matter hides the soul from its own sight,
You are my Force at work to uplift earth’s fate,
My self that moves up the immense incline
Between the extremes of the spirit’s night and day.
He is my soul that climbs from nescient Night
Through life and mind and supernature’s Vast
To the supernal light of Timelessness
And my eternity hid in moving Time
And my boundlessness cut by the curve of Space.
It climbs to the greatness it has left behind
And to the beauty and joy from which it fell,
To the closeness and sweetness of all things divine,
To light without bounds and life illimitable,
Taste of the depths of the Ineffable’s bliss,
Touch of the immortal and the infinite.
He is my soul that gropes out of the beast
To reach humanity’s heights of lucent thought
And the vicinity of Truth’s sublime.
He is the godhead growing in human lives
And in the body of earth-being’s forms:
He is the soul of man climbing to God
In Nature’s surge out of earth’s ignorance.
O Savitri, thou art my spirit’s Power,
The revealing voice of my immortal Word,
The face of Truth upon the roads of Time
Pointing to the souls of men the routes to God.
While the dim light from the veiled Spirit’s peak
Falls upon Matter’s stark inconscient sleep
As if a pale moonbeam on a dense glade,
And Mind in a half-light moves amid half-truths
And the human heart knows only human love
And life is a stumbling and imperfect force
And the body counts out its precarious days,
You shall be born into man’s dubious hours
In forms that hide the soul’s divinity
And show through veils of the earth’s doubting air
My glory breaking as through clouds a sun,
Or burning like a rare and inward fire,
And with my nameless influence fill men’s lives.
[Savitri: 702 – 703]

 

The Mother reveals this truth in a direct and simple manner:

You know, mon petit, I said one day that in the history of earth, wherever there was a possibility for the Consciousness to manifest, I was there[[“Since the beginning of the earth, wherever and whenever there was the possibility of manifesting a ray of the Consciousness, I was there.” March 14, 1952. ]]; this is a fact. It’s like the story of Savitri: always there, always there, always there, in this one, that one – at certain times there were four emanations simultaneously! At the time of the Italian and French Renaissance. And again at the time of Christ, then too….

….. with the present incarnation of the Mahashakti (as he described it in Savitri), whatever is more or less bound up with Her wants to take part, that’s quite natural. And it’s particularly true for the vital: there has always been a preoccupation with organizing, centralizing, developing and unifying the vital forces, and controlling them. So there’s a considerable number of vital beings, each with its own particular ability, who have played their role in history and now return.

Conversations with a disciple, June 27, 1962

But with this present incarnation of the Mahashakti (Mother referring to Herself)…. She is the Supreme’s first manifestation, creation’s first stride, and it was She who first gave form to all those beings. Now, since her incarnation in the physical world, and through the position She has taken here in relation to the Supreme by incarnating in a human body, all the other worlds have been influenced, and influenced in an extremely interesting way…..

It was always through Emanations, while now it’s as Sri Aurobindo writes in Savitri – the Supreme tells Savitri that a day will come when the earth is ready and ‘The Mighty Mother shall take birth’…. But Savitri was already on earth – she was an emanation….

They were all emanations, right from the beginning. So we have to say: ‘With the present incarnation.’ I have been in contact with all those gods, all those great beings, and for the most part their attitude has changed. And even with those who didn’t want to change, it has nonetheless influenced their way of being.

Conversations with a disciple, June 30, 1962

Print Friendly, PDF & Email