An audio recording of a lecture, delivered by Georges van Vrekhem
at Savitri Bhavan, Auroville, in 1999.
An Abridged Transcript
[originally published in Invocation No 4, p. 18]
I would like to see this as a kind of shared reflection on Savitri, because I am sure that all of you who are here know something about it, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. I also know that people who have come here to give talks before me are very much qualified. I have not published anything on Savitri, so I feel a little timid, and that is why I have written down all my items and points, so that I don’t make a mess of it!
If you consider Savitri as a whole – and it is quite some whole! – then I would like to ask you a question: how much time does it take for this whole story to be acted out? 700-odd pages, almost twenty-four thousand lines … How much time does it take for this whole story to be acted out? Have you ever thought about that? One day! And it starts when Savitri wakes up: you have the Symbol Dawn and then Sri Aurobindo switches over to the dawn of that day, and the first canto ends with that famous line, so simple – everyday language that has become the highest poetry:
This was the day when Satyavan must die.
And then where do we go? We go to page 349, halfway through the epic, halfway through the book. There Sri Aurobindo picks up the legend again, and then it is acted out: Savitri goes into the forest with her husband, he dies, she waits and has that incredible battle with death, and they come back; nobody knows what has happened, but just that day messengers have come to invite Satyavan’s father to return as the King of the kingdom from which he was expelled because of his blindness, happy day, happy ending – one day.
But from the end of Canto 1 on page 10 all the way to page 349 – this is half of the poem – that must mean something!
Now if we think about the fact that the poem Savitri is of course about Savitri – she is the protagonist, the main person in the story – who are the other protagonists, the other main characters? Satyavan, of course. But it is curious that Satyavan is not written about in detail as a spiritual figure. We are given the whole story of Savitri: how she comes on earth, how beautiful she is inwardly and outwardly, as a child with that white dragon-bird drifting above her; her youth and her quest, and then her yoga, chakra after chakra, everything is described in detail … so much so that the Mother has said that sometimes she told Sri Aurobindo, “Lord, you are writing all my secrets!” And that is exactly what has happened, because as we know they were one consciousness. Savitri is completely worked out – but what about Satyavan? We know he is the son of a king, and that he’s a very nice fellow and they fall in love, but nothing is analysed of his inner life. Who was Satyavan? He was the Soul of the Earth. If you take it like that you can say “Yes”, it is written about, because Sri Aurobindo, along with so many other things in Savitri, gives the whole story of evolution, starting from the Big Bang and before. But this is not Satyavan as a person.
Who is the other protagonist? This is exactly the point I want to talk to you about today. You say Aswapati, all the authorities I am reading say Aswapati: the Yoga of the King – Aswapati; the Traveller of the Worlds – Aswapati. But – a very simple question: If this is true, why does Sri Aurobindo never use his name? Why does the name Aswapati not appear in the first half of the epic? I’ll tell you where it comes for the first time: the name Aswapati is used for the first time on page 341, for the second time on page 369. Sri Aurobindo didn’t forget to use that name. Sri Aurobindo didn’t forget such things – he would change a comma five times, according to Nirodbaran who was his amanuensis, who noted down whole parts of the poem. Aswapati is not there. Why do all the authorities write Aswapati, Aswapati, starting from Purani, and followed by everyone who has written about it? I must ask that question. Sri Aurobindo could not have forgotten that name, because he is the second – or the third, it depends on the way you consider it – most important figure in this incredible book. He couldn’t have forgotten that!
So let us see what he writes about this supposed Aswapati.
One in the front of the immemorial quest. This is the protagonist, I will use that word, from the third canto onwards, from the first pages of the epic. Somebody who is a pioneer, the being leading the immemorial quest of mankind. He is addressed as: O strong forerunner …; and it is said that “One soul’s ambition lifted up the race”. One soul’s ambition took everything that is developing with such difficulty in mankind, lifted it up and took it farther. He is referred to as The eternal seeker in the aeonic field. And we are told that This knowledge first he had of time-born men. … That is the Secret Knowledge – Canto Four is called “The Secret Knowledge”. And then the next one begins: This knowledge first he had of time-born men. This is who it is: the forerunner, the soul in the front that leads humanity on its way to a new step in development – supposedly Aswapati.
A second very important qualification of this being is: A thinker and toiler in the Ideal’s air. A toiler, a thinker – one who works not only with the ordinary mind, but with the mind above in all its layers. And Sri Aurobindo repeats that, for a little further on he says The toiling thinker; and further on again he says A single thinker has done all that; and yet further he says The Thinker with a capital letter. This being is always qualified as the Thinker.
And then we have the third, so little realised, qualification of that being: it is the Warrior. Nowadays we all know about warriors, because of Carlos Castaneda, and because of the shamans; and I have heard an Aurovilian saying one day, “I am a warrior!” But here – who would you imagine is that being, who is the leader in front, the thinker, and also the warrior? Let’s keep that in mind, and see what Aswapati was like according to the legend in the Mahabharata. Here is a quotation from a book by R.Y. Deshpande, who has written a lot on this topic and who is now the editor of Mother India.
“Long ago in Madra ruled a noble king, an ardent follower of the dharma. He was of a devout nature and was firmly established in truth. He was respectful to the seers and sages, and was kind to the citizens of the country. His name was Aswapati – performer of yagnas, presiding over charities, skilful in work, one who had conquered the senses, he was loved by the people of his kingdom and he himself loved them. Aswapati’s single concern was always the welfare of everybody and toward that end he spared no effort, but he was issueless, and he made the sacrifices, and then Savitri, Daughter of the Sun, or the Sun herself, granted him to have a daughter.”
A great yogi – yes, absolutely; master of his senses, performing so many yagnas … good to his people. But how does that match with what we have seen? The One in front of the immemorial quest, A thinker and toiler in the Ideal’s air, who is leading the earth on? And let us see what else Sri Aurobindo says about him:
One in the front of the immemorial quest,
Protagonist of the mysterious play
In which the Unknown pursues himself through forms
And limits his eternity by the hours
And the blind Void struggles to live and see,
A thinker and toiler in the ideal’s air
Brought down to earth’s dumb need her radiant power.
His was a spirit that stooped from larger spheres
Into our province of ephemeral sight,
A colonist from immortality.
A pointing beam on earth.s uncertain roads,
His birth held up a symbol and a sign;
His human self, like a translucent cloak
Covered the All-Wise who leads the unseeing world.
This is not a yogi, however great; this is an avatar. And the avatar is of course Sri Aurobindo. So if we take this jump in time in the one-day story, from the beginning up to page 349, everything in between, the whole First Part of Savitri, is the autobiography, the spiritual autobiography, of Sri Aurobindo.
He doesn’t mention his name. You know how the cantos go: the first canto is the morning, the awakening, the symbol dawn; the second canto tells about Savitri, she.s presented in essence. And then the third canto starts with the line, A world’s desire compelled her mortal birth. The desire of a world forced the Divine to take mortal birth. And then comes this line, One in the front of the immemorial quest … Please see that delicacy: that superhuman delicacy, of starting this canto with a line that is not directly pointing to himself, A world’s desire compelled her mortal birth, And then he begins the story about himself .
You know the Mother has said one day: “La spiritualité, c’est le bon gout Suprême’ – le bon goût; and Sri Aurobindo says, “Spirituality is the highest refinement”. It is the art of life – the highest refinement. Here you can see that, that self effacement, that delicacy.
And if you take this, and think who Sri Aurobindo is for you, how you see him in his photos, the way you approach him – do you ever have the feeling of this warrior? In almost all the accounts by people who saw him they tell how, when they went to him for darshan, as they neared, approached, touched his feet, they all sank into a kind of sublime softness. There was this Love incarnated there, that contacted every soul who approached him. But there was also that warrior who in the meantime had done and was doing this incredible work of piercing through towards a new future.
He was not tall, he was as tall as me – not very tall, if you saw him. But there are so many accounts from the early years describing him as a rather dark Bengali, till he turned around and looked at them – and then they felt this power in the eyes: the warrior who has written that incredible poem, one of the most beautiful in any literature, “A God.s Labour”. With such simplicity and melody, there he writes about his fights – and of course he does it in Savitri also.
So this is a very important point: out with Aswapati, finished Aswapati! And it is very important, my friends – because if you keep the name Aswapati, and some picture of the father of Savitri in Madra and so on, you misread this book. You make it smaller. Then it is only the legend. Here is the symbol.
Sri Aurobindo has written about Savitri and everybody knows that she is the Mother. In his delicacy he has never said, “I am the thinker and toiler, I am the warrior, I am the one in front“, but we know that he was. When we put all these qualifications together, with all respect for Aswapati as a great yogi and the father of Savitri, it points to the fact that this is Sri Aurobindo’s own story.
When we see it like this, the structure of the poem becomes very different. The first thing is that we have this whole development where Sri Aurobindo writes his whole autobiography. And Nirodbaran testifies to the fact that this autobiography kept growing and growing and growing. For instance the Book of the Traveller of the Worlds has grown to immense dimensions. This is really the highest occultism one can find and have to access to anywhere – it is not fantasised, it is a written from experience.
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have always said, .We only speak from experience.. And when Sri Aurobindo wrote an introductory article to the Arya, he wrote, “If we had not had the experience we would have no right to write what is here in the Arya“. Everything was based on experience, and here we have this incredible experience of the World-Stair: all the worlds, starting from our own. And in addition he always relates it to our own experience, pointing out that this point is here on earth, this point is part of the structure of earth, this point … so that we get a whole analysis of the world in which we are living, plus many other things.
If you do not realise that, if you do not even know that this is Sri Aurobindo writing about his own experience, you will miss one of the most important realisations and aspects of the work he has done for us and for the earth.
I will read you part of that. It comes when he had gone down into Hell. You know that he wrote, “None can reach Heaven who has not passed through Hell”. I think all of us have at least one leg, and maybe one and a half, in Hell – in the complete absurdity of the world and our own impossibilities. And when he had gone through all that, he reached the base.
I think that this is an indication towards some understanding of why he chose to go through Death. For he had the supramentalisation of the mental since 1920. And then he said to the Mother – the much underestimated Mother – “When it is in the mind like that, everything has to be done again and again and again”. And she says, “Then I told him, we should descend”.
And they descended into the vital. Sri Aurobindo stopped writing the Arya, because he had descended to another level, fighting. The supramental realisation of the mental was there, and when it came down into the vital it changed both of them completely, in their outer form. There are many testimonies: people came to Sri Aurobindo and found his appearance had completely changed. Before he was darkish, and now his skin was creamy and golden, people said. The Mother changed completely – she went back to the form she had when she was eighteen. Pearson, who had been close to her for years in Japan, came to Pondicherry and didn’t even recognise her! She was with Sri Aurobindo when he talked with Tagore, and Tagore didn’t recognise her, although he had asked her to take over Shantiniketan, and although he had given her a typewriter which is still in the Ashram. They changed. And then they went deeper still, during 1930, 1932, into matter, and the whole yoga of their disciples also came down to those levels, without their knowing it. It was as if they entered into that hell – where we are, which we have to explore, down there in the cellar, in the many cellars – because without this, one can never understand humanity. Humanity as it is consciously, is only like a water-lily leaf floating on the subconscient and the inconscient. From there arise the acts of humanity, from there arises what you read about in the newspapers, what you see on TV, the horrors, the absurdities, the lies, the ugliness. And Sri Aurobindo says, “Be careful, whatever you have realised, be attentive”. The Mother has said, .Yoga is a matter of attention.. Be attentive because there may always be an earthquake of the soul, where everything that you have built up, all vital and mental constructions, may be shattered, and a monster from below may rise up. Those monsters are there, aren.t they? You see them on the cinema screens. You see them in everything that is happening, the monsters from below.
The Mother has said that the whole of this 20th century is one war. And they were in the front of it, those warriors – she of course always with “L’epée de la Vérité, l’epée de lumière” – the Sword of Truth, the Sword of Light, and at the end of her life the Sword of Certitude.
If you don.t see the first part of Savitri as the autobiography of Sri Aurobindo, how can you understand the following, these important pages, where Sri Aurobindo describes how he changed the programming in the inconscient? He had gone through everything, and this is where He drank the poison draughts till none was left. We all know about Shiva with the blue throat. Sri Aurobindo drank the poison draughts till none was left. The ordeal he suffered of Evil’s absolute reign. And we only have to go inside ourselves to see that. And then he describes what happened when he reached the very bottom.
He saw the secret key of Nature’s change.
He saw in Night the Eternal’s shadowy veil,
Knew death for a cellar of the house of life
In destruction felt creation’s hasty pace,
Knew loss as the price of a celestial gain
And hell as a short cut to Heaven’s gates.
Then in Illusion’s occult factory
And in the Inconscient’s magic printing-house
Torn were the formats of the primal Night
And shattered the stereotypes of Ignorance.
Alive, breathing a deep spiritual breath,
Nature expunged her stiff mechanic code
And the articles of the bound soul’s contract. (p. 231)
Here I have written in the margin of my copy of Savitri: “THIS WAS DONE”! He went to the bottom of Hell, and did that. Sri Aurobindo went down into the depths, and changed the programming of evolution.
Nature expunged her stiff mechanical code
And the articles of the bound soul’s contract,
Falsehood gave back to Truth her tortured shape.
Annulled were the tables of the law of Pain,
Arousing consciousness in things inert,
He imposed upon dark atom and dumb mass
The diamond script of the imperishable.
Inscribed on the dim heart of fallen things
A paean-song of the free Infinite
And the Name, foundation of eternity
Hell split across its huge abrupt facade
Healed were all things that Time’s torn heart had made
And sorrow could live no more in Nature’s breast:
Division ceased to be, for God was there.
The soul lit the conscious body with its ray,
Matter and spirit mingled and were one. (p. 232)
Sri Aurobindo did that. He had come for that. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. If you read it as Aswapati doing all this, what will you understand? But if you realise that this is the autobiography of Sri Aurobindo, many things he has not told about elsewhere are recorded here. And of course many other things that he did are not recorded anywhere, he just did them, and the rest will work itself out.
If you read “The Yoga of the King”, the first part is “The Yoga of the Soul’s Release”. In “The Yoga of the King”, Second Part, you see what Sri Aurobindo was becoming. He has the secret knowledge – This knowledge first he had of time-born men. Then comes the second part, The Yoga of the Spirit’s Freedom and Greatness. And then he describes the whole exploration, not only of the world but of the worlds, in Book Two, The Traveller of the Worlds. And then comes the Book of the Divine Mother. All this forms one beautiful curve, to the point where he has the vision and asks for the boon, asks the Mother to come and incarnate on earth, and the boon is granted that will make the further evolution possible.
Now here there is something very strange: the Mother and Sri Aurobindo had a problem.
When Sri Aurobindo was present, the Mother always used to sit very low in his presence, on a stool or even on the floor at his feet. So everybody says – and this is a problem with many people, I know it from experience – Oh, Sri Aurobindo yes!; and when they see Sri Aurobindo’s picture, they recognise him as a Master, a Guru. But when they see a picture of the Mother, they find it strange: Mother at that time of her life, Mother dressed like that, Mother made-up like that, and looking like that … I am talking about people who are not devotees, but it may also be somewhere in the heads of many people who are devotees. And Mother would always sit at Sri Aurobindo’s feet. You also know that famous anecdote told by Nolini. When Barin, Sri Aurobindo’s brother, asked him, “What was your first impression of the Mother?”, Sri Aurobindo answered, “I never saw such a complete surrender”. Nothing held back! So everybody takes it that the Mother was Sri Aurobindo’s disciple, the Mother was subordinate to him …
Sorry. Either they were the same essential being and consciousness, or they were not. And you see it is impossible to talk about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother unless you go to that extreme. In my view it is impossible to write about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother if you don’t take this as the truth, as they have told it, and as we can experience it, if you don’t take that as the basis. I cannot write about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother from a materialistic standpoint. I cannot write on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as a positivist historian who has to put everything into question. I have not yet written the book I’m working on now, the Mother’s autobiography, but I have already written the introduction, and there I have said, “It is not for me to be a critic. I base myself on what they have said and consider them to be bona fide”.
After passing through all the worlds, Sri Aurobindo meets the Divine Mother. And at a certain moment he says, He fell down at her feet, unconscious, prone. He arrives the feet of the Divine Mother, in this incredible ecstasy. She was at his feet, but he was at her feet.
It is very nice to see the parallels in the lives of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. The parallels in their lives are astonishing. Parents who wanted both of them to be the best! Both starting with the Gita, and so on and so on.
There is also a kind of perfect timing: just when Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry, Paul Richard came there too … and so many other things also happened just at the right time.
But if here in Savitri, it is Sri Aurobindo who asks the Mother to incarnate, how do we interpret that? And I must say I don’t know, because the Mother was supposed to have been incarnated while he was doing his yoga. But there is one solution I would suggest, and that is that the whole of evolution is there somewhere present in a timeless trikaladrishti level – and there the Divine decides to send that aspect of himself, the male aspect, and this aspect of himself, the female aspect, and everything works out in time – perfectly, but beyond our understanding.
All things are global, the Divine is global, evolution is global, man is global and every single act, and every atom is global because the divine is in it. All aspects are there, all possibilities are there – that is the foundation of the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
And now if you ask me, “What, to you, is Savitri?”, I would say, “It is the Book of Promise … from somebody who knew, who had gone very far, much farther than people normally assume, and who wrote this promise for mankind”.
You all know that famous text on page 55:
Thus will the masked Transcendent mount his throne …
For man shall not know the coming till its hour
And belief shall be not till the work is done.
Now this work is being done. What was the intention of Sri Aurobindo’s effort as such? To bring the Supermind down into the earth, into the invisible body of the earth. He couldn’t effect the breakthrough while in his body. And that is the reason he has gone through death. Only six years later, the Supermind manifested. Only six years later. There Sri Aurobindo’s effort ends. Concretely, as an avatar, it ends there. He never wanted to talk about things beyond that. He has written about the gnostic community and all that, how it might be. But when one asked him about Supermanhood, about how the Superman would be, he said, “The Supermind will take care of that. Do not put projections on it. By these human projections you limit it”.
But there the timing comes in: the Mother was here, in a human body. You know her father was so strong that he could make a horse kneel by just pressing its flank. Her mother was so concretely practical and materialistic that Mother has compared her to an iron rod. She said, “These are the bodies I chose for my parents”. And Sri Aurobindo told her, “Your body is much better than mine, you have to go on”. And she did it. 23 years of sadhana every minute. With a divine consciousness, a divine mind, a divine vital, and more and more a divine physical.
This wonderful book, Savitri, is full of such things. And something that has made a big impression on me is the discovery that all the talking and all the philosophy and all the discussions and all the misunderstandings and friction come from the fact that we do not have the spiritual realisation. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have always stressed that we must first have the spiritual realisation, then we can talk. So I apologise to anyone here who has spiritual realisation, but in a general way one can say that this is what we are lacking. And we are people of good will – otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We are turned towards that light, and we read Savitri with a kind of veneration and devotion, and it gives us a great deal. But just think how wonderful all this will become, once we can share in its realisation! So we have some work to do, a whole programme to work out, and we all share in the promise of which this Book of Promise is full. But I wouldn’t trust the authorities too much, except as something to consult, to read, to think about, and then you go on with your own discoveries. And all the other writings of Sri Aurobindo are also so very beautiful, we have a very rich literature, we have a long way to go – so we know what to do for the rest of our lives. Happy travels!