A series of talks by Prof. Mangesh V. Nadkarni on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri in Pondicherry in 1995.
Before we go on, I would like say a little bit about the structure of this epic. I pointed out that Sri Aurobindo follows here the Greek notion of the three unities—unity of time, place and action. The entire action here is supposed to take place between the dawn of one day to the dawn of the following day. The unity of place—it takes place on the verge of the forest where Dyumatsena had his ashram. And the unity of action—there is only one story here, the story of Savitri finding Satyavan, the God of Death claiming Satyavan, and Savitri then confronting God of Death and reclaiming Satyavan back for herself and for the earth. There are no side stories, side issues, except for Aswapati’s tapasya in the beginning. So these three unities are followed very carefully, and the action begins very close to the climactic event in the entire story, which is the death of Satyavan. The action begins on the dawn of that day.
In Canto 1 we had this description of this dawn. Then we were introduced to Savitri, and we had a distant view of her. In Canto 2 we came much closer to Savitri, and we had a long detailed description of what Savitri looked like, what she stood for. And then Sri Aurobindo presents to us what is the issue of Savitri’s life, why should you and I take interest in her life and her mission. Before he closes Canto 2, he tells us that Savitri is now ready to confront fate and death. The question is raised whether an individual can take on forces like fate and death. Then Sri Aurobindo assures: yes he can, if he knows how to relate himself to the transcendental Force. An individual human being after all is not just a brute machine; behind him is the transcendental Force. If an individual can relate himself to this transcendental Force, then the Force acts on behalf of the individual. The lever has to be activated, as it were. The way of doing it―a prayer, a king idea, or a master act―is an absolute act of surrender by which the transcendent takes on your problems and finds solutions to it, then occur miracles.
Sri Aurobindo says the hour of confronting death is fast approaching. Savitri steps aside, the universal Mother, as it were, comes and occupies this position, and Savitri is now ready. This is around 10:30 of that morning, and very soon Savitri and Satyavan are setting out for the forest where Satyavan will collect firewood, roots, fruits and flowers. As he is chopping the branch of a tree, he is racked with pain all over his body, he comes down the tree, he doesn’t know exactly what is happening, lies down on the ground with his head in Savitri’s lap, and before he has time to talk to Savitri, Satyavan is gone. We are around 10:30-11:00 o’clock of that morning, but for the actual event that is to happen immediately we have to wait for about 300-400 pages. The death in the forest occurs in Book 8. As one can see in the contents page, Book 8 consists only of one canto, it is called Canto 3. How can there be a Canto 3 without a Canto 1 or Canto 2? There is a good explanation right here by the editors, who say: “The Book of Death was taken from Canto Three of an early version of Savitri which had only six cantos, and an epilogue. It was slightly revised at a late stage and a number of new lines were added, but it was never fully worked into the final version of the poem. Its original designation, ‘Canto Three’, has been retained as a reminder of this.” This is all scholarly material, but in a very simple minded way, if you want to see chronologically where is Canto 1 and where is Canto 2, Canto 1 is ‘The Symbol Dawn’ and Canto 2 is ‘The Issue’, and Canto 3 comes in Book Eight. So if you were to reorder it, make it chronological, then chronologically Savitri begins with Canto 3 of Book One. Chronologically what comes here at the beginning, Canto 1 and Canto 2 belong in fact in that order to Book Eight. But Sri Aurobindo begins, as I said, very close to the climactic event of the story, and that is how we begin.
Now we know who Savitri is, we know what Savitri is trying to do. And suddenly, in a kind of a flashback, the poet takes us to the origin of Savitri’s birth: how Savitri was born, why she was born, who was instrumental in invoking her presence here on earth (that was her father), who was her father (Aswapati), what did he do. He did tapasya, as said in the Mahabharata story, for 18 years, and as I pointed out earlier, Vyasa describes it in 10 lines whereas Sri Aurobindo describes Aswapati’s tapasya in 22 cantos. So from Canto 3 of Book 1, to Canto 4 of Book 3, all this is a flashback about who Aswapati was, what did he do, describing his tapasya, how he met the Supreme Divine Mother, what did he ask of Her, what She promises him. After this promise what happens? Savitri was born. How did she grow up, what kind of person was she, where and how did she meet Satyavan, how did they get married? And then there is the one year they spent together in the forest hermitage. All this is narrated in a flashback as it were from page 22 to the end of Book 7, page 571. So time stands still from 9:30 of that day until we do this entire review. All these we have to see before we can proceed to the next event which is the confrontation of Savitri with the God of Death.
Thus we now look at Aswapati’s yoga. This is, as you can see, 22 cantos long. As we know from various references, Book 1 of Savitri Sri Aurobindo himself wrote meticulously with his own hand, and there are several versions of it. It is a wonderful book, and that is a book, I guess, on which one can spend a few months―it’s so packed, there is so much in there.
Now, these 22 cantos, which describe Aswapati’s tapasya, have a strong autobiographical element. As I have been saying, people were curious to find what Sri Aurobindo was doing for 40 years in Pondicherry. Well, if you want an honest answer to this question, you should read these 22 cantos, and then you will have some idea what he did. We’ll see exactly what it means in terms that you and I can understand. Now, before we do that, I would like to refer you to a letter Sri Aurobindo himself wrote, where he talks about yoga in three parts. [See CWSA, Vol. 27, p. 330, or SABCL, Vol. 29, p. 778].
The first part, Cantos 3, 4 and 5 of Book 1, refer to Aswapati’s own attempt at a psycho-spiritual transformation of himself. As Sri Aurobindo says, Aswapati’s yoga falls into three parts. First he is achieving his own spiritual self fulfilment as an individual, and this is described as the Yoga of the King. Next, he makes the ascent as a typical representative of the race to win the possibility of discovery and possession of all the planes of consciousness and this is described in the second book; which is 15 cantos long. These 15 cantos are an elaborate description of the various levels of consciousness that Aswapati explores and wants to possess as a representative of all of us. [B]ut this too is as yet only an individual victory. Finally, he aspires no longer for himself but for all, for a universal realisation and new creation. That is described in the Book of the Divine Mother, which is Book 3. The four cantos in Book 3 also constitute a part of Aswapati’s yoga.
Since we have these 22 cantos, we’ll take the first three cantos as a unit―Cantos 3, 4, 5 of Book 1, Aswapati’s yoga for his own individual psycho-spiritual transformation. It will not be possible for me to either mark the precise stages of Aswapati’s progress, nor will it be possible, as Sri Aurobindo himself says “I have not indicated here any of the yogic practices.” So if you read this, it will be difficult for you to find out whether Sri Aurobindo propagates karma yoga, dhyana yoga, raja yoga, hatha yoga, what kind was it? If you read The Synthesis of Yoga you’ll find that all these traditional yogas that have been developed in this country, and each has its own strength. But as you know, Sri Aurobindo feels that for the modern man the best yoga is an integral yoga, which develops the integral personality of man and works towards a transformation of his personality.
There are all kinds of ideas about what spiritual life is. People seem to believe that if you are leading a spiritual life you must somehow look morose, unhappy, miserable―if you are unshaven, the better. There are all kinds of funny ideas. But spiritual life is an inner attitude; it has nothing to do with what you do. And you can never judge a person’s inner attitude by merely looking at his outward acts. You have to know the person very intimately.
I very often tell this story—it’s about a simple person who felt he was stuck in life and he wanted to progress. Maybe he was a clerk in the revenue department, so he wanted promotion, success for himself, which is a normal thing for everybody to aspire for. One day he has a visitor, an elderly, saintly looking person. He tells him, “Sir, I’m stuck with this job; I don’t seem to have any bright prospects. How do I rise in life?” The person tells him, “You should choose your God, and then offer him worship every day before you go to office and when gods are pleased everything works fine. Buy a little statue of Rama; put it in your puja room. Since you have to go to office at 10 o’clock, half an hour’s puja is enough.” So the man does this worship every day for five or six years but he doesn’t get even one single promotion. Now he’s worried and thinks to himself, “What is this, I’m doing my best but Rama doesn’t seem to be at all gratified with what I do.” Then he gets another visitor, looking equally serious, serene, profoundly learned. “Sir I have a little problem, I want to share this with you. So and so suggested I offer my puja to Rama, and I have been doing exactly as he said, but Rama doesn’t seem to be bothered with my offerings at all. What should I do?” The visitor said, “Rama is a complicated god, you must choose a simpler god. Shiva ignores minor lapses. Why don’t you worship Shiva from tomorrow?” The man goes to the market, buys a little statue, puts in the prayer room. He thinks, “I have been worshipping this Rama statue for five years, what do I do with it?” As you know, Indians are all very sentimental people, and we can’t just throw our gods, even those we abandon, out of the window. Wondering on the means of disposal, he puts the statue of Rama in a corner of the prayer table, while Shiva occupies the main position now. He starts the usual pujas, lights an agarbatti (incense), closes his eyes, then opens an eye to see if everything is alright. But everything is not alright. The smoke from the agarbatti is going to Rama instead of Shiva because of the direction of the wind, and Rama he has discarded while this agarbatti is meant for Shiva. So he calls his wife and children and asks them to get some cotton wool. This he then stuffs in the nostrils of Rama statue, and says this agarbatti was not meant for you, but only for Shiva. But wonder of wonders, suddenly he finds Rama standing behind the statue and He says, “This is the first time you behaved as if I were really present here!” Notice when he was worshipping, offering puja with all the rituals, Rama couldn’t care less, but the day he stuffed cotton wool into Rama’s nostrils, that was the day when Rama was most pleased.
So whether you get up at 4.30 or 5 o’clock, whether you sit for meditation facing east or west, whether you sit on a woolen rug or on a cotton mat or even a wooden plank, these are all matters of convenience. Each one should have his own little ritual which is good for himself, which he finds suitable for his needs, but there should not be any dogmatism about it. You should not impose it on other people. Whether reading Gita helps, whether Bhagavatam helps, these are all matters of individual choice. You make your own choices, you make your own system. The most important thing is the attitude within, the attitude with which you do these things.
And therefore Sri Aurobindo was very careful. He knew the greatness of his bhaktas, he knew that the day he made a prescription they will make a religion out of it. So there will be this sect saying this is what Sri Aurobindo said, no, no, you must seat on a wooden plank facing the east. Now somebody is saying it is not very clear, whether it is east or west, we will face the west. So there will be east-facing disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the west-facing disciples of Sri Aurobindo. All these clashes, this is how it develops. A teaching loses its strength, force, significance when it is converted into a creed like this. So Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were always very careful trying to avoid this thing happening. The human mind is very quick in doing these things. So what is important in spiritual matters is the attitude.
That’s why aspiration, rejection and surrender, these are the three things. If you are capable of aspiring, rejecting the undesirable things, all the asuric, hostile things that you have in you, and surrender yourself, it is very easy. Aspiration, rejection, surrender: but that is it. In one sense, that is the whole of sadhana. If you can see this, you won’t ask this question: I’ve read all these pages but he has not said anything about exactly what sadhana we should do. Spirituality is a matter of inner attitude; it’s a matter which has to do with your own consciousness. You can have different sets of clothes for different occasions—home, office, sport—but you don’t have a ‘home consciousness’ or an ‘office consciousness’. There is only one consciousness. I offer my prayers, my meditation, reading, and something happens to my consciousness. But I take the same consciousness to the office. Then what I do in the office, how I react to people, how I act, what I think, what kind of gossip I engage in, all these things are also affecting my consciousness. You can’t be a part-time sadhak: ‘I’m a sadhak of Sundays and Saturdays, other time I have not.’ It is a different kind of thing if you realize this.
What is the very first thing one has to realise before spiritual life even begins? What, after all, is spirituality? In this country there is a great deal of confusion between morality and spirituality. Morality seems to us the highest kind of spirituality, there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond morality. Spirituality, as Sri Aurobindo emphasises, begins when you realise you are not a body, you are not your mind, you are not your life energies, but you are essentially a spirit or soul which has taken this embodiment in this body, this mind, these life energies. And the primary thing in your life is to realise the soul that you are, not read about it. Reading spiritual literature doesn’t help; direct realisation is what helps. Realise that you are the soul, bring it to the front and lead your entire life under its guidance. That basically is what spirituality is all about.
The poet says:
This bodily appearance is not all;
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
What is most important in our life is our notion of self. What is my self? For some people self is just the body, these are the people who live a physical existence. For some people self is the body, and in addition, you have certain sentiments, certain loyalties, certain attachments—that is your self. For others it’s a much more complex kind of thing. It’s your body, it’s your emotion, it’s your ideas. Then you have things like, ‘I’m Indian, I’m Asian’—all kinds of things are in the self. So depending on what you think your self is, your entire value system of life comes out of this idea of the self. But if you realise that you are not this body, not the mind that you have now, you are not the life-energies.
The form deceives, the person is a mask;
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
The personality that you and I are so proud of, it’s a mask, it’s a borrowed thing. All our ideas, all our desires, very often are all borrowed from our peers, from society.
Hid deep in man celestial powers can dwell.
His fragile ship conveys through the sea of years
An incognito of the Imperishable.
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
The Eternal, the Infinite, the Immortal lives in us, but incognito. We don’t know that He lives in us. He is waiting that we will recognise Him, but He very often has to wait for lives and lives before He is recognised. Each one of us carries within us a spark of the flame, the fire that is called the Divine:
A spirit that is a flame of God abides,
A fiery portion of the Wonderful,
Artist of his own beauty and delight,
Immortal in our mortal poverty.
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
The mortal poverty of our humdrum human existence. There is this one Immortal who lives in us, unclaimed, unrecognised, waiting endlessly, hoping that someday His presence will be recognised. Recognition of this Presence, recognising that He is the leader of your life: that is the beginning of the spiritual life. Spiritual life is all about this. Whether you do it by running five kilometres every day, by going up the Himalayas—there are a hundred different ways of doing it―but the aim is finally to recognise that one is not this body, one is not this life energies, one is not the mind; one is basically the spirit, the soul that one carries within oneself.
This sculptor of the forms of the Infinite,
This screened unrecognised Inhabitant,
Initiate of his own veiled mysteries,
Hides in a small dumb seed his cosmic thought.
In the mute strength of the occult Idea
Determining predestined shape and act,
Passenger from life to life, from scale to scale,
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
Sri Aurobindo talks about various kinds of ignorance that we labour under, and one kind of ignorance he talks about is the feeling that ‘I was born on such and such a day, and I am so many years old.’ Whereas the fact is that this incognito is never born and never dies. So identifying yourself with this temporary address that you have, that is one kind of ignorance.
Changing his imaged self from form to form,
He regards the icon growing by his gaze
And in the worm foresees the coming god.
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 23
Before he describes Aswapati’s yoga, Sri Aurobindo gives you a kind of brief summary picture of what spiritual life is all about, how you free yourself from various kinds of ignorance, how from lower prakriti you rise to a higher Prakriti, and finally how your will becomes one with the supreme Divine’s will, and how you become a joyous instrument of the Divine in life. This is the spiritual journey, and he describes it right here from line 42 to line 97, so if you are asked what is spirituality all about, this can very well be explained with the help of these 55 lines. This is a very handy definition, which Sri Aurobindo provided in supreme poetry.
There is a certain stage in your spiritual development that is marked (about 12 lines from the top of p. 26). Here Sri Aurobindo talks about how once your consciousness goes from all these surface entanglements and goes within, you’ll realise there are many, many things within you, that your consciousness is a many-mansioned thing. We normally think our consciousness is only our waking consciousness, the rest of it is sleep or dead. It’s not so, we have several levels of consciousness: consciousness that we are aware of when we are awake, then what is called the subconscious, then the inconscient, then the subliminal consciousness, then the overmental levels of consciousness. What yoga and spiritual life do to you is to make you wake up in all these various levels of consciousness. And when you do that, you’ll find that you are not that tiny miserable creature you thought you were. There are several capacities lying dormant within you, and they can all wake up. This is what is described here.
In hands sustained by a transfiguring Might
He caught up lightly like a giant’s bow
Left slumbering in a sealed and secret cave
The powers that sleep unused in man within.
He made of miracle a normal act
And turned to a common part of divine works,
Magnificently natural at this height,
Efforts that would shatter the strength of mortal hearts
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 26
You find so much power to do things! Imagine the great work that Buddha did, the great work that Shankara was able to do before he died at the age of 32 or so, the great work Swami Vivekananda was able to do. Where did they get their energy from? The source of this energy is all within you, and once you begin to tap this energy, the amount of work you’ll be able to do as the Divine’s representative and agent is inexhaustible. This is what Aswapati finds as he goes within into various kinds of powers, various kinds of energies. He talks about it on page 27. If you go within yourself the right way, in the spiritual life, the deeper you go the wider you develop. A man who goes towards his own soul simultaneously extends and expands his consciousness and becomes a universal man. His sympathies widen, his love widens. As you get closer and closer to your soul, you will find you are capable of universal love and sympathy, because the soul that you talk about is the same soul that exists in everybody. Therefore, it doesn’t become an effort of the mind to love your neighbor, because your neighbour is yourself. The bible says, love thy neighbor as thyself. This is not enough. Not just as thyself, you love your neighbor because he is yourself. This is what spirituality does when you go within yourself. You spontaneously realise that everybody is yourself. That is the realisation that Aswapati has.
He felt the beating life in other men
Invade him with their happiness and their grief;
Their love, their anger, their unspoken hopes
Entered in currents or in pouring wave
Into the immobile ocean of his calm.
Bk 1, Canto 3, p. 27
Other people’s happiness, sorrows, worries: all these enter into a great yogi. We have enough problems of our own, what do we do if everybody’s problems are coming to me? What he says: “Entered… into the immobile ocean of his calm.” His calm is not perturbed. The fact that he responds to it, he can respond, he can understand, he can empathise with other people doesn’t mean he is disturbed; his calm remains undisturbed.