Invitation to Savitri 15: Book 4 Cantos 1-3

A series of talks by Prof. Mangesh V. Nadkarni on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri in Pondicherry in 1995.

We have now looked at the first three books which constitute together Part One of this epic, and we move on to Part Two. Part One, as you know, is primarily concerned with Aswapati’s yoga. Although we rushed through the entire Book 2, and even Cantos 3, 4 and 5 of Book 1, which also deal with Aswapati’s yoga, in a great hurry, I hope I’ve said enough to indicate the nature of this yoga and the goal of this yoga. As I have repeatedly emphasized, Aswapati’s yoga is quintessentially Sri Aurobindo’s own yoga. It seems to me that maybe the reason why the name of Aswapati doesn’t at all occur in the entire Part One―it is all about Aswapati’s yoga, but the name Aswapati doesn’t occur even once―when Sri Aurobindo was describing this, probably it was for him so intimately autobiographical that in the enterprise he must have forgotten that it was about Aswapati that he was writing and not himself. The word Aswapati comes much later, it comes in this book, and it comes for the first time on page 369.

With the beginning of Part Two, we have a different kind of poetic enterprise. Books 4 and 5 together cover ground which you don’t find in Vyasa’s ‘Savitri’. In the Mahabharata there is not a great deal of description either of Savitri’s childhood or her growth through youth. All that we are told is that one day Aswapati suddenly realises that no suitor has come forward to claim Savitri’s hand in marriage and he is anxious as it is his duty as a good Indian father to find a suitable husband for his daughter. So he sends her out into the open world. But here the development is entirely different. Sri Aurobindo takes great delight in describing Savitri’s childhood. Canto 1 of Book 4 is called “The Birth and Childhood of the Flame.” The flame here is Savitri. The first thing you would notice here is the wonderful descriptions of seasons. And as I mentioned earlier, the two seasons which seem to be Sri Aurobindo’s favourites are the Monsoons and Spring. So if you want to see how Sri Aurobindo describes these seasons you have to go to page 349, about eight lines from the bottom.

Next through its fiery swoon or clotted knot
Rain-tide burst in upon torn wings of heat,
Startled with lightnings air’s unquiet drowse,
Lashed with life-giving streams the torpid soil,
Overcast with flare and sound and storm-winged dark
The star-defended doors of heaven’s dim sleep,
Or from the gold eye of her paramour
Covered with packed cloud-veils the earth’s brown face.
[Savitri p. 349]

It’s a long description, it ends almost on the last line of page 350, the last two lines being:

Or only the muddy creep of sinking floods
Or only a whisper and green toss of trees.
[Savitri p. 350]

The entire thing, a page and about a quarter, is a wonderful description of a typical Indian monsoon rainy season.

We move on to the next description, which is of Spring. Savitri is born towards the end of this season. On page 351, about 10 lines from the bottom, is a description you will not find in any book of English poetry because an English poet can’t describe Spring in these words, it has to be an Indian. You’ll find descriptions like this in Kalidasa, in Sanskrit poets, but not anywhere in English poetry, because this entire sensuousness is of a different kind of sensuousness, and when it comes to that, Sri Aurobindo remains unexcelled.

Then Spring, an ardent lover, leaped through leaves
And caught the earth-bride in his eager clasp;
His advent was a fire of irised hues,
His arms were a circle of the arrival of joy.
His voice was a call to the Transcendent’s sphere
Whose secret touch upon our mortal lives
Keeps ever new the thrill that made the world,
Remoulds an ancient sweetness to new shapes
And guards intact unchanged by death and Time
The answer of our hearts to Nature’s charm
And keeps for ever new, yet still the same,
The throb that ever wakes to the old delight
And beauty and rapture and the joy to live.
His coming brought the magic and the spell;
At his touch life’s tired heart grew glad and young;
He made joy a willing prisoner in her breast.
His grasp was a young god’s upon earth’s limbs:
Changed by the passion of his divine outbreak
He made her body beautiful with his kiss.
Impatient for felicity he came,
High-fluting with the coïl’s happy voice,
His peacock turban trailing on the trees;
His breath was a warm summons to delight,
The dense voluptuous azure was his gaze.
A soft celestial urge surprised the blood
Rich with the instinct of God’s sensuous joys;
Revealed in beauty, a cadence was abroad
Insistent on the rapture-thrill in life:
Immortal movements touched the fleeting hours.
A godlike packed intensity of sense
Made it a passionate pleasure even to breathe;
All sights and voices wove a single charm.
The life of the enchanted globe became
A storm of sweetness and of light and song,
A revel of colour and of ecstasy,
A hymn of rays, a litany of cries:
A strain of choral priestly music sang
And, swung on the swaying censer of the trees,
A sacrifice of perfume filled the hours.
Asocas burned in crimson spots of flame,
Pure like the breath of an unstained desire
White jasmines haunted the enamoured air,
Pale mango-blossoms fed the liquid voice
Of the love-maddened coïl, and the brown bee
Muttered in fragrance mid the honey-buds.
The sunlight was a great god’s golden smile.
All Nature was at beauty’s festival.
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 351-352]

It is here, in this season, that Savitri is born. This birth of Savitri he introduces very quietly, very softly. He says:

A silence in the noise of earthly things
Immutably revealed the secret Word,
A mightier influx filled the oblivious clay:
A lamp was lit, a sacred image made.
A mediating ray had touched the earth
Bridging the gulf between man’s mind and God’s;
Its brightness linked our transience to the Unknown.
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 353]

He says, “a lamp was lit, a sacred image made.” And what was this image for?

A mediating ray had touched the earth

This is the mediating ray that is going to bridge earth and the heavens.

A mediating ray had touched the earth
Bridging the gulf between man’s mind and God’s;

Savitri was going to build this wonderful golden bridge between man’s limited mind and God’s mind. A few lines down the page:

One had returned from the transcendent planes
And bore anew the load of mortal breath,
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 353]

He says, “One had returned…” Savitri’s birth is not as if the Divine Mother came here for the first time, she has been coming here repeatedly. Whenever there has been a crisis in the evolutionary path, the Avatar has always appeared in some form or the other. The Divine Mother has taken several births before, this is one more. This is what he is saying.

One had returned from the transcendent planes
And bore anew the load of mortal breath,
Who had striven of old with our darkness and our pain;

Why does the Mother come here? To help us strive with our darkness and our pain.

She took again her divine unfinished task:

The unfinished task of realising here the glory of the Divine, perfection here in forms made of clay. That is the goal, that is the purpose for which she keeps coming; and this time again she has come.

Survivor of death and the aeonic years,
Once more with her fathomless heart she fronted Time.
Again there was renewed, again revealed
The ancient closeness by earth-vision veiled,
The secret contact broken off in Time,
A consanguinity of earth and heaven,
Between the human portion toiling here
And an as yet unborn and limitless Force.
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 353]

A then few lines later, he says:

For since upon this blind and whirling globe
Earth-plasm first quivered with the illumining mind
And life invaded the material sheath
Afflicting Inconscience with the need to feel,
Since in Infinity’s silence woke a word,
A Mother-wisdom works in Nature’s breast
To pour delight on the heart of toil and want
And press perfection on life’s stumbling powers,
Impose heaven-sentience on the obscure abyss
And make dumb Matter conscious of its God.
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 353-354]

To make the dumb matter conscious of the God that is involved in matter: this is the purpose of evolution. Evolution is not just a mechanical unfoldment of some energy that is implicit, that is hidden in nature, in matter. It is the holocaust of the Supreme; it is the Supreme who has become the inconscient. So earth and matter are none else but God himself who has taken this form, and gradually he is unfolding himself, he is growing towards his superconscience.

Although our fallen minds forget to climb,
Although our human stuff resists or breaks,
She keeps her will that hopes to divinise clay;
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 354]

We forget why we are here, we are lost in the supermarkets, but she keeps her will and she comes back and lifts us, pushes us.

Failure cannot repress, defeat o’erthrow;

Failure cannot repress her, defeats cannot overthrow her will.

Time cannot weary her nor the Void subdue,
The ages have not made her passion less;

She is not saying, “Oh, how often do I have to come? How dumb is man?” She comes like a mother, and every time she brings all heaven’s love.

No victory she admits of Death or Fate.
Always she drives the soul to new attempt;
Always her magical infinitude
Forces to aspire the inert brute elements;
As one who has all infinity to waste,
She scatters the seed of the Eternal’s strength
On a half-animate and crumbling mould,
Plants heaven’s delight in the heart’s passionate mire,
Pours godhead’s seekings into a bare beast frame,
Hides immortality in a mask of death.
[Bk 4, Canto 1, p. 354]

This is what she has done.

Once more that Will put on an earthly shape.

That Will which has been repeatedly coming to us, which was repeatedly giving us this push, the Supreme Mother’s Will once more put on an earthly shape.

A Mind empowered from Truth’s immutable seat
Was framed for vision and interpreting act
And instruments were sovereignly designed
To express divinity in terrestrial signs.
Outlined by the pressure of this new descent
A lovelier body formed than earth had known.

So the body was formed, the kind of body the earth had never known before. You see how he described the seasons. He comes to Spring, and then he introduces Savitri’s birth and immediately talks about the significance of her birth in these terms. We are told that Savitri’s birth is in fact the birth of an Avatar. Savitri is an Avatar: it is the Supreme Mother who has been born.

The next canto is called “The Growth of the Flame.” It describes in great detail how Savitri grew up, what she looked like, and so on. What did Savitri learn as a young girl? She had to learn various arts, crafts, philosophy, all these things, and Sri Aurobindo describes this on page 360, about ten lines from the bottom:

Intense philosophies pointed earth to heaven
Or on foundations broad as cosmic Space
Upraised the earth-mind to superhuman heights.
Overpassing lines that please the outward eyes
But hide the sight of that which lives within
Sculpture and painting concentrated sense
Upon an inner vision’s motionless verge,
Revealed a figure of the invisible,
Unveiled all Nature’s meaning in a form,
Or caught into a body the Divine.
The architecture of the Infinite
Discovered here its inward-musing shapes
Captured into wide breadths of soaring stone:
Music brought down celestial yearnings, song
Held the merged heart absorbed in rapturous depths,
Linking the human with the cosmic cry;
The world-interpreting movements of the dance
Moulded idea and mood to a rhythmic sway
And posture; crafts minute in subtle lines
Eternised a swift moment’s memory
Or showed in a carving’s sweep, a cup’s design
The underlying patterns of the unseen:
Poems in largeness cast like moving worlds
And metres surging with the ocean’s voice
Translated by grandeurs locked in Nature’s heart
But thrown now into a crowded glory of speech
The beauty and sublimity of her forms,
The passion of her moments and her moods
Lifting the human word nearer to the god’s.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 360-361]

So this is a description of the various arts and crafts, poetry, philosophy, etc. that Savitri learnt.

Then you have a very beautiful description of what she was like, this young flame, young Savitri, maybe in her mid-teens:

A friend and yet too great wholly to know,
She walked in their front towards a greater light,
Their leader and queen over their hearts and souls,
One close to their bosoms, yet divine and far.
Admiring and amazed they saw her stride
Attempting with a godlike rush and leap
Heights for their human stature too remote
Or with a slow great many-sided toil
Pushing towards aims they hardly could conceive;
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 363]

Her nature was such that she would push people around her to aims, to deeds they would never even be capable of conceiving: “Did I do this? How did I do this?” Because Savitri pushed you to do it. So to be with her, to be in her presence was a summons to rise to the full stature of your being. That was her presence.

Yet forced to be the satellites of her sun
They moved unable to forego her light,
Desiring they clutched at her with outstretched hands
Or followed stumbling in the paths she made.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 363]

A few lines down:

Some felt her with their souls and thrilled with her,
A greatness felt near yet beyond mind’s grasp;
To see her was a summons to adore,
To be near her drew a high communion’s force.
So men worship a god too great to know,
Too high, too vast to wear a limiting shape;
They feel a Presence and obey a might,
Adore a love whose rapture invades their breasts;
To a divine ardour quickening the heart-beats,
A law they follow greatening heart and life.
Opened to the breath is a new diviner air,
Opened to man is a freer, happier world:
He sees high steps climbing to Self and Light.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 363-364]

All this is a description of Savitri. Down the page about four lines from the bottom:

Some turned to her against their nature’s bent;

Some wanted to revolt against her, but they just couldn’t help bending towards her.

Divided between wonder and revolt,
Drawn by her charm and mastered by her will,
Possessed by her, her striving to possess,
Impatient subjects, their tied longing hearts
Hugging the bonds close of which they most complained,
Murmured at a yoke they would have wept to lose,
The splendid yoke of her beauty and her love:
Others pursued her with life’s blind desires
And claiming all of her as their lonely own,
Hastened to engross her sweetness meant for all.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 364-365]

Some people wanted to make her their exclusive friend whereas she had love for the whole world, and people felt jealous when she gave the same love to others. That was Savitri. A few lines down the page:

Some drawn unwillingly by her divine sway
Endured it like a sweet but alien spell;
Unable to mount to levels too sublime,
They yearned to draw her down to their own earth.
Or forced to centre round her their passionate lives,
They hoped to bind to their heart’s human needs
Her glory and grace that had enslaved their souls.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 365]

Next, on page 366, about six lines from the bottom:

Among the many who came drawn to her
Nowhere she found her partner of high tasks,
The comrade of her soul, her other self
Who was made with her, like God and Nature, one.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 366]

Everybody admired her, but nobody felt that he was equal to her, that he could be her companion on equal terms.

Some near approached, were touched, caught fire, then failed,
Too great was her demand, too pure her force.
Thus lighting earth around her like a sun,
Yet in her inmost sky an orb aloof,
A distance severed her from those most close.
Puissant, apart her soul as the gods live.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 366]

She lived amidst people, but nobody could claim her as his own, so there was no companion. Sri Aurobindo talks about it on page 367 in more precise terms. About 10 lines from the bottom:

Admired, unsought, intangible to the grasp
Her beauty and flaming strength were seen afar
Like lightning playing with the fallen day,
A glory unapproachably divine.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 367]

All the young men in that place where she lived found her

A glory unapproachably divine.
No equal heart came close to join her heart,
No transient earthly love assailed her calm,
No hero passion had the strength to seize;
No eyes demanded her replying eyes.
A Power within her awed the imperfect flesh;
The self-protecting genius in our clay
Divined the goddess in the woman’s shape
And drew back from a touch beyond its kind
The earth-nature bound in sense-life’s narrow make.
The hearts of men are amorous of clay-kin
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 367-368]

Human beings are amorous of clay-kin: they can only love others who are like them at their level.

And bear not spirits lone and high who bring
Fire-intimations from the deathless planes
Too vast for souls not born to mate with heaven.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 368]

This is what Sri Aurobindo is trying to say: that no young men approached to claim Savitri’s hand in marriage. This is what the poet wants to say, that people admired her, were awed by her, respected her, were charmed by her, but no young man would come anywhere near her and look into her eyes, because, he says:

All worshipped marvellingly, none dared to claim.
Her mind sat high pouring its golden beams,
Her heart was a crowded temple of delight.
A single lamp lit in perfection’s house,
A bright pure image in a priestless shrine,
Midst those encircling lives her spirit dwelt,
Apart in herself until her hour of fate.
[Bk 4, Canto 2, p. 368]

Now we come to a point when Savitri is about 18 or 19 years of age, and one day, Aswapati hears a voice. This is where the word Aswapati occurs for the first time, on page 369. What does the voice say? On page 370:

O Force-compelled, Fate-driven earth-born race,
O petty adventurers in an infinite world
And prisoners of a dwarf humanity,
How long will you tread the circling tracks of mind
Around your little self and petty things?
But not for a changeless littleness were you meant,
Not for vain repetition were you built;
Out of the Immortal’s substance you were made;
Your actions can be swift revealing steps,
Your life a changeful mould for growing gods.
A Seer, a strong Creator, is within,
The immaculate Grandeur broods upon your days,
Almighty powers are shut in Nature’s cells.
A greater destiny waits you in your front:
This transient earthly being if he wills
Can fit his acts to a transcendent scheme.
He who now stares at the world with ignorant eyes
Hardly from the Inconscient’s night aroused,
That look at images and not at Truth,
Can fill those orbs with an immortal’s sight.
Yet shall the godhead grow within your hearts,
You shall awake into the spirit’s air
And feel the breaking walls of mortal mind
And hear the message which left life’s heart dumb
And look through Nature with sun-gazing lids
And blow your conch-shells at the Eternal’s gate.
Authors of earth’s high change, to you it is given
To cross the dangerous spaces of the soul
And touch the mighty Mother stark awake
And meet the Omnipotent in this house of flesh
And make of life the million-bodied One.
The earth you tread is a border screened from heaven;
The life you lead conceals the light you are.
[]Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 370]

Aswapati was sitting one day quietly. Aswapati is fond of his daughter like any father. Aswapati is a great yogi, but when he has come down, Savitri is still growing up. So, he has forgotten temporarily, momentarily, Savitri’s great destiny. So he was protecting her with the fond love of a father. Suddenly, one day he hears this voice which reminds him of the great destiny that is awaiting all humanity. This is what the voice says:

The soul’s deep intimations come in vain,
In vain is the unending line of seers,
The sages ponder in unsubstantial light,
The poets lend their voice to outward dreams,
A homeless fire inspires the prophet tongues.
Heaven’s flaming lights descend and back return,
[Savitri p. 371]

Because man is unable to recognise heaven’s light, man is unable to make use of Divine Grace. This light repeatedly comes and has to go back.

The luminous Eye approaches and retires;
Eternity speaks, none understands its word;

Eternity has spoken several times; it spoke in Bengali when Sri Ramakrishna came, it spoke in Tamil when Ramana Maharshi came. But who is willing to listen to the words of Eternity?

Fate is unwilling and the Abyss denies;
The Inconscient’s mindless waters block all done.
Only a little lifted is Mind’s screen;
The Wise who know see but one half of Truth,
The strong climb hardly to a low-peaked height,
The hearts that yearn are given one hour to love.
His tale half told, falters the secret Bard;
The gods are still too few in mortal forms.”
[Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 371-372]

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