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At the Feet of The Mother

Prof. Mangesh Nadkarni: Invitation to Savitri | 16. Book 4 Canto 3-4 & Book 5 Canto 1

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

In this poem Savitri is described in four or five different places—once Savitri as seen by Aswapati, once as seen by Narad, once as seen by Satyavan, various descriptions. Here you have a description of Savitri as seen by her own father. How did Aswapati see Savitri on that morning when he heard the voice? As the voice finished what it had to say, he found, as you can see:

The Voice withdrew into its hidden skies.
But like a shining answer from the gods
Approached through sun-bright spaces Savitri.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 372

Savitri was now approaching Aswapati, and there is long and beautiful description of what Savitri looks like.

Advancing amid tall heaven-pillaring trees,
Apparelled in her flickering-coloured robe
She seemed, burning towards the eternal realms,
A bright moved torch of incense and of flame
That from the sky-roofed temple-soil of earth
A pilgrim hand lifts in an invisible shrine.
There came the gift of a revealing hour:
He saw through depths that reinterpret all,
Limited not now by the dull body’s eyes,
New-found through an arch of clear discovery,
This intimation of the world’s delight,
This wonder of the divine Artist’s make
Carved like a nectar-cup for thirsty gods,
This breathing Scripture of the Eternal’s joy,
This net of sweetness woven of aureate fire.
Transformed the delicate image-face became
A deeper Nature’s self-revealing sign,
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 372

I have no intention of reading it through; I just wanted to point out to you this beautiful passage. This is Savitri as seen by Aswapati, and it goes on almost towards the end of page 373. It is a fairly longish passage.

And now, this is what Aswapati says to Savitri, on page 373, towards the end.

“O spirit, traveller of eternity,
Who cam’st from the immortal spaces here
Armed for the splendid hazard of thy life
To set thy conquering foot on Chance and Time,
The moon shut in her halo dreams like thee.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 373-374

What is it that he says to her?

Depart where love and destiny call your charm.
Venture through the deep world to find thy mate.
For somewhere on the longing breast of earth,
Thy unknown lover waits for thee the unknown.
Thy soul has strength and needs no other guide
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 374

The question might arise, “How will I recognise this unknown lover who is waiting for me?” So Aswapati says, “Your soul has the capacity to recognise this person and you will not need any other guide.”

Thy soul has strength and needs no other guide
Than One who burns within thy bosom’s powers.
There shall draw near to meet thy approaching steps
The second self for whom thy nature asks,
He who shall walk until thy body’s end
A close-bound traveller pacing with thy pace,
The lyrist of thy soul’s most intimate chords
Who shall give voice to what in thee is mute.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 374

So Aswapati too has become very poetic. He says you will meet this person who is:

The lyrist of thy soul’s most intimate chords
Who shall give voice to what in thee is mute.
Then shall you grow like vibrant kindred harps,
One in the beats of difference and delight,
Responsive in divine and equal strains,
Discovering new notes of the eternal theme.

Then you will be like two harps responding to the same notes, two harps giving out two different notes: one is this lover of yours, the other is yourself.

One force shall be your mover and your guide,
One light shall be around you and within;
Hand in strong hand confront Heaven’s question, life:
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 374-375

When you read these lines you almost feel that Aswapati knew already what lay ahead. So he used these words: “Hand in strong hand confront Heaven’s question, life.” At one level you can take it to simply mean, “Together you will face life,” but he doesn’t stop there.

Challenge the ordeal of the immense disguise.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

Challenge the ordeal of the immense disguise called death. You will have to face and challenge the disguise of death. This is what it implies.

Ascend from Nature to divinity’s heights;
Face the high gods, crowned with felicity,
Then meet a greater god, thy self beyond Time.
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

He says you have to meet this person waiting for you, but that’s not the end of it; you will together have a very great thing to perform, that is, “Ascend from nature to divinity’s heights.”

Face the high gods, crowned with felicity,
Then meet a greater god, thy self beyond Time.

This is what he says: “Go out into the open world. Your soul will guide you to the person who has been waiting for you, and once you meet him, your life will be fulfilled at one level, but then you both will have to rise much higher and face the challenge of the “ordeal of the immense disguise.”

Now this page also has a beautiful passage on mantra. How does mantra work?

As when the mantra sinks in Yoga’s ear,
Its message enters stirring the blind brain
And keeps in the dim ignorant cells its sound;
The hearer understands a form of words
And, musing on the index thought it holds,
He strives to read it with the labouring mind,
But finds bright hints, not the embodied truth:
Then, falling silent in himself to know
He meets the deeper listening of his soul:
The Word repeats itself in rhythmic strains:
Thought, vision, feeling, sense, the body’s self
Are seized unutterably and he endures
An ecstasy and an immortal change;
Bk 4, Canto 3, p. 375

This is what a mantra received properly does to the receiver.

He feels a Wideness and becomes a Power,
All knowledge rushes on him like a sea:
Transmuted by the white spiritual ray
He walks in naked heavens of joy and calm,
Sees the God-face and hears transcendent speech:
An equal greatness in her life was sown.

What the poet says at this point is that listening to Aswapati’s instructions worked for Savitri like a mantra. This was her mantra: Depart, go out, your lover is waiting for you. When you meet him your life will be fulfilled, but from then on there is another greater challenge both of you together will have to meet. This is the challenge of the immense disguise. This proved to be a mantra for Savitri.

Now Savitri of course obeys her father, and goes out on this quest.

The quest to find a life partner for Savitri is described in Canto 4. It’s a beautiful description. First of all, Sri Aurobindo somehow wants to suggest that as Savitri goes out on this quest, she feels this is not the first time she has gone out like this. In her previous birth also she has gone out like this on a quest. This is what is suggested.

The world-ways opened before Savitri.
At first a strangeness of new brilliant scenes
Peopled her mind and kept her body’s gaze.
But as she moved across the changing earth
A deeper consciousness welled up in her;
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 377

As she was moving, she was no more looking around her from a surface consciousness. A deeper consciousness within her came up and from that consciousness she began to look around.

A citizen of many scenes and climes,

She suddenly felt that she was a citizen of many scenes and climes. She was born on earth several times before, she has been in several parts of this world.

Each soil and country it had made its home;
It took all clans and peoples for her own,
Till the whole destiny of mankind was hers.

So for her the entire human family was her family.

These unfamiliar spaces on her way
Were known and neighbours to a sense within,
Landscapes recurred like lost forgotten fields,
Cities and rivers and plains her vision claimed
Like slow-recurring memories in front,
The stars at night were her past’s brilliant friends,

When she looked at the stars at night, they didn’t look new as if she was looking at them for the first time. They were like friends she had met several times before.

The winds murmured to her of ancient things
And she met nameless comrades loved by her once.

She met many people whom she had earlier met in earlier lives in different forms.

All was a part of old forgotten selves:
Vaguely or with a flash of sudden hints
Her acts recalled a line of bygone power,
Even her motion’s purpose was not new:
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 377

This time, of course, she is going to seek her life’s companion, but it’s not the first time she is doing that. It looked as if in the earlier avatars too she had gone like this.

Even her motion’s purpose was not new:
Traveller to a prefigured high event,
She seemed to her remembering witness soul
To trace again a journey often made.

This seemed to her a journey she had often made. It is very interesting that Sri Aurobindo should bring this up. She is now saying (she is of course sitting in the chariot): There must be a charioteer who is driving the chariot, and the charioteer, I think, must have had a well laid out plan. The poet suggests there is a Supreme Will that guides what may look like a random going-around. There is nothing casual here; casual simply means you are outside God’s plans. There is nothing casual here, everything is decided by him. That’s the hint he leaves in the next section.

A guidance turned the dumb revolving wheels
And in the eager body of their speed
The dim-masked hooded godheads rode who move
Assigned to man immutably from his birth,
Receivers of the inner and outer law,
At once the agents of his spirit’s will
And witnesses and executors of his fate.
Inexorably faithful to their task,
They hold his nature’s sequence in their guard
Carrying the unbroken thread old lives have spun.
Attendants on his destiny’s measured walk
Leading to joys he has won and pains he has called,
Even in his casual steps they intervene.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 377-378

There are these powers, they intervene in what you may see as casual steps. Even in casual steps they intervene. Then the poet once again generalises.

Nothing we think or do is void or vain;
Each is an energy loosed and holds its course.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 378

Everything that you do creates an energy, creates a karmic groove, and it leaves a mark.

The shadowy keepers of our deathless past
Have made our fate the child of our own acts,

So what we do today in most part is decided by the karma that we have accumulated.

And from the furrows laboured by our will
We reap the fruit of our forgotten deeds.
But since unseen the tree that bore this fruit
And we live in a present born from an unknown past,
They seem but parts of a mechanic Force
To a mechanic mind tied by earth’s laws;

But we don’t know our own past, we haven’t seen this karma, so it all looks as if there is a mechanical law operating in our lives.

Yet are they instruments of a Will supreme

They are all instruments of a Supreme Will which works through our karma.

Watched by a still all-seeing Eye above.
A prescient architect of Fate and Chance
Who builds our lives on a foreseen design
The meaning knows and consequence of each step
And watches the inferior stumbling powers.
Upon her silent heights she was aware
Of a calm Presence throned above her brows
Who saw the goal and chose each fateful curve;

Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 378

Savitri was now aware of some godhead, some power who was sitting above her and guiding each turn, as it were, of the chariot.

It used the body for its pedestal;
The eyes that wandered were its searchlight fires,
The hands that held the reins its living tools;
All was the working of an ancient plan,
A way proposed by an unerring Guide.

Sri Aurobindo has already done two things. First of all, on the first page of the canto, page 377, he tells us this is not Savitri’s journey for the first time. Savitri remembers she has performed this journey before and then he says, in all these matters, where you think everything is casual, nothing is really casual. Destiny, and behind the destiny, there is the Supreme Will, they all work at every step—every stumbling, every fall, is foreseen―and this is how life is lived and there is nothing here that is really casual or accidental.

Sri Aurobindo goes on. You know, he is taking this opportunity, he didn’t have to bring these things in, he could have simply said, “Savitri set out…,” but he makes it a point to bring these two issues together. Then he goes on to describe what you and I would describe: Where did she go? What are the various things she saw?

At first her path ran far through peopled tracts:
Admitted to the lion eye of States
And theatres of the loud act of man,
Her carven chariot with its fretted wheels
Threaded through clamorous marts and sentinel towers
Past figured gates and high dream-sculptured fronts
And gardens hung in the sapphire of the skies,
Pillared assembly halls with armoured guards,
Small fanes where one calm Image watched man’s life
And temples hewn as if by exiled gods
To imitate their lost eternity.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 379

So he is describing Savitri’s journey. Sometimes her chariot passed through high roads, royal palaces, at other times small wayside temples.

Often from gilded dusk to argent dawn,
Where jewel-lamps flickered on frescoed walls
And the stone lattice stared at moonlit boughs,
Half-conscious of the tardy listening night
Dimly she glided between banks of sleep
At rest in the slumbering palaces of kings.
Hamlet and village saw the fate-wain pass,
Homes of a life bent to the soil it ploughs
For sustenance of its short and passing days
That, transient, keep their old repeated course,
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 379

[a few lines further]

Away from this thinking creature’s burdened hours
To free and griefless spaces now she turned
Not yet perturbed by human joys and fears.
Here timeless musings large and glad and still,
Men had forborne as yet to fill with cares,

[A few lines further]

Hastened the chariot of the golden bride.

It goes on. Now, on page 381, Sri Aurobindo describes how the chariot passes through forest hermitages―various kinds of saints, munis and rishis lived in these forests―and Savitri’s chariot goes through this area.

The strong king-sages from their labour done,
Freed from the warrior tension of their task,
Came to her serene sessions in these wilds;
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 381

Many kings had assembled there for their vanaprastha, people who had retired from their kingly duties had set up ashrams and were living in these forests.

The strife was over, the respite lay in front.

They came here to rest.

Happy they lived with birds and beasts and flowers
And sunlight and the rustle of the leaves,
And heard the wild winds wandering in the night,
Mused with the stars in their mute constant ranks,
And lodged in the mornings as in azure tents,
And with the glory of the noons were one.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 381

Some came there just to retire because they had done whatever responsibilities they had to do, but some came to live in these hermitages for a deeper purpose. He says,

Some deeper plunged; from life’s external clasp
Beckoned into a fiery privacy
In the soul’s unprofaned star-white recess
They sojourned with an everliving Bliss;
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 381

Some came there not just for retirement but in search of bliss which lies within oneself.

A Voice profound in the ecstasy and the hush
They heard, beheld an all-revealing Light.
All time-made difference they overcame;
The world was fibred with their own heart-strings;
Close drawn to the heart that beats in every breast,
They reached the one self in all through boundless love.

Then Savitri goes through areas where ascetics lived, while earlier these were all rishis.

Nameless the austere ascetics without home
Abandoning speech and motion and desire
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 382

These ascetics had not only given up desire, they had also given up speech, motion, they were not even moving around, they were glued to one place either standing or sitting.

Aloof from creatures sat absorbed, alone,
Immaculate in tranquil heights of self
On concentration’s luminous voiceless peaks,
World-naked hermits with their matted hair
Immobile as the passionless great hills
Around them grouped like thoughts of some vast mood
Awaiting the Infinite’s behest to end.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 382

On the next page, there are descriptions of various kinds of hermitages through which Savitri’s chariot is going.

One-souled to all and free from narrowing bonds,
Large like a continent of warm sunshine
In wide equality’s impartial joy,
These sages breathed for God’s delight in things.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 383

So some of these places were occupied by sages who had the highest realisation. What were the sages doing? What were the rishis doing?

Assisting the slow entries of the gods,

This was the ideal of the Vedic rishi who lived in the midst of man, in the midst of society and turned his spiritual effort not to deny life, not to ignore life, but to enrich life, to perfect life. They invoked the gods to descend in them. So this is what they were doing.

These sages breathed for God’s delight in things.
Assisting the slow entries of the gods,
Sowing in young minds immortal thoughts they lived,
Taught the great Truth to which man’s race must rise
Or opened the gates of freedom to a few.

A few lines down:

A magic happiness flowed from their touch;
Oneness was sovereign in that sylvan peace,

We have heard in the Ramayana and Mahabharata that where some of these rishis lived, the animals traditionally hostile to each other forgot their enmity and lived like friends. So Sri Aurobindo is also referring to that.

The wild beast joined in friendship with its prey;
Persuading the hatred and the strife to cease
The love that flows from the one Mother’s breast
Healed with their hearts the hard and wounded world.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 383

Then he talks about rishis, the kind of speech rishis hear. Rishis are sages who hear mantras and there is a beautiful description of what mantra is like. We have already seen what mantra does, but what exactly is a mantra, how do you define a mantra? Sri Aurobindo doesn’t leave anything out, he attempts that also. A beautiful description of what mantric poetry is like. Here he says, about 6, 7 lines down:

Intuitive knowledge leaping into speech,
Seized, vibrant, kindling with the inspired word,
Hearing the subtle voice that clothes the heavens,
Carrying the splendour that has lit the suns,
They sang Infinity’s names and deathless powers
In metres that reflect the moving worlds,
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 383

In their rhythm, they catch the vibration, as it were, of the planets, of the moving world.

Sight’s sound-waves breaking from the soul’s great deeps.

Mantra is the “sight’s sound waves:” It comes as a sound wave, but actually it is an embodiment of a vision seen by a rishi. What a rishi sees gets transformed into sound. So “sight’s sound-waves breaking.” Where does it come from? It comes breaking from the soul’s great deeps. It comes from the deeps of the ocean of the poet’s heart. So these little beauties Sri Aurobindo has packed into this particular chapter. But the chapter generally remains unread, not talked about, because people feel there is not much philosophy here. But why do you need philosophy? Poetry itself is your very rich recompense. It’s wonderful here, it’s very relaxed. You don’t have to wonder: “Have I missed anything? Did I miss some very serious point? Nice vague poetry. Listen to the ease of this: It’s like a stream flowing placidly.

On page 384, the new section begins.

As floats a sunbeam through a shady place,
The golden virgin in her carven car
Came gliding among meditation’s seats.
Often in twilight mid returning troops
Of cattle thickening with their dust the shades
When the loud day had slipped below the verge,
Arriving in a peaceful hermit grove
She rested drawing round her like a cloak
Its spirit of patient muse and potent prayer.
Or near to a lion river’s tawny mane
And trees that worshipped on a praying shore,
A domed and templed air’s serene repose
Beckoned to her hurrying wheels to stay their speed.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 384

As she was travelling, sometimes she spent the night in a temple, at other times she spent the night underneath a tree.

In the solemnity of a space that seemed
A mind remembering ancient silences,
Where to the heart great bygone voices called
And the large liberty of brooding seers
Had left the long impress of their soul’s scene,
Awake in candid dawn or darkness mooned,
To the still touch inclined the daughter of Flame
Drank in hushed splendour between tranquil lids
And felt the kinship of eternal calm.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 384

Yet, what was Savitri doing? What was Savitri supposed to do? She was supposed to go out, travel in the open world until she meets her destined companion for life. How does she recognise him? Does he have a name? Does he have a shape? Her father had told her: “Your soul will guide you.” So, she has been travelling now for a whole year and the poet says on page 385, last couple of lines:

Still she found not the one predestined face
For which she sought amid the sons of men.
Bk 4, Canto 4, p. 385

So until this chapter, there is no sign of this waiting unknown lover. For that we have to go on to the next book, “The Book of Love.” And there, in order to assure us, in the very first line Sri Aurobindo says: But now you won’t have to wait very long.

But now the destined spot and hour were close;
Bk 5, Canto 1, p. 389

The poet says: Hold your breath, don’t get impatient. Now Savitri is coming to a point where the destined spot and hour were close. He is about to bring to you the most dramatic scene where Savitri sees this unknown young man, but before that the scene has to be prepared. And how does Sri Aurobindo go about it?

To a space she came of soft and delicate air
That seemed a sanctuary of youth and joy,
A highland world of free and green delight
Where spring and summer lay together and strove
In indolent and amicable debate,
Inarmed, disputing with laughter who should rule.
Bk 5, Canto 1, p. 389

Down the same page:

A sigh was straying among happy leaves;
Cool-perfumed with slow pleasure-burdened feet
Faint stumbling breezes faltered among flowers.
The white crane stood, a vivid motionless streak,
Peacock and parrot jewelled soil and tree,
The dove’s soft moan enriched the enamoured air
And fire-winged wild-drakes swam in silvery pools.
Earth couched alone with her great lover Heaven,
Bk 5, Canto 1, p. 389-390

See how he creates the mood? He is now preparing for the time when Savitri and Satyavan are coming together.

Earth couched alone with her great lover Heaven,
Uncovered to her consort’s azure eye.

Heaven was intensely looking at the beautiful body of this earth.

On page 391, middle of the page, now we are very close:

This was the scene which the ambiguous Mother
Had chosen for her brief felicitous hour;
Here in this solitude far from the world
Her part she began in the world’s joy and strife.
Here were disclosed to her the mystic courts,
The lurking doors of beauty and surprise,
The wings that murmur in the golden house,
The temple of sweetness and the fiery aisle.
A stranger on the sorrowful roads of Time,
Immortal under the yoke of death and fate,
A sacrificant of the bliss and pain of the spheres,
Love in the wilderness met Savitri.
Bk 5, Canto 1, p. 391


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