Shri Gopal Bhattacharjee

AN OUTLINE OF SRI AUROBINDO'S EPIC POEM 'SAVITRI'


A talk given by on 6th November 1988 at the Imphal University

SRI AUROBINDO  SOCIETY (U.K.)
Booklet No.1.  First Edition 1991


© Sri Aurobindo Society (U. K.)
No matter  appearing  in this booklet may be translated or reproduced without the written permission of Sri Aurobindo Society (U.K.) or the author.

From Publisher                      
On author - Shri Gopal Bhattacharjee
Matter shall reveal the Spirit's face.        
                                          Sri Aurobindo

     I am  happy to be here from Pondicherry as a spea-
ker of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri to this young  Universi-
ty. I am one of those who recognises that the future is
with the young and I  have  totally  identified  myself
with their aspiration. Today our theme of discussion is
Savitri, Sri Aurobindo's greatest odyssey of Spirit. It
is an unparalleled vision in modern times. It is in the
Mother's words "The Prophetic vision of the World  his-
tory" including the announcement of the earth's future.
     Most modern scholars of literature and history say
that epic poetry is obsolete.  Why is it?  If  you  ask
they  say  that epic poetry has gone out of style,  has
disappeared in our own day and age.  Sri Aurobindo says
that  epic poetry comes when a seer appears;  to us Sri
Aurobindo is a seer and Savitri is His vision  of  time
and  eternity  In  studying  Savitri,  I find it is the
Charter of the New Age embodying the highest aspiration
and  the  hope  of a Humanity,  that is emerging from a
past which is crumbling and  moving  towards  a  future
that is to be born.                                    

"It was the hour before the gods awake                  
Across the path of the Divine event."                  

     That is how Sri Aurobindo begins his epic Savitri,
which he started writing when he was in Baroda and wor-
ked upon for nearly fifty years,  working upon it  from
the  different  levels of consciousness which he scaled
during his long, long career of the Spirit. And what is
Savitri?  I  do  not need to tell you that the original
story as it appears in our epic Mahabharata is repeated
in  most of the Puranas.  The story concerns King Aswa-
pathy who has no issue.  And in keeping with the tradi-
tions  of  those times,  he goes to the forest and per-
forms penance for eighteen years,  at the end of  which
the  Divine Mother Gayatri appears to him and gives him
a boon that she would be born to him.  He comes back to
his kingdom and the daughter is duly born. He names her
gratefully Savitri.  As you know,  Savitri and  Gayatri
are  the same Deity The divine child grows up with such
a divine afflatus that no suitor,  no prince  dares  to
claim her hand.  The father is obliged to ask her to go
round the world - the small world of those times -  and
choose  her  own  companion.  It takes her two years to
choose Satyavan - a prince in exile, the son of a blind
king  driven  out of his kingdom.  And when she reports
her choice,  Narada the divine sage who is conveniently
present  asks her not to choose him because Satyavan is
fated to die within twelve months.  But she refuses  to
take  back her word and marries the chosen prince.  She
practices certain religious austerities  like  fasting,
prayers etc. The fated day arrives and Yama, the God of
Death comes and takes the  soul  of  Satyavan.  Savitri
follows  him.  Yama does not like it very much.  But he
knows that there is the river Vaitarini separating hea-
ven  from earth and no mortal can cross it.  But by the
strength of her penance, Savitri follows the God of De-
ath  across  the river and engages him in conversation.
He marvels at her capacities, admires her skill and gi-
ves her boons one of which is to return her husband.   
     Now this  simple  story  has  been narrated in our
scriptures to emphasise the virtue of conjugal  fideli-
ty.  That is all.  Sri Aurobindo,  when he was studying
this poem among others,  was struck by some truth  that
was looming behind this apparently simple story. He saw
in it a recordation of some great event that must  have
taken place in an early cycle of the Aryan people,  and
which had to be reopened. It was the names and the cha-
racters in the poem that gave him the clue. Satyavan is
one who carries the truth - satyam vahati  iti.  Satya-
van,  man carrying the divine soul,  has descended into
this kingdom of death.  And Savitri the saviour is  the
daughter of Savitr,  the Creator, the creative splendo-
ur.  She is the divine Grace in human form.  Her father
Aswapathy is one who is the lord of Force, lord of spi-
ritual power, strength and light. Aswa in the Veda sym-
bolises life-energy. Aswapathy is the lord of life. On-
ly one who has conquered the life-energies  can  father
the  divine Grace in human form.  And Satyavan's father
is Dyumatsena: dyumat is shining, sena is the host, the
shing host,  i.e.,  the divine mind full of the rays of
the divine light.  It is exiled from its own kingdom of
light and comes to the earth blinded by ignorance. This
is how Sri Aurobindo unveils the symbolism  behind  the
simple  story And he calls it a legend and a symbol:  a
legend about something that has taken place in the his-
tory  of  man  and  a symbol of what is going on and of
what is going to be.                                   
     Sri Aurobindo worked upon it for five decades.  As
you  know,  he  was a born poet.  Poetry was natural to
him.  He wrote his first poem in England  when  he  was
thirteen  and it was a pastime with him to write poetry
But this particular poem, Savitri, he revised and rere-
vised,  some portions as many as twenty-one times. When
he was asked why he needed to revise when he had alrea-
dy received the overhead inspiration,  he said that the
revision also came from there. He explained that he was
striving for a perfect perfection.                     
     He turns  that  simple legend of conjugal fidelity
into a memorable story of the  conquest  of  death  for
man,  for humanity, by the Grace, the divine Grace des-
cended on earth,  fighting the battle for man with  the
lord of Death.  And in the process he describes his own
spiritual odyssey and the saga of The Mother's spiritu-
al adventure in working for the evolution of a new step
in consciousness beyond the mind.                      
     In this epic he works upon a large canvas of  his-
tory,  geography; poetry, science, philosophy. He deals
with the origin of man, birth of the universe, birth of
the  gods  - from different angles - from the religious
angle,  from the mythological, the scientific, the phi-
losophical  and the yogic.  Again and again he takes up
the same theme, but from different standpoints.        
     In Savitri he recaptures the fundamentals  of  all
religions,  philosophies, yogic practices. He describes
the cosmogony of the universe;  from  bhu-earth-bhuvah,
swah,  mahas,  sat, chit and ananda-the seven planes of
existence,  the various  grades  of  consciousness.  He
describes in vivid details and unveils the occult geog-
raphy of the universe. That is perhaps the largest part
of the epic.                                           
     And then he narrates how man has grown up from the
pure physical man concerned with his creature comforts,
how slowly he develops into the rajasic  man  and  from
the rajasic man into the sattwic man.  He discusses the
various parts of the mind,  why life is maimed, why de-
ath enters at all into this cosmic scheme, why if anan-
da is the base, ananda the sustenance and ananda is the
goal, do we feel so much of suffering, so much of pain.
He also discusses the problem of free-will and determi-
nism,  what is Karma,  what are the gods. The gods that
we speak and read of  in  the  Puranas,  are  they  all
myths?  What is the truth behind the traditions of ard-
hanarishwara,  or Durga or Lakshmi  or  Saraswati?  Are
they  all  mental constructions?  What are the chakras,
what about the lotuses of which the Tantra speaks?  Are
they again just matters of faith or can they be experi-
enced.  He takes the whole life in one  embrace.  These
are some of the themes he deals with at a leisurely pa-
ce in the twenty-four thousand lines in blank verse. He
has  a  way of writing which may strike the modern mind
as strange and difficult.  He  would  state  a  certain
truth  in one sentence and then five lines would follow
explaining how he has arrived at that truth.  That will
be  followed by another approach to the same truth.  He
preserves the tradition of the Upanishads, the traditi-
on of avritti,  studied repetition. In Savitri you will
find scattered here and there references to our current
values and movements. He speaks of "Behind his vain la-
bour,  sweat and blooded tears",  recalling Churchill's
famous  expression  during  the dark days of the second
World war.  He also speaks of the  "magic  television's
glass", "phantom robot", "atomic parcellings of the In-
finite",  "stratosphere of the Superconscient", "neces-
sity's logarithmic table", "calculus of Destiny", "unp-
rovisioned cheques on the beyond, signed by the religi-
ons,  on the credit bank of Time", "cowled fifth colum-
nist." (Those of you who are  familiar  with  the  last
Spanish Civil War will remember this expression of Gen.
Franco.) There is "smuggled godhead into  humanity  ac-
ross  the custom's line of mind and flesh",  and so on.
The posterity two hundred years hence will get an  idea
of  what their ancestors thought,  what were their con-
cepts and practices.                                   
     Now, how did Savitri come to be born? Sri Aurobin-
do says:                                               

A world's desire compelled her mortal birth.           

     She was not born just in the normal way;  the com-
bined need and aspiration of  the  Earth  in  evolution
called  for  her  birth.  The Divine Grace manifests on
different planes,  but on this plane of death,  to this
field  of  mortality she was brought down by King Aswa-
pathy who Sri Aurobindo describes was a  colonist  from
immortality.  He is one who has come by choice to colo-
nise for God this field of death to pay god's debts  to
man and to earth.                                      
     The whole  poem  Savitri  he distributed in twelve
books and they are:                                    

1 The book of beginning                       
2 The book of the Traveller                   
3 The book of the Divine Mother               
4 The book of the Birth and Quest             
5 The book of Love                            
6 The book of Fate                            
7 The book of Yoga                            
8 The book of Death                           
9 The book of Eternal Night                   
10 The book of the double Twilight              
11 The book of everlasting day                  
12 Epilogue                                     

     Now let us discuss and go back to the scene  where
Savitri reports her choice to her parents where the Di-
vine sage Narada is present. The moment Savitri uttered
the name of Satyavan,  King Aswapathy sees a heavy sha-
dow floating over that name of Satyavan, but charged by
a stupendous light.  Then he feels that all is well. He
approved her choice but at this moment Narada is  about
to speak.  But Aswapathy signs at him not to speak. The
Queen has been observing this and asks Narada to  bless
her  child  and to advise her how to keep away from the
wings of the evil.  But Narada replies that whoever are
doomed will not listen to warnings; they will go ahead.
So,  he does not want to speak. But queen insists on to
speak  and  ultimately he says Satyavan is fated to die
within twelve months from this date.  The queen  reacts
violently She asks "where is your god?  Where is Grace?
Where is justice?  What sin has my  daughter  committed
that  she  should be tempted like this and delivered to
doom?" She is better She tells Savitri to go  out  once
again and make another choice. But Savitri replies.    
... Once my heart chose and chooses not again.         
The word I have spoken can never be era        
It is written in the record book of God.       
... I am stronger than death and greater than my fate; 
    My love shall outlast the world, doom falls from me
Helpless against my immortality                
Fate's law may change, but not my spirit's will
     The queen is helpless.                            
     She appeals to her daughter:  "You speak like  the
gods, but you are a human being. Listen to me, use your
reason, do not be persuaded by a passion."             
     But Savitri is firm:                              
"I have seen God smile at me in Satyavan;              
I have seen the Eternal in a human face."              
     But the queen is furious.  But after a silence Na-
rada  makes a reply He explains why there is suffering,
why there is pain.                                     
"Pain is the hammer of the gods to break               
A dead resistance in the mortal's heart,               
His slow inertia as of living stone."                  

    This book  is called the book of Fate,  perhaps the
most important one in the epic,  and this was the  last
book  Sri  Aurobindo  worked  upon  and completed about
three or four weeks before he left his body  It  is  in
this book that he dictated 400 lines at a stretch. This
is his testament.  He discusses why there is  ego,  why
there is pain.                                         
"Fate is a balance drawn in Destiny's book.            
Man can accept his fate, or he can refuse.             
For doom is not a close, a mystic seal                 
The spirit rises mightier than defeat                  
Its splendid failures summed to victory."              
     Here Sri  Aurobindo describes how the incarnations
of God came here to save  the  suffering  humanity  and
they themselves have to suffer.                        

He who would save the race must share its pain:        

     Then he adds:                                  
Hard is the world-redeemer's heavy task;               
The world itself becomes his adversary,                
His enemies are the beings he came to save.            
... It gives the cross in payment for the crown.       

     Narad warns the queen to stand aside to leave  Sa-
vitri to meet her fate because much else is involved in
it. He says                                            
"A day may come when she must stand unhelped           
On a dangerous brink of the world's doom and hers,    
In a tremendous silence lost and lone                 
Cry not to heaven for she alone can save              
She only can and save the world                       
O queen, stand back from that stupendous scene,       
Come not between her and her hour of fate."           
     The sage leaves the earthly scene.                
     Savitri joins Satyavan,  she takes up all the hou-
sehold duties from morning 'till evening, she speaks to
none of the impending calamity Sri Aurobindo writes the
great  never share their sufferings with others.  It is
the small who speaks of theirs.  She does not  speak  a
word of it even to Satyavan.  But,  every day after the
daily chores,  are over, and he goes to sleep, she sits
at  his  bedside  and broods over the approaching doom.
One day when it is very severe,  she hears a voice from
her own higher being                                   

Why camest thou to this dumb deathbound earth...       
If't wast to nurse grief in a helpless heart           
Or with hard tearless eyes await thy doom?             
     Savitri asks what else could she do if Satyavan is
to  die.  She would follow him in death.  After a while
the voice speaks again.                                
Is this then the report that I must make,              
My head bowed with shame before the Eternal's seat,    
His power he kindled in thy body has failed,           
His labourer returns, her task undone?                 
     This stings her, and she asks, "What shall I do? I
have no strength." The voice replies:                  
Find out thy soul, recover thy hid self.               
     And Savitri plunges into herself in search of  her
soul.                                                  
     While Aswapathy  goes  above  the earth higher and
higher, exploring the different levels of existence and
consciousness, Savitri goes inside herself and explores
the inner countries.                                   
     She comes out of her physical body and enters into
the  subtler  regions  behind the physical,  she passes
through the turbulant waters of life  across  the  safe
walled  spaces  of the wind and then beyond.  She meets
the host of Gods who directs her to follow  the  worlds
winding highway to its source.  Savitri turns and comes
to a place where there are very few footsteps, the pas-
sage  narrows  and  then  opens on the slope of a hill.
There she encounters on a rock, a woman, an ancient wo-
man with a divine pity in her eyes, with her feet blee-
ding on the pricking stone.                            
A woman sat in a pale lustrous robe.                   
A rugged and ragged soil was her seat,                 
Beneath her feet a sharp and wounding stone.           

     She is the Mother of sorrow who identifies Herself
with  all grief in the cosmos and sustains the bleeding
hearts of man till the purpose of suffering and  sorrow
is fulfilled. Slowly she speaks:                       

To share the suffering of the world I came             
I draw my children's pangs into my breast.             
I am in all that suffers and that cries                
I am the spirit in a world of pain.                    
     Savitri says yes mother your role is indispensable
but  that  is  not all enough but thine is the power to
solace,  not to save.  One day I will return, a bringer
of strength. And she passes on.                        
     And as she climbs up, the whole air changes. There
is a new atmosphere.                                   
All beautiful grew, subtle and high and strange.       
Here on a boulder carved like a huge throne            
A woman sat in gold and purple sheen,                  
Armed with the trident and the thunderbolt,            
Her feet upon a couchant lion's back.                  
She is the Mother of might who declares herself
I stand upon earth's paths of danger and grief         
And help the unfortunate and save the doomed.          
To the strong I bring the guerdon of their strength    
To the weak I bring the armour of my force.            
I smite the Titan who best rides the world             
And slay the ogre in his blood-stained den.            
I am Durga, goddess of the proud and strong,           
And Lakshmi, queen of all the fair and fortunate;      
I wear the face of Kali when I kill                    
I am charged by God to do his mighty work              
His seal is on my task, it cannot fail.                
Madonna of might                                       
Because thou art in him, man hopes and dares;          
Because thou  art,  men's souls can climb the heavens  
And walk like Gods in the presence of the Supreme.     
Without wisdom power is like a wind,                   
It can breathe upon the heights and kiss the sky,      
It cannot build the extreme eternal things             
Thou hast given men strength,                          
Wisdom thou couidst not give.                          

     Savitri advances still upwards till she is greeted
by the Mother of light:                                

A woman sat in clear and crystal light:               
Heaven had unveiled its lustre in her eyes,           
Her feet were moonbeams, her face was a bright sun.   

     She speaks:                                      

O Savitri, I am thy secret soul,                     
I have come down to the wounded desolate earth       
To heal her pangs and lull her heart to rest         
And lay her head upon her Mother's lap.              
I am peace that steals into man's war-worn breast... 
I am charity with the kindly hands that bless;       
I am silence mid the noisy tramp of life;            
I am knowledge poring on her cosmic map.             
I make even sin and error stepping stones            
And all experience a long march towards light.       
     Savitri hails  this  mother  of  joy and peace and
tells her:                                           

Because thou art, the soul draws near to God;        
Because thou art, love grows in spite of hate        
And knowledge walks unslain in the pit of Night.     
     But that too is not enough to deliver man from the
state of his limitation and imperfection.              
     She tells  her:  One  day  I shall return with the
light and peace in all the worlds.  Thus,  passing  the
mother  of  sorrow,  the  Mother of Might,  she goes to
bring the Mother of Love. She follows the direction gi-
ven  by the gods and She comes to a passage where there
are rocky doors.  She entered there  and  sees  on  the
walls  all  the gods and goddesses,  Radha and Krishna,
Shiva and Kali and something wakes up in her She  feels
herself that they are her own forms; She passes on, all
the figures of gods and goddesses disappear,  there  is
an impersonal peace,  an impersonal presence,  the pre-
sence of the Self and then she comes to a wall of  fire
without  a  door  She  steps through that wall and sees
there her secret soul;  the human Savitri  regards  the
Divine  Savitri.  For  a moment they look at each other
and they rush into each other and they become one.     
     Savitri's outer being merges in her inner being. A
capital realisation in spiritual life, particularly, in
the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo where the  soul  merges  into
its oversoul and loses its humanity. What follows is an
original and authentic description  of  the  rising  of
Kundalini  when the divine power enters and strikes her
body the Kundalini the pranic dinamism  shoots  up  and
the  centres open one by one.  She calls down the great
mother to come down into her. Now she is ready to house
the  divine mother in her breast.  Here Sri Aurobindo's
most memorable description of what  happened  when  the
descent from above touches the human soil, how the Kun-
dalini is aroused,  how she courses upwards.  Sri Auro-
bindo describes:                                       

A face, a form came down into her heart                
And made of it it's temple and pure abode.             
     She had  undergone  all  the  fundamental work and
when the fated day arrives she is confident. She prepa-
res to meet her fate. On the fated day she gets up ear-
ly, finishes the prayer before the figure of Durga, the
world  Mother carved on the stone by Satyavan and comp-
letes her usual work.  Then she goes to Satyavan's mot-
her  and  asks  for leave to accompany Satyaran on that
day and see the emerald world around.  Gladly permitted
she sets out with Satyavan.  He calls the various birds
and beasts by name and they respond and come.  It tells
her who is who and what is what.  They go for fuel to a
tree and Satyavan wields a joyous axe,  but  very  soon
his strength fails. The moment has arrived and his life
ebbs away The entire forest scene  becomes  tense.  The
birds  stop  chirping,  suddenly  she  becomes aware of
another presence.  She knows it is the god of death. He
tells Savitri unclasp thy hold and thy husband suffers.
Savitri lets her hold go and the  god  of  death  bends
down touches the earth.  She now releases that hold and
a luminous Satyavan arises from the body on the ground.
A  unique  procession commences:  the soul of Satyavan,
the God of Death and behind both, Savitri.             
     They walk on a pathless path. She feels the earth,
the leaves and the trees rushing by,  and then suddenly
on the frontiers of the physical world she loses  sight
of  them.  She  realises  that her body is a weight,  a
dross, so she soars out of her physical body and in her
subtle form she soon overtakes the two and joins them. 
     The God of Death does not relish it very much, and
he tells her that mortals cannot accompany Death to his
home  and asks her to go back.  This debate between the
God of Death and Savitri is one of  the  highlights  of
the epic,  touching as it does upon the shortcomings of
purely materialistic and  the  idealistically  escapist
philosophies.                                          
     She says,  No,  I love him,  I can't.  He says: Go
back to your earth,  you will find fresh loves and  you
will forget the old.  She persists and goes on. He asks
her to choose whatever boons she wants.  She tells him:
I  don't  care  for your boons but if you want to give,
give all that Satyavan wanted for his parents, let them
recover  their  sight,  let them recover their kingdom.
Contemptuously he assents.  But still she does not turn
back, then he argues with her: that is the famous deba-
te between Love and Death. He says: Why, I am the guar-
dian,  I am God, everybody has ultimately to come to me
for peace,  for rest. She replies: Love is greater than
death.  He asks:  What is love? It is only a passion of
the flesh,  there is no God and there is no  love.  She
tells  him  that he is trying to slay truth with truth.
But her truth is greater,  she has a mission to fulfil.
What is that mission?  To conquer death, to bring ever-
lasting peace to earth.  He laughs and points to her  a
whole world of beauty,  beautiful forms,  movements; it
is world of Ideals,  but the moment she wants to  touch
it,  it disappears. He remarks: This is what happens to
shadowy ideals which you mortals nourish  and  cherish.
Nothing is substantial.  He next shows a whole panorama
of history, all the kings and kingdoms, religions, phi-
losophies,  ideologies,  the  minarets  and palaces all
pass by,  nothing stays. This, he says is the unreality
of  the earthly real,  as unreal as the shadowy ideals.
She watches but something in her is convinced  that  it
is not the truth,  she says:  No I am charged by God, I
am charged by His Power to fulfil my work  with  Satya-
van,  and I have to take him. Then he says impatiently:
If thou that Power,  show me that Power;  if the mighty
Mother  be  with  thee,  show me her face so that I may
worship her. At last when he throws her that challenge,
to  show  what is her real power,  what is the truth of
her being, Savitri looks on Death and does not answer  

A mighty transformation came on her                   
A halo of the indwelling Deity,                       
The Immortal's lustre that had lit her face           
And tented its radiance in her body's house,          
Overflowing made the air a luminous sea.              
     Before this flaming little figure, Death towers in
his  massive figure;  he increases but there is a seige
of light, a burning light around him. He looks back and
calls his ally,  the Night of the dark, but she refuses
to come,  he calls his support,  the Inconscient  which
refuses to answer; the sea of light licks up his shape,
the body of God of Death is no more and Death flees the
scene. Savitri finds herself on a luminous scene of the
Eternal day And Savitri returns to the Earth along with
Satyavan.  She has refused the highest heavens in order
to fulfil the aspiration of the earth which  is  indeed
the Intention of the Supreme.                          
     Because of  time  at my disposal I have to make it
very short now and I conclude with these words:        
The frontiers of the Ignorance shall recede,           
More and more souls shall enter into light....         
Nature, shall live to manifest secret God,             
The Spirit shall take up the human play,               
This earthly life become the life divine.              

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