Sri Gopal Bhattacharjee
AN OUTLINE OF
SRI AUROBINDO'S EPIC POEM
A talk given on 6th November 1988 at the Imphal University
© Sri Aurobindo Society (U. K.)
Matter shall reveal the Spirit's face.
I am happy to be here from Pondicherry as a speaker of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri to this young University. 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 history" 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Most modern scholars of literature and history say that epic poetry is obsolete.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 worked 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 Aswapathy who has no issue. And in keeping with the traditions of those times, he goes to the forest and performs 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 heaven from earth and no mortal can cross it. But by the strength of her penance, Savitri follows the God of Death across the river and engages him in conversation. He marvels at her capacities, admires her skill and gives 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 fidelity. 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 characters in the poem that gave him the clue. Satyavan is one who carries the truth – satyam vahati iti. Satyavan, 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 splendour. She is the divine Grace in human form. Her father Aswapathy is one who is the lord of Force, lord of spiritual power, strength and light. Aswa in the Veda symbolises life-energy. Aswapathy is the lord of life. Only 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 history 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 rerevised, some portions as many as twenty-one times. When he was asked why he needed to revise when he had already 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 descended 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 spiritual 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 history, 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 philosophical 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 geography 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 death enters at all into this cosmic scheme, why if ananda 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 determinism, 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 ardhanarishwara, 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 experienced. He takes the whole life in one embrace. These are some of the themes he deals with at a leisurely pace 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 tradition 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 labour, 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 Infinite", "stratosphere of the Superconscient", "necessity's logarithmic table", "calculus of Destiny", "unprovisioned cheques on the beyond, signed by the religions, on the credit bank of Time", "cowled fifth columnist." (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 across 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 concepts and practices.
Now, how did Savitri come to be born? Sri Aurobindo says:
A world's desire compelled her mortal birth.
She was not born just in the normal way; the combined 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 Aswapathy who Sri Aurobindo describes was a colonist from immortality. He is one who has come by choice to colonise 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
Now let us discuss and go back to the scene where Savitri reports her choice to her parents where the Divine sage Narada is present. The moment Savitri uttered the name of Satyavan, King Aswapathy sees a heavy shadow 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 Narada 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 Savitri 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 household 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 passage narrows and then opens on the slope of a hill. There she encounters on a rock, a woman, an ancient woman with a divine pity in her eyes, with her feet bleeding 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 couldst 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.
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 given 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 presence 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 Kundalini is aroused, how she courses upwards. Sri Aurobindo 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 prepares to meet her fate. On the fated day she gets up early, finishes the prayer before the figure of Durga, the world Mother carved on the stone by Satyavan and completes her usual work. Then she goes to Satyavan's mother 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 debate between Love and Death. He says: Why, I am the guardian, 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 everlasting 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, philosophies, 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 Satyavan, 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.
I met Shri Gopal Bhattacharjee personally first time in 1984 on his way to the U.S.A. Indeed our paths had crossed during my first visit to Pondicherry in 1968. I had the Mother's darshan on her birthday, the 21st of February and I stayed there until the foundation ceremony of Auroville took place op the 28th February 1968.
My association with various Centres of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother goes back to 1961 when I first came to the U.K. for study. Various reading circles 4th centres exist in the U.K. but none of these are associated with the Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry. It was by Shri Bhattacharjee's inspiration and guidance that we were able to form Sri Aurobindo Society in 1986. As usual there were many hurdles but with The Mother's grace, we were able to find an independent location for the Society at 33, Beaumont Street, London WI. Shri Bhattacharjee came especially from Pondicherry to inaugurate it on the 4th of November, 1989. The hall was full to its brim with members and guests and Shri Bhattacharjee gave his usual extempore talk which was highly received by all. Shri Bhattacharjee has travelled extensively throughout the world, to some countries more than once, with only one cardinal objective and that is to serve The Mother and Sri Aurobindo by making people aware of this Message on the platform of the Society. He describes himself as The Mother's soldier and says, 'the soldier does not ask questions but carry out the commands." In his case it is the Divine command which is unique in its imperative.
In 1987 Shri Bhattacharjee came here again and gave a series of talks on The Mother and Sri Aurobindo in various parts of London, Sheffield and Birmingham. He always speaks spontaneously, fluently without notes, be it on the Life Divine, Savitri or other major works of Sri Aurobindo.
During his visit here in June, 1990 after attending the 22nd A.G.M. of UNESCO where he was elected as a member of the Executive Committee representing Sri Aurobindo Society, (The Society is a member of UNESCO as a Non-Governmental Organisation) he gave a series of highly inspiring talks to our members, starting with "How to begin . . ." It opened new horizons for those who were present.
I came to know that he had given a talk on Savitri to the Postgraduate students at the Imphal University; India on 6th of November 1988. The talk was extempore but it was recorded on a tape. It was read to our members and we all felt how beautifully he outlined Savitri. We requested his consent to publish it and he kindly agreed. A great Yogi and renowned scholar Shri M. P Pandit of the Ashram in Pondicherry said on reading it "Stimulating introduction, excellent outline of Savitri".
I am sure this short introduction to Savitri will be of an immense help to all interested in the subject: it is also hoped that it would serve its purpose by rousing further interest to know more and go deeper into this great epic poem of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri.
S. K. Datta
Sri Aurobindo Society (UK)
5 Fairfax Mansions,
London NW3 6JY