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Savitri: Aurobindo

Maharshi Aurobindo’s Savitri
By
Bijay Kant Dubey


Sri Aurobindo, after finding the story from The Book of The Forest of the Mahabharata in kernel, has transformed the form and structure of narration and it has not remained a story told in verse, but one Miltonic epic of blank verse in transcendental meditation and philosophy, imbibing what it is in yoga and yogic reflection, how to make life divine, conquering death through love, envisaged and glanced through heaven to earth, earth to heaven. A voluminous work of Indian philosophy, spirituality, religion, cosmology, ethics, morality and metaphysics, it is a super work of a super mind and consciousness. If the diction is Miltonic one derived from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the thought-process is Shawian one derived from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, basing upon the evolutionary process of man, the reasoning faculty widening to encompass in. A stupendous achievement in verse, carried over the years, after editing and re-editing, revising and re-revising, adding and subtracting, the work itself is a study in the plan of work and its execution; the craftsmanship incomparable if the rough drafts are compared with. The steps of sadhna with the mystical flashes have added to in ascension and the journey retreating. A grand epic running into so many pages and chapters, it is a work of a supra-mind, supra-mental meditation; one of cosmic consciousness and penetration. The states of sadhna none but a sadhaka can say it, how the trance of it, how the flashes overtaking the spirit and gliding by. Savitri is a book of yoga, not of tantra; the poetry of sadhna and yoga lies in it on a massive scale. After reading it, one will come to feel it that Sri Aurobindo has not, but some John Milton or George Bernard Shaw has composed it. The horizon is vast and widening; the cosmology almost like that of Paradise Lost. Savitri is not Aurobindo’s Oriental Savitri, but Milton’s Occidental Paradise Lost and pamphleteer Aurobindo showing his study of the Western classics. It is not Sanskrit, but Sanskrit in Anglo-Latinized diction and vocabulary. A few could have managed and grappled with such a topic, Vedic, Upanishadic and Puranic. Replete with Vedism, Upanishadism and Puranism, the book takes into its strides the ever-expanding horizon of discussion which it is there in the Mrityunjaya Japa, death conquering recitation mantra and the dialogues between Vajashrava and Nachiketa as expressed in the Kathopanishada. Yama’s story, which but is an expansion of the Puranic stuff, a household fear transformed into joy and Tagore too prays to with humility in Gitanjali to deliver from the bonds of maya, so endearing to. Actually a philosophical poem, it ends on a note of optimism, but human destiny has been writ otherwise. While talking about Savitri and Yama standing vis-à-vis, having tete-e-tete, we cannot restrain from mentioning the other poems of a different sort, as such Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne, The Terror of Death by John Keats, Up-hill by C.G.Rossetti and Crossing The Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Aurobindo’s Savitri took so many years in its completion, what he started continued unto the last, a book of vision and reckoning, meditation and contemplation, sadhna and reflection. An epic of a greater canvas and length, it is an extraordinary work of a literary genius. The book which has gone into revisions, editings and re-editings, drafts and re-drafts, Savitri dates back to an earlier date, but the final print comes out just before his death, going upto that length of time, but the subject could not satisfy him and he intended on more to give on his part, this is as because the topic lured him too much and the infatuation he could not dispel it. A love story matched it the rishi’s vision of love pure and immaterial, abstract and heartly, rising above the mundane level. It is his love of poetry which draws him close to the story and luckily Alfassa too reaches the ashrama to hear it and to encourage him.  He wrote and re-wrote, drafted and re-drafted for the final proofreading, but the rough drafts too made a history, offering comparisons in craftsmanship, which the researchers could not discern it. The versions and visions different, included or excluded too have the beauties of their own which the authors too miss to calculate it then. Has Lawrence written an afterthought to his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Was Walt Whitman not confused with regard to Leaves of Grass and the press releases? Did it not vary from edition to edition? Similar was the case with Wordsworth’s The Prelude? Edward Morgan Forster what he tried to understand Vyom, Om in the Marabar caves in A Passage to India, the same Aurobindo is trying to do it here after his return from England and transformation. The states of meditation, he relates to with the description of the myth and legend of India doing rounds in each and every household of the country. How to conquer death? It is not possible is a fact, but the austere yogis can fake death for years outliving it. 

Savitri is not merely an exercise in transcendental meditation and yoga, but the gist of the Gayatri Manta, the Mrityunjaya Japa, the Bhagavadgita, the Rig Veda, the Kathopnishada and others wrung together. The pearls of meditation and contemplation herein materialize as the fruits of sadhna transforming and metamorphosing us, but we the human beings have the pitfalls of our own and we are prone to it. We want to be pure and guileless, but temptation is in our nature and we get easily tempted to, infatuated and fascinated with and this is our illusion, hallucination. We cannot rise beyond it. The mythic and fallible living of ours, how to present it beautifully? Error is in our judgement which but we cannot overcome it though the confession has to be with for repentance and atonement. The matters of the Life Divine and the Light Divine have been imparted to make it illuminating, crystal clear and visionary though logic and reason try to hinder. A book of Oriental wisdom, thought and reflection, Savitri is Occidental and Latinized in diction, phraseology, syntax and its technical format. But we the mundane men sometimes doubt the vastness of Savitri as for being unworldly and impractical and the seer full of allusions and hallucinations. Sometimes Savitri maddens us; sometimes Aurobindo maddens us. What is true is quite misleading herein. As Kubla Khan is the opium dream of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, similar is the case with Aurobindo’s Savitri. Written in a grand style, Savitri is a grand work of Aurobindo. The plan of the work is bewildering and baffling one as he has revised and re-drafted many a time.

During the frenzied moments, passionate fits of delving and dictation, he has taken liberties with the language, grammar and syntax. The grammar of poesy is the diction of Aurobindo; the rhetoric and prosody the language of his poesy. Aurobindo as a poet is a grammarian; a rhetorician; a prosodist and Savitri is the grammar of poesy and classicism of the poet. The rhetoric and prosody of classicism have come down to Savitri to endow it with. But it would have better had he described the things tantrical.   

To quote in the words of Author’s Note on Savitri,

“The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle. Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of being within itself but descended into the grip of death and ignorance; Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save; Aswapati, the Lord of the Horse, her human father, is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes; Dyumatsena, Lord of the Shining Hosts, father of Satyavan, is the Divine Mind here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision, and through that loss its kingdom of glory. Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.”

(Savitri, Sri Aurobindo, Author’s Note, ibid, p. no. not given )

The childless king of Madra, Asvapati, lives a life of self-denial and self-abnegation for many years just like an ascetic and offers oblations to Sun God Savitr as for to have a son to save the lineage. Finally, pleased by the prayers, God Savitr appears to him and grants him a boon that he will soon have a daughter. The king with the prospect of having a child born really is overjoyed to hear this. So, when the child is born she is therefore named Savitri in the honour of the god. As Savitri has originated from devotion and asceticism, so these are bound to be in her. The impact and fruition of sadhna will naturally cast an influence of own.

The beginning of the poem is just like the Invocation of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, the style is the same, but the version is here Vedic and Upanishadic as it shows the state of things out of which the tumult is to make a way for, as do come the rays in the morning and the world arises and awakes. The sages and seers start the morning with prayers and chanting of hymns and psalms.

In a run-on stanza pattern almost looking like floating prose passages poetically put together, he starts the poem:
It was the hour before the Gods awake.
Across the path of the divine Event
The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone
In her unlit temple of eternity,
Lay stretched immobile upon Silence’ marge.
Almost one felt, opaque, impenetrable,
In the sombre symbol of her eyeless muse
The abysm of the unbodied Infinite;
A fathomless zero occupied the world.
A power of fallen boundless self awake
Between the first and the last Nothingness,
Recalling the tenebrous womb from which it came,
Turned from the insoluble mystery of birth
And the tardy process of mortality
And longed to reach its end in vacant Nought.
As in a dark beginning of all things,
A mute featureless semblance of the Unknown
Repeating for ever the unconscious act,
Prolonging for ever the unseeing will,
Cradled the cosmic drowse of ignorant Force
Whose moved creative slumber kindles the suns
And carries our lives in its somnambulist whirl.
Athwart the vain enormous trance of Space,
Its formless stupor without mind or life,
A shadow spinning through a soulless Void,
Thrown back once more into unthinking dreams,
Earth wheeled abandoned in the hollow gulfs
Forgetful of her spirit and her fate.

(Savitri, Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, Twentieth impression 2009, p.1)

The Canto 1 (Book One, Part One) consists of almost eight run-on full pages and as the title is, the dawn is reflective of it all, dispelling of darkness, sprouting of seeds and the break of the dawn with the prayers and the rishis moving to take a bath and to be lost in, but here the thing of reckoning and vegetation, a philosophical quest to be resolved. It is Oriental philosophy which but gives the consolation, but the Occidental one may not approve of it. Death is death, it is inevitable and it must come. None is beyond the grasp of death. It is difficult to escape from the clutches of it. Savitri is a dream of Maharshi Aurobindo; the lotus of his imagination. Someone may call it the hallucination of an Indian yogi. What it is logical or reasonable, we are not sure of it. But we are sure of it that it is an ashrama book; the Bible of the ashramites. His best critics are none but the ashramites of the Pondicherry Ashrama.

A huge, greater work of a larger dimension, enormous in its spectrum and length, it has been divided into three parts and each of the parts is inclusive of some books and some cantos. Part One consists of Book One, Book Two and Book Three, Part Two of Book Four, Book Five, Book Six, Book Seven and Book Eight and Part Three Book Nine, Book Ten, Book Eleven and Book Twelve. Savitri is a book of the mind and Overmind, the soul and the Oversoul, American transcendental vision as envisaged by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and so on. Savitri is a matter of Indology, Oriental studies, Asiatic researches. Aurobindo cannot be Aurobindo without Savitri and it is Savitri which but immortalizes his name and fame. It is a book of the Light Divine seen through yogic reflections and transcendental meditation.

 The opening lines from The Yoga of the King: The Yoga of the Soul’s Release may be taken into consideration:
A world's desire compelled her mortal birth.   
One in the front of the immemorial quest,
Protagonist of the mysterious play
In which the Unknown pursues himself through forms
And limits his eternity by the hours
And the blind Void struggles to live and see,
A thinker and toiler in the ideal's air,
Brought down to earth's dumb need her radiant power.
His was a spirit that stooped from larger spheres
Into our province of ephemeral sight,
A colonist from immortality.
A pointing beam on earth's uncertain roads,
His birth held up a symbol and a sign;
His human self like a translucent cloak
Covered the All-Wise who leads the unseeing world.
Affiliated to cosmic Space and Time
And paying here God's debt to earth and man
A greater sonship was his divine right.
Although consenting to mortal ignorance,
His knowledge shared the Light ineffable.
A strength of the original Permanence
Entangled in the moment and its flow,
He kept the vision of the Vasts behind:
A power was in him from the Unknowable.
An archivist of the symbols of the Beyond,
A treasurer of superhuman dreams,
He bore the stamp of mighty memories
And shed their grandiose ray on human life.
His days were a long growth to the Supreme.
A skyward being nourishing its roots

(Ibid, p.22)

 Savitri is so beautiful and pure that none is around to ask for her hands for nuptial relationship when she grows up, reaches the age of marriage. So, her father tells her to find a husband on her own. She sets out on a pilgrimage with the purpose of finding a suitor and meets Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena, who after having lost sight and kingdom lives in exile as a forest-dweller. But when Savitri returns, she finds her father speaking with Sage Narada  which the latter sees it otherwise. Narada says that Savitri has made a bad choice although perfect in every way, a contradictory statement he is famous for. Satyavan will dies after a year which but upsets the whole thing, disheartens it all as because she has to make the choice for once in her life-time. But after a pause and stall Narada comes to terms and agrees with Savitri and  Ashwapati acquiesces. Savitri and Satyavan tie the nuptial not and goes to the forest to live. Immediately after that, Savitri takes to the clothing of a hermit and lives in perfect obedience and respect to her new parents-in-law and husband. When the days seem to come to a close, just from that she starts fasting and keeping a vigil. When her father-in-law forbids her from being harsh, Savitri desists not from the austerities taken, which Dyumatsena too supports. On the morning of Satyavan’s predicted death, Savitri seeks for the permission of her father-in-law to accompany him to the forest. She takes permission of going to the woods after having spent so many days at the hermitage. They go to the forest. But while cutting wood, Satyavan falls ill. Yama appears to claim the soul. Satyavan’s head is on the lap of Savitri, who is but a virtuous lady. Yama himself, the god of Death, comes to claim the soul of Satyavan and Savitri follows strictly into the footsteps of Yama which he fails to discern. As she is pure and virtuous enough so it becomes difficult to abandon and move away. Yama counsels her otherwise, suggests the words of wisdom, which fails to satisfy her. When he tries to convince her to turn back, she offers successive formulas of wisdom.

The Debate of Love and Death from Canto Three of Book Ten, Part Three can tell of the argues and debates which hold in between the two:

A sad destroying cadence the voice sank; 
It seemed to lead the advancing march of Life 
Into some still original Inane. 
But Savitri answered to almighty Death: 
"O dark-browed sophist of the universe 
Who veilst the Real with its own Idea, 
Hiding with brute objects Nature's living face, 
Masking eternity with thy dance of death, 
Thou hast woven the ignorant mind into a screen 
And made of Thought error's purveyor and scribe, 
And a false witness of mind's servant sense. 
An aesthete of the sorrow of the world, 
Champion of a harsh and sad philosophy 
Thou hast used words to shutter out the Light 
And called in Truth to vindicate a lie. 
A lying reality is falsehood's crown 
And a perverted truth her richest gem. 
O Death, thou speakest truth but truth that slays, 
I answer to thee with the Truth that saves. 
A traveller new-discovering himself, 
One made of Matter's world his starting-point, 
He made of Nothingness his living-room 
And Night a process of the eternal light 
And death a spur towards immortality. 
God wrapped his head from sight in Matter's cowl, 
His consciousness dived into inconscient depths, 
All-Knowledge seemed a huge dark Nescience; 
Infinity wore a boundless zero's form. 
His abysms of bliss became insensible deeps, 
Eternity a blank spiritual Vast.

(Ibid, p.621)

Satyavan awakes from as though had been in sleep and returns to his parents along with his wife. Dyumatsena regains his eyesight, but Savitri’s husband Satyavan too is not aware of what it is happening around. As they praise her, Dyumatsena’s ministers arrive with the good news awaiting the father and that is the death of the usurper of his kingdom. Finally, they return to the kingdom happily. Savitri with utmost obedience and prayer pleases Yama otherwise she will not let him go. When Yama sees her leaving it not, he asks for some boons to be taken. She prays for the return of the eyesight of her father-in-law and of life to Satyavan through the birth of the children to her.

Savitri is the compendium of all, metre, measurement, allegory and epical format. The theme is sublime and the thought and idea too illuminating. It is not a work of myth and mysticism, but supra-mental transcendence, supra-intellect. The measure ascends in the likewise manner and descends as well too I the same manner. Poetry born out of sadhna is the thing of deliberation. The sadhaka in meditation is the case of Savitri; the sadhaka thinking about divine love and death. But the fear of death is supreme fear and it is inevitable. None can avoid the hands of death. Maybe it in response to it Aurobindo will talk of ‘iccha-mrityu’ (willed-death). Mantric poetry, Anglo-Sanskritic scholasticism, pedantry is the case of Aurobindo, a rishi, maharshi from Oxford and Cambridge is reciting Savitri in the manner of Michael Madhusudan Dutt of Meghnadbaddha the case of deliberation herein. Savitri is a Bible of an ashramite of the Pondicherry Ashrama. How to keep temptation at bay, safeguard from human follies and foibles, take delight in transcendental meditation, lifting time from this daily schedule of works is the thing of discussion. What is that thing which extinguishes the life-light and takes it to, carrying along? This is actually a feeling, an in-born quest to know the thing. Is prana, life-breath, the passing life-breath bird-like? Or, something to be felt mystically and mythically? Psychologically, such a thing forms the basis of debate and discussion. But Buddha will confront and contradict it otherwise asking the old lady to bring the mustard seeds from that household which has not seen a dead body carried along, which but she realizes it on the non-availability of the matter and the proof.

Savitri is the fever and frenzy of Aurobindo; the obsession and the craze and Aurobindo cannot Aurobindo in the negation of Savitri. It is a historic book of a historic time, taking the world by strike, with the Vedic kernel of thought and idea, the images of a rishi divine and transcendental. The beauty of the East; Eastern cosmology, theology, religion, spirituality, metaphysics, ethics, morality, myth and mysticism, thought, idea and reflection lies here in it and the work is grand, extraordinary. The rishis and sadhus of India glimpse through of the book and it is richly endowed with. A man without any idea of Indian thought and tradition may not understand it; take to comprehension, Savitri is not Savitri, but the beauty of Indian English poetry; a classical work of a classical scholar, stupendous in poetic gravity and achievement, a rarer work to be found in the history of it. Michael Madhusudan Dutt too had the same talent, but it went unappreciated then and henceforth it could not flourish though he strove to write The Captive Ladie.

Without knowing the story, one cannot grapple with such a theme of a mythic quality and it is a fault with Indian philosophy that it lapses into excessive optimism and consolation, faith leading to blind faith and nocturnal vision of delving to superstitious beliefs and rituals. The mystical experience is good, but too much of it will lead to hallucinatory vision, illusionary assumption. Can death be conquered? Can one check the advancing steps of death as Savitri does it here? It is unbelievable. The heart developed in India, but the brain could not. Everything in India is for the gods, not the common human beings, but in the West they worked keeping in view man and his needs. To criticize him, Savitri is but a Man and Superman of Indian George Bernard Shaw. Had Bernard Shaw written, it would have been better.

As Savitri first made its appearance in the journals published from the ashrama so the letters started pouring from readers and scholars, who could feel the value of the upcoming book of verse.

“There is a previous draft, the result of the many retouchings of which somebody told you; but in that form it would not have been a "magnum opus" at all. Besides, it would have been a legend and not a symbol. I therefore started recasting the whole thing; only the best passages and lines of the old draft will remain, altered so as to fit into the new frame.
No, I do not work at the poem once a week; I have other things to do. Once a month perhaps, I look at the new form of the first book and make such changes as inspiration points out to me - so that nothing shall fall below the minimum height which I have fixed for it.” -1931 (Savitri, ibid, p.727)


“Savitri is blank verse without enjambment (except rarely) - each line a thing by itself and arranged in paragraphs of one, two, three, four, five lines (rarely a longer series), in an attempt to catch something of the Upanishadic and Kalidasian movement, so far as that is a possibility in English. You can't take that as a model - it is too difficult a rhythm-structure to be a model. I shall myself know whether it is a success or not, only when I have finished two or three books. But where is the time now for such a work? When the supramental has finished coming down, then perhaps.” --1932 (Ibid, p.727) 

“Don't make prophecies. How do you know that Savitri is or is going to be supramental poetry? It is not, in fact - it is only an attempt to render into poetry a symbol of things occult and spiritual.” --1933 (Ibid, p.727)

People submit their theses on the theme, philosophy and poetic vision of Sri Aurobindo, stating it that he is not a rishi, a sadhu, a yogi, but a teacher, a philosopher, a classical scholar and above all a poet. An ashramite, he is the founder of the Pondicherry Ashrama. Thre are two parts of his self, the former of being a professor, a nationalist, a freedom fighter while the latter of a transformed yogi after the Narayna Darshana in jail. It is change in heart which drew him to religion and philosophy and above all meditation.

But instead of going through his Savitri presented later on, we should do theses on the art of composition and craftsmanship involved in. How had it been Savitri previously, how is it now? Savitri was started earlier, but the parts were added to it later on.

Savitri actually is a discourse of Mind, Soul, Vision, Reasoning, Good Consent and Wisdom, involving each as for to resolve the mysteries of the world. It is an allegorical poem trying utmost best to conquer unconquerable death through imaginary love divine.

Almost all the modern Indian English poets, P.Lal, Nissim Ezekiel, Keki N.Daruwalla and Kamala Das have failed to understand the vision of Sri Aurobindo and they are his detractors which but may be one side of thought, but his Savitri has not gone down well into their conscience. Savitri is not a thing of their understanding; Savitri is Savitri, a work of stupendous poetic achievement really to have been accomplished. The hollow men cannot understand him and they are in a minority. The ancient lore of India Max Muller, A.L.Basham, A.B.Keith, William Jones, Paul Deuseen, Winternitz could know, but they could not.

Savitri is inclusive of Keatsian romance, Arnoldian didacticism and Miltonic sublimity. Sometimes allegories and personifications disturb us in the understanding of the long poem running into cantos and books. To some, his cosmology may appear private and personal as is the case with Milton’s Paradise Lost.
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