Editor’s note: The following selection is from the author’s book “Sri Aurobindo: a Biography and a History”, a monumental biography of Sri Aurobindo (2006 edition, SAICE, pp. 658-662). We have made a few minor formatting revisions for the purpose of this digital presentation.
After the stupendous Arya sequences, where was the necessity for yet another massive effort of literary creation? Sri Aurobindo had written poems and plays enough, and it couldn’t therefore have been any desire for fresh poetic laurels that led to the embarkation on the Savitri adventure.
In The Life Divine he had structured his Supramental Manifesto. In The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity he had indicated the contours of the future society and the future humanity. And in The Synthesis of Yoga he had set forth the dynamics of the Integral Yoga that were to be the means of self-perfection and world-transformation.
What, then, remained?
It was decreed indeed that man should change, and his world should change, and that the Superman or the Supramentalised man of tomorrow, inhabiting a transformed world or supernature, should render earth and heaven equal, transfiguring our life mundane with its blots of “death, desire and incapacity” into the life divine with its immaculate intensities, life-movements and realisations.
The life divine was the goal and Supramental Yoga the means. And the New Man should, as it were, break out of the shell of existing humanity. Sri Aurobindo could see it all very clearly, and he had explained everything in a manner that should carry conviction.
And yet,—perhaps something more could be done. The thing decreed could be shown as happening! The drama of man’s and earth’s transcendence into the splendours and imperatives of the Life Divine could be enacted in terms of stern causality, involving the reader too in the dynamics of the transformation.
The truths of philosophy are abstractions to be cognised by the ratiocinative mind. But the truths of poetry are to be experienced. And this is equally true of mystic poetry, which is verily of the stuff of spirituality.
For Sri Aurobindo, spirituality meant no escape from reality, from the demands of life here and now.
Spirituality was but a creative force by means of which flawed reality could be seized and purified and transformed, and this world of division and darkness and importance and death transfigured into the Life Divine with its soul-marks of Love and Light and Power and Immortality.
We might, on a superficial view, look upon Savitri as the account of something that happened long ago—”in far past times when the whole thing had to be opened.” In the Mahabharata, it is the story of an individual victory over death; or rather, the story of Yama’ s boon of her husband’s life to a chaste and noble wife. Surely, Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri is much more than that.
Is it the forecast of something that is to happen in the future?
Alas, Death still stalks in our midst, his misrule is as rampant as ever! Should Savitri, then, be read only as a fantasy, or as fantasy fused with racial memory,—perhaps as a Vision, perhaps a prophecy? Perhaps, Savitri is a recordation of something actually happening right now!
The fight against Death is going on—Death with its negations, corruptions, perversions; and the battle has been joined—it is now being waged before us, and we could see it had we eyes to see, or if we didn’t turn them away in fear or disgust. And the whole battle is being fought to open ways to Immortality, and Love. Love armed with Power has to fight this battle of renewal, of purification, and of glorification.
Truth or the Abyss? The Life Divine—or Annihilation?
The issue is joined indeed, and the struggle and the possibility are projected before us. Will Satyavan—the soul of the world that is Satyavan—be redeemed at last and will the world be made safe for the future man? Perhaps, again, Savitri is the report, not so much of a witness-poet, but of a participant! It is recordation, prophecy, report, and the unfolding action itself. And in its deepest sense, it is Sri Aurobindo’s own life, and the Mother’s too, in progressive unravelment.
For the student of Savitri, isn’t the very reading of the poem a kind of participation in its spiritual action?
Savitri is about Satyavan and Savitri, and on a different level about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. And it is about us too—it does something to us, it does involve us in the action that is only superficially about a husband and a wife, but has really a terrestrial, even a cosmic, significance.
A dialectic is projected, a drama is played before us—it is apparently concluded, but the real confusion is yet to be concluded in the fullness of time. Once we are surrendered, the currents of the poem carry us onward, and we become sharers in the action or participants in the play.
Savitri is thus a new kind of poem, a poem whose making was Yoga Sadhana and whose reading too should be such Sadhana.
“To read Savitri is indeed to practise Yoga,” the Mother is reported to have told a disciple, “one can find there all that is needed to realise the Divine. Each step in Yoga is noted here, including the secret of other Yogas also.” (Mona Sarkar, Sweet Mother: Luminous Notes, p. 31)
It is thus an advance on The Life Divine which is the Groundwork of Knowledge and The Synthesis of Yoga Which is the Manual of Integral Yoga. In Savitri, theory teams with practice, Truth is wedded to Shakti, and both career towards the goals of Realisation. We proceed from the “what may we hope for?”—tattva, hita and purușārtha being all fused in Savitri into a veritable Life Tree Ygdrasil of spiritual poetry.
After the Overmental realisation of 24 November 1926, Sri Aurobindo probably felt that the preordained spiritual revolution and supramental transformation were likely to come about rather sooner than had seemed possible before. This was partly the reason he went into complete seclusion and concentrated on his Yoga. And the writing of Savitri became one of the means—perhaps the principal means—of accomplishing his aim. As he once wrote to Nirod:
I used Savitri as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level. . . In fact, Savitri has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s own Yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative.~ CWSA, Vol. 27, p. 272
Savitri was thus Sadhana and recordation in one, and was to be the means of Sadhana: for others.
It was still a fresh recital of the old legend, but a recital so charged with power by the symbol-godheads who are the protagonists in the drama that the poem itself could progressively enact in the theatre of our souls the great victory and transformation that are the theme of the poem.
There is one other circumstance, too. In The Future Poetry, which had serially appeared in the Arya from 1917 to 1920, Sri Aurobindo had speculated on the future of the epic in the age of Overhead Poetry:
The epic, a great poetic story of man or world or the gods, need not necessarily be a vigorous presentation of external action: the divinely appointed creation of Rome, the struggle of the principles of good and evil as presented in the great Indian poems, the pageant of the centuries or the journey of the seer through the three worlds beyond us are as fit themes as primitive war and adventure for the imagination of the epic creator.~ CWSA, Vol. 26, p. 286
The epics of the soul most inwardly seen as they will be by an intuitive poetry, are his greatest possible subject, and it is this supreme kind that we shall expect from some profound and mighty voice of the future. His indeed may be the song of greatest flight that will reveal from the highest pinnacle and with the largest field of vision the destiny of the human spirit and the presence and ways and purpose of the Divinity in man and the universe.
This was written in 1920. Did Sri Aurobindo feel in the years of his complete retirement that it was up to him to attempt this “song of greatest flight”?
Read Amal Kiran’s brief commentary:
‘What Basically is Savitri’
The hand-picking of the Savitri legend out of the ocean of stories that is the Mahabharata is no less significant. The Mahabharata is about the sanguinary strife between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. This ‘brother against brother’ theme appears with numberless variations in the course of the epic.
In the Adi Parva itself, the warring Devas and Asuras—both offspring of Prajapati—churn the ocean to secure amrta or the elixir of immortality. The snakes and Garuda—natural enemies—are the offspring respectively of the sisters, Kadru and Vinata; and Garuda is asked to get amrta from heaven to secure the freedom of his mother, Vinata. During his journey, he is advised to feast upon the fighting animals, a tortoise and an elephant, who had been in their earlier birth the brothers, Vibhavasu and Supratika.
The wages of discord, of egoism, of sin—is death, always death. Where is the armour against death? How shall we make Death itself die?
Anything external like amrta could prove to be a mockery, as it became to the Asuras and the snakes. All boons for self-preservation, all mechanical paraphernalia of security, all cunning contrivances and edifices of self-deception, all must fail—as fail they did with Hiranyakasipu, Parikshit of Jayadratha. Fear and terror and hate and violence and vindictiveness—like lechery—only hasten the end.
But love—the power of love—has an utter sovereignty. The Asuras and the snakes seek amrta out of fear,—the fear of death. Even after quaffing amrta, the Devas are constantly “afraid”. Parikshit desperately tries to keep out the emissary of Death. Jayadratha seeks refuge in the false sundown.
But Savitri—alone among the apocalyptic heroes and heroines of the Mahabharata—relies on the power within, the invincible power of love:
On the bare peak where Self is alone with Nought~ Savitri, CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 12, 15, 19
And life has no sense and love no place to stand,
She must plead her case upon extinction’s verge,
In the world’s death-cave uphold life’s helpless claim
And vindicate her right to be and love . . .
Love in her was wider than the universe,
The whole world could take refuge in her single heart. . .
She matched with the iron law her sovereign right:
Her single will opposed the cosmic rule. . .
Armed with the power of her love, she will face any threat, any adverse force, whatsoever: she will defy and defeat Death himself.
In the original Mahabharata story, as in Sri Aurobindo’s, the heroine doesn’t flinch at the prospect of Satyavan’s foretold death, nor even in the face of death or the sight of Yama the Lord of Death. She has prepared for the event, not by securing external aids, but by going within herself and forging the links with her secret self. She doesn’t falter at any time, she doesn’t indulge in self-pity, and she doesn’t weep when the crisis is upon her.
In the course of a conversation on 19 January 1940, Sri Aurobindo remarked that, although in his English version Romesh Chunder Dutt makes Savitri weep, “in the Mahabharata there is no trace of it. Even when her heart was being sawed in two, not a single tear appeared in her eye. By making her weep he took away the very strength of which Savitri is built.”
It was Savitri’s divine solitariness and strength, her propensity to incarnate in herself the will to triumph in a world surrendered to resignation and defeat, and her consciousness of mission and might to rectify the very engines of our incapacity and anguish—it was this radiant vision and experience of Savitri’s personality and power that started Sri Aurobindo on this giant undertaking and sustained his inspiration during the long years of the thirties and forties when the supreme cosmic epic was being architectured into its many-splendoured form.
~ Design: Beloo Mehra