A poem which went through several revisions over 50 years, each time renewed with the growth in Sri Aurobindo's consciousness.
There is a teacher present in every line of Savitri – the consciousness of Sri Aurobindo himself.
Savitri is perhaps the best known and least understood work of Sri Aurobindo. Its fascination lies partly in the insurmountable challenge it presents to those who try to understand it at the mental level. Running into about 24,000 lines, Savitri is one of the longest poems in the English language. Raymond Frank Piper, an American scholar, has described it as
“perhaps the most powerful artistic work in the world for expanding man’s mind towards the Absolute”.
Savitri is also the principal character of a legend in the Mahabharata. In that legend, there is a king, Aswapathy, who does not have a child. His intense prayers are answered with a daughter, Savitri. Savitri gets married to Satyavan, who dies one year after the marriage. Savitri follows him, and pleads with Yama, the god of death, for the return of Satyavan. Yama goes on granting her one boon after another in an attempt to persuade her to go back to earth and not insist on getting Satyavan back. Finally, he grants her also the boon of getting children. She asks him how she can have children if her husband is no more with her. Thus trapped, Yama returns Satyavan to Savitri, and they both return to earth. Sri Aurobindo has used this legend as a symbol and developed it into an epic of gigantic proportions.
In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, King Aswapathy does not want a child: he seeks the end of all human problems. Further, he wants the solution to human problems right here on earth, not in some distant heaven. With this mission, he embarks on an inner exploration. He finally secures from the Divine Mother the promise that “One shall descend and break the iron Law, Change Nature’s doom by the lone Spirit’s power.” (Book 3, Canto 4). Savitri is the material expression of this boon secured by Aswapathy. In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, the marriage of Savitri and Satyavan symbolizes the intense involvement of Savitri in the fate of mankind. Satyavan is a man subject to pain, suffering and death, and when death does visit him, Savitri seizes the opportunity to embark on her mission of establishing heaven on earth. Securing the release of Satyavan from the god of death symbolizes the accomplishment of her mission.
Savitri has much that is relatively easy to understand. Book 5, which has three cantos, describes the meeting of Savitri and Satyavan, their recognition that they are soul-mates, and their symbolic marriage. The twenty-four pages of Book 5, entitled the Book of Love, are love poetry par excellence. Dr. Mangesh Nadkarni, a Professor of English, and a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, has said,
“For the purity and tenderness of love, for an ideal of human love that exalts the spirit without denying the body, for the sheer rapturous quality of fulfilled love – these three cantos have no equal in world literature”.
In Books 9, 10 and 11, there are 125 pages that narrate the debate between the god of death and Savitri. The debate is a masterly presentation of the imperfections of the world on one hand, and the vision of a perfect world on the other. The god of death uses all possible arguments to convince Savitri that she need not pursue Satyavan. He tells her how fragile love is, how the noble emotion of love has been wasted on man, how life on earth is destined to be as it is, and so on. His cynicism seems so justified in view of the present reality of the world. But Savitri was not on earth to accept the present reality; her mission was to change life on earth. The god of death makes one final attempt: he tells her that the divine life she has imagined is not possible on earth. Therefore, he offers that she and Satyavan could go to heaven where they can enjoy divine love for eternity.
But Savitri’s struggle was not for a private paradise. “Imperfect is the joy not shared by all”, says she (Book 11, Canto 1). But the god of death, although much transformed by now and sympathetic to Savitri’s mission, finds in her mission an internal contradiction – how can earth be earth if it rises to heavenly heights? He advises her to wait, and to let Time remove the imperfections of man. But she was not on earth to let natural evolution take its time. She wanted to hasten the process of evolution. She wanted man either to manifest his divinity, or give way to a superhuman creature capable of manifesting divinity on earth. This was beyond the powers of the god of death, and therefore he just vanishes. Thus was death conquered by Savitri. The conquest of death is symbolic of the disappearance of pain, suffering, and all other problems of man. Savitri and Satyavan are now left behind. The Divine applauds Savitri for having accomplished her mission. Having secured from the Divine the promise that life on earth will become the Life Divine, Savitri and Satyavan return to earth and reunite with the earth-bound humanity.
“The entire effort of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and spirituality is to bring fulfillment to mankind as a whole and that too here on earth”
, says Dr. Nadkarni. However, this needs a critical mass of humanity that has made spiritual growth the purpose of its life. Savitri is a call to all who care to contribute to this revolutionary transfiguration of life on earth.
Sri Aurobindo started writing Savitri at the beginning of the twentieth century, and stopped working on it only shortly before he left his body in 1950. During this period of nearly five decades, it went through several revisions. Why so many revisions were necessary was because Sri Aurobindo was trying to give a verbal expression to his level of consciousness. Thus, each successive version was written from a higher level of consciousness. That is the reason why it is difficult to understand Savitri at the mental level. This applies particularly to Book 1 (Canto 3 onwards), Books 2 and 3, which describe Aswapathy’s inner journey; and Book 7, which describes the inner journey of Savitri. Those who have known and studied Sri Aurobindo and the Mother closely can see clearly that the inner journeys of Aswapathy and Savitri are actually those of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother respectively. Thus, Savitri, like the Upanishads, is a rishi’s attempt to express the ineffable experience of the infinite in words.
However, unlike the Upanishads, it is in English instead of Sanskrit! Like the Upanishadic verses, the verses of Savitri also have a mantric quality. About Savitri, the Mother has said,
“My child, everything is there; mysticism, occultism, philosophy, the history of evolution, the history of man, of the Gods, of creation, of Nature; how the universe was created, why, for what purpose, what destiny. All is there…. But this mystery is well hidden behind the lines and one must achieve the required state of true consciousness to discover it.”
Till one achieves the state of true consciousness, however, one may read Savitri like a scripture, not insisting on understanding it.
“It does not matter if you do not understand it, but read it always. You will see that every time you read it there will be something new revealed to you”,
said the Mother.