About The English of Savitri: Volume 01 (Book One The Book of Beginnings)
Based on the transcripts of classes given by her at Savitri Bhavan, the author's aim as reflected in this book has been to try to read the poetry as correctly as possible, according to the natural rhythms of English speech, to gain a basic understanding of what the words mean and the structure of each sentence, and thereby to enter more deeply into the atmosphere of the poem. Drawing on what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have written and said about Savitri and on what she has learned from the work of such commentators as Amal Kiran, A. B. Purani, Dr Prema Nandakumar, and M. P. Pandit, the author shares her understanding of the poem. This volume covers the five cantos of Book One.
Sri Aurobindo’s chef-d’oeuvre Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, the longest epic in the English language at almost twenty-four thousand lines, is a gold mine of spiritual truths. Itself a masterpiece, it has been a fount of inspiration for other creative artistic forms, in music, painting, drama, and dance. For example, the Mother guided and inspired the budding artist Huta to make paintings according to her instructions, illustrating selected passages from the epic. Then when Huta recorded the Mother’s readings of those passages, the recordings were given by the Mother to musician Sunil Bhattacharya who at her request composed a large body of compositions to accompany them. Dramatic recitations and presentations of the poem were often staged at the Ashram Theatre under the direct guidance and supervision of the Mother. Later attempts were made by others also. Dance was represented primarily by Rolf Gelewski, a German dancer from Brazil much admired by the Mother, and later by the late Veenapani Chawla and her troupe, whose performances were much appreciated by the media and by audiences in India’s metropolitan cities. In addition, a large number of writers have made inspired attempts to fathom the mystery and plumb the depths of this epic of sublime beauty. It has been looked at and analysed from many different standpoints and angles, and no doubt such efforts will continue and increase in the future.
Now we have a book which focuses particularly on the language of Savitri. The author has been inspired to assist non-native English readers towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of the glories of Sri Aurobindo’s poetic utterance. This aspect of the poem has not been explored so systematically by other writers and its appearance in print is most timely. Its usefulness and value will be evident to any serious student of the epic.
Although the poem has not yet gained the worldwide admiration it deserves, a few discerning poetry-lovers have acknowledged it as not only the longest but more importantly the greatest poem in English. It reaches unprecedented heights of poetic expression, and it breaks new ground in distilling the essence of the spiritual knowledge and wisdom first expressed by the Vedic and Upanishadic seers in Sanskrit and making it accessible in one of the global languages of our modern age.
Sri Aurobindo’s English is British English, since he was educated in England and spent his formative years in that country. English has spread its wings all over the world—there is a United States version, an Australian variant, and even an Indian form, and all of them are substantially divergent from a literary point of view. Moreover, non-native English readers, even if fairly conversant with the English language, are quite likely to miss the exact shade of meaning of some words and the local connotations of others. Sri Aurobindo’s language is complex, idiomatic, and requires a more detailed knowledge of the English language than a mere working acquaintance affords. Savitri also contains allusions not only to Vedic or traditional Indian symbols and imagery, but also to the Classical Greek and Latin literature of which Sri Aurobindo was such an eminent scholar, and to many other literary and cultural sources that are not familiar to the average reader. Here this new book steps in with its very precise help, and by casting some light on these difficulties it is bound to prove its value.
Its author, Shraddhavan, is English by birth and education. A poetry-lover from childhood, she completed her studies in English language and literature at Bristol University in the early 1960s, when the English faculty there was considered one of the best in the country. But she has been living in Auroville for more than forty years and has steeped herself in the teachings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Her Sanskrit name was given to her by the Mother in 1972.
Since November 1995, when Nirodbaran—Sri Aurobindo’s close disciple and his scribe during the later stages of the composition of his epic – laid the foundation stone of the Savitri Bhavan complex in Auroville, Shraddhavan has been increasingly involved in its activities and in studying the poem. Savitri Bhavan was launched with the idea of gathering all available materials and offering activities which would assist a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sri Aurobindo’s visionary epic. Over the years it has grown into a complex organisation supporting a wide variety of activities including lectures, exhibitions, publications, research, and reference assistance to scholars and students from around the world. Her book has grown out of a series of weekly classes held at the request of Aurovilians from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds who wanted assistance in gaining an understanding of this poem, which the Mother has termed “the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision”. It is intended to be the first of a series.
Apart from the importance and encouragement given to the Savitri Bhavan project by Nirodbaran in its earlier years, Shraddhavan acknowledges her great debt to Amal Kiran, who was her mentor from 1971 onwards. Amal was the confidential recipient of passages from the poem even as it was being written by Sri Aurobindo, and was among the first to start assisting aspiring readers by sharing his poetic insights into its complexities.
In 2001 Huta entrusted to the Bhavan the care of all the paintings relating to Savitri which she had created under the Mother’s guidance and inspiration from 1961 to 1970, along with related materials. The greatly admired speaker on Savitri Dr. M. V. Nadkarni also associated himself closely with the Bhavan from 1998 onwards, as did other distinguished Savitri-lovers and scholars, such as Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Dr. Alok Pandey.
Benefitting from all these sources, Shraddhavan not only explains the more uncommon words and usages but also unravels the metaphors and the similes which abound in Sri Aurobindo’s writing, often woven into the text in a way that a casual reader might miss. In this sense the book actually goes beyond the mere “English” of the poem.
By its spiritual grandeur Savitri attracts scholars like nectar draws in bees. There is so much interest in it worldwide that many translations have been and are being attempted, not only in Indian languages but also in foreign tongues. Translations are always a tricky matter and a proper understanding of the spirit of the poem is absolutely necessary for a satisfactory result. In this field too, the present book will prove itself invaluable to translators.
To illustrate our point, we may look at a few examples from the book. Many words have several diverse meanings, and for a proper understanding the right meaning has to be applied in the context of the poem. Such words as grain, mould, suffer, august, audience, etc. are used by Sri Aurobindo in unfamiliar ways which need to be understood correctly in order to gain access to the poet’s meaning and intention. This book explains these usages in detail. For example, grain can mean not only seed as in grains of wheat or rice; it is also applied to the lines in wood which show the way in which the tree has grown. Since carpenters find it easier to cut wood along the grain and more difficult against it, we have the expression “it goes against the grain” to refer to something that we feel unwilling or reluctant to do. The grain of a tree also indicates the path travelled by the sap from the roots up through to the leaves. Knowing this gives a deeper shade of meaning to the line in Book One, Canto One of Savitri: “Earth’s grain that needs the sap of pleasure and tears”. Similarly, we find the word august used by Sri Aurobindo in the poem several times not to indicate the eighth month of the year, but as an adjective. The month of August was named after the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, because it was his birth month. He was given the name Augustus when he was made emperor because of his majestic imperial character and bearing. The Latin word augustus meant majestic, and it is in this sense that Sri Aurobindo uses august as an adjective. The word mould usually signifies a hollow container into which liquid metal or wax is poured to give it a shape. Sri Aurobindo uses the word in this sense in many places in the poem, but once or twice, as Shraddhavan points out at one point in her book, we may understand it in its other sense, of rich fertile soil or a fine fungal growth. The word economy is often understood in a financial context, but Sri Aurobindo also uses it to mean the order and balance of forces in the creation, as in the lines: “In the stark economy of cosmic life | Each creature to its appointed task and place | Is bound by his nature’s form, his spirit’s force.”
Similarly, the words steep, audience, suffer, reach and many others have several meanings, and the right meaning has to be taken in the context of the poem. Also, Sri Aurobindo makes use of the full richness of the English language, often using words which were no longer common currency. He introduces several words from French and other languages, as well as making some coinages of his own. Another problem posed by the English language is that poets may use nouns as verbs and vice versa, which can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with this practice: abode is not always a house or residence but can be the past tense of the verb abide. In one place Sri Aurobindo uses the noun cathedral as a verb—a trap which has entangled several unwary translators. Is it then not obvious that we have need of this English scholar to steer us safely through these treacherous linguistic waters? All the words listed and discussed here appear in the poem and have been explained fully by the author.
The publication of this book has been made possible by the members of the Sri Aurobindo Centre on Bell Street, London, in memory of Dhirubhai Shah and Marguerite Smithwhite. Those who benefit from reading this book to reach a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sri Aurobindo’s visionary masterpiece owe them a debt of gratitude for their generosity. The English of Savitri is a valuable addition to the growing literature on Savitri, and it is our hope that further volumes will be brought out soon.
Ranganath came to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1945 at the age of six. After completing his studies in the Ashram School, he joined the Ashram Press, as directed by the Mother, and worked there for forty years. At present he teaches at SAICE and also works in the Archives and Research Library.