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The English of Savitri: Volume 3 (Book Seven The Book of Yoga)
Comments on the language of Sri Aurobindo's epic Savitri
About The English of Savitri: Volume 3 (Book Seven The Book of Yoga)
Like the first two books in this series, this one is also based on transcripts of classes held at Savitri Bhavan. The author's aim in those classes was to read the poetry as correctly as possible, according to the natural rhythms of English speech, to gain a basic understanding of the vocabulary, sentence structure, and imagery used by Sri Aurobindo, and thereby gain a better understanding and appreciation of the poem. This volume covers the seven cantos of Book Seven, The Book of Yoga. As the previous volume covered Book Three and this one resumes with Book Seven, brief summaries of Books Four, Five and Six are given in an introductory section to provide some continuity to the series. Also included at the end is a summary of Book Eight.
The Mother called Savitri the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision, and therefore it behooves us to read and understand it to the best of our ability. In this third volume of Shraddhavan’s book series, which she subtitles ‘Comments on the language of Sri Aurobindo’s epic, Savitri —A Legend and a Symbol’, the author elucidates the meaning of ‘Book Seven—The Book of Yoga’, which describes in seven cantos Savitri’s practice and experience of yoga. The first volume of the series focused on ‘Book One—The Book of Beginnings’ and the second volume explicated ‘Book Three—The Book of the Divine Mother’. As in the second volume, in which the author provided a summary of the omitted Book Two, in this third volume Shraddhavan provides a canto-wise summary of the intervening Books Four, Five and Six of Savitri. At the end of the book, she also provides a two-page summary of ‘Book Eight—The Book of Death’, which consists of just one short canto.
In her Foreword, Shraddhavan puts Book Seven into the context of the overall epic, both in terms of its story line and in terms of the chronology of its composition. For example, we learn that Book Seven belongs to the later period of the epic’s composition, six of its seven cantos having been ‘dictated to Nirodbaran after March 1947’. Its first canto, however, ‘contains passages which date back to the earliest stages of the composition of the epic, from 1916 onwards into the 1920s’. She also provides a brief overview of the stages of Savitri’s yoga which are elaborated in her commentary throughout the book.
Like the earlier two volumes of the series, this book is based on transcripts of the author’s classes on Savitri held at Savitri Bhavan in Auroville, and like the earlier books, the transcripts are edited such that the text is crisp, clear and error-free. Also, as indicated by the subtitle, the book focuses on elucidating the meaning of the language used in the epic, rather than on subjective interpretation of the poem. It explains the meaning of the words and lines, examining them line by line throughout the whole of Book Seven. It explains unfamiliar words, sometimes identifying their connotations or original meanings; unusual turns of phrase; allusions to various Vedic and ancient Greek myths; and reiterations of related preceding words, lines or themes. She also frequently provides contextualisation for particular lines or passages in terms of the unfolding story as well as in terms of modern theories or ancient traditions to which they allude. All of this helps us to understand the poem better through a deeper and richer appreciation of its language.
Savitri is remarkable in that it can capture a world of meaning in a line, a passage, a canto, one of its twelve books, or the epic poem as a whole. ‘Book Seven—The Book of Yoga’ is no exception. Whereas the first three books of Savitri, comprising nearly half of the epic, describe Aswapati’s yoga, Book Seven details Savitri’s yoga, though Books Nine through Eleven could be said to be a continuation of her yogic experience and transformation into its further dimensions. Still, in the course of Book Seven, Savitri develops from a newly-wed young woman, and though exceptional, one who is unaware of her life’s purpose and is still subject to grief and pain, to a great yogini who has undergone the psychic and spiritual transformations, that is, who has realised her individual soul, Nirvana, and the cosmic consciousness.
The first canto of Book Seven, having the long title ‘The Joy of Union; the Ordeal of the Foreknowledge of Death and the Heart’s Grief and Pain’, provides a transition from ‘Book Six—The Book of Fate’ to the latter six cantos of Book Seven which describe Savitri’s yogic transformation. It begins with some powerful lines which convey the essence of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching about fate and free will. It continues with beautiful imagery of the forest hermitage in which Savitri resides with her new husband Satyavan, and exquisite passages about the highest reaches of human love. Savitri’s bliss of union with Satyavan, however, gradually becomes overrun by the dread and grief born of her foreknowledge of his impending death within one year’s time, a terrible secret which she locks concealed within her breast.
‘Canto Two—The Parable of the Search for the Soul’ describes a deep experience that Savitri has during one fateful night in which she was bearing the ‘load of grief’ within her breast, facing the ‘ever-nearing Fate’ of Satyavan’s approaching death. A Voice from her being’s summit speaks to her, and in turn she out of her heart replies and converses with it. The Voice brings a crucial message, one applicable to us all, a call to seek for her soul:
Remember why thou cam’st:
Find out thy soul, recover thy hid self,
In silence seek God’s meaning in thy depths,
Then mortal nature change to the divine.
Not only does it beckon her to find her soul, it also quintessentially describes the way to do this in a brief passage. As she turns within to seek for her soul, she experiences a dream which ‘[i]maged to her the world’s significance’. This significance, described in the remaining pages of the canto, covers such fundamental issues as the spiritual evolution on earth, the inner spiritual being hidden behind ‘the little surface of man’s life’, the immanent Divine, the duality of good and evil, karma and rebirth, and the possibility of spiritual transformation through the agency of the soul within, if we would enable the soul to ‘…step into common nature’s crowded rooms | And stand uncovered in that nature’s front | and rule its thoughts and fill the body and life’. Shraddhavan elaborates on each of these important issues and helps us to grasp them.
‘Canto Three—The Entry into the Inner Countries’ recounts Savitri’s journey into the subtle realms of the inner being that intervene between the outer waking self and the deep recesses of the soul. It summarises in a fashion much of ‘Book Two—The Book of the Traveller of the Worlds’, which elaborated in fifteen cantos Aswapati’s similar journey. This is a journey through the worlds of the inner being: the subconscient, the subtle material, the vital, the mental, and the spiritual realms nearest to the soul. The author leads us through these mysterious realms, step by step, carefully explaining each recondite word, symbol and turn of phrase.
In ‘Canto Four—The Triple Soul-Forces’, Savitri encounters in her inner journey three Madonnas, three beings representative of her soul, and, paired with them, three male voices representing distorted reflections of them. Each of the three Madonnas claims to be Savitri’s soul, but Savitri understands that whereas they may be forces or outward expressions of her soul, they are not her true, inmost soul. Savitri addresses the first as ‘Madonna of suffering, Mother of grief divine’, and says, ‘Thou art a portion of my soul put forth | To bear the unbearable sorrow of the world.’ The distorted reflection, ‘[t]he beast that crouching growls within man’s depths’, calls himself ‘the Man of Sorrows,’ and blaming God, sums up his character thus: ‘I suffer and toil and weep; I moan and hate.’ Savitri tells the Madonna that while she (the Madonna) has the power to solace, she has not the strength to save, and that when Savitri finds her deepest soul, she will bring the needed strength and wisdom to complement the Madonna’s compassion.
Ascending in her inner journey, Savitri encounters the ‘Madonna of might, Mother of works and force’. This Madonna brings strength to the battle against the adverse forces in the world, and protection to those on the upward spiritual path. The distorted reflection represents ‘[t]he Ego of this great world of desire’. Savitri tells the Mother of might that while she brings power, she lacks the wisdom that can deliver mankind, and that when she finds her true soul, she will bring that wisdom to join with that power.
Third, Savitri encounters the ‘Madonna of light, Mother of Joy and peace’. This Madonna explains that she brings into the world peace, knowledge, beauty, goodness and kindred forces that help in its spiritual ascent. The voice of this Madonna’s distorted reflection identifies himself as ‘the all-discovering thought of man’. This mind, however great its discoveries, is bound by the senses and lives within limits, and it is doubtful of any higher spiritual power. Savitri tells the Madonna of light that she cannot divinise mankind through the power of thought, and that only by filling man’s yearning heart with heaven’s fire, and bringing God down into his body and life can this be achieved. The canto ends with Savitri promising to return with this power.
In ‘Canto Five—The Finding of the Soul’, the first section recounts Savitri’s passage through ‘a night of God’ prior to finding her soul. While staying close to the text, the author explains this experience to us. After passing through this darkness, ‘the emptiness broke’ and the ‘spaceless Vast became her spirit’s place’. Savitri then feels very close to her soul, and ‘[t]he air trembled with passion and delight’. She then enters a ‘mystic cavern’, ‘the dwelling of her secret soul’. There she encounters living symbolic figures carved in the stone walls, and Shraddhavan discusses these mystic images. In the second section of the canto, Savitri meets her secret soul, which is imaged as a Being whose detailed description is elaborated by the author. At the end of the section, this soul, a deity, and Savitri, its human portion, ‘rushed into each other and grew one’. The third section relates a mystical transformation that Savitri undergoes as a result of this experience of union. Her chakras, the subtle energy centres of her being, open one by one, and we are led by the author through this vividly described, extraordinary experience and its results.
In ‘Canto Six—Nirvana and the Discovery of the All-Negating Absolute’, Savitri undergoes another fundamental spiritual realisation. The first section begins by further describing the beautiful experience resulting from her psychic awakening and transformation, but then she encounters another dreadful barrier: ‘An abyss yawned suddenly beneath her heart.’ It is described as a ‘formless Dread’ and ‘[a]n ocean of terror and of sovereign might, | A person and a black infinity’. As Shraddhavan explains, ‘[t]hat being of darkness tries to convince Savitri that she has no right to exist’, and ‘[a]ccording to him, all appearance is illusion’. But then a voice of Light comes and tells Savitri that this dark void is a passage to a greater realisation, not the end: ‘Fear not to be nothing that thou mayst be all; | Assent to the emptiness of the Supreme | That all in thee may reach the absolute.’ In the second section, the author leads us through Savitri’s experience of silencing the mind, standing back from all thoughts in ‘the witness soul’, until finally ‘[a] silent spirit pervaded silent Space’. The third section elaborately describes this experience of Nirvana, and in a number of passages the author relates it to Sri Aurobindo’s explanations of his own experience of Nirvana.
‘Canto Seven—The Discovery of the Cosmic Spirit and the Cosmic Consciousness’ relates a further transformation of Savitri’s spiritual realisation. The first of its two sections provides an elaboration of the Nirvana experience and its outward manifestations in Savitri’s life. For example, we are told that for the most part those around her did not notice the change in her: ‘They saw a person where was only God’s vast, | A still being or a mighty nothingness.’ She continued to act in the way she acted before, and she spoke in the same manner that she used to speak. However, for her the experience was completely different: ‘There was no will behind the word and act, | No thought formed in her brain to guide the speech: | An impersonal emptiness walked and spoke in her.’ In the second section, the experience changes from a sense of the utter unreality of things to one of ‘[a] stark and absolute Reality’. As Sri Aurobindo writes: ‘The sense of unreality was slain: | There all was conscious, made of the Infinite, | All had a substance of Eternity.’ Shraddhavan takes us line by line through Sri Aurobindo’s fantastic description of this experience, such as these lines:
Nowhere she dwelt, her spirit was everywhere,
The distant constellations wheeled round her;
Earth saw her born, all worlds were her colonies,
The greater worlds of life and mind were hers;
All Nature reproduced her in its lines,
Its movements were large copies of her own.
In short, Savitri’s ‘Book Seven—The Book of Yoga’ describes both the psychic and the spiritual transformations of the Integral Yoga in Sri Aurobindo’s most powerful and vivid language, mostly dictated to Nirodbaran during the last years of his life at the height of his mastery of poetic expression. Both the language and the subject matter are exceedingly complex and sophisticated. By taking us through these descriptions line by line, elaborating on their surface and extended meanings, relating them to the context of the poem and to other relevant expressions, Shraddhavan helps us develop a deeper and richer understanding of the poem and the truths that it expresses.
Larry Seidlitz, Ph.D., is a psychologist and scholar focusing on the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He is presently associated with the Indian Psychology Institute (IPI) and with the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research (SACAR), where he facilitates online courses on Sri Aurobindo’s teachings. He edits Collaboration, a USA-based journal on the Integral Yoga, and has authored the books Transforming Lives and The Integral Yoga at Work.