Sri Aurobindo's Savitri

A Study of the Cosmic Epic

— Dr Prema Nandakumar

cover

Price: Rs 595

Pages: 500
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-81-8328-175-1
Soft Cover
   
Publisher: Wisdom Tree, Delhi, in collaboration with Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry

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About Sri Aurobindo's Savitri

Now in its third edition, this study of Savitri has a wide scope. Part I sets the stage by looking briefly at Sri Aurobindo's life and work and the place Savitri occupies there. Part II examines the poem canto by canto in all its elements: the epic story, the poetry, the philosophy, the mystic experiences, the yogic realisations, and Savitri's final victory for the earth and man. Part III considers the significances of Savitri, as a legend and a symbol, as a continuing experiment in overhead poetry, as a cosmic epic in relation to human thought and experience across the ages. The detailed references, select bibliography, and index complete the work, which was the author's PhD thesis. The book was out of print for a number of years.

REVIEW


This is a reissue of a work that was first published with the Mother's permission in 1962. As the first comprehensive study of Sri Aurobindo's epic, it was received with much appreciation at that time, and has remained in demand ever since. Although a second edition was brought out by All India Books in 1985, that has been out of print for several years. This reappearance in a handsome new format is most welcome.

The original book was, the author tells us, substantially the same as the thesis for which she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the Andhra University in 1961, with the addition of a detailed Preface. This new edition includes a new preface, as well as the briefer one to the second edition. In the original Preface she stated:

Savitri by itself, Savitri in relation to Sri Aurobindo's life and work, and Savitri in relation to the currents of human thought and experience of all times: such are the three ascending terms in the argument that I have tried to present in the following pages.



This was a huge and daring attempt to be taken up by a young woman, breaking completely fresh ground where no one before her had ventured to tread. Around the time when she was preparing her thesis, one of the Ashram's most literate sadhaks, Medhananda, who was the Librarian of the Sri Aurobindo Library, mentioned in conversation:

The mind that is able to really read Savitri has not yet been educated.



and this is probably true even today, despite the fact that in the intervening fifty years many more studies, books and articles have appeared, each attempting to elucidate one aspect or the other of the poem or to grasp it as a whole. But with this book Dr Prema Nandakumar was one of the pathbreakers and it is easy to see why her first venture has been so much valued and sought after for nigh on half a century.

In her Preface, Dr Prema Nandakumar also mentions the advice and help she received from her father, Professor K. R. S. Iyengar, as well as from A. B. Purani, author of the only book on Savitri that had been published at the time that she was preparing her thesis, from M. P. Pandit, and from K. D. Sethna—in addition to her official academic guides.

The book is organised into three Parts. The first is an introductory one of sixty pages, entitled ‘Towards Savitri', with sections on Sri Aurobindo's life, yoga, politics, philosophy and poetry, concluding with a few paragraphs on the epic itself. Here we may note a perceptive passage which is worth recalling when we approach this poem, which the Mother has characterised as ‘the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo's vision':

The Hindu tradition is to read great poetry – say the Ramayana, the Gita or the Bhagavata – in a mood of reverent attention over a period of years, coming to it again and again, for not in one reading alone can one hope to conquer its heights of significance. Savitri too calls for such continuous and reverent study. If it baffles us at first, it may be that it is a new kind of poem, demanding a new alertness in response.



The second Part is devoted to an exploration of the forty-nine cantos of the epic, a kind of ‘critical synopsis', as the author says. It is probably this central section of 180 pages which has been of most assistance to students coming newly to the poem. As the late Ravindra Khanna commented in his review of the book for Mother India:

It takes the uninitiated reader through the most difficult passages with short but lucid explanations and significant quotations from the text.



Here one regrets that, with the benefit of hindsight, the author has not taken the opportunity of this new edition to revise the section devoted to Book Eight, ‘The Book of Death'. It is not surprising that in 1961-62, noting that this – the shortest of all the twelve books of the epic – consists of a single brief canto, numbered ‘Canto Three', she should have referred to ‘two missing cantos'. It is only since the appearance of the 1972 and 1993 editions that we have the benefit of an explanatory footnote elucidating this anomaly. But this third edition is in fact substantially a reprint or reissue—it seems that the original text has remained untouched.

Part Three, covering a further 217 pages, contains three main sections focussing on the ‘Legend' and the ‘Symbol', ‘Overhead' Poetry and Savitri, and concluding with the chapter titled ‘Savitri: A Cosmic Epic.' In this last section Dr Nandakumar first considers Savitri in the context of epic poetry in general, and in comparison with other epics and epic poets, such as Milton (Paradise Lost), Dante (Divina Commedia), Goethe (Faust) and Kazantzakis (The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel). Here we also find an interesting section on Walt Whitman, and a consideration of the Cantos of Ezra Pound, leading into a consideration of the Odysseus theme, which in turn leads her to counterpose Kazantzakis' modern epic with Sri Aurobindo's. She then turns to consider the place of Savitri alongside some of Sri Aurobindo's other poetic works—the early narrative poems and the sonnets. After considering and responding to criticisms that have been levelled at Sri Aurobindo's epic, in her concluding chapter entitled ‘Towards a Greater Dawn', Dr Nandakumar considers differing ways in which the poem can be approached. This last section is in itself a remarkable essay, to conclude a remarkable achievement – an early achievement, both in the author's life and in the history of Savitri studies –, but one that has stood the test of half a century, and seems likely to continue to prove of lasting value to new readers and students looking for a guiding hand or signal beacon to help them navigate the complexities of Sri Aurobindo's inexhaustible epic.

—Shraddhavan


Shraddhavan, a long-time resident of Auroville, coordinates the activities at Savitri Bhavan and edits its journal Invocation.

December 2011