First edition 2020
Savitri, it has been said, is ‘the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision’.
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who was educated in England, was called upon to play many parts during his lifetime. He was a lecturer in French and English literature, a revolutionary nationalist and political leader, an editor and writer on philosophy, political theory and Indology, a literary critic, and a yogi and spiritual guide. However, it was as a poet that he consistently saw himself, and it was to the writing of poetry that he always reverted whenever the pressure of his other activities allowed. His first verses were published when he was a boy of about ten, and shortly before his death, in his 78th year, he was concentrating on the revision of his great epic, Savitri.
Of his poetic output, which included drama and translations, Savitri was his master-work, and in one form or another he was probably working on it for over fifty years. In his earliest version, it was simply a poetic retelling and elaboration of an episode from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, in which, as in Euripides’ Alcestis, a devoted wife wins back her husband from the power of Death. Later in his life, after the intensive practice of his Integral Yoga had begun at Pondicherry, and following his meeting with a French spiritual seeker subsequently known as ‘The Mother’, Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of the Savitri motif changed so that it became the record of his own and the Mother’s spiritual experience, and the vehicle for his entire teaching. The legendary tale became symbolic of the conquest of Death and of the perfecting of human life on earth: its epic theme the adventure of consciousness evolving towards its fulfilment in Divinity.
The structure of the completed poem may be outlined briefly as follows. It begins with a symbol dawn – the summoning of consciousness asleep in matter – seen in an actual dawn, the dawn of Satyavan’s last day upon earth, and the awakening of Savitri his wife, and the summons to her to confront Satyavan’s mortal fate.
The following cantos of Books II and III tell of the events leading to this day of crisis. They describe the personal sadhana (yogic discipline) of Savitri’s father, Aswapati, before her birth. He is the ‘Traveller of the Worlds’, who systematically explores the many planes or dimensions of existence, personal and cosmic, which are subliminal to our norm al awareness. He remains unsatisfied in his search for the meaning of earth-life, which appears doomed to frustration and suffering.
Holding to his naked intent, Aswapati invokes the Transcendent in the person of the Divine Mother, and asks on behalf of humanity his boon,
For knowledge to enter the darkness of the world
And love to rule a realm of strife and hate.
He asks for an incarnation whose intervention may break the iron law of nature as it is.
Books IV to VI tell the story of the Divine’s response: the birth of Savitri, her growing up, her meeting with Satyavan and their mutual love. Narad, the heavenly sage, foretells Satyavan’s tragic death after twelve months, but Savitri remains undeterred in her choice. Books VII and VIII describe Savitri’s own sadhana to realise the Divine Consciousness, and how, on the fated day, Death comes and takes Satyavan’s life a s predicted.
Books IX to XI contain the great debate between Savitri and Death for the life of Satyavan. Defeated at last by the revelation of Savitri’s true nature, Death vanishes into the void from which he came. There remains a final dialogue between Savitri and an ‘ensnaring voice’, which offers her the false choice between heaven and earth, and urges her to enter the transcendent fields of light, since Nature is incapable of redemption. But Savitri is open to the aspiration and cry ‘of the magnificent soul of man on earth’ and refuses to abandon him for any personal salvation. In a superb climax of poetic inspiration Sri Aurobindo closes Book Eleven with the affirmation of the Divine Mother that Savitri has been speaking with Her own voice, and that she and Satyavan are ‘A dual power of God in an ignorant world’ born to lift earth-beings to immortality.
An Epilogue describes Savitri’s return home with Satyavan. It is the night succeeding the day on which he was to die. Together they await the breaking of a greater dawn.
A selection from the epic such as that which follows must inevitably be a personal one. It is hoped, none the less, that there will be advantages: newcomers to the poem will not have to face its daunting length of nearly 24,000 lines, while others who know and love the work may find here a more compact and portable edition of the finest passages. Ultimately the hope of all selectors and editors must be that their work will lead people to the source from which they have drawn.
In 1946 Sri Aurobindo told K.D. Sethna, who corresponded with him on the poem, that Savitri was to be ‘A sort of poetic philosophy of the Spirit and of Life’. It was not, however, to be a product of thought in the usual sense – not a kind of versified textbook on metaphysics. Sri Aurobindo once said, ‘It is out of a silent mind that I write whatever comes ready shaped from above’, so that Savitri is, rather, the poetic creation of a seer who was concerned with the age-old preoccupations: God, Light, Freedom and Immortality.
This point was emphasised by Sri Krishnaprem (Ronald Nixon) in an early review, when he Wrote, ‘Savitri is neither subjective fantasy nor yet mere philosophical thought, but vision and revelation of the actual structure of the Cosmos and of the pilgrim of life within its sphere.’ It is this visionary, revelatory element in Savitri that gives it its unique quality.
Such a poem is not to be judged by existing literary criteria, for it is something new. A critical reader, demanding an elliptical concision, may find it diffuse and of unacceptable length; he may react, too, against some variations on the same theme and the reiterated use of certain words, several of them seeming abstract.
The long poem, it is true, has become unfashionable, but Sri Aurobindo aimed, he said, ‘Not at a minimum but at an exhaustive exposition of [his] world-vision or world-interpretation,’ and the repetition, also, was deliberate; helping to create a cumulative resonance and generative mood. He was aware of its likely rejection by ‘the common reader’, and wrote that ‘A new kind of poetry demands a new mentality in the recipient as well as in the writer.’ This new type of reader ‘must be open to this kind of poetry, able to see the spiritual vision it conveys ...’ because Savitri is ‘the record of a seeing, of an experience which is not of the common kind and is often very far from what the general human mind sees and experiences.’
It is a help, in reading the poem, to approach it with as calm and silent a mind as possible, and to relate to it with as much receptivity as one can. It will then create its own mantric effect upon the mind, and lead in fact to a meditation. Indeed, the Mother once said, ‘To read Savitri is ... to practise yoga, spiritual concentration. One can discover there all that is needed to find the Divine.’
II. A VISION OF HIGHER REALMS THAN OURS
III. THE CREATIVE WORD
IV. SAVITRI – THE DIVINE WORD
V. SAVITRI – THE SONG OF THE INFINITE AND ETERNAL (Selections from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri)
Canto 1: The Symbol Dawn
Canto 2: The Issue
Canto 3: The Yoga of the King: The Yoga of the Soul’s Release
Canto 4: The Secret Knowledge
Canto 5: The Yoga of the King: The Yoga of the Spirit’s Freedom and Greatness
Canto 1: The World-Stair
Canto 2: The Kingdom of Subtle Matter
Canto 3: The Glory and the Fall of Life
Canto 4: The Kingdoms of the Little Life
Canto 5: The Godheads of the Little Life
Canto 6: The Kingdoms and Godheads of the Greater Life
Canto 7: The Descent into Night
Canto 8: The World of Falsehood, the Mother of Evil and the Sons of Darkness
Canto 9: The Paradise of the Life-Gods
Canto 10: The Kingdoms and Godheads of the Little Mind
Canto 11: The Kingdoms and Godheads of the Greater Mind
Canto 12: The Heavens of the Ideal
Canto 13: In the Self of Mind
Canto 14: The World-Soul
Canto 15: The Kingdoms of the Greater Knowledge
Canto 1: The Pursuit of the Unknowable
Canto 2: The Adoration of the Divine Mother
Self and World
Canto 3: The House of the Spirit and the New Creation
Canto 4: The Vision and the Boon
Canto 1: The Birth and Childhood of the Flame
Canto 2: The Growth of the Flame
Canto 3: The Call to the Quest
Canto 4: The Quest
Canto 1: The Destined Meeting-Place
Canto 2: Satyavan
Canto 3: Satyavan and Savitri
Canto 1: The Word of Fate
Canto 2: The Way of Fate and the Problem of Pain
Canto 1: The Joy of Union; the Ordeal of the Foreknowledge of Death and the Heart’s Grief and Pain
Canto 2: The Parable of the Search for the Soul
Canto 3: The Entry into the Inner Countries
Canto 4: The Triple Soul-Forces
Canto 5: The Finding of the Soul
Canto 6: Nirvana and the Discovery of the All-Negating Absolute
Canto 7: The Discovery of the Cosmic Spirit and the Cosmic Consciousness
Canto 3: Death in the Forest
Canto 1: Towards the Black Void
Canto 2: The Journey in Eternal Night and the Voice of the Darkness
Canto 1: The Dream Twilight of the Ideal
Canto 2: The Gospel of Death and Vanity of the Ideal
Canto 3: The Debate of Love and Death
Canto 4: The Dream Twilight of the Earthly Real
Canto 1: The Eternal Day: The Soul’s Choice and the Supreme Consummation
Canto 1: The Return to Earth