Savitri: The Golden Bridge, the Wonderful Fire An Introduction to Sri Aurobindo‘s epic - Mangesh V.

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Almost all of these essays on Savitri were first published as monthly instalments in the e-journal Next Future. Dr Nadkarni’s approach has been to acclimatise the reader to the experience of reading Savitri by introducing, canto by canto through each book, selected passages that mark important milestones in the poem. His presentation combines an appreciation of the beauty and mantric power of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry, a discourse that highlights the departures made by Sri Aurobindo from the tale recounted by Vyasa in the Mahabharata in order to emphasise the story’s deeper symbolic meaning, and an exploration of some of the themes running through the poem that are central to Sri Aurobindo’s vision and teachings. The last two essays are transcripts of talks that summarise Books XI and XII and give a succinct overview of the entire poem.

REVIEW

M. V. Nadkarni was one of the most eminent voices on Savitri. He left behind him a plethora of writings, talks and articles on this magnum opus of Sri Aurobindo. Indeed, he seems to have meditated on Savitri all his life. That is something the Mother wanted her children to do—read Savitri aloud and meditate upon it. Dr. Nadkarni, who was a professor of Linguistics, knew the intricacies and the techniques of reading poetry. For him, Savitri was “inexhaustible as a source of spiritual delight, power, illumination and inspiration”. When he dealt with Savitri, it was with this background of knowledge and devotion that he read it to his listeners. He was involved in all activities related to Savitri: giving talks, writing articles and holding discussions. This book is a series of forty-nine articles, taking us step by step along Savitri’s journey of becoming the “The Golden Bridge, the Wonderful Fire”.

Shraddhavan, who is herself a singer of Savitri, has taken pains to give appropriate references in the text and has edited some chapter titles so that readers may more easily connect to the content. This effort of hers is a tribute from one lover of Savitri to another.

“An Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s Epic” is the apt subtitle to this book. We are led into a thematic understanding of the poem and are made aware of its mantric qualities. Dr. Nadkarni has focused entirely on Savitri’s life and journey. He believed that Ashwapati’s yoga required an entirely different set of articles and that dealing with both Ashwapati and Savitri in one series would do no justice to either. He chose to summarize Ashwapati’s yoga in a single article and devoted the rest of the series to Savitri. There also he selected specific Books and dealt with them in more detail—Books VII, IX, X and XII. For these Books he has taken up specific cantos and attempted a stanza-wise study of the lines, while he briefly summarizes the other Books.

We see a pattern in these articles that is fascinating for readers. Dr. Nadkarni introduces the ancient legend of Savitri and Satyavan as it has been narrated in the Mahabharata. He has taken pains to show how many verses are devoted to each event and theme in the ancient legend and then moved on to the modern epic; significantly, showing how this legend turns into a symbol. For Sri Aurobindo fills each instance with significance and gives a magnanimous dimension to this simple legend. For example, the intricacies of Savitri’s yoga are not dwelt upon much in the legend, but characterized as a triratra vow that Savitri takes to save her husband, finally reclaiming Satyavan’s life. The psychological or spiritual changes she goes through while she follows her austerities are not described. As Sri Aurobindo used the Savitri legend to show how integral transformation shall be the future of man on earth, the personality of Savitri also assumed a completely new stature. The magnanimity of Savitri has been brought out by Dr. Nadkarni with great conviction and understanding. He highlights the fact that Sri Aurobindo took pains to detail all that Savitri goes through. There are many such dimensions that the author has taken note of with care and precision.

One appreciates that these departures from the Mahabharata story and the additions made by Sri Aurobindo have been adequately emphasized by Dr. Nadkarni. This not only generates interest in the readers, but gives them a fair idea about how the legend has been transformed into a symbol.

Significantly, the book focuses on establishing Savitri as “The Golden Bridge, the Wonderful Fire”. From the very beginning of the book the author highlights different passages in which Savitri has been described as a daughter, a bride and as a luminous being, leading us to understand how Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri was an Avatar and not an ordinary mortal being. Savitri as seen by her father—”This breathing Scripture of the Eternal’s joy, | This net of sweetness woven of aureate fire.” Then as seen by Narad—”Who is this that comes, the bride, | The flame-born”. And then there is Savitri described as the World Mother. Time and again the author reminds us that Savitri is not just a mortal being as she appeared in the ancient legend. She is an Avatar and has taken birth on this earth to uplift it and to bring heaven on earth; to deliver humanity out of suffering and pain and death.

Before explaining Savitri’s battle with the God of Death, the author introduces a chapter on some aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s perspective on death. Death is, after all, one of the main protagonists in the story. This is an important chapter because it gives us an understanding of how the victory over death can be understood within the Integral Yoga, and we can then better relate to Savitri’s confrontation with the God of Death in the poem. In other parts of the book, the author has drawn parallels between the Mother and Savitri and has cited examples from the Mother’s life to support his point.

Whenever it was required, Dr. Nadkarni compares Sri Aurobindo’s standpoint on a particular concept vis-à-vis that of traditional systems. The concept of Nirvana, as we commonly understand it, stands for leaving this world of misery and getting out of the cycle of birth and death. However, Sri Aurobindo’s definition of Nirvana is that it is only a state achieved along the way, and this achievement too has to be surrendered in order to proceed further. Similarly, in the poem love has been described by Death as “a conscious yearning of thy flesh”, but Savitri replies to the God of Death that this indeed is love, but it is only a small portion of what love truly is. She says, “My love is not a hunger of the heart | My love is not a craving of the flesh; | It came to me from God, to God returns.” The author has beautifully highlighted these differences throughout the book.

Other important aspects of the book are the chapters describing the psychic being and spiritual evolution. Dr. Nadkarni has quoted the words of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo to support his understanding of these concepts. In this series of articles, he has followed a logical rhythm—from psychicization to spiritualization to the complete supramental transformation.

It may be noticed that there is a change in the tone and rhythm of the last two chapters of the book, as they have been appended here from talks given at Savitri Bhavan and are not articles in the same series. Whereas most of the book seems more poetical, summarizing and paraphrasing words and phrases from the epic, the last two chapters assume a more prosaic structure. It is indeed to the benefit of readers that Shraddhavan has added them, as the book now stands complete with the description of all twelve Books of Savitri.

A slow and concentrated reading of this book would certainly reveal how Savitri the person and Savitri the poem are indeed “The Golden Bridge, the Wonderful Fire”: the avatar, the Divine Mother incarnate on earth, and the work done by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo for humanity, for our future. This book, which often feels like a meditation and chanting of Savitri, will certainly attract readers to delve deeper into the poem to find more such pearls. —Kalpana Bidwaikar

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