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At the Feet of The Mother

Prof. Mangesh Nadkarni: Invitation to Savitri | 20. Book 6 Cantos 1-2

A series of talks by Prof. Mangesh V. Nadkarni on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri in Pondicherry in 1995.

Malavi, Aswapati’s wife, is also a mother and a mother’s antenna is very sensitive. So as soon as she is told that this day returning Satyavan must die, she loses no time. The poet says:

A lightning bright and nude the sentence fell.
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 431

The sentence fell like lightning on these people.

But the queen cried: “Vain then can be heaven’s grace!
Heaven mocks us with the brilliance of its gifts,
For Death is a cupbearer of the wine
Of too brief joy held up to mortal lips
For a passionate moment by the careless gods.

Satyavan may be wine of the rarest vintage, you may not be able to find any other cup holding wine of such rare vintage, but what’s the use because it is

Of too brief joy held up to mortal lips

But I reject the grace and the mockery.

Heaven seems to mock at us by sending someone like Satyavan, and then the minute he meets someone like Savitri, life’s fulfilment, immediately behind it is the shadow of death. Therefore she says,

But I reject the grace and the mockery.
Then, she goes to Savitri and says,
Mounting thy car go forth, O Savitri,
And travel once more through the peopled lands.
Alas, in the green gladness of the woods
Thy heart has stooped to a misleading call.
Choose once again and leave this fated head,
Death is the gardener of this wonder-tree;
Love’s sweetness sleeps in his pale marble hand.
Advancing in a honeyed line but closed,
A little joy would buy too bitter an end.
Plead not thy choice, for death has made it vain.
Thy youth and radiance were not born to lie
A casket void dropped on a careless soil;
A choice less rare may call a happier fate.”
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 431-432

Go once again, you may not come across someone like Satyavan, but

A choice less rare may call a happier fate.

Just as Aswapati’s wife had listened to Narad and this was her reaction, Savitri has also heard Narad’s prediction and her reaction comes in the next passage.

But Savitri answered from her violent heart, —
Her voice was calm, her face was fixed like steel:
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 432

To steel her will, that was why Narad had said what he had said and that seems to have gone home, achieved its purpose, because you find that every word and syllable of what Savitri now says is not light in its determination.

“Once my heart chose and chooses not again.
The word I have spoken can never be erased,
It is written in the record book of God.
The truth once uttered, from the earth’s air effaced,
By mind forgotten, sounds immortally
For ever in the memory of Time.
Once the dice fall thrown by the hand of Fate
In an eternal moment of the gods.
My heart has sealed its troth to Satyavan:
Its signature adverse Fate cannot efface,
Its seal not Fate nor Death nor Time dissolve.
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 432

The seal of my soul’s determination cannot be dissolved either by fate, or by time or by death.

Those who shall part who have grown one being within?

Who shall part them? At best our bodies can be parted, but we have become one within.

Those who shall part who have grown one being within?
Death’s grip can break our bodies, not our souls;
If death take him, I too know how to die.
Let Fate do with me what she will or can;
I am stronger than death and greater than my fate;
My love shall outlast the world, doom falls from me
Helpless against my immortality.
Fate’s law may change, but not my spirit’s will.”
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 432

The interesting thing is: this Savitri has not yet started her Yoga, has not yet discovered the great strength that she has within her, has not yet found out for herself who she really is. She is a young girl. How does she know all this? Where does she get the strength to say what she says? This is not just a human response, this is a superhuman response. What gave her this strength? From where did she draw this power? This is a sudden jump, as it were, of her being, which becomes possible because she has really found her love. In that moment when Savitri finds her love, a great Yoga has already been performed in her being, she may not be conscious of it, that comes later on. It is this elementary strength that she has of having discovered her love, and she knows and she feels it is so true that everything else compared to this is an illusion, a falsity. And that is why she feels convinced that she can somehow vanquish everything that comes against it, even before she discovers herself—all that is going to come in Book VII, Savitri’s Yoga—for she is not yet in the generally accepted sense a Yogi. Yet the first stage of her Yoga was completed when she found Satyavan, and that strength, that elemental strength makes her say this:

My love shall outlast the world, doom falls from me
Helpless against my immortality.
Fate’s law may change, but not my spirit’s will.”
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 432

Savitri ’s mother goes back once again and tries to dissuade her in stronger words:

“O child, in the magnificence of thy soul
Dwelling on the border of a greater world
And dazzled by thy superhuman thoughts,
Thou lendst eternity to a mortal hope.
Here on this mutable and ignorant earth
Who is the lover and who is the friend?

Savitri’s mother suddenly becomes a pragmatist. A mother has to be so many things for the sake of the daughter. She says, what is this you are talking about love: “Who is the lover and who is the friend?” There is no such eternally defined notions like love. You must see what the reality is and make pragmatic compromises.

All passes here, nothing remains the same.
None is for any on this transient globe.
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 433

It’s all a convenience, if you like somebody, friend or whatever, as long as it’s convenient you keep calling him a friend, when it becomes inconvenient you still have to go your way, as he has his way to go. Nobody is for anyone else on this globe. Savitri, why are you living in this illusion? It also shows Savitri’s mother is getting desperate. This is not Savitri’s mother’s usual stand. She is the consort of no less a person than Aswapati. But there is something that triggers this reaction in her, she has become totally desperate and she wants to do everything possible to dissuade Savitri from pursuing this suicidal project of her getting married to Satyavan. So she says:

None is for any on this transient globe.
He whom thou lovest now, a stranger came
And into a far strangeness shall depart:
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 433

Who was Satyavan until you met him, a stranger and someday he will once again be a stranger. Is your life worth throwing away for something as transient as love? Later on you’ll see the God of Death also uses some of these arguments and you’ll very often see the so-called human concern that we have, our human way of doing things―for human sentiments, human emotions, human concerns―also seems to be in league with the negation for which death stands. All this sentimentality which is flaunted as concern, as love, but after Savitri’s words, you can’t say Savitri’s mother’s concerns are false or wrong. For who has ever conquered death? You can say as a kind of rhetorical turn of speech, “I shall defy death, I shall defy fate,” but who has done it? So you can’t blame Savitri’s mother. Even her own mother can’t believe that Savitri means what she says. She says this is a kind of youthful exuberance that says: “Come what may, I have fallen in love and this will be accomplished.” So she says:

He whom thou lovest now, a stranger came
And into a far strangeness shall depart:
His moment’s part once done upon life’s stage
Which for a time was given him from within,
To other scenes he moves and other players
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 433

Once your allotted period of days or years is exhausted, you leave this earthly scene. You go away, come back, are reborn, the next time with a different wife, a different father, a different mother. Do you think these relationships are permanent? They are temporary relationships.

To other scenes he moves and other players
And laughs and weeps mid faces new, unknown.
The body thou hast loved is cast away
Amidst the brute unchanging stuff of worlds
To indifferent mighty Nature and becomes
Crude matter for the joy of others’ lives.

Savitri listens to all this and finally this is what she says, and if you hear anybody saying this, you will give up all attempts of trying to dissuade the person. This is what Savitri says, on page 435, middle of the page:

This, this is first, last joy and to its throb
The riches of a thousand fortunate years
Are poverty. Nothing to me are death and grief
Or ordinary lives and happy days.
And what to me are common souls of men
Or eyes and lips that are not Satyavan’s?
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 435

I know every human being has eyes and lips, but they have no meaning for me if they are not Satyavan’s eyes and lips.

I have no need to draw back from his arms
And the discovered paradise of his love
And journey into a still infinity.
Only now for my soul in Satyavan
I treasure the rich occasion of my birth:
In sunlight and a dream of emerald ways
I shall walk with him like gods in Paradise.
If for a year, that year is all my life.
And yet I know this is not all my fate
Only to live and love awhile and die.
For I know now why my spirit came on earth
And who I am and who he is I love.
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 435-436

And then the last concluding three lines clinch the issue, there is nothing more even Savitri’s mother could have said after this.

I have looked at him from my immortal Self,
I have seen God smile at me in Satyavan;
I have seen the Eternal in a human face.”
Bk 6, Canto 1, p. 436

The poet himself says,

Then none could answer to her words. Silent
They sat and looked into the eyes of Fate.

The second canto of this book is incredibly rich, and although it’s only about 24 or 25 pages long, it takes up some very important questions―questions like the ones that Savitri’s mother asks when she finds Satyavan will die. This is totally Sri Aurobindo’s own, there is nothing comparable to this in Vyasa’s Savitri story in the Mahabharata. The whole episode, the conversation between Malavi (Savitri’s mother) and the God of Death is totally new, this is not from original Mahabharata story.

The question that Savitri’s mother raises is the fundamental basic question of all life and all philosophy. Most philosophies flounder on this question. Until you come to this question, you can somehow survive, but when you face this question you suddenly realise you need more than just system building. And what is that question? This is not only a question in philosophy, it’s also a question in every individual’s life. Every individual who is awake, who is living a full blooded life, not an inconscient life, an animal life in a human body, but a conscious life, asks this question of himself at some point or the other.

What is that question? This is the question Savitri’s mother asks:

O seer, in the earth’s strange twi-natured life
By what pitiless adverse Necessity
Or what cold freak of a Creator’s will,
By what random accident or governed Chance
That shaped a rule out of fortuitous steps,
Made destiny from an hour’s emotion, came
Into the unreadable mystery of Time
The direr mystery of grief and pain?
Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 437-438

What was the need for grief and pain in this world?

Is it thy God who made this cruel law?
Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 438

God created this world, he must also have created the pain and evil you find in this world. Why was this created? Very often we tell ourselves if God had only consulted me how to create this world, I would have given him some useful tips. He would not have ended up creating this horrid thing that he has created here. He should have consulted people like me, knowledgeable about this world. In a letter somewhere, Sri Aurobindo says, yes, God was looking for you when he was creating this world, he wanted to ask you what kind of world to create, but you were not to be found anywhere. If you could have been found, probably he would have asked you.

This is the basic question, isn’t it? God is supposed to be perfect, God is supposed to be satchit, ananda. God is supposed to have created this world out of his joy, his great bliss. But such a terrific world―ignorance, death, misery―why did God create this world?

Well, it has two aspects: one is the aspect of pain, the other is the aspect of evil. Pain and evil are not always the same. As you can see, there is pain in the animal world but there is no notion of evil in the animal world. Evil comes with the advent of the human mind. Only when the mind comes, you have the notion of good, evil, morality, all these things. Evil is a more complex notion than pain. How did this come? How did God allow this to come?

There is a classic statement of this problem, as many of you probably know, who are better versed in philosophy than I could ever be. The British philosopher Hume says, if you look at the world, it’s very difficult to believe that the maker of this world is all compassionate, all merciful, all kind and all powerful at the same time. Why is that so? Because it’s a patent fact of this world that there is so much pain here, so much suffering. Yet God has allowed this world to go on as it has always been. So from this you can draw either of these conclusions: a) either God doesn’t care. He knows there is pain and suffering in this world but he doesn’t care. Or b) he cares but he can’t do anything about it. What is the point then? I also care a lot, but what can I do? There is nothing I can do so I turn my face away from all suffering and evil and pretend it doesn’t exist. So if this is true, then you can either say God is not all caring, all merciful, all compassionate, or you can say, he is all compassionate, all merciful, but he can’t do anything about it. So he is not omnipotent, he is not the sarva sakthiman that we like to describe him as.

Well this is the basic problem and if you read philosophy, which is not necessarily a good enterprise, you will find three or four standard answers given to this question. The question is: How did All-Merciful All-Compassionate God, who is supposed to be the very definition of perfection, how could he have created this imperfect world, this world of pain and suffering? As I said, there are three or four answers one can give. One is, as a lawyer in a court of law, you try to say: Your honor, I would like the question to be reframed so that we all know what we are talking about. What is the question? The question is: How could a perfect God have created such an imperfect world? The answer is: There is no God. So the question how could a perfect God create an imperfect world doesn’t arise. This whole world is a brute mechanic accident; it’s a brute machine, there is no God. It doesn’t solve the problem of evil, but it at least answers this question how could a God create this world. What is the answer? There is no God, so the question doesn’t arise. Case dismissed!

There is another answer one could give to this question. Once again, I’d like the jury and everybody to note the question: How could a perfect God have created such an imperfect world? The answer: Where is the imperfect world? I don’t see the imperfect world! But what about pain and suffering? Oh that is all a mithya, maya, illusion. All that exists in this world is Brahman, the sole Reality, and everything is mithya. The people who are dying in in Chechnya, the people who are dying in Yugoslavia, the people who are hungry in Africa, they are all supposed to be a mithya. What is Reality? Brahman, Sat-Chit-Ananda, that’s the only Reality! Answer: there is no case. Case dismissed! So philosophy has gone on dismissing cases either by negating God or by negating the world.

There are other kinds of people who are a little more brave, and their answer is: Look, there is a God and he is doing his best, but whether ultimately good will succeed here or evil will succeed, partly would depend on human effort also, so we must do our little bit. That is making God half a God.

These are various answers one could find from philosophy, either saying there is no God, either saying there is no suffering, there is no world, or saying, well, God is doing his best, as you can see, he succeeds most of the time, sometimes he is helpless. But Sri Aurobindo has a totally different answer to this question. What is his answer? For the reason, the exposition of this answer, you’ll have to go through several pages of The Life Divine. But the answer in brief is the following: a) evil is real, b) it is not permanent. It is there, but it is not permanent; it can be eliminated. How does it come about? Why does it come about? It is an incidental circumstance that has to be there in the fuller manifestation of the divine Reality, implicit here in ignorance. If you take these last statements I made and analyse them step-by-step you get the whole answer that Sri Aurobindo has given. He is not denying the presence of evil. He says evil exists but evil is not a permanent feature of this world, evil is not an inalienable feature of this world. Evil intervenes at a certain stage, at an incidental circumstance in the progressive manifestation of the divine Reality, and when the manifestation reaches a point, evil will automatically be eliminated. So it is not denying the existence of evil, nor is it accepting it as a permanent feature, and at the same time it is trying to tell us that we have to do something about it so that evil can be eliminated. This is Sri Aurobindo’s reply in The Life Divine, reasoned out in great detail.

When the American edition of The Life Divine came out in the fifties, the Times Literary Supplement reviewed it in a very favourable review. Sri Aurobindo is yet to get an equally favourable review from any Indian newspaper of equal standing. The review that appeared in Times Literary Supplement was all praise for him except on one point. The reviewer says, like all Indians, Sri Aurobindo doesn’t take the problem of evil seriously. It simply means the reviewer was in a hurry and he must have skipped about three to four hundred pages of The Life Divine. For if anybody has honestly read The Life Divine he would not have come to that conclusion.

Now, as I said, there are many aspects to this question, many steps to this problem. The first answer many philosophers have given is on the basis of dualism. Plato gave this answer: being coming from non-being. So there is always presence of being and non-being in this world. Non-being is what creates evil, ignorance. The sankhya talks about purusha and prakriti, the purusha identifying itself with prakriti, and out of that arise all the pain and suffering and evil. There are various versions of it. William James has said something of that kind. I’m not a philosopher so I would generally like to simplify it in terms of folk tales and the dualistic viewpoint to me is best expressed taken out of all the philosophical verbiage. An African tribe which believes that God is essentially good and wants to do good but what is the problem? He has an evil cousin. So God builds a beautiful world and his evil cousin comes and spoils it. And like our ministers he can’t get angry with his cousin. So the cousin spoils it and God goes back and again tries to improve on that world, but by the time he has improved it the cousin comes and spoils it again and this keeps going on. This of course is one way of looking at the problem of evil, but this has not satisfied either the human aspiration or our notion of God. Most people wouldn’t like to think of a God who shares his kingdom of this earth along with some other power, call it evil or whatever other name.

First of all, those who raise this problem say how is it that a responsible God creates this world and assigns to our life all this evil and pain and suffering? The idea is that God is like an absentee landlord, and sits in some heaven above. They say he sits there and enters your good and bad deeds and decides to reward your good deeds, always in material terms. Good deeds must always have material benefits. Bad deeds must always have material punishment. Since when did God become such a materialist that the only reward he can think of is material reward, the only punishment he can think of is material punishment? Sri Aurobindo says in some letters, our demands to God are so many and so conflicting, God wouldn’t know what to do with all these demands. He says it’s common sense. Most of us, whenever our behaviour is moral and good, we feel hurt if God does not reward us in material terms, if we don’t get a better assignment, a promotion. Look I have been honest, non-corrupt, I’ve been very pure. Who recognises my merit? Not even God! That, because you have studied physics very well, it is reasonable to expect you will score high marks in physics. But our complaint is because I have studied physics very well I must get high marks in mathematics. Is that logical? Your exertion has been in the moral field and therefore your reward will be in the moral field. You have less greed, you get sound sleep, peace at heart, love comes to you much more naturally. The other chap who has not been leading a moral life, maybe he has built many castles, he has big accounts, but have you seen him tossing around on his bed, popping blood pressure pills, going to doctors? You don’t see all these things. So if your behaviour is moral, if you are cultivating in the moral field, your reward should be moral. Why do we expect God to reward all effort in material terms? This is the one basic mistake we make.

Number two. Who tells you that God is like a landlord, absentee landlord, and sits in some other heaven then gives you punishments? This idea of a God is not an Indian idea of a God. The Indian idea of God is not like a potter making a pot, and so if you break the pot, if you sell it, whatever, the pot is outside the potter. In India, it’s a becoming the world. So who is undergoing all the suffering? God himself. So you can’t put moral blame on God anymore. Let us be very clear, that there is no moral blame on God which otherwise God attracts because we say God is outside this world, he has created this world and he sent suffering to this world. When we say God himself has become this world, we are all that God growing up, we are all that God suffering all the indignities, all the evil and everything that you find. It is God himself suffering it.

The question should arise: Why is God so sadistic? Why he should inflict pain on himself? This is the question, a reasonable question. Then Sri Aurobindo points out: Are you really sure that there is a predominance of suffering and pain in this world? Or are we exaggerating the presence of pain and evil in this world? If pain is so predominant in this world, why is it that even when one is in the late nineties and the body has become a nest of all diseases imaginable, we still ask around, what is the latest laser treatment in America? Can it help me prolong my life by six months, by eight months, by one year? This is not a question asked by people for whom life is all a tale of suffering. It is not the unhappy man who wants to commit suicide; very often, it is a wealthy man who has more than he can spend who wants to commit suicide.

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