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At the Feet of The Mother

Prof. Mangesh Nadkarni: Invitation to Savitri | 21. Book 6 Canto 2 (Part 1)

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

Book VI, Canto 2 takes up the problem of pain as Savitri’s mother raises this question and asks Narad:

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?
Is it thy God who made this cruel law?
Or some disastrous Power has marred his work
And he stands helpless to defend or save?
A fatal seed was sown in life’s false start
When evil twinned with good on earthly soil.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 437-438]

Last time I tried to frame the philosophical background for this question of pain and evil, and how it is the most difficult question for any philosophy to solve, for any metaphysical theory to handle. It is the most crucial problem in individual human life. We mentioned the various attempts being made to answer this question: One denying God, another denying the presence of evil. A third tries to say that the evil is a necessary evil in the sense that it is a part of a complete picture, you can’t take exception to it because with various shades the [complete] picture looks beautiful, and so on.

Then we came to how Sri Aurobindo handles it. Sri Aurobindo doesn’t dismiss evil as unreal; evil is real, but evil is not an inherent property characteristic of the supreme Reality. Evil begins at a certain stage in the evolutionary journey and it begins at that point because it seems to be needed at that point. Why it is needed is something we have yet to see. And when its need is over, evil automatically gets eliminated. So there is evil in the world and it poses a challenge to all of us. It is not just a moral challenge; you cannot drive away evil on the basis of morality. You can only drive evil away through the spiritual approach by rising to a level of consciousness above the mind. That is what Sri Aurobindo is suggesting in The Life Divine, but here let us follow the argument as first presented by Aswapati’s wife Malavi and then the reply given by Narad.

On page 439, middle of the page, Savitri’s mother emphasises the uniqueness of evil.

All that we are is like a fort beset:
All that we strive to be alters like a dream
In the grey sleep of Matter’s ignorance.
Mind suffers lamed by the world’s disharmony
And the unloveliness of human things.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 439]

Because of the presence of evil and pain, she says life has become:

A treasure misspent or cheaply, fruitlessly sold
In the bazaar of a blind destiny,
A gift of priceless value from Time’s gods
Lost or mislaid in an uncaring world,
Life is a marvel missed, an art gone wry;
A seeker in a dark and obscure place,
An ill-armed warrior facing dreadful odds,
An imperfect worker given a baffling task,
An ignorant judge of problems Ignorance made,
Its heavenward flights reach closed and keyless gates,

All man’s attempts so far to solve the problem of evil have reached “closed and keyless gates.”

Its glorious outbursts peter out in mire.
On Nature’s gifts to man a curse was laid:
All walks inarmed by its own opposites,
Error is the comrade of our mortal thought
And falsehood lurks in the deep bosom of truth,
Sin poisons with its vivid flowers of joy
Or leaves a red scar burnt across the soul;
Virtue is a grey bondage and a gaol.
At every step is laid for us a snare.
Alien to reason and the spirit’s light,
Our fount of action from a darkness wells;
In ignorance and nescience are our roots.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 439-440]

It seems there is no way mind can solve the problem of evil, and whatever we try to do, the roots get deeper, firmer, because it looks as if the origin of evil is in the inconscience from which the whole creation has come up. The whole passage is a calmly put out case suggesting that maybe God himself is helpless to find a way out of this evil and pain. But then she is baffled and asks why did then God create this world in such a way that evil becomes part of it. On page 441, towards the end of the page:

What need had the soul of ignorance and tears?
Whence rose the call for sorrow and for pain?
Or all came helplessly without a cause?
What power forced the immortal spirit to birth?
The eternal witness once of eternity,
A deathless sojourner mid transient scenes,
He camps in life’s half-lit obscurity
Amid the debris of his thoughts and dreams.
Or who persuaded it to fall from bliss
And forfeit its immortal privilege?
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 441]

You see, the question arises: it is very easy to say pain and evil are the result of ignorance, but why did God have to create ignorance? Ultimately you cannot exempt God; there is no escape, he has to answer this question. Why was evil needed? Why was pain needed? People say as long as there is ignorance there is no escape, no freedom from pain or evil. But I did not choose ignorance, I was put into birth in a world that was surrounded by ignorance. It was not my choice. Who did this? These are some of the questions Savitri’s mother raises and you notice this is a reflection of the questions posed by various philosophers, people who have challenged the existence of God or any higher power. Sri Aurobindo doesn’t quote them or give a footnote, but you see it’s a compendium of all the possible arguments against the existence of a supreme Power. And so, like a very well-trained philosopher, Savitri’s mother finally says on page 442:

What hard impersonal Necessity
Compels the vain toil of brief living things?
A great Illusion then has built the stars.
But where then is the soul’s security,
Its poise in this circling of unreal suns?
Or else it is a wanderer from its home
Who strayed into a blind alley of Time and chance
And finds no issue from a meaningless world.
Or where begins and ends Illusion’s reign?
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 442]

Are we then supposed to believe the whole thing is an illusion as some Indian philosophers have always maintained? Where is evil? I don’t see any evil, I only see Brahman. When you see Brahman there is no evil left, there is only the supreme Reality, Sachchidananda is what you see. So is all this an illusion? Where does illusion begin? What is the guarantee that your God himself is not an illusion, the Creator himself is not an illusion? In fact, the ultimate Advaitic position is that there is no God. If you have found the supreme Reality, there is no God, there is no devotee, there is only one supreme Truth, you call it negation, you call it bliss, or whatever. At that stage, the creation doesn’t exist and any question you may ask about creation does not have any coherence. Who is asking the question? What are you asking about, because I don’t see the creation, I don’t see a Creator, I don’t see anything at all. This is all a blissful, peaceful, absolute nought, a nirvana, moksha of which we are all a part. There are no questions to be asked. So Savitri’s mother is putting that particular point of view also and finally she says:

Perhaps the soul we feel is only a dream,
Eternal self a fiction sensed in trance.”
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 442]

Many people have said that people who are given to meditation, if they get up early in the morning without a full night’s rest and sit for meditation, naturally not having had a full night’s rest, they begin to doze and get into dream land and in that dream land you naturally have pleasant experiences and therefore you have an illusion that there is a soul that is seeing visions. You are only seeing dreams or nightmares depending on what food you had taken the previous night, that’s all there is to it. So this is all a fool’s paradise: There is no soul, there is no God, this is all a fiction. So this is what Savitri’s mother is asking.

Perhaps the soul we feel is only a dream,
Eternal self a fiction sensed in trance.”

Narad, of course, should have an answer. Narad is a commuter between Vaikuntha and this earth and he has the benefit of having an evening talk with the Lord, so he should know why he created this and what happened and so on. So we expect a coherent reply from Narad, and of course, Narad obliges, but as I said earlier, he does not give a poetic version of what Sri Aurobindo says in The Life Divine. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo takes a recent metaphysical approach. Here it’s a slightly different approach but the truth is the same. I tried to point out that this question of evil is very often raised in rather exaggerated, sentimental terms and confused with a lot of unnecessary issues. For example, people often argue very passionately: Your God is irresponsible. Your God is unethical. I have better sense of ethics than your God. Your God sits somewhere in seventh heaven and he created this world and apportions all this suffering and pain to us. What kind of God is this? If I were creating a world, I would certainly have created a better world. My sense of fair play doesn’t permit me to respect your God, and so on.

As Sri Aurobindo points out, there is no “your God” or “my God.” There is no God who creates this world and then goes and sits in retirement in some air-conditioned seventh or eighth heaven. According to our way of looking at things, God became the world. If there is suffering and pain in the world, then it is God who is going through this suffering. You can then ask: Why did God choose to undergo this suffering; but you can’t put a moral blemish on him. So the God is just rescued from this moral turpitude by putting this question in a straighter and clearer way. We know we can’t ask why God sent punishment to us, but why does God punish himself, that’s the question to be asked.

Then the second thing Sri Aurobindo points out is: Are we not exaggerating the presence of evil and pain in this world? If life is all that painful, why is that all of us are not in a hurry to get back? We want to live here, we all seem to love life, we want to prolong life as much as possible, even when we know there is hardly any chance. Man seems to find great joy in living in misery. If suffering is all that paramount, why is it that so few people want to leave life?

There is a Punjabi folk tale. It seems there was a woodcutter who lived a very hard life. Every day he had to go to the forest and chop wood and then collect the faggots in a bundle, carry them on his head, walk four or five kilometers, come to the marketplace, and sell this. And then he would sell this, and people would come and say, “Can you give it for five paisa, six paisa?” After haggling and so on, he would come away with a small amount of money. Then he would go to the shop and buy some greens or whatever, and then at the end of that long day, sweating and so on, he had barely enough to eat. So he became completely fed up with life, and one day, on a summer afternoon, as he was tying up the faggots, perspiring profusely with the sun up above, he was muttering to himself: “I am so fed up with life, I don’t know why the Lord of Death doesn’t remember me.” While he was saying this, he heard footsteps, and the person who was going turned back, and said, “Did you call me?” It was the Lord of Death himself. “Did you say something to me?” “No, No,” the man said, “I wasn’t referring to you, I was saying something my wife had said to me. It was nothing for you.” That shows there is some joy in living, in the very act of living there is some joy.

Nature at some stage implanted the will for survival so strongly in man because life has to establish itself in this physical world against death. When the entire physical world was waiting to gobble up life, life had to establish itself. So the instinct for survival has been planted so deep, and similarly with sex. Why is it that sex is so strong in all living beings? Because at one time, the question of survival was paramount, so the urge for multiplication was also very strongly implicit, strongly implanted in human beings and in all animals. If you look at Book II of Savitri, you will see all these things which we now find are a burden, like desire, ego, sex, greed—at one time these were the props, the means by which evolution or life survived, aggrandised and established itself. Now comes a time, of course, when it all becomes a bar, because we have gone through a certain mental development; we have no more any need of that kind of desire, that kind of self-aggrandisement. But if there were no desire, there would have been no evolution. Evolution has in fact used desire as a springboard, exactly the same way all this desire to live is also basic.

Suppose a man is completely healthy―the doctor certifies your heart is fine, your liver is fine, your brain functions are fine―except that the only problem you have is a little toothache. A toothache is a spasm of pain in one or two of these nerves. That is enough: you can’t think of philosophy, you can’t think of Savitri, you’re looking very glum. The rest of you is alright. That shows pain is unnatural to us. That is why it attracts attention towards itself. More and more, scientists are saying what a great blessing it is to have pain, because pain is nature’s agency by which it draws attention to something that needs looking at. You know, there are diseases in which you entirely lose the capacity to feel pain. In certain kinds of leprosy, you completely lose the capacity to feel pain. So when you’re sleeping at night and a rat comes and gnaws at your fingers, you hardly notice because you have no pain. So once it has started the entire body wastes away. So pain, therefore, is absolutely essential. So if there is a pain in the stomach, it is a warning. It is telling you something: Please take note, there is something here that needs attention. If there were no pain, then what would have happened is that whatever was not functioning would deteriorate very fast and by the time you noticed you would be beyond repair. So in fact you must be grateful that there is pain in the body.

In one sense, as you can see, God created pain as a kind of early warning system in the body. Why do I feel this pain? Then you go to the doctor and he asks where do you have pain: here or here or here. An investigation can begin, treatment can begin. Just imagine if there was no pain, if something goes wrong it will continue to go wrong and then you are finished. So pain therefore has a function. And of course, pain is not a predominant part of life; this is what Sri Aurobindo explains. Finally, he says therefore we must ask this question: Why is it, if God becomes the world—let us say, God is undergoing suffering, God is being subjected to evil—why does he choose to do so to himself? This is the question. So let us not exaggerate it, let us not say life is only pain. This is now the question, why does pain become necessary even for God to grow?

For the complete self-manifestation of God, pain becomes necessary. Why does it? Of course, as we know, pain and evil were not always a part of existence. At the level of matter there is no pain. A stone never complains that I have pain or anything. Similarly, pain begins with a coming of life. Evil begins with the coming of the mind. One does not write a police complaint against a tiger because it jumped on a deer and gobbled the whole deer. There is no notion of moral or immoral there. Of course, animals have pain, because they have life, but they have no sense of morality. It is only with man’s mind the notions of morality come up. And some western thinkers always felt that human life has been made so complicated, so full of tensions by the mind. How nice it would be to get rid of mind and to live our life like horses. You have your breakfast and don’t think of anything at all but flexing your muscles run away in the sun and then wait till your lunch, and then again wait until your dinner―no problems, right, wrong, nothing at all. It seems to be a very blissful condition, but it is too late, we’re already in the mind. So the solution is you can’t get rid of the mind, you have to go beyond the mind. So the point is, there is pain, there is suffering, but these were not always there. If they were not always there, the chances are there may be a time when again they may not be there. If they were not there in the beginning, they may not be there after a certain level. So, as I said, evil began with the mind: when man transcends mind, the notion of evil also may disappear. That’s quite possible, but we have not yet reached that stage.

We are still in the mental belt and we have pain and evil. Why? That is a reasonable question to ask, and not just a sentimental question, “Oh, why is there so much pain?” So that is the question: Why is there pain? Let us follow what Narad has to say:

O queen, thy thought is a light of the Ignorance,
Its brilliant curtain hides from thee God’s face.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 442]

Death says to the queen mother, your thinking is so brilliant, sometimes because you think brilliantly you blind your own eyes. You can’t see beyond what you have said. So he says:

Its brilliant curtain hides from thee God’s face.
It illumes a world born from the Inconscience
But hides the Immortal’s meaning in the world.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 442-443]

True, you have focused our attention on a real problem: you have shown how all-pervasive evil is, but in saying all these things you have said nothing about the possible purpose evil may be serving here in this world.

Thy mind’s light hides from thee the Eternal’s thought,
Thy heart’s hopes hide from thee the Eternal’s will,
Earth’s joys shut from thee the Immortal’s bliss.
Thence rose the need of a dark intruding god,
The world’s dread teacher, the creator, pain.
Where Ignorance is, there suffering too must come;
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 443]

Now, what is it that suffering does? And where is there ignorance? Of course, if you are within the mental belt, you are in the belt of ignorance. What does suffering do? Well, it is not always good to say that suffering has an educational value, it cleanses your soul. As if God just decided to make this world a way of soul-making. This is a school of soul-making. Just as you go to a computer school, this world is a kind of school where you cleanse your soul. That is not very happy thing to say about God’s creation; and yet there is some kind of a truth, a very important truth in what Narad is saying at the moment:

Where Ignorance is, there suffering too must come;

Suffering has this primary objective as you see in our experience of life. I always give this example, because it is a simple, straightforward example and everybody understands what I am talking about. Let us take a case of a little child growing up in the environment of his own home. The child is about three or four years of age. In these days of limited families and so on, he is the darling of everybody’s eye: the father, the mother, the uncles, neighbours, everybody. He spends all his time riding a tricycle; eating lollipops, biscuits, chocolates; being hugged, indulged. He is the hero of all that he sees. The neighbours’ children also do not tease him because they are all grown up girls. So he is the only darling of the entire community there. He grows up like this. When he cries, daddy runs, mummy runs, uncle runs, everybody runs, and say: “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” He has some silly reason, he cries, and yet you indulge him. This is the environment in which he is growing up, where as long as he is concerned, God created the entire world for his convenience. Daddy was created so that he brings toys. Mummy was created so that she can put him to sleep, and give him toffee or whatever he wants. Uncle was created so that he can play with him when he has free time. The entire world was created like this, and you are in the middle in that world.

Life goes on, then comes one day suddenly the mummy looks very worried because she had to go to face an interview. Mummy is being interviewed so that baby can be admitted to a school. She has to stand in a long queue, in front of the convent school, to get an application form for admission; that is what she has to do. Finally, she gets this admission form, fills it up. She and daddy have to go and take an interview. All the questions are asked, finally their interview is cleared, the child is admitted to school.

So the baby is given a new uniform, a separate cake, chocolate, everything, and then an auto rickshaw is called and the baby is in full glee: “We are going somewhere, maybe for a picnic!” The child is taken to the school, and you say: “This is Manoj, this is Radhika, this is someone else.” He says, “yes, yes, yes.” After a while, his name is written, he is sent to a room, mummy says “bye, bye” and goes away.

He goes to that room, there are about 35-40-50 children, depending on what school you go to. More or less, he sighs. They look at each other, look around. Mummy is not there, so one baby begins to cry and the crying is so contagious that it goes from one child to another child to another child, so within five minutes the entire room of fifty children is crying! They shout and say “mummy!” There is no mummy there. The teacher is there, but just one teacher and fifty kids. The teacher herself is on the verge of tears. What do I do with these fifty kids?

So this is a horrible experience of two or three hours, and finally the child hears the bell and he is released from this prison house and goes home fully determined that his mummy does not know what a hell-hole this place is. If I only tell my mummy, from tomorrow I will not have to come here. He is pleased with himself, goes home and tells mummy: “It is a miserable place, mummy, I don’t want to go there.” What can mummy say? Mummy knows this. “All right, honey, let us see tomorrow.” So he is mentally very free, he is not going there tomorrow.

Next morning, once again an early bath, once again the uniform. Then he begins to cry. “Mummy I won’t go there. I know you are sending me to that school. I don’t want to go there.” And he is very convinced because until now mummy has been as far as he is concerned the very embodiment of love, affection. He remembers how when he had a slight temperature, mummy kept awake the whole night looking after him; this is the embodiment of love and affection. How can she just disregard my wish? He is fully convinced that the mummy ultimately is going to listen to him.

At 8:45 the auto rickshaw arrives at the gate, and the baby starts howling and crying: “I won’t go into the auto rickshaw.” And for the first time, this embodiment of love and affection begins to look like Mahakali! The same mother holds him firmly with both her hands―she is also fed up by that time―forces him into the auto rickshaw. And that is the point at which the child’s whole world has completely been destroyed. He doesn’t understand why God has created such a terrible, terrible world where there are schools, where there are teachers.

We all remember situations like that. In my own case, I was about on the verge of telling my wife, “let her not go to school today,” but she knew better, she overruled and insisted the child go to school. But now, fifteen or twenty years later, when the child looks back on that day, the great day when the old world was completely shattered, the child will realise that because that world was shattered, he is today a grown up, and not just riding a tricycle, but probably riding a scooter. He is grown up; his values are different. For all this to have happened, the old world had to be destroyed; the whole world of tricycles, chocolates and toffees had to be destroyed.

The point seems to be, the purpose of this life and the purpose of this world is not to keep anybody happy as we understand happiness. Each one of us has a definition of happiness, and we go and tell God: “You will be my God as long as you honor this. This is my definition of happiness; you must fulfil these conditions. Slight modifications I don’t mind, but I won’t accept basic change.” God is saying: “I don’t want you to be forever and ever a kid riding a tricycle; I have other plans for you. You are asking for more of this and more of that. You are only asking finite things to be multiplied, but I want to reveal to you your infinite nature. I want you to grow up. You would like to have a big bag with a lot of money going to a supermarket like a beggar for happiness: Where do I get happiness? On which floor do I buy happiness?  Why do you have to buy happiness? Your very nature is bliss, your nature is truth, your nature is immortality. Why do you have to go to buy happiness? I want to take you to that state.” “No, no: I am quite happy with the tricycle and toys!” This is what we are saying.

Now if this natural instinct of the soul’s inner growth is not recognised by the outer mind, then:

Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break
A dead resistance in the mortal’s heart,
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 443]

Pain is the hammer of the Gods. What does it do? It breaks:

A dead resistance in the mortal’s heart,
His slow inertia as of living stone.

We are absolutely content with what we are, and we expect God keep us as we are. As I said, remember that passage, “An outstretched Hand is felt upon our lives.” An outstretched Hand will not let you be where you are for very long. Once God remembers you, in many cases a chain of seething calamities also may begin. If nothing ever happens to you, you can remember God has postponed your case. He probably doesn’t think you are yet ready. “Let him spend a few more days playing in the kindergarten,” that is what God says. Because pain essentially is in this belt of ignorance:

Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break
A dead resistance in the mortal’s heart,
His slow inertia as of living stone.
If the heart were not forced to want and weep,
His soul would have lain down content, at ease,

We are gradually compelled by pain to avoid wrong things and to ask for right things. That is because, if our heart were not forced to want and weep:

His soul would have lain down content, at ease,
And never thought to exceed the human start
And never learned to climb towards the Sun.
This earth is full of labour, packed with pain;
Throes of an endless birth coerce her still;
The centuries end, the ages vainly pass
And yet the Godhead in her is not born.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 443-444]

A little later on page 444,

Pain is the hand of Nature sculpturing men
To greatness: an inspired labour chisels

God takes a block of stone that you and I are now, and chisels away, and each hammer stroke is painful, but as He chisels away, emerges a beautiful sculptured image of our inner being.

Pain is the hand of Nature sculpturing men
To greatness: an inspired labour chisels
With heavenly cruelty an unwilling mould.

This is a heavenly cruelty, for an unwilling mould:

Implacable in the passion of their will,
Lifting the hammers of titanic toil
The demiurges of the universe work;
They shape with giant strokes their own; their sons
Are marked with their enormous stamp of fire.
[Bk 6, Canto 2, p. 444]

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There is nothing sentimental in the true weeping that comes from the soul. All that you feel now is the blossoming of the psychic being in you and the growth of a real bhakti.