Savitri by heart

by Sonia Dyne
T poem like Savitri is not a collection of "thoughts" 
  however lofty; not an expression of emotion, however 
profound. Savitri is a living body built of sound and sense by a power of 
secret knowledge seizing on words and forcing them to bear a charge of 
meaning that cannot be apprehended by the intellect alone. How then are we 
to study Savitri?  What method do we follow in order to open our minds 
to its manifold secrets and our hearts to its spiritual truth? 

In conversation with a young sadhak of Sri Aurobindo's yoga, the Mother 
is reported to have said: "Indeed, Savitri is something concrete, living: 
it is all replete, packed with consciousness. It is supreme knowledge above 
all human philosophies and religions. It is the spiritual path, it is 
Yoga...everything, in its single body." 

When some members of our center in Singapore resolved to meet once a month 
to begin a systematic study of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri we wanted to work 
out a new approach based on what the Mother had done in the Ashram. She had 
chosen a few short passages from each canto to read aloud on tape. The 
tapes were sent to Sunil, who set himself the task of translating their 
content into the language of music. The Mother and Huta, a painter whose 
gift had been nurtured by the Mother herself, used to meditate together on 
the chosen verses and Huta would try to express what had come during the 
meditation in terms of color and line. We liked the idea of this 
"multi-media" approach and wondered if it could be adapted to our own 
circumstances, especially as we were lucky enough to have an almost 
complete set of tapes recording the Mother's readings and Sunil's music. 

My own experience over many years as a teacher had convinced me that most 
people approach poetry in the wrong way. This is because they have only a 
vague idea of what real poetry is, or what the poet is trying to do. Poetry 
is not prose in fancy dress or a cryptic message needing to be decoded with 
the help of a dictionary. It is true that Sri Aurobindo's vast knowledge of 
the English language can be daunting, but it is still a mistake to think 
that translation into simpler language will enable us to understand him 
better. We may indeed understand something-however the "something" will not 
be what Sri Aurobindo is trying to tell us. It will be different, for there 
are no redundancies, no interchangeable words in Savitri. 
I have not anywhere in Savitri written anything for the sake of 
mere picturesqueness or merely to produce a rhetorical effect: 

what I am trying to do everywhere in the poem is to express exactly 
something seen, something felt or experienced; if for instance I indulge in 
a wealth-burdened line or passage, it is not merely for the pleasure of the 
indulgence, but because there is that burden, or at least what I conceive 
to be that, in the vision or the experience. -Sri Aurobindo 
Savitri is the record of Sri Aurobindo's yoga and the 
 transcription as far as human language will permit of 
supra-physical realities and states of consciousness rarely if ever 
attained. The Mother has rightly pointed out that not even one word can be 
changed without changing the meaning. Reading or listening to Sri 
Aurobindo's poetry and trying mentally to turn it into a series of simple 
prose statements is a self-defeating exercise. Far better to take the 
Mother's advice and read "with a blank mind" than to worry over the 
interpretation of every line, thereby depriving oneself of everything that 
is most valuable, profound and significant! Much of Savitri is a mystery to 
the mind. 

Te needed to find an approach that would get away from the traditional 
search for "explanations." Once again, we took our cue from the Mother: 

 Read properly, with the right attitude, concentrating a little 
before opening the pages and trying to keep the mind as empty as possible, 
absolutely without a thought. The direct road is by the heart. I tell you, 
if you try to concentrate really with this aspiration you can light a 
flame, the psychic flame, the flame of purification in a very short time, 
perhaps in a few days. What you cannot do normally, you can do with the 
help of Savitri. Try and you will see how very different it is, how new, if 
you read with this attitude, with this something at the back of your 
consciousness: as though it were an offering to Sri Aurobindo. 
"The direct road is by the heart." These words became our inspiration and 
guiding light. No longer would we rack our brains for meanings, or reach 
for a dictionary at the first sight of an unfamiliar expression. We would 
begin every session with a meditation to Sunil's music and the Mother's 
voice on tape. And then we would read and let the ever-changing images 
created by Sri Aurobindo impose their own message, "stirring the blind 
brain," as he says, until it is ready to receive "the embodied Truth": 
    Its message enters stirring the blind brain 
    The hearer understands a form of words 
    And musing on the index thought it holds 
    Perceives bright hints - not the embodied Truth. 
Sri Aurobindo is speaking of the Mantra, the utterance charged with 
spiritual power. The mind cannot comprehend the Mantra, perceiving only 
"bright hints," but still the power works on hidden levels of being, 
preparing for the moment when the greater revelation will come, when the 
ordinary mentality is overpassed and understanding merges with a vision 
that transcends anything language can express. Savitri is all mantra. 

We try to see each line of Savitri as an embodied Truth. So we do not want 
to analyze the language in search of "meanings." We do not take a living 
body apart-that kills it. Analysis of the "form of words" will leave us 
with a lifeless corpse; for the soul of the poetry will have escaped us. 
Wherever possible, we try to read as if watching a video: trying to see 
what is suggested or described, recreating in imagination the images as 
they follow one upon the other, ever changing and evolving. Savitri is full 
of images, some elaborated in detail, others deeply embedded in the text. 
Someone has said: "There is a picture in every line"-and it is true. 

When Savitri is not understood-it is because the truths it 
expresses are unfamiliar to the ordinary mind or belong to an untrodden 
domain or enter into a field of occult experience: it is not because there 
is any attempt at a dark or vague profundity or an escape from thought. The 
thinking is not intellectual but intuitive or more than intuitive, always 
expressing a vision, a spiritual contact or a knowledge which has come by 
entering into the thing itself, by identity. -Sri Aurobindo 
The language of images is older and more powerful than 
 the language of words. But when words are borne on the carrier wave 
of meter and rhythm used by a master poet, depth upon depth of meaning 
unfolds. We are precipitated into that highly creative and synthesizing 
consciousness which may have been lost in our long love affair with 
analytical reasoning. The final aim must be to transcend this too, moving 
towards the intuitive insight that alone can fully reveal the glory of 
Savitri: "Out of our thoughts we must leap up to sight..." (Book Two, Canto 

It has been claimed that multi-sensory experience, which at best should 
include mental insight, leads to an intuitive grasp of reality that is more 
profound (because wider in scope) and less articulate, in the intellectual 
sense. We have been trying to bring imagination rather than intellect to 
the study of Savitri by an enhanced awareness of the pictorial quality of 
Sri Aurobindo's poetry. We do this by asking: What is he showing us? What 
picture emerges from these lines? What does this image suggest? rather than 
the more traditional question: What does it mean? We have used paintings to 
stimulate discussion and as a focus for meditation and, of course, the 
music specially composed by Sunil. 

Such an approach is not easy at first. "Seeing" creates a richness of 
association pointing to a meaning that is not fixed and static like a 
dictionary definition but complex and evolving and ultimately touching the 
Truth-Vision that encompasses in itself all possible meanings. The poetic 
word, as used by Sri Aurobindo, acquires a limitless extension of 
significance for the receptive reader. That is why the Mother can say: "I 
tell you, whoever, wishing to practice Yoga, tries sincerely and feels the 
necessity for it, will be able to climb with the help of Savitri to the 
highest step of the ladder of yoga, will be able to find the secret that 
Savitri represents..." 

Tatience is needed, a willingness to wait for answers. The structure of 
Savitri is cyclic: a theme is introduced and a question arises. The theme 
will recur again and again, and each time the theme will receive a more 
complex treatment and the question a more complete answer. Really and 
truly, Savitri can be understood only in the context of our own life 
experience; for it demands of the reader not just a mental understanding 
but a recognition , the first small step towards that "knowledge by 
identity" referred to by Sri Aurobindo in the passage quoted above. 

A few years ago I had the good fortune to be sitting near to Nirodbaran, 
the "scribe" to whom Sri Aurobindo dictated so much of the final version of 
Savitri. I told him very briefly about our plan to try a new approach. He 
commented: "Do you want everyone to learn Savitri by heart?" Since then, 
how many others have asked the same question! The answer is "Regretfully, 
no, we have something else in mind".....regretfully, because learning 
favourite passages by heart, enjoying them, meditating upon them, making 
them part of our lives, allowing them to inspire and guide us, is the best 
approach of all. Then, as the Mother said, "all that we need we will find 
in Savitri." 

Sonia Dyne is the president of the Sri Aurobindo Society chapter of Singapore. She can be reached at 

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