10 May 2010

The biographical in Savitri — by RY Deshpande

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by the Columbia University Press two years ago declares Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri as a “fictional creation”, and therefore not of any use from the point of view of it being a source-book for the biographical material. Let us briefly try to examine this statement of the Lives from the known facts we have about Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life, specifically corresponding to his Calcutta years 1905-10; some of the aspects revealed to us in Savitri can be directly correlated with the Yogi’s spiritual biography belonging to this period. We shall take a few illustrative details pertaining to this aspect, essentially belonging to the early part of his yoga-tapasya.

To begin with, here are two conventional details pertaining to the biography. The first one is related to 1879 when, as a 7-year boy, Sri Aurobindo was taken to England. There he stayed for the next fourteen years and grew entirely in the British way. He, along with his two brothers, was put by their father in charge of Reverend William Drewett who was instructed to bring them up with British habits and British manners, without any teaching of religion, without any contact with the Indian tradition. Earlier the Drewetts stayed in a two-storey house at 84 Shakespeare St in the neighbourhood of Manchester. “Mean and clumsy were the buildings, or pretentious and aimed at false elegance. Miles of bricks, with hardly a bit of green here and there”—that was the usual landscape. The typical British meat and fish made up the normal food during the entire period. When Sri Aurobindo was just around ten, he had his early education at home with the Drewetts, learning Latin, history, French, geography, arithmetic.

And here is just a touch of the active national life Sri Aurobindo was leading during his Calcutta days, 1905-10. In July 1907 there was a rigorous police hunt for documents regarding the editorship of Bande Mataram, the purpose being to indict its editor for the nationalist views he held. They were bent upon prosecuting him whom they took none else but Sri Aurobindo himself. A squad of 30 policeman invaded the Bande Mataram office and took away a heap of papers. But they were disappointed not to find any evidence to implicate Sri Aurobindo. Later, on 23 February 1940 during his talks with the disciples, Sri Aurobindo disclosed that there was evidence about his editorship of the Bande Mataram, “but it was erased by the knife.” The police had a warrant for Sri Aurobindo’s arrest but they would not use it until they had proofs with them. On 16 August 1907 a detective went to the Bande Mataram office and told the manager that he had a warrant to arrest Sri Aurobindo. That night Sri Aurobindo was dining at the home of Byomkesh Chakravarty who was his barrister friend. The strategy was for Sri Aurobindo to surrender and accordingly he went to the local police station. But he was released on payment of two sureties. On 18 August Sri Aurobindo at once became a celebrity. On 24 August Rabindranath Tagore hailed him in glowing terms, and said:

Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee!
O friend, my country’s friend, O voice incarnate, free,
Of India’s soul!

Sri Aurobindo was the Principal of National College, but because of his nationalist political activities and involvements it was feared that the institution would suffer; he decided to resign from it. A send-off was given to him on 23 August 1907 when, after a wonderful feast, he addressed the students briefly:

The only piece of advice that I can give you now is—carry on the work, the mission, for which this college was created. I have no doubt that all of you have realised by this time what this mission means. When we established this college and left other occupations, other chances of life, to devote our lives to this institution, we did so because we hoped to see in it the foundation, the nucleus of a nation, of the new India which is to begin its career after this night of sorrow and trouble, on that day of glory and greatness when India will work for the world. What we want here is not merely to give you a little information, not merely to open to you careers for earning a livelihood, but to build up sons for the Motherland to work and to suffer for her. That is why we started this college and that is the work to which I want you to devote yourselves in future. What has been insufficiently and imperfectly begun by us, it is for you to complete and lead to perfection. When I come back I wish to see some of you becoming rich, rich not for yourselves but that you may enrich the Mother with your riches. I wish to see some of you becoming great, great not for your own sakes, not that you may satisfy your own vanity, but great for her, to make India great, to enable her to stand up with head erect among the nations of the earth, as she did in days of yore when the world looked up to her for light. Even those who will remain poor and obscure, I want to see their very poverty and obscurity devoted to the Motherland. There are times in a nation's history when Providence places before it one work, one aim, to which everything else, however high and noble in itself, has to be sacrificed. Such a time has now arrived for our M9therland when nothing is dearer than her service, when everything else is to be directed to that end. If you will study, study for her sake; train yourselves body and mind and soul for her service. You will earn your living that you may live for her sake. You will go abroad to foreign lands that you may bring back knowledge with which you may do service to her. Work that she may prosper. Suffer that she may rejoice. All is contained in that one single advice. My last word to you is that if you have sympathy for me, I hope to see it not merely as a personal feeling, but as a sympathy with what I am working for. I want to see this sympathy translated into work so that when in future I shall look upon your career of glorious activity, I may have the pride of remembering that I did something to prepare and begin it. What we want here is to build up sons for the Motherland to work and suffer for her. Work, that she may prosper. Suffer, that she may rejoice.

By no stretch of imagination one can imagine that such descriptions would enter into the epic mode of Savitri. Its soul is different and its utterance belongs to another world of spiritual reality. This also means that the most important and fruitful representation of Savitri as a biographical work has the aspect of occult-yogic exposé. Its swabhāva, its personality is that of poetry with its own idiom and phrase and symbolism and expressive myth and association of sense and sound and sight. It needs another eye and another ear and another gift of mind to discern what it brings to us in its abundant abundances. This also means that certain ‘factual’ details get portrayed in another subtle and sensitive-perceptive manner which demands the development of intuitive faculty in us. When that is absent the whole exercise becomes a hash, and the result is dismissing it as a “fictional creation”. Nothing can be more insensitive than considering Savitri to be so. Nothing can be more ridiculous than harbouring the expectation such as does the weird-creepy Lives of Sri Aurobindo whose author claims himself to be a historian!

In the following, we’ll just take the opening part of Aswapati’s yoga-tapasya and try to relate it with some well-known ‘facts’ of Sri Aurobindo’s life Sri Aurobindo being identified with Aswapati. It is the beginning of his Adhyatma Yoga which roughly parallels the period 1905-10 of his hectic political life, aśwa standing for the horse or the life energy in the service of the higher spiritual work, and patī its lord. The aptness of the correspondence is indeed striking. This beginning of Adhyatma Yoga of Aswapati appears in the very opening canto of Savitri presenting him as one who brought down to earth’s dumb need the radiant power of the divine Shakti or Consciousness-Force, Book I Canto III, pp. 22-45.

We’re told right in the beginning about who Aswapati is, the Incarnate himself who took the mortal birth for the divine work to be carried out in the mortal world, mŗtyuloka, “a thinker and toiler” working here as the Avatar:

His was a spirit that stooped from larger spheres
Into our province of ephemeral sight…
His birth held up a symbol and a sign;
His human self like a translucent cloak
Covered the All-Wise who leads the unseeing world.
Affiliated to cosmic Space and Time
And paying here God's debt to earth and man
A greater sonship was his divine right.
Although consenting to mortal ignorance,
His knowledge shared the Light ineffable.
A strength of the original Permanence
Entangled in the moment and its flow,
He kept the vision of the Vasts behind:
A power was in him from the Unknowable…
His days were a long growth to the Supreme…
His soul lived as eternity's delegate,
His mind was like a fire assailing heaven,
His will a hunter in the trails of light.
An ocean impulse lifted every breath;
Each action left the footprints of a god,
Each moment was a beat of puissant wings.
The little plot of our mortality
Touched by this tenant from the heights became
A playground of the living Infinite.
This bodily appearance is not all.

So Aswapati comes as the Protagonist, as the thinker and toiler, a colonist from immortality, son of divine right, archivist, treasurer of superhuman dreams; his is a skyward being rising like the divine Agni towards heaven, “a spirit that is a flame of God”, he is eternity’s delegate. There cannot be any more vivid description about Aswapati’s Avatarhood than this. It is up to intelligent people to recognize it or not, but certainly it is not intelligence to say that it is all a “fictional creation”.

His thought stretches into infinitude:
All in him turns to spirit vastnesses.
His soul breaks out to join the Oversoul…
Then is revealed in man the overt Divine.

All this had happened in great succession to Sri Aurobindo before his coming to Pondicherry in 1910. The following two statements mark the events that had taken place in 1908. Sri Aurobindo sat with Lele in Baroda for three days around 1 January after the Surat Congress. At that time he had the realisation of the Passive Brahman or, what he calls, the Silent Mind. Within months he had the second major realization of the Active Brahman, the two take years and years, if not several lives, of spiritual practices. It was on 5 May 1908 that Sri Aurobindo was arrested for the alleged act of sedition and kept as an undertrial prisoner in the Alipore Jail. Not too long after he being there, he had the realization of the divine Presence everywhere, vāsudeva idi sarvam. Savitri describes it as follows:

A static Oneness and dynamic Power
Descend in him, the integral Godhead's seals;
His soul and body take that splendid stamp…
His soul breaks out to join the Oversoul.

It was the spirit of Vivekananda that visited him in the Jail for about two weeks and pointed out at golden star far above in the sky. A search for something or someone never found, until at last is reached the giant point, he broke into the infinity of God. Aswapati escaped into supernature's arc of living light. In fact he has become the son of Force, sahas sputro agnih. When the Mother first met Sri Aurobindo, this is what she saw in him. Here was born a Seer, a shining Guest of Time. His march now soared into an eagle's flight.

An aspirant to supernal Timelessness:
Freedom and empire called to him from on high;
Above mind's twilight and life's star-led night
There gleamed the dawn of a spiritual day.

If these are realizations of the profound Adhyatma Yoga, then we should also remember that Sri Aurobindo had already received its foundational principles in the Alipore Jail, the Saptachatusthaya which later became a part of the Yoga of Self-Perfection, this Self-perfection including the awaking of the supramental senses, and the knowledge of the three divisions of times, the past, the present, and the future, trīkāladŗśti. Let us skip some parts and quickly proceed with the Savitri-text to see some of these aspects.

The gifts of the spirit crowding came to him;
They were his life's pattern and his privilege.
A pure perception lent its lucent joy…
In beings it knew what lurked to them unknown;
It seized the idea in mind, the wish in the heart…
He felt the beating life in other men…
He heard the inspired sound of his own thoughts
Re-echoed in the vault of other minds;
The world's thought-streams travelled into his ken;
His inner self grew near to others' selves
And bore a kinship's weight, a common tie,
Yet stood untouched, king of itself, alone…
A vision came of higher realms than ours,
A consciousness of brighter fields and skies,
Of beings less circumscribed than brief-lived men
And subtler bodies than these passing frames,
Objects too fine for our material grasp,
Acts vibrant with a superhuman light
And movements pushed by a superconscient force,
And joys that never flowed through mortal limbs,
And lovelier scenes than earth's and happier lives.
A consciousness of beauty and of bliss,
A knowledge which became what it perceived,
Replaced the separated sense and heart
And drew all Nature into its embrace.
The mind leaned out to meet the hidden worlds.
Air glowed and teemed with marvellous shapes and hues,
In the nostrils quivered celestial fragrances,
On the tongue lingered the honey of paradise.
A channel of universal harmony,
Hearing was a stream of magic audience,
A bed for occult sounds earth cannot hear.
Out of a covert tract of slumber self
The voice came of a truth submerged, unknown
That flows beneath the cosmic surfaces,
Only mid an omniscient silence heard,
Held by intuitive heart and secret sense.

A pure perception has brought to Aswapati the gifts of the inner senses, behind which is the primary sense, manas. The five elemental states of ether-air-fire-water-earth, Akash-Vayu-Agni-Apas-Prithvi have also brought the corresponding subtle organs of perception, ear-touch-eye-tongue-nose or shabda-sparsha-rupa-rasa-gandha. From the causal into the subtle physical have now these instruments of cognition entered into him. And all this before the pre-Pondicherry period. The realization reaches a high Upanishadic peak:

Across a void retreating sky he glimpsed
Through a last glimmer and drift of vanishing stars
The superconscient realms of motionless peace
Where judgment ceases and the word is mute
And the Unconceived lies pathless and alone.
There came not form or any mounting voice;
There only were Silence and the Absolute.
Out of that stillness mind new-born arose
And woke to truths once inexpressible,
And forms appeared, dumbly significant,
A seeing thought, a self-revealing voice.
He knew the source from which his spirit came:
Movement was married to the immobile Vast;
He plunged his roots into the Infinite,
He based his life upon Eternity.


Strong periods of illumination came:
Lightnings of glory after glory burned,
Experience was a tale of blaze and fire,
Air rippled round the argosies of the Gods,
Strange riches sailed to him from the Unseen;
Splendours of insight filled the blank of thought,
Knowledge spoke to the inconscient stillnesses,
Rivers poured down of bliss and luminous force,
Visits of beauty, storm-sweeps of delight
Rained from the all-powerful Mystery above.
Thence stooped the eagles of Omniscience…
An inspired Knowledge sat enthroned within…

In the wake of this inspired knowledge also came inspiration with her lightning feet, and the inexpressible Truth revealed the silent soul. The Nescience is rent and the closed Beyond bared. Inspiration even plundered the Unknowable's vast estate. With her came immortal words to mortal men. Oceans of being met his voyaging soul.

A glimpse was caught of things for ever unknown:
The letters stood out of the unmoving Word:
In the immutable nameless Origin
Was seen emerging as from fathomless seas
The trail of the Ideas that made the world,
And, sown in the black earth of Nature's trance,
The seed of the Spirit's blind and huge desire
From which the tree of cosmos was conceived
And spread its magic arms through a dream of space.
Immense realities took on a shape…
As if a torch held by a power of God,
The radiant world of the everlasting Truth
Glimmered like a faint star bordering the night
Above the golden Overmind's shimmering ridge…
The universe was not now this senseless whirl
Borne round inert on an immense machine…
He saw the labour of a godhead's birth.

It was during this period that Sri Aurobindo got the knowledge of the Vedic Goddesses, Ila, Mahi, and Saraswati. “The three, Ila, Mahi or Bharati and Saraswati are associated together in a constant formula in those hymns of invocation in which the gods are called by Agni to the sacrifice.” To him came the powers of Revelation, Intuition, Inspiration, and Discernment.

In this context let us recall what the Mother has said about those who come fully conscious about their Origin.

For those who have come upon earth fully conscious of their entire being and conscious of their Origin, there is at first a period when this consciousness gets veiled by the physical life and the body-consciousness. It withdraws deep within and waits for the hour when the outer circumstances will make it necessary for that inner self to manifest and to become fully active in the body. And generally, as life is organised, it is some more or less dramatic event that makes this change not only possible but needed. Even those who have come fully conscious, because they are compelled to take birth in the body of a child, their consciousness withdraws for many years, more or less, and has not the full activity that it had in other worlds. But some circumstance, some event tears off the veil and the inner consciousness takes back its place and its activity.

In the case of an Avatar, because he is compelled to take birth in a body, there is a veil drawn over his consciousness; it remains withdrawn for many years. We relate the reclaiming of this consciousness, of this awareness with the outer circumstances of his and get interested in them as his biography. Obviously this cannot be the true picture of the life of an avataric being. Modern mind of course cannot enter into its reality, and that is is limitation. Nor is any purpose served by dinning into his ear the modus operandi of the purpose and process of Avatarhood.

R.Y. Deshpande

10 May 2010

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