The 1936-37 version of Savitri: First Installment

Dear Friends,

We are happy to announce that Overman Foundation has received permission from Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust to publish the 1936-37 version of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri in its online forum. We are extremely grateful to Shri Manoj Das Gupta, Managing Trustee of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, for giving us the said permission.

About this version, Nirodbaran writes in his Twelve Years With Sri Aurobindo: “It is only in the version of 1936, sent in instalments privately to Amal [Kiran], that we find for the first time, brief descriptions of the planes, starting with the plane of subtle matter. Later these brief descriptions are amplified and each plane gets a fairly long Canto to itself. In the 1936 version there are no Cantos yet—there are only sections with sub-headings.” (p. 177, 1995 edition)

The first installment of the 1936-37 version of Savitri has been published in the online forum of Overman Foundation.

With warm regards,
Anurag Banerjee
Overman Foundation.



The Last Dawn

IT was the hour before the Gods awake.
Across the path of the divine Event
The huge unslumbering spirit of Night, alone
In the unlit temple of immensity,
Lay stretched immobile upon silence’ marge,
Mute with the unplumbed prevision of her change.
The impassive skies were neutral, waste and still.
Then a faint hesitating glimmer broke.
A slow miraculous gesture dimly came,
The insistent thrill of a transfiguring touch
Persuaded the inert black quietude
And beauty and wonder disturbed the fields of God.
A wandering hand of pale enchanted light
That glowed along the moment’s fading brink,
Fixed with gold panel and opalescent hinge
A gate of dreams ajar on mystery’s verge.
A thought was sown in the unsounded Void,
A sense was born within the darkness’ depths
Vague like a promise from still powerless suns,
A memory quivered in the heart of Time
As if a soul long dead were moved to live.
But the oblivion that succeeds the fall
Obscured the crowded tablets of the past,
And all that was destroyed must be rebuilt
And slow creation laboured out once more.
Yet the undying Ray took shape on high.
Out of the superconscient altitudes
A glamour from unreached transcendences
Iridescent with the glory of the Unseen,
The brief perpetual sign recurred above.
Ablaze awhile upon creation’s edge
Dawn built her aura of magnificent hues,
Burying its seed of grandeur in the hours—
Bright like a soul that nears the sill of birth
And is absorbed into life’s common day,
A spark of heaven enshrined in Matter’s crypt,
Its lustre vanishing in the inconscient planes.
Almost that morn the epiphany was disclosed
Of which she is the coloured signal-flare:
A lonely splendour from the invisible goal
Almost was flung upon the opaque Inane.
Only a little the God-light endures,
But through that little the ancient Marvel shines.
Once more a tread perturbed the vacant vasts.
A face upon infinity’s borders, One
Parted the ageless lids that open Heaven;
A Form from far beatitudes seemed to near.
Ambassadress twixt eternity and change,
Outlined but still protected by her mask,
The omniscient Goddess leaned above the breadths
That wrap the fated journeyings of the stars
And saw the spaces ready for her feet.
Once she half looked behind for her veiled Sun,
Then, thoughtful, turned to her immortal work.
Earth felt the Imperishable’s passage close,
The waking ear of Nature heard her steps
And wideness turned to her its limitless eye,
And, scattered on sealed depths, her luminous smile
Kindled to fire the silence of the worlds.
All grew a consecration and a rite.
Air was a vibrant link between earth and heaven;
The wide-winged hymn of a great priestly wind
Arose and failed upon the altar hills,
The high boughs prayed in a revealing sky.
Here where our half-lit ignorance skirts the gulfs
On the dumb bosom of the ambiguous earth,
Here where one knows not even the step in front
And Truth has her throne on the shadowy back of doubt,
An anguished and precarious field of toil
Outspread beneath some large indifferent gaze,
Our prostrate soul bore the awakening Light.
Here too the glamour and prophetic flame
Touched for an instant trivial daylong shapes,
Then the divine afflatus, lost, withdrew,
Dimmed, fading slowly from the mortal’s range.
A sacred yearning lingered in its trace,
The worship of a Presence and a Power
Too perfect to be held by death-bound hearts,
The prescience of a marvellous birth to come.
Affranchised from its respite of fatigue,
Once more the rumour of the speed of Life
Renewed the cycles of the blinded quest.
All sprang to their unvarying daily acts;
The thousand peoples of the soil and tree
Obeyed the unforeseeing instant’s urge,
And, leader here with his uncertain mind,
Alone who seeks the future’s covered face,
Man lifted up the burden of his fate.

     And Savitri too woke among these tribes
That hastened to join the brilliant summoner’s chant
And, lured by the beauty of the apparent ways,
Acclaimed their portion of ephemeral joy.
Akin to the eternity whence she came,
No part she took in their small happiness.
Its chequered eager motion of pursuit
And fluttering-hued illusion of desire,
Its message of brief light shone not for her.
A mighty stranger in the human field,
The embodied Guest within made no response.
In her there was the anguish of the Gods
Imprisoned in the transience of our mould,
The deathless conquered by the death of things.
A vaster joy had dwelt with her, but long
Could stand not on this brittle earthly base.
A narrow movement on Time’s deep abysm,
Life’s fragile littleness denied the power
And proud and conscious wideness and the bliss
That she had brought into the mortal form:
Offered to the daughter of Infinity
Its passion-flower of love and doom it gave.
As with one who watches over men left blind
And bears the load of the unwitting race,
A dread foreknowledge separated her
From all of whom she was the star and stay:
To the lone immortal’s unshared work she rose.
At first life ached not in her burdened breast.
Awhile she lay in silence twixt two realms,
Nothing recalling of the sorrow here,
Then sighing put her hand upon her bosom,
Nor knew why the dull lingering grief was there,
Deep, quiet, old, made natural to its place.
Heavy, unwilling were life’s servitors
Like workers with no wages of delight:
Sullen, the torch of sense refused to burn;
The unassisted brain found not its past.
Only some vague earth-nature held the frame.
But soon her strong far-winging spirit returned
Across the ebbing of the seas of sleep.
Her house of Nature felt the unseen sway:
Illumined swiftly were the darkened rooms,
And memory’s casements opened on the hours,
And the tired feet of thought approached her doors.
All came back to her. Earth and love and doom,
Dim giant figures wrestling in the night,
The ancient disputants encircled her,
And in the shadow of her flaming heart
At the sombre centre of the dire debate
An image white of high and godlike Pain,
A guardian of the unconsoled abyss
Inheriting the long agony of the globe,
Appeared and gazed with fixed regardless eyes
That saw grief’s timeless depths but not life’s goal.
Afflicted by his harsh divinity,
Bound to his throne, he waited unappeased
The daily oblation of her unwept tears.
All the fierce question of man’s hours relived:
The sacrifice of suffering and desire
Earth offers to the immortal ecstasy
Began again beneath the eternal Hand.
Awake she endured the moments’ serried march,
And looked on this green smiling dangerous world,
And heard the ignorant cry of living things.
Her soul arose confronting Time and Fate:
Immobile in herself, she gathered force.
This was the day when Satyavan must die.

The Issue [2]

Awhile she moved in the many-imaged past.
All that she once had dreamed and hoped and been
Flew by her eagle-winged through memory’s skies.
All her life’s highways and its sweet bypaths
Were mapped in her sun-clear recording view,—
Then this new turn where Heaven raced with Hell.
Twelve passionate months had brought a day of Fate
When, lonely, she must face the power of Death,
Measuring her depths with his all-seizing Night.
Alone among unknowing happy hearts
Her armoured soul kept watch upon the hours
Listening for a foreseen tremendous step
In the closed beauty of the inhuman wilds.
A combatant in silent dreadful lists,
No helper had she but the Strength within;
There was no witness of terrestrial eyes.
The Gods above and Nature sole below
Were the spectators of that mighty strife.
Around her were the austere sky-pointing hills
And the green murmurous broad deep-thoughted woods
Muttering incessantly their muffled spell.
Here in this dense magnificent coloured world,
Amid the chequered sunbeams and blithe flowers
Draped in the leaves’ emerald vivid monotone,
Immured, her destiny’s secluded scene
Kept vacant for its act a grandiose stage:
Her drama’s radiant prologue here she had lived.
Twelve months before this white ray-haunted dawn
Here through an aureate opening in Time
Amidst the cloistral yearning of the woods
And under the aspiration of the peaks,
Changing to rapture the dull earthly round,
Repeating the marvel of the first descent
Love came to her hiding the shadow, Death.
Well might he find in her his perfect shrine!
Since first the Earth-being’s heavenward growth began,
Through all the long ordeal of the race,
Never a rarer creature bore his shaft,
That burning test of the godhead in our parts,
A lightning from the heights on our abyss.
All in her pointed to a nobler kind.
Near to earth’s wideness, intimate with heaven,
Exalted and swift her young large-visioned spirit
Winging through worlds of splendour and of calm
O’erflew the ways of Thought to unborn things.
Ardent was her self-poised unstumbling will,
Her mind, a sea of white sincerity,
Passionate in flow, had not one turbid wave.
As in a mystic and dynamic dance
A priestess of immaculate ecstasies,
Inspired and ruled from Truth’s revealing vault,
Moves in some prophet cavern of the Gods,
A heart of silence in the hands of joy
Inhabited with rich creative beats
A body like a parable of dawn
That seemed a niche for veiled divinity
Or golden temple-door to things beyond.
Immortal rhythms swayed in her time-born steps;
Her look, her smile awoke celestial sense
Even in earth-stuff and their intense delight
Poured a supernal beauty on men’s lives.
The great unsatisfied godhead here could dwell.
Vacant of the dwarf self’s imprisoned air,
Her mood could harbour his sublimer breath
Spiritual that can make all things divine:
For even her gulfs were secrecies of light.
At once she was the stillness and the Word,
A continent of self-diffusing peace,
An ocean of untrembling virgin fire.
In her he met a vastness like his own;
His warm high subtle ether he refound
And moved in her as in his natural home.
Till then no mournful line had barred this Ray
Since her orbed sight in its breath-fastened house,
Opening in sympathy with happier stars
Where life is not exposed to sorrowful change,
Remembered beauty death-claimed lids ignore
And wondered at this scene of fragile forms
Carried on canvas strips of shimmering Time.
Although she learned to bear the human load,
The impunity of unborn Mights was here.
A radiance from the Immortals’ world was there:
Almost they saw who lived within her light
The white-fire dragon-bird of endless bliss,
Her playmate in the sempiternal spheres
In her attracting advent’s lustrous wake
Descended from his unattainable realms,
Drifting with burning wings above her days.
Heaven’s tranquil shield guarded the missioned child
A glowing orbit was her early term,—
Years like gold raiment of the Gods that pass;
Her youth sat throned in calm felicity
But joy cannot endure until the end.
There is a darkness in terrestrial things
That will not suffer long too glad a note.
The armed Immortal bore the snare of Time.
One dealt with her who meets the burdened great.
A Will moves his too large for us to know,
Whose sanction he obeys as him our fates.
Assigner of the ordeal and the path
Who uses in this holocaust of the soul
Death, fall and sorrow for the spirit’s goads,
The dubious Godhead with his torch of pain
Lit up the chasm of the unfinished world,
Calling to fill with her vast self the abyss.
He used the Spirit’s dreadful strategy.
Assailing her divinest elements,
Measuring the difficulty with the might,
He dug more deep the gulf that all must cross,
Made kin her heart to the striving human heart,
And forced her strength to its appointed road.
To wrestle with the Shadow she had come
And must confront the riddle of man’s birth
And life’s brief struggle in dim Matter’s night.
Whether to bear with Ignorance and Death
Or hew the ways of Immortality,
To lose or win the godlike game for man,
Was her soul’s issue thrown with Destiny’s dice.
But not to accept and suffer was she born.
This was no fabric of terrestrial make,
A creature formed to bend beneath the yoke
Submissive and subject to earth’s dolorous law,
Half-animated for a passing play
An image fluttering on the screen of Fate,
Or, tossed along the gulfs of circumstance,
A chattel and a plaything of Time’s lords.
A conscious Frame was here, a self-born Force.
For in this strange uneasy compromise
Of limiting Nature with the limitless Self
Where all must move between an ordered Chance
And an uncaring blind Necessity,
Too high the Fire spiritual dare not blaze.
An answering touch might shatter all measures made
And earth sink down with the weight of the Infinite.
A grey tribunal of the Ignorance,
An inquisition of the priests of Night
In judgment sit on the adventurer Soul,
And the dual tables and the Karmic norms
Restrain the Titan in us and the God,
Pain with its lash, joy with its silver bribe
Guard the Wheel’s circling immobility.
A bond is put on the high-climbing mind,
A seal on the too vast and open heart
To keep the throne of the Inconscient safe,
While the slow coilings of the aeons pass
And the Animal browses in the sacred fence
And the gold Hawk can cross the skies no more.
But one stood up who lit the limitless flame.
Arraigned by the dark Power that hates all bliss
In the dire court where life must pay for joy,
Sentenced by the mechanic justicer
To the afflicting penalty of man’s hopes,
Her head she bowed not to the unseen decree,
Obedient to the statutes fixed of old,
Admitting without appeal the nether Gods.
Inapt to fold its mighty wings of dream,
Her spirit refused struck from the starry list
To quench in dull despair the God-given light,
Asked not from mortal frailty pain’s relief,
Accepted not to close the luminous page
And set a signature of weak assent
To the brute balance of the world’s exchange.
In her own self she found her high recourse
And matched with the iron law her sovereign right;
Her single will opposed the cosmic rule.
To stay the wheels of Doom this greatness rose.
A flaming warrior from the eternal peaks
Empowered to force the doors denied and closed
Smote from death’s visage its dumb absolute
And burst the bonds of consciousness and Time.

(To be continued)

[1] From Sri Aurobindo’s Notes: “This First Book is divided into sections and the larger sections into subsections… The first section is ‘The last Dawn’, i.e., the dawn of the day of Satyavan’s death, (but it must be remembered that everything is symbolic or significant in the poem, so this dawn also,) the next is ‘The Issue’; both of these are short. Then comes a huge section of the Yoga of the Lord of the Horse (Aswapati, father of Savitri) relating how came about the birth of Savitri and its significance; finally the birth and child¬hood of Savitri” (26.10.1936).

[2] From Sri Aurobindo’s Notes: “Here is… the second section which is entitled ‘The Issue’—that is of course the issue between Savitri and Fate or rather between the incarnate Light, the Sun Goddess, and Death the Creator and Devourer of this world with his Law of darkness, limitation, ignorance.” (31 October 1936)


3 Replies to “The 1936-37 version of Savitri: First Installment

  1. I would like to inform our Gujarati readers and admirers of “Savitri” that Ms. Shraddhavan’s word-to-word elucidations of Cantos One, Two and Three of “Savitri” have been published by Yoga-Yukta Prakashan of Vadodara in two volumes under the title of “Savitri Sabdamrut”. Translated into Gujarati by Shri Kirit Thakkar, the two volumes were published on 15 August 2012 and 22 July 2013 respectively.

    In the introduction to the first volume of “Savitri Sabdamrut”, Ms. Shraddhavan informs us: “The articles collected in this book are based on talks about Sri Aurobindo’s revelatory epic poem ‘Savitri—a Legend and a Symbol’ that have been given in Pondicherry and Auroville. The first one, ‘Reading Savitri for Progress and Delight’ originated with a presentation at SACAR (Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research) in Pondicherry in August 2001 as part of a ‘Savitri Celebration’ organised by the Centre. The article which appears second here was originally prepared for the opening session of the Savitri Study Circle in Auroville, in November 1994 and was published in the very first issue of ‘Invocation’, the series of Study Notes, published by Savitri Bhavan from 1998 onwards. The remaining pieces are based on transcripts of a series of classes held at Savitri Bhavan, under the title ‘The English of Savitri’ from August 2008 onwards.

    “As is mentioned in the talk on ‘Reading Savitri’, the experiment of teaching and learning English by reading ‘Savitri’ was first tried in the early 1980s. Those sessions were held for one hour daily. When Savitri Bhavan was in its early stages, before there was any permanent building, it was taken up again, a few of us meeting in the early mornings two or three times a week. Later, our beloved elder brother Dr. Nirodbaran, Sri Aurobindo’s scribe for the later stages of the composition of ‘Savitri’, had inaugurated the first building of the Savitri Bhavan campus, this was taken up as a weekly activity. In these sessions, which are still continuing, a short passage from the poem is read together, sentence by sentence, and an attempt is made to understand the meaning of each word in the sentence, the way the words are connected to each other, and any images used by the poet, so as to gain a first mental understanding of the text, as well as some appreciation of its beauty and its music. These sessions are intended mainly for people whose mother-tongue is not English, people who feel attracted to this poem which the Mother has called ‘The supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision’ and who wish to have some help towards a deeper understanding of it. In August 2008, having reached the end of the poem in this way with a certain group and taking a break for several months, it was decided to start again at the beginning of the poem. The nine articles included in this book are based on transcripts of recordings made of those sessions. Since April 2010 those transcripts are being published one by one in issues of ‘Invocation’.

    “I want to emphasise here that these explorations are intended only to offer a very first approach to Sri Aurobindo’s mystic masterwork, and should never be taken as a definitive interpretation of it. Amal Kiran has reported how, soon after the first one-volume edition of ‘Savitri’ was published in 1954, the Mother revealed to a small group of sadhaks:

    “Savitri is occult knowledge and spiritual experience. Some part of it can be understood mentally, but much of it needs the same knowledge and experience for understanding it. Nobody here except myself can explain Savitri. One day I hope to explain it in its true sense.”

    “I can make no claim to be able to explain any part of ‘Savitri’ in all the profundity of its true significance. What I have to offer is the understanding of a native English speaker who has been in love with poetry since childhood, who has studied English language and literature at a British university, and who has been reading Sri Aurobindo’s masterwork with detailed attention and increasing delight for many years. I thank Shri Kireet Thakkar for his interest in this work, and his wish to make it available to the Gujarati reading public. The inspiration for this collection is his, and it is his untiring enthusiasm and effort that have brought it into existence.”

    In the preface to the second volume of “Savitri Sabdamrut”, Ms. Shraddhavan informs the readers: “I would like to take this opportunity, with the publication of this new volume of Sabdamrut, to again emphasise strongly to all readers of this book and others in this series, that these articles should not be taken as definitive interpretations of Sri Aurobindo’s fathomless mystic epic.

    “My remarks are intended simply as aids to a first mental understanding of the literal meaning of Sri Aurobindo’s lines. They are based on the meanings and suggestions of the words and the structure of the sentences as they can be understood in the context of English literary practice.

    “To gain a deeper intuitive glimpse into the complex depths of the secret knowledge with which Sri Aurobindo has charged his mantric lines, it would be helpful to read the lines aloud, (though not necessarily in a loud voice: a softer concentrated tone might be better) in a silent indrawn state, in which the rhythms and subtle suggestive word-music of the poem could speak directly to the attentive inner ear. In such a state, some resonance from this limitless Ocean of Gems could be caught.

    “Savitri can be approached and appreciated on many levels. Its ultimate value, as ‘the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision’ and ‘a mantra for the transformation of the world’ may by Grace reveal itself to the seeker who approaches it with humility, faith, devotion and reverent receptivity.

    “At the end of Canto 4 of Book 7, Savitri tells the Madonna of Light,

    But not by showering heaven’s golden rain
    Upon the intellect’s hard and rocky soil
    Can the tree of Paradise flower on earthly ground
    And the Bird of Paradise sit upon life’s boughs
    And the winds of Paradise visit mortal air.
    Even if thou rain down intuition’s rays,
    The mind of man will think it earth’s own gleam,
    His spirit by spiritual ego sink,
    Or his soul dream shut in sainthood’s brilliant cell
    Where only a bright shadow of God can come.
    His hunger for the eternal thou must nurse
    And fill his yearning heart with heaven’s fire
    And bring God down into his body and life. p.520

    “Savitri is saying that it is not by enlightening the intellect that the great work can be done, but only by nursing man’s ‘hunger for the eternal’ and filling his heart with aspiration, and bringing down the Divine into the body and life. This is a good message for us as we study Savitri: intellectual understanding is only valuable if it increases our aspiration and our openness to the higher consciousness and force, and helps us to recognise that each of us must change individually, by opening to the Light, Power, Love and Grace, in order to participate in the Great Transformation.”

    I invite all admirers of “Savitri” to have a sip of the nectar named “Savitri Sabdamrut”.

    With warm regards,
    Anurag Banerjee

  2. Sri Aurobindo on the early “Savitri”:

    • “‘Savitri’ … is blank verse without enjambment (except rarely)—each line a thing by itself and arranged in paragraphs of one, two, three, four, five lines (rarely a longer series), in an attempt to catch something of the Upanishadic and Kalidasian movement, so far as that is a possibility in English.” (1932)

    • “I receive from above my head and receive changes and corrections from above without any initiation by myself or labour of the brain. Even if I change a hundred times, the mind does not work at that, it only receives. Formerly it used not to be so, the mind was always labouring at the stuff of an unshaped formation.” (1934)

    • “I used ‘Savitri’ as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level. Moreover I was particular—if part seemed to me to come from any lower levels I was not satisfied to leave it because it was good poetry. All had to be as far as possible of the same mint. In fact ‘Savitri’ has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s own Yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative.” (1936)

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