The "Double Twilight" in Savitri
an essay (2001)
| Date: Fri, 27 Jul 2001 (slightly
revised for 21 February 2002)
This essay is the record of a journey of discovery on my part, regarding several aspects of Savitri which have been made clearer to me in the past few months. This journey was not, however, one into brand new territory, since it is now many years and many read-throughs since I first took up "Savitri". It is, rather, a broadening and deepening of the pathway I have tread since then. I only hope to give some faint echoes of that process in this small essay. I offer it to the feet of the Author of this master Work, as well as to Her whose "Eternal birth in time" is its' Subject.
I welcome any responses that you, my fellow sojourner, may have.
In Their Light and Love,
One of the most difficult questions for me in Savitri has been, "What to make of the realms of the Double Twilight which Savitri and Death pass through in their struggle over Satyavan's soul - the Dream Twilight of the Ideal, followed by the Dream Twilight of the Earthly Real?" They seem not to correspond to any of the many, varied planes of existence which Aswapati explores in the World-Stair; worlds which Sri Aurobindo assures us have a real existence, which are objective realities in and of themselves. This is very odd, since it seems that, in exploring the World-Stair, Aswapati [and Sri Aurobindo] has given us an experience of the entire range of universal inner existence, from top to bottom. All of human, indeed all of Cosmic existence, fits within these multi-layered worlds. So then, whence come these entirely unexpected, and seemingly unexplained, new realms of existence?
To fully comprehend this mystery, it will be necessary to explore two distinct aspects of Savitri, each of which is helpful in delving deeper into the wonders of the multiple levels of complexity of this incomparable Work.
The first of these aspects relates to the question, How is Savitri's yoga different and distinct from Aswapati's yoga? and further, what are we to make of these differences? The second aspect is the centrality of the theme, The Coming of the Dawn in the epic itself.
Concerning the first of these - the difference between Aswapati's and Savitri's yogas - Sri Aurobindo, in a letter on Savitri, describes Aswapati thusly: "Aswapati, the Lord of the Horse, [Savitri's] human father, is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes." Aswapati's yoga is primarily one of ascension, aspiration in action. He brings us to the highest heights, and beyond even into that which transcends those heights. Although this may be an oversimplification, since everything in Savitri contains multiple levels of complexity, it may still be a valid oversimplification.
Savitri, on the other hand, is the direct manifestation of the Divine Mother - She by whose Light the suns are but dark spots. Sri Aurobindo writes, "Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save." Savitri's yoga, then, partakes of the opposite principle as that of Aswapati. Hers is a yoga of divine Descent, of the forever-pure original Power that created these worlds, descending into a human body in order to raise humanity and the world out of its darkness and error and ignorance into the Light and Freedom and Truth of its Origin.
In Book III, Canto 4, [p. 346], he writes:
One shall descend and break the iron Law,
Change Nature's doom by the lone spirit's power.
A seed shall be sown in Death's tremendous hour,
A branch of heaven transplant to human soil;
Nature shall overleap her mortal step;
Fate shall be changed by an unchanging will."
Savitri's yoga is therefore a yoga of and in this world - specifically, a yoga in the body, not in worlds far beyond our ken. In fact, in Book VII Canto 3 ["The Entry into the Inner Countries", p.486], Savitri's high self speaks to her lower personality thusly:
"Then a Voice spoke that dwelt on secret heights:
'For man thou seekst, not for thyself alone.
Only if God assumes the human mind
And puts on mortal ignorance for his cloak
And makes himself the Dwarf with triple stride,
Can he help man to grow into the God.
As man disguised the cosmic Greatness works
And finds the mystic inaccessible gate
And opens the Immortal's golden door.
Man, human, follows in God's human steps.
Accepting his darkness thou must bring to him light,
Accepting his sorrow thou must bring to him bliss.
In Matter's body find thy heaven-born soul.' "
"In MATTER'S BODY find thy heaven-born soul". When I read these words recently, although I had already read them a dozen times or more, their significance struck me like the clapper on a great bell. Just as Mother insisted over and over in her later years that the experiences of which She spoke were not in the mental or vital as such experiences are so often, but in her BODY, direct experiences of the body-consciousness - just so are the experiences of Savitri of which Sri Aurobindo writes, experiences of and in the body, not in some far-flung spiritual plane of existence.
As an example of this difference, we need only to look at the finding of the Soul. In Aswapati's yoga, he first climbs to the highest heights of Mind, to the Self of Mind, before breaking through into the universal World-Soul. Savitri's search, quite significantly, begins where a "Fire burning on the bare stone" leads her to "the deep cavern of [her] secret soul," evoking a most material setting.
The second aspect of this epic poem which we will need to consider is to recall that one of the central themes that runs throughout the entire work, quite possibly THE central theme of Savitri, is the coming of the Dawn, and its' victory over the Night. Indeed, the reader will immediately recall the very opening lines of "The Symbol Dawn", Book I Canto I. It is no accident that those powerful lines, beginning with, "It was the hour before the Gods awake," open this epic of the coming of a new Light upon earth, of the triumph of Love over Death, culminating with "The Book of Everlasting Day".
Most assuredly, it is a commonplace to assert that the coming of the Dawn is central to Savitri. However, this aspect of the epic was brought home to me in an especially powerful manner just this winter. By seeming happenstance, the online Savitri study was just reaching the Book of Death just as our local meditation group had completed it's most recent read-through of Savitri, and had come back again to Book I Canto 1. I found myself switching repeatedly between the Book of Death, Canto 3 "Death in the Forest", and the Book of Beginnings, in which Savitri is introduced, with the central conflict revealed by the line, "This was the day when Satyavan must die." Suddenly it struck me that, without my noticing, the two study groups had somehow arrived at the very same point in the tale at the same time, though by different routes. And somehow, slipping in beneath the little shock of that delightful discovery, a much deeper knowing was opened in me. I realized that in fact Savitri's journey through the Night beginning with the next canto, "Towards the Black Void" [IX:1] was the prelude to, indeed the working out of that new Dawn which had been vouchsafed to Aswapati on the Heights, and which had been pre-figured in the lines of the opening canto.
The first hint of the promise of this coming Dawn we find in that very canto, "The Symbol Dawn." It could be said that this canto contains a template for all dawns, is in fact the archetype of The Dawn. And by showing the progression of dawns, from Dark to first hint of light, all the way to sudden revelation of the splendour of the full Day, helps us to follow the same progression in the turning of an Age from the Night of a Kali Yuga to the new revelations of the coming Satya Yuga.
And who is the One Who is the bringer of the Dawn? None other than the Creatrix of all the worlds, "the Sun from which we kindle all our suns," the Divine Shakti, the mighty Mother of whom is written:
"At the head she stands of birth and toil and fate,
In their slow round the cycles turn to her call;
Alone her hands can change Time's dragon base."
[III:2 - P. 314]
"...the cycles turn to her call" All cycles, from the infinitesimal to the universal - from the dawn of the day, to the Dawn of a new Age of the earth. And the young woman Savitri, "daughter of the Sun," is the instrument of that mighty change.
Nevertheless, the question we posed at the beginning still remains: How do these two themes - the difference between Aswapati's and Savitri's yoga, and the centrality of the Coming of the Dawn, help us to comprehend the place of those mysterious realms described in the Book of the Double Twilight?
To begin with, first we must look at Book 9, Canto 2, "The Journey in Eternal Night and the Voice of the Darkness". Here, Savitri has left the safe confines of the now-abandoned forest where the body of her husband lies on the gentle sod, and has flamed forth out of her own mortal body to follow Satyavan's soul, led by the dread shadowy figure of Death. The lifeless landscape through which they travel is one beyond the mortal's reach. We are told that:
"The Woman first affronted the Abyss
Daring to journey through the eternal Night."
Never has a mortal being had the daring, the consciousness and strength, to challenge mighty Death in his own land, in Eternal Night. As with the experience of Nirvana and the All-Negating Absolute, Savitri finds that everything that constituted her everyday living has been negated, obliterated. Unlike that earlier experience however, there is here no sense of liberation and release, but rather an absolute of oppression and terror:
"The thought that strives in the world was here unmade;
Its effort it renounced to live and know"
"In the smothering stress of this stupendous Nought
Mind could not think, breath could not breathe, the soul
Could not remember or feel itself; it seemed
A hollow gulf of sterile emptiness,
A zero oblivious of the sum it closed,
An abnegation of the Maker's joy
Saved by no wide repose, no depth of peace."
And yet, what do we find here? Quietly, in the middle of this unblinking picture of oppressive Nought, something shifts - a subtle but critical corner is turned:
"Solitary in the anguish of the void
She lived in spite of death, she conquered still;
In vain her puissant being was oppressed:
Her heavy long monotony of pain
Tardily of its fierce self-torture tired."
"She lived in spite of death, she conquered still". This one short line, unmarked by dramatic devices or grammatical emphases, points to the exact moment of reversal of direction in the tale. Before this, Savitri is oppressed, blind, negated in the absolute Negation of Night. Suddenly, things shift. The very next lines show at first a bare hint of this change, which slowly builds to the end of the canto:
"At first a faint inextinguishable gleam,
Pale but immortal, flickered in the gloom
As if a memory came to spirits dead,
A memory that wished to live again,
Dissolved from mind in Nature's natal sleep.
It wandered like a lost ray of the moon
Revealing to the night her soul of dread;
Serpentine in the gleam the darkness lolled,
Its black hoods jewelled with the mystic glow;
Its dull sleek folds shrank back and coiled and slid,
As though they felt all light a cruel pain
And suffered from the pale approach of hope.
Night felt assailed her heavy sombre reign;
The splendour of some bright eternity
Threatened with this faint beam of wandering Truth
Her empire of the everlasting Nought.
Implacable in her intolerant strength
And confident that she alone was true,
She strove to stifle the frail dangerous ray;
Aware of an all-negating immensity
She reared her giant head of Nothingness,
Her mouth of darkness swallowing all that is;
She saw in herself the tenebrous Absolute.
But still the light prevailed and still it grew,
And Savitri to her lost self awoke;
Her limbs refused the cold embrace of death,
Her heart-beats triumphed in the grasp of pain;
Her soul persisted claiming for its joy
The soul of the beloved now seen no more.
Before her in the stillness of the world
Once more she heard the treading of a god,
And out of the dumb darkness Satyavan,
Her husband, grew into a luminous shade."
[IX:2 pp. 584-5]
Slowly, in the resisting Night, Savitri awakes to her senses - and her sense of herself. And what are we reminded of here, but the evocative lines of that very first canto - the Symbol Dawn:
"Then something in the inscrutable darkness stirred;
A nameless movement, an unthought Idea
Insistent, dissatisfied, without an aim,
Something that wished but knew not how to be,
Teased the Inconscient to wake Ignorance.
Insensibly somewhere a breach began:
A long lone line of hesitating hue
Like a vague smile tempting a desert heart
Troubled the far rim of life's obscure sleep.
As if solicited in an alien world
With timid and hazardous instinctive grace,
Orphaned and driven out to seek a home,
An errant marvel with no place to live,
Into a far-off nook of heaven there came
A slow miraculous gesture's dim appeal.
The persistent 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 a fading moment's brink,
Fixed with gold panel and opalescent hinge
A gate of dreams ajar on mystery's verge.
One lucent corner windowing hidden things
Forced the world's blind immensity to sight. "
And it is only here, now that his previously impenetrable Night has been pushed back by Savitri's inextinguishable Light, that the dark Lord is compelled to speech, and to offer boons to Savitri as an acknowledgement of Her conquest.
Savitri and Death strive against each other "in armed speech" in the deep gloom. As Book X, the Book of the Double Twilight begins, Savitri is still being led through a gloom which "led to worse gloom, death to an emptier death." This first 'paragraph' of Canto One, "The Dream Twilight of the Ideal" begins with a further experience of the depths of this infernal Darkness. Halfway through, however, again a subtle shift. We start with:
"...Her spirit, guilty of being, wandered doomed,
Moving for ever through eternal Night."
Yet, again without special emphasis, we come upon this crucial change of tone:
"But Maya is a veil of the Absolute;
A Truth occult has made this mighty world:
The Eternal's wisdom and self-knowledge act
In ignorant Mind and in the body's steps."
[X:1 p. 600]
Suddenly, the eternal Night is no longer absolute, but rather has been seen to be a manifestation of something greater, and so takes its place in a grander scheme. And by doing so, the Poet shows a conquering Consciousness integrating that which had been pure separation into an even broader divine Reality and Truth.
As a result, the next paragraph [p. 601] begins with a description of the first of the two "dream twilights:"
"There is a morning twilight of the gods;
Miraculous from sleep their forms arise
And God's long nights are justified by dawn.
There breaks a passion and splendour of new birth
And hue-winged visions stray across the lids,
Heaven's chanting heralds waken dim-eyed Space.
The dreaming deities look beyond the seen
And fashion in their thoughts the ideal worlds
Sprung from a limitless moment of desire
That once had lodged in some abysmal heart."
[X:1 pp. 601-2]
This is a "morning twilight", the twilight which comes after the darkest night:
"Passed was the heaviness of the eyeless dark
And all the sorrow of the night was dead..."
The first faint hints of light line the far horizon, and shapes of one's surroundings become faintly visible. Indeed:
"A pearl-winged indistinctness fleeting swam,
An air that dared not suffer too much light."
And we ask ourselves, How does this twilight come to be? Clearly, the answer has to be that it is due to the imminent coming of the Sun. But whence is the Sun in this case? And the unavoidable answer has to be that the Sun which is arising is within Savitri herself. She, the daughter of the Sun, bears within herself the Promise of a new Day. She, alone, can and does push back the Darkness which strangles man's soul, illuminating the Ignorance mind cannot penetrate, and brings the Light of Truth to bear on this struggling world.
The ensuing struggle is filled, not only with powerful, evocative language and images, not only with the posing and rebutting of each of the world's major schools of philosophy and theology, but also with the gradual diminution of the stature of this Night and Death, the gradual expression and unfoldment of this Manifestation of the Divine Shakti.
Near the end of their dire debate in the realm of the Dream Twilight of the Ideal ["The Debate of Love and Death"], Savitri asks Her drear opponent, ["that gentleman" as Mother would later refer to this Death]:
" 'Why dost thou vainly strive with me, O Death,
A mind delivered from all twilight thoughts,
To whom the secrets of the gods are plain?
For now at last I know beyond all doubt,
The great stars burn with my unceasing fire
And life and death are both its fuel made.' "
Savitri, as a result of Her repeated challenges to Death, has been growing into the fullness of Her manifestation. Here She has grown into the consciousness of her oneness with the transcendant Creator. One senses that, even as she speaks, the reality of her knowing is being made manifest.
" 'Life only was my blind attempt to love:
Earth saw my struggle, heaven my victory;
All shall be seized, transcended; there shall kiss
Casting their veils before the marriage fire
The eternal bridegroom and eternal bride.
The heavens accept our broken flights at last.
On our life's prow that breaks the waves of Time
No signal light of hope has gleamed in vain.'
She spoke; the boundless members of the god
As if by secret ecstasy assailed,
Shuddered in silence as obscurely stir
Ocean's dim fields delivered to the moon.
Then lifted up as by a sudden wind
Around her in that vague and glimmering world
The twilight trembled like a bursting veil."
And here, Death has been touched to the core by her transcendant Light, and is shaken to his roots. As a sign of this initial defeat, we see at the end of this canto the three again en marche, but instead of Savitri simply following behind Death and his prey, it is now Her sovereign will guiding them all:
"All still compelled went gliding on unchanged,
Still was the order of these worlds reversed:
The mortal led, the god and spirit obeyed
And she behind was leader of their march
And they in front were followers of her will."
And so they travel on, but not into deeper depths of Night. Rather, impelled by Savitri, the strange procession moves into a realm less tenuous and vague - more like the early morning hours when shapes begin to appear more clearly, solid outlines and forms come clear, but still all is shades of grey, for the light of the Sun has yet to make its appearance. Such is the "Twilight of the Earthly Real".
As the sonorous struggle of argument and counter-argument proceeds, Savitri gradually pushes back the Dark, and as she does so the Power and purity of her manifestation steadily increase:
" 'My mind is a torch lit from the eternal sun,
My life a breath drawn by the immortal Guest,
My mortal body is the Eternal's house.
Already the torch becomes the undying ray,
Already the life is the Immortal's force,
The house grows of the householder part and one.' "
And Death continues to soften and be re-shaped by Savitri's Light and Force:
"Then rang again a deeper cry of Death.
As if beneath its weight of sterile law
Oppressed by its own obstinate meaningless will,
Disdainful, weary and compassionate,
It kept no more its old intolerant sound,
But seemed like life's in her unnumbered paths
Toiling for ever and achieving nought"
" This change was in the godhead's far-flung voice;
His form of dread was altered and admitted
Our transient effort at eternity,
Yet flung vast doubts of what might else have been
On grandiose hints of an impossible day."
Further, as Savitri prepares to answer Death for the last time, with her ultimate statement of the Truth of this phenomenal world:
"The Woman answered to the mighty Shade,
And as she spoke, mortality disappeared;
Her Goddess self grew visible in her eyes,
Light came, a dream of heaven, into her face."
Death, in his reply, comes just short of acknowledging her Divinity, but finally admitting the possibility, as if longing for it to be true:
" 'O human claimant to immortality,
Reveal thy power, lay bare thy spirit's force,
Then will I give back to thee Satyavan.
Or if the Mighty Mother is with thee,
Show me her face that I may worship her;
Let deathless eyes look into the eyes of Death,
An imperishable Force touching brute things
Transform earth's death into immortal life.
Then can thy dead return to thee and live.
The prostrate earth perhaps shall lift her gaze
And feel near her the secret body of God
And love and joy overtake fleeing Time.' "
But the time for "armed speech" is over. It is time for the final Act:
"And Savitri looked on Death and answered not.
Almost it seemed as if in his symbol shape
The world's darkness had consented to Heaven-light
And God needed no more the Inconscient's screen.
A mighty transformation came on her.
A halo of the indwelling Deity,
The Immortal's lustre that had lit her face
And tented its radiance in her body's house,
Overflowing made the air a luminous sea.
In a flaming moment of apocalypse
The Incarnation thrust aside its veil.
A little figure in infinity
Yet stood and seemed the Eternal's very house,
As if the world's centre was her very soul
And all wide space was but its outer robe."
Thus rises the Sun.
Dawns a new and greater Day.