January 19, 2006

When are we naked for Savitri?

Notes on Savitri / BLOG This page contains some short notes on Savitri by Carlo Chiopris
Zen gardens, hindu temples Savitri is not an easy read for twentieth century western readers like us. Even if we already know what it’s about, even if we have the best intentions, on first reading it we are disoriented: it’s not what we expected, it seems outdated, old-fashioned, repetitive. One of the reasons for this may be that contemporary mystical and religious poetry is essentially fragmentary: brief, bare texts which illuminate a specific moment and nothing more, with no attempt at anything more systematic. I’m thinking of poets like Dickinson, Tagore, Jimenez. When I first read Savitri I was expecting something similar.
But the poetry of Savitri is very different. It’s a real epic poem on a grand scale, with a very rich internal structure extending down to the individual verses. It manifests a vision which is not fragmentary but comprehensive, which is broad and yet detailed – difficult for our minds, used to changing tv channels and mixing images. A similar relationship is found between Japan and India: on the one hand haikus and Zen temples, on the other the Mahabharata and temples with a concentric series of walls till the innermost Sancta Sanctorum is reached. These walls are covered with bas reliefs, like those of our Gothic cathedrals.
Those who have the key, and enough time, will be able to find and decode a narrative which is broad, deep and detailed. But to the superficial glance all these walls look the same, undifferentiated and boring. It’s interesting that the text contains a similar image, when Savitri, approaching her soul, enters a room with bas reliefs carved on the walls:
On the walls covered with significant shapes
Savitri, 524
I don’t mean to suggest that Savitri has a concentric structure like that of Indian temples – this is not something I see in the text. I see it in the understanding we may have of the text, which becomes deeper at each successive reading. But this observation is probably too superficial, as it implies only one way to the depths, when there can be many.

Some time ago I realized my offering was imperfect, when I noticed how the atmosphere changes when I stop talking about Savitri and start reading the text itself. Or how much more intense the result is, the more I disappear. Am I an instrument? Am I an obstacle? To truly introduce Savitri one must disappear – an unexpected and slightly sad result. Nothing new, you could say. Haven’t we always known that this disappearing act is the foundation of yoga, the right attitude in every moment of life? Why should it be any different when dealing with Savitri?
If I could talk to Sri Aurobindo I’d like to ask him, in the slightly childish tone we can use with those who really love us, “Why must YOU always get all the attention? What about me? Is disappearing the only thing I can do?”. I like to think he would answer, with his usual humour, “Disappear? Isn’t it what I myself did since the very beginning of my sadhana?”.
There’s a passage in Savitri where Sri Aurobindo warns us against identifying with an avatar, as it could convey a titanic attitude where we overestimate our force to only meet an even wider pain. We easily underestimate how wide and deep and overwhelming can “grief and change” be. This is what Narada say to Savitri’s mother, when she tries to oppose to her daughter’s destiny, or to have some part of it. Narada’s words remind me of the Greek “gnothi seauton” which not only means “know thyself” but also “know thy limits, do not exceed them, do not delude thyself”.
O mortal, bear this great world's law of pain,
In thy hard passage through a suffering world
Lean for thy soul's support on Heaven's strength,
Turn towards high Truth, aspire to love and peace.
A little bliss is lent thee from above,
A touch divine upon thy human days.
Make of thy daily way a pilgrimage,
For through small joys and griefs thou mov'st towards God.
Savitri, 6/2, 451
Two pages later:
O mortal, bear, but ask not for the stroke,
Too soon will grief and anguish find thee out.
Savitri, 6/2, 453
When are we naked for Savitri?

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