Onward she passed…
Rejection as Described in Savitri
By Matthijs Cornelissen
One of the many marvellous things in Savitri is the completely uninterrupted progress in the sadhana of Aswapati and later of Savitri. Aswapati and Savitri always move on; they never stop; they never go back. Partly this may be due to the symbolic nature of the story. Aswapati and Savitri are, after all, at least to some extent typal figures. Their lives miss the many diluting and confusing side-plots that mar and delay our spiritual development. But this is only part of the explanation; there is also a more technical aspect to it. It appears to me that the secret of their quick progress rests in the perfect application of a specific yogic skill, the skill of rejection.
Rejection is one of the three main skills or “inner gestures” that have to be used in Sadhana. The most powerful description of these three skills can be found in Sri Aurobindo's collection of letters called The Mother. This little booklet starts with one of Sri Aurobindo’s most magnificent sentences,
There are two powers that alone can effect in their conjunction the great and difficult thing which is the aim of our endeavour, a fixed and unfailing aspiration that calls from below and a supreme Grace from above that answers
The further one gets in one’s sadhana, the more one becomes aware that this “Grace that answers” is a permanent “given”. It is always there; it is the force that carries the universe and it is one's constant companion on the road. The difficulty is with the call from below, the need for a “constant and unfailing aspiration.” A little further, Sri Aurobindo specifies exactly what is demanded from our side:
“The personal effort required is a triple labour of aspiration, rejection and surrender, --
“An aspiration, vigilant, constant, and unceasing – the mind’s will, the heart’s seeking, the assent of the vital being, the will to open and make plastic the physical consciousness and nature;
“Rejection of the movements of the lower nature – rejection of the mind’s ideas, opinions, preferences, habits, constructions, so that the true knowledge may find free room in a silent mind, -- rejection of the vital nature’s desires, demands, cravings, sensations, passions, selfishness, pride, arrogance, lust, greed, jealousy, envy, hostility to the Truth, so that the true power and joy may pour from above into a calm, large, strong and consecrated vital being, -- rejection of the physical nature’s stupidity, doubt, disbelief, obscurity, obstinacy, pettiness, laziness, unwillingness to change, Tamas, so that the true stability of Light, Power, Ananda may establish itself in a body growing always more divine;
“Surrender of oneself and all one is and has and every plane of the consciousness and every movement to the Divine and the Shakti.”
Aspiration, rejection and surrender. Of this great trinity, aspiration is perhaps the most ancient, and the most extensively described in the Indian canon. In the Vedas it is Agni, the priest of the sacrifice. In the Upanishads and the Gita, it is tapas, the personal effort. In cosmic Nature it is the enormous, worldwide force that pushes the evolution. In a flower or a tree, it is that which makes it stretch out towards the light. In the individual it is the will, and more specifically, the deep, inner urge for progress.
Surrender is Lakshmi under the gods, sweet and attractive. It is the pet project for most sadhaks. Who doesn’t want to lay his head on the lap of the Mother and be carried to the Supreme realisation without the least pain or effort? Of course, surrender doesn’t work exactly like that. What is asked from us is what Sri Aurobindo calls an active surrender, which is not as easy as it seems. It is true that transformation can be described as the gradual replacement of personal will by the Divine Grace, but it is, indeed, a gradual replacement, and a complete surrender right from the beginning is not possible. In the beginning personal effort is very much needed. It is interesting that in Savitri the word “surrender” hardly occurs. In the description of the yoga of Aswapati it is used only twice and that right at the end: once just before Aswapati enters the supramental “Kingdoms of the Greater Knowledge”, and once after he meets the Divine Mother when “A vast surrender was his only strength”. In Savitri’s yoga the word “surrender” also occurs only twice, and again only at the end, just before she meets her Soul. The will, on the other hand, is mentioned over 300 times, especially in the yoga of Savitri, which is a good indication of the importance Sri Aurobindo attaches to it.
While Aspiration has the glorious role of the eldest brother, responsible, earning the money, guiding the whole family in the right direction, and Surrender is the youngest on whom all others are doting, Rejection is the waif in the middle who has to wash the dirty dishes in the kitchen. And yet, Rejection is very much essential for progress. Rejection “keeps the temple clean”, to use another phrase from The Mother. She removes the old and creates space for the new. I’ll try to show how this unsung hero does her menial, but absolutely crucial job in the personal sadhana of Aswapati and Savitri by highlighting a few of the passages where Aswapati and Savitri have applied the skill of rejection with utmost perfection.
Rejection in the Yoga of Ashwapathi
Savitri and Aswapati follow a yoga that is similar in many ways. You can discern closely similar stages in their paths. But there are big differences also. Aswapati, just like Sri Aurobindo, is moving on in a rather impersonal manner. The different stages that he goes through are planes of consciousness. He does not interact. He talks only thrice in the whole of Savitri, once with the divine Mother, once with Savitri, and finally once with Narada, his wife and Savitri together. Everywhere else he is silent and alone. He is motivated by his sole, indomitable aspiration for the world's progress. Savitri is quite different. She interacts with the different beings whom she meets on different planes. She has a very long debate with Death and several long exchanges with the divine Mother. Her yoga is in many respects a much more personal journey.
So, Aswapati starts alone.
Alone he moved watched by the infinity
Around him and the Unknowable above.
All could be seen that shuns the mortal eye,
All could be known the mind has never grasped;
All could be done no mortal will can dare.
This is typical of Aswapati. There is always this vastness, this impersonality, and yet an implacable will that pursues the great end that he knows to be his destiny to accomplish. His will is entirely disinterested, it is not for himself, but for the Divine and the world that he labours. Rejection shows itself in first instance as not more than the ability to let go, to move on. It is in no way dramatic, it doesn’t show off, but it is absolutely crucial for progress. Whatever stage of consciousness, whatever plane, whatever inner region Aswapati reaches on his journey to the Supreme, he never gets stuck. He always moves further. There are dozens of examples of this ability to travel on to the next stage. I’ll quote one – this is about the Paradise of the life Gods. He has just gone through the pits of hell, the kingdoms of darkness, and he arrives at this absolutely marvellous plane where everything is perfect. Most of us would have lingered here for as long as we could, but he immediately moves on:
This too must now be overpassed and left,
As all must be until the Highest is gained
In whom the world and self grow true and one:
Till That is reached our journeying cannot cease.
Always a nameless goal beckons beyond,
Always ascends the zigzag of the gods
And upward points the spirit’s climbing Fire.
This passage shows, besides, a major difference between the Integral Yoga and other paths. Many, if not most, spiritual traditions see peace and stability as an aim in itself. They would shun the idea of constant aspiration as a source of unrest, incompatible with inner peace. They just watch and accept the world as it is. For Sri Aurobindo peace and silence are the substrate in which a constant evolution is taking place, they are the base on which the pure fire of aspiration burns. Peace and Silence are the source of a will and action that are not egoic, but one with the divine Will. In this respect Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is directly based on the Vedas, in which Agni is the central godhead, and very different from later, quietist forms of spirituality.
This ability to “overpass and leave” behind even the most wonderful ranges of spiritual achievement is described again and again. So Sri Aurobindo moves to the highest level of the mind, reaches the soul of the world, reaches the absolute silence and finally he reaches the feet of the divine Mother. And there the whole yoga changes.
Once seen, his heart acknowledged only her.
One has to transcend and leave behind everything one is and has done, and then find it all back in the divine Mother. There has to be a one-pointed aspiration, which opens out into an unlimited vastness, an infinite wideness in which he asks for Her Light, Her Bliss “for earth and man”.
Up to the highest point, when Aswapati meets the divine Mother, Sri Aurobindo doesn’t mention surrender. It comes only at the very end of his yoga when he realises that
But vain are human power and human love
This is of course a theme that occurs all the time in Yoga. We have to reach an absolute silence of the mind before the divine can act. The quote then continues:
A Power that lives upon the heights must act,
And here the second type of rejection comes in. The first one is the completely undramatic, quiet ability to let go and move on, the ability to avoid getting stuck on any lower level. The second type is the much more dramatic form of rejection that is more often associated with the word. It is the ability to actively throw out of one’s system anything that stands in the way.
All that denies must be torn out and slain
Here again, one may wonder, whether this form of active rejection is mentioned so late in the story only because Aswapati did not have the gross imperfections that we struggle with right from the beginning, or because it doesn’t make sense to try to improve one’s nature with one’s own strength. One has, as Sri Aurobindo says, to “keep the temple clean” before one can expect the Divine to inhabit it, and, yet, one can only effectively reject and correct one’s defects after having reached the Supreme. The same double movement comes back that we saw in the beginning: a fixed and unfailing aspiration that calls from below, and the divine Grace that answers.
Now other claims had hushed in him their cry:
At this stage, at the height of the integral realisation, Aswapati still goes further on his personal path and a third type of rejection appears which is very peculiar and very interesting because he seems to reject a proposal from the Divine Mother herself. He rejects peace and personal “salvation” and remains true to the essence of his own being, to the task he knows he has to fulfil, to his very own swadharma. The Mother tells him at this stage:
“Only one boon, to greaten thy spirit, demand;
August and sweet sank hushed that mighty Voice.
But peace for himself was not what Aswapati was looking for, and in a mighty rejection of all that is small and personal, he cries out:
“How shall I rest content with mortal days
After this comes one of the most striking passages of Savitri where Aswapati describes his vision of Shiva destroying the old world — perhaps one could call this the divine rejection that creates the space needed for the new world to be born:
“A giant dance of Shiva tore the past;
“I saw the Omnipotent's flaming pioneers
At the end of the magnificent description of the future world, Aswapati prays that the Divine Mother herself should come down to the earth:
“Mission to earth some living form of thee
The Divine Mother grants Aswapati’s wish for her to descend upon earth and in due time Savitri is born as his child. She grows up as the epitome of grace and beauty. Then a voice comes down which tells Aswapati that he should send Savitri out into the world to find her husband and do with him her destined work. The voice speaks to Aswapati and says:
“O force-compelled, Fate-driven earth-born race,
Just when the voice finishes, Savitri approaches and Aswapati recognises who his daughter really is. He then sends her out into the world to find her other half, with whom she can do her destined work in the world.
Rejection in the Yoga of Savitri
When Savitri has found Satyavan and returns home to tell her father, she must have been walking on clouds, expecting the brightest possible future. The world must have looked as beautiful as it can ever do. But when she enters the hall where Narad, the heavenly minstrel, sits with her father and mother, there hangs a dark cloud of doom and after a little delay, Narad reveals that Satyavan will die within a year. Her whole universe must have collapsed, but Savitri remains stoutly upright. Her mother argues that she should choose another husband, less perfect, but more fortunate, and she depicts to Savitri the spectre of living as a widow in the jungle with her blind father in law. But Savitri does not bend:
“Once my heart chose and chooses not again.
In an absolute and complete rejection of all weakness, she pits her will against almighty fate. As mentioned earlier, it is quite significant that in the whole of Savitri the word ‘surrender’ occurs only two times right at the end of the sadhana of Aswapati and then again two times in the sadhana of Savitri herself while “will” occurs hundreds of times. Sri Aurobindo clearly gives a huge stress to the role of the “will”, especially in the yoga of Savitri.
So Savitri goes back to the forest and lives with Satyavan but as the end of the year nears, she becomes more and more aware of the doom that is awaiting them. Gradually she loses courage; she gives up and is tempted to follow Satyavan in death whenever the moment comes. But at that moment of utter desperation, her highest inner self speaks to her and asks her if she is going to fail, it has to be reported “before the Eternal's seat”, that she has not done her destined job in the world. And immediately Savitri’s attitude changes:
Then Savitri’s heart fell mute, it spoke no word.
Savitri is fully human, but never gets bogged down in human weakness. The inner voice then tells her how her path should be.
The voice replied: “Remember why thou cam’st:
Again a perfect summary of the whole of Integral Yoga in these four lines! First find the meaning of your life, your real Svadharma. Then find your soul, realise who you are in the depths of your being. Then transform your nature into a perfect instrument and expression of the Divine. The voice then gives a few more concrete hints how to proceed. Get rid of the mind and the senses. Through the silence find God everywhere. Get rid of the ego. Become a perfect instrument in His hands, and, finally, overcome Death:
“Cast Thought from thee, that nimble ape of Light:
And this is the programme that Savitri subsequently executes in the rest of the book: after an intense programme of yoga, she conquers death.
So, Savitri sets out on the path of her own yoga. There are many stages which we cannot all go through here, but the essence is this:
“Consent to be nothing and none, dissolve Time's work,
Thus spoke the mighty and uplifting Voice,
She moves then through the different parts of her being in a somewhat similar way to what Aswapati has done when he travels through the inner worlds in the second book of Savitri, but still, it has a different flavour, more personal, more psychic. After she finds her soul, she reaches the all-negating absolute:
A lonely Absolute negated all:
She passes on beyond the Void and becomes one with the cosmic consciousness:
She was Time and the dreams of God in Time;
It is only after she has reached that total identification with the cosmic consciousness, that she is ready to face Death. And so begins the grand debate between Savitri and Death.
In this debate Death brings in every single argument humanity has used to defend the continuation of our present stage. Every beautiful philosophy, every grand idea, the pride of science, the tenets of the great religions and almost all of traditional spirituality are put by Sri Aurobindo in the mouth of Death. And Savitri goes on saying this is not it, this is not it, what we want is a divine life on earth.
In the beginning, when Death urges Savitri not to transgress into his realm and to give up Satyavan, Savitri does not even answer:
The Woman answered not. Her spirit refused
She refuses even to engage Death and concentrates on her eternal being beyond birth. But when she finally does answer Death, in the beginning of their long debate, Death is an all-powerful God and Savitri is a mere woman. But gradually the balance changes and Death becomes more and more dubious while Savitri slowly incarnates more and more the divine power. This is how the debate begins:
At last she spoke; her voice was heard by Night:
In these last five lines she describes how she has transformed her mind, vital and body and is ready to face him. Death insists that life is made out of desire, out of hunger, and that as such it has to be extinguished, to be devoured by him. Opposing him, Savitri asserts the knowledge of her heart that behind all appearances of the opposite, there is the divine Love, which still can transform the world.
Death gives the arguments of Buddhism and mayavadin Hinduism to convince Savitri that she ought to forget about life and become one with his fathomless Nihil. Savitri replies:
“But I forbid thy voice to slay my soul.
She constantly insists that the Divine is there, right here, in us. And she asserts every aspect of life. A little later, she even says:
“Not only is there hope for godheads pure;
Death argues that all that Savitri says is a figment of her mind. In a few lines he gives a voice to all the basic ideas of modern psychology:
“And know thy soul a product of the flesh,
The first line contains the basic paradigm of mainstream science. The “given”, view in the new field of Consciousness Studies, for example, is that matter is the prime, if not the only, reality and that consciousness is not more than an epiphenomenon of chemical processes in the brain. The second line has the doctrine of the largest “post modern” school of thought, social constructionism, which holds that all we say and think is socially mediated. Many even hold that consciousness and experience are entirely determined by language and culture. The “soiled heart” and the “dream-built God” are the grand psychoanalytic “discovery” that God is nothing more than the figment of our sublimated sexual desires. The next lines summarise the atheistic, nihilist and materialist worldview that dominates the global culture at present. At the end we have the existentialist hell that these worldviews inevitably lead to.
But Savitri does not get fooled by any of it and she replies to the dire god:
“Yes I am human. Yet shall man by me,
Again at the same time she asserts her humanity as well as the secret power behind it, stressing the ability of the divine inhabitant to overcome death and transform life. As she becomes more and more aware of the greatness of the indwelling Divine, Death crumbles down further and further till he is finally defeated.
Then Savitri, now fully identified with the Divine Mother, rejects the possibility of finishing off Death completely. She says then, “Live, Death, awhile, be still my instrument,” because she recognizes that Death is still needed to "force the soul of man to struggle for the light".
“Thou art his spur to greatness in his works,
So she very consciously leaves Death in existence, but now only as her conscious instrument, as “our poignant need for immortality”, not any longer as the great Godhead who can claim to be the independent master of all creation.
Finally Death accedes defeat and Satyavan, the soul of man, is returned to Savitri, the divine Truth. But there is still one hurdle on her path, because Satyavan is restored to her in another world, not on earth. Satyavan is restored in the “heavens of everlasting Day”. This also Savitri rejects.
“I climb not to thy everlasting Day,
Then one time more Savitri is tempted to merge herself into the absolute ocean of Bliss. She is addressed here as the divine Consciousness, as the divine Mother and still asked to merge herself back into Herself. This too she refuses. Death, now as the Lord of the Everlasting Day, addresses her with:
“Clasp, Ocean, deep into thyself thy wave,
This is the ultimate aim of Advaita Vedanta, to merge back into the original Absolute, not any longer sensing oneself as a drop or wave of the ocean, but realising one’s eternal, immutable, irretrievable oneness with its infinity.
But Savitri answered to the radiant God:
By an unfailing aspiration for the very highest and an uncompromising rejection of every half-way possibility, Savitri finally reaches the state where she can surrender to the Divine Mother in every aspect of her being. It is then that the Divine Mother can say to her:
All that thou hast, shall be for others' bliss,