The Tale of Satyavan and Savitri
Note on the Text
SAVITRI began as a narrative poem of moderate length based on a legend told in the Mahabharata. Sri Aurobindo considered the story to be originally “one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle”. Bringing out its symbolism and charging it progressively with his own spiritual vision, he turned Savitri into the epic it is today.
By the time it was published, some passages had gone through dozens of drafts. Sri Aurobindo explained how he wrote the poem: “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. . . . 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.”
The following outline of the composition and publication of Savitri draws upon all existing manuscripts and other textual materials, supplemented by the author’s letters on the poem. In brief, Savitri took shape through three major phases.
(1) Before 1920, Sri Aurobindo made a number of drafts of a narrative poem retelling in an original way the tale of Savitri and Satyavan. Its last version had a plan of eight books in two parts; the books were not divided into cantos. (2) In the 1930s, he set about converting this narrative poem into an epic. For a long time he concentrated on the description of Aswapati’s Yoga prior to the birth of Savitri , creating by 1945 a new Part One with three books and many cantos. (3) In the last phase, besides revising Part One for publication, he reworked and enlarged most of the books written in the first period. He added a book on the Yoga of Savitri , making twelve books and forty-nine cantos in all and completing Parts Two and Three.
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The Composition of Savitri
Sri Aurobindo read the Savitri -episode of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit while he was in Baroda. He expressed appreciation of its style in his “Notes on the Mahabharata”, written around 1901. But a report that he worked on an English poem on the subject at this time is not supported by his own statements or any documents that survive. If there was a Baroda Savitri , which is doubtful, it was among the writings of which Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1933, “Most of all that has disappeared into the un-known in the whirlpools and turmoil of my political career.” Even assuming that such a poem was written in Baroda, for all practical purposes Savitri as we know it was commenced in Pondicherry.
The opening of the first known version is dated “August 8th 9th / 1916″. Further dates occur later on in the draft. From the death of Satyavan to the end of Savitri ‘s debate with Death, the manuscript is marked every few pages with dates from a three-day period, 17-19 October. After this, the consecutive narration breaks off and the notebook contains only disconnected passages. Some of these are sketches for the conclusion of the poem. Most of them go back over what was already written. They represent the beginning of the long process of rewriting which was to continue until 1950.
This earliest surviving manuscript of Savitri shows every sign of being the first draft. It is one of the few versions that Sri Aurobindo dated. But even if precise dates cannot be assigned to them, the manuscripts of the poem can almost always be placed in a definite order after a careful comparison. This is because changes made when one draft was revised were usually incorporated in the next draft, which would then be further altered and most often expanded.
Initially the poem was short enough not to require division into books or cantos. Its sections were separated only by blank lines. But soon Sri Aurobindo was dividing it into “Book I”, ending with the death of Satyavan, and “Book II”, recounting Savitri ‘s debate with and victory over Death. Next he adopted
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a scheme of six cantos and an epilogue. The canto titles were: Love, Fate, Death, Night, Twilight and Day.
After making a few drafts in cantos, he started substituting the word “book” for “canto”. There were now six books with the same names as the former cantos. Meanwhile the larger division had reappeared as two parts, “Earth” and “Beyond”. At first each part comprised three books, not counting the epilogue. But before long, the rapidly growing first book was broken up into two. The second book kept the name “Love”; the first was renamed “Quest”.
A manuscript beginning with “Book I / Quest” has the title “Savithrî:: A Tale and a Vision". (In early versions, “Savithrî:" was the usual spelling of the heroine’s name.) Sri Aurobindo referred to this stage in the poem’s history in a letter of 1936: “Savitri was originally written many years ago before the Mother came [i.e., before the Mother's final arrival in 1920], as a narrative poem in two parts, Part I Earth and Part II Beyond . . . each of four books — or rather Part II consisted of three books and an epilogue.”
This was the plan of Savitri at the end of the first phase of its composition. But the last manuscript actually completed was in six cantos and an epilogue. After “books” replaced the “cantos” and the number of books increased, some books were worked over several times. Others were hardly touched. There is a partial draft of “Book III / Death”, for example; there is none from the stage when “Death” would have been the fourth book. After 1945 when Sri Aurobindo incorporated material from the early poem into what was by then a full-fledged epic, he sometimes went back to a manuscript of the six “cantos” as his starting-point.
Savitri was apparently put aside during most of the 1920s, a period when Sri Aurobindo did little writing. The first evidence of its resumption is found in a letter of 1931. Here he speaks of a radical change in the conception and scope of the poem. Already the subtitle, “A Legend and a Symbol”, is present in his mind: “There is a previous draft, the result of the many retouchings of which somebody told you; but in that form it would not have
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been a `magnum opus’ at all. Besides, it would have been a legend and not a symbol. I therefore started recasting the whole thing; only the best passages and lines of the old draft will remain, altered so as to fit into the new frame.”
Throughout the thirties and early forties, it was primarily Book One that was affected by this recasting. At first this book was still called “Quest”. It extended as far as Savitri ‘s arrival at “The Destined Meeting-Place” (the eventual title of Book Five, Canto One). But in the early thirties, the brief description of the Yoga of King Aswapati near the beginning swelled to hundreds of lines. What was to become the second and longest book of the epic, “The Book of the Traveller of the Worlds”, began to take shape.
In a letter of 1936, Sri Aurobindo mentioned a new first book, the “Book of Birth”, carved out of the overgrown “Quest”. Another letter of the same year reveals the internal structure of this book. It was “divided into sections and the larger sections into subsections”. Up to this point, the books had been divided only into passages separated by spaces, as many cantos are now. As these sections increased in length, they were recognised as formal units and began to be named and numbered. Section marks (§) were usually put before and after the numbers.
The Book of Birth, whose last section related the birth and childhood of Savitri , was still disproportionately long and was constantly growing. Early in 1937, Sri Aurobindo expressed his intention of rearranging the opening books into a Book of Beginnings and a Book of Birth and Quest.
Progress on the poem was intermittent in the thirties due to Sri Aurobindo’s heavy load of correspondence. From the end of 1938 to mid-1940, work on Savitri was suspended. But on 6 September 1942, a 110-page draft of the Book of Beginnings was completed. The fourth of its eight sections, “The Ascent through the Worlds”, accounted for more than half the total length and had twelve subsections. In the next version, this section became Book Two with the title it now has. The last four sections were grouped into Book Three, “The Book of the Divine Mother”.
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The second phase in the composition of Savitri reached its culmination when the first three books were written out in two columns on large sheets. Many passages, including the whole of the first and third books and much of the second, went through two or more drafts in this form. The last complete manuscript is dated “May 7. 1944″ at the end.
It was while revising this manuscript that Sri Aurobindo reintroduced the word “canto” which he had not used since an early stage, applying it to the former “sections” of the books. At this point the third section of Book One, “The Yoga of the King”, was turned into Cantos 3-5 with their present titles. The three opening books were for the first time identified as “Part One”.
The two-column manuscript is the last continuous version of Part One in Sri Aurobindo’s hand. But he went on reworking Book One and passages throughout Book Two. For this purpose he began using small note-pads whose sheets, containing new or rewritten matter, could be torn out and pinned to the principal manuscript at the appropriate places.
By the mid-1940s, Sri Aurobindo’s eyesight was failing and his handwriting was becoming less and less legible. He needed the help of a scribe in order to put Books 1-3 into a finished form, take up the long-neglected later books, and prepare Savitri for publication. This third phase of its composition saw periods of rapid and decisive progress. But it was to be interrupted the month before Sri Aurobindo’s passing, a little short of definitive completion.
Much had still to be done with the first part. Sri Aurobindo asked the scribe to read the last version to him. After dictating changes, insertions and transpositions, he had his assistant copy it into a large ledger. This copy was meticulously revised before being given to another disciple for typing. The typescript in its turn was read out to Sri Aurobindo and similarly revised. Heavily revised pages were often retyped. The same process was sometimes repeated, especially in the later cantos of Book Two, where three typed copies exist.
Savitri now began to appear in print, though not yet in its
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final form. The first and third books were brought out canto by canto from August 1946 to February 1948 in journals connected with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. They were also published in fascicles identical to the journal instalments. The second book was issued in 1947 and 1948 in two large fascicles.
Differences between the typescripts and the printed texts show that proofs of the latter must have been revised in detail by Sri Aurobindo. Afterwards a copy of each fascicle was read to him. Even at this advanced stage, he made extensive alterations and added new lines and passages.
Meanwhile he had turned his attention to the later books. The plan of Parts Two and Three resembled that of the pre-1920 poem, whose books had been divided into “Earth” (Quest, Love, Fate, Death) and “Beyond” (Night, Twilight, Day, Epilogue). By 1945, however, most of these books had remained untouched for twenty-five years. Everything written under what Sri Aurobindo termed in 1934 “the old insufficient inspiration” would have to be thoroughly recast. Moreover, a new book had been conceived: The Book of Yoga. Destined to become one of the longest in the epic, six of its seven cantos were still to be drafted.
The material in the Book of Birth and Quest had for a long time been included in Book One. As a result it had gone through several drafts in the 1930s, while other books lay dormant. The last book to be set aside, it was also the first to be taken up again. One manuscript of it precedes the 1942 draft of the Book of Beginnings. The final version was evidently written within a year or so of this. Since much work had already been done on it, this book needed less modification than others. Yet especially in the first two cantos, Sri Aurobindo dictated substantial changes and additions when he revised the manuscript and typescript.
The Book of Love shared to some extent in the good fortune of the previous book during the thirties and early forties. But the last version in Sri Aurobindo’s hand, in the notebook which starts with his final manuscript of Book Four, breaks off in the middle of the second canto. The continuation is in the scribe’s hand. It was copied there probably two or three years later when the systematic revision of the later books had been undertaken.
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The remainder of this notebook contains the scribe’s copy of Books Six, Nine and Ten, reworked from the corresponding books in the old poem, expanded, divided into cantos and re- named “The Book of Fate”, “The Book of Eternal Night” and “The Book of the Double Twilight”. Once Sri Aurobindo had done enough with Books Four and Five for the time being, it appears that he took up these three books one after the other. After Book Six, he skipped to Book Nine, postponing extensive work on Books Seven and Eight. However, he may have revised slightly the versions of the original third book or canto, “Death”, on which Book Seven, Canto One and the present Book of Death are based.
Drafts of “Fate”, “Night” and “Twilight” had been written on one side of loose sheets of paper, like other cantos or books in several early versions of Savitri . This facilitated the complex process of revision which was now set in motion. When the space between lines and in the margins was filled up, the backs of the pages were available. In extreme cases, whole cantos were written on the reverse sides of the pages with little relation to what was on the front.
Sri Aurobindo drafted many passages in small note-pads of the type used for Part One. Lines for Books Five and Nine and large portions of Books Six and Ten were written in this way. Canto Two of Book Six was almost entirely new. The passages drafted for it were transferred by the scribe to another note-pad, with changes dictated by Sri Aurobindo at the time.
The metamorphosis which the Book of Fate underwent included the introduction of the Queen: some of Aswapati’s later speeches in the old version were now given to her, and her long speech at the beginning of Canto Two was composed. Sri Aurobindo worked on this book in 1946 and brought it close to its final form. But he was to return to it at the end and add significantly to the second canto.
An early manuscript of “Night” was substantially revised and turned into the two cantos of Book Nine. But in this instance Sri Aurobindo seems to have found the pre-1920 version more adequate than usual. He left it intact to a greater extent than in
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the case of other books on which he bestowed his full attention in the 1940s. Only the Book of Death and the Epilogue stayed closer to their original shape, but he always intended to come back to these.
On the other hand, old drafts of “Twilight” formed merely a starting-point for the four cantos of Book Ten. The speeches of Savitri and Death were refashioned, rearranged in their order, and new ones inserted. As he proceeded from one canto to the next, Sri Aurobindo added longer and longer passages that were quite new. The first section of Canto One, the long speech of Death which ends Canto Two, all but the last few pages of Canto Three, and most of Canto Four — especially its second half, where Savitri finally triumphs over Death — owe little or nothing to any early version.
In a letter of 22 April 1947, Sri Aurobindo summarised the status of the various books of the second and third parts. Books Four, Five, Six, Nine and Ten had by then “been completed, in a general way, with a sufficient finality of the whole form but subject to final changes in detail”. The other four books were far from even a provisional completion.
A “drastic recasting of the last two books” was felt to be needed and “only a part of the eleventh” had been subjected to that process. But a yet larger task lay ahead, the splitting up of the original Book of Death and the writing of the new cantos that would go into the Book of Yoga. In his letter of April 1947 Sri Aurobindo did not say what he planned to do next. But there are reasons to believe that, rather than going on directly from Book Ten to Book Eleven, he now retraced his steps to Book Seven.
The description of Savitri ‘s Yoga, complementing that of Aswapati’s Yoga in Part One, was drafted in a thick notebook whose first hundred pages are filled with drafts for Book Ten, Canto Four. By March 1947, even before finishing the tenth book, Sri Aurobindo had begun to use this notebook for preliminary work on Book Seven. The scribe was not asked to copy the semi-legible handwriting of the draft. Instead, Sri Aurobindo dictated to him the lines he had jotted down, often in a
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somewhat different form. The dictated version was extensively revised before a typed copy was made.
The Book of Yoga had four cantos at first. But the second, “The Parable of the Finding of the Soul”, grew to an inordinate length. When the typescript was revised, it was broken up into Cantos 2-5, from “The Parable of the Search for the Soul” to “The Finding of the Soul”. Revision of the typed copy was so elaborate in places (as elsewhere, especially in Book Six, Canto Two and in Book Eleven) that sometimes there was not enough room on the page. The scribe would then write on separate slips of paper, attaching as many as ten of these to a single page of the typescript.
Canto One of Book Seven has a different background. Early in the evolution of Savitri , the third canto of the poem (later, the third book) was called “Death”. It described the year leading up to Satyavan’s death as well as the fatal day itself. The latest version, with the heading “Book III”, is incomplete and stops before the last day. Sri Aurobindo used this manuscript as far as it goes when he put Book Seven, Canto One into its present form.
The second half of an earlier “Canto III” had to be used as the manuscript for Book Eight. It was revised slightly near the beginning and a substantial passage was dictated at the end. Sri Aurobindo apparently intended to return to the Book of Death, but this was not to be.
On 20 July 1948 he was compelled to admit, “even Savitri has very much slowed down and I am only making the last revisions of the First Part already completed; the other two parts are just now in cold storage.” When the later parts were taken up again, the most important task remaining was evidently to bring the almost untouched eleventh book up to the level of what preceded it. The old “Book VII / Day” on which it would be based was among the best-developed portions of the early poem. But after thirty years, Sri Aurobindo had more to say at the climax of Savitri .
There was also the Epilogue; but the contemplated revision of this must have seemed less essential to the total design
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Although a few pages of an early version were significantly retouched at some stage, the concluding two sections of the Epilogue stayed almost exactly as they were. Thus the closing pages of the epic, like most of Book Eight, remained as a sample of the style in which Savitri was originally written.
Near the end of his life, Sri Aurobindo’s eyesight was so poor that he no longer wrote at all. He made no more drafts for Savitri and the work proceeded entirely by dictation. Virtually the whole revision of “The Book of Everlasting Day” was done in this purely oral manner and may be inferred to belong to this late period. There exist only a few pages of drafts for it in Sri Aurobindo’s hand, found in note-pads he used around 1946. He was probably referring to these when he wrote in 1947 that he had already recast “part of the eleventh” book.
Book Eleven culminates in the longest continuous dictated passage in Savitri . The passage was written by the scribe in a separate note-pad and seems to have no antecedent in any previous draft. This is the section which begins on p. 702 with “Descend to life . . . “, and ends at the bottom of p. 710 with “This earthly life become the life divine.” Regarding Sri Aurobindo’s dictation in Book Eleven, the scribe reports that “line after line began to flow from his lips like a smooth and gentle stream and it was on the next day that a revision was done to get the link for further continuation.”
By this time, cantos of Parts Two and Three were coming out in journal instalments and fascicles like those of Part One. Most of the cantos of Books Four, Five, Six and Nine were published in this way in 1949-50. Unlike the fascicles of the first part, they were not revised afterwards by Sri Aurobindo.
But in 1948, an extract from Book Six, Canto Two had already been printed in the Sri Aurobindo Mandir Annual. An offprint of this was read to Sri Aurobindo and the changes he dictated were incorporated in a retyped copy. The painstaking revision of this second typescript was reportedly the last work he did on Savitri . A short paragraph before the concluding description of Narad’s departure was the final passage to receive detailed attention in November 1950, less than a month before
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Sri Aurobindo’s passing. The thirteen-line paragraph was expanded to the seventy-two lines beginning “Queen, strive no more to change the secret will…”
Editions of Savitri
Sri Aurobindo revised the proofs of the first edition of Part One, making numerous final changes and adding more than a hundred new lines. In 1950, Part One of Savitri appeared in book form. Parts Two and Three could not be similarly revised. They came out in 1951 in a second volume, thus completing the first edition.
The second edition was issued in 1954 in one volume under the imprint of the Sri Aurobindo International University Centre. Some obvious errors in the text of the first edition were emended at this time. A few of these were evidently due to the mishearing of Sri Aurobindo’s dictation.
In 1968, the first edition of Part One was reprinted with some new textual corrections. The third complete edition (1970) contained further emendations. Comprising Volumes 28 and 29 of the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, it was also brought out as a single volume in a reduced format. This was reprinted a number of times between 1973 and 1990. Several typographical and other errors were rectified in the 1976 impression.
The fourth, critically revised edition appeared in 1993 and is reproduced here. This edition was the outcome of a systematic comparison of the printed text of Savitri with the manuscripts. Each line was traced through all stages of copying, typing and printing in which errors could have occurred. Readings found to have come about through inaccurate transcription or misprinting were corrected. Accidentally omitted lines were restored to the text. This has resulted in a very slight increase in the length of the poem to its present 23,837 lines.
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