This book is based on transcripts of classes given by the author at Savitri Bhavan in Auroville from August 2009 to October 2010, edited for conciseness and clarity while preserving the informal atmosphere of the course. It covers Book One, The Book of Beginnings, of Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri – a legend and a symbol. Each sentence is examined closely and explanations are given about vocabulary, sentence structure and imagery. The aim is to assist a deeper understanding and appreciation of the poem which the Mother has characterised as ‘the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision’.
"Shraddhavan" is the Sanskrit name given by the Mother in June 1972 to a young Englishwoman who had left her country, after completing studies in English Language and Literature as well as Library Science, to join the up-coming project of Auroville. Since August 1999 she has been the Project Coordinator of Savitri Bhavan, a centre of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother Studies which is a unit of SAIIER (Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research). She edits the Bhavan’s journal, Invocation: study notes on Savitri and leads study courses on Savitri and The Life Divine. This her first full-length book.
The contents of this book are based on transcripts of classes given by Shraddhavan at Savitri Bhavan in Auroville from August 2009 to October 2010, which have been edited for conciseness and clarity, while aiming to preserve some of the informal atmosphere of the course. Shraddhavan first started teaching English through close readings of Sri Aurobindo’s revelatory epic Savitri: a legend and a symbol with a small group of interested adults in 1980. In August 1998 these classes were resumed at Savitri Bhavan, taking place in the early mornings three times a week in the thatched hut which was the first construction on the site of the future complex. Later, weekly classes were held there in the afternoons to accommodate a growing number of students, including young Tamil teacher-trainees from the Arul Vazhi School located in Promesse, Auroville.
These classes were given the name ‘The English of Savitri’. In May 2009 we had the joy of completing the course, as this group reached the end of the poem. A new start was made from the beginning on Thursday August 6. Thanks to the initiative of Sungheui from Korea, the new series of classes was filmed and recorded. Edited transcripts of these classes began to be published serially in the Bhavan‘s journal of Study Notes on Savitri, ‘Invocation’, from issue 32 onwards, since it was felt that they may be of interest to many readers. In fact these articles found an enthusiastic response from students of Sri Aurobindo’s mantric epic, and one Savitri-lover from Gujarat, Shri Kirit Thakkar, undertook to translate them into Gujarati. They are now being published in book form in several volumes by Yukta Prakashan publishers of Vadodara. This suggested the idea of collecting the original English articles in book form too.
This is the first such volume, covering all the five cantos of Book One of the poem, ‘The Book of Beginnings’.
The aim of this course, which is still ongoing, is to assist people who wish to improve their understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s revelatory epic, to enter more deeply into its atmosphere and, as a side-effect, to improve their knowledge of the English language. The Mother has mentioned:
For the opening of the psychic, for the growth of consciousness and even for the improvement of English, it is good to read one or two pages of Savitri each day.
Those who attend this course are encouraged to do homework: to read a little from Savitri every day, to revise what has been read and discovered in the class, such as the meanings of individual words and new phrases, and to aspire for the mantric power of Savitri to open the deep heart centre and widen the consciousness.
The full title of Sri Aurobindo’s poem is Savitri — a legend and a symbol. A ‘legend’ means a traditional tale, a story handed down over generations; it may relate to something that really happened, which over the course of time has become a well-known story. The legend of Satyavan and Savitri is told in the Mahabharata in about 300 verses. It is told to the exiled Pandavas in the forest by a Rishi called Markandeya. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, asks him, "Has there ever been any woman who has had to face such difficulties as our Draupadi?" In answer, Markandeya recounts the story of Savitri and says that just as her husband Satyavan was saved from death through the virtue of Savitri, in the same way the virtue and strength of Draupadi will carry the five brothers through all their difficulties. When the famous scholar and author Professor Manoj Das gave a talk at Savitri Bhavan on The Mythological Background of Savitri he mentioned that, significantly, Rishi Markandeya himself is one of the few people mentioned in Indian tradition as having conquered death. In the legend the saving of Satyavan is not presented as a general conquest of death for all time, but as the special case of a young man being saved from premature death by the courage, steadfastness and virtue of his wife.
The legend of Savitri and Satyavan is familiar to most people in India, either from the Mahabharata account or from traditional versions based on it. Sri Aurobindo has seen in this well-known tale a significant symbol. A symbol is a simple representation of something more complex; for example we may say that fire, even in the form of a candle flame or the glowing point on the end of an incense stick, can be a symbol of Aspiration, the will for a higher and purer state. In the legend of Satyavan and Savitri Sri Aurobindo recognised a deep symbolic meaning, related to the psychological symbolism which he had discovered in the Vedas. He chose to make this traditional tale the vehicle of his poetic masterwork, which became what the Mother has called "the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s vision". That is why Savitri Bhavan exists: not so much because of the tale told in the Mahabharata, but because of what the Mother has revealed about the tremendous importance of Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of it as a symbolic myth. As he makes clear in the title itself, the poem includes both the legendary and the symbolic aspects of the ancient tale.
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