Guiding Light of The Month

I implore that every substance impregnated more and more by Thy sovereign forces may put up an ever diminishing resistance of blind ignorance against Thee, and that triumphing over all darkness Thou mayst transfigure definitively and integrally this universe of strife and anguish into a universe of harmony and peace... So that Thy law may be fulfilled. - The Mother

The Descent of Knowledge in Savitri – Part One

We are pleased to present below ‘The Descent of Knowledge in Savitri’, and article written by Ms. Sonia Dyne that first appeared in the February 2011 edition of the journal, ‘Shraddha’, published in Kolkata by the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Research in Social Sciences. It appeared in the first of two issues of the journal devoted entirely to Sri Aurobindo's 'Savitri'. Due to the length of the original, the decision was made to divide it into four parts for reproduction in the Newsletter, with a brief introduction to each part provided by the author.

Part One begins with a general discussion of the question "What do we mean by knowledge?" and briefly compares past and contemporary ideas with the new concept presented by Sri Aurobindo in 'Savitri'. The point is made that in order to understand Sri Aurobindo's concept of knowledge, as it is gradually revealed to the seeker Aswapati, it is important to set aside all preconceived ideas and opinions derived from other sources.

Ms. Dyne needs no introduction in the Sri Aurobindo circle of Singapore. She was a former Chairperson of the Society and also the then editor of our Newsletter.


''The sign of dawning Knowledge is to feel that as yet I know little or nothing; and yet, if I could only know my knowledge, I already possess everything.'' Sri Aurobindo's brilliant aphorism is a sharp reminder that despite the avalanche of information available to us in the contemporary world, our ideas about knowledge itself are still rudimentary and largely unexamined. The 'dawning Knowledge' he refers to is the emergence into earth-existence of a supramental consciousness and its incalculable consequences for both the human and the natural world. This is the knowledge sought by King Aswapati in ‘Savitri’. Is veiled from us, and may be beyond our present ability even to conceive, for we do not 'know our knowledge' or have a satisfactory explanation of where it comes from.

'How do I know?' is a simple question on the face of it. However, it is a curious feature of English usage that even the slightest shift of emphasis to the 'I' transforms this question into an affirmation of ignorance. 'How do I know?' in everyday speech is commonly understood as an alternative way of saying 'I don't know'. Only philosophers, professors of linguistics and psychologists can expect a serious response to this question when speaking in the context of their own special expertise. It is as if we feel a little uncomfortable about asking ourselves how we know things - The ray of human intelligence, so eager to de-construct and analyse, does not like to be directed inwards upon itself. As a perceptive poet observed: “We are not very securely at home in our interpreted world.” Somehow we sense, but do not see, intangible energies at work over which we have no control. In a letter written to a disciple, Sri Aurobindo examines a root cause of our insecurity:

''What we know of ourselves, our present conscious existence, is only a representative formation, a superficial activity, a changing result of a vast mass of concealed existence. Our visible life and the actions of that life are no more than a series of significant expressions, but that which it tries to express is not on the surface; our existence is something much larger than this apparent frontal being which we suppose ourselves to be and which we offer to the world around us. His frontal and external being is a confused amalgam of mind-formations, life movements, physical functionings of which even an exhaustive analysis of its component parts and machinery fails to reveal the whole secret. It is only when we go behind, below, above into the hidden stretches of our being that we can know it; the most thorough and acute surface scrutiny cannot give us the true understanding or the completely effective control of our life, its purposes, its activities; that inability indeed is the cause of the failure of reason, morality and every other surface action to control and deliver and perfect the life of the human race.”

Traditions and myths handed down from past generations (the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge is a good example) often warn against seeking greater knowledge, because it is perceived as somehow threatening to Man's well-being and contentment. That greater knowledge might bring about a calamity, as it did when Adam and Eve lost their divine gift of immortality and were plunged into our familiar world of suffering and death. Or it might turn out to be unbearable, a fierce wind from heaven demolishing our fragile conjectures and sweeping away familiar landmarks in the landscape of our thoughts until nothing remains but uncharted wilderness. No wonder we prefer to make a joke about it: “knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in the fruit salad “- so that any serious debate ends with laughter and relief.

What do we mean by 'knowledge? Is it only the sum total of all the information recorded and stored up over generations by the human mind? Most people would accept that it is, discounting future knowledge on the grounds that it does not yet exist. They might add that we have an inborn instinct for survival and we recognise the right of religious tradition to insist that knowledge comes ultimately from God in the form of natural law or by means of direct revelation. None of this prepares us for the radically different concept revealed by Sri Aurobindo in ‘Savitri’. He has taken an ancient legend and turned it into a potent symbol to express a truth of existence that cannot be fully grasped by the still evolving human mind or fully expressed in words. He does this by using the intuitive language of sight: a concrete imagery which evokes our living experience to 'bypass the ways of thought'. In his role of narrator, Sri Aurobindo relates the events of his story from a double perspective so that the action moves between the timeless reality of the spiritual planes and human existence in time, with the effect that all is presented as a seamless unity. The transition is always abrupt with the “suddenness divine events have”, reflecting a new and unfamiliar way of experiencing time.

Supermind is the name given by Sri Aurobindo to this highest formulation of knowledge; its descent into the plane of Earth and emergence in an evolving humanity is a major theme in ‘Savitri’. More than that, the poem itself is powerful illustration of the supermind-consciousness at work using the intuitive levels of mind to communicate through a threefold instrumentation: the legend of Savitri and Satyavan itself; a poetic language of powerful images and signs; a subtext of symbolism casting its light on the underlying spiritual meaning of the unfolding action and the many descriptive passages. All these together (and they cannot readily be separated) constitute “a revelation of spiritual significances, a support for our spiritual growth and the evolution of spiritual capacity and experience.”

Knowledge for Sri Aurobindo has its origin in a divine Omniscience, and is therefore eternally present in all the planes of existence, down to the most material. In ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’ he makes this clear: “If the spirit is everywhere, even in matter – in fact matter itself is only an obscure form of the spirit – and if the supermind is the universal power of the spirit's omnipresent self-knowledge organising all the manifestation of the being, then in matter and everywhere there must be present a supramental action and, however concealed it may be by another, lower and obscurer kind of operation, yet when we look close we shall find that it is really the supermind which organizes matter, life, mind and reason. And this actually is the knowledge towards which we are now moving.”

His epic poem first follows the progress of the seeker Aswapati through all the planes where Mind has a form accessible to human intelligence, venturing even beyond into regions previously inaccessible to human experience, where Mind the thinker “sleeps in too much light”. His quest is to find the source of Knowledge in an absolute, not a partial Truth, first to satisfy his own aspiration, and later to release humankind from bondage to death. It is a journey full of surprises from the beginning, obliging us to review the conventional wisdom of our age and see ourselves and our world in an entirely new light.

The first revelation is to discover that Sri Aurobindo makes no clear distinction between knowledge and ignorance, choosing to view them, not as opposites, but as two aspects of single and eternal power, divine in its origin. As human beings, subject to the constraints of our three dimensional existence, we assume ignorance to be a condition that comes before knowledge. In contrast, Sri Aurobindo perceives an eternal Knowledge as the pre-existent condition, with ignorance only an illusion caused by our inability to receive it in its fullness. Throughout ‘Savitri’ we find that Sri Aurobindo speaks of knowledge and ignorance in the same context, as if, like pain and joy, they were “born in the same caul”. His vision, unlike human thought which thrives on division, tends always towards synthesis and admits no contraries. Just as death is only a disguise of the divine Love which alone exists, so too there is only one Knowledge, single and absolute, embracing and reconciling within itself all possible theories and interpretations.

Seemingly it was the omniscient Goddess, the Supramental Knowledge, in the guise of Ignorance and under the heaviest of veils, who first awakened our material universe when Earth “wheeled abandoned in the hollow gulfs”, ushering in the advent of a new evolution. The story of ‘Savitri’ opens with a powerful evocation of that significant moment, presenting our planet as it might appear in some remote past, to a witness eye far out in space. It is a planet apparently quite dead, but carrying within itself a buried seed of life and mind awaiting its destined hour:

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.

Seeking to know itself on the Earth plane, the divine Knowledge re-awakens a sleeping urge in Matter to build once again the spiral stair of intelligent life, so that the divine consciousness may be established there:
Ambassadress twixt eternity and change,
The omniscient Goddess leaned across the breadths
That wrap the fated journeyings of the stars
And saw the spaces ready for her feet.

Sri Aurobindo seems to imply that the experiment of human life on earth has been tried before. A distant memory of that long-forgotten past survives in the All-Knowledge transcending time:

It was as though even in this nought's profound,
Even in this ultimate dissolution's core,
There lurked an unremembering entity,
Survivor of a slain and buried past,
Condemned to resume the effort and the pang,
Reviving in another frustrate world.
The opening passage of ‘Savitri’ must be unique in literature, for no other poet has so effectively induced in us an experience of un-knowing. Opaque, impenetrable, fathomless, featureless, inscrutable - the list of descriptive adjectives goes on and on until it seems that he has exhausted all the resources of the language. He evokes not only a dark and lifeless planet but also a state of consciousness shrouded in ignorance. We are invited to experience directly for ourselves the absence of understanding, and to set aside all previous ideas and opinions in preparation for the new world-vision that will be revealed. Sri Aurobindo is illustrating in this opening canto some of the characteristics of the supramental consciousness – the wideness of vision embracing vast distances in space and time; the knowledge by identity which brings a concrete experience of the object of attention; the supramental sight which lends a special radiance to all things suddenly seen as forms of the Divine. It is a necessary preparation, for without a willing suspension of the mind's tendency to raise objections we will not be able to follow the yoga of Aswapati as he moves through ranges of consciousness closed to us in the present stage of our evolution. The higher knowledge will not reveal itself under the conditions of doubt and denial imposed by Falsehood. As Sri Aurobindo wrote: “By knowledge we mean in yoga not thought or ideas about spiritual things but psychic understanding from within and spiritual illumination from above.”

Experiencing for himself on each plane the form that conscious knowledge assumes there, the seeker Aswapati strips away one by one the veils of ignorance binding him to his mortal condition. He comes to see and experience Truth-Knowledge as an active creative force in the evolution of Mankind. We soon discover that he is no ordinary seeker: in him, powers that sleep unused within the human breast, Man's divine birthright, have come forward to be “annexed to the mortal scheme”:
A seer was born, a shining Guest of Time,
For him mind's limiting firmament ceased above,
In the griffin forefront of the Night and Day
A gap was rent in the all-concealing vault;
The conscious ends of being went rolling back;
The landmarks of the little person fell,
The island ego joined its continent:
Overpassed was this world of rigid limiting forms:
Life's barriers opened into the unknown.

Here, on our material plane, the action of Knowledge works always to reveal our full potential as human beings, to remind us that ''this deathbound littleness is not all we are''. As the inner countries veiled from our sight open to Aswapati; his gaze embraces at a single glance the “triple stride” of time which for us divides into past, present and future. The illusion of separate being is abolished and a seamless knowledge replaces the rigid sequences of mental logic. Release from ignorance is the first spiritual change, the beginning of the journey:

Thus came his soul's release from ignorance,
His mind and body's first spiritual change.
A wide God-knowledge poured down from above,
A new world-knowledge broadened from within:
His daily thoughts looked up to the True and One,
His commonest doings welled from an inner Light.
Awakened to the lines that Nature hides,
Attuned to the movements that exceed our ken,
He grew one with a covert universe.

(to be continued)
- Sonia Dyne

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