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   Conversations of the Dead
Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo wrote five "Conversations of the Dead" in 1909–10. Nolini Kanta Gupta translated these into Bengali, and himself wrote thirteen similar conversations in Bengali. All these were published as part of a book Mriter Kathopakathan.

This booklet contains English translations of the thirteen Bengali "Conversations" by Nolini-da. The conversations are presented as between famous historical figures such as Akbar and Aurangzeb, Chandragupta and Asoka, and Buddha and Lao-Tze.

REVIEW

"It is the egoistic ignorance of man which makes him think he is the highest in creation," Sri Aurobindo had repeatedly said. "I knew it would astound you," he again said, when a disciple could not believe that flowers also have souls and some flowers possess psychic beauty. To the further astonishment of the supercilious disciple, the Master is reported to have said, "Many dogs have got a much finer psychic being than many men!" Regarding the distinguishing feature however, writing to Dilip Kumar Roy Sri Aurobindo observed: "The power to discuss and debate is ... a common human faculty ... Perhaps it is here that man begins to diverge from the animal; for animals have much intelligence—many animals and even insects, even some rudimentary power of practical reasoning, but, so far as we know, they don't meet and put their ideas about things side by side or sling them at each other in a debate...".

Two of Sri Aurobindo's five Conversations of the Dead were published in the Karmayogin. The first one titled `Dinshah, Perizade' written around 1910 strikingly reveals the Omar Khayami dream to mould this world `nearer to our heart's desire'. Dinshah agreeing to Perizade's declaration, "We go down to make the world ... a place of beauty, song and delight ... we shall not be content to leave it till it is utterly changed into the likeness of our desire." Taking the cue Sister Nivedita had added three more to the series. All these were translated into Bengali by Nolini Kanta Gupta, and thirteen more in Bengali were his own contribution. These again are translated by Satadal for the English readers.

These dialogues are based on professed ideologies and are polemical in content. The contenders, mostly familiar characters culled from Indian history, are evenly matched, gripping the reader with their war of words. It starts with Akbar and Aurangzeb, in which all arguments of the empire-builder and superior diplomat fall flat before Aurangzeb the religious bigot; and he affirms that if reborn, he would forcefully exhort: "Indians! Be religious and Muslim first, then Indians." Unfortunately the Muslim mindset in India, the neighbouring countries and the world over shows beyond doubt that Aurangzeb's ideas have prevailed.

The only scene from Indian mythology is `Savitri, Draupadi' from the Mahabharata. The re-creation seems more challenging as it amounts to treading on the proverbial razor's edge, being fraught with the risk of deviation and distortion. Draupadi's character has been nothing if not enigmatic. It is not Vyasa's Mahabharata, but the vastly popularised teleserial that puts the cheap jibe into her mouth to mock Duryodhana, ascribing his lack of sight and the fall to his father Dhritarashtra's blindness. Unbecoming of her, the rude joke mars the nobility of her character. If her flowing dishevelled tresses thirsted for blood from Duhshasana's heart for his gruesome and monstrous crime against womanhood, her unparallelled magnanimity of heart alone could forgive Ashwatthama, the killer of her five sons in cold blood. Completely surrendered to Krishna, in a gesture of `Yatha niyuktosmi tatha karomi', she was beyond conventional vice and virtue. In India, however, the common folk possess an uncanny sense in this regard, and they worship her as a goddess, so that Alf Hiltebeitel in his well-researched Cult of Draupadi painstakingly enumerated around four hundred Draupadi temples in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry alone.

The clash of ideas and the animated debate have resulted occasionally in dazzling flashes, and the manthan (churning) has produced some epigrammatic gems. True to the spirit of India which never coveted to grab other lands, Puru's ultimate reply to Alexander the Great was succinct: "I am not a seeker of Samrajya, the outer empire, but of Swarajya, the inner kingdom." Elsewhere Firdausi humbly chastising the mighty Mahmood utters: "A poet is a poet precisely because he turns something puny into something grand, something temporal into something eternal, something ugly into a thing of beauty. Reality is not the only truth, Mahmood." Again, in `Woman, Man', the unending tangle goes on like the blades of a pair of scissors running counter to each other, yet not drifting apart. Finally they resolve to drift together: "Who knows what the mystery of creation is! ... Let us go then, we are simply marionettes in the hands of an unknown power."

After one goes through the Conversations of the Dead, a pertinent question crops up: can or do people really change for the better, grow or evolve after death, having the added advantage of more time and experience to their credit? Had not the eighteenth century poet John Clare sighed in a letter to his friend: "If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs!" With the exception of Rana Kumbha and Meerabai who were reconciled to the truth that real love is of the Divine and for the Divine and not `what men call love' – and as such there was nothing debatable between them – each contender in the rest of the conversations stubbornly holds his ground and no one ever concedes even grudgingly. Perhaps it would be irrational to expect a diehard to change after he dies. Didactically one may infer that all the desirable change and growth of consciousness is possible only here and now, in this earthly life, and not hereafter.

The last conversation takes place in heaven, and echoing Sri Aurobindo's dream in the initial dialogue the Heavenly Being declares: "the earth may soon embody the full nature of the deity ... the earth will enjoy the fruit of our realisation.... No more will the earth remain mere clay; it will become a base of luminous consciousness." With this ends the book, and the Conversations of the Dead appears to have come a full circle.

In dexterously bringing out the spirit of the original and keeping up the appropriate tempo of the dialogues, Satadal has performed a commendable job to win the appreciation of the readers of Mother India. Now that it is published in book form, we hope it will gain recognition from a wider readership.

— Gour Mohanty

G. Mohanty had, during his first trip to Pondicherry with his father in 1953, come under the sweet spell of the Mother, and is since then connected with the Ashram. He is a retired teacher of English.

November 2005


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  Specifications
Page Count22
Cover typeSoft Cover
 

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