Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Its Role, Responsibility and Future Destiny

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A frank and forthright assessment of the past, present and possible future of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram by a long-time inmate.

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by Jugal Kishore Mukherjee

From the publisher’s note, “Those who would like to follow closely how this onerous task (of perfection being attempted at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) is being realized in actual practice both in the life of the individuals and in the life of the community in spite of all the vicissitudes involved in the process may read with interest this book by Mukherjee which makes a frank and forthright assessment of the past, present and possible future of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Has Sri Aurobindo Ashram A Future?

Thirty years ago I found myself in an unusually despondent mood one day. I come from a family that adores the portraits and books of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. A few years earlier I had received the doctoral degree for my thesis on Sri Aurobindo’s “Savitri”. Indeed, that was the first thesis on Sri Aurobindo’s epic. The Mother had gifted me the rare privilege of meeting her privately for a few minutes to offer pranam in 1961 and the Ashram had published my thesis. All this had sprung in me hopes of a close interaction with the Pondicherry Ashram but due to family circumstances I found myself far, far away from Pondicherry and years went by and I could not visit the Ashram.

One day I gave vent to my frustration and disappointment to my father (Dr. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar). He gazed at me for a while and then said: “Ashram is where you are”. Then he explained to me that it was not right to think that physical distance alone measured the love and guardianship of the Master and the Mother. That wherever a person leads a life of aspiration, tries to achieve perfection in what one does (he gave the example of washing dishes for I had blurted out that there was no need to write a thesis and get a doctorate for humdrum domesticity and I had mentioned the chore of washing dishes day in and day out), studies the words of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, immediately that place also becomes an Ashram.

Thereby father did not depreciate the value of living in Pondicherry. He said that living in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where one could salute the Mother daily at the balcony darshan and meet the sadhaks was the very best thing one could aspire for. But not all could do so; and unless one heard the Call, there was no point in fighting with one’s circumstances. Transformation should be attempted where one gets stationed. After all, no child of the Mother is out of her sight at any time. My father then drew my attention to the golden words of Sri Aurobindo in The Mother:

“And when the grace and protection of the Divine Mother are with you, what is there that can touch you or whom need you fear? A little of it even will carry you through all difficulties, obstacles and dangers; surrounded by its full presence you can go securely on your way because it is hers, careless of all menace, unaffected by any hostility however powerful, whether from this world or from worlds invisible. Its touch can turn difficulties into opportunities, failure into success and weakness into unfaltering strength. For the grace of the Divine Mother is the sanction of the Supreme and now or tomorrow its effect is sure, a thing decreed, inevitable and irresistible.”

From that day the truth of what he said has been the guardian-amulet for me and I never have had the feeling of being away from the Mother”s ambience. At the same time, I have had the privilege of receiving an uninterrupted flow of affection and wisdom from many Ashramites residing in Pondicherry. Nolini Kanta Gupta, A.B. Purani, M.P. Pandit, Navajata, Kishor Gandhi, Jayantilal and Parubai Patil readily come to my mind, and though they have withdrawn from the physical scene, they are guiding lamps for my journey in the realms of the Spirit.

There are also others, the Mother”s dear children all, who continue to help me with words, gestures, aye, even by their very presence in the Ashram like Nirodbaran, K.D. Sethna, Manoj Das, Vijay, Kishorilal, Shyam Sundar and Udar Pinto. How can words express the direct movement that led me into the Ananda consciousness when I heard Madanlal Himatsingka recite the “She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire” passage for a few minutes, standing directly under the Pondicherry sun, in front of the Vak bookshop? The Ashram has been a spiritual dynamo which has recharged me whenever I found myself walking its spaces in Pondicherry, browsing in the bookshops, gazing at the Service Tree or placing my forehead on the Samadhi, the Gayatri Mandapa for me:

“All Nature dumbly calls to her alone
To heal with her feet the aching throb of life…”

Living thus outside the Sri Aurobindo Ashram but carrying the Ashram consciousness within has had its share of problems. There have been needling questions from colleagues, relatives and strangers on the structure and functioning of the Ashram. Occasionally apaswaras have been heard too, thanks to the sensation-mongering media. Also, the halfway messages from one or two inmates who have been critical. For instance, a scholar whose sincerity is palpable and who has been brought up in the Ashram under the direct supervision of the Mother, feels that the Ashram has remained a closed book and has rejected even healthy inspirations from the world outside. There is also a feeling that many tend to think of the Ashram as a haven for retirement and no more.

Besides, there is no parampara leader to look to for day-to-day guidance. There have been more serious charges too. At the same time, so far, none of these criticisms has had any deleterious effect on the devotees outside the Ashram. They usually shrug it off as the shortcomings of the human element. Which ashram has not had its share of such attacks, they contend. Which is very true for even several hundred years ago, Mahendravarman Pallava had to write the Matta Vilasa Prahasana to warn the managers of the Buddhist Viharas in Kanchipuram.

Spiritual life is ever a divine battle. Those who opt for it have to battle against enemies of the spiritual way of life from outside as well as the enemies of promise within the spiritual fold. It is at this juncture that the 125th birthday of Sri Aurobindo gave a chance to analyse the problems that beleaguer the Ashram. Jugal Kishore Mukherjee”s Visada Yoga (Yoga of sorrow) literally gave birth to an intense heart-searching, and the result is a testament of faith in the future destiny of mankind as one of abiding Ananda consciousness.

Jugalda is not willing to wound but he is not afraid to strike at the penury that often devastates the human heart. There is a poverty of the heart when it is rendered weak in sincerity, love, faith. Jugalda is quite conversant with the reasons that often create convulsions within a spiritual community which seeks to master material nature. For, the Aurobindonian Yoga uses elements of the Tantric way too “for it seizes upon the obstacles to the spiritual life and compels them to become the means for a richer spiritual conquest and enables us to embrace the whole of Life in our divine scope as the Lila of the Divine.” Necessarily, as with the Tantric disciplines in the past, this way gets clouded due to the powers of Rajas and Tamas that hold sway over the material world. The danger of slipping into mere religiosity is very real and hence Jugalda”s self-questionings:

“Do many Ashramites still aspire after and make an effort for the acquisition of spiritual consciousness? And if yes, who guide and illumine the sadhaks in their spiritual endeavour? Can one contact the Presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo as a really living reality here? Why are there at times serious conflicts in the Ashram? Has the Ashram outlived its value as a spiritual institution? Is there any fear of its transforming itself with the passage of time into a thriving cultural community, forgetting the pristine character given it by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo?”

Jugalda”s questionings are like those flung by Arjuna and do reflect the nagging doubts in the minds of millions of followers who consider the Ashram as a sacred spot and the Ashram community as made up of “the Omnipotent”s flaming pioneers.”

Armed with a rare generosity of understanding, Jugalda who is himself an Ashramite of an older generation, sets out to answer the questions. Writing briefly on the circumstances in which the Ashram came into being, he sets out Sri Auro¬bindo’s basic and primary aims for the Ashramites:

“(i) to seek liberation from Ignorance, self-fulfilment and perfection; (ii) to ascend from the present purely mental and material being to the spiritual-supramental being and life; (iii) to outgrow the state of ignorance and half-knowledge and acquire instead a nature of self-knowledge and world-knowledge.”

As for the external life, no work is to be categorised as “high” or “low” (no, not even the washing of clothes) since “all life is yoga”. Today the Ashram has 1200 regular inmates and also a good number of people from outside who participate in the Ashram life. However, in all this variety of external life (teaching, painting, plumbing, cooking, doll-making, to name but a few) there lies the danger of forgetting the primary goal. Genuflexion to the portraits or the Samadhi alone is not enough. No doubt such thoughts flitted across Sri Aurobindo’s mind even during the early days of the Ashram as he said that the Ashram work is but “a preparation for a work — a work which will be founded on yogic consciousness and Yoga-Shakti and can have no other foundation.”

Interweaving his argument with telling illustrations from The Life Divine, Jugalda seeks to educate the reader on the ideal group life where “the individuals constituting any collectivity should move away from their surface existence which is at present the field of unbridled play of ego and try to dwell more and more in their inner consciousnees.”

Such an antahkarana-approach is not too easy to come by in this Age of Visual Culture. But then one has to exercise eternal vigilance not to succumb to the Tamas but hold on to “an ardent and one-pointed practice to reach the Goal”, though Jugalda finds this ideal conspicuous by its absence. Hence, one who wants to become an Ashramite should do so only if he hears the ‘Call”. How is the Call to be recognised? Jugalda quotes the Mother (13 August, 1958):

“You are going to wake up all of a sudden to something you never noticed but which is deep within you and thirsts for the truth, thirsts for transformation and is ready to make the effort required to realise it … You will suddenly feel an irresistible need not to live in unconsciousness, in ignorance, in that state in which you do things without knowing why, feel things without understanding why, have contradictory wills, understand nothing about anything, live only by habit, routine, reactions — you take life easy. And one day you are no longer satisfied with that.”

Jugalda understands the problems of those who deviate from the goal. There are reasons. The close concentration of a large number of people within a small space, the absence of a code of conduct spelt out in militarist terminology, a lack of stress on personal relationships are but some of them. Relationships have to work on the wavelength of the Divine and this is hard to achieve for human beings. To “trust the true warmth of the pure flame of psychic love but beware of the flawed fuel of ego-desire” (K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar) calls for very deep sincerity indeed.

And yet, Jugalda will neither compromise (no, our aim is not merely another cultural centre or religious retreat) nor give up the Aurobindonian ideal as an utopian dream. He finds many positive points for optimism. Though Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are not physically with us, their writings are very much here, speaking with maternal love and scriptural certainty. The attention to detail evinced by the Mother is amazing. Here is an example of her utter common sense:

“A good advice to all the Ashramites in their dealings with visitors and foreigners (and even among themselves): When you have nothing pleasant to say about something or somebody in the Ashram, keep silent. You must know that this silence is faithfulness to the Divine’s work.”

Ego is the Vritra and it takes a long time to overcome it, but we shall overcome. Freedom, yes. Permissiveness, no. Jugalda warns that permissiveness is an evil that should be rooted out on the spot. As Sri Aurobindo said, “Always behave as if the Mother was looking at you; because she is, indeed, always present.”

Not as the Big Brother watching, though. This is a mother”s watching over her children and she will exult when there is growth and intervene when help is needed. The children should make the best use of such maternal guardianship and not fritter away the chance in inanities and immediate satisfactions.

In the Ashram there are no subordinates. Everyone is a helper. The heads of sections are there only for administrative convenience. Jugalda does not gloss over the negative details like the desire on the part of some Ashramites to move out of the Ashram often or the urge to acquire personal wealth. Though Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had no use for the Ascetic”s refusal, they did not favour superfluities in one’s life. There is then the question of man-woman relationships. Fortunately, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have dealt with all such wrong movements and have given firm directions.

An Ashram life is meant for a growth in consciousness. Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a Deva Sangha saw a collectivity of aspirants pursuing the Integral Yoga for a rise in consciousness. The aim was never lost sight of even when the Ashram extended its parameters of action. The original afflatus that began the Ashram is still a guardian power, for Jugalda marvels that in spite of all the problems the Ashram life flows on smoothly and quietly.

Jugalda”s Sri Aurobindo Ashram is thus a timely work on the state of the community and is a plea to apply the needed correctives so that the Ashram will not cease to be the leader of the Aurobindonian organisations around the world. After all, the Mother and the Master are very much a presence in Pondicherry known as Vedapuri in earlier days, the city of Vedic Illumination. Jugalda”s concluding words are a meditative utterance meant not only for the Ashramites but all of us who walk in our own destined ways holding on to the life-sustaining message as our priceless inheritance:

“… let us try by all means to keep the hearth clean and the flame of aspiration burning bright and the Mother”s Flag flying high, and, when the need will arise with the passage of time, let us pass on the baton of spiritual endeavour to those sun-eyed children of the Mother who are destined to appear ‘in the march of all-fulfilling Time”, join this Ashram and turn it by their Tapasya into the divine Dream-Home of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother upon earth. Victoire à la Douce Mère: Victory to the Mother Divine!”

— Dr. Prema Nandakumar

August 2000

Additional information

ISBN

8170585074

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