A rare synthesis in Sri Aurobindo (HH 179)

A Talk by Dr Alok Pandey from the “Tuesday Talks” series

Sri Aurobindo represents that rarest of the rare type of super-humanity who beautifully combined and synthesized within his single personality what we find as opposites. Poetry and Literature on the one side, Sri Aurobindo has in his personality also an astute scientist who has experimented day and night with the workings of the spiritual Force and their results in the laboratory of his room in Pondicherry. There were many other types of synthesis that we discover in Sri Aurobindo, a synthesis of materialism and spirituality, of world and God, of eastern and western thoughts among many others. Today we share an interesting account of this side of Sri Aurobindo given by a physicist and Sri Aurobindo’s letter revealing this side of his personality.

Reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo by Professor Gabriel Monod-Herzen

When I saw Sri Aurobindo seated next to the Mother I had a feeling of certitude, of stability—an impression I had received often before on seeing a huge mountain… At the first glance I had the surety that what I had so long searched for, the solution of my problems, was there. I did not know why, there was no logic in it; but it was an absolute certitude which has never since changed. At that time I did not know any of his works; I began studying them from that period on: that is, 1935-36.

One used to see the Mother pretty frequently then. I was very friendly with Pavitra and in order to see him without bothering anyone I used to go and have breakfast with him in the room he occupied above the Atelier. Later it became a big office. I had the opportunity of seeing the Mother there, who often needed to see Pavitra. She had the look of a kind, gentle, affectionate grandmother. She would come in her dressing gown, with her grey hair pulled back: it was extraordinarily comforting because one felt to what extent she was human, direct, and one could tell her anything, ask her anything.

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I have also been asked what side of Sri Aurobindo’s work appealed to me most. There are two attitudes in him which I most admire: the first is that he does not reject anything or anyone. There is a place for all opinions, even those which he does not accept, in his work. He has come to find that particle of truth that exists in everything because without it that opinion itself could not exist. One never feels a prisoner of ideas when one reads him. One never says, “This is a falsehood,” or else “That person is wrong”; one says, “Here is an incomplete idea.” Being a physicist, I was deeply struck because I had always been greatly impressed by the fact that the long succession of scientists did not contradict one another, as say those who have not studied science themselves. In fact they complement one another. Take, for example, the ancient Greek thinkers, or those of the Middle Ages, who had very different ideas from ours. Granting what they knew, one cannot say they were mistaken. They had a certain form of thought which, in relation to us and our present knowledge, is incomplete. Sri Aurobindo has maintained this attitude throughout his writings; this gives us the possibility to appreciate all forms of thought, even those apparently in opposition to ours. As a man of science, this is what originally impressed me and taught me so much. I said to myself, “Finally I have found someone who does not demand that I reject certain things in order to carry me towards others, someone who leaves me absolutely free to choose. Naturally, he also leaves me with the responsibility of choice.”

This was the second question. The third was: Sri Aurobindo’s cheerful disposition. When I learned from various disciples that he was humourous and used to smile and laugh readily, I said to myself, “Here is someone in whom I can have confidence, because a philosophy that makes one sad cannot be a wise one.”

I had the good fortune of meeting four or five persons who had really practised Yoga throughout their lives, who had totally consecrated themselves to it. They were all happy, good-humoured. I knew Sri Ramana Maharishi at Tirruvanamali. He used to smile readily in spite of his bad health and pain. I knew Sri Krishnaprem (Ronald Nixon): he was very cheerful and had maintained his British humour intact. I knew his Guru, Srimati Chakravarti: she was equally cheerful. An anecdote confirmed for me Sri Aurobindo’s humour. I was acquainted with the Chief of the French Police here, and I asked him to search through his files to see if he could find something concerning the Ashram in its early days. He came back later very intrigued and said to me, “Just imagine what I have discovered! I can’t give you the files but I can tell you that I found a police report which began by saying, ‘I, secret agent’—this way everybody knew it, didn’t they?—‘being stationed at the corner of rue de la Marine near a room where Sri Aurobindo and his friends had gathered, heard him laugh loudly: which goes to prove that these people are not very serious.’”

Generally one makes the distinction between the literary mind and the scientific. Sri Aurobindo is the perfect proof of the artificial and inexact character of that distinction. Here is a purely literary man, with the knowledge of ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and four modern European languages, who certainly respected science but never practised it; yet he had the scientific spirit. Here is the first example.

During the war Sri Aurobindo would have the English communiqué read out to him every day. I know this because when I would go for breakfast with Pavitra it was the time for military news. The receiving room was at Pavitra’s, who was then in charge of conveying the news to Sri Aurobindo. One day Purani went to Sri Aurobindo in the afternoon and, referring to military matters, said, “It’s terrible to think that yesterday again the German submarines sank 65,000 tons of Allied shipping.” Sri Aurobindo said, “No, 67,500.” He did not want any approximations.
Now for my second example. While I was writing my book I related how Sri Aurobindo began publishing the Karmayogin at Calcutta again after coming out of prison; and how in the newspaper once, he suddenly (as I wrote) “received the order to go to Chandernagore.” The next morning I was sent a little piece of paper where the word ‘recut’ which I had used was crossed out by Sri Aurobindo and in its place “perçut” was written. Well, one really has to know French in order to make a correction like that. Sri Aurobindo had a literary mind but of a perfect precision. It is a good point to keep in view: when you read him, say to yourselves that each word has been chosen and no other can be put in its place.

Here then is a primary original characteristic of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching: his openness to all opinions, his capacity to understand them and then to inject a new element.

I believe it was the corrections he made in my book that showed me just how rare it is to meet a teacher who is so completely attached to the Truth as to be able to see it everywhere, even under a mass of errors. And this not only in dealing with current theory but also in contemplating the unfolding of time.

I wish to emphasize this point: that which Sri Aurobindo announces and describes is not a theory which pleases him or which is to him personal; it is a truth he has experienced. One cannot help remarking once again that this is precisely the scientific attitude, and Sri Aurobindo knew this, since he himself said that his room was his laboratory. There he tried everything, verified it before offering it to us. I think you all understand how his teaching was, and still is today, the inspiration behind my work as a physicist.

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Another thing that I was able to confirm with him—and I have seen the same in the Mother—is that neither he nor the Mother is indulgent. They understand all the failings of the disciples but are not weak in dealing with them, not at all! When there is a mistake, they see it and speak of it. But they speak of it with a smile, and when it is not a serious matter they add, “If you insist, try, you will see, you will have the experience.” This always inspired absolute faith in the sense that I had the impression of seeing someone who possessed the Truth but who, at the same time, was closer to me than my own self, and to whom consequently I could say everything, someone who could understand all. I could even hope to understand what was being said to me, because it was said in such a familiar way: no big words, nothing extraordinary, no difficult vocabulary. Take the Mother’s Conversations. With what precision of language and thought she manages to deal with the highest subjects without ever using complicated words! It is truly an example. The reader has the feeling of finding everything very simple, even that which he has not understood at all.

Before arriving at any conclusions I must speak to you about a final, rather delicate question—without answering it—because it has been posed to Sri Aurobindo himself on a number of occasions and he has not answered. It is: “Why has Sri Aurobindo not spoken of his own Sadhana, since everybody would like some information on the subject?” I once asked Pavitra the reason for this reticence. Pavitra answered, “The reason is extremely simple. Sri Aurobindo used to say, ‘I don’t eat this, or I don’t eat that; I use this type of soap or that toothbrush, I meditate at such and such an hour. Everybody will do the same thing.’ And that is precisely what Sri Aurobindo does not want, because it is not by copying him that we can become him. It is up to the disciple to choose not only his hours for meditation but even the smallest necessities of life. It is up to him to acquire the proper attitude which will permit him to utilize his daily routine for spiritual progress.”

It is said that ready-made clothes never fit as well as those made to order. Well, it is the same thing regarding spiritual life but with much vaster consequences. If one imitates someone even though it be his Master, one is not what he could be and what he should be in all sincerity. Sri Aurobindo wanted to allow each of his disciples to discover the truth of himself. One can verify this in his letters. What is extraordinary is their varied forms. One feels therein the respect he had for that which was unique in each disciple. He used to answer apparently insignificant questions, without forgetting to add a little remark, brief but just necessary, and this without ever stressing errors.

There is only one really important case where he spoke of himself, in a very revealing manner. A disciple wrote to him, saying that what Sri Aurobindo had done was marvellous, admirable, but that surely he had come to this life with a past that was helping him, that he was, as one commonly says, well-equipped. To the disciple the proof was that when Sri Aurobindo wanted mental silence he obtained it and, what is unique, in three days he had been able to reach the state of Nirvana. Sri Aurobindo answered:

“… You write as if I never had a doubt or any difficulty. I have had worse than any human mind can think of. It is not because I have ignored difficulties, but because I have seen them more clearly, experienced them on a larger scale than anyone living now or before me that, having faced and measured them, I am sure of the results of my work…”

This statement—from a letter of December, 1933 (Second Series, p. 72)—seems extremely important to me, because it affirms at once Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of our difficulties and the possibility to overcome them, of which he was a living example.

The impression I had, reading The Life Divine, was not at all that of receiving what is ordinarily called a lesson in philosophy, but that of listening to a traveller who had discovered a new land. He climbed a hill first, then a mountain and he described the panorama, first in one direction: in spirit he made me see its different aspects, from night to morning, under the stars, in daytime, with sun and clouds, I saw the seasons following each other… Then he turned in another direction to reveal another aspect; finally, I thought I knew this new land, knew how I would be able to live there.

And naturally the strong impression made me desire and then will to go to that country myself, made me desire to leave, to walk towards him… And it is perhaps for this reason that I am here today with you.

Words of Sri Aurobindo

….The invisible Force producing tangible results both inward and outward is the whole meaning of the yogic consciousness. Your question about Yoga bringing merely a feeling of Power without any result was really very strange. Who would be satisfied with such a meaningless hallucination and call it Power? If we had not had thousands of experiences showing that the Power within could alter the mind, develop its powers, add new ones, bring in new ranges of knowledge, master the vital movements, change the character, influence men and things, control the conditions and functionings of the body, work as a concrete dynamic Force on other forces, modify events, etc., etc., we would not speak of it as we do. Moreover, it is not only in its results but in its movements that the Force is tangible and concrete. When I speak of feeling Force or Power, I do not mean simply having a vague sense of it, but feeling it concretely and consequently being able to direct it, manipulate it, watch its movement, be conscious of its mass and intensity and in the same way of that of other perhaps opposing forces;—all these things are possible and usual by the development of Yoga.

It is not, unless it is supramental Force, a Power that acts without conditions and limits. The conditions and limits under which Yoga or sadhana has to be worked out are not arbitrary or capricious; they arise from the nature of things. These—including the will, receptivity, assent, self-opening and surrender of the sadhak have to be respected by the Yoga-force—unless it receives a sanction from the Supreme to override everything and get something done—but that sanction is sparingly given. It is only if the supramental Power came fully down, not merely sent its influences through the Overmind, that things could be very radically altered in this respect—and that is why my main effort is directed towards that object—for then the sanction would not be rare! For the Law of the Truth would be at work, not constantly balanced by the law of the Ignorance. Still the Yoga-force is always tangible and concrete in the way I have described and has tangible results. But it is invisible—not like a blow given or the rush of a motor car knocking somebody down which the physical senses can at once perceive. How is the mere physical mind to know that it is there and working? By its results? But how can it know that the results was that of the yogic force and not of something else? One of two things it must be. Either it must allow the consciousness to go inside, to become aware of inner things, to believe in the experience of the invisible and the supraphysical, and then by experience, by the opening of new capacities, it becomes conscious of these forces and can see, follow and use their workings, just as the Scientist uses the unseen forces of Nature. Or one must have faith and watch and open oneself and then it will begin to see how things happen, it will notice that when the Force was called in, there began after a time to be a result, then repetitions, more repetitions, more clear and tangible results, increasing frequency, increasing consistency of results, a feeling and awareness of the Force at work—until the experience becomes daily, regular, normal, complete. These are the two main methods, one internal, working from in outward, the other external, working from outside and calling the inner force out till it penetrates and is visible in the exterior consciousness. But neither can be done if one insists always on the extrovert attitude, the external concrete only and refuses to join to it the internal concrete—or if the physical mind at every step raises a dance of doubts which refuses to allow the nascent experience to develop. Even the Scientist carrying on a new experiment would never succeed if he allowed his mind to behave in that way.

When the Mother said that it was just a trick of reversing the consciousness, she meant that: that instead of allowing always the external mind to interfere and assert its own ordinary customary point of view, it should turn itself round admit that things may work from in outwards, and keep itself sufficiently quiet to see that developing and being done. For then an inner mind shows itself which is capable of following and being the instrument of the invisible Forces.

It is not that you are incapable of it, for it was several times on the point of being done. But your external mind has interfered, always, questioning, doubting, asking for something more external, not waiting for the movement to continue, for the inward to externalise itself and make itself concrete. That is why I object to this worship of Doubt. It is not that I used not to have doubts myself more formidable than any you have ever thought of—but I did not allow them to interfere with the development of my experience. I let it continue until it had sufficient body for me to know what it was and what it could bring me.

Sri Aurobindo to Dilip: Vol 1: 232 – 233: August 2, 1932

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I cannot say that I follow very well the logic of your doubts. How does a brilliant scholar being clapped into prison invalidate the hope of the Yoga? There are many dismal spectacles in the world, but that is after all the very reason why Yoga has to be done. If the world were all happy and beautiful and ideal, who would want to change it or find it necessary to bring down a higher consciousness into the earthly Mind and Matter? Your other argument is that the work of the Yoga itself is difficult, not easy, not a happy canter to the goal. Of course it is, because the world and human nature are what they are. I never said it was easy or that there were not obstinate difficulties in the way of the endeavour. Again, I do not understand your point about raising up a new race by my going on writing trivial letters. Of course not—nor by writing important letters either; even if I were to spend my time writing fine poems it would not build up a new race. Each activity is important in its own place—an electron or a molecule or a grain may be small things in themselves, but in their place they are indispensable to the building up of a world,—it cannot be made up only of mountains and sunsets and streamings of the aurora borealis,—though these have their place there. All depends on the force behind these things and the purpose in their action—and that is known to the Cosmic Spirit which is at work,—and it works, I may add, not by the mind or according to human standards but by a greater consciousness which, starting from an electron, can build up a world and, using “a tangle of ganglia,” can make them the base here for the works of the Mind and Spirit in Matter, produce a Ramakrishna, or a Napoleon, or a Shakespeare. Is the life of a great poet either made up only of magnificent and important things? How many “trivial” things had to be dealt with and done before there could be produced a “King Lear” or a “Hamlet”? Again, according to your own reasoning, would not people be justified in mocking at your pother—so they would call it, I do not—about metre and scansion and how many ways a syllable can be read? Why, they might say, is Dilip Roy wasting his time in trivial prosaic things like this when he might have been spending it in producing a beautiful lyric or fine music? But the worker knows and respects the material with which he must work and he knows why he is busy with “trifles” and small details and what is their place in the fullness of his labour.

As for, faith, you write as if I never had a doubt or any difficulty. I have had worse than any human mind can think of. It is not because I have ignored difficulties, but because I have seen them more clearly, experienced them on a larger scale than anyone living now or before me that, having faced and measured them, I am sure of the results of my work. But even if I still saw the chance that it might come to nothing (which is impossible), I would go on unperturbed, because I would still have done to the best of my power the work that I had to do and what is so done always counts in the economy of the universe. But why should I feel that all this may come to nothing when I see each step and where it is leading and every week, every day—once it was every year and month and hereafter it will be every day and hour —brings me so much nearer to my goal? In the way that one treads with the greater Light above, even every difficulty gives its help and has its value and Night itself carries in it the burden of the Light that has to be.
As for your own case, it comes to this that experiences come and stop, there are constant ups and downs, in times of recoil and depression no advance at all seems to have been made, there is as yet no certitude. So it was with me also, so it is with everyone, not with you alone. The way to the heights is always like that up to a certain point, but the ups and downs, the difficulties and obstacles are no proof that it is a chimera to aspire to the summits.

Sri Aurobindo to Dilip: Vol 1: Page – 295 – 296: January 5, 1933

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