A Visit with Sri Aurobindo – Rhoda le Cocq

The selection is taken from pp. 196-203 of ‘The Radical Thinkers: Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo’ ( Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, 1969), a book by Prof. Rhoda le Cocq, a student of Dr. Frederic Spiegelberg.

After the interview with Jung in Switzerland, and while studying Indology at the Sorbonne, it became more and more imperative to me to visit Sri Aurobindo.[1] When, during that final summer session at the Academy of International Law at The Hague in Holland, I discovered that I could obtain passage to India and then across the Pacific for very little more than returning to America via the Atlantic, the decision was made.

Correspondence with the āśram in Pondicherry began. I discovered Sri Aurobindo now appeared in public only four times a year. The next scheduled Darshan (literally, “face-seeing”, but with the connotation of “blessing”) was to be November 24th. I was granted permission to attend.

First by a Dutch ship, the Oranje, I went through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean to Colombo, Ceylon, then by boat-train to India. In 1950, Pondicherry, on the south-eastern tip of India, was still a French colony.

I discovered other Americans had come: a woman physical education teacher from New York City, studying Hatha-yoga, and two men from Stanford. There were many more visitors from Europe as well as from India proper.

The visitors, including myself, were housed at Golconde, a delightful guesthouse built by a Japanese disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. My room had an air of simplicity and peace that is hard to describe. The large louvered windows overlooked a garden; along the length of the windows was a raised platform upon which sat a cool water-jug. The bed was complete with mosquito netting; and the floor was of dark stone and cool to the feet during the return monsoon weather. Outside hibiscus bloomed; and in the pool in the courtyard, lotus made bright splashes of color while goldfish darted around and under their leaves.

A number of the permanent residents were from Pakistan [East Pakistan, now Bangladesh] and had followed Sri Aurobindo to Pondicherry upon the division of India, a division of which Sri Aurobindo did not approve. (He believed India should form one whole nation.) Some residents lived at Golconde, some in the main building with dining room two blocks away, and other married residents had separate small homes of their own.

In the month or so before Darshan, I found there was time to explore the countryside and small Indian villages by bicycle, to investigate the French restaurants in town, and to swim in the ocean two blocks from the guest house.

There were events at the āśram each day, but one attended or not, without obligation. Mornings, breakfast was served at the main dining hall; usually a banana, home-made grain bread, and cocoa or milk. At noon, if it was ordered in advance, a girl in a sari brought around the shiny, brass, hitched-together dishes with vegetable curries and other dishes. On the lower floor, on a breezeway, there was a place to eat lunch at Golconde. A young Hindu, Vishnu Patel, whose family all lived in Pondicherry, soon introduced us to Indian sweets and to a kind of vegetable-flour doughnut, dipped in a hot sauce, for which I am still often hungry. In Vishnu’s company, those of us from the United States and Europe were led to the bazaar, a dhobi who would wash and iron our clothes, and to the best place to buy sandals to wear in this heat.

Each morning, after breakfast, there was a meeting with Mirra Alfassa, called the Mother. There was a flower ceremony, in which visitors both offered and received flowers from her — each flower with its own esoteric meaning for spiritual development. In a small marble-floored room opening onto the central court, there was also a morning group meditation period with the Mother.

Day by day, more people arrived at the āśram at Pondicherry. There were now exhibitions and sports competitions among the younger members of the colony, a fact which highly displeased some of the older Indian visitors. Others were disturbed because there was no “set routine”. One visiting professor of philosophy from Bombay finally explained to me that Sri Aurobindo’s āśram was a revolutionary departure from the old style āśram. He suggested that before leaving India, I should also visit Ramdas, called “The Laughing Sage of India”, at his āśram on the Mangalore Coast. This I did for a week, later, and it gave me greater insight into just how unusual the establishment in Pondicherry was, by older standards. Although I also found Ramdas a charming man, the entire atmosphere differed. There, women and men were expected to sit in separate sections; all food was Indian; and there were none of the modern conveniences one took for granted at Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

In Pondicherry, I was soon told, of course, that Margaret Wilson, the daughter of President Wilson of the United States, had spent her last years here at the āśram and had died there. I also discovered that in 1947, the entire colony had been besieged by communists who had sought a French protectorate where communism was still legal. One āśramite had been killed.

At night, Pondicherry became a place out of some romantic novel with ships arriving at a free port, loaded with what one suspected were gold bars to be smuggled into India proper. Huge fires on the beach flamed into the night, as white turbanned figures moved here and there.

All of this, of course, was at the village pier, and few regular āśramites ventured out at night except to affairs in the central āśram hall. But those of us from America had to take in all the sights, while we were there.

Afternoons as a rule, I did research in the āśram library, taking notes on books, most of which are now available in America. Evenings, a group of us sometimes took in an outdoor movie in the village. On one such occasion, things became entirely too exciting. The movies were shown in a large tent, with a meager number of benches for Americans and Europeans; most of the villagers sat crosslegged on the sand. Suddenly, on this particular occasion, there was a scurry. A snake had been seen. From then onward, throughout the movie, my feet were under my body on top of the bench. On another occasion in the bazaar, a Hindu snake charmer, angry because I had refused to pay for his show, held a live cobra by the tail, writhing almost in my face. When he accidentally lost hold of the snake and several Hindu men had it slither near their feet, I discovered that Indian men could be extremely volatile and most amusingly fluid of language.

At last, it was the morning of November 24th. At Golconde, rumours flew. Although thousands had now arrived for this Darshan, it was said that Sri Aurobindo was ill and might find it impossible to appear. Then, at the last minute, we were told he was well enough. A long line led from the main building, around the block: people of every colour, every style of dress, government officials and high ranking professors, young and old from dozens of countries, wanted to see the philosopher-sage. Each of us finally climbed the stairs to the floor where at the end of a long narrow room Sri Aurobindo in white and the Mother in a gold sari, sat side by side upon a slightly raised platform.

As a Westerner, the idea of merely passing by these two with nothing being said had struck me as a bit ridiculous. I was still unfamiliar with the Hindu idea that such a silent meeting could afford an intensely spiritual impetus. I watched as I came up in line, and I noted that the procedure was to stand quietly before the two of them for a few silent moments, then to move on at a gesture from Sri Aurobindo. What happened next was completely unexpected.

As I stepped into a radius of about four feet, there was the sensation of moving into some kind of a force-field. Intuitively, I knew it was the force of Love, but not what ordinary humans usually mean by the term. These two were “geared straight up”; they were not paying attention to me as ordinary parents might have done; yet, this unattachment seemed just the thing that healed. Suddenly, I loved them both, as spiritual “parents”.

Then all thought ceased. I was perfectly aware of where I was; it was not “hypnotism” as one Stanford friend later suggested. It was simply that during those few minutes, my mind became utterly still. It seemed that I stood there a very long, an uncounted time, for there was no time. Only many years later did I describe this experience as my having experienced the Timeless in Time. When there at the Darshan, there was not the least doubt in my mind that I had met two people who had experienced what they claimed. They were Gnostic Beings. They had realized this new consciousness which Sri Aurobindo called the Supramental. Later, this same experience made me understand what Heidegger meant by “standing presence”.

The visit was not to end there, however. Several days later, an English doctor staying at Golconde warned me that the condition of Sri Aurobindo’s health was becoming worse. At 1.30 in the morning on December 5th, 1950, he passed away of a kidney infection. About 3.30 that same morning, this was announced to everyone in the āśram. With great sorrow, I realized I had been at the last Darshan at which both of them would appear together!

During the day of December 5th, I hovered about the āśram grounds, feeling desolate. Already it had been decided, despite the objections of the French colonial governor, that Sri Aurobindo would be buried in the courtyard of the main building beneath a huge spreading tree. The male āśramites, including the visiting doctor, began to build the tomb. I watched the doctor, who had confided to me that he expected Sri Aurobindo to “reveal himself as an avatar”, and he beat with his sledge-hammer on the concrete slab as if he would destroy death itself.

There was weeping, but no hysteria. By afternoon, men and women passed baskets of earth from hand to hand, as the digging continued beneath the tree. Then, there was a new announcement. For all of us there, there would now be a second Darshan. In lesser numbers, we filed through to view the body of the poet-philosopher lying upon his couch in the upper chamber.

Again, the following morning on December 6th, we all filed past. The “force-field” which I mentioned earlier seemed to remain about the body and throughout the room. Dressed in white, upon a white couch before the windows, Sri Aurobindo now lay in state. Bowls of flowers stood around the couch; and, at the bed’s head and foot, disciples of long standing sat quietly, heads bowed.

Unexpectedly, in the afternoon, there was another Darshan. Sri Aurobindo’s face still did not look deathlike. The skin was golden in colour, the white hair blowing on the pillow in a breeze from a fan. The aquiline profile continued to have a prophetic look. There was no odour of death and little incense was burning. To my astonishment, the repeated viewings of his body had a comforting effect. Previously I had always resented the idea of viewing dead bodies.

As I left this third time, I noted other things about the room: a collection of ivories in a carved cabinet, the tiger skins which padded an armchair and a side bench, a small Persian carved table very similar to one I had purchased at an auction in Seattle, years before; and a Japanese seascape on one wall.

By December 7th, everyone momentarily expected the funeral. This was, after all, a tropical climate. Bodies were usually burnt as quickly as possible in India. Even the planned burial in earth was a major departure from the usual Hindu custom. The grave had now been completed with large cement blocks lining the tomb. But instead of the burial, an announcement came from the Mother:

The funeral of Sri Aurobindo did not take place today. His body is charged with such a concentration of Supramental light that there is no sign of decomposition and the body will be kept lying on his bed so long as it remains intact.

From the French colony, already exploding with disapproval and its officials much disturbed by the burial plans, came the rumour that the body must have been “shot with formaldehyde” secretly, to preserve it. Moreover, said the officials, the āśram was not only breaking the law in burying anyone in the garden, it was worse to keep it so long unburied. (The legal regulation was that no body should be kept unburied longer than 48 hours.)

On the morning of December 7th, therefore, a French doctor representing the Government, a Dr. Barbet, arrived to inspect the body of Sri Aurobindo. At the end, he reported it was a “miracle”; there was no deterioration, no rigor mortis. It was an unheard of occurrence; the weather had continued to be hot during the entire time. After this official and scientific approval, nothing further could be done to prevent another Darshan. Visitors were flocking from all over India; and the Indian newspapers now proposed that Sri Aurobindo be suggested, posthumously, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“This time, I suspected it might be the last time. Everyone and anyone was allowed into the āśram to pass by Sri Aurobindo’s body: curiosity seekers, villagers, āśramites and visitors.

By December 8th, silence was observed throughout the āśram grounds. Only late comers who had just arrived in Pondicherry were allowed to view the body. Tension grew among the āśramites, and incredible speculations became the order of the day. An Indian representative of Life magazine came around, wanting to talk to those of us from America. He told us that this phenomenon of bodily preservation after death had never taken place anywhere in India. Why, even yogis who specialized in “live” burial had never performed such a feat. No Indian “living saint” in history had preserved his body after death in this fashion. The Indian magazine representative wondered if Sri Aurobindo was not, after all, still alive and only in some kind of trance state or coma.

On December 9th, at noon, a notice was posted that there would be a final Darshan for those in the āśram at one o’clock. Later, the time was changed to 2.30 p.m. and visitors from outside were allowed in first. The night before, a plane chartered by nineteen people from Darjeeling had flown in. By now, in Golconde, everyone was sharing his or her room; bedrolls crowded the floors and halls of the guest house.

I had, of course, postponed my planned departure date. All of this, I realized, was a situation which would remain entirely unduplicated in my own life. I intended to remain until the end.

On the afternoon of December 9th, at 5.00 p.m., the burial service finally took place after another final Darshan. A feeling of force and energy remained in the atmosphere around Sri Aurobindo’s vicinity, but that force had now weakened. Afterwards, in absolute silence, everyone in the āśram sat in the courtyard. The gates were locked against further curiosity-seekers.

There was no orthodox religious service at the burial. The coffin, of rosewood with metal-gold rings, much like an old and beautiful sea chest, was borne from the āśram and lowered into the earth. French officials, all dressed in white, made a line to the left, their faces stern, a bit superior in expression and definitely disapproving of the entire affair. Over the coffin, concrete slabs were laid.

Then, everyone lined up and, one by one, we scattered earth from wicker baskets. It was dark under the spreading tree when each of us had made this last farewell.

On the morning of December 10th, when I visited the grave, it was already covered with flowers, incense sticks burning. It was announced that the Mother would carry on at the āśram and that a new International University would be opened.

Although the Mother had announced there would be two weeks of meditation during which she would see no one, she graciously granted me a farewell interview on December 15th, at 6.00 p.m.

At 5.30, I went into the meditation hall, still very much mentally and emotionally upset by everything that had occurred. She appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in white. When I smiled, she nodded and said: “Come on up.”

All the questions I had meant to ask seemed to vanish. I was intensely aware that the interview itself was an imposition, when she had so recently lost the companion of thirty years. “They say you wish to see me,” she said quietly.

Before I could think, I blurted out that I seemed to be full of fears, fears of new wars, fears of this or that in my personal life.

“One must not fear,” she said. “By fear, you bring about what you fear.” I nodded, then she added, and I had a feeling she spoke to the world, not just to me: “It’s ego! Ego!”

Several personal matters were discussed, and then of spiritual development, she said: “One must have a spirit of adventure about all this, you know.”

When our brief talk was over, she took a double French marigold from a bronze bowl, on the edge of a small dark table against which she had leaned an elbow while we talked. With a long look, she handed the flower to me.

Only much later, many years later, did I realize how fortunate I had been. Within the space of a year, far from my own shores, I had met three of the world’s greatest human beings: Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, who had said that man had outgrown his concept of God; and these two: Sri Aurobindo, and Mirra Alfassa or the Mother, who together, had attempted to give the world that new needed concept of God, as those of spiritual genius always do. Because of them, life continues to have hope and meaning.


[1] At Stanford University… I attended classes in comparative religion and Indian philosophy given by Dr. Frederic Spiegelberg…. In one of these classes, Dr. Spiegelberg, who had returned from a trip to India, informed us that it was “worth travelling 4000 miles to stand for a few moments before Sri Aurobindo”. At that time I was impressed, but had little intention of going on to India from planned post-graduate studies in Europe.

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