A Review of Our Ashram Life – a talk by Nolini Kanta Gupta

In its early days, quite at the beginning, we may now say long, long ago, for it is now almost half a century ago, the Ashram from its very start quite spontaneously and inevitably grew into a community life. In the first place, the individuals ceased to have any personal possessions. Whatever they had belonged not to themselves but to the group, or rather to the Master of the group, the Guru, to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Whatever they had, they considered as having received from the Mother for use only. They were not the proprietors or possessors of anything: whatever they needed or thought they needed, they had to ask for it and the Mother decided whether they should have it or not. It was a joyous surrender of possessions and a grateful acceptance of gifts. One may yet remember the beautiful movement that impelled each one of those who were fortunate to be there at that time. One is reminded of a parallel movement, although on a different field, described by Tagore in his well-known lines:

There was a scuffle and scramble,
A great hurry as to who would be the first
To throw away his life.

Well, it was a picture worth contemplating. Here is one carrying his trunk or valise or wallet, and placing it before the Mother, displaying all his possessions and receiving them back from her as her gift. She did not take away anything as superfluous or not necessary! It was for us to judge and decide what was really necessary and what was a luxury. We had to be sincere. She was generosity itself.

The life of each one was directly linked with the Mother. The relation between individuals was founded on the relations each one had with the Mother. It did not depend on one’s liking or disliking, one’s attraction or repulsion, but was necessitated by the need of the common life as arranged by the Mother.

Such a life was possible for two reasons: a physical reason and a psychological reason. The physical reason was that the number of people forming the Ashram was very small: instead of the two thousand and more that we are today, there were at that time (the time I am speaking of) barely fifty. And there were no children. And of men and women, only those were allowed who had a real call for the spiritual life; those alone were chosen by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo and permitted to live here. And here is the natural psychological reason: it was a select group who already had an inner life and spiritual aspiration, so they were ready for a life of surrender and self-giving, of obedience and allegiance to the guru. They did not come ignorant and innocent of the rudimentary elements of spiritual life.

The work that Mother could do then and was doing, she herself has described and explained to us. It was the creation of a world—a region at least—of the higher consciousness in which every one who participated had his own place, every one with his soul-being sufficiently in front, and this being she could connect or link up with a being of the higher sphere—a counterpart, an over-soul, as it were, for each soul. It was a kind of descent, a subtle incarnation of Gods which the Mother’s Grace occasioned or brought about, into the elevated and sublimated human level.

The ground had already been prepared, we may note, by the descent of November 24, 1926, the descent of the Over-mind or Krishna-consciousness into Sri Aurobindo’s body-consciousness and thence generally into the earth-atmosphere and becoming its natural and permanent possession.

But at one point Sri Aurobindo happened to make an observation which meant halt! The Mother narrates the story to us in an amusing way. One day Sri Aurobindo was telling the Mother: “What you are doing is very fine and very grand. It will bring you name and fame, you will become a world-figure and your work will be a marvel. It will be a grand success.” Well, that was sufficient. The whole thing dropped from the Mother’s hands. The new creation vanished in a moment, as it were, there was a Pralaya. The Gods withdrew, we came down with a thud upon earth—down to earth, earth to earth. We are still there, crawling, forward I hope, as best as we can.

This creation of a luminous world in a higher sphere of the mind which Mother attempted could not be fully achieved because the foundations were not properly laid, the basic ground was not prepared. Any higher structure of the mind and Overmind must be built upon man’s vital being and physical life. The new creation left out of account these realities of basement, so we had to come down, forgetting for the moment the higher realisation, into these darker regions and make a thorough cleaning of them. The regions of the vital consciousness and physical consciousness are, as we all know, full of human failings and dangerous complications. One had to leave the heavens and come down to these lower levels and tackle the problems that beset them, the crucial problems whose solution alone could lay a strong foundation for the final consummation, the supreme transformation. One had to face the stark realities here and master them before one could think of a heavenly ascent. So we all became once more ordinary human beings with human weaknesses and a modicum of aspiration perhaps. This was the task given to all of us—to battle through and conquer here below. The scene changed completely. A mid-summer-night’s dream turned almost into a sombre Hamlet tragedy.

The first sign of this return, this resumption of life as it is, was the reassertion of the individual, the freedom of the personal unit. Because of the increased number of people and because of the incursion of children, the earlier frame could no longer hold good. The willing surrender of individuality is a lesson that has to be acquired and achieved: it is not just God’s gift for the many. The many have to grow, grow by degrees, through toil and trouble, and slowly be led into the mysteries of the highet Realisation of tears. The Roman poet spoke of the easy descent down the cliffs to the river: Facilis descensus Averni. Easy is the descent to Avernus (Virgil: Aeneid, 6:126)

The realisation aimed at demands a wholesale change, an integral transformation; it does not rest content with a partial success, an attainment on one level, in one portion of the being. There is therefore a global shake-up; nothing is allowed to remain in its old status unnoticed, all must come out and declare themselves to the Light. Hence the darkness of it all. All the impurities, imperfections and vilenesses show themselves—the grass-roots, as they say, that have to be extirpated and the ground ploughed, furrowed and prepared for the new seed. It is a difficult time. The heroic soul must bear and stand, know what is happening and move bravely on.

I spoke of the community ideal chat obtained among us at the outset of our life here; that broke to pieces. Individualism reared its gruesome head with all its inevitable consequences: egoism had uncontrolled sway; instead of submission and surrender and obedience, freedom attained complete freedom, liberty pushed to licence.

Like individuals, collective bodies (in the matter of work and enterprises) were allowed the freedom to grow, or perhaps not to grow, independently. Each group or section, each undertaking sought to depend upon itself, to secure its own personal equipment and resources: its gains were its own, and naturally the losses were bound to be more than the gains. The real gain was perhaps the experience. The experience was meant to develop the consciousness and it is hoped that the consciousness did make a gain.

The freedom, the devolution or departure from control of the centre, went so far as to bring about almost a real separation between the groups and the centre; the same tendency, by the way, we may notice in the play of world politics today.

The limbs declared their independence and sought and fought for this independence, but that could only be at the cost of the Heart. The calvary of the Divine lay precisely here: it is due to this sense of separation, an individual, exclusive self-existence prevailing in His children, issues of His own body. The units in the cosmic body of the Divine in the Ignorance are indeed ignorant, and the force that compels them to be together apparently is the forced bond of ignorance; they seem outwardly to press towards inevitable disintegration and chaos.

In reality however, this movement of dispersion out of bounds, a flight away from the centre, harbours a reverse movement in it, a self-conscious advance towards a reawakening to the one central consciousness that is in all, that is all. This is an intermediate stage when the faults and imperfections in the creation, the wrong forces that issued from and were inherent in the original Ignorance and first separation, had to be tracked and met; they could not be allowed to lie dormant eternally. Therefore they rose up and declared themselves so that the Light can deal with them and swallow them.

One remembers the legend of the Vedic Rishi Agastya and his consort who once attempted a new and renovated creation. They were engaged in a tremendous superhuman labour to discover the roots of evil upon earth: they dug it up, opened out its very bowels: they went deeper and deeper, through layer after layer of obstructive darkness till they arrived at the very source of the Night. Then they brought in there with them a Light that could produce a reversal of consciousness, changing darkness into radiance.

The lower sphere of the vital and the physical is a mass of ignorant Nature (Prakriti), all moving together helplessly, mechanically, bound together indissolubly to one inexorable fate, and it stands on the rock of utter unconsciousness—the Inconscient which is the very basis and stuff of that sphere. Consciousness, the conscient Being, has to come down and penetrate there, break the hard block of inert matter, striking and scattering and throwing up, as it were, its myriad disparate bits, turning them into particles of Light and Consciousness. These free sparks, the first-born of Consciousness, at the outset become erratic, errant conscious units, free but fighting against each other, each exclusive in its unitary consciousness; but that is the way towards a purer, higher, wider, integrating consciousness. As the Consciousness works and moves forward, the dross, the grit is blown away and it works towards a clearer light and a harmonic weaving of all component units.

We are thus in a transition period; it is an interregnum, beset with great difficulties, but they are also great opportunities. The Calvary is not merely a passage of pain and suffering; it is a Purgatory, that is to say, a zone, a process where the being and consciousness is cleaning itself, throwing off its own scales, sloughing off its old skin and in course of time it will come out in a rejuvenated body and in a harmonious setting. The Paradise lost will one day be thus regained. Paradise Lost will have one day inevitably, as its sequel and consummation, Paradise Regained.

Published November 1973