Introduction. Behind the Iron Mask.


“This is a question which every person whose consciousness is awakened a little has asked himself at least once in his life.

…What is this monstrous force in which one takes part without wanting to, without understanding it? Why are we born, if it is only to die? Why all this effort for development, progress, the flowering of the faculties, if it is to come to a diminution ending in decline and disintegration?

…In persons who are sensitive, it produces horror; in others indignation.

…Some feel a revolt in them, others less strong feel despair and always this question arises: ‘If there is conscious Will behind all that, this Will seems to be monstrous.’”

“From birth to death, life is a dangerous thing.
The brave pass through it without care for the risks.
The prudent take precautions.
The cowardly are afraid of everything.
But ultimately, what happens to each one is only
what the Supreme Will has decided.”                             

The Mother

Birth and Death are the two great original mysteries — the birth of this vast and complex universe in a seeming void, the birth of life and living beings in and out of a seemingly mechanical universe, the birth of a thinking, half-conscious creature called man from a seemingly unconscious, unthinking life.

So is death a mystery, the apparently dark void into which everything collapses, the great and the small, the high and mighty as well as the lowly and weak, the virtuous and the vicious, the pious and the wicked, the angels and demigods as much as the devils and the titans themselves. Death swallows all.

The great philosopher-poet was casually asked by one who gave him shelter for the night: “Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?” These seemingly insignificant questions whose answers we often take for granted can change our life radically. The merely living can change into a thinker; the thinker into a philosopher-poet, the poet into a visionary-mystic, the mystic into one utterly identified in an inner ineffable union with God.

And as we move up through this ladder of self-transcendence, our self-view changes. And as our answer to this fundamental question ‘who are we’ changes, so do our answers to the other two fundamental questions, ‘where do we come from’ and ‘where do we go’.

The questions that Death asks of us upon the highways of life is symbolised in the story of the Sphinx — Who are you? If our answer is correct, it lets us pass. If not, we are slain by Death. Therefore, the body that knows not its immortality dies, whereas the soul that knows itself escapes. This truth applies as much to individuals as to entire civilisations.

Thou thinkest term and end for thee are not;
But though thy pride is great, thou hast forgot
The Sphinx that waits for man beside the way.
All questions thou mayst answer, but one day
Her question shall await thee. That reply,
As all we must; for they, who cannot, die.
She slays them and their mangled bodies lie
Upon the highways of eternity.
Therefore, if thou wouldst live, know first this thing,
Who thou art in this dungeon labouring.[1]

Death forces us to raise this question and thereby change. Therefore, death to one point of view is a passage or perhaps even a precursor to this change. To another eye that sees yet sees not, because it sees only one half of the truth, or rather sees the apparent outward fact as the sole truth, death is the dark womb to which all returns. Day, from the point of view of earth, is only a brief or long interregnum compressed between two dark eternities of night, earth itself a small dot amidst an appallingly immense and largely empty space.

But the limits of our sight are not the limits of light. Light is hid in the darkest corners of the universe. Light is trapped in the dumb inertia of matter and stone, light climbs up in the plant and the trees, leaps to dynamic movement in animals, aspires through conscious thought in man. Night is only a concealment of Light or a depravity of our sight. Light blazing beyond our horizons is the birthplace of that which we truly are — the Light Supreme, the secret home to which we climb through the many-tiered stairway of Life and Death and Rebirth.

The poet of yesterday thus sang this ode to our immortal, deathless being:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
Not in utter forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home[2]

And the poet of the future thus sings the song of immortality:

O Force-compelled, Fate-driven earth-born race,
O petty adventurers in an infinite world
And prisoners of a dwarf humanity,
How long will you tread the circling tracks of mind
Around your little self and petty things?
But not for a changeless littleness were you meant,
Not for vain repetition were you built;
Out of the Immortal’s substance you were made;
Your actions can be swift revealing steps,
Your life a changeful mould for growing gods.
A Seer, a strong Creator, is within,
The immaculate Grandeur broods upon your days,
Almighty powers are shut in Nature’s cells.
A greater destiny waits you in your front:
This transient earthly being if he wills
Can fit his acts to a transcendent scheme.
He who now stares at the world with ignorant eyes
Hardly from the Inconscient’s night aroused,
That look at images and not at Truth
Can fill those orbs with an immortal’s sight…
The earth you tread is a border screened from heaven,
The life you lead conceals the light you are.[3]

But these are deeper things we are told. The issues of Birth and Death and Life may be very complex, may even be unsolvable riddles to man while the daily issues of an average person are different. He is not concerned so much with what or who is death but rather with what death does or means to him. To us who live in perpetual slavery to the senses, moved as puppets by the hundred and one strings of the heart and life’s small and blind desires, death comes with a terrible face whose only task is to spoil the too brief and short-lived happiness of our human life. Death represents to us a blind and capricious god or a cruel and merciless demon who comes to snatch all that we hold dear to our life. What we see is a powerful god or Adversary or whatever else one may call it, who comes only to take, and if at all it gives anything it is only indirect and in the form of a release from our earthly bonds, a negative giving so to speak. However, it is our undue and ignorant attachment to darkness that makes him assume such a formidable figure in the human mind.

And yet, life would become so very difficult, nay even impossible if this scavenging god whose presence one loathes didn’t exist. It is his cosmic task perhaps to cleanse the darkest corners. He instinctively discovers darkness even in a cloak of light and swallows it as if by affinity. Does he swallow light as well? Shades of grey yes, but not the authentic Light of the Soul say those who have seen beyond its frightful form. But then we are not merely souls. The soul is indeed our true identity but we also assume a body and all that goes along with it. So, does it mean that apart from our soul, nothing will ever escape it? That all is foredoomed since the very beginning and amidst this grand dance of destruction, this grim specter of a universal collapse, the only thing that stands immortal is the naked soul divested of all its vestures?

If that were so, then life and creation would not be an act of God or of a deeper wisdom and love, but an accident and an aberration arising as a momentary bubble upon the Infinite’s Timeless sea.

Not so, we are told by Sri Aurobindo. The destiny of the individual and of the earth is not the doom of death but the crown of conscious immortality. An Infinite wisdom and love has built this world out of Itself and an Infinite wisdom and love shall save it from doom and death.

We whirl not here upon a casual globe
Abandoned to a task beyond our force…[4]

But this too does not comfort our sense-bound view and death-bound life. Why, even the learned and philosophers are shaken by the spear-point of death. For even when we have conquered our personal tragedies and individual fear of death, we are still moved by grief and feel another’s loss as our own. In the case of a sage, even though he may be enlightened and not shaken by personal grief, he may nevertheless be moved by the imperfection of this universe. A secret sense of oneness ties us inexorably with the creation’s fate. Our individual victory is not complete till it is complemented with a cosmic victory. Our little hymn of light is swallowed by the noises of the world. Our ode to immortality drowned by an all-destroying thunder and roar of death. Our small or great efforts at individual liberation are as if marred by the endless servitude to a fixed and inflexible iron law to which all are bound. The clarity of our inner sight is constantly clouded by dust thrown by the trampling hooves of time upon which death rides.

No doubt something lasts and grows and progresses even in a world seemingly governed by death. The ruins of great and mighty ancient civilisations buried below the dust of our feet are not the only truths. Something of their greatness, some essential spirit of their ancient might survives and reincarnates and takes form again. It breathes its force in new bodies and forms, now outwardly changed to suit the demands of the Time-Spirit. The ancient wisdom speaks to our modern hearts and lures us to the whispers of the gods. Out of the ruins of the past, the forms of the newer creation rise. Out of the pyre and the grave arises our deathless form defying annihilation’s script, defying adverse fate.

But who has seen this? And who really knows? As for us, only a giant Ignorance and a dumb unthinking stillness surrounds us. And who can pierce this darkness? Not we in our present collective littleness. We can do nothing but cry and want and weep. We can do little except bear with a heavy and grudging heart the tragedies of time. Are we not ourselves bubbles and waifs upon Time’s sea?

The answer to this is also the answer to our fate. If we truly are nothing but this, then surely we have to somehow bear our fate in the hands of a cruel destiny. Or hold out for the moment, but only for the moment, till death meets us again on some other unseen bend and unexpected turn upon the highways of life. But wait… we can also stare into the face of death with deathless eyes, return its mock with the carefree laughter of the soul, meet its dangerous challenge with the secret smile of the eternal within us. Moreover, we can turn this challenge into an opportunity for growing into strength and light and eternal life. We can overthrow its dark shadow with the inmost fire, that immortal god within us. We can, if we will, swallow the darkness by the shadowless Light that we are, and the deathless Self of whom we are an errant and adventuring ray. And what greater adventure than this adventure of death itself?

If we can do it, the better for us. But if we cannot, we too, as a race, will pass under the folds of death’s darkness as others before us. But the march of evolution will not stop. It will move on till the god hidden in form and flesh grows and overthrows ignorance and overthrows suffering and overthrows tragedy and overthrows death. And if all darkness is the preparation of a greater dawn then we are perhaps close to yet another evolutionary dawn of humanity. The only choice then would be whether we face the new dawn turned towards the sun of tomorrow or turn our face towards the dark denial that death represents…

Even as of old man came behind the beast
This high divine successor surely shall come
Behind man’s inefficient mortal pace,
Behind his vain labour, sweat and blood and tears:
He shall know what mortal mind barely durst think,
He shall do what the heart of the mortal could not dare.
Inheritor of the toil of human time
He shall take on him the burden of the gods;
All heavenly light shall visit the earth’s thoughts,
The might of heaven shall fortify earthly hearts;
Earth’s deeds shall touch the superhuman’s height,
Earth’s seeing widen into the infinite.[5]

Death, to most of us, represents the grand finale of life’s uncertain walk. The curtain falls upon all the great or small dramas of life. But is the end of an episode of life the final act or just a change of scene in the great epic that would continue to unfold itself in future lives — this is something that has ever fascinated the human mind. Here is a darkness that the half-luminous angels of rational thought cannot probe. A final, almost fatal agnosticism seems to be the last word of material science leaning heavily upon truths experienced by the physical senses. But what if there are senses subtler than those that we are accustomed to? What if there are realities other than the purely material ones? And, what if there is a Great Sense behind the sense-bound and apparently senseless view of life?

These are difficult questions that deny any easy and over-simplistic answer. These are uncomfortable questions as well, since a definitive answer to them is likely to change our entire self-view and world-view. The immense practical importance of these questions can be ignored only at the risk of allowing ourselves to live in a penumbra of perpetual Ignorance. And nothing could be worse than this that the inability of our probe into the mysteries of Death turns into an inability of our Life to arrive at its fullest possible perfection.

There is no denying that death raises for us a question and therefore must the attempt be made to find its answer. One needs to probe death from all sides and see where the Trojan-wall allows us to enter into the dark and dangerous kingdom. To limit ourselves to only one approach, for example, a scientific approach based upon a purely material perception of life and death, is to do a great injustice to the cause of truth itself. For just as there are many faces of the One Truth so too there are many paths that lead to it. And if a path falls short of leading one to the reconciling station one might as well move on to a wider road that goes further, for indeed Truth is wider and greater than Its forms and no single formula can claim to contain or exhaust It. This has been the wisdom of the ages and in keeping with this we have made a small attempt to probe behind the iron mask through different means. Whether one finds behind it a rictus sardonicus[6] mocking at all the efforts of life, or, one meets behind the cold denial an inflexible pity and fathomless heart of a great and ancient god patiently labouring to work out a vast and grand theme, is something that is left for each one of us to discover. For truth is a personal quest where books and thoughts are only guide-posts and lighthouses in our never ceasing journey. The goal of our quest is outside all our present maps with only God within as our Guide and God without and around us as our sole authentic reference point.

Yet an infant step is the forerunner of a great and difficult climb. This book is also just such an infant step and we invoke Their Grace to turn this infant step into a journey towards the Right and the Light.

He sails through life and death and other life,
He travels on through looking and through sleep.
A power is on him from her occult force
That ties him to his own creations fate,
And never can the mighty traveller rest
And never can the mystic voyage cease,
Till the nescient dusk is lifted from man’s soul
And the morns of God have overtaken his night.[7]

“What is this then thou callest death? Can God die? O thou who fearest death, it is Life that has come to thee sporting with a death-head and wearing a mask of terror.”

“Death has no reality except as a process of life. Disintegration of substance and renewal of substance, maintenance of form and change of form are the constant process of life; death is merely a rapid disintegration subservient to life’s necessity of change and variation of formal experience. Even in the death of the body there is no cessation of Life, only the material of one form of life is broken up to serve as material for other forms of life.”

Sri Aurobindo


[1] Sri Aurobindo: ‘A Vision of Science’, Collected Poems, p.43
[2] William Wordsworth: Ode to Immortality
[3] Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, Book 4, Canto 3, p.370
[4] Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, Book 1, Canto 4, pp.58-59
[5] Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, Book 3, Canto 4, P.344
[6] A fixed satirical smile full of bitter irony.
[7] Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, Book 1, Canto 4, p.72

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