Krishnaprem’s contact had given a fillip to my spiritual aspiration. But I found, to my dismay, that it came to be opposed over and over again by my earth-avid proclivities, to say nothing of the advice of well-meaning friends like Rabindranath who favored conjugal life and urged me to get married. The result was that my inner conflicts increased fast till they all but pullulated wherever I looked. After reading Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on Gita, I sought further guidance from his Synthesis of Yoga and other books, all of which served to further deepen the gulf between me and my intellectual friends. In the end, emboldened by my very desperation for the haven I had glimpsed, I wrote directly to Sri Aurobindo imploring him to give me some advice about the spiritual quest as well as about its compatibility with marital life. He wrote back, or rather one of his disciples, Suresh Chakravarti, took down what the great sage had dictated. But as it was a long letter I will give here only a brief excerpt:
In your own case, everything depends on your ideal. If it is to lead the ordinary life of vital and physical enjoyments, you can choose your mate anywhere you like. If it is a nobler ideal like that of art or music or service to your country, the seeking for a life-companion must be determined not by desire, but by something higher and the woman must have something in her attuned to the psychic part of your being. If your ideal is spiritual life you must think fifty times before you marry…. You are given here the general principles only. From their complexity you can easily imagine how difficult it is to give a clear-cut answer. With these data before you, you must decide for yourself.
At the time I was athirst for light — especially light on his yoga. I was then on a musical tour, gleaning data on different styles of our music in different provinces. Though the work still interested me, I could not but admit to myself that my old zest was waning. So my thoughts turned again and again to Sri Aurobindo with the result that I yearned to meet him face to face.
Yet, if I were drawn to yoga, my fanciful conceptions of sadhana made me not a little apprehensive. For example, I imagined a life of solemn solitude, awful austerities and desiccating discipline, all of which spelled for me an utter stultification of life. Nor was this mitigated by the fact that mine had been a life of travel, music, laughter and robust optimism which, in Sri Aurobindo’s language, support the “vital egoistic life” of worldly activism. Gradually, however, I felt myself being won over by Sri Aurobindo’s analysis of our world and his idea of evolution from the spiritual point of view. In his masterpiece The Life Divine he wrote:
The universe and the individual are the two essential appearances into which the Unknowable descends and through which it has to be approached; for other intermediate collectivities are born only of their interaction. The descent of the supreme Reality is in its nature a self-concealing; and in the descent there are successive levels, in the concealing successive veils. Necessarily, the revelation takes the form of an ascent; and necessarily also the ascent and the revelation are both progressive. For each successive level of descent to the Divine is to man a stage in an ascension; each veil that hides the unknown God becomes for the God-lover and God-seeker an instrument of His unveiling. Out of the rhythmic slumber of material Nature unconscious of the Soul and the Idea that maintain the ordered activities of her energy even in her dumb and mighty material trance, the world Struggles into the more quick, varied and disordered rhythm of life labouring on the verges of self-consciousness. Out of Life it struggles upward into Mind in which the unit becomes awake to itself and its world, and in that awakening the universe gains the leverage it required for its supreme work, — it gains self-conscious individuality. But Mind takes up the work to continue, not to complete it. It is a labourer of acute but limited intelligence who takes the confused materials offered by Life and, having improved, adapted, varied, classified according to its powers, hands them over to the supreme Artist of our divine manhood. That Artist dwells in Supermind; for supermind is superman. Therefore our world has yet to climb beyond Mind to a higher principle, a higher status, a higher dynamism in which the universe and individual become aware of and possess that which they both are and therefore stand explained to each other, in harmony with each other, unified.
The ascent to the divine Life is the human journey, the Work of works, the acceptable Sacrifice. This alone is man’s real business in the world and the justification of his existence, without which he would be only an insect crawling among other ephemeral insects on a speck of surface mud and water which has managed to form itself amid the appalling immensities of the physical universe. [from Chapter VI “Man in the Universe”]
It was in January, 1924, that I saw Sri Aurobindo for the first time. I enjoyed the rare privilege of having a long talk with him on the 24th. The next day the duration of the talk was shorter. I kept an elaborate record of all that had passed and this report I sent him subsequently for revision. He approved of it substantially and made only a few minor corrections. Here is the report:
It was about eight in the morning. Sri Aurobindo lived then in the house which stands at the main entrance to the ashram. He was seated in a chair on the front veranda. I bowed before him and took another chair in front. An oblong table stood between us.
“A radiant personality!” sang the very air about him. A deep aura of peace encircled him, an ineffable yet concrete peace that drew you almost at once into its magic orbit. But it was his eyes that fascinated me most — shining like beacons. His torso was bare except for a scarf thrown across.
“A deep aura of peace encircled him, an ineffable yet concrete
peace that drew you almost at once into its magic orbit.”
“The greatest living yogi of India!” — my heart beat fast. Hitherto I had seen but a few sadhus and sannyasis, but here was a real yogi, who lived thus for years in seclusion and yet took some interest in my doings.
He appraised me with his soothing yet penetrative gaze. It would be impossible to adequately portray my reactions. After a time, with some effort, I pulled myself together.
“I have come,” I stammered out, “to know . . . to ascertain rather . . . if I can be initiated . . . I mean I want to practice your yoga to start with, if possible.”
He answered simply: “You must tell me first what it is exactly that you seek, and why you want to do my yoga.”
I was lost! Why? Did I know myself? How, then, to put it all clearly and cogently? I strove hard to find some light in my bewilderment.
“Suppose,” I found tongue at last, “I suggested — or rather suffer me to ask if you could help me in attaining, or shall we say discovering, the object of life?”
“That is not an easy question to answer,” he said, “for I know of no one desideratum which is cherished equally by all, any more than I know of an object of life equally treasured by all. The object or aim of life cannot but vary with various people, and seekers, too, approach yoga with diverse aims. Some want to practice yoga to get away from life, like the mayavadi [illusionists]: these want to renounce life altogether, since this phenomenal life, they contend, is an illusion, maya, which hides the ultimate reality. There are others who aspire after a supreme love or bliss. Yet others want from yoga power or knowledge or a tranquil poise impervious to the shocks of life. So you must first of all be definite as to what, precisely, you seek in yoga.”
“I want to know,” I proffered desperately, “if yoga could, in the last resort, lead to a solution of the anomalies of life with all its native sufferings and humiliations.”
“You mean transcendent knowledge?”
“If you like — but then, no — for I want bliss, too, crowning this wisdom.”
“You can certainly get either from yoga.”
“May I, then, aspire to an initiation from you?”
“You may, provided you agree to its conditions and your call is strong.”
“Couldn’t you give me an idea about the nature of these conditions . . . and about this call you speak of . . . may I ask what you mean exactly? I gathered from your booklet Yogic Sadhan,” I pursued before he could reply to my question, “that you call yourself a Tantrik who believes in [play, as the ultimate reason for cosmic manifestation], and not a follower of Shankara believing in maya. You have written for instance: ‘To fulfill God in life is man’s manhood.’ And if my memory doesn’t fail me, you said in your Life Divine: ‘We must accept the many-sidedness of the Manifestation even while we assert the unity of the Manifested.’”
“It is true that I am a believer in lila,” he nodded. “But why exactly do you refer to that?”
“I wanted to make sure whether you really meant what you wrote in your Yogic Sadhan. I hope, too, that your yoga doesn’t make it binding on one to live like a cave-dweller who disowns the many-mooded active life or, shall we say, like a passive pensioner whose day is done? This hope, happily, has been fostered by your repudiation of mayavada.”
“I see what you mean,” he said, giving me an indulgent smile. “Well, yes, I am not a mayavadi, happily for you as well as for me. But incidentally, I am not the author of the book Yogic Sadhan.”
“How do you mean?”
“Haven’t you heard of automatic writing?”
“Not exactly. I merely held the pen while a disembodied being wrote off what he wished, using my pen and hand.”
“May I ask why you lent yourself to such writing?”
“At the time I was trying to find out how much of truth and how much of subliminal suggestion from the submerged consciousness there might be in phenomena of this kind. But let that pass,” he added. “To return to your main question. You asked about the active life. Well, it isn’t binding on you to renounce all that you value in your active life. What you must be ready to renounce is attachment to everything on that plane, whether you live within or outside the wheel of karma [action]. For if you keep these attachments, the Light from above will not be able to work unhampered to effect the radical transformation of your nature.”
“Does that imply that I must forgo, say, all human sympathy and true friendship, all joy of life and fellow-feeling?”
“It doesn’t. Absence of love and fellow-feeling is not necessary to the Divine nearness; on the contrary, a sense of closeness and oneness with others is a part of the Divine consciousness into which the Sadhaka enters by nearness to the Divine and the feeling of oneness with the Divine. An entire rejection of all relations is, indeed, the final aim of the Mayavadin, and in the ascetic yoga an entire loss of all relations of friendship and affection and attachment to the world and its living beings would be regarded as a promising sign of advance toward moksha [liberation]. But even there, I think a feeling of oneness and unattached spiritual sympathy for all is at least a penultimate stage, like the compassion of the Buddhist before turning to moksha or nirvana.”
The conversation then turned back to my grande passion, music. To put it in a nutshell, I felt that I was ready to renounce everything for yoga except my music. He smiled and said that in his yoga the surrender must be unconditional — in other words, if I were asked to give up music I must be ready to jettison it at once. He added: “The truth of the matter is this: so long as the joys which belong to the lower planes continue to be too vividly real and covetable, you will find ready enough reasons why you shouldn’t decline them. You can forgo them only when you have had the call of the higher joys, when the lower ones begin to pall, sound hollow. The Promised Land of the Spirit begins from the frontier of worldly enjoyments to start with.”
“But why is it,” I asked after a pause, “that one can’t expect to have even a glimpse beforehand of this Land? Because of the thick walls of our worldly desires?”
“Your premise is not quite correct,” he objected. “For even when we live in the world of these desires the glimpse, the call, comes to us, through chinks and rifts of dissatisfaction and surfeit. Only, it doesn’t last long until you are somewhat purified, for then only do you really begin to be open to it. The darkness returns intermittently after the light because it takes a long time to get our whole being open to the light. That is why yoga pushes us urgently upward to altitudes where the light can be shut out no more by clouds. And it is just because yoga is such an ascent of consciousness that any attachment to or desire for lures and laurels on the lower planes, material, intellectual or aesthetic, must eventually prove a shackle.”
“Why, then, do you write so appreciatively of materialism as also of the intellectual and aesthetic delights? And why are your own writings so illuminating intellectually? Why have you praised art? Why write that ‘The highest aim of the aesthetic being is to find the Divine through Beauty’?”
“Why not? Intellect, art, poetry, knowledge of matter, et cetera, can all help our progress appreciably provided you direct them properly. It is, at bottom, a case of evolution. That is why I once wrote: ‘Reason was the helper, Reason is the bar’; which means simply that our intellect can be a help in our evolution only a part of the way. But when it presumes to judge what is beyond its domain, it must be put in its place. Besides, different recipients are differently constituted for different disciplines — seeking different fulfillments, each approaching Truth in swabhava [the way of his nature]. In other words, those who are the best recipients for the light of the intellect are mentally more evolved than those who are not so gifted intellectually. But it doesn’t mean that there are no realizations higher than the mental ones. Assuredly there are, as we can concretely verify as we open ourselves to the realizations of the Spirit, when we find mental joys no longer inadequate, aesthetic joys no longer satisfying, With this opening we glimpse worlds higher than those we have been used to. Do you follow?”
“You mean that yoga enlarges our consciousness more and more?”
“That is my view of evolution,” he nodded, “this gradual unfolding of the consciousness ascending to its higher reaches. It is yoga which is to bring down further light and power in the next step of the evolution of human consciousness.”
I reverted to my difficulty: “But what about my taking to yoga?”
“Everyone can practice some yoga or other, suited to his nature,” he replied noncommittally.
“But my question was about your Integral Yoga — of self-surrender.”
“Ah!” he said slowly as though weighing his words. “About that I can’t pronounce here and now.”
“Because the yoga that I have been pursuing of late — whose aim is the entire and radical transformation of the stuff and fabric of our consciousness and being, including our physical nature — is a very arduous one, fraught with grave perils at every step. In fact, so great are these dangers that I would not advise anybody to run them unless his call is so urgent that he is prepared to stake everything. In other words, I can accept only those with whom yoga has become such a necessity that nothing else seems worthwhile. In your case, it hasn’t yet become so urgent. Your seeking is for some sort of partial elucidation of life’s mysteries. This is at best an intellectual seeking — not an urgent need of the central being.”
“Allow me to explain a little further,” I said with a keen sense of disappointment, “for I am afraid you haven’t quite seen where the shoe pinches. I can assure you that mine is not merely a mental curiosity.”
“I said seeking, not curiosity,” he amended. “And I referred to the present only: I did not mean this could not develop later on into a real need of your central being.”
“Let me make it more explicit all the same,” I insisted. I then gave him a fairly long recital of my woes and doubts, at first personal, but concluding with the widespread misery and fears of humanity.
“I quite see your difficulty,” he said softly. “For I, too, wanted at one time to transform through my yoga the face of the world. My aim was to change the fundamental nature and movements of humanity, to banish all the evils which afflict helpless mortality.”
I felt a heave within — in my very blood. For one like him to talk so intimately to a stranger! Gratitude surged within me and I hung on his words, eager to imbibe the sweet cadences of his serene voice.
“It was with this aspiration that I turned to yoga in the beginning,” he added, “and I came to Pondicherry because I had been directed by the Voice to pursue my yoga here.”
“I read in the famous letters you wrote to your wife that you had turned to yoga to save our country.”
“That’s right. I told Lele when agreeing to follow his instructions that I would do his yoga only on condition that it didn’t interfere with my poetry and service to the country.”
“Lele agreed and gave me initiation. But soon afterward he left, bidding me turn solely to my inner guidance. Since then,” he went on, “I have followed only this inner Voice which has led me to develop what I named the Integral Yoga. It was then that my outlook changed with the knowledge born of my new yogic consciousness. I found, to my utter disillusionment, that it was only my ignorance which had led me to believe that the impossible was feasible here and now.”
He nodded. “Because I didn’t realize then that in order to help humanity out it was not enough for an individual, however great, to achieve an ultimate solution individually: humanity has to be ripe for it, too. For the crux of the difficulty is that even when the Light is ready to descend it cannot come to stay until the lower plane is also ready to bear the pressure of the Descent.”
I was reminded of what he had written in his Essays on the Gita:
No real peace can be till the heart of man deserves peace; the law of Vishnu cannot prevail till the debt to Rudra is paid. . . . Teachers of the land of love and Oneness there must be, for by that way must come the ultimate salvation, but not till the Time-Spirit in man is ready, can the inner and the ultimate prevail over the outer and immediate reality. Christ and Buddha have come and gone but it is Rudra who still holds the world in the hollow of his hand.
“Consequently,” he went on, “the utmost you can do, here and now, is to communicate only partially the light of your realization, in the measure that people are receptive. Even this is not very easy, mind you; for the fact of your having received something does not necessarily make you capable of making a free gift of it to others. You see, capacity to receive is one kind of aptitude, capacity to give — quite another. Indeed, the latter is a very special kind of gift. Some there are who can only imbibe but not communicate, because, for one thing, what you communicate, everybody cannot receive, even when they earnestly want to. To sum up, the number of those is very limited who are capable of both giving and receiving. So you can understand the problem is by no means a simple one. What is one to do? Everybody does not want bliss or enlightenment: men are at different stages of development and this makes any universal panacea for life’s evils an impossibility, as the history of human experience has proved again and again.”
“But what about the widespread misery and fear and suffering?” I said after a pause.
“How can you help that so long as men choose as they do to hug ignorance, which is at the root of all suffering? As long as they cherish the darkness of attachment rather than the light of liberation and knowledge, how can they expect to see? How would you evade the inexorable law of karma?”
“What, then, are you striving for through your yoga?” I insisted. “For your own liberation or fulfillment?”
“No,” he said, “that wouldn’t have taken so long. But,” he added, “it is not possible to answer you more convincingly just now, for if I were to tell you why I am doing yoga, you would either not understand or misunderstand. Suffice it to say that I want to invoke here on earth the light of a higher world, to manifest a new power which will continue to exist as a new influence in the physical world and will be a direct manifestation of the Divine in our entire being and daily life.”
“Is this what you have named the Supramental Divine?”
“That’s right — though the name is immaterial. What matters is to remember that for a variety of reasons the direct action of the Supramental has never yet been brought to bear on our earth-nature and consciousness.”
“Because the time was not favorable for such a descent?”
“Partly. But there were other reasons also which I can’t go into as they cannot be communicated through mental language, and so, if attempted, may only lead to fresh mystification.”
“But tell me at least if the yogis of yore knew of this Power.”
“Some did. But — how can I put the truth of the matter to you? — what happened was that they used to rise individually to this plane and stay there in union: they didn’t bring it down to act upon our terrestrial consciousness. Perhaps they did not even attempt to. But I would rather not tell you more about this because, as I said, the mind cannot even glimpse the Supramental Truth, to say nothing of understanding it.”
“But on whom and what will this Supramental work?” I asked.
“Why, on our life-material, of course — down to matter and the physical.”
“Didn’t the ancient yogis attempt this either?”
“Not with the Supramental instrumentation. Their preoccupation was not so much with our basic material-physical, because to transform it with the spiritual force is the most difficult of all achievements. But that is precisely why it must be achieved.”
“But does the Divine seriously want such a tremendous thing to be achieved?”
“As to whether the Divine seriously means something to happen, I believe it is intended. I know with absolute certitude that the Supramental is a truth and that its advent is in the nature of things inevitable. The question is as to the when and the how. That also is decided and predestined from somewhere above; but it is here being fought out amid rather a grim clash of conflicting forces.”
“Forgive me, I don’t quite follow this.”
“I know,” he intervened, “for it is somewhat abstruse. It is like this. In the terrestrial world the predetermined result is hidden and what we see is a whirl of possibilities and forces attempting to achieve something, with the destiny of it all concealed from human eyes. This is, however, certain: that a number of souls have been sent to see that it shall be achieved here and now. That is the situation.”
“Please be a little more explicit.”
“To say more would be going beyond the line.”
“But tell me at least when the miracle will happen.”
“You don’t want me to start prophesying. As a rationalist, you can’t.”
“But tell me one thing,” I said, flying off at another tangent. “Didn’t any of your predecessors make this attempt — I mean what you call the integral transformation of the physical consciousness?”
“The attempt might have been made, it is not certain. But what is certain is that nothing decisive was achieved on the physical plane.”
“How do you infer that?”
“Because all achievements leave some legacy of traces for posterity to follow up. A spiritual realization once completely achieved could never be wholly obliterated afterward.”
“You must, then, realize it yourself first?”
“Obviously. Be it a new realization or light or idea — it must first descend into one person from whom it radiates out in widening circles to others. Doesn’t the Gita, too, say that the ways of the best of men act as models to the rest? In the Integral Yoga, however, the work starts after the realization, whereas in most other yogas it ends with the realization. The reason is that I aim primarily at manifestation, for which I must, obviously, reach the Supramental myself before I can bring it to bear on our earth-consciousness. For this, ascent has to be the first step — descent is the next.”
“How will the descent work, to start with?”
“When the Supramental touches our being, our consciousness will overpass its twilit stage of the mental, where the Divine Truth is distorted, into the upper regions where light has free play, that is, where there are no such distortions. This will in its turn bring about the transformation of mind, life and body, as that will be one of the functions of the Force at its inception in the world of matter, generally — to usher in subsequently the new era in man’s living. You must not misunderstand me. What I want to achieve is the bringing down of the Supramental to bear on this being of ours so as to raise it to a level higher than the mental and from there change and sublimate the workings of mind, life and body. But this is not to say that Supramentalization will be effectuated overnight so that all will be completely transformed. That is hardly feasible.”
“Because we are not mature for such a transformation?”
“Not only that — there are other obstinate impediments and hostile forces to reckon with. This world of matter has been for ages the bulwark of darkness, falsehood’s most redoubtable citadel where, hitherto, inertia has reigned supreme. To carry there the message of Truth, to make it responsive to the shock of Light is far from easy. Yet the Supramental power can work its way if once it can descend there; that is to say, if once the earth-consciousness can bear it to start with.”
“Suppose it does, on whom will the Force be dynamic in its inception?”
“On those who have acquired the power to be its medium or vehicle. Each of these will serve as an indicator of what humanity is potentially capable of becoming, once it is transformed. Do you follow?”
“After a fashion, I suppose,” I said. “But tell me, please, if this power or influence will benefit many or only a handful of isolated individuals here and there.”
“Many, certainly. My Integral Yoga would be of little use if it were meant for one or two individuals. For you must remember that my object is not the abandonment of the physical-material life to drift by itself but the fundamental transformation of it by the power of this higher light and seeing.”
“But I hope your followers and successors won’t have to emulate you in your superhuman sadhana if they are to arrive?”
“No.” Sri Aurobindo smiled. “And that was what I really meant when I said a little while ago that my yoga was meant for humanity. The first that hews his way through a trackless jungle acts necessarily as the pathfinder, clearing the way for his followers. He faces much to make it easier for his successors.”
I was reminded of a saying of the great yogi Sri Ramakrishna: “The man who makes a fire has to take a lot of trouble but, once lit, all who come near may safely reap the benefit of its warmth.” As I pondered the significance of this simile, a deep sense of reverence pervaded my being. I wondered how few of us even imagined that such a man was living in our midst! But then, hasn’t it always been so from time immemorial? How many truly appraised the greatness of Sri Ramakrishna during his lifetime? I felt suddenly a strong impulse to make Sri Aurobindo my obeisance once more. I restrained myself with effort.
His gaze was on me, unwaveringly. Suddenly I felt a curious upsurge of skepticism so utterly out of tune with my nascent adoration.
“But are you convinced it will be possible — really feasible?” I said.
“For a single individual I have seen it to be possible,” he emphasized. “For I have seen the working of this tremendous victorious Force annihilating at a sweep the forces of darkness and inertia which conspire to keep the spirit under the thrall of matter and flesh. To give a concrete instance: a yogi could here and now achieve complete immunity from the forces of disease if he could isolate himself completely from his surroundings.”
“But why does he fail when he reverts to the world?”
“Because of the universal suggestion of disease when he comes out of his seclusion.”
My skepticism took yet another line. “But do you think this to be such a great achievement, after all, seeing that even the great Buddha attached so little importance to the physical aspect of our suffering?”
“You forget Buddha had a different outlook on life, a different object. He wanted through nirvana a final exit from this phenomenal world of the senses. It may be that at that stage of our human evolution man was not mature enough for a greater realization. But whatever the reason, you cannot get away from the fact that Buddha wanted fulfillment by turning away from all play of expression which is life’s mode of self-manifestation, whereas I want its transformation, complete transformation. My aim is not to disown life but to transmute it through the alchemy of the light of the Spirit.”
For some time I did not know what to say next. Then a sort of curiosity — or, shall I say, eagerness — got the better of me in spite of my misgivings.
“But what about my yoga?” I brought myself to say apropos of nothing. The next moment I felt a strange self-questioning: was I really calling for an answer? I could not quite decide.
His glance cut into me like a knife. “Yours is still a mental seeking,” he said. “For my yoga something more is needed. Why not wait till the time comes?”
“When it does, may I count on your help?” I asked anxiously.
He gave an affirmative nod and smiled.