Chronicler of a new age
An Interview to Swati Chopra [originally published in LifePositive magazine in 2004)
Excerpts: An article in an American spiritual magazine suggested that Sri Aurobindo is ‘cool’ because he spoke of radical ideas like transformation of matter and experimenting with consciousness. Would you agree he is the philosopher of the day because of his farsightedness?
Sri Aurobindo has always been a radical and will remain so as long as the transformation of matter and the realisation of a being beyond humanity have not been accomplished. From his views I could easily distill ten ideas you would politely call ‘cutting-edge’ and others, ‘outrageous’ or ‘crazy’. Only a part of people’s mind has grown used to wonders; another part is still conservative (out of ignorance, insecurity and fear).
To me, Sri Aurobindo is the philosopher of the age. I have been exploring cultural aspects of humanity in the light of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; my books are about this. My constant amazement is about the width and depth of the Aurobindonian vision and knowledge. Several of Sri Aurobindo’s ideas, the rise of a collective consciousness for instance, don’t seem so implausible in the age of quantum physics and internet.
Do you think modern discoveries have validated some of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy?
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had a profound understanding of science, and great respect for humanity’s effort to build a better world even if part of this effort has, as human undertakings often do, misfired. They also saw science as a necessary though transitory phase in evolution. But science is of the mind, which is constitutionally limited in its knowledge. The Aurobindonian attempt at physical transformation of the human body is a spiritual attempt. Spirit is not something gaseous; spirit is the stuff matter, quasars, planet earth and the bones of our body are made of, and much more than that. Therefore the attempt at transformation is an integral attempt including domains of matter, life, mind and spirit. This integrality is what makes it so complex and often misunderstood.
Modern discoveries, however, clearly constitute an intermediary phase between the age of our forefathers and future more-than-human beings. Technology might be compared to a playpen in which the human baby acquires the knowledge which he will need as an adult—a complete being or ‘superman’. The surprising new paradigms of science and technology surely make one dream of something beyond.
Are we moving closer to superman?
Superman is an archetype in the psyche of humanity. In all mythologies one finds dreams of unbeatable strength, of being invulnerable, and of freely moving in marvellous worlds. Indian epics are full of such dreams (some of which may have been realities), of supermen and glorious gods.
The superman became common in European philosophy around 1900. Friedrich Nietzsche along with many others seemed to be calling for a less miserable life than the kind provided by “the human condition”. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother took the aspiration seriously and made the effort to discover a supramental transformation. But the more they experienced their great adventure, the more they became aware that to realise the superman was a long-term process. Matter, the earth and its offspring including the human species, proved immensely difficult to master and transform. It became evident that transitional beings would be required before the superhuman being could appear, as has happened throughout evolution.
It is naïve to dive into Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with the intention of becoming a superman. They laid the foundations and we are now in the period (300 years?) in which transitional beings will build the bridge to a fully divinised being that will be materially present on earth. This being will differ so much from us that it is not possible to imagine how it will manifest. In the dreams of humanity one finds indications of what the superman will be like, but he will be much more and better, as our dreams are limited by our constitution and knowledge.
Recently, Deepak Chopra was asked about Sri Aurobindo’s idea of evolution and he responded through an analogy of metamorphosis. To become a butterfly, the caterpillar has to disintegrate completely. Similarly, the present chaos will lead to evolution. Is this a correct view?
From the Aurobindonian perspective, there is no doubt that the present times usher in a higher stage of evolution. All new phases of evolution have been experienced as ‘traumatic’ by the species in which the next, higher species took shape. For Sri Aurobindo and the Mother evolution is a matter of consciousness; the Darwinian, or neo-Darwinian, theory of evolution describes only the most outward aspect.
At a time when colonialism was still dominant, Sri Aurobindo noted some of the conditions that would make the higher race possible. Asia had to awaken; India had to become free; the East’s spirituality had to be shared, and an honest interchange between East and West enabled. Humanity had to become one. Then, all this seemed to be an idealistic chimera. Today, point after point has been accomplished to an amazing degree, and globalisation, the unification of humanity, is in full progress.
Fundamental change always seems to take place on the brink of the abyss. The greater the change to come, the greater is the disorientation and dread of a catastrophic unknown. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother assure us that behind a situation unfathomable for the human mind, a divine Plan is being worked out. All available facts fit into the vision.
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are seen as avatars. Now avatars are supposed to return when the need arises. Do you believe this?
The Bhagavad Gita says that avatar comes in times of crises, for instance when essential changes in evolutionary progress need to happen, like the appearance of a higher species. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the complete, bi-poled, male-female avatar necessary for the stage humanity is in, have incarnated in such a time. They have themselves given pointers, mainly as answers to questions, to some of their former embodiments as avatars and often as vibhutis. (Whereas an avatar comes for the really big jobs, to open a new, fundamental stage in evolution, a vibhuti comes to do the required but humanly difficult work in the course of such a stage.)
Of course I have read what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother wrote about the future, but what matters is what I have to do at present. Being part of their work by trying to practise their yoga is what I consider a vocation. Their greatness and help, the context of the undertaking and the perspectives in which it takes place are, to me, largely sufficient to make one’s life worth living.
There is a distinct air of bhakti at the Pondicherry Ashram. Is devotion a valid aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s path, or is it something that is part of the trappings of being a guru in India?
The yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother requires mastery of all elements in human beings—physical, vital (the life forces), mental and spiritual. That is why Sri Aurobindo called it Purna Yoga or Integral Yoga, and that is why it is difficult. Bhakti is based on feelings and definitely has a place in Integral Yoga. The door to this yoga is a calling, an impulse in the soul. He or she who starts on this yoga must be willing to surrender completely to the Guidance; for accomplishment of the aim is far-off, and realisation of its objectives (divinisation of the body) cannot be supposed to be for this life. Integral Yoga practitioners are building the road. Given the complexity of the human being, and the many threads of previous lives, it is not possible to put down prescriptions to be followed by all; this is an individual yoga, even when practised in communal circumstances.
One begins where one is ready to begin, here and now, on the physical level (of karma), vital level (of bhakti), or mental level (jnana), or even on two or three levels at the same time depending on one’s personality. The aim, however, is complete realisation. If one limits oneself to bhakti, then one is not practising Integral Yoga.
Sri Aurobindo passed on in 1950 and the Mother in 1973. How would you evaluate the current state of the movement?
It was Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s work to lay foundations of this movement and ensure its viability. The Mother assured us that this was done. At present, there are Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville, centres in India and abroad, and the numerous individuals who try to live according to Sri Aurobindo’s vision and others who are inspired by it. If we take Auroville as an example, few realise what a miracle it is that the township is still there.
Standards used to judge Aurobindonian work are mostly inappropriate because they are borrowed from traditional spirituality. The Aurobindonian yoga has no ceremonies, no creed and no longer an embodied guru. Even people who join the movement have difficulty remaining alone with the inner guidance and look for outside supports, experiences, ‘spiritual’ practices or teachers. Few understand that if all is Brahman, even the dance of atoms and multiplication of body cells is a spiritual practice. It is so easy to fall back on what has been proven in past circumstances, or to be told what to do by a charismatic person, or to look for confirmation of one’s effort in ‘experiences’.
Yes, the movement has leadership today: Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Without their presence there is no movement, and no possibility for humanity to attain the status beyond itself. This, after all, is not a religion or church but evolution in action, of which the Aurobindonian movement is a conscious effort. Aurobindonians have the privilege of the vocation and a certain knowledge; they are, however, not working for themselves but for humanity as a whole.
An Aurobindonian wouldn’t discuss her sadhana experiences as it might attract ‘asuric’ forces. Please explain this aspect of the path.
What you call ‘asuric’ I would call negative or adverse forces. They are forces of the mental, vital and even lower levels, and are for the time being elements of the universe. This means they are everywhere, also within us. They constitute the stuff out of which the universe evolved, and from them emanated those beings called devils, demons and adversaries, of which the most complete knowledge is to be found in the Indian tradition.
They are occult and clever; and want to keep their grip on this world, which is why they are adversaries on any spiritual path. Yoga means to gain mastery over parts in us which are dominated by negativities. It is a rule in all yogas to confide one’s experiences only to the guru. As the Mother has said, to talk or not to talk depends on the situation and attitude. As for myself, there are things I tell because they might be useful, and others that I do not.
A colleague suggested we do an article on the ‘typical Aurobindonian’. Do you think a certain ‘kind’ of individual is drawn to this path?
There is no ‘typical Aurobindonian’. At the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, you can see a wide range of members of the species homo sapiens, and in Auroville you may wonder at a still wider range. The Mother has said that their disciples must represent all aspects of humanity. The aim is, after all, transformation of humanity, and no element is to be left out. This is why an Aurobindonian community cannot resemble a community practising a traditional form of spirituality, and why the liberty should be much greater, limited only by consideration among members for each other. It also explains why nobody has to tell you what to do.
Personally, I think ‘the typical Aurobindonian’ is realistic and worldly-wise. Yet, in his soul there is that secret but strong longing for something more worthwhile, beautiful and harmonious. He enjoys life to the utmost, but cannot overcome the feeling that nothing is fully satisfactory. He is therefore willing to offer this life so that things may become better, fully aware that he is acting in the great tradition of those who have preceded him in this effort. In so doing, he sees the great and the small, and he smiles, for he has a true sense of humour, as he carries within himself the ineradicable conviction that the Great Change is coming about NOW.
Many non-Aurobindonians feel that Sri Aurobindo’s writing/philosophy is difficult to understand. What about sadhana? Can I be a sadhika even if I cannot, say, understand Savitri?
If one had to understand Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and Savitri as a condition to become a sadhak or sadhika, the number of disciples could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand! As I said, the choice of this path is a vocation, a calling strong enough to make you dedicate your life to it. The surrender must be total to be effective. It may be done at once or it may be the result of a long struggle with oneself. One starts the yoga with what one is, with what one knows and where one stands.
Only Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical works are difficult. Read his Correspondence with Nirodbaran or his letters to sadhaks and you will find a treasure of advice, explaining the yoga bit by bit, and a guru who, although having fought his way beyond humanity, could feel the most compassionate intimacy with ignorant, headstrong humans. The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga and Savitri are written from an experience which far surpasses ours. One does not have to understand, one should only open oneself to the influence.
Reading Sri Aurobindo, you come into contact with his mind which was a supermind, and with his personality which was that of a higher being. The contact is real and effective; the understanding comes gradually. At first Sri Aurobindo’s texts seem grey and flat; after an inner growth, each paragraph may become a revelation.
Another Aurobindonian felt it was easier to understand the concept of Integral Yoga, yet the most difficult thing in the world to practise it. Would you agree?
No doubt, it is difficult to practise. Do remember that the aim is to change from a human being into a superhuman, or suprahuman, one; from a being that shares 98 per cent of its genes with the chimp into a being of which every cell is divinised. According to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the cause and goal of evolution is a play (lila), in which the Being has hidden himself from himself to experience the glory of self-discovery. The human is the all-important transitional being that is growing conscious of itself and its universe; it is the link between animal and god. Difficult? The Mother said that every sadhak and sadhika were, yogically speaking, an impossibility which had to be made possible.
On the other hand, it is very easy—if one can unconditionally surrender and let oneself be carried by the Force of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, fully conscious and attentive, but not demanding anything about the way one has been destined to go. Remember Sri Ramakrishna’s parable about the little monkey holding fast to its mother by its own effort, and the kitten letting itself be carried by its mother? “First seek the kingdom of God, and the rest shall be given to you,” said another great Teacher. First dedicate yourself unconditionally to your ideal, and everything you need shall be provided in time.
In Integral Yoga one has to become conscious of the mind, the vital forces, and the foundation of all that: the subconscious. The subconscious is a universe of horrors, the inspiration of the brute, torturer, assassin, rapist. We carry all that in us, even if we deny it. “Nobody will reach heaven who has not gone through hell,” wrote Sri Aurobindo in Savitri.
Do guidelines exist for practising Integral Yoga, and how is the practice monitored?
To do justice to your question, one would have to write a book! The aim of Integral Yoga is complete mastery of all levels and elements of human nature; as a human being is a cell in the body of humanity, it means mastery of human nature in its entirety. This is huge and may explain why an avatar was required to set the process going. The basic effort, however, is the overcoming of one’s ego in surrender.
One is called, and one starts from one’s aspiration and limited mental notions. One gets going, stumbling at every step. What counts is the soul’s decision to dedicate oneself for the progress of earth and humanity. Trying to surrender, one simply does one’s best. A disciple of long-standing once formulated the whole effort as “remember and offer”.
“One is always alone with the Divine,” said the Mother. The Divine has chosen to do the Yoga in you, for reasons you may not (yet) be aware of. To bring about evolutionary transition He has incarnated as Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; they are the specially embodied force to guide you in your effort, for they have created this path. This path can be effected only by surrender, given the human condition. And who does one turn to? The Presence within. To Sri Aurobindo and the Mother if one knows them. People, events, books and contacts with other paths and masters may help, but the Presence is what counts. One has to learn to turn inwards.
One has to be attentive, which is a full-time occupation considering the world of events in us at any time, and considering that the world is present in us. The Mother once said that the whole yoga was a matter of attention. Inner conflicts result from different parts of our personality leading their own lives. An important effort of this yoga of self-mastery consists in connecting all parts of the being with the soul. If one succeeds in this, then one is an integrated (the Mother would say “fully sincere”) being and no longer ‘human’.
In Aurobindonian terms you’ve done it all—written biographies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. What now?
I feel like an absolute beginner! At 69 I feel I might be getting ready to start on Integral Yoga. But I am more than ever passionately interested in the great Event that is taking place and in which the whole of humanity is involved: its transformation into something better, greater, higher, more beautiful and totally satisfactory. For this discovery three days’ time in one is not enough.
I am now writing a book on the Second World War from the standpoint of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Their involvement in that war and its importance for the future of humanity is still unknown or unrealised. In the Second World War elements of the past and pointers to the future connect. So projects there are many on my list, and time is fleeting.