Learning the ABCs
Every month Ambu used to receive a complimentary copy of Mother India, a cultural journal of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram edited by his friend Amal Kiran, and every month Ambu would share with me his opinion of the authors whose articles filled that journal. Flipping rapidly through the pages, Ambu would furrow his forehead and exclaim, “These educated donkeys! Always talking about the Supermind and the transformation of the body. What do they know about them? They don’t even know the ABCs of Yoga!”
I knew in a general way what Ambu meant by the ABCs of Yoga — he meant the basics — but what exactly did he mean? One day I mustered courage and said, “Ambu, what are the ABCs of Yoga?” He looked at me scornfully — what a dumb question! — but then, seeing that I was earnest, his face softened. Stepping closer, he held out his left hand and spread his fingers wide. With his right thumb and forefinger he gripped the tip of his little left finger, looked at me and said, “Faith.” Gripping the ring finger he said, “Devotion.” The middle finger, “Aspiration.” The forefinger, “Surrender.” And the thumb, “Sincerity.”
There it was, and that was Ambu. Forget the big stuff. Go back to the basics. Practise them. That is sadhana. And beware of teaching others.
In the spring of 1972, a few months after I came to the Ashram, Steve Webman introduced me to the Ashram’s hathayogi, Ambu. We met in his large, high-ceilinged room on the ground floor of ‘Nanteuil’ House. Ambu stood at the door, attired in an ochre loincloth wrapped about his waist — and nothing else! Very fleshy he looked, but what lovely skin, a smooth copper brown without lines or wrinkles. Short, but well built, he stood gracefully, arms akimbo, resting his upper body on one leg, as was his wont. His face was good, with a straight nose, large ears, bright eyes and a big toothy smile. Its beauty was marred only by the glasses he wore, thick glasses with minus 14-power lenses that made his eyes look larger than they were.
Ambu and I hit it off right away. He loved to talk and I loved to listen. He could talk all day. Unabashedly frank, he delighted in cutting big shots down to size, but always without malice — he bore no ill-will towards those he castigated! Ambu disliked sadhaks who suffered from ambition and vanity. He scorned those who pretended to know more than they really did. He abhorred boasters and show-offs. How could these people be like that? What had they learned in all these years? And his heartfelt tirades were touchingly sincere. Transgressions of the dharma hurt his sensibilities. Again and again, he cautioned me to beware of the danger of money, sex, power, name and fame.
“Never compare yourself with others,” Ambu told me repeatedly. “Each person is different and Mother treats each one in a different way. Never think, ‘Oh, Mother is helping this person so much — why not me?’ Forget how she is treating others! Accept the way she is treating you. She knows best!” Once he gave this example of her inexplicable ways: There was a young man who treated material things roughly, but Mother kept supplying him with the best of pens. Some he lost, some he broke, and whenever he broke a pen, Mother would ask Pavitra to fix it. Now Pavitra loved pens, but Mother rarely gave him anything new. Once, when a pen refused to write, he asked her if he could buy a new nib for it, but Mother said, “Oh, can’t you fix this one? Try to make it work.” Ambu concluded: “Who knows why she treated Pavitra like that? Don’t even try to fathom her ways.”
Another thing he stressed was the value of doing your sadhana quietly instead of “broadcasting your ignorance” by publishing stupid articles. Ambu knew all the top Ashram writers of the day, but their learned ponderings left him cold. Actually, he rarely read them — simply a waste of time. Moreover, he saw in those writings the author’s ego, the puffed-up intellect. Now and then I thought about writing something for Mother India, but then I quickly forgot about it, imagining the look on Ambu’s face when he saw my article in print. “Let others write what they want,” he would say; “you do your sadhana.”
Childhood and Youth
Ambu was born Ambalal Devaji Desai on 14 June 1909 in the village of Nadiad, Gujarat. A weak and sickly boy, he regained his health in his teens by joining an Akhara or gymnasium; there he learned traditional body-building exercises, such as dands and baithaks, as well as asanas. Extremely flexible, he excelled in asanas and continued to practise them the rest of his life. When he was seventeen, he left home and travelled to Pondicherry to see his friend Krishnalal. There he met the Mother, who accepted him in the Ashram. In his early years the restless young Ambu ran about from dawn to dusk, working for the Mother, and working for others as well. He loved to please people. Early in the morning he would be found plucking flowers off creepers or climbing trees to get them. Some were for the Mother, others were for those who wanted special flowers to paint or to offer to Mother. He also helped out in the Granary and he cleaned the Mother’s kitchen vessels. His life was one of hectic service.
Stories of the Old Days
When I met Ambu he had been in the Ashram for forty-four years. What a stock of stories he had about the old days. Though he rarely spoke of Sri Aurobindo, for whom he had the highest reverence, he could not stop talking about the Mother — he simply adored her. Mother on her part called him her “Baby”. We find her addressing him that way in their correspondence of the 1930’s. With a mother’s eye she watched over him, guiding, protecting, consoling him. Once in a state of depression, Ambu told her that he was tired of taking care of his body. “It’s not your body,” Mother exclaimed, “it is my body!”
Most of Ambu’s yesteryear tales had as their theme the tragedy of lost opportunity. Mother gave the sadhaks a golden chance to progress, but most of them squandered it due to weakness of character, succumbing to desire and ego. Some fell to the charms of sex (about which Ambu had a number of tantalising tales), others to the desire for comfort, which led them to gain advantages by lying and cheating. Many fell to vanity, wounded pride, inflated self-esteem. Over the years many people left — though most stayed because they knew that only Mother could help them; then they sought refuge in her compassion and love. Ambu’s tales of her rescue missions were touching, and they revealed his deep love for her.
In 1928, when Ambu arrived in the Ashram, there were less than fifty people and life was intimate. Mother controlled every aspect of the disciples’ lives. They were expected to obey her, but how hard it was at times — the lower nature resisted. Ambu certainly found it hard and often he violated her rules. Sometimes he took “outside food” without asking her permission and sometimes he went to the cinemas in town — strictly taboo. Whatever he did, Mother forgave his transgressions. She was lenient towards her Baby because she knew his nature, good at heart but weak in will.
Ambu suffered a lot in the early years. Easy to influence, his friends misled him with wrong suggestions. Highly sensitive, he picked up their discontents and depressions. Attracted to women, he ached when the young lovelies played with him. Eager to please, he got wounded when people misused his regard for them. Thus subjected to psychological assaults, Ambu regularly got confused, depressed, depleted, and often he fell ill. His only support, the Mother, helped him up again and again.
When Ambu was in his mid-twenties, he began writing to the Mother and this correspondence continued for several years. Unfortunately he destroyed most of his letters to her, but at least he kept her replies. From them emerges the portrait of a troubled young man, prone to doubt, depression, weakness, illness and more. Mother’s remedy, her repeated advice, was: Be happy. “Happy to hear that my dear Baby is happy,” she once wrote. “Happier shall I be if he becomes still happier.” She also asked him to have faith in her, to believe in her love and care for him. Again she asked him to be faithful to her, for then she could help him to gain the peace he needed. And finally she asked him to stop running around.
“The doctor says you ought to lead a quieter life,” she wrote, “to take more rest and more food. Will you not try to do so?” Mother urged him to slow down because over and over he exhausted himself. One morning he went ‘upstairs’ for work, as usual. Mother asked him to sit down and tell her in detail what he did all day. Ambu told her that he plucked flowers for this person, fetched food for that one, borrowed library books for a third, and so on. When he finished his narration, Mother took up his activities one by one. For each task she asked, “Who gave you this work? Did I give this work to you?” Repeatedly he replied, “No, Mother. I took up the work on my own.” Then she asked, “And what work have I given you?” “Mother,” he said, “you have asked me to clean the vessels.” “Voila!” she exclaimed. “That is your work and I expect you to do it. As for those other works, you can stop some of them. I don’t want you rushing around and wearing yourself out.”