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At the Feet of The Mother

Forty Years Ago – by Sahana Devi (I)

It was long ago that I came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in November 1928. Since then more than forty years have elapsed in this sacred pilgrim centre sanctified by the tread of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo in observing their Divine Play.

At the time of my joining the Ashram the inmates were between sixty and seventy in number. Of these the sadhikas were not more than a dozen. In the facial expressions and glances of these one could detect that they had all received and acquired something, discernible in their firm movements — apparently all were concentratedly merged in their sadhana, in a sincere and vigilant effort to prepare themselves for the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. This sadhana did not mean sitting down to meditate or following any set method for them but whatever they did, physical work or literary pursuits, individually or collectively, was all done in a spirit of sadhana. Thus, all did not follow one single way, one sole course, but each one took one’s own inner bent in treading the Path, since there never was, nor is, any fixed, particular method or course. Neither did their actions follow the unalterable, age-long rules laid down from days of yore. It was clear that the sadhana here did not depend on them. What it did depend on was quite something else. What one felt within very tangibly, coming not at all from the outside world, was the prevailing atmosphere of the Ashram. No sooner than one crossed the portals one seemed to step into a silence so solid that a single word uttered loudly seemed a jarring discordant noise to one’s own ears. It did not take one long to realise that the rhythms of life were quite other than the ordinary but felt that that on which the foundation of this rhythm was laid was densely pervading the silence reigning there. The life of the inmates was unfolding through a delectable silence. One never came across gossipings, disturbances of any kind; very few were the lazy conversations indulged in. All seemed to be steeped in their inner feelings. The inmates hardly ever visited one another, except on specially needed occasions.

What we understand by the “Ashram” is the main building where the Mother and Sri Aurobindo have lived. It consisted of four small houses in an entire block, previously they must have been four separate houses, that were subsequently rebuilt according to the needs. In the house at the North-Eastern corner of the block the Mother and Sri Aurobindo lived on the first floor. On this floor too a room was used for “Darshan”, where at other times the Mother used to interview those who sought to meet her. On the ground-floor in a couple of rooms lived Nolini Kanta Gupta and just next door lived Amrita. The hall in front of their rooms was the Meditation Hall. Just outside the Hall on the Eastern side of the passage was Ambalal Purani’s room. Purani was at one time a leading light of the youth movement in Gujarat. In the other building attached to the house of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo lived ‘Pavitra’, a Frenchman named P. B. Saint-Hilaire, on the first floor. Chandulal, the Ashram engineer, lived in a room of the ground-floor of this building. This building, too, had a door leading to the road on the North. The Mother used this door to leave the Ashram premises for her daily evening drive lasting for about an hour and a half. It was Pavitra who drove the Mother’s car. Many inmates of the Ashram used to assemble near the door at the hour of the Mother’s going out to get a glimpse of her. Later the old building was pulled down and a new one constructed on the site.

As one enters the main gate of the Ashram one comes at once to a house called the Library House. Previously Sri Aurobindo occupied the room at the South-Eastern corner and the Mother the North room, both on the first floor. It was in this room that Sri Aurobindo had one of his special realisations after which he withdrew from public gaze. When I joined the Ashram it was Anilbaran Roy who was living in that room. And the Mother’s room was allotted to Champaklal, whom we always saw and still see as a devoted personal servitor of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. On the ground-floor of this building was the Ashram library. In another room called the Reading Room were kept the newspapers arranged on mats covering the floor; the inmates, in the pauses of their daily duties and if they so wanted it, came here to glance through them. In the courtyard facing it was a thatched shed where the milkmen brought their cows supplying the milk required. Before milking, their udders used to be washed with a mild solution of potassium permanganate. The inmate who was in charge used to strain the freshly foaming milk through a clean piece of cloth. This inmate was called ‘Dara’ — a name given by Sri Aurobindo. He belonged to a well-to-do Arab Muslim family who had came to join the Ashram about a month before me. The family consisted of three brothers and two sisters along with their stepmother. All of them were handsome.

Across the Library House one stepped into a smaller courtyard. On the left of this there was a tiled hut used as the kitchen. Cooking was done by maid-servants, but food was served by the inmates. Sadhikas had not yet been engaged for these services which happened a year or two after my arrival. I too cooked twice a week. I was apt to use oils and butter in excess which was the occasion of a quip from Sri Aurobindo: “If Sahana were entrusted with the cooking, the Ashram would go bankrupt in three months.” Soon the number of inmates went up and now it had increased so greatly that men had to be enlisted to tackle the problem. Chunibhai who was in full charge of everything concerning food was named by Sri Aurobindo “Dyuman”. He went to the market for purchasing everything needed, undertaking various other commissions besides. The kitchen was named Rosary House, beyond the courtyard of which one came to the building that housed the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Now one can hardly differentiate the old houses on the site of which stands the main building. What is now recognised as “The Ashram” is a large building including a spacious courtyard — a result of many demolitions and new constructions. In the middle of this courtyard shines in splendour the “Samadhi” of Sri Aurobindo. A newly built second floor over the very house where Sri Aurobindo lived, now houses the Mother.

At the time of my arrival most of the houses where the inmates lived were rented. Each one of them was given a particular name by the Mother and thus referred to by all.

Three meals were served every day. A big bowl of phosco that had a taste similar to cocoa but ever so much more tasty, a few slices of toast and one banana. The dining room was a longish, average sized room with a tiled roof, situated at the North-Western corner of the main building. Among those who served our meals was Nolini, dishing out our phosco and toast. At mid-day we were given some rice and two courses of cooked vegetable or one of vegetable and another of dal (lentils), as a variation on some days we were served with khichree and several kinds of vegetables fried in butter. A big bowl of curd and two bananas were a regular feature. One could also have bread instead of rice or even bread and rice if one so wanted. The evening meal, before darkness spread its cloak over the land, consisted of bread, a vegetable dish or dal and a big bowl of milk. Two or three times a week we got rice cooked in milk and sweetened — the quantity served was as much as the usual bowl of milk. There were some who did not sit at meals in the dining-room. These and the sadhikas were served in their room by maid-servants.

On the first day of every month the Mother used to distribute to all the inmates the necessities for the month in the shape of soap, oil, towels, etc. — of course regulated by a quota and one had to keep within the limits of this quota. The distribution was done on the first floor hall of the Library House, which took place in the afternoon. The Mother sitting on a raised seat distributed to each sadhak who came forward to receive from her hands a cardboard box bearing his name containing the articles; along with this the Mother used to give us two rupees as pocket money.

The part flowers have played in the Ashram has been quite unique, perhaps astonishing to an observer from outside. Flowers have always had a deep rapport with life lived here. Each flower was recognised by its inner vibration by the Mother and named by her according to its significance, and it so happened that we were prone to forget the usual names of most flowers. For example, the Tulsi plant meant ‘devotion’. We have become used to calling this plant ‘devotion’, receive it from the Mother as such and offering it to her in the same spirit. Similarly the flower ‘shefali’ is called ‘aspiration’. In this way flowers are not looked upon as just flowers but seen from a different point of view. Flowers everywhere are associated with offerings as well as for decorating the house of God. Here it is something more — a silent language in our inner dealings with the Mother. Nearly always we express to the Mother through flowers our inner needs and aspirations, our obeisance surging from our heart and she, too, gives us her blessings and directives through flowers.

Pranam

The daily march of our life every morning began after bowing down to our Mother and with her blessings. She used to come downstairs at about 6.30 in the morning in one of the rooms on the eastern row of the courtyard. It is here that Bula, the sadhak in charge of the Electric Department is lodged now. A raised seat with velvet covering was placed for her. Just beside her in a tray were heaped flowers of various kind. One by one as we approached to bow to her, she gave each one of us a flower after placing her hand on our heads. It was through these flowers that she gave her directions. We too took the flowers with an ardent effort to divine what she meant. With the flower in hand we used to come out of the room, except a few who sat in meditation there. Every living moment in those days was eked out in an attitude of becoming aware of the reason why life here was bound to something other, never to be forgotten, and why one was here. That which we felt seemed to open out a new line giving a fresh turn to everything — a change of one’s point of view, as if we were learning things anew in a new light. Life was stirring to a new dream. Something within seemed to become alive rendering intensely concrete our asking and receiving.

There was a time when the Mother used to distribute soup every evening at eight o’clock in the reception room of the Library House facing the main gate. It was a ceremony rendering the atmosphere deep and intimate. She used to sit on a chair placed on a raised dais and all the lights, except a dim one, were put out. Just in front of her on a small table the large receptacle containing the soup was placed. She at first meditated for a while keeping both her hands stretched full length over the container invoking Sri Aurobindo’s power into it. The meditation over, the container was moved to the right side for her to begin the distribution. The disciples sat, each one of them at his place appointed by the Mother herself. Each one, an empty cup in hand, approached her and handing the cup over to her bowed down in pranam at her feet. As he or she got up the Mother gave him or her the cup. The cups received, the disciples, one by one, would leave the room. The distribution of soup took about an hour, and was accomplished in perfect silence; all were merged in a deep inner feeling in that dim light, a feeling of a different world, an impressive far-off existence pressed upon the consciousness of all and slowly spread all around the room surcharging the atmosphere as if a tangible influence was at work consolidating all that was external and inner in a seeming vagueness of one’s personal existence. We hardly understood where we were but became aware of all kinds of feelings of many worlds. How enchanting the Mother appeared then to our eyes! Also, it was at that hour that diverse divine expressions used to manifest from her. If one looked into her eyes, one became aware of a look in them, not quite human, a look that penetrated into the inner depths of our physical body, observing all, into the farthest corners. Her smile was beyond comparison. Often she entered into trance with the cup in her hand, motionless as a statue. But as soon as she returned to her bodily consciousness the distribution went on as before as if nothing had happened a short while ago — utterly simple and natural as ever.

At the time when I came here, Sri Aurobindo along with the Mother granted three Darshans every year — once on his birthday on the 15th of August, once on the Mother’s birthday on the 21st February and once again on the 24th November. It was on this date in 1926 that there happened the “Descent of the Overmind” and from that date he withdrew into seclusion. He later wrote to Nirodbaran –

“It was the descent of Krishna into the physical. Krishna is not the Supramental Light. The descent of Krishna would mean the descent of the Overmind Godhead preparing, though not itself actually bringing, the descent of Supermind and Ananda. Krishna is the Anandamaya, he supports the evolution through the Overmind leading it towards Ananda.”

“It was also proclaimed that I was retiring — obviously to work things out.”

A few years later, from 1939 onwards — on the 24th April, the day of Mother’s final arrival, another Darshan was granted making four Darshans every year.

Let me relate here what it was that occurred, ushering in the Darshan in April as also of our painful feelings. Sri Aurobindo could be seen only on the Darshan days and no other. Therefore to get his Darshan was something to eagerly look forward to — to wait from one Darshan to another with a thirst in the heart beating eagerly but not easily appeased. Can one ever have his expectations fulfilled, having seen Sri Aurobindo only once? Just seeing him cannot be called a Darshan of Sri Aurobindo. Each Darshan in our life was an experience, nearly a supra-realisation. It brought to us the golden opportunity to reach out to the unattainable. He instilled into us something that no one else could. Thus as the Darshan day approached our minds too leaned to a self-gathering, with a view to receiving rightly; this occupied the whole of ourselves. Darshan was to start at seven o’clock in the morning. I had a room, those days, in a small one-storied building across the road, opposite to the Darshan room. I lived alone. The room where Darshan used to be is the very next one to the Mother’s room, just above the gate of that building, easily visible from my room. The decorations of the Darshan room began usually from the previous night. From my room I could hear the hum of those engaged in the work and see the arrival of flowers in abundance and other paraphernalia. The awareness of all this gave rise to waves of joy in me to feel that as soon as the morning broke I would see Sri Aurobindo, approach him and receive his touch — things of such wonderful feelings. As I was proceeding for Darshan on the morning of 24th November 1938, someone told me, “There will be no Darshan today”. I was shocked and promptly said, “What rot are you talking?” The speaker in a pale and hurt countenance said, “Please inform yourself”, and moved away with his head lowered. In the meanwhile I had recovered myself enough to realise that I had been unnecessarily rude. I approached Nolini to find out what the matter was, meeting on the way many who had come for Darshan loitering with dejected mien. What I heard was that as Sri Aurobindo got up from his chair after replying to our letters, he stumbled on the stuffed head of a tiger skin. The fall was the cause of fracturing the bone above the knee. One could easily surmise the mental anguish of the ashramites at this news. A dark dejection enveloped me, I felt as if all daylight had been extinguished. I can hardly recollect how the day passed. In the evening the Mother alone gave Darshan in the hall just in front of Amrita’s room. Her compassion flowing in a hundred streams began to wash away the dejection from our minds. She filled all the profound emptiness in our hearts with her incomparable heavenly smile. We were uplifted by her inspiration and strength and we found our feet to rise again. Still I must admit I could not bear for long to see her giving Darshan alone. The next Darshan was to be on the 21st February 1939, but this too did not take place. Then after these two lapses the first Darshan was on the 24th April 1939, which has become since then a regular one.

Another page of the chronicle of the Ashram was turned, a new era started: Sri Aurobindo’s correspondence with the disciples came to an end as also the intimate interviews with the Mother. She gave her own room as well as the one where she used to grant interviews, for the attention and service needed for Sri Aurobindo. The Mother went into another room which was so limited that to meet her alone was no longer convenient. Things had to be spoken before all those who were also assembled there for her directions on various matters. A small secluded corner was prepared for her to rest in. But how little rest did she get! For the personal attention to Sri Aurobindo, Dr. Manilal of Baroda, Becharlal and Nirodbaran, Satyendra, Purani, Mulshankar and Champaklal, all inmates of the Ashram, were chosen. Later when Dr. Prabhat Sanyal began to visit the Ashram he too was in attendance on Sri Aurobindo. Whenever Nirod came out of Sri Aurobindo’s presence we were all very eager and expectant to hear from him the words of Sri Aurobindo in the conversations he had with them. Nirod used to come often and join Dilip at breakfast where a few other inmates gathered around to hear about Sri Aurobindo and his talks and we heard a good deal of talks of Sri Aurobindo. Nirod and the others attending used to glean out of him a lot of light with their questions on various matters touching upon subjects valuable and attractive. Their questions were of many sorts, multifarious were the topics dwelt upon. It hardly needs mentioning that any talk given by Sri Aurobindo is a priceless treasure. All that is in the treasure house of his knowledge cannot possibly be found anywhere else. With this in view Nirod and Purani too made all effort to get down in writing as much as they could without letting any opportunity escape. They were noting down as far as was possible all those talks of Sri Aurobindo. (Those talks, as “Evening Talks”, have been published in a book by Purani. Nirod too has brought out a book called “Talks with Sri Aurobindo”. Nirod has even translated his into Bengali and published it.) Moreover in these talks we often come across the amazing witticisms, razor sharp and skilful, of Sri Aurobindo as well as a great deal of the banter indulged in, highly appreciated by all. We heard a lot of amusing stories. The days were passed in listening to these amusing topics as well as spiritual experiences. Through our conversations with Nirod day after day we got, as it were, close to Sri Aurobindo in so many different ways. Without these it would not have been possible to be aware of his many-sided personality with so much clarity; on the contrary, perhaps it would have remained quite beyond even our imagination. Since the time Nirod and others were with Sri Aurobindo, whenever it became necessary to tell him something important from us we would send it through Nirod and he got the answer from Sri Aurobindo not written down but given orally.

After being in the Ashram for some time, gradually it became clear that the Mother or Sri Aurobindo as a rule gave no set directions as regards the sadhana. They helped to awaken the sadhak from within in the acquisition of the power to comprehend rather than to try and explain anything from without. Sri Aurobindo’s stress is on an “inner growth”, “development of consciousness” and such other like insistences. Nevertheless, if a sadhak found himself in any unusual situation and needed anything in particular Sri Aurobindo answered after weighing from within the need and importance of the question. Sri Aurobindo’s answer came in his letters whereas the Mother’s did go by her influence. The Mother could be met and seen if the need for it was there. She usually kept apart about four hours every day for such meetings. If the need was urgent and a meeting was asked for it was granted. She herself would send for some. There were a few who met her once or twice a week; there were others whom she met once a fortnight or even once a month. There were also some who met her daily at a particular hour of the day for her directions on matters of sadhana or work relating to the running of the Ashram. Quite often she would explain just by her look without a word being spoken. It has also been seen that anyone approaching the Mother for directions got them just by her meditating with the person and placing her hand on the head. Remarkable as it may seem, after the meditation the problem was no longer there, instead the whole being was suffused by her influence. To some she gave a written reply. Again, the aspirant may get the directions all by himself in going into an inner silence. The compassionate presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo is constantly working within us at all times whether we know it or not. That they have opened our inner vision is clearly understood. The very texture and hue of all we had asked for in life or all that we had been or felt or received so far were quite changed — we had begun to see everything differently from quite a different standpoint. The very aim of their yoga is a radical change of human consciousness — a complete transformation. It is for this they have taken upon themselves to bring down the supermind on earth and establish it there — a seemingly impossible endeavour. To bring all to that path they hardly take any notice of their ceaseless and unrelenting effort as any trouble at all. Sri Aurobindo wrote to me thus:

“We mind no trouble so long as we can carry you farther and farther on the path of transformation. Let the greater consciousness, the vastness and the peace grow in you and the psychic liberated from these veils flood you with the divine love and the soul’s happiness. We shall certainly concentrate our endeavour to help you towards that.”

to be continued…

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