An Interview with John Kelly by Gordon Korstange, originally published in Collaboration, Vol X No 2 (1984), pp. 16-18
In Pondicherry during the 70’s I heard stories of John Kelly and his encounter with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother during World War II. Finally, after years, we caught up with him at Merriam Hill in New Hampshire for an interview. In fact it was a monologue. John is a consummate storyteller and the words on paper do little justice to his ability to spin a yarn. John currently lives in New York City, and we urge our readers to give him a call if they’re in town. He has many more stories and is a warm, engaging person. We hope that this tale will inspire our readers to contribute their own versions of how they discovered Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
(John Kelly speaks) I had no knowledge of yoga. I quit high school in my second year after the football season to earn money… the family was in poor circumstances. When I became 18, I was drafted into the army. In a very short period of time I was in France in the infantry, and we went into the attack, surprisingly, I found out later, on Mother’s birthday in February of 1945, the closing months of WWII. France was still occupied by Germany, and this was the time of the Battle of the Bulge and Bastogne. We were replacements for a lot of people who had fallen in those battles. So we were in this town of Faubourg. After fierce fighting in the town, I don’t know if it was one or two days into the battle, day and night, hit by rockets from 15-20 miles called “screaming meemies” … all sorts of terrible noise … Anyway, because of one of those rockets that could flip you up in the air and toss you like a flapjack, I must have opened up. The head must have opened to these frequencies … That might be one possible explanation.
We were in a zigzag trench down this mountain which was a graveyard from the first World War, I had heard that from the Napoleonic wars there were people buried there … There were crosses. We were near a wood road up in the forest. The original company had been wiped out almost to a man … as far as I know. There were German and American bodies lying on the field amid the pine trees. It was a big jungle of torn-up trees and earth.
I had the first vision there. You know, they say there’s no atheist in a foxhole, well, I wanted to see… I thought I was going to be on the other side any minute. So I said,”Let’s get there first!” It was about the only thing worth trying for. I had heard from my childhood brought up in a Catholic school of people who had some kind of transformation vision and experience. God or the angels could descend and enlighten you, you see. So here’s the situation: a cemetery, all these dead from past wars, I in another ‘plot’, alive…they haven’t thrown the dirt in on top of me – that’s the only difference between me and these fellows. I said, “What the hell is this all about?” I’m a person a little thick. To bring something home to me you practically have to hit me on the head, and this was that type of situation …and I found out in India that experiences happen in graveyards. So I was in a psychological state. Believe me. Desperation.
After some time, one day, two days, god knows, it was freezing up there, the middle of winter. Time stood still. Finally one night late there was nobody near me… I saw a wisp of white smoke in front of me, a little whiff of smoke, like cigarette smoke. Little sparks of light started to emanate out of that little wisp. It was moving to my right from ‘no-man’s land’ . my eyes were fastened on it like a rabbit’s. The smoke kept growing and turned into a haze, and the sparks coming out of it were enormous. My mind was working feverishly, very rapid … so … out of that came a bubbling laughter, gentle laughter of a wise old man. It came out like champagne, and actually I heard the ‘ppp’ of a bottle and the fizz. That effervescent sound with the light in front of me became a delightful fascination. And frightening. The laughter kept getting louder, in my head perhaps. I don’t know. But it was very gentle and very wise, and suddenly I see a mouth and a beard start to form, then the eyes, and the eyes sent out this light that hit me, and I fell back in the hole. I said, “Oh god. I think I struck pay dirt here.”
The laughter continued. I felt a bubbling in my stomach. A buoying of my spirits, you see. Suddenly the voice says (low), “What is it you wish, my child?” It had the accent of a high Englishman. Here I am from Brooklyn. I said, “Oh my god (my father was a rebel) … God is an Englishman.” I thought, “What am I gonna say to God?” I pinched myself. I said, “Jesus, I’m making this up in my head.” No, it was real. I’m awake and this is happening.
So the first thing I thought of was, “Get me the hell out of here … take me to Paris where I can sit down, drink some wine, and dance with the girls.” This is a serious situation, but at the same time I was completely delirious. There was some kind of spirit there. I wasn’t lonely, if I got killed now I didn’t give a damn. There was a certain inner delight about the whole relationship that occurred. So I said, “I’ve got to think of something sensible to say, so I said, “‘Great Sir,” that’s what I called him because everyone’s Sir in the army. So I said,”O great Sir, all I really wish is … to know.” So he laughed, and I ducked down because I didn’t want to get hit with that light in the head. I wouldn’t look at his eyes because of the force that came emanating out.
The laughter was one of the most incredible things of tone value that I had ever heard. What I felt was that the laughter itself was talking to me. Now, you see, there is such a thing as mocking laughter, hilarious laughter, you can laugh every way. You can laugh, you know, for all kinds of reasons. There’s a whole vocabulary of laughter that I became attuned to and the nuances of the laughter. There was a whole thing we were going through as if this wasn’t the first time it had happened.
I thought, “I’d better not say anything more or I’ll get in trouble.” So he said, “If my help you choose then your religion you will lose.” I thought, “Aha, I’ve got the devil!” But then I didn’t care at this point about religion or whether it was hell or heaven I was going to as long as I went. I mean, I was brought up a Catholic, but I never really had Christ in me. I was given a label like a Democrat or Republican. It was on the surface of my being. So I said to him, “You know, I don’t have a religion in that sense, the true sense of having the founding force of a religion. You have to give it to me.” I was begging for spirit. And I was putting the ball in his court . . . I got the ball across the net, you see. That’s all it amounted to for me. Like a pingpong game. I ducked down waiting for his reply and suddenly the laughter stops. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “I said the wrong thing.” But then I looked up and standing there in front of me, on the battlefield, was the full figure, a man with a white beard and white hair hanging down in a sheet like a Roman emperor. He’s leaning against this tree a little bit, and he’s signing to my left. I don’t know if the moon was out that night, but the light on his face was golden. You could see a certain kind of refinement in this being that was extraordinary, an aesthetic face that really doesn’t show up in his photographs at all. There was suffering and the conquering of suffering. All of that was there.
So as I look to the left, out of the forest I see a waffling motion and something moving down like a big platform zipping in, like a UFO long before I ever heard of those things. It moved and set itself. It was a Greek temple like those small Parthenon-type things with four columns. People sit on them in wicker chairs and have tea. That kind of set-up. And there was a lady lying down! I said, “Oh, this is a fairy tale. This is ridiculous, delightful.” She’s on a big divan with a black housecoat of velvet. The columns of this thing are like luminescent light, like a very high quality neon light . . . it reminded me of alabaster, radiant soft light . . . indirect lighting . . . the supreme in indirect lighting.
I look, and there she is sitting in a pose exactly as we see her in those old photographs of 1914. I came to learn over the years that this pose was like the mudra of the Greek goddess of wisdom. So I’m in this trench, and it seemed like I was on the steps of the temple looking up at her. Her face changed . . . it was a long nose. . . very much Mother. And then that same face said, “I am Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother. I am all Mothers.” The face kept changing like a strobe light effect. That face changed and changed constantly and then would come back and rest at that face again.
I was absolutely enchanted. It was extraordinary. With that it’s getting very heavy on my head. My head is really singing. I said, “Listen, sweetheart, you’d better remove that thing, that temple, from the field of battle because we’re having a hell of a time here.” She didn’t want to go. I said, “If you don’t go soon I won’t have anything in my head. I’ll be insane . . . with delight.” So reluctantly it faded away into the gloom. Then I was so happy I did a somersault or maybe I fainted, I don’t know. I collapsed. The next thing I recall is a soldier saying, “Hey, Kelly, get up. Wake up. We’re going off of this hill. We’ve been relieved.” This was dawn, I think. The place was always so overhung with clouds you didn’t know what it was.
As we go down I start to recall what happened, and I hear two guys talking behind me. One says to the other, “Did you see the light on the hill last night?” “Yeah, wasn’t that something.” They saw it too! That thing was like a 3-D manifestation. It kept growing from those wisps of smoke. I thought, “I’ve got to forget this.” But everytime there was a bombardment all I did was think about her, sitting in that temple. And I said, “Gee, I wonder who she is.”
Another day goes by, and suddenly I hear the old man in the sky. You see, I used to walk behind my men-they made me a sergeant for a few days because all the others were sick or wounded or whatever. Anyway, the old man says to me, “That underpass is gonna be hit.” There was a train overpass that we had to go under, and he almost gives me the picture of the bombardment occurring. So I ran down to the Lieutenant and said, “Where are we going?” I was stalling. He showed me the map and a German headquarters building on the other side of the underpass. That’s where we were going. I tried to convince him to go another way but he wouldn’t listen.
So I went back to my men, and then the old man in the sky says, “Take your men and go first.” I said, “What? Now you want me to go first?” There I was, cringing and cowardly, trying to find another way out. Anyway he convinced me to go first and quickly. So I went and told the Lieutenant that we would go first. He says, “You will?”
We ran down the hill like a track team through the underpass and the idea was not to stop until we got to the building. And we did. They shot at us. We shot back. As soon as we closed the door the whole goddam place exploded. But they didn’t hit that building. It was their own building. There was nobody in it, thank god. When the smoke cleared we looked, and there was nobody back there. The whole platoon was gone. Well, they had gone around just like I thought we should.
Anyway, the contact was constant. He was giving directions, and I was always refusing to accept them. And he was like a periscope. He could look around. He could see in the distance where it was safe and where we should go. That was very beneficial to me. But still, you can have your father take you by the hand and lead you into the candy store, and still you’re gonna be disgruntled. I was disgruntled. Though I was in a very advantageous position with having such a guide. Still, the gloom. At least I had somebody to complain to!
Well, the war ended. We got through the Siegfried line and through the concentration camps. Eventually we got up along the border with the Russians. We were now the occupation army. Anyway, I was trying to figure all this out. I didn’t know about bi-location you see, that masters do exist and have existed through the ages, and that he and she were of that class, that order of beings. I had put them in the class of god, the devil, and the holy ghost, beings of another world, when, in fact, they were living beings on our own earth. That’s the real significance of this story.
I asked Mother these things specifically later on when I got to India. She said that it was as if the day the World War started the telephone exchange slowly and invisibly-like an enormous box-came down slowly and settled on her. And with that box, it made all kinds of sounds like “tu-tu-tu-tu”, like a telephone exchange, that’s the word she used. She was, in a sense, plugged in to all these distress calls from all over the battlefields of the world. Anybody that was in jeopardy or peril ..would be calling, and sometimes she would faint, in the schoolyard, the playground, or she would go into a trance and there was no stopping it or controlling it. And there was no remembering it because it was constant. She was part of that hookup. Higher emanations were going out of her in all directions-that was what was given to her as a work, and she said the happiest day of her life was the day the war ended, and the box went back up again.
So, after a while I came back from the line, and I was in this building. Now the tension from all this had built up in my body, all the confusion and craziness and these visions. I was like a taut wire, but it was occult-I had no control over it. That wire was so high strung-I thought that I was insane, you know. I was out in no-man’s – land and no-mind’s land. That’s a strange place, not knowing that there is such a place and that you can get accustomed to it.
I had other visions. I saw an old guy with a pipe who I later thought must have been Carl Jung. I saw a priest, a big tough-looking guy, big black beard, pirate eyebrows, but very sweet, and I told him I wanted to see that woman again, and he said that he would speak to her.
It just kept building up and up, and finally I dropped dead right on the bed. The heart stopped, and I go out of my head. All of this force goes right out of the top of my head, but I was still coherent and the Sri Aurobindo came. There was a flame shot around the room-it was the psychic plane, that dimension. That was a magic circle or something, and up through the magic circle we go. He tells me to stay on his heels and not to look right or left. Out we go into the night sky over Germany, headed towards Switzerland, out towards Italy, down towards Rome. At the same time, there are all sorts of besieging entities on all sides trying to come at us in this plane. Ghosts and otherworldly beings trying to make contact and send messages to this world. But I was told not to look right or left. Finally we broke out of that world, that gloom world, into the night sky. It seemed to be the physical night sky-I can’t tell you for sure. We headed out over the Mediterranean Sea and got to Egypt and saw the sands of Egypt turning to dawn. By the time we hit the coast of India it was daylight, and I’m in the Ashram on the floor and there are these chintzy pink clouds on the floor!
He’s sitting in his chair. Mother’s over there. But these clouds! I was hitting the floor. What are they doing there? He was smiling and laughing. “Do you know what an ashram is?” he says. I didn’t know, but I bluffed. So we’re in the Ashram and talking, and I found out I could go over … to past lives, and I found out I’d been in ashrams before, in past lives. Then he told me certain things, and we had a whole series of visionary experiences in other planes as he mentions in Savitri. Finally I came back to the bed, the heart started up and the cataleptic trance left – that’s actually what I was in, a cataleptic trance.
I’m so deliriously happy when I wake up. I remember looking out the window – there was a drunken soldier coming up the road with a bottle of wine in his hand singing a dirty song, and that was spiritual! It was under the haze of dawn light, and this debauched guy was some part of this spiritual atmosphere in some mysterious manner. I wake up. I get dressed and a hush falls on the room. I knew the old man was back, and, there, coming through the wall, there he is sitting in the chair, and the Mother is with him but less visible. So I stand straight like a soldier. He’s very benevolent. There’s wonderful force, emanation, and circles radiating out, seas of bliss and light and joy all coming out. And this enormous benevolence.
I had said I wonder who he is, this wonderful being who had helped me through the war all this time to get me through these states and give me these experiences and he moves his head he picked it right up and he says to me (hardly audible), “Sri Aurobindo” I said, “Auro?” He says, “Au .. ro .. bin .. do.” He’s smiling, almost ready to burst out laughing. He can hardly contain himself. He’s breaking up.
I said, “OK, Aurobindo. What is that? Is that a password? You and me got a password?” Basically he says yes. I never heard a word like that. Then Mother said to me, “Come to Pondicherry.” I thought, “I’m supposed to go to a place very far away?” It was much farther than today everybody still went by ship then – I wasn’t that clear. Bringing it over to the physical mind, when there wasn’t that much there, wasn’t an easy choice. My associations and relationships took half a lifetime … truly.
It wasn’t meant to be either. I told them I had to help my mother. She was sick, and the old man’s a bum and he’s drinking, and I’ve got to stay to take care of the family. He understood and said he understood. “You will come in twenty years,” he said.
I went back to America, became a fireman in New York City retired from that after my mother passed away. She died in 1965. A year later I went off to India and saw Mother. She was very happy. We had a lovely relationship. I met other people who had seen Sri Aurobindo like I had, in the war or someplace in the world. That was a big boost. As long as someone else had seen him then I knew I was in the right group. I got there too late to see Sri Aurobindo in the body .. but his darshan is always there.