Amrit (Howard) Iriyama
(Matrimandir Gardens and Nursery)
Amrit has been my close friend since 1969 when I lived in Auroville. At that time we worked together at the Matrimandir Gardens Nursery. His manner is calm, gentle, balanced and quiet. He is a Japanese-American man of slight but strong build, who speaks softly and who always seeks harmony in all his actions and interpersonal relationships. He has rarely been seen to waver from this calm inner repose, in spite of the many vicissitudes and upheavals in Auroville, many of which have impacted him on a very personal level.
I conducted the interview in the community of “Certitude” in Auroville at his charming and very elegantly decorated home surrounded by cool plants and ponds filled with water lilies. The inside furnishings are antique, mostly French-Tamil, accompanied by tasteful and gracefully placed Hindu statuary and paintings. The roof of the house is sloped, in the Japanese style with a slight red trim. We sipped tea and reminisced about our days together in Auroville, as he shared with me the following:
Amrit was born Howard Shoji Iriyama, in an American Relocation Camp in Arizona on October 3, 1943 during World War II. All the Japanese residents, around 110,000 individuals living mainly in the U S. West Coast area, whether American citizens or not, were interned in such camps by the U.S. Government during the war, and many of the American citizens of Japanese origin today were born in these camps, which were located in the desert and other inaccessible areas. They remained in the Gila Bend Relocation Camp, on a former Indian Reservation, for two years, then were relocated to Colorado, where the family established a farm before eventually returning to California.
How did being born in the relocation camp impact your philosophy of life and your spiritual development?
It made me question social conditions, how individuals are treated, and nurtured dissatisfaction within me toward the social order as it existed. Later, after discovering Sri Aurobindo, I read what he had said about the generation of souls born during World War II, that many had come into the world to counter the dark influences of that era. This generation born in the early to mid 1940s had a lot to do with the peace and civil rights movements in America. All of this came to maturity in the 1960s, when Auroville was also founded. Because of the War and my childhood experiences, I had a very strong aspiration towards human rights and a greater sense of equality for all of humanity, an ideal to which I felt deeply connected. Because of this, my favorite writer of the American Revolution was Thomas Paine, a man who suffered much for his idealism, and I had a tremendous sympathy for the many revolutions at the time against despotic rule and tyranny, for example the Hungarian and Czech revolutions against Soviet rule. I remember weeping when the Hungarian revolution was crushed so mercilessly. I was only thirteen years old at the time.
What was the religious life of your family?
My family was Buddhist, my grandfather Zen (meditation and knowledge) and the others Jodo Shinshu, the Pure Land sect (devotional). After being allowed to return home from our “relocated” place in Colorado, we lived in Guadalupe, California, then moved to Santa Maria when I was six years old. Since there was no Buddhist temple in Santa Maria, I was sent to a Methodist Christian church attended mostly by other Japanese. As a result, I became a devoted Christian, regarded Christ as my ideal, and at twelve years of age chose to be baptized, something that took my mother by surprise. She asked me, “Why did you do that?” I answered, “What do you expect when you send me to a Christian church?” You see, Buddhists are not so strict about such things.
My family had an extensive vegetable farm in the Guadalupe-Santa Maria area, my grandfather having been one of the founders of the California truck farming industry in the early 1900s. Farming was the main economic support for the Japanese community in America before the War and to a lesser extent also after. After the War there was a kind of Diaspora throughout the continental U.S., as before the War the Japanese were concentrated mainly along the West Coast and Hawaii.
I remember at the age of three, returning home to California from Colorado. Much like the migrants in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, I stumbled out of a big truck filled with our family belongings clutching a red metal toy airplane. In the toy plane, a fly had somehow become trapped and died trying to escape. This remained indelibly imprinted in my mind as the existing condition for all human beings. Another feeling that would suddenly come upon me was, why was “I” born in this body and not in that of another? It seemed strange. And I often felt that by being born, I had fallen on my head and did not really belong here.
In my childhood there was still a lot of prejudice against the Japanese. I could hear my parents talking to others about the camps and the situation of the Japanese in America, but they never spoke to us children about it. Sometimes other children would chase me and throw stones. I simply could not comprehend why some people would suddenly stand and stare at me. Then I understood, as I grew older, why doors were shut in my face, that the slant of your eyes and the color of your skin actually made a difference to some people!
As a child I learned to play the piano moderately well and came to have a deep love for classical music. Academically I did very well and graduated first in my class in high school, as well as achieving second place in the field of liberal arts in the Southern California State competitions in 1961. I attended Stanford University, majoring in Japanese language and literature, and won the Freshman Achievement Award for being in the first percentile of my class. Then after three years of hard work, I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor fraternity reserved for the academic elite of America.
In the summer of 1964, under the sponsorship of SNCC (Students’ Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), I decided to go to Greenwood, Mississippi, to teach history and English in one of the Freedom Schools set up at that time for the black community there and to register voters. It was an intense period, during which there were some killings and much threat of violence. I remember the sheriff of Greenwood blocking off both ends of the street where the SNCC office was located, setting up a machine gun on top of one of the cars, and shouting hysterically, “I ain’t responsible for what happens!! I ain’t!!” Luckily I am still here to talk about it. Later on, a film was produced called “Mississippi Burning” which dealt with that “summer of 64” and the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi. However. I experienced some disillusionment with regard to this kind of social action. I came to realize that such problems could not altogether be rectified through external social action. This led me to search further for the truth. I knew there must be another way, one of which I was not yet aware.
Though I was still interested in Christianity, after having gone through a period of agnosticism, and contemplated entering a Christian seminary and monastery, I was slowly drawn to Zen Buddhism through the person of Suzuki Roshi, a Zen master in San Francisco. For the first time, I had come into contact with someone who was truly different, who lived what he taught and appeared to manifest what I was looking for. I wondered at his wisdom, simplicity and childlike spontaneity. So under his inspiration I decided to become a Zen monk. I was to enter his main monastery, Eiheiji, in Japan and then return to help him in his work in the San Francisco Zen Center. At that time talks were also going on about starting a monastery in California, Tahsuldara, which was later to become the largest Buddhist monastery in North America.
In August of 1965 I went to Japan and studied Japanese language at the Tokyo Stanford Center, International Christian University, under a Rockefeller scholarship, which was renewable for two more years up to my doctorate. During my time in Tokyo, I stayed at the extension temple of Eiheiji and regularly spent the weekends in Yokohama where I attended “sesshin” or intensive meditation sessions. There I was given a “koan” or puzzle to which there is no logical answer. The first koan, for example, is, “What is the nature of a dog?” the answer being “Moo” or the Japanese word meaning “Nothingness”, negation. I was simply asked to concentrate on this syllable, “Moo”. During an intensive “sesshin” lasting one week, the concentration became so heavy that I began to have severe pains in the chest. To ease the pressure, the teacher gave another exercise, which was simply to keep my attention on a samurai or warrior standing in front of me, holding a raised sword, which would immediately kill me if I took my gaze off it.
Strangely enough, this resulted in my first decisive spiritual opening. Suddenly my body became stone-still, the breath seemingly non-existent, and it appeared as if “I” were in a silent room looking out through the windows of my eyes at a world passing by like the scenes on a cinema screen. Thoughts entered like silver blips from a vast silence, and I realized that the mind had fallen silent, and that we do not “think”, thoughts only appear from a kind of universal silence or mind field. Sleep became luminous, it was like being enfolded in a cocoon of light, and I became aware of others’ thoughts and feelings. It was like floating in a silent light, joy and ecstasy, with judgments and perceptions that seemed immediate and true. I could even play badminton better, more infallibly! The breath appeared to enter as light through the forehead, and I could see concretely all the organs operating in the body. And in this silence, I found myself communicating with a feminine being who emanated wisdom about life and death, a being I later in India came to identify as “Kali”. The detachment and peace, lack of desire, was total. Later I came to understand that the answer to the first koan given to me, i.e. “Moo”, was in fact the silent mind.
How did you come to discover Mother and Sri Aurobindo?
I came into contact with the Mother in March 1967. I was still in Tokyo in the summer of 1966 and decided to enter the head monastery of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect, Shofukuji, in Kobe, the head Roshi being Yamada Mumon, where I stayed for several months.
After my intense inner opening, there was a corresponding fall in consciousness, “as high, as low”, so to speak. As my experience slowly began to recede, only then did I realize something had happened. It was like a fish in water. While in the water, it is so natural that it is not even conscious of it. Out of the water, it struggles and begins to die. I felt like this, I began to suffocate, as if I were dying, the life force slowly draining out of the body, with a very strong pressure for the consciousness to go up and out through the top of the head leaving the body. The ordinary life and consciousness had become as death for me. Nonetheless, some effects of this opening have still remained with me to this day. It was then that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo came into my life.
Tim Rees, an Englishman also interested in Zen, had been in Tokyo studying for his doctorate in Geological Engineering, but later left for India. After his arrival in India, Tim sent me a letter saying that I should meet his Master, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom he had discovered. By this time I was so ill that I felt my choice was either to die in Japan or go to India. I decided to go to India. In the meantime, Suzuki Roshi met me in Tokyo and scolded me, “You are wandering, you are lost and sick, you will die in India.” I answered, “I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to go, I have to go.” He only responded quietly, “If you have to go, then go.” I felt as if I had jumped off a cliff, in total freefall, leaving everything familiar behind, all security, anything I could hold on to, in the hope that someone or something would catch me and save me from being dashed on the rocks below. So I left Yokohama by ship for India in October, 1966, a journey that took one month, throughout which I remained terribly ill. On November 5, 1966, I arrived in Bombay. I met Tim in Delhi, from where we travelled together to the Ashram in Rishikesh.
[At this point Amrit told me that when he was a child of twelve years old, a Force would come into his body during sleep, very material and dense, and would often be accompanied by a milk-white light, very pure and dynamic. As soon as he arrived in India, the penetration of this force through the top of the head became stronger and stronger. After coming into contact with the Mother, he recognized it as her Force and Light which had been with him since childhood.]
After four or five months in the Ashram in Rishikesh I quickly realized that this guru was not the person I was looking for. Paul Horn, the American flutist, was also there at the same time, just one year before the Beatles. Mahesh Yogi could not explain this force that continued to descend into myself, and I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with him. Then in March of 1967, Tim again introduced me to someone else, one Sandeep Mukherjee, a devotee of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Mukherjee confirmed this descending force as that of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and as a mark of their yoga, instructing me to meditate on the Mother’s image surrounded by a blue light. Immediately upon doing this, I felt an inner release, as if I had come home after a long journey. From that point my health began to improve and the feeling of leaving the body disappeared.
Besides Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mukherjee had another teacher, whom he called Baba Sharadanand, with Ashrams in Cooch Behar (West Bengal) and Okhimath in the Himalayas. At the time it was rumored that this Baba was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose who founded the Indian National Army to help free India from the British. According to the story, though Bose was supposed to have died in a plane crash, he survived, had a spiritual turning to the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and was now the Baba Sharadanand of Okhimath. There were many reports in the newspapers that this Baba was indeed Bose, and apparently Mrs. Gandhi herself even attempted to meet him. Strangely enough, it was this Baba who sent Mukherjee to Rishikesh, telling him he would meet some foreigners there, and that he was to instruct them in the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother! And indeed, he did meet some of us and did give instructions about concentrating on the Mother.
In the summer of 1967, we met Baba Sharadanand near Haridwar. He spoke very educated, clear English, and bore a striking resemblance to Subhas Bose, with his high forehead and very powerful personality. From the questions he asked each of us, it was clear he understood our weaknesses. Baba asked me, “If you have a choice between everything the world has to give and a life of suffering for the Divine, which would you choose?” I answered, “A life of suffering.” He said rather pointedly, “Do you have the guts for that?” I answered, “I don’t know until I try!” Then he laughed and said, “All right, all right.” I don’t like much pain and suffering. This whole story of Baba and Subhas Bose has always remained a mystery to me, though it is clear that it is through Baba that I came to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
From the beginning of my contact with the Mother, I began to correspond with her through Pavitra, a Frenchman whom the Mother was later to describe as a yogi of extraordinary spiritual accomplishments. In mid-1968, I wrote to the Mother saying, “I feel your love and your presence, but I do not know who you are.” Then on July 18, 1968, in a state of semi-sleep, I felt the pressure of the force and myself falling into a very deep well. As I fell deeper and deeper, I became frightened and began to call out to the Mother. Suddenly I heard a voice saying, “Yes, one day you will know who I am. You will have in life a power of action….” She said other things which I could not remember as the mind became active. The voice was exactly the same as that of the Mother which I later heard on tapes. Though I could not immediately understand the meaning of what she said, later I understood.
After a stay of a couple of months at Ramgarh in the Himalayas, in October 1968 we all went to visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry — Mukherjee, Tim Rees, an Englishwoman (who later died), a Japanese Buddhist priest named Horizawa, John Mandeen, who later became an Ashramite, and myself. We were a motley group of people dressed like mendicants! It was then that I visited Auroville for the first time.
When I first came into contact with him in 1967, Mukherjee had told me some things about the unusual date 4-567 about which both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had spoken previously. Mukherjee mentioned that on 4-5-67 things would be decided and that there might be a general destruction. During that period, he disappeared, apparently to be with Baba, and when he returned, I asked him about this date. He said, “The will of the Universe has changed and things have been partially decided.”
In December 1969, in Auroville, I first met Narad [Richard Eggenberger], who had asked Nolini, the secretary to the Mother and someone recognized in the Ashram as a yogi of great spiritual attainment, about this date. Surprisingly he answered in almost exactly the same words, “It has been partially decided.” Then as Narad started to leave, Nolini called him back and explained further, “In the past, a complete pralaya [destruction] has been necessary. This is why the Mother wants Auroville. Auroville will contain the essence of this present civilization.”
Another instance in 1968, Mukherjee told me, “The Mother is withdrawing and wants people to find her inside.” The following was the Mother’s message on the dining room chalkboard on the day of my arrival in the Ashram in September 1969, “I am reducing the physical contact with the disciples, because I want them to find me inside.”
At the end of 1968 I received a Quit Notice from the Government of India, that my visa was being cancelled and I would have to leave India. I wrote to the Mother explaining the situation and asking if the Ashram could provide a guarantee. Through Pavitra, she answered that as I am not an Ashramite, the Ashram could not provide such a guarantee. But she added an assurance, “Have trust that in the end, everything will work out for the good of your soul and the fulfilment of your spiritual destiny.” Then she closed with her blessings. I proceeded to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi where I explained the problem to Mr. Jauhar, the man responsible for the Ashram there. He told me not to worry and arranged for someone to take me to the head of the Visa Department in the Home Ministry. It seems this man had once been an Ashramite in Pondicherry! I got the visa.
After this, I became a personal assistant to Mr. Jauhar, helping him with correspondence. He wanted me to stay on in New Delhi in this capacity. However, after having received the Mother’s permission for a birthday darshan, I left Delhi and returned to the Ashram in Pondicherry in September 1969. After my arrival in Pondicherry, Mr. Jauhar sent me a telegram saying he hoped I would make the right decision and return to Delhi.
Just at this time there were also problems with the American Government in regard to the Vietnam War. As I was totally opposed to the War, I had sought C.O. status [Conscientious Objector], objecting to serving in the military on grounds of religious conscience. As I told the military board I wished to become a Buddhist monk, they exempted me from military service on grounds of being a priest. However, after realizing I had come to India, the board decided to reclassify me as being eligible for military service. I had even gone to the US Consulate in Madras asking what would happen if I renounced my US citizenship. Quite upset, the Consul told me I would be immediately thrown in jail as soon as I set foot on American soil!
When I wrote to the Mother about this problem, her answer was simply, “Be quiet.” Oddly enough, it was in 1970 when I was supposed to report for the military draft back to America, that the then President Nixon suspended all draft calls and introduced a new system, the lottery system, to determine who should report for the draft. A year later I received a letter from my local draft board that the order for me to return to America had been withdrawn, and I would not have to report for military service because my lottery number was too high. And it seems that an order had been sent for me to return, but I had not received it. It had been lost. Grace in action!
Would you describe that birthday darshan with the Mother?
Frankly, I could not really connect physically with the Mother. The connection was always inward, and I communicated indirectly through her secretaries. I feel the Mother did not feel it was necessary for me to have so much of an external relationship with her. She wanted me to find her inside. This was always the message I received. This birthday darshan was quick, only a minute or so, but led to a series of events that were to determine my future for many years to come. What followed after that first darshan was clear. I had approached Nolini many times asking him to put before the Mother my request to join the Ashram. Each time he would reassure me that he would definitely speak with the Mother about this. Shortly after this birthday darshan, I was invited by a friend to visit Auroville. We cycled out to Auroville and went to the community called “Hope”. After this, I returned to Nolini and again asked him if he had asked the Mother if I could join the Ashram. He simply sat there silently for some minutes without speaking, then suddenly said, “Mother does not want more people in the Ashram unless they have some specific talent or work they can do. What can you do?” This, in spite of his constant assurance that he would present my request to the Mother. Then it was I who was at a loss for words. I stood there totally speechless and nervous. “OK”, he laughed, “What are you interested in?” As a reflex action, I blurted out, since I had just come from there, “Auroville”, even though I had no real interest in it. He immediately replied, “Go to meet Navajata.” Navajata was the Chairman of Sri Aurobindo Society which was sponsoring Auroville. I met Navajata who said he would ask the Mother about me. In a few days, he returned with word that the Mother had accepted me into Auroville. On October 10, 1969, I officially joined Auroville. Over the following year I struggled against this decision and wrote several letters to the Mother requesting her if I could leave Auroville and join the Ashram. In my last letter, I wrote, “You said the Ashram was for those who wish to dedicate their lives to the Divine. I wish to do so, and want to be in the Ashram, not Auroville. But if you think it is best for me to stay in Auroville, I will do so. But I say very clearly from my side, that I do not wish to be here.” The answer from her secretary, Maggie, very clear and unambiguous, was, “It is better for him to remain there in Auroville. He can do what he wants there (dedicate his life), I know it.” I stopped asking.
In December 1969 I met Richard Eggenberger, later to be given the name “Narad” by the Mother, on the Auroville bus. He told me that the Mother had given him the work of designing all the gardens that were to surround the Matrimandir. He asked if I wished to work with him, and soon obtained the Mother’s permission for this. At that time I was living in “Hope”. The Mother soon asked through Nata, an Italian man who founded the Auroshikha incense factory, to see all of us individually from the “Hope” community.
When the Mother saw my photo, Nata said she expressed a great deal of interest, though he thought it was because I represented the Japanese people. During the darshan, for about ten-fifteen minutes I was alone with the Mother as she gazed into my eyes. As an aspiration began to awaken in the heart, she broke into a beautiful smile.
After that darshan, an odd thing happened. In early January 1970 I felt a very strong force pushing me towards the center of Auroville. As I started cycling towards the center, I felt as if something were physically driving me in that direction. I began to walk around in the vicinity of the Matrimandir, when I came to a spot shaded by a few mango trees. Immediately I knew this was to be the Matrimandir Nursery. I contacted Narad and we went to the center together. We walked around and came to the same place. Though I had not mentioned anything about this to him, Narad immediately turned to me and said, “This is going to be the Matrimandir Nursery!” And so it happened.
We began by planting Portulaca [the flower that Mother calls “Sri Aurobindo’s Compassion”] at the Amphitheatre for the Mother’s 21st February birthday in 1970. In the beginning the workers were, of course, you [Anie], Narad, Jean Finney, Danielle, a Tamil boy named Ramachandra and myself. The conditions in those days were quite primitive. Food was a problem. We grew a vegetable garden and took turns cooking meals for each other. There was no toilet, no electricity and no running water. Water had to be brought in twice a day by bullock cart in containers. The only vegetation in the area was a few mango trees. We made wooden benches and flats and planted flower seeds, and the white ants [termites] were so severe that our baskets were in shreds by morning. The first flowers planted were Marigolds, named “Plasticity” by the Mother. I still have that first flower sent to her. She also named many Hibiscus, for example, “The Beauty of Auroville”, later called “The Beauty of the New Creation”. These were times of great struggle, with the cows and goats destroying in a minute what took months of work, with the elements, the torrential rains and blinding dust storms, the incomprehension of the villagers, and most of all with the weaknesses of our own natures.
Amrit at age 8 in California
Some new and important developments began for me in early 1972. I began a study of astrology, along with a number of other Aurovilians, with Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, author of The Magical Carousel and other books on astrology and numerology. After discovering how to apply Patrizia’s conception of the nine-year Gnostic cycle to the personal horoscope, using Sri Aurobindo’s “Siddhi Day”, 24 November 1926 (actually there are three dates connected with the triangle of fire), as the beginning of the Aquarian Age (as intimated to me by a friend, also a former student of Patrizia’s), I continued to build on this and realized that this was the “reversal of the horoscope”, an ancient knowledge revealing untold spiritual possibilities of astrological wisdom. Using the sign of Capricorn as the key, I discovered how to place the astrological signs on the earth, and how, as these cycles sweep over the earth, certain energies and events are activated, both upon the earth and in the personal horoscope as well. In fact the more the awareness and consciousness of the individual evolve and develop, the more there is a resonance with these universal movements in what one may term the cosmic horoscope. All of this has led to a greater understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, and how the energies released affect the evolution of the earth, as well as one’s personal evolution through inner openings and experiences. This knowledge continued to grow, like a structure developing brick by brick, until at the end a finished building is in place. I also came to understand that knowledge is not the prerogative of any individual, any more than a pipe through which water flows can claim ownership over the water. It is only the channel. All life is like this.
In August 1972 I left the Matrimandir Gardens Nursery and Auroville, and went to live in the Ashram in Pondicherry. On January 1, 1973 I returned to Auroville and lived in the house of William Netter [a New York designer] at “Certitude”. It was there that Shyama [a Swedish woman, mother of Auroson] and myself started a rose garden with Mother’s permission and blessings, receiving a card on which she wrote in large letters, “ROSES, BLESSINGS”, a card which I felt ultimately was meant for the Matrimandir Gardens. On her 95 birthday, her last, we planted 95 “Surrender” roses. On November 17 that year the Mother left her body. Following this there was a severe drought, and most of the roses died. It was so symbolic. I remember sitting at the Ashram Samadhi under Mother’s room the evening before she left, as I had been staying with a friend in the Ashram. Early in the morning on the 18th November 1973, someone came to our room to inform us that the Mother had left her body, and that we should hurry to the main Ashram building. This reminded me of my dream experience of 1969. At that time many people in the New Delhi Ashram were saying that Mother was ill and would leave her body. That fear was in the air. In the dream, I saw people very agitated, running about saying, “Mother has left the body.” Then in the dream I saw her standing on the Samadhi clad in a beautiful flowing white sari, and she said to me, “You know, in the end we can do nothing for ourselves, we live in eternity.” Then she gave this wonderfully radiant smile. It was like a dam breaking, and I was flooded with adoration towards her. I understood then what true devotion and surrender were, very powerful and uncompromising. In this way she indicated what our attitude should be if and when she would leave her body.
In the days that followed, I used to go every day to the Ashram, to meditate at the Samadhi. During that time I experienced a rainbow of Force from the Samadhi pouring into Auroville for days and days, so strong that I felt physically as if I were flying back into Auroville, effortlessly.
In 1974 I began to work on the Matrimandir construction, then in the outer gardens digging pits and planting trees. This was a time of hard physical labor, which went on until about 1977. November 4, 1975 marked the beginning of serious troubles for Auroville. At that time Shyama came to me and asked for my signature as a witness on a document legally forming the “New Auroville Society” in contradistinction to the Sri Aurobindo Society, Auroville’s parent body. This was to give us more say over our internal affairs. I signed, not realizing what a bombshell it was. In the beginning very few Aurovilians supported this movement. However, miscalculations and heavy-handedness by the SAS began to alienate residents more and more and gradually forced increasing numbers into joining the movement. Around Christmas of 1975, I was called into Navajata’s office for a visa interview. The interview has been published in Sun Word Rising, a book about Auroville written by Savitra a.k.a. Alan Lithman. Navajata told me that I would have to “collaborate” with the SAS or I would have to leave Auroville. My visa was in fact the first to be threatened. These methods only aggravated the situation. Under pressure, I became increasingly hostile and bitter.
It was at this time, however, that a dream came to me, giving me an inner indication that I had to change my direction. In the dream, there was a hostile force circling around my house. I decided to attack it and drive it away. When I opened the door to do so, it immediately entered the house, and I found myself outside, the hostile force inside, laughing, mocking at me saying, “You see what you have done!” I understood. By attacking frontally the darkness, I opened myself to it and allowed it to enter. Then there is no longer any difference between oneself and the darkness one is fighting. I realized the only solution was to stay quiet and not open the door, and battle the darkness inside. Even then, it took many years to work out what had already entered.
After this, John Walker, an American living in Auroville, gave me a Sri Chakra, a Tantric yantra [geometrical object used in ritual worship] related to the worship of the Supreme Mother, the Shakti in India. Just holding it I experienced waves of ananda or bliss emanating from it. I wondered how a geometrical figure could give such a spiritual experience. Exactly then an unpublished conversation was given to me in which the Mother speaks of the fifth aspect of the Mother, the Mother of Ananda which she wrote is also the Mother of Transformation. I also found through reading that the Shakti of the Sri Chakra is termed the Anandamayi or the Mother of Ananda. That my experience was directly connected with the meaning of the Sri Chakra further stimulated my curiosity. With this connection between the Sri Chakra and the yoga of Sri Aurobindo in mind, I approached Madhav Pandit, a scholar in the Ashram known for his writings on the Tantra. His immediate advice was to meet Panditji, a Tantric yogi in Rameshwaram who had often met the Mother, and whom Mother had recommended to many sadhaks for help in certain areas of difficulty. He told me Panditji could help me understand the Sri Chakra. Then Madhav Pandit told me of his own experience. He said that one day the Mother called him and told him to meet Panditji in Rameshwaram. He mentioned that even though he was not interested in any other guru, he followed Mother’s advice and proceeded to Rameshwaram to see Panditji. Madhav Pandit then added, “Mother prepared the ground, Panditji gave the opening.” With Madhav Pandit’s recommendation letter in hand, I went by train to Rameshwaram.
On July 18, 1977 I found myself on the doorstep of Panditji’s house, the words “Sri Aurobindo Nilayam” carved in bold letters over the entrance. Immediately on seeing me, Panditji began to laugh and said, “So, you have come”, as if he had been expecting me! He asked, “What do you want?” I answered that I wanted to learn about Sri Chakra. Then he said, “If you want to know, you have to do the practice. There is no other way. I will give you the first mantra, and after three months I will give you full initiation and you can begin the puja.” Six years of intensive sadhana followed, involving up to eight hours a day of puja, japa, meditation and preparation, until 1983 when I returned to America for my first visit after eighteen years. This was followed by about six more years of less intensive practice. These twelve years were the most difficult, yet at the same time the most fruitful in terms of inner experience.
Tantra is basically a fusion of the three aspects of Joy (ananda or love). Knowledge and Power, i.e. the power and joy of effectuating knowledge in the creation, which is the Divine Mother. The aspect of knowledge has always been important to me — the thirst to arrive at an understanding of what everything is aiming at. The one thing that was always very clear from the beginning was that an inner guidance and grace were continually present, protecting and showing me the path to greater spiritual growth. This I attribute to the Mother. And I feel that the inner growth of these years provided the basis for what was to come in later years, particularly regarding the work at the Matrimandir. I met Panditji exactly nine years to the day after the experience in which the Mother said I would know who she is and would realize a “power of action”. This of course refers to Tantra.
How and when did you receive the name “Amrit”?
In 1970 I had written to the Mother about receiving a new name. She said, “Howard is all right for the present,” indicating that I would receive a new name in the future. During my work with Panditji, he gave me the name “Amritanandanath”, meaning “Lord of Immortal Bliss”, or simply “Ambrosia” or “Nectar”.
Would you please speak of your years of work at the Matrimandir?
I worked for a short time with the construction team on the Matrimandir. I could not get accustomed to the heights, especially after Diane’s fall. [Diane was a young Belgian woman who fell from the scaffolding of the Matrimandir in 1976, resulting in paralysis.] Diane was on the scaffolding trying to climb up, when she grabbed a loose pipe, lost control and fell around 75 feet to the bottom of the Matrimandir excavation. I could hear her hitting the bars as she fell. The bars broke her fall, bending in the process, but saved her from dying. After that, for some months, I helped take care of her, massaging her, trying to bring life back to her limbs. I just could not go back to the construction job. People were in shock as they felt something like this just could not happen. Diane died in 1985. Diane had already suffered a deep shock when her five-year-old child, Auro-Louis (also the son of Guido, another Belgian national), fell into a well in Kottakarai and drowned a few years before her fall. Auro-Louis had been given his name by the Mother. He was a very sweet child, but he looked to me like a little soul who had fallen on his head at birth, appeared dazed and did not know who or where he was. I could identify with Auro-Louis, because as a child I felt very much the same way.
In 1974 we worked in the Matrimandir outer gardens, digging pits, mixing compost and planting trees. We would start at 7 or 8 a.m. and work until sunset. It was back-breaking work, but it was a grace to work so hard to create something beautiful. I had never been physically oriented in such a way, but the work was satisfying and fulfilling. This went on for over two years.
The fighting between the SAS and the Auroville community intensified, and peaked between 1980 and 1982. In 1980 the Government of India promulgated the Auroville Ordinance temporarily taking over the administration and assets of Auroville from the SAS, which resulted in a court case in the Indian Supreme Court, ultimately settled in Auroville’s favor. In 1988 this resulted in the Auroville Foundation Act which formalized the Government intervention in Auroville, at the same time according Auroville some protection for its ideals. The result of this conflict for me was a period of isolation from the community. I concentrated solely on my sadhana. Externally times were terrible and very painful, but inwardly very rich. In a sense it was a real grace. I was ostracized because of the path that my sadhana had taken me on and because I had chosen not to take sides and to become a “neutral” in terms of my political position. This isolation was in fact a very real protection, because it prevented me from participating in acts I could never have lived with later. And it enabled me to concentrate on the only thing important, my inner sadhana. During this time I received very clear inner guidance. Around any major event that occurred, dreams would come indicating what the outcome would be and what direction I should take.
On October 3, 1988, on my birthday, it was announced that, apparently according to a Government directive, there would be “no more factions or groups” in Auroville. I, along with a number of others, was formally accepted back into the Auroville community. From that time I began working once more in the Matrimandir Nursery and Gardens, and in January of 1990 became a part of the group management of the Nursery [Narad had left Auroville by this time]. By the latter part of 1990 I had become the main person responsible for work at the Nursery and soon became a member of the general management of the Matrimandir, the MMCG [Matrimandir Management and Coordinating Group], So the situation had reversed from total exclusion to a position of total responsibility.
In 1995, because of difficulties in the visitors’ organization, I was asked to help reorganize the visiting procedure. In the process, we studied the Mother’s statements about access to the Matrimandir and attempted to implement them in as practical a manner as possible. This took a few years to formulate and establish as an effective procedure in all its details. This involved the visiting procedures, passes both for visiting and meditation, Matrimandir Chamber duties, reception of VIPs, access for residents and general Auroville access. I was still responsible for the Rose Garden that had begun in 1991. It has now grown into a beautiful garden with many varieties of “country” roses, inspired by the blessings given by the Mother many years before.
Then in the middle of 2001 I took responsibility for the reorganization of the general Matrimandir security. After establishing some basic changes and norms, from the end of 2002, I have withdrawn again from everything except the Nursery. I felt the need to return to my roots, the place where I had begun in Auroville and to concentrate on my sadhana. It seemed that I had become too externalized, and too many controversies were going on that were not helpful to inner progress.
Summing it up, this whole life has been an exposure to different religious orientations and spiritual paths. I was born into Buddhism, baptized into Christianity, initiated in Hindu Tantra, instructed in Sufism, and guided through all these experiences by the Supreme Shakti we call the Mother. What I have learned from all these paths is that each approach leads to a particular inner experience, and that each experience contributes to a more total, complex and rich spiritual realization which can be a more solid basis for Sri Aurobindo’s yoga of transformation. In short, all these spiritual paths have helped me to understand Sri Aurobindo’s yoga in greater depth. Buddhism leads to the silent mind, Christianity to devotion, Islamic Sufism to the science of the heart and Hindu Tantra to the effective manifestation of the Divine’s Will upon the earth, i.e. the Shakti.
In a symbolic manner, these disciplines also encompass all the levels necessary for a total spiritual attainment as described by the Mother: the physical or religious level which lends itself to expressions of devotion through certain movements of the body; the vital corresponding to the level of occultism; the mental to that of spiritual philosophy and understanding; and the ultimate level of pure spiritual experience.
From the time she withdrew from her body, it has been clear to me that for Auroville, and perhaps for the earth also, the Matrimandir is the receptacle holding the Mother’s Force. This Force, on an external level, seems to produce chaos at times, but this is a process of her work of transformation that will ultimately lead Auroville to its goal. This is at least my faith, that this process will lead to the fulfillment of Auroville’s true purpose.
Finally, I would like to say I have come to the following conclusion, that for myself and I think for all those in Auroville, to concentrate on bringing forth the soul within, with its accompanying light, joy and sweetness is the only hope and the most important work to be done. And I can say that over the last few years, this state of inner happiness and joy has been growing and remains for me the only base for stability in an increasingly chaotic world. For this is the touch of the Supreme Mother, the grace and guidance that uphold us through all the vicissitudes of life.