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At the Feet of The Mother


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Those who have read Talks with Sri Aurobindo or Evening Talks must have realised that Sri Aurobindo was not a world-averse Yogi lost in rapturous silence of the Brahman like the Maharshi, nor talked, when he did, mostly of spiritual matters as did Ramakrishna. In fact our talks covered a vast range of subjects, they had almost a global dimension. We wondered at his enormous knowledge in so many fields. Considering the shortness of the period during which he lived in strenuous contact with the external world, one would be tempted to ask how much of this knowledge was the outcome of his practical worldly experience and how much a result of Yoga? In a letter to me he had said, “Don’t try to throw allopathic dust in my eyes, sir! I have lived a fairly long time and seen something of the world before my retirement and much more after it.” So Yoga must have opened to his vision “thoughts that wander through eternity” and made him the possessor of infinite knowledge, secular as well as spiritual: “World after world bursts on the awakened sight”, he says in one of his sonnets. He has attributed all that he had become to the effect of Yoga. In one of our talks we were staggered to hear him profess that even if he had written ten times more than he had done, his knowledge would have remained unexhausted. And when we murmured in a sad protest that such a vast amount of knowledge would be lost to us, he replied, “Practise first what I have written.” On another occasion when he was asked by a sadhak how he could manage to write on seven subjects at a time in the Arya, he replied that he could write seven issues of the Arya every month for 70 years and still the knowledge that came from above would hardly be exhausted. The Mother also said that he wrote the Arya from a completely silent mind; everything came right down on the typewriter. Otherwise it would not have been possible to write 64 pages every month. Strictly speaking, it was only in the last week of the month that he would get down to writing. Amrita had been asked to remind him about the Arya, a week before its time for the Press. When he gave the signal, Sri Aurobindo would start the “Herculean labour” and finish it with utmost ease. Those words from a sonnet of his — “I have drunk the Infinite like a giant’s wine”, are a testimony to this bewildering fact.

Now at this fountainhead of wisdom and yogic illumination we had the rare opportunity to drink day and night for a number of years. If we could not get more it was not because he had closed the channel, but rather that our small vessels could not contain more. One can then understand that next to his silent human-divine Presence, his talks were the most coveted feature of our close association with him.

Yet they came so unexpectedly, for Sri Aurobindo, as we had come to know and see him during the Darshan, had succeeded in building in our minds a picture of him high-poised as his Life Divine, far-moving as his Synthesis of Yoga, unapproachable, except perhaps by the gods, not at all close and intimate like his Essays on the Gita or accessible to our mortal longings. Of course, a few of us had the extraordinary good fortune of knowing his human side through his inestimable correspondence, on the strength of which I wrote to him, “You thrashed me for calling you grave and austere at the Darshan time. But see, when we go to the Mother, how seraphically she smiles, while your noble Self being near, appears still far away at some Olympian height. It is difficult to discern the gravity or the jollity of a face at such a height. I suppose our conception of the gods was formed from the vision of such a figure.” He replied, “Neither gravity nor jollity, but a large, easy, quiet, amiable condition. The gods can’t be amiable?” And it was this amiable aspect that came to the forefront in our talks. We came to know much later that Sri Aurobindo used to hold “table-talks” in the pre-Ashram days, with his few young followers. But I believe ours were an advance on those talks by the ease, the informality, the natural diversity and intimacy of communication due to the exceptional circumstances in which they were held. Sri Aurobindo had no need of vocal self-expression, either in our time or before. It is my conviction that the interchange with us was an act of compassion to entertain us in return for the medical attendance we had been called upon to render him. I may add here that any personal service offered to the Divine, however small, brings an ample reward.

When after the first few days of discomfort and submission to medical rigours, he had adjusted himself to the new mode of life, the talks started. At first they were in the form of medical enquiries. Dr. Manilal would come up in the morning (for he was living outside the Ashram compound) and stand with folded hands before Sri Aurobindo who lay in bed. After pranam he would ask, smiling, “How are you, Sir? Did you sleep well?” to which Sri Aurobindo’s answers were genially brief.

These short preambles were soon followed by the cascade. It was evening, about 7 p.m. Our duty being over, Sri Aurobindo was lying down in bed. A dim electric light was on. I had gone out. When I came up after a while, I saw our group sitting on the left side of Sri Aurobindo’s bed, near his feet and some talk was going on, almost in whispers. Sri Aurobindo was the talker. I joined the group at once but could not get very near. All were listening intently; if they did notice my coming, they had no room to spare for me. This was the first time he talked at length. As we were not accustomed to his subdued voice and intonation, we had to strain our ears in order to catch all the words, and yet many of them were lost to me. Several people have asked us about the quality of his voice. Lacking in expressive power for such delicate matters, I am afraid I can’t define it or give its exact sound-shade. The nearest characterisation I can hazard is that it was masculine, but soft — some have called it musical — low-pitched, quiet and measured, with a clear English accent. This was my impression formed from a gradual closeness. In her Prayers and Meditations, the Mother describes the voice of the Lord which can apply very well to Sri Aurobindo’s. On June 27, 1913, she writes, “Thy voice is so modest, so impartial, so sublime in its patience and mercy that it does not make itself heard with any authority, any force of will but comes like a cool breeze, sweet and pure, like a crystalline murmur that brings a note of harmony to a discordant concert. Yet, for him who knows how to listen to the note, to breathe that breeze, it holds such treasures of beauty, such a fragrance of pure serenity and noble grandeur, that all foolish illusions vanish or are transformed into a joyful acceptance of the marvellous truth that has been glimpsed.” It is a great pity that we do not have a tape-recording of his voice. People have charged us with a callous indifference. But then there was no radio, no ceiling-fan and even to take a photograph of the Mother was strictly banned. I am told that when the Mother went out to see our Ashram team playing a volley-ball match with an outside team, someone took a photograph of hers and gave it to the local photographer who was known to us, to have it printed. The Mother managed to stop the printing. Besides, who could ever dream that Sri Aurobindo would pass away so suddenly? It was by an unseen dispensation that a few photographs were taken in his last year. We often compared his previous photographs with his present appearance and wished for new ones to be taken and distributed to the sadhaks, instead of the old ones. Once somebody had made paintings of Sri Aurobindo from his old photographs and sent them to him. Looking at them he said, “I look like a criminal! Am I so bad to look at?” But our requests for the new photographs were gently turned down with a humorous (or was it solemn?) reply that only after the descent of the Supermind they could be taken. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, impressive though they are, are still a poor apology for Sri Aurobindo’s real physical appearance. Can they do Justice to all that God-like majesty, beauty and serenity? Those who had seen him with his bare shining torso different times in different postures, look at these replicas and murmur sadly, “Was this the figure that we loved and worshipped?” The Mother showing a painting of Sri Aurobindo to Champaklal asked him his opinion, he kept quiet. She then repeated, “You don’t like it?” Then he burst out, “How can I like it, Mother? This is sheer mockery. I won’t look at it!” The Mother smiled. But people would perhaps say that something is better than nothing. It is true that but for these last photographs there would have been a great void left in our recollection of Sri Aurobindo.

After the first day, regular talks continued at the same time in the evening. All of us sat huddled together near his bed, Purani sometimes stood at a distance, and the talks rolled on under the dim light. The listening hush was quite often broken by our outbursts of hilarious laughter. We had ample leisure, since all medical duties were over and what remained before us was only his light supper. In the middle of the talks the Mother would sometimes glide in and ask Sri Aurobindo with a smile, “They are making you talk?” The Mother feared that too much talk would put him under an undue strain. At times we got so absorbed in the talks that Sri Aurobindo had to remind us of the Mother’s coming and we then quickly regrouped ourselves ready to receive her. She would then insist saying, Don’t move, don’t move.” Dr. Manilal’s reply was, “No, Mother, we shall now meditate!”

“But if I want to talk?”

“Then we shall talk, Mother.” The ready answer was followed by a burst of laughter. Rarely did she participate in our talks. Once she asked, “What are you laughing about?” Sri Aurobindo replied with a smile, “I am telling them the story of my poet-brother Mono Mohan.” It was one of the most interesting talks we had!

In the beginning, as I said, Dr. Manilal was the spearhead of the attack. What we did not dare to ask because of our youth, our shyness or even our sophistication, he, our elderly doctor, babbled away like a simple child, bluntly and sweetly, and we were greatly rewarded. We were so much charmed by the novelty of the talks that none of us thought of keeping any record. I would make some mental notes and when I visited Dilip’s place for tea pour them out and make everybody roar with laughter. He would regale me with a sumptuous breakfast, in return for the divine ambrosia. After about a fortnight of squandering the precious talks which, had they been noted and published, would have made another volume, I realised my mistake and thought, “Why not keep a record?” But I would debate, “What’s the use since they will never be published?” Thus in two minds, I started noting them down in the middle of the night after the work was over or at other odd hours. Quite often my colleagues would help me in rescuing some of the points I had lost, or correcting and adding others. Still almost one third of the talks were not recorded for want of time or sheer laziness. Meanwhile the news had gone abroad that Sri Aurobindo was having talks with us. So people began to waylay or hunt us out for some nectar and our stock went up. Groups were formed, according to the law of sympathy and attraction for hearing the “Divine news”. Some approached Dr. Manilal, some Purani some Satyendra and others came to me. Many advised us to keep a diary and others must have suspected that we were doing so already. Sri Aurobindo did not know, at least physically, about it and there was even a fear that if he did, he might stop talking altogether. Now I feel that some Hand must have pushed me over my reluctance and turned out a fairly good record, after all.

With Sri Aurobindo’s gradual recovery the time of the talks also changed. They were held mostly during his sponging and later during his bath. As the years passed, the original stream of abundance began to get thinner and thinner till in the last years there was practically a silent attendance on a silent Presence. Either we had exhausted all topics and a satiation had followed and dried up all our inspiration or Sri Aurobindo had withdrawn his inner gesture of approval. Only when Dr. Manilal arrived from Baroda, the still atmosphere quickened with life for a while but he too would soon lapse into a quiescent mood.

About the range and variety of the talks the readers have now got a fair idea from our books. They show Sri Aurobindo’s encyclopaedic knowledge and bear out the truth of his remark that if he wrote all that he knew, it would be ten times more than what he had already written. He had serious or sublime subjects in mind, but I am referring even to ordinary matters of life. Dr. Ramachandra once told me that he had had a racy discussion with the Guru on horse-racing! Much more striking was the ease and freedom in which the talks were held and on either side there was no feeling of constraint or sanctimonious awe putting a check on our impulses. We forgot the sublime Guru-shishya relationship and became long-standing friends. It was quite a different Sri Aurobindo from what he was at other hours of the day. The high, serene and silent snow on the Himalayan peaks had melted down into a quiet and cool gurgling stream. Hold the pure sanctified waters in your hands, sprinkle them over the body, drink them or play with them like a child. How perennially fresh and diversely rich, sparkling always with his ready wit and humour! But the stream flowed, as I said, only at some particular time and not for a long period. Again the grand, serene and silent Presence on the peaks! One could say that the austere “cloak of a reclining God”, the robe of silence had slipped down and brought to our view the body of a human godhead. But he would put on the robe of silence again; yet both the visions had their unfailing charm and grandeur.

The talks of Sri Ramakrishna come naturally to our mind in comparison. Their spirit is perhaps the same, the lightness and vivacity too are there, but his talks were restricted in scope, while all life being yoga for us, no subject was too trivial for our discussions. And in Sri Aurobindo’s case always samam brahman, impersonality marked all his utterances, no matter what the subject of the discourse. Nevertheless, the warm touch of personality could always be felt from behind the usual front of impersonality. For instance, though he would, while talking, hardly look at us or address us by our names, for his eyes were cast downwards or looking away in front, still the soft tone of his voice, sparks of personal humour reflected the “sweet rays of a temperate sun.”

I have said so much about his voice, I might as well add a few words about his eyes. Opinions about them vary according to the inner quality of the person who saw them. Sir Edward Baker, Governor of Bengal, archenemy of Sri Aurobindo’s fiery nationalism, described them as “the eyes of a madman” when he visited him in Alipore Jail. The English Principal of the Baroda College said, “…There is a mystic fire and light in them. They penetrate into the beyond. If Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices, Aurobindo probably sees heavenly visions.” Upen Banerjee, a close associate of Sri Aurobindo during his revolutionary period, describes his first meeting with him, “That sickly, dark, malaria-afflicted man is Aurobindo? He is our Chief?… My spirit was awfully damped at the sight, but just then he turned to look at me. I don’t know how to describe that look. There was a liquid sparkle of amusement in it, but the pupils gave me a sense of fathomless wonder that baffled all analysis. Even today the mystery has not left me.”

Arjava (J. A. Chadwick) remarked, “How beautifully he writes, how crystal clear! Not a trace of haziness anywhere. No abracadabra, wanting to show off and yet how luminous — shedding light without heat — like his eyes!”

I have said that Sri Aurobindo rarely looked into our eyes except at Darshans when, he said, he gave a piercing look to everybody. Most often, he was gazing in front or looking down, and seldom were the eyes fully open. During our pranams in his room on our birthdays or on Darshan days, he looked deep and steadily into our eyes. At that time I could mark their colour: it was a dark brown. To see anything beyond the softness and compassion in the expression was not given to me. But once, and once only, I saw a different pair of eyes, and that experience is unforgettable. He had finished lunch and I was attending on him. Just for a memorable moment, he half-opened his eyes and I saw two deep pools, intensely black, serene, inscrutable and unfathomable. It was as if on a hushed afternoon you entered a dense wood and suddenly came upon a deep pond and saw its still dark waters.

People who read our Correspondence were under the impression that our days bubbled with “jest and jollity, quips and cranks” all the while. In fact, a friend did not believe me when I said that the bubbling lasted only for a short time. Sri Aurobindo was, after all, a Yogi. All who knew him knew that. In one of his letters to Dilip, when Dilip complained that Sri Aurobindo would not laugh or even smile, he replied that since his childhood, he had been estranged from his family and accustomed to live a solitary life. His nature had therefore become reserved, somewhat remote and he felt shy of too much personal emotion. The English racial climate may have, I suppose, added its own large share to it. Moreover, the Yoga he had practised, beginning with the transcendental nirvanic experience, must have crowned the natural disposition. Buddha, I believe, for all his compassion, could not but have been impersonal in his daily communication. This vast impersonality even in personal relations, is it not the basis of his Yoga? I have often wondered what his state of consciousness was, for instance, when he was talking with us or dictating Savitri. Now I have learnt that the three states of consciousness: transcendent, cosmic and individual can operate at the same time. I also used to wonder how he could take interest even in the most trivial, “unspiritual” amusing talk or incidents, and joke with us, say on snoring or baldness! He had found the rasa, the delight of Brahman in everything. So his jokes were never trivial; they could be playful but always had an intellectual element in them.

I have already given some examples of his humour in the previous chapters; let me now quote something to show his light mood. One day suddenly breaking his silence, he addressed Purani and said, “There is something nice for you, Purani.” (For once he used his name!)

Purani: For me?

Sri Aurobindo: Yes. A letter has come from America addressed to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The writer says, “I have heard that you are a great yoga. I am also a yoga. I have started to predict sporting events. I can go into trance and know everything. If you agree to work in collaboration with me, we will share the profits. Let me know your terms. If you don’t want to take the money yourself, you can give it to the poor. Our collaboration will be a service to yourself, to me and to the poor.” What do you say, Purani? You too can go into trance or send Nirod into trance!

He was by no means a conversationalist as we understand and use the term. Tagore, for example, was one. Those who have heard or talked to Tagore, recall their experience as “great”. When we read his talks, we can well imagine how brilliant he must have been with his rich similes and metaphors, his sparkling wit and banter, the twinkling of his eyes, the rise and fall of his voice and all the other concomitant dramatic gestures so that his personality came in front more than his talks. Sri Aurobindo is quite a different study in perfect contrast. Life here is steady; there are no eddies or whirls, the stream flowing unobstrusively in a quiet rhythm, the jokes uttered rather casually, in an even tone in a typically English fashion, which makes you laugh all the more. Here the personality remained behind and the subject-matter became more prominent,

His talks with Dr. Manilal deserve special notice. The doctor had medical and worldly experience. The Mother considered him a master in his own field. But he still had a child-soul in him and it talked freely with Sri Aurobindo. The Guru with an equal paternal or friendly smile would listen to his prattle. His long rigmarole on Jainism that would bore us, would amuse him and after the doctor had departed, Sri Aurobindo would naively ask Purani how far Manilal’s knowledge of Jainism was sound and dependable. It was most entertaining to see how Sri Aurobindo used to dodge, tease, play with him, yet obey his medical injunctions! “Oh! Dr. Manilal is coming! I must hang my leg!” he would exclaim and we in turn utter, “You seem to be afraid of Dr. Manilal!” The tone, one would feel, was that of a comrade chatting with another; the doctor’s age, position and nature evoked from the Guru a response in tune with them. Sri Aurobindo once remarked that he was very simple and frank like a child.

Throughout our talks extending over many years and to many subjects, I don’t remember a single occasion when Sri Aurobindo lost his patience with us. He never refused to answer any question but on the contrary would explain at great length and repeatedly if some points did not enter my head. “Do you understand?” he would ask softly. The tone was always affable. Even when one of us complained that he could not accept his Yoga, he looked into his difficulties and met his objections in a kind, dispassionate manner. Much of this must have been due to the Guru’s innate nature and the rest due to Yoga. We have had hot debates among ourselves before him; he listened quietly to our childish vanity and showed our mistakes only when we approached him for his views. If we have not profited as much as we should have by his talks, at least his patient tolerance and indulgence, wideness of outlook and leaven of humour have cast a radiant influence on our souls. As we look back on those days, we hear a sigh in the breeze murmuring, “Those delightful days that are no more!” The nostalgic memory revives at moments when we meet and start talking of those bygone years. Satyendra recalled an incident I had completely forgotten. Once the Mother came to inform Sri Aurobindo that Bhishmadev, a former disciple and an eminent singer of Bengal, was going to sing on the radio, and he very much wanted Sri Aurobindo to hear him. So the radio was brought near and the sponge-bath and the music went on simultaneously. When at the end of Bhishmadev’s programme we asked him how he had liked the music, he answered, “Oh, I completely forgot!” We had a good laugh. A similar instance happened in Dilip’s case. He had sent the timing of his radio programme from Calcutta and beseeched Sri Aurobindo to hear him. Sri Aurobindo asked Champaklal to remind him of it. Champaklal, probably, did not. When the music was over, he asked Champaklal, “Where is Dilip’s music?” He laughed and said that it was already finished!

Lastly, those who have read Talks with Sri Aurobindo and his Correspondence with me cannot but notice a striking difference between the two in their tone and manner. Though both of them have an air of intimacy and informality, still the correspondence is certainly more free. There he has let himself go, to quote his phrase, whereas in the talks there is a sense of restraint. Is it because of a different set of circumstances and a different milieu? I believe there is something more. Even if I had met him all alone, I don’t think he would have been as free in his speech as with his pen. For, his shy and reserved nature would have put some curb on total abandon. Of course, the correspondence was restricted to one person with his own particular interests; the talks covered a larger and more diverse sphere, and there they have an advantage of their own.