24 Nov 2009

The Metamorphosis of a Sadhak-Scholar -- by Raman Reddy

We live in a strange and confused time. On the one hand, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have given us absolute certainty with regard to the general direction we should be heading in, that is, if we don’t want to get into unnecessary difficulties. On the other hand, their withdrawal from the physical world has opened up a tremendous scope for wrong interpretations of their teachings. No matter how well-read we are in this vast mental knowledge inherited by us, we flounder in uncertainty when faced with the practical problems of life. We realise that no amount of mere intellectual knowledge can replace the necessity of inner guidance, without which we are bound to lose our way in the difficult maze of life. I remember the day when a few of us were trekking through miles of cashew plantations in the countryside. It was a cloudy day, the sun was not shining, nor did I have my compass to show the direction. We started walking towards our destination which was to the west and, as we wound our way on narrow grassy paths used by the local villagers, we came back after a few exhausting hours to the point where we started from. We did not realise that we had gradually turned to the south and then slowly headed back east to make a full circle. This is exactly what has happened to our historian Peter Heehs over the last few decades of research in an Ashram dedicated to the transformation of human nature. It can happen to any of us, if we don’t take the necessary inner precautions and carry around our inner compass.

I propose to outline the spiritual and intellectual journey of one such imaginary seeker whose life is similar though not the same as that of Heehs in the general circumstances of his outer and inner life. The particular traits of Heehs do not matter so much in this discussion; in fact, I have been generous to him by endowing him with qualities he never had. It is the general phenomenon that he represents which is immensely interesting, not only from the point of view of the disciple, but from the point of view of the honest scholar. It raises the fundamental question of faith and spirituality and the role of the intellect in it.

The journey begins with the arrival at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry of a young seeker, who finds the atmosphere very conducive for both inner and outer growth. The first few years yield remarkable results and witness the blossoming of unexpected faculties. Poetry begins to flow from his pen, the mind develops an unusual clarity, the body grows strong and healthy, and the vital acquires taste and refinement. But the Integral Yoga is not easy and the obdurate mule of our human nature kicks back at us when we press upon it the necessary change. Only the real heroes survive, only those who can surrender themselves to a higher Power and anchor themselves in the Divine. Most of us compromise on the Yoga, for we realise that even if we fail (if at all there is something called failure), we cannot go back. There are of course many who go back to the ordinary life, but those who have reached a point of no return will prefer to dilute the Yoga than start life again, say at the age of fifty. It is then that we have to plough our way through the twilight zone and often through bleak patches of moonless nights until we see hope in the glimmerings of a distant dawn. A few make it, but only after a long grind and after the hair has sufficiently greyed with failures and disappointments. That is why I find some of the older members of our Ashram the happiest lot.

Some don’t make it! Doubts creep in questioning first their fitness for the Yoga, then questioning the Yoga itself. That is why Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have so often advised us not to play with Doubt, even though it might seem fashionable to do so. When years of sadhana seem infructuous and the hidden spiritual ambition gets frustrated, the sadhak revolts against his Gurus and either goes away to live the ordinary life or sets up his own Ashram. The list of such cases in the Ashram is not short, even if you leave out the recent ones. Among the most prominent ones in the past are Barin Ghose (Sri Aurobindo’s own brother), the famous singer Dilip Kumar Roy and many others, including Westerners such as Anna Bogenholm Sloane.[1]

What I have described above is the spiritual journey of a seeker. But what about the intellectual journey of the seeker who becomes a scholar and is given the highly privileged task of compiling Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s writings and collecting biographical material on them? There is at first a profound unwillingness of the seeker in him to judge them by human standards because he considers them Avatars,[2] though they themselves have hardly cared to project themselves as such. At the same time, the job of the editor-archivist has to be done with due mental honesty and proficiency and Sri Aurobindo gives valid scope to this effort in his own remarks on Avatarhood. The Avatar, he says, has two sides – “the Divine Consciousness and the instrumental personality. The Divine Consciousness is omnipotent but it has put forth the instrumental personality in Nature under the conditions of Nature”.[3] Can he, on this basis, correct, question, criticise and judge Sri Aurobindo and his works, and, if so, to what extent?

The legitimate consideration of this question begins with minor editorial interventions which most people would accept without much hesitation. Sri Aurobindo sometimes did not mark his full-stops (.) or question marks (?) at the end of his sentences, especially in the enormous amount of correspondence he wrote in the thirties. He wrote at great speed and for many hours till late at night, replying to questions of sadhaks and departmental heads who sometimes wrote a dozen pages a day, if not more. He not only answered questions regarding their sadhana but also ran the administration of the Ashram by jotting down day to day instructions, which he had to often squeeze in the narrow margins of their notebooks when he ran out of space. Minor mistakes were bound to happen, such as misspellings of words, which were obviously slips of the pen. This is what he casually admitted to Nirodbaran in March 1936:

Nirodbaran: What Sir, in your letter on “Swan and its symbol” expect has become except? Supramental slip!

Sri Aurobindo: Do you mean to say this is the first you have met? I used to make ten per page formerly in the haste of my writing.[4]

We now climb the ladder of textual editing with more confidence and get into greater complexities: (1) Transcription errors made by his disciples that have long gone unnoticed, so that the textual editor has to often fall back to previous versions to trace the origin of the mistakes. (2) Faulty and sometimes pre-edited transcriptions of Sri Aurobindo’s letters which were given to him for finalisation, so that he had no choice but to make the best of the circumstances. Do we go back to the earlier versions which are obviously better, or continue with the later ones, simply because he saw through them last for publication? (3) Double revisions of the same text done on two different occasions, so that the editor has to choose between parallel versions. Sri Aurobindo kept on perfecting his work on different occasions on various manuscripts, so that the editor is often faced with multiple choices in the case of unpublished material. (4) Problems arise when missing manuscripts are found, such as the second page of the “Hour of God” which the Mother has so wonderfully read, apparently not realising that she was reading an incomplete text. The same applies to some of the passages of Savitri recorded in her voice. Mistakes of transcription were detected after she read them out. It is interesting to note that sometimes the Mother’s French translation of Savitri, which was based on the 1954 edition, anticipated the corrections carried out in later editions. These are among the many problems of this complex field of textual editing with which very few are familiar.

On the historical side, it starts with the discovery of slight factual inaccuracies in Sri Aurobindo’s own statements regarding his life – when did he join school in London, when did he come back to India, when did he join the Baroda State service, when did he get married, etc, most of which can be verified from various institutional records.[5] Having admitted the possibility of minor slips of memory, we move into more dangerous waters – the imperfections of a divine personality. Sri Aurobindo describes himself as “a great coward”[6] when he was a young boy in England, whom nobody imagined “could face the gallows or carry on a revolutionary movement”. He was also “extremely selfish” until one day he felt he “ought to give up selfishness”, [7] and that became a turning point in his life. In any case, he had to “feel all the difficulties before embodying the Divine Consciousness”. But once progression is admitted from the defective to the divine, from the unyogic to the yogic, we have paved the way for legitimate criticism at every point of the Master’s lifetime, especially when we assume that the final goal of physical transformation had not been achieved by him. Moreover, he had himself clarified that Avatars need not be embodiments of “mental and human perfection” as long as they were representative of what they came to manifest in the earth consciousness. It is here that the twist begins, when we are given unlimited scope for intellectual questions with a bagful of defects in our own personality.

Most sadhaks and devotees, intelligent or not, do not bother at all about the defects of the divine personality they adore. It does not come in the way of their reception of the radiant force that flows through him or her. In fact, it deepens the mystery of the divine personality and makes it more intimate to them. The academic intellectuals, of course, shy away from this arena, because they are strangers to spirituality. The ones who get into trouble are those renegade sadhaks who, due to their own failure in the sadhana, want to prove to others that success is impossible. They of course conceive failure from the point of view of not achieving impressive outer results, forgetting that Yoga is not done to impress others and that success in it comes only after a long and silent preparation of the being. So when the ambitious sadhak realises that the Yoga is much more difficult than he had expected, he gets angry at not getting his dues in time. He throws up his hands and, in order to find an excuse for doing it, develops a critical attitude towards the Yoga itself. This is what happens to the sadhak-scholar who stays long enough at the Ashram to get frustrated, but not long enough to go beyond it to root himself in tranquillity and equanimity. For the results of Yoga come slowly, after we cease to believe in our unaided efforts, after we are tired of our recalcitrant human nature and finally give ourselves to the Divine. Then we see a higher power taking over our puny self and we ascend happily the yogic ladder assisted by a solicitous hand.

But what happens to the scholar who has turned against the sadhana? His attitude automatically gets reflected in his writings. Honest intellectualism deteriorates into critical and then over-critical intelligence; self-deception sets in ending in perversity and he plays into the hands of hostile forces. The over-confident scholar now steps beyond his legitimate scope in the editing of the Master’s works. The rule of indispensable editorial intervention gives way to “making sense” of the problematic text, even when the Master is speaking in “the higher sense” which we often don’t understand, and even when there is abundant proof that the Master wanted to say precisely what doesn’t make sense to us. Once the scholar takes this approach, he has started sliding down the slope. With regard to the facts of the Master’s life, the scholar now says, “How can we depend on the Master’s statements regarding the events of his life when he has been wrong so many times? He himself has said on one occasion that he does not remember the dates. In any case, you cannot expect him to be a super-computer whose memory never gets erased! So let us be strict about accepting his evidence at face-value and investigate each time the veracity of his statements. I don’t want to concede anything to him without a full consideration of other documents.” Strictness leads to being over-strict with the Master, and then only with him rather than the others. Why so? Because previous biographers have always been woolly-headed hagiographers than disciplined historians! The need for historical accuracy is thus confused with the scholar’s wish to find inaccuracies in the Master’s statements and flaws in his character, simply because nobody has dared to point them out before. The benefit of doubt shifts to secondary or even tertiary documents and the Master’s evidence is set aside because it contradicts them. The burden of proof is on the Master instead of the secondary and tertiary sources, because he could have forgotten as he did a number of times, he could have misunderstood and even lied, as opposed to the others who have no reason to be wrong, or at least, who have to be seriously considered until they are proved wrong.

In the inner world of the Master’s spiritual experience and philosophy, it becomes worse. The scholar has to depend totally on the Master’s testimony, but he hates to be uncritical despite his own inability to verify it. So he looks first for internal discrepancies and takes what is convenient to him. For example, during the Arya period Sri Aurobindo smoked and occasionally drank; [8] he wrote in the Synthesis of Yoga that “All Life is Yoga” [9] and told his companions that nothing human was alien to him.[10] How convenient are these facts and statements for the satisfaction of the vital! That is, if you don’t mention that Sri Aurobindo had made a number of qualifications to the statement on Life and Yoga in the same paragraph of the Synthesis, which prevent the hedonistic interpretation it could easily lend itself to. Also the fact that he was totally detached from smoking and left it the very next day after the Mother expressed her dislike for it,[11] which put his early disciples in a fix, because they could not throw away the habit as easily as he had done.[12] And that later when the Ashram was established, sex, smoking and alcohol were strictly prohibited and the sadhana consisted mainly in rising above the defects of the lower nature in order to be able to divinise life.

Next, the scholar proceeds to compare the Master’s spiritual experience with objective material standards, knowing fully well that the material and the spiritual are two opposing camps and that even though the Master has explained the unity of both, “belief shall be not be till the work is done”.[13] But this is convenient to him, because he can now talk with the confidence of verifiable facts (read ignorance) and relate to other academic ignoramuses. There is a certain truth about the materialistic attitude in the spiritual context which the Mother talks about in the Agenda – the truth of not accepting one’s imaginations for spiritual experience, but this is the obverse attitude which would doubt spiritual experience even if it actually happened. The sadhak-scholar has now reversed his values and standards of judgment, and the sadhak in him has ceased to struggle against the so-called intelligent scholar. Fundamental questions arise in his mind and he is thrilled at their apparent newness when they are in fact as old as the hills, questions challenging the existence and necessity of the Divine. I can figure God in his armchair complaining to man, “How many times we have had to go through this nonsense before you definitely accept me?” The scholar folds up his sleeves and fires a salvo of questions: “Is all this talk of Supermind true, especially when the Master himself has apparently failed in his endeavour to transform his body? Why don’t we simply accept life as it is with all its multifariousness? Why limit ourselves to the Master’s view of life as if it is the eternal truth? Did he not himself advise us not to be bound by any formulation of Truth?” So the scholar indulges in an old, well-practised art of the hostile forces – quoting the scriptures to disprove them.

The sadhak-scholar now goes haywire. He cares a hoot for the inner life – he regrets the time wasted on these mindless reveries called meditations, these endless blank sessions spent in the adoration of the Divine. How many books he could have written for the academic and scientific world of today if only he had not wasted his time in these fruitless activities? He gets into a new upbeat mood: “Use your mind, man! Update yourself with the latest technological developments, catch up with the sexy trends of modern life! Don’t be a prude! Go! Go! Go! I am going away from this silly Ashram!” But he does not go!!! Why? Because of the number of years he has already invested in the institution, the friends he is attached to, the comforts and privileges he enjoys. Moreover, it is not easy to survive in the go-getters’ world outside, where everything revolves around money and even friendship is measured against bank balances! So, instead of starting a new life there, the scholar decides to transform “the sleepy idiots” around him by challenging the very ideological foundations of the institution and denigrating its spiritual founders in the light of his recent “enlightenment”!

Raman Reddy

24 November 2009


[1] Autobiographical Notes, pp 389-396

[2] Heehs, of course, had always his reservations about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother being Avatars. In this respect, the sadhak-scholar of my article is very different from him, though undergoing the same process of gradual falsification.

[3] SABCL, Vol. 22, pp 408-09

[4] Nirodbaran’s Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo (1983), Volume 1, p 527

[5] Autobiographical Notes, p 565

[6] Evening Talks of Sri Aurobindo recorded by A.B. Purani (2007), p 394

[7] Evening Talks of Sri Aurobindo recorded by A.B. Purani (2007), p 395

[8] A.B. Purani, Life of Sri Aurobindo (1978), p 155

[9] CWSA, The Synthesis of Yoga, p 8

[10] Peter Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo, pp 238-239. For more on this passage, read Alok Pande’s article The Book and its Background, published on this site.

[11] The Mother’s Agenda, Volume 6, pp 80-81 (14 June, 1965)

[12] T. Kodanda Rama Rao, At the Feet of the Master (2007), pp 18-19

[13] CWSA, Savitri, p 55

1 comment:

  1. Alok Pandey’s comment on “The Metamorphosis of a Sadhak-Scholar” (26.11.2009):

    I completely agree with your insightful understanding on the subject of an intellectual scholar who loses his way in the dry and dusty landscapes of the mind searching for spiritual waters by his outer vision. Finding none, he declares that all is a chimers since he was searching it wrongly and in the wrong place. Thus disheartened, he easily falls to the grey whispers of the chill night buried under the sand-dunes of scholarly 'wisdom'.

    But this (the author of The Lives...) however seems to be a different case. It is more like the grey hounds of hell entering the kingdom of heaven to whisper the word that slays. Right from the start, if one has to believe what he himself says and also from the actions as seen from the very beginning, his work had a touch of the diabolic in it. His stated purpose of staying on at the Ashram was not yoga or any interest in the place or the work, but the fact that he got a job to his liking. Even if there was a lurking impulse to a higher life behind, it doesn't show itself in any of his writings or talks anywhere. If anything there is the blind and the biased historian or the arrogant and opinionated man. It is strange and surpasses my understanding as to how so much leeway is given to what is done at the Archives. It is as if a free hand is given to publish anything and everything. I can give a number of examples. The book on Sri Aurobindo's life by AB Purani has a number of pages added to it that were not written or intended by AB Purani. So also, we see much unnecessary and controversial material being published in the Autobiographical Notes whereas its second part which will put things in proper perspective is delayed for so long. It is as if the team was rather keen to bring out the Autobiographical Notes (Part I) and the Record of Yoga much faster while the part II and the Mother (with Questions and Answers on the Mother) must wait. In fact if you read the promo at the website regarding the Mother you will find something peculiar. It seems to make a distinction between the Divine Mother and the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram! Strangely enough the CWSA also promises to bring out a glossary of Record of Yoga (by whom, one may ask, for Sri Aurobindo never wrote one, then what is it doing in CWSA?). The instances multiply and I cannot help see in it a pattern and wonder at the complacency with which the whole thing is being managed. The book is just the culmination of a long sustained effort in a certain direction and not a freak event or even a slow or sudden fall.