22 Feb 2010

Response to Debashish Banerji’s Interview -- by Raman Reddy

So if the Ashram community acquired a certain homogeneity of temperament, what is wrong? It is actually a healthy sign for a growing collectivity and shows that there are plenty of reasons to come together instead of having always ideological differences and never being able to unite to do some practical work. From this point of view, one should condemn all collectivities because they mostly have differences of opinion with other collectivities. It means that the ideal collectivity, which Debashish has in mind, should allow everybody from all spheres – from rank communists to the followers of Osama-bin-Laden and from Christian fundamentalists to left-hand Tantriks. What a wonderful pot-pourri will Auroville be if it follows his advice? [extract]

Response to Debashish Banerji’s Interview 

(in Auroville Today, February 2010)

AV: What are the roots of fundamentalism?

Debashish: It may be through innocent and unthinking means that the apparatus of fundamentalism gets established. For me, it begins with how identity constructs build up unconsciously. Often people pin their sense of self on a group identity. As a group develops, things may get done at certain times in certain ways and over time these characteristics get fixed in the minds of that group as defining that group’s reality. This reality is reinforced by a theology or ideology – the fundamental yet invisible pillars around which identity is built – as well as parables, metaphors and stories, mythologies, which make the members of the group identify with the ideology at the personal, core level.

This can hardly apply to the Ashram where the “identity construct” (which is not the word to use here) was not built “unconsciously” but by very conscious spiritual seekers who came to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to practise yoga under their direct guidance. They were even restricted from coming if they were not ready for it. So if the Ashram community acquired a certain homogeneity of temperament, what is wrong? It is actually a healthy sign for a growing collectivity and shows that there are plenty of reasons to come together instead of having always ideological differences and never being able to unite to do some practical work. From this point of view, one should condemn all collectivities because they mostly have differences of opinion with other collectivities. It means that the ideal collectivity, which Debashish has in mind, should allow everybody from all spheres – from rank communists to the followers of Osama-bin-Laden and from Christian fundamentalists to left-hand Tantriks. What a wonderful pot-pourri will Auroville be if it follows his advice? It only shows that he has never worked in a collectivity where certain rules have to be followed voluntarily, and if you don’t, you are supposed to make a voluntary and gentlemanly exit.

AV: How would you characterize those traits?

Debashish: In the Peter Heehs’ case there was outrage not only that somebody could have written such a book but also because he was ‘one of us’. So, evidently, the identity construct among those who took action against Peter is very strong: there is a notion that certain tenets are held in common and that these tenets have been violated. And then, of course, the whole thing is about God, the Infinite. This is another aspect of fundamentalism; the group identity stretches to colonize the invisible, the universal, it assumes this tremendous transcendental quality and literalises it in a set of tenets which have to be obeyed.

Another indication that Debashish has never lived in a big group. Incompatibility with the collective aim is one thing and “colonising the invisible and universal” is another; there is a huge difference between theory and practice. Theories about accepting everybody always sound very convincing in conference halls, but in practice any group has to guard itself from being hijacked by the wrong persons. So many mischief-mongers (or even persons whose nature was incompatible with the institution) have been thrown out of the Ashram as well as Auroville, and sometimes pretty unceremoniously because they did not go away like gentlemen; if they were gentlemen, the problem would never have occurred.

Nobody has claimed to have achieved a final framework of ideals with their corresponding set of basic rules for life, not even Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The Mother in the Agenda says that she would have preferred to have no rules at all with regard to the Ashram, but she was forced to have the bare minimum of rules so that people don’t misuse the institution. As for the present, I don’t see what is so wrong about taking the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as the basic framework of reference in order to make collective operations possible? No intellectual framework at all with only pompous discussion about going beyond religions will lead us nowhere, neither the Ashram nor Auroville. In order to see the sense of my argument, I would suggest a very simple experiment: join a spiritual community.

AV: Did these tendencies already exist before the present controversy?

Debashish: I think the roots can be traced back to the early 1940s when there was an explosion of numbers in the Ashram. So long as the Ashram had been a small community there was a sense of freedom and the inmates and the gurus were interacting with each other; there was a sense of intimacy. But the increase in scale changed the situation and, for example, certain types of quasi-rituals started establishing themselves.

If the roots of fundamentalism “can be traced to the early 1940s”, then this pompous curator should familiarise himself with Ashram history. The forties was one of the most splendid periods of the Ashram with both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother running its administration. All the activities of the Ashram were organised by the Mother, be it sports, school or the work in various departments such as technical workshops and agricultural farms. All these were daily reported by the Mother to Sri Aurobindo who gave them his full approval. One has to only go through Nirodbaran’s Twelve Years and Champaklal Speaks to get an idea of it.

Debashish: Take the images. In the early years, sadhaks had photographs of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in their own homes, but there were very few photographs in public places. Some people were in the habit of putting flowers in front of one such public photograph of Sri Aurobindo, but Sri Aurobindo cautioned his disciples in letters against this, saying he did not want any public display of this kind.

In the early years when Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were themselves physically present, they would have naturally discouraged putting up their photographs in public places. The situation changed with their passing away and now you can expect more photographs of them in public places. Moreover, why should putting up their photographs in institutions dedicated to their spiritual aim be necessarily detrimental to Yoga when it is done in a genuine way? When you have no objection to putting up their photographs in a private room, why raise such a hue and cry over the placing of their photographs in meditation halls or conference chambers? As long as our actions haven’t become mere rituals, there is always scope for the right expression of our feelings, especially in the midst of other like-minded people.

Let us not forget that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother gave their photographs to disciples for their spiritual help. Sri Aurobindo’s photograph was displayed in the Reception Room even in the thirties. It is in fact this photograph that Debashish is referring to, in front of which the sadhak was told not to put flowers. This should be understood in the sense that there should not be too much decoration around it to attract unnecessary public attention and not in the sense that the offering of flowers itself was considered as an unwanted religious ritual. The same kind of instructions were given by the Mother with regard to Sri Aurobindo’s Samadhi. Flowers on it were changed every day and a minimum of incense sticks lit, but coconut breaking was firmly disallowed. There is always a balance which the Mother struck between the external act and the inner spirit, which has actually been misinterpreted by both religious and anti-religious groups.

The anti-religious groups have sometimes taken the extreme attitude of disallowing all photographs in order to avoid ritualism, as if that would be more conducive to the inner life. In fact, one can argue that the worship of the formless can be as ritualistic as image worship. That division is already there in existing religions: the Muslims, for example, do not have any images or deities in their mosques. From a certain point of view, the meditation conducted in the Matrimandir can also be considered as a symbolic worship of the Divine, which in the future can become a ritual of its own kind. I hasten to correct the negative impression that I might have conveyed by my argument, for personally I have nothing but admiration for the Matrimandir and have passed some of the most delectable moments of my life in its meditation chamber. I had to resort to this extreme argument only to show that the usual Indian way of worship need not be necessarily ritualistic. Logic can work either way, it is the spirit behind the outward act that finally distinguishes what is true from what has become a mere ritual.

Debashish: Today, there is a certain kind of closed mind-set that has developed at large among many in the Sri Aurobindo community, a sense that they are the real repositories of the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and that they are the ones who define what it is all about and how it should be done. In fact the situation today, as far as I can see it, is that some people are redefining the yoga and to do this they need occasions like the one offered by the publication of Peter Heehs’ book.

I do not see how those who have “a closed mind-set that has developed among many in the Sri Aurobindo community” are “redefining the Yoga”. One the one hand, our learned bhadralok has said we “the fundamentalists” are stuck up with old rituals. On the other hand, he seems to be granting us the capacity to innovate and redefine Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga. Is this a compliment or criticism? I thought we only insisted upon time-tested methods of surrender, opening to the divine consciousness, not denigrating the Guru, etc., and definitely not changing the very basic principles of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga.

Debashish: And then, as far as Peter Heehs is concerned, there’s a long history. For many years he has been investigating Ashram mythologies – like the one which says that the Ashram is on the site of Rishi Agastya’s Ashram. And each time he has shown that a mythology is doubtful, he has punctured a little hole in the self-confidence of the group ego and so voices have been raised against him…I remember asking Nirodbaran about Peter and the Agastya issue and he said that there is a need for people like Peter in any spiritual community, because over time it is inevitable that mythologies will grow, people will create these increasingly exaggerated images of the divine guru, and some people have to keep this tendency in check.

The Agastya issue, by the way, was brought up by a French archeologist called Jouveau Dubreuil, and not by devotees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He came to the conclusion that Pondicherry was a centre of Vedic learning and that Rishi Agastya was associated with it. He concluded this on the basis of inscriptions found in a church on the Mission Street, which had originally been (or very near) the site of a temple which was destroyed by Dupleix, the French Governor, in 1748. There is sufficient historical evidence to suppose this was true. The evidence is necessarily sparse because it relates to Agastya’s coming to the south of India, the date of which is unfixable, but like many Indian myths, could have a corresponding historical reality. It should be noted that Sri Aurobindo himself discussed the historicity of Krishna while our “world-famous” historian Peter Heehs wrote that Krishna did not exist in the foreword of one of his compilations. Both spiritually and historically, Heehs has disappointed us.

Now it was Jouveau Dubreuil who told Nolini Kanto Gupta (of whom he was a close friend) that Agastya’s Ashram was on the very site of the present Ashram main building. Nolini Kanto Gupta merely repeated the story in an article and the story naturally caught on, given the association of Agastya’s Vedic learning with that of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga. George Vrekhem, in fact, writes in his excellent biography of Sri Aurobindo that he wished that the story were true. Dubreuil published his findings in Le Semeur, and not all these issues are available. These missing issues apart from the archaeologist’s own credentials (which are definitely more than that of Heehs) give us a hope that he may have written about it. And even if he may not have written, he may have orally conveyed it to Nolini on some solid basis, which he probably could not fully ascertain. As for Nolini himself, his accuracy in reporting is well-known to all who have worked with his manuscripts. Finally, according to the old maps of Pondicherry published recently by the French Institute, the Vedapuri temple associated with Rishi Agastya is only a few hundred metres away from the Ashram main building, which is pretty close for such an ancient event.

Debashish: Regarding the larger issue, I believe that both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother foresaw what is happening now in the Ashram. Towards the end of her life, Mother put a lot of attention on Auroville and perhaps one of the reasons why she insisted there should be no religion, no religious observances, in this new community is that she saw the cascading religiosity among many at the Ashram and she didn’t want the same mistake to be repeated in Auroville.

The Mother did not put a lot of attention on Auroville because she had lost hope on the Ashramites, though it is true that many of them could not rise up to her expectations. For that matter, Mother was also critical of Aurovillians in the early seventies. It only means that most of us are full of defects, that’s all. Debashish is trying to pit Auroville against the Ashram, which is plain divisive politics. The truth is that both are creations of the Mother (with Sri Aurobindo’s force behind it) and both have their respective roles to play. I quote from the Mother:

What is the difference between the Ashram and Auroville?

The Ashram will retain its true role of pioneer, inspirer and guide.
Auroville is the attempt towards collective realisation.

June 1968 (CWM, Volume 13, p 196)

AV: Are there tendencies to religiosity in Auroville as well?

Debashish: Yes, in certain areas this is happening. But these tendencies are still fluid, they are not grounded in the consciousness of the community in the same way as the insistence upon no religions. But when these tendencies are noticed, it’s important that they are brought to the front and dialogued about. Devotional attitudes and practices can very well be a part of spiritual practice, so long as they make no claim for exclusivity, or an attempt to define the yoga. An active field of dialogue can keep plural approaches to the same goal alive.

Aurovillians better be wary about taking advice from the SCIY group who keep condemning all those who disagree with them. The full implications of their philosophy or rather non-philosophy would be very harmful in the long run. No religion or beyond religion should not mean in the end no Yoga at all. But I suppose, only time and experience will show what is right and what is wrong and to what extent right or wrong. In any case, Yoga is not done through the dialogue of the ignorant but following rather the principles and methods of those who have attained the higher consciousness. For the present, it would be quite safe to found ourselves on the spiritual framework given to us by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, which is sufficiently wide to prevent rigidity, than break in a fit of intellectual stupidity the very foundation that they have laid for us with so much difficulty.

Raman Reddy

22 February 2010

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous comment:

    Dear Debashish-ji,

    Your dialogue so far on the PH issue smacks of partisanship and does not help much a seeker of Truth. Apropos your dialogue with Alan & Carel (of Auroville Today), yes, spirituality beyond religion is the way for humanity to realise the Truth in the world (visva-yoga). But Vedanta has always been there as a lighthouse for stumbling humanity. There is no question of anybody ‘redefining’ yoga but understanding yoga per se and pursuing it. The seed of Truth sown by the hands of the Supreme Reality has sprung up in the soil of Vedic and Upanishadic India -- in Pondicherry & Auroville and other places too beyond India; it shall grow up into a tree vast enough to embrace the whole earth. But men like PH with their so-called factual presentations play only devious roles in it and create divisions where there are actually none. Forces are at work pushing the bright and dark sides of reality, and what comes before one’s eyes cannot be all accepted on the basis of logic and argument, without any inner discrimination. PH would have benefited more had he authored his autobiography My Lives (title suggested) free from any archival support or controversy instead of touching upon Sri Aurobindo’s Lives, and your pain for his ostracism would not have been there. All would have then appreciated his honest self-expression in the autobiography. But he chose to write on Sri Aurobindo in the most unyogic manner and deceive the general public.