It has been a long time since the “No Religion” refrain in Ashram and especially in Auroville is becoming louder and louder to the extent of becoming “No Spirituality”. The cry against Religion has now become so belligerent that there seems to be no place left for spirituality, no place for devotion and reverence, no place for the aspiration of the soul, and finally no place for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother themselves. The reason that is promptly given is that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were themselves against the founding of a new Religion, and especially the Mother’s sharp remarks on Religion in the Agenda seemed to have sealed its fate for good, that is, if you believe in the Mother as the final authority in these matters, which ironically becomes again a sort of Religion. So you really cannot disprove Religion by quoting Mother if you adopt a religious attitude towards Mother herself! Either you throw the baby with the bathwater, that is, throw religion out of the window along with its founders, or accept what they say and try to understand the difference between spirituality and religion, and where exactly religion becomes spirituality or how spirituality deteriorates into religion. The problem then becomes complex and you begin to grasp the various nuances, and of course you can give a rational explanation to this highly emotive issue to diehard anti-religionists.
I can see the validity of the objection to rituals, conventions and traditions, but how do we know that they are merely rituals and conventions without any living truth behind them? For these very rituals and conventions were once and are perhaps even now living spiritual expressions that uplift the disciple and help him immensely in his spiritual practice. So when somebody protests vehemently against what are mostly harmless actions of devotees and disciples, such as praying at the Samadhi or bowing down in front of the photographs of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, I take it as reluctance to spiritual practice as such. It is not that he would like to practise spirituality in his own way (which he is free to do in any case), but that he does not want to practise spirituality at all, and that he would rather live the ordinary unrestrained life of the instincts because he is not yet ready for the spiritual or even moral discipline. Therefore his vehemence is actually directed against the discipline that he cannot follow rather than the rituals and ceremonies that are often mechanically performed. The anger at the ritual is only an excuse to declare the freedom of the vital to do anything it likes in the name of the New World, which has become a cliché long back. This is very obvious in Auroville. In the Ashram, it is catching up.
What is quite surprising is that the objection to religion is sometimes voiced by disciples who can themselves be accused of mindless rituals and ceremonies. For example, in the Ashram, it is amusing to often hear from long time inmates confident condemnations of other religious institutions, say the Tirupati Devasthanam or Kashi Vishwanath Temple. “All that is relijaan (with a long “a” in bad English)!” they would say with one big sweep of the hand.
You retort back, “But what about you? Yours is not a religion? How are you different from the devotees of Tirupati or Kashi Vishwanath?”
Ashramite: “We are different, because we have no rituaal (long “a” comes in invariably)!
“Is going to the Samadhi not a ritual? Going for meditation twice a week to the Playground is not a ritual?
Ashramite: “Going to Tirupati is a rituaal. Going to Samadhi is not a rituaal, because I feel something when I go to the Samadhi!
“And they don’t feel anything, those who go Tirupati or Kashi Vishwanath?
At this point, some clarity dawns in the Ashramite and he goes away muttering insults at you under his breath.
It is more difficult to convince Aurovillians that meditation at the Matrimandir can also become a ritual. It is true that there are no flowers or incense sticks, no deity or Guru, but there are symbols of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother built into the very design of Matrimandir. Beneath the crystal at the centre of the inner chamber is the Mother’s symbol and the crystal itself is supported by four symbols of Sri Aurobindo; also the twelve pillars in the Meditation Hall and the four ramps outside correspond to the twelve outer petals and the four inner petals respectively of the Mother’s symbol. What I mean is that despite the fabulous beauty and perfection of the Matrimandir, the meditation in the inner chamber can still become mechanical and boring, and after a time, artificial and ritualistic, because with the passage of time everything becomes old and customary. So finally it depends on the individual to make the outer action truly symbolic despite the arrival of crowds of curious visitors and an overwhelming number of devotees putting to test the physical infrastructure. All this to say that, next time, when you summarily accuse others of starting another religion, you better first check your own spiritual credentials!
As for me, I would rather be called a religious person, given the total misunderstanding that is being spread on religion. I will continue to (shamelessly) bow down and pray at the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, lay a flower on it and burn an incense stick with the idea of offering up my defects to the Divine, or sometimes even carry on the whole ceremony rather mechanically, because something always goes on at the back of my mind. Similarly, their photographs too represent for me a concentration of their force which I can draw upon for my spiritual sustenance day after day, month after month, year after year. The passage of time seems to hardly matter for this daily spiritual consecration for me and for millions of other Indians, whatever be their object of worship, be it Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, be it Shiva, Rama, Kali, or Ganesha or Murugan. Owners of clothe shops to car show rooms, managers of industrial units to construction companies, principals of schools and colleges, top nuclear scientists as well as humble bus drivers start their day in India with a prayer offered to this invisible presence which they believe in, no matter what leftist scholars think of them. In such an environment, what do you do when a few intellectual asses suddenly spring a surprise on you and say that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were against their own worship? Well, if they have quoted Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to justify their statement, I might as well cite the same source to counter it, and that is in fact the whole purpose of this little piece. I have written the above paragraphs only to contextualise the two quotations that follow.
Pranam in the Reception Hall
[of the Ashram Building]
It seems X has often criticised Y for sitting and doing pranam and meditation in the Reception Hall near the photographs. I do not understand this propaganda of X—does the Mother want him to do that?
It is X’s own idea. The only thing Mother insisted on is that the Reception Hall is primarily meant for visitors and at the time when visitors come sadhaks should not occupy the place or do meditation or pranam there. There has never been any restriction on meditation or pranam before our photographs as such — external worship was never forbidden. It is only a question of the place being kept mainly for its original purpose. Z had at one time almost occupied the place keeping some kind of mattress or something there and meditating for long periods — that was objected to certainly. Idolatry comes in only when the image pushes out the Person—there were one or two who said that for them that (the photograph there) was the Mother (more even than the living Person). There was a growing atmosphere of excess about all this and the Mother had to recall people to a sense of measure. That is all. But there is no prohibition of it on principle.
Sri Aurobindo 15 March 1935
(CWSA, The Mother with Letters on the Mother, p 568)
It should be noted that during this period Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were directly guiding the disciples of the Ashram. The disciples had a daily routine of meditation with the Mother followed by Pranam during which the disciple bowed down in front of her (without stiffening the back and feeling odd about it!) and the Mother blessed him on the head. There were Christians, Muslims and Parsees among the disciples and none of them thought that the Mother was succumbing to Hindu traditions.
This incident of the Mother not wanting the disciples to do Pranam before her and Sri Aurobindo’s photographs in the Reception Hall of the Ashram has been grossly misinterpreted by a couple of wiseacres. The actual reason for her objection was that the Reception Hall was meant for visitors to the Ashram and therefore it should be primarily kept for that purpose. The Mother’s objection was to the place and time rather than to the act of Pranam itself and sitting for meditation there. There was never “any restriction on meditation or pranam” before their photographs and “external worship was never forbidden”. Sri Aurobindo concludes with the sentence, “There was a growing atmosphere of excess about all this and the Mother had to recall people to a sense of measure.” This last remark of Sri Aurobindo is crucial in order to make the right distinction between religion and spirituality. The “atmosphere of excess... without any sense of measure” is what precisely makes the outer action religious. It is when “the form pushes out the Person” or when the form becomes more important than the spirit that the living spirit of adoration turns into a compulsive ritual.
Similar instructions were given by the Mother with regard to the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo. She never discouraged the disciples and devotees from bowing down at the Samadhi or decking it with flowers and lighting incense sticks. But she forbade what she thought was excessive in the Ashram context, such as the breaking of coconuts or the burning of camphor in front of the Samadhi. It is in this sense that religious activities were discouraged by the Mother, and not in the sense of proscribing all external gestures or actions that accompany the daily consecration to the Divine. In other words, it is when “the form prevails and the spirit recedes and diminishes” that spirituality declines into religion. I quote below the Mother’s instructions with regard to the Samadhi:
Note on the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo's body was laid to rest on 9th December 1950 at about 4.00 p.m. and the top slab was sealed with waterproof material and flowers were offered on the top.
The next day, 10th December 1950, early in the morning a number of Ashramites came and arranged flowers on the Samadhi. At that time the flower room was inside the Ashram (now Pujalal's room). Later, the flower room was shifted. As per The Mother's instruction, one agarbatti (incense stick) was kept burning throughout the day and night and I was given the work of purchasing agarbatti's from the market....
...after few days someone brought a coconut and broke it in front of the Samadhi. Immediately I reported it to The Mother. She told me to stop that saying, "I don't want religious activities here. You inform Reception Service." I immediately came down and stopped the person and told him not to repeat it, then informed the Reception Service of The Mother's words.
In the same way, after a few days, someone brought camphor and started burning it in front of the Samadhi. It was brought to The Mother's notice. The Mother said, "I don't want any fire here. Stop it. Only one agarbatti should burn day and night." I told the person and stopped it and informed the Reception Service. Since then both these things are stopped for good.
(Gangaram Malwade, Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (2008), Introduction)