There are many photographs of Mother, few of Sri Aurobindo.
When Cartier-Bresson photographed him in 1950 they were the first
photos taken of him for almost thirty years. This, of course, was
a result of Sri Aurobindo's decision to seclude himself to
concentrate upon bringing down the supermind.
One consequence of the
dearth of photographs is that Sri Aurobindo's image has tended to
be defined by how he appeared in those final portraits: exalted,
detached, Olympian. Even the liveliness of his correspondence and
later conversations as revealed by, among others, Amal Kiran and
Nirodbaran, has failed to supplant that magisterial image
-"Lonely his days and splendid like the sun" - which is
further reinforced by the uncanny resemblance between those final
photographs and traditional representations of God the Father in
Does this matter? Some
would argue that it is a positive advantage as it leads us to
approach him with the proper gravitas, reminding us of how much he
exceeds our understanding. Yet I believe there's a considerable
downside to this. For not only does it sell short his multi-facetedness
and the playful aspect of his nature, but it may also lead us to
view him as a 'singularity', untrammeled by the tides, emotions
and preoccupations of ordinary humanity and thus, perhaps, less
immediately relevant to lives lived under the shadow of a mortgage
or the break-up of a relationship.
If one adds to this
the difficulty even native English speakers have in understanding
his extended Latinate constructions and etymologically-derived
archaisms - to say nothing of the many-sidedness, subtlety and
depth of his thought - one can understand why Sri Aurobindo's
worldwide fan club is not exactly overpopulated.
"And a very good
thing", goes the orthodox response, "for he was quite
clear he was not interested in beginning any mass movement.
Moreover, those whom he calls will be lead to him by one means or
another, so we don't have to worry about making him better
known." Well, maybe. But, having used the same argument
myself, I'm aware it can also be used as a guise for lazy
thinking. The assumption, for example, that it's all taken care of
by a higher power so we don't need to do anything undervalues the
importance of each one of us as potential agents in the process.
If someone ends up in Auroville because he saw a photo of Sri
Aurobindo on the wall of a dusty teashop in Madhya Pradesh, it's
at least partly because somebody somewhere took the trouble of
putting an image of Sri Aurobindo on a calendar.
The whole issue of
communicating Sri Aurobindo and Mother to a wider audience is a
complex one. Mother herself made a careful distinction between
information and publicity.
not discriminate between the persons to whom one speaks. Publicity
means addressing a public which cannot understand.
What we try to
do is to carry the Light where it can be understood and received.
It is a question of discernment and choice. It is a question of
selection: not to spread the thing without discernment. It is to
choose which milieu, which people, which conditions can understand
and to act there only.
In publicity, to make the ideas comprehensible, one lowers them
while we keep our teachings at the height...The selection then
takes place of itself. It is the comprehension which makes the
Well and good.
However, such guidance appears to have been interpreted in a way
which may not have been exactly what Mother intended. For example,
the vast majority of books on Sri Aurobindo and Mother are overtly
devotional. This makes for a ready readership among devotees, but
tends to leave the uninitiated reader out in the cold,
contemplating a cozy club of believers warming their hands at the
fire of their faith.
In other words, there are no bridges, no ropes flung out to help
the inquisitive across the chasm of doubt. Instead they are
confronted with a host of cast-iron givens. Sri Aurobindo and
Mother are avatars. They are battling the hostile forces. They are
precipitating the next stage of human evolution. Take it or leave
Partly, no doubt, this
uncompromising approach is born of a wish to "keep our
teaching at the height". Hence the copious quotations. But
how to get non-devotees to the point where they want to read them?
Two bridges spring to
mind. The first is the use of language and forms which are more
immediately understandable by the modern reader. No doubt, the
primary texts will remain primary, irreplaceable. But it should be
possible to communicate something of their essence to readers
unfamiliar or uneasy with terms like 'the Divine', 'Supermind' and
'cellular transformation' without dilution or cheap popularisation.
A recent article in What is Enlightenment?, a U.S. magazine
is a case in point. Entitled "Why Sri Aurobindo is cool"
and catchily subtitled "Even dead gurus kick ass", it
conveys a surprising amount of information about Sri Aurobindo,
Mother and the descent of the supramental in language
understandable by members of even the hip-hop generation.
The second bridge is,
perhaps, more controversial. For it requires the writer about
Mother and Sri Aurobindo to bring themselves more completely into
the frame. Many of those who write about Sri Aurobindo and Mother
appear to have emerged from the womb as full-blown devotees. With
the possible exception of Satprem, there's never a moment of
doubt, never a questioning of the Masters, never a sense of the
writer being a three-dimensional being, someone who catches colds,
gets angry, frustrated, swears, falls down and makes a fool of
themselves, of someone who sometimes makes remarkable discoveries
in seemingly the most unpropitious of circumstances. When did you
last read of someone suddenly comprehending something about the
new consciousness while buttering toast, changing the baby's
diapers or even - God forbid - while making love?
Does this never
happen? Or, more likely, is it edited out as being somehow
illusory or unworthy of the great topic at hand? For here, I
suspect, we stumble upon a number of tacit yet seminal assumptions
made by writer-devotees, the most important of which is that only
Sri Aurobindo and Mother have had the major experiences of
transformative evolution. Secondly, and allied to this, is the
assumption that such experiences can only occur in the manner
already described by Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Nobody seems to
conceive of the possibility, for example, of a wino sleeping on
the banks of the Thames being brushed by the wing of the new
But exactly why does
this sound so outrageous? Partly it's because it's almost
impossible, given Sri Aurobindo's and Mother's descriptions of the
enormous travails they had to undergo, to imagine ordinary mortals
stumbling upon even the hem of the supermind as if by chance. Yet
Mother has pointed out that the new force is now permeating
everything, everywhere, and that its future working is
unpredictable (she herself was surprised by hearing of the
experiences of 'quite ordinary' people which were similar to her
own). But there's another reason why I think it's difficult for
many sadhaks to conceive of 'ordinary' people being in some way
involved in the transformative yoga. And that is because, I
suspect, there is an enormous yet unacknowledged element of
elitism in this yoga, reflected in a feeling that we are the
chosen few, that the yoga is not meant for the masses and that
here (the Ashram or Auroville) is the only place it's happening
and will happen.
You know, we may just
be in for a big surprise...