A Prefatory Note: The subtitle of this piece would certainly recall the famed theoretical essay of the same name on the rhetoric of contemporary criticism by the American critic Paul de Man. However what follows is far from any hermeneutical exegesis or any interrogation into the protean fields of theory and counter-theory even in the Indian context. My intentions are merely only to gather together the con/text(s) of the Aurobindian texts as not-read by the ardent devotees, or on the other hand explicated by self-styled scholars and their collective blindness which could hamper any serious “reading” or “interpretative essay”. Even introspection is stilled into submission and converted into being mere un-self-reflective survey. Sri Aurobindo needs to be read and those possibilities of reading never should be taken for granted. No amount of prescription could lead one to the truth of the text. All reading calls for a verification of the text against oneself and other texts.

This is an initial outline for perspective and should not be misjudged as a finality: that would amount to mistaking the map for the territory.

For the ardent devotee who casually or intentionally visits the Sri Aurobindo Ashram the works of Sri Aurobindo appear as manna from heaven to be lapped up unhesitatingly and perhaps later conveniently forgotten during the demands and involvements of other things.  He or she may pick up these works ranging from political treatises through philosophical speculations, to poetry and interpretative spiritual ideologies, and often browse through them as desired or directed by another friend or devotee and pass on. And but for the increasing number of interested tourists and inquiring novices the serious preoccupations of the Ashram and the larger discourses that have evolved round the significant works of Sri Aurobindo would have remained largely unnoticed. That there is an increasing traffic drawn toward his notion of man-making and his own version of evolving spirituality certainly speaks volumes for the significance of Sri Aurobindo in the present.  Nevertheless the question remains: how is he to be read, and what are the larger issues which still cling on to his discourses which might go to hamper the quality of understanding or even further the process of spiritual enlightenment and reasoning?  How is he to be read in the light of new emergent philosophies and theoretical engagements in an ever-changing and complex intellectual present? Of course another significant question also surfaces side by side: why go to all these needless mind games, why not simply read him as many have always conveniently read him and allow the inner amplification of his own vision to do the other tasks? For the simple-minded this last option should certainly be enough but for the ardent seeker there is indeed a whole array of interrogations ensuing from an intense reading of Sri Aurobindo’s version of spirituality.

Let us take these issues one by one.  Because for the unquestioning reader nothing actually matters we will leave such a reader to his/her own fate. The situation of the inquisitive reader could be generally seen under two heads: those who have read only the works of Sri Aurobindo for the most and are drawn into his amazing vortex through and through, on account of the innumerable disciples and their coteries; and second, those who have read and assimilated a number of “other” stuff and are gravitating toward the master’s superior brand of spirituality armed with queries and questions galore. Reading and re-reading Sri Aurobindo’s own works for them then would be an act of enlightenment, and the second category of inquisitive readers would go on asking questions just like those early generation of ardent devotees who had the great fortune of the proximity of the master himself and his own direct presence in the answers delivered to them even otherwise.

Sri Aurobindo’s works are indeed like a gold mine and they appear then as being endless and pure, exciting to the core. The delight is also equally endless. Little doubt that, however, unconditional swallowing of a text without placing it in a clear perspective or clarifying its various aspects critically amounts to no reading at all.

In fact, as the master himself points out, either the absence of a critical insight or the lack of inward vision would result in simple veneration or drastic dismissal.  This also brings us to the situation of the self-styled unbeliever who dismisses the entire oeuvre of Sri Aurobindo as crass non-sense significantly because they are the products of a different generation, belong to a different order of discourse, and they revolve around spirituality which is decried in an age of commercial capitalism and market economy.  To corroborate their dismissal they would also draw parallels with the simple-minded consumer mentioned earlier who claims to be “illuminated” and “blessed” on simply visiting the Ashram at Pondicherry, praying for a few hours at the Samadhi, or elsewhere, and browsing through a book or two from off the shelves.  There are of course innumerable poetasters also who read and “interpret” Sri Aurobindo in order to pick holes in his arguments and proffer them as critical interpretations! They hardly matter in the long run. Spirituality and critical enterprise sometimes appears to run counter too. How does one resolve these issues?

Now to return to the inquisitive reader. The works of Sri Aurobindo—the texts as we have them now—are increasing by the day, on account of the archival research that goes into it. The secondary or interpretative scholarship also is increasing alongside. There are also enterprising scholars who engage with the works of Sri Aurobindo for securing a PhD degree for themselves. Many of them stray into the master’s works for want of anything else or simply on account of writing on an Indian author in English (the resource materials are also fairly vast indeed!) The range of Sri Aurobindo is such that he could satisfy any scholar in almost any field whatsoever. So then sociologists, historians, philosophers, literary theorists, psychologists, anthropologists, cultural theorists, Sanskriticians, Indic scholars, life scientists, cultural geographers—you name it, they are all there! There is nothing wrong, sinful, or clever about exposing the works of Sri Aurobindo to the inquiries of different disciplinary methodologies.  This goes to prove the inexhaustibility of Sri Aurobindo’s scholarship and contribution.  But the moment some too enterprising devotee steps in and cautions the “unwary” and the “radical” thinker of stepping into mined territory, Sri Aurobindo scholarship suffers unduly.

For the most, even among those so called self-styled scholarly inquires into Sri Aurobindo one finds little or no scholarship apart from what gets reflected from the master’s own skill and vision. I would like to classify these sorts of forays in general into two sets:  as mere descriptive essays, and interpretative monographs. The first type usually ends up quoting Sri Aurobindo in large chunks and leaving the quotes as self-explanatory. The examiners also would find it easy to sanction degrees and diplomas to these “devotional” scholars and their dissertations unquestioningly. The second type would bring in some comparative elements quite tentatively and with great care for fear of crushing the master’s words (quite unwarranted, no doubt!) and make sure that Sri Aurobindo’s position is uniquely preserved even in the course of the textual arguments. These self-styled scholars then parade as arch Aurobindonians never ever casting a single glance at either Sri Aurobindo’s works or their own (mis)readings ever afterwards.

Sri Aurobindo might be his own interpreter or rather his works could stand testimony to their own insights—but scholarship is indeed something more demanding than submissive commentaries, surreptitious asides, or supportive descriptions.  Considering the fact that Sri Aurobindo himself was a master at critical thinking and encouraged anyone who came under his spell to further the intellectual realm, these self-professed Aurobindonians are wont to cause more damage than necessary. Sri Aurobindo certainly is a demanding intellectual, a radical mystic, who needs to be taken a little more seriously rather than left to defend himself in these so-called critical dissertations which are nowhere near to what he himself would have acceded to.

Over the last four decades after the birth centenary volumes (SABCL) were released, scholarship in and around Sri Aurobindo studies have certainly increased many folds.  However, I am yet to come across evidences of critical writing of the level of a Sisir Kumar Ghose or a K D Sethna or a Srinivasa Iyengar. I, for one, had the good fortune as a young research scholar in the eighties to interact in person with these extraordinary giants in the field of Sri Aurobindo scholarship. K D Sethna impressed me with his amazingly broad sweep of influences and perspicacious brain. He never let go of his reading even after he came to settle in the precincts of the Ashram. Sisir Kumar Ghose on the other hand was a sort of peripatetic scholar who gravitated to Sri Aurobindo after a considerable stint with Alduous Huxley and later at Shantiniketan with the Gurudev. My conversations with him reminded me of dialogues with Aristotle or Coleridge or Harold Bloom. Srinivasa Iyengar had read researched and taught English literature before coming under the blinding light of Sri Aurobindo. His monumental biography is a piece of well-researched work that proffers a no-nonsense background to Sri Aurobindo studies. Above all this soft-spoken academic was as erudite as ever on several levels at the same time. What mattered in the case of these three early intellectuals and academics were that they kept a steady head in the face of critical inquiry. Sethna moved among the works of Sri Aurobindo with the eye of a classical scholar, Iyengar read and argued with the tenor of a comparatist, and Ghose brought metaesthetic dimensions to the entire discourse. Granted Sri Aurobindo is a visionary who sought yogic sanction in all his pursuits and thereby it might be mandatory for an equally ardent follower to practice yoga rather than intellectually engage with his teaching in order to reach that spiritual realization which the less-fortunate scholar might only cerebrally conceive.  So then, we need to keep in mind the fact that there are these two broad segments—the simple minded devotee and the inquiring scholar.  Four decades of Sri Aurobindo scholarship had produced perhaps a mere handful of significant works, free from mere rehash or simple citation, and even less genuinely concerned scholars.

As we have seen one of the biggest impediments in Sri Aurobindo scholarship had been the fact that the master’s words themselves have been the most adequate explication of his vision. All one had to do was to put one’s hand into the complete works or whatever, and pull out the gold vein—the rest will follow suit. For the unwary, no interpretation, no critical inquiry, no comparative reasoning—all it requires is the setting up of a string of citations and quotations, and parade them as one’s own finding! How embarrassing! How unethical!  The early scholars had their job well cut out—they had to read and interpret Sri Aurobindo in the light of critical and clearheaded thinking.  The later scholars follow suit—the difference being the significant lack of critical reasoning. In Tamil they speak of grinding the already ground dough—in similar scale Aurobindo scholarship has deteriorated to mere rehash and thus lifeless and practically dead.

Citing the master’s words themselves is one thing, but allowing someone else to speak on his behalf is another. For those schooled in English writing Iyengar and Sethna appear to offer the ultimate, and A.B Purani and sometimes Nolini Kanta Gupta, or Prema Nandakumar, could casually get thrown in. The worst form of torture is when some “spinelessly insightless” critics are paraded as having said this or written that when all they had done would have been to draw extensively from Sri Aurobindo’s own writings.  Isn’t it silly and insipid to claim that one has quoted the master at length and thus arrived at academic Nirvana?   Isn’t it even more sillier and stupider to cite such rehashed chunks as corroborative evidence? Perspicacious readers like Sisir Kumar Ghose, Sethna, and Prema Nandakumar would have spent sumptuous hours battling with the master’s words racking their brains out before making themselves bold enough for borrowing those as evidences of what they want to establish. When seen along the likes of Homer and Dante and Shakespeare if Sri Aurobindo’s poetry holds up on its own then certainly it is worth perusing.   When compared and contrasted with a volley of writers and intellectuals who had lived alongside him Sri Aurobindo’s works are worth enquiring into, that should give us enough reason for delving in on our own.  Either way mere rehash or sheer quotation should never compensate for direct encounter and inquiry.  Political thought and action, historical reasoning and interpretation, philological exegesis and practice, philosophical inquiry and spiritual exploration, poetics and textual interpretation are all the characteristic strengths of Sri Aurobindo the visionary, and to neglect these in favour of citing someone who has merely lifted the masters own words as an authority, is to turn a blind eye to that critical inquiry which Sri Aurobindo himself stood for always. Of course it is not for all and sundry to interpret for oneself – that is a demanding task even for the demigods!

This brings me to the crux of my arguments: blindness, insight, outlook and finally a holistic perspective.  In the early eighties when I was taking up my studies on Sri Aurobindo, CD Narasimhaiah, the doyen of Indian English scholars who established a unique centre for indigenous research in what came to be identified as postcolonial studies later (Dhvanyaloka, in Mysore) asked me quite derisively if I could cite some instances of poetry in the entire oeuvre of Sri Aurobindo. He himself had been brought up under the long shadow of New Criticism having studied at Cambridge with F.R Leavis and other eminent scholars of his times, and wont to question everything from the point of view of form narrative and practice. I had to resort to several instances from the poetry of Sri Aurobindo in order to convince the eminent professor that there could be other levels of poetry as different from the Eurocentric that he was quite familiar with.  Such was the leniency of scholarship that resided in CDN that he was willing to listen and comprehend from a younger scholar—and accept many things which he would later argue about! Sri Aurobindo’s poetry we had come to realize by then had another level that required a different set of responses. Later CDN would write of Savitri, “if poetry is a mode of meditation, dhyanamantra you would find it here” (CDN, 1987)  What Sri Aurobindo’s works demanded for a clearer appreciation was an approach that was non-Eurocentric and at the same time a little different from that prevalent in those times. And only those among the innumerable self-styled arch-defenders of an overtly Indian perspective who could evolve an outlook that deviated from the dominant modernist vision could gather the required sensibility for responding to his works. While poets as different in outlook as Kathleen Raine and V K Gokak could read new lines and evolving directions in Sri Aurobindo, Indian modernists like P Lal and Nissim Ezekiel dismissed his work as derivative and deplorable. The issue then would certainly have been not the text of Sri Aurobindo but the contexts in which they were hyped and re-presented by the discourse of the spiritual which had by then overtaken and wrapped up the works themselves. New Indian sensibilities demanded the shedding of all that was debilitating and undermining, and the over dramatization of the spiritual in all its ignorance by the non-initiated led to the growing intolerance of the ostensible ornamentation of all that metaphysical stuff of unreason. The tremendous impact of west-centric modernist discourses wiped out whatever indigenous sensibilities still residually clung to the Indian mind. All reading was modified under the light of new scholarship, under new reason.

Blindness resulted. The Ashram and his followers were closing down. After the great dawn of awakening that came to be recognized as the Indian Renaissance which never took off afterwards and was never even allowed to come to its logical conclusion, a great night of insensitivity descended. Scholarship in Sri Aurobindo studies came to mean only those sanctioned by the devout and the so-called saintly. The scribbles from the margin and from other discourses were silenced under the great arch of the Aurobindonians that was built of solid rock and guaranteed the faithful salvation and nirvana while the unfaithful rampaged on the outskirts as academics and intellectuals, forever kept away from following the silent pilgrim into the interior of supramental manifestation.

The film maker John Abraham a long time ago in a jovial mood told me that he had once explored the possibility of working on a documentary on Sri Aurobindo. After days of shooting in and around the Ashram in Pondicherry he moved over back home to the studio to develop the rushes of the film (remember those were good old days of the non-digital films!)  Alas to his dismay he found all that he had shot had been overexposed in the “supramental glare of the Maharishi.”

These are of course apocryphal, however, they lead us into the heart of what matters. The discourses that have crystallized around the work of Sri Aurobindo demarcated territories of reverence and desecration. As the poet had phrased it: The death of the poet was kept from his poems… (and) …the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living. The works of Sri Aurobindo survived like Ishmael alone to tell the tale. They needed to be critically engaged with and their “truth” inquired into. But the first step in that direction had to be taken in the dark under the blinding light of the supramental! Well, too much of the sun can cause our too fragile sensibilities to warp and burn out. The followers of Sri Aurobindo’s brand of spirituality rose and fell with the tide and turn of birthdays and darshan days schooled and tutored under scrupulous Gurus who interpreted the master’s words suitably to the uninitiated. All that happened was a mere rehash of the words of the dead man. They were not allowed to germinate in the guts of the living for fear of the legendary doubts.

When someone speaks out there is a natural tendency to turn the blind eye. What is already known is always most welcome and what is interrogated and unearthed causes disturbances and so is neglected as irrelevant. The generally agreeable was the generally enjoyable. Insight was a laborious process that led to nowhere in particular.

Scholarship in Sri Aurobindo studies thus far had taken these directions: interpretative in terms of select texts and discourses specifically recoursing to acceptable readings. Comparatist perceptions like those afforded by Prema Nandakumar or Rhoda P LeCocq or Harold Coward had endeavoured to open up new directions in critical thinking but did not sustain sufficient support afterwards from elsewhere.  Manoj Das, Rohit Mehta, Haridas Chaudhuri and Kishore Gandhi sought higher correspondences from Indic and non-Eurocentric directions, but the foundations they built up were rehashed by the next generation of scholars as dissertations and newer studies. The early generation of scholars had the guts to make new inroads while the later generation felt comfortable in sticking to the known and the predictable. There is an Arabian proverb that goes like this: Traveller, there is no path; paths are made by walking.  Now to break new wood one has to await the strayed reveler. However, the strangeness of the territory is such that even the castaways are camouflaged and submerged. In this mire of the spiritual to build a fire one needed to get away first. All fires have died out.

The living spirit of inquiry that Sri Aurobindo so carefully preserved and cultivated appears to be misplaced. Vision, experiment and experience had been the catch words of the master both in his creative writing as well as in his philosophical inquiry (he was equally creative in both realms). But the quality of experimentation has begun to ebb away and along with it that special insight which is the inward eye of the initiate.

Sri Aurobindo states:

I had no urge toward spirituality in me, I developed spirituality. I was incapable of understanding metaphysics, I developed into a philosopher. I had no eye for painting — I developed it by Yoga. I transformed my nature from what it was to what it was not. I did it by a special manner, not by a miracle and I did it to show what could be done and how it could be done. I did not do it out of any personal necessity of my own or by a miracle without any process. I say that if it is not so, then my Yoga is useless and my life was a mistake — a mere absurd freak of Nature without meaning or consequence. You all seem to think it a great compliment to me to say that what I have done has no meaning for anybody except myself — it is the most damaging criticism on my work that could be made. I also did not do it by myself, if you mean by myself the Aurobindo that was. He did it by the help of Krishna and the Divine Shakti. I had help from human sources also.

ON Himself:p.148-9 (13-2-1935)

It was not any such thing [about the intellect] before I started the Yoga. I started the Yoga in 1904 and all my work except some poetry was done afterwards. Moreover, my intelligence was inborn and so far as it grew before the Yoga, it was not by training but by a wide haphazard activity developing ideas from all things read, seen or experienced.

Ibid, p.222 (13-11-1936)

The genuineness of the man and his single minded commitment are so superhuman that we have hard time considering that Sri Aurobindo was human after all. Anything that appears to call for a little more effort than was normal we humans ascribe to the divine and thus turn our blind spots into auras of admiration and adoration. This is nothing but sheer marginalization and isolation of the more enterprising among us. History reveals what we humans have done to such greats almost at all times irrespective of geography and culture. Thus what we achieve by our blindness is loss of insight and that profounder perception—that will to achieve.

However, as Sri Aurobindo asserts:

Impossible is our mask of things to be

Mortal the road to immortality.  (Sonnets from Manuscripts, c. 1934 – 1947)

We have identified several overlapping circles of discourse here. The primary one is that aura of Supermind which may or may not have descended. There are those determined disciples who would love to hang on to the nebulous godhead that lies like a nimbus round Sri Aurobindo. There remains little doubt that he was a guru of extraordinary powers and will. Few people have achieved what he did in his time. But disability to engage intellectually with his works amounts to indifference and insensitivity to the higher demands of spirituality. What he achieved was definitely through a solemn struggle—a product of cultural history that he himself was. The secondary factor which is no less significant is the one of his textual works which are also thereby clouded by “faith” and “belief” on one side and there by placed in a unique position of unquestionable authority.  On the other side as we have seen they inculcate blindness. Sanctified by the establishment of devoted believers whatever goes for interpretation is mere rehash of his own words. Any efforts toward a critical vision or any element of debate and interrogation is viewed with sheer culpability and thereby corruption of the devotee’s mind. Many are the ardent devotees who flock to the works of this supreme master of Yoga–they genuinely seek solace and comfort from the travails and traumas of this world. Several are the seekers who do indeed find their desired peace. They do not wish to be disturbed. They are blissful and at peace. Let us leave them to their own fate. Then there are these arch critics of Sri Aurobindo who target his works and the entire discourse that has sprung around the ashram and mock and deride the devout followers: for them this collective act of worship around tombs and samadhis appears silly and absurd. Their prejudiced eyes and biased visions proffer them only darkness and murk. They are thus innately blind. Let us leave them also to their sorry fates. He doesn’t need us to defend him from the bulldozers of mockery and derision. His was a passion for the infinite and the beyond.

But there is an element of struggle and quest in Sri Aurobindo’s works which need to be taken quite seriously indeed. As we saw earlier he was a product of his times and the cultural and intellectual context of his becoming are there for us as leads to his process of thought and the formulation of his philosophy. We have to recognize that Sri Aurobindo was an intellectual and a philosopher—his works and words are ample evidences for this view. He was a poet and essentially one as he himself has vouched. In fact as I have argued elsewhere his system of belief can be understood and resolved only as an aesthetic circuit with the human seeker on one end and the God head of the Spirit at the other end.  So then this system would also require to be seen in the light of cultural and historical scholarship. Sri Aurobindo’s life that is often recognized by many scholars as falling into three distinct phases begins with his European exposure and return to India and his political involvements leading finally to the withdrawn life of a seeker in Pondicherry. In all these three phases he had to encounter forces of decadence and degeneracy.

Let us take them one by one. His early upbringing by an anglophile father led to his over exposure to the aftereffects of the enlightenment rationality and an Anglo-Germanic philological heritage. His return to India was marked by a nagging self-doubt and an eagerness to identify with his non-Eurocentric self.  This search for identity can be seen in his early political writing—the plethora of linguistic and cultural contexts that were reeling under a unifying colonial yoke afforded him the perspective toward a holistic synthesis, which leaves in itself a Hegelian trace. He was an activist and sought direct confrontation with the authority of the establishment. There are interesting exchanges between Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi. Sri Aurobindo’s withdrawal into French Pondicherry after his activist political stint reveals his desire for a synthesis of the intellect and the all enfolding spirit. He could envision the larger framework of cosmic action wherein the smallness and pettiness of little minds petered into insignificance. He was single minded in his pursuit of the spirit and a holistic transformation was his genuine desire. He was like the Buddha in that not until all life was on its way to be transformed will he let go, and individual nirvanas meant little for him. He devised a philosophy of spirituality and also evolved a map for the initiate to follow suit. The discourse that evolved later around all these contours is even now hanging like a smoke screen and his individual intellectual trajectory is almost already well lost. Much like an Upanishadic seer that he was, he insisted his followers to engage with their own yogic experiences as he himself had done. He had of course many sides to his personality: the political thinker, the activist, the seeker, the yogi, the philosopher and the poet.  Whatever preoccupations he went through he never let go of the last—that of the poet.  Poetry afforded him the unique blending of inspiration and expression. The search for the mantra or that perfect unison of sabda and artha, sound and sense meant the quest for the ultimate unison of inspiration (vision) and expression (word).  I used Savitri as means of ascension he wrote in a letter.

I used Savitri as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level… In fact Savitri has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s own yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative” Letters on Savitri

He wrote and reworked on the Savitri manuscript till his passing—the first canto alone had undergone thirteen revisions. Poetry for him worked as an index of the evolving human consciousness. His works are thus to be seen as maps of spiritual reading. To read them as holy words of the master is to behold their outer skeletal structure and like holding on to the shells of meaning. Let those ardent devotees clutch them for what they are worth but the master himself would have avowed that the not-so-simple minded at least trudge the narrow road of spiritual seeking and not be left in the blind alleys of adulation. Perhaps one of the major reasons for the intellectual stasis that is profoundly felt in the Sri Aurobindo circles today is on account of this blindness that withholds any possible insight. For the literary minded there is virtually god’s plenty in Sri Aurobindo’s works to spur them into comparative discussions and interrogations. For the philosophically inclined Sri Aurobinod has carved out new and newer niches of trajectories to be explored. For the spiritual minded the Integral Yoga that he has so painfully evolved in his own spiritual quest marked by eclecticism is left to be experimented upon and explored further.

Kishore Gandhi had experimented with the ideas of spiritual evolution in his works very much like the author of Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness.  KD Sethna had ushered in comparative scholarship through his vast reading and Ghose had made new inroads with his metaesthetic. He had also drawn attention to the repeated misuse of the high-sounding Aurbindonian as an adjective and even suggested Aurobindian as a more modest alternate term instead. Haridas Chaudhuri and Frederic Spiegelberg tendered a forum for a dialogue and a symposium. Even in my own modest early book, The Mantra of Vision, I had attempted a holistic vision of the master Yogi and his creative work from an Indian perspective. Even in my later essay, entitled “Towards a Spiritual Aesthetics of the Environment: Quality, Space, and Being in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri,” published in the US based journal, ISLE Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment Vol. 18. Issue 2 (Spring 2011) pp. 302-322—I had visualized a unique perspective in terms of ecological dimensions and thus pioneered a new dimension in Sri Aurobindo criticism. In Savitri Bhavan, the poet and visionary Shraddhavan appears to have given a new direction to re-reading Sri Aurobindo while in the collective enterprise of SACAR under the direction of Ananda Reddy, serious interest in Sri Aurobindo scholarship appears to be flourishing. Their occasional seminars and workshops favour some sort of self-reflexivity. Many years ago Sreenivasa Iyengar and Prema Nandakumar had set Sri Aurobindo’s writing in the intellectual perspective and larger framework of Indian writing in English to be explored and furthered by the next generation of scholars. Alas, the genuine scholar like the genuine devotee is a far cry in the present. Our times are marked by amazing changes and advancement in science and technology, the world we live in the present is definitely much more “advanced” than the times of Sri Aurobindo when the imperial and colonial forces held potent and powerful sway over all and everything. The market economy of the capitalist present and its itinerant scholarship grounded on claims to information that is universally accessible have blinded the already blind human eye further. The dismissal and de-valuation of metanarratives of the last century have laid claim to a territory of panoramic ignorance.  Knowledge is doubted and wisdom is sidelined. Information has risen to the centre stage. And ignorance is prided as wisdom it has indeed become folly to be wise and remain so. Had he lived on beyond his times, Sri Aurobindo would have charted out new directions in the present. He would have been like the child in the story yelling out that the emperor is truly naked. However, his residual presence and urgency of intellectual inquiry have been erased and silenced. His works are rehashed and his words echo down the long corridor of forgotten memory and a misplaced past.  Nevertheless, the eternal eye that would have led the inquirer forward is not yet completely closed though. There is a tiny fraction of opening. So then all is not yet lost. What is required is a critical temperament and a truth-seeking perspective that would not wither in the face of opposition and inclement weather—an outlook that does not succumb to the comfort and convenience of the commonplace and the mediocrity. The grand narratives of yesteryears might be ignored by the postmodern present that prides in the here and now, however, profound questions relating to truth and meaning, the nexus of mind and matter, the interrelationship of nature and human nature, are bound to be tenaciously pursued by those minorities who chance to reflect on their own selves and identities. Perhaps, then, like in the Dantesque vision there would arise the spirit of the master himself to lead the genuine seeker even through Inferno and Purgatory to Paradiso. Sri Aurobindo realized early enough that his was a superhuman struggle, to redeem the true spiritual identity of all human kind, he also realized that he had to explore his own inner self continuously and ceaselessly in order to chart out his map for generations to follow suit. His works are genuine asseverations of both these aspects. For the convenience of the present day scholarship he genially assents to being ripped apart as a poet, a philosopher, a political and social thinker, a man of Indian Renaissance, a spiritual yogi who chartered the direct pathway for the divinization of the human being, and a literary critic. In the contexts of contemporary criticism this could be termed as dismemberment and dehumanization because the organic unity of the man and his work is dislocated. What usually happens when such piecemeal readings are indulged in is that sloppy mis-readings are flaunted as original findings!  Believe me, there are research scholars who bring up amazingly imaginative topics like Sri Aurobindo and Paulo Coelho, simply because they find that the latter speaks about the mystical, and magical. There are others who lapse into “spiritualism” without even recognizing the terminological distinctions of the term or its historical connotations. For the unwary, magic, meta-magical themes, mysticism and spirituality are just terms which are mutually interchangeable. The true spirit of critical enquiry has petered into shallow and superficial research—the requirements of the present also appear to be thus merely skin-deep. Now, like HG Wells’s tale of the valley of the blind, all of us are made to believe that to be blind is truly natural and thus made to turn quizzically toward one suitably endowed with sight and vision. Whither is sped the visionary gleam? Where is it, the glory and the dream?  

In one of his remarkable poems Sri Aurobindo has written:

Who was it that came to me in a boat made of dream-fire,

With his flame brow and his sun-gold body?

Melted was the silence into a sweet secret murmur,

“Do you come now? Is the heart’s fire ready?”

Hidden in the recesses of the heart something shuddered,

It recalled all that the life’s joy cherished,

Imaged the felicity it must leave lost forever,

And the boat passed and the gold god vanished.

Now within the hollowness of the world’s breast inhabits –

For the love died and the old joy ended –

Void of a felicity that has fled, gone forever,

And the gold god and the dream boat come not.

                                                The Dream Boat 1930, revised 1942

Is it too much to ask to keep the heart’s fire ready to be able to greet the dream boat? But first we need the strength enough to dream and to recognize the boat as it comes in to our sight. Having misplaced it we end up dancing absurdly round in circles. The simpleminded get saturated with contentment and become complacent. Once our outlook gets changed and our doors of perception are cleansed the voice of Sri Aurobindo would reach us clear and undisturbed. And the seeker in us will be awakened to pursue that action from where we left off. .



I am thankful to Sri Ananda Reddy of SACAR for having gone through the earliest version of this essay and made insightful comments.  I also thank Sri Arup Basu, editor of Shraddha Journal from Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata, for including it in Vol. V No 1, 15th August 2013. This article is open to suggestions and comments: readers are welcome to email me with the title on subject line.

An Afterward to Poetry (From The East Facing Shop and other poems,2010)

It is seldom that the poet or artist feels happy at having accomplished something of worth after signing off a work of art—the feeling of having dashed off in haste something that needed to be cherished and savoured and pruned and reworked is a feeling that most would share, afterwards. After all, why do we write or paint at all? Who, if I cry, would hear me among the angelic orders? wrote Rilke in his Duino Elegies so many years ago. All efforts at the finer arts are doomed to end in despondency and sorrow. The art of poeisie is no different. All it serves is to leave behind that immense hollow, that infinite dread, that magnificent sense of the tragic. Words, images, or lines are indeed absences, traces of vague desires and hopes, of laughter and tears, of someone living in the streets of perennial faith under the unfriendliest of skies. And yet we poets hold on to this deceptive art of meaning-making. Delighting and relishing the touch of word with sense, quarrelling with the noun and verb for whatever it is worth, mixing adjectives with the sorrows and indifference of our own times. There are mango trees that flower when the biologist desires them to, tigers, lions and elephants would soon be museum pieces roaring and shrieking at the simple touch of a button, tiny, miniature cows would provide the same quantity of milk that normal cows would give after they are remade—everything, we men have always wanted to play with can be ordered, including a maid-to-order. The poet gasps at the wonder world of biotechnology and cybernetics and nanotechnology. Astronomy can soon penetrate to the other end of the multiverse; geologists and paleontologists have dug through and through the earth that a child from Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu could soon emerge on the other side of the deep hole in Buenos Aires. We have stashed explosives to blow the earth nine-times over, even if poor dharitri is like the fabled cat with nine lives! Each day brings us only news of disaster for someone somewhere—news papers and television apparently have so little to show of joy and cheer. We even warn our children not to befriend strangers or to pick up any toy in the streets or public places. No temple or church or mosque or synagogue or gurudwara or even a vihara is safe for the silent pilgrim anymore. We have so successfully managed to sow the seeds of disaster and calamity amidst our earthly spaces. Where is the silence we sense when we split the sesame seed? Where is the tang and taste of unripe mangoes that leave no trace? Where is the earthy brown of the tamarind fruit? Where is the makolam that decorates the portals of our finite destinies? And yet the poet and artist fiddles around with words and images. With emptiness for company in the darkness at noon. Which side of happiness are we? Each page written, each line drawn is an anguished scream languishing and wearying through memory and hope. All poems are doomed to remain incomplete. Each word is a silent searching for the other. Only the longing remains amidst the slashes, gaps and semicolons. That longing for more.


(From The East-facing Shop and Other Poems)



Nature without Borders

Recognising the interlink between culture and conservation


Book Review in the Hindu dated 20th January 2015

NATURE WITHOUT BORDERS: Edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, M.D. Madhusudan, Ghazala Shahabuddin; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/14, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.

Nature is apparently quite simple and at the same time equally complex. To understand the way everything works is generally to recognize the interconnectedness of everything and also to realize the limitlessness of all that is natural. These days, public debates are quite rampant on issues relating to global warming and environmental degradation and the need and necessity to conserve and preserve whatever is left of biological diversity. And so rife are issues in terms of defining and redefining Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) on account of the inordinate deterioration of the human-nature frontier in hitherto unprecedented ways — the urgency for understanding ecological structure and function has never been so thus imminent in order to plan for a safe present and future for all life. Nature without Borders is certainly timely and relevant.

We read that just by maintaining green pockets or isolated reserves humans cannot forever maintain the ecological process and functions that are at the core of the ecosystem and thus forestall environmental disasters, for it is virtually impossible to enclose nature within any boundaries. It is only by inquiring into ecology, economics, and culture and by asking how they are interwoven that now we can move on ahead. The editors of Nature without Borders argue for acknowledging and reviewing those larger matrices which are as critical as corridors or core habitats.

Eight essays prefaced by a substantial introduction comprise the book under review. Shifting through time and space the essays deal with human-nature nexus in complex terrains across snow-clad mountains and deep jungles as well as through pastures, farmlands and urban spaces. Black sheep, grey wolf, Sarus cranes, marine life forms, fish, dolphins, and the elusive Snow Leopard all figure in the pages of this impressive collection of seminal articles.

In their study on trawling and fishing the authors draw attention to the inordinate squandering of marine life through the intervention of today’s technology. Although known marine extinctions are far fewer than terrestrial ones, extensive commercial fishing has led to the collapse of about a thousand populations that once supplied the world’s seafood.

The Sarus Crane is a six-foot tall majestic bird that is globally threatened, found largely in the rice-wheat landscape of the Gangetic floodplains of North India. And the essay that deals with this bird and its environment pleads for an integrated awareness of cultivation and conservation. The large cultivated fields of Uttar Pradesh are ideal for the Sarus Crane and the people’s way of life conducive for their survival. The largest global population of these birds occurs in Uttar Pradesh that has over 199 million people with a density of over 800 people per square km and 57 million livestock all of whom use every bit of the land and landscape. Two aspects of farmer behaviour are critically important for the bird’s survival: their practice of retaining wetland patches of all sizes and of course their positive attitudes toward these majestic cranes. The need of the hour apparently is to recognise the explicit interconnectedness of culture and conservation.

The mountain ranges of the north and the west provide an array of wild sheep, antelope, gazelle and wild goats. This is also a terrain that is interwoven with the lives of predator and prey, wild and the domesticated spaces, of herding and trading as well. It is here that the most elusive and the most beautiful of the big cats, the Snow Leopard survives. This most camera-shy big cat first filmed in the wild as recently as the 1970s treads the same mountainous tracks as humans and livestock. And quite different from the territories inhabited by the elephant and the tiger, which are merely ecological islands interspaced by human habitation that in turn endanger and hamper their natural movements and threaten their sheer survival, the snow leopard’s terrain spilling over vast areas beyond its conservation range still becomes conducive to its lifestyle — in fact the snow leopard depends heavily on livestock raised and reared by human hands.

Wildlife conservation has always been threatened by the expansion of agriculture and landscapes fragmented by plantation crops. And the primary response to this has been the creation of protected areas such as national parks, sanctuaries, and nature reserves with added restrictions on resource use. We are given to understand that over 1,00,000 protected areas covering roughly 18.8 million square km or 12 per cent of earth’s terrestrial surface area has been set worldwide to preserve natural areas. However, considerable biological density also exists outside these bounded territories in human-modified habitats like the plantations and farmlands. Of course, there is always the factor of conflict and confrontation, and nature never plays by the book.

“Restoring Nature: Wildlife conservation in Landscapes Fragmented by Plantation Crops in India” is a seminal essay that deals with such contexts and conflicts in an area of great regional and global significance, the Western Ghats, and the authors highlight well-researched findings and engage with on-going interventions arguing for extending conservation beyond borders and territories. Tigers and leopards, elephants and people all exist in a vibrant mosaic.

And any inquiry into conservation ecology calls for the critical appreciation of this interlink. Nature spans rather than spills over borders and people remake the land not as and when they please, but as a contingent result of a series of contests and choices by a myriad factors. Thus in order to get the bigger picture, we need to allow ourselves to be enriched by variant perspectives that draw on human ecology, history, culture and the changing social dynamics.

This is a sensitive collection of essays centred as they all are on a very pragmatic approach, be it about the conservation ecology of wolves or the fight for an urban forest in Delhi. The idea of the border has very little sense when it comes to nature. However as the editors argue the borders within which we have tried to sequester nature against the siege of human demographic and economic growth are important symbols for they remind us of what we would like to secure and against what. And in the end as we close the book we feel the wisdom of the poet emerging: when we build walls what are we walling in or walling out?

Keywords: interlinking of riversculture and conservationNature without borders

Of Kissing and Moral Policing

One should not use the name of God mechanically and superficially without the feeling of devotion.
–Ramana Maharshi

Of late media is rife with information regarding public demonstrations of kissing couples and their multitudinous onlookers. There is also so much in the news about several young men and women (?) who have also taken upon themselves the role of moral policing. As urban centres are the hub of these intense activities there has also been instances of skirmishes and state interventions. As with everything else much might be said on both sides; nevertheless the issue is one that needs to be taken seriously.

There are several factors at work here. To begin with, the visual media is so ubiquitous these days and the young people behind and off the camera are on a rush to feed the dragon always and all times. Thrillers like kissing wars are the right type for these to latch on for hours together. There are also enough and more spectators who switch on their televisions for these sort of sensational news: they are willing to watch and wait for equally long hours. After all ticklers like these make life worth living. There is this other factor of small-time hatchers—people who are otherwise-talented and who might be involved in many other fields like the arts or sports. They find this sort of arenas the right kinds to latch on to and swing on to the bandwagon: automatically the limelight falls on them. Take any issue related to the environment, or violence against women, we are sure to find such barbs and hatchers who latch on for dear life and rise with the tide of popular media hypes. After some days they are hardly there in the field, simply because they have made enough notoriety to get by in their chosen fields of expertise by then.

The most significant factors involved in the kissing wars are of course the demonstrations and demonstrators themselves along with the moral police who oppose them. Public demonstrations are of course intended to raise public awareness with regard to issues of significance. The Mahatma had resorted to soul-force or satyagraha as one genuine mode of resistance and protest. The kissers of the present have by all means a genuine reason to protest: they are demonstrating for raising mass- awareness of what we have as a civil society sidelined and repressed. It is significant that several young men and women have come to the open to protest and demonstrate against the slow closing of the civil mind. We need to wake up and recoup our society and safeguard its health and well-being. This of course needs to be done on a war footing, no doubt. They have resorted to demonstrate by making a public event of kissing. What is there if two willing people get to embrace and kiss in public? Why should it cause offence to the others? And anyway why should the other get involved? Why not learn to turn a blind eye as we often do when we see two animals coupling in public? Is a public kiss that offending? Why this dramatic emergence of a Hanuman Sena all of a sudden? Our social mores are so stilted and ossified that there is hardly any sensitivity when genuine issues crop up. We have been repressed into subhuman beings never to respond to those subtle issues: we have been taught to turn a blind eye to all and everything except ourselves. And now all of a sudden our moral insides are churning when two people embrace and kiss. But then, we need to pause a little here and reconsider the issue a little more in depth.

Anthropology and History tells us that human beings have evolved considerably (or that’s what we are given to think) from the level of mere animals (not meant to demean the animals in any way!) and in this process developed a social system and a civil society (perhaps, several systems and several societies at the same time) which actually has imposed several self-imposed or hegemonial restraints on our behavior with ourselves and in relationship with the other. In many ways we are not simple biological entities existing as mere life forms, growing, breeding and dying. We have constructed innumerable but invisible complex structures all about us which control and manipulate us: sometimes we are conscious of these but mostly we are unconscious of these factors. Making love as we understand in the present in civil terms is a private affair. In sociological terms love and sex are definitely separate factors and could exist as mutually exclusive categories. There are of course innumerable dimensions to sex and love. Nevertheless, sex or its “higher evolved” version of love is something which we as civil and social beings have accepted as a private affair. Violators of girls and women might resort to any level of physical abuse seeking gratification by any and all means: there is hardly any point in theorizing these to such inhuman beings; their acts need to be condemned and such offenders severely punished. But to make what is a private affair as a token of demonstration may not be quite right. What happens when two people kiss is certainly a private affair, but it is often held that kissing is an act of sealing genuine love and relationship. Young people certainly would recognize the thrill attached to a kiss, those furtive glances and that tender touch. To make of that a mere tool for display and protest might be taking things a little too far. As they say, streaking or display of nudity in public also would a little later appear to be a fair play in this direction. Just imagine the simplicity and prowess of a Bahubali or an AkkaMahadevi who shed all clothing in the face of a society that was built on external trappings and seeped in self-delusions. Theirs was a mode of subversion that was self-inflicted in order to inculcate a different set of values. If the kissing demonstrators had wanted they could certainly have chosen a different path or a different mode of public protest rather than resorting to a genuine and intimate affair like kissing and turning it into a public event. They are perhaps doing a gross injustice to the sacred art of loving. Have we suddenly landed in a system where the very meaning of sacred has eroded away? Don’t we hold anything, not even love as sacred? Now, this definitely wasnot the reason why those self-styled protectors of social values took to the streets to harass the demonstrators. They were on the other hand, only mere pawns revealing the larger process at work in our repressive culture—that of sidelining genuine issues and harping ceaselessly on the trivial.

Now how could the self-styled moral police call themselves Hanuman Sena? What has that eternal brahmachari got to do with these issues? In the Ramayana and elsewhere Hanuman is portrayed as a monkey who is extremely chaste and wise. Even at their first meeting Rama remarks on his clear sightedness and the clarity of speech. The Vayu Putra whom every genuine devotee is used to meditate on in his or her hearts is a sacred soul extremely devout and intensely benevolent. After all even his physical prowess needs to be evoked and incited by external agencies before they manifest through him. To invoke such a sacred name in a putrid war of moral impositions is certainly to cast dishonor on that noble soul. Erudite scholars of religion and philosophy have reminded us time and again that the god one worships externally is a projection of one’s own ambition and desire.Bhagavan Ramana has cautioned us that: One should not use the name of God mechanically and superficially without the feeling of devotion.

If those noble souls who parade themselves as self-styled moral protectors of society hold any faith or belief in their insides they have little business to drag the name of a unique soul into the public sphere. To quote Nietzsche, where the rabble also drinks all waters are impure! Do we have any right to such acts of violence against all that we hold as good, true, and beautiful? And anyway who stays long enough in the highways of profound reflection inquiring into the deeper significance of religion and spirituality?

Even if the kissers were simply allowed to show their act of protest everything would have gone fairly unnoticed even, because our present society is fed day to day with new sensational news that we have forfeited our memories. Alas! Our self-styled arch defenders of a public morality have to take arms against such offenders who tickle their sexual energies, and our voyeuristic society thrives on such traumatic sado-masochistic sexuality. The visual media is our new eye and heart. Whither is sped the inner eye?

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnanis Professor and former Chair of the Department of English, Pondicherry University. He can be reached at smurals@gmail.com

Remembering Salim Ali, the Birdman of India

Remembering Salim Ali
Remembering Salim Ali

Salim Ali 2

This copy of The Book of Indian Birds was presented to me by Prof K K Neelakantan, the doyen of Ornithologists in Kerala, in appreciation of my work in connection with wildlife activities in the mid seventies. I still cherish this copy because the legendary Salim Ali himself signed it. We were assembled at the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests, Kerala. I recall vividly the animated conversations we had with him and later my walking alongside him discussing birds and wildlife. Those were wonderful days. A page from those wonder years…


Art and political history through stones and temples– Book Review in the Hindu dated 7th October 2014

UntitledThe book under review is an excellent interdisciplinary study that falls squarely in the shadowy space between art history and political history, and, given the present day academic scenario, there is virtually very little communication between such disciplines and their methodologies. However, once one discovers the area where they overlap and become sensitive to the insights that would follow thereon, it is certain that new and newer collaborative perceptions are bound to emerge, as Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner reveal through this magnificent work. Architecture and cultural landscapes especially in the Deccan in peninsular India bespeak of conquest, dominion, destruction and redefinition. Exquisite stone temples, synonymous with cultural inscapes define this territory. The three issues highlighted in this study are power, memory and architecture. The book is very well produced and illustrated liberally: a delight for those interested in the contested sites of the Deccan.
It took me a-while to read through the volume because I dwelt on each page, poring over the pictures and delighting in the art historical perspective as it emerged. And in the process, there were two similar works that I was immediately prompted to fish out from my shelf to consult alongside: Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, and Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the God’s in the World of Men. “Intriguing,” is perhaps the one word that jumps to one’s mind while perusing all three. Land and memory are inextricably connected and built-environments suffer from invasion and conquest leaving traces of the depredations and maraudings of colonizer as much as those of defeated rivals. In the vision of the authors of Power, Memory, Architecture, invaders of Deccan, were confronted with complex cultural situations and were in turn left with a range of options: they could continue to patronize pre-existing structures in a similar manner like of old or rebuild them in the same sites in their own manner. They could also redefine or alter them in imitation. In some cases they could destroy them or as in other cases they could ignore the cultural sites altogether and turn a blind eye. In any of those cases—examples of each are elucidated in the various chapters of the book—what emerges is the struggle of power over cultural landscapes and people’s memory.
The broad area that this book captures is the Deccan with its monumental architecture – specially the fiercely contested sites of Kalyana, the one-time capital of the Chalukyas; Raichur (another area of struggle between Vijayanagara and the Bahmani sultanate); and Warangal the power base of the Kakatiyas. From the tenth to the fourteenth century (continuing to the seventeenth) the desperate struggle between political power and architecture as the visible and palpable expression of the cultural life of the people, becomes especially intense. Temples are chronicles of a narrative of this interaction of power and memory.
The book is divided into four sections, titled respectively: Orientations; Kalyana and the Chalukya Legacy; Warangal and the Kakatiya Legacy; The Raichur Doab in the Age of Gunpowder. Power is the lynch pin of this book: and relying mainly on the available architectural and epigraphic record, the authors read beyond crude stereotypes of clash between Hindus and Muslims and attempt to identify and explain the wide range of ways at critical points in the Deccan’s history, conquerors, administrators, and even local chieftains interacted with the key cultural monuments of this area. As they argue, historians have often tended to neglect the Deccan during the 1300-1600, and this book proffers different perspectives from the usual ones toward a better understanding of how regional politics operated at the ground level. The authors approach monuments and other material evidence as dynamic texts that tell their own tales about how they related to different communities over time.
Memory is identified as playing a crucial role in the close encounters during the 16th century in the Deccan interacting between power and architecture in more significant ways than it was during the 14th and 15th centuries. What is perceived is the shift from non-interference to re-assemblage with active patronage, ranging between the desecration and redefinition of monuments. While earlier with the expansion of Delhi Sultanate into the Deccan a fusion of temples and mosques came into prominence, during the 16th century by contrast, a deliberate revival of earlier times and cultures were infused. As art historians have always emphasized, Chalukya architecture was to be seen as a distinct taxonomic entity, and the 16th century patrons actively sought them out for recycling in their royal projects. Both the variant versions of Chalukya architecture– the Dharwar and the Bijapur styles—were reintegrated into the nascent emergent style apparently infused with a political motive deliberately in the Vijayanagara to invoke a continuity with the past. In a similar manner to the north the Sultanate of Bijapur (1490-1686) whose sovereign territory covered much of the Chalukya’s former territory, displayed its own awareness and interest in the past. The battle of Talikota spelt catastrophe for Vijayanagara while for Bijapur it was a physical and ideological transformation, and its Sultan Adil Shah used the plundered wealth to upgrade Bijapur from a mere provincial outpost to a major Indo-Persian capital. Architectural narratives reveal this process of fusion, transformation, and reintegration. It is not unusual for scholars of history to refer to the plunder and pillage of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders. But as this book attempts to reread in the remains of Deccan’s architectural monuments, desecration and destruction were not the sole process but a deliberate cultivation of aesthetic and architectural history integrated with memory of place also was in the scheme of things.
Another polemical re-reading that is sure to engage the interested reader’s attention in the book is with regard to the implications of Sanskrit and Persian cultural perceptions and universality of dominion. This is revealed in the situation of the Deccan after the Delhi Sultanate’s decline in the 14th century and the subsequent rise of the Bahmanis and the Vijayanagara during the next two centuries. Whereas the Sultanate’s invasion had been recognized as having reconfigured the political geography of Deccan, what is yet to be reckoned is the impact of this conquest that worked as a catalyst for accelerating the diffusion of the ideals of the Persian cosmopolis in a region where those of the Sanskrit cosmopolis had already sunk deep roots. As the authors argue the Persian cosmopolis crystallized at about the same time that the literati under Chalukya patronage were yoking the ideals of the Sanskrit cosmopolis to both Kannada vernacularism and Chalukya imperialism. Stones and temples do have much tales to tell. The disruption of power centres and reestablishment of new nodules for dominion and rule have left several traces that resonate down centuries for the attentive ear and eye to perceive and rearticulate—an intricate interplay of power, memory and architecture. This book is a treasure.

Prof Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University. He can be reached at s.murals@gmail.com

Sri Aurobindo and the aesthetics of transformation

Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is thevedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.

This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics (1)

For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.

Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’

Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.

Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?

Book Review by MS Nagarajan in The Hindu July 1st 2014

IMAGES- WORDS- REFLEXIONS: "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." -Plato


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