I can never say which is more poignant: the sun breaking into colours from the darkness of the night sea, or the bright sun sinking over the darkening horizon. When I was there in the east coast each day was a miracle. Each day began with the birth of new light, like a new and newer horizon being discovered. Like any eager soul who has without regret or remorse, un-reluctantly left the warmth of the bed and sought the sea shore in the early dawn in the east coast I too have known the touch of the sun. Pondicherry was for me like a warm tin-can placed squarely under the glowing sun; all it does is to go from warm to extreme hot and then rework from where it left off throughout the year. The birth of the sun was the beginning of a blistering hot day the year around. But the sweetness and silence of a glorious sun emerging from the deeps of the sea was always a sight that brought tears from the deeps of myself. I recall murmuring to myself: hiranmayena patrena, satyasyapihitam mukham/ tat tvam pushann apavrinu, satya-dharmaya drishtaye | (The face of truth is covered with a golden disc. O Pushan, Sun, unveil it so I who love the truth may behold it!)
There is certainly light behind light behind light. What blinds us at the beginning need not be the true light. Do I search within myself again and again?
The Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in one of her conversations, speaks about the idea of beauty thus:
. ..At first your sense of beauty is instinctive, impulsive, infrarational, lacking light, wanting reason, simply without any true understanding, and so, because the origin of the aesthetic sense is infrarational, it is understood, one always says this: “There’s no disputing tastes and colours.” You know, there are all kinds of popular proverbs which say that the appreciation of the beautiful is not a matter of reasoning, everyone likes a particular thing he doesn’t know why, he takes pleasure in looking at a thing, and this pleasure cannot be discussed.
(WRITINGS BY THE MOTHER, Aesthetic consciousness, 1 June 1955)
One just looks upon sun rising like this with awe like a child, infrarational. It is full of mystery full of meaning. Although at the back of our rational mind we “know” that it is the earth that goes round the sun and not the other way round. But like the wise scientist Galileo Galilei we also murmur to ourselves: nevertheless it moves! It moves alright it “moves” our minds too!
But the mind of man is never satiated: the artist and poet are condemned to wander forth forever never tied to one place or time. As I left Pondicherry the sun had begun its descent. Of course it resurfaces even in the west coast. From among the mountain ranges I see the quiet dawn breaking free once again. Now when the sun goes down I see the magnificence of another secret. There is no light without darkness as there is no darkness without light.
Does the intellect realise this or does the heart feel it? What can we say after the touch of God in the glorious dawn? Sri Aurobindo has written:
[…] Whoever has once felt the glory of God within him can never again believe that the intellect is supreme. There is a higher voice, there is a more unfailing oracle. It is in the heart where God resides. He works through the brain, but the brain is only one of His instruments. Whatever the brain may plan, the heart knows first and whoever can go beyond the brain to the heart, will hear the voice of the Eternal.
(Sri Aurobindo on the Glory of God in Man, January 1, 1908)
To feel at one with the universe is to touch the deeper self of all being. This is a realization that just dawns on one or need I write “in “one? Have I felt that the glory of the dawn is profounder or more poignant than the serenity of the sun setting over the Arabian sea? What can I say?
There is no secret in life: everything is free for the taking, open and approachable. As one walks towards the rising sun one feels this truth in one’s veins. It is the similar state of being one arrives at as one walks toward the setting sun. East is East and West is West. There is little difference.
The sun is a miracle. Dawn. Silent and serene. Evening. Silent and serene. We are such tiny creatures that we cling to the edge of all being and refuse to let go. The night is broken and dawn is free. The day is ended and the sun is set. Our heart is hushed. Silenced. If we are willing to turn inwards our hearts will learn to sense much more that what our brains later reason with us. Pondicherry or Trivandrum.
In this west coast I feel the rush of the centuries as the sun disappears round the bend in the silent horizon. It is with a suddenness that my heart is overtaken by the sweeping sadness of emptiness. Have I lost the sun? Which is more poignant? The sun breaking into colours from the darkness of the night sea, or the bright sun sinking over the darkening horizon? Do I know?
This is the empty nest syndrome they speak about. When the children have grown up and left for the wide world seeking spaces for themselves the parents who stay at home feel the pang. My father used to say, I recall: “Leave the front door always open!” Now I know. The sun rise and sun set are never separate. The question that remains large is just this: Is it the same sun that comes round? Silence and solitude are deep within the seeking self. To touch silence is to awaken the whir of the reasoning mind. To realize solitude is to awaken the ever questing mind. The poet and artist are condemned to wander in silence and solitude. Only the sun follows him.
Apparently it is impossible to continue to exist without righteous indignation at the present. There are more than enough reasons to exercise your anger. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to continue to contain ones anger. Everyday debilitating news brings us close and closer towards breaking our own vows of resistance and restraint at social indifference and rampant callousness. This one takes the cake: A man waited too long for an ambulance to transport his wife’s body, and finally gave up. He had to wrap the body in a bed sheet and carry it slung over his shoulder in plain day light over the street! In this country where each undeserving political autocrat is given undue security from God knows what and has a whole retinue of cars and jeeps to accompany him or her wherever they go it has come to such a state that an ordinary citizen cannot avail of an ambulance to shift a dead body! Cry my beloved country! My indignation swells over and so would yours my dear reader I am sure in sheer helplessness.
I am reminded of a forgotten chapter in my own life. I had just about taken up a job as a Lecturer in a college in Kerala. My parents and my kid sister were then in Trivandrum. Those good old days did not have instant connectivity and communication facilities like the present, one had to depend on the now-old fashioned landlines to get some sort of connectivity outside, and that too after waiting for hours on end to get the operator to connect your call across districts through their trunk facility.
But of course one would write long letters with the aid of Indian posts and Telegraphs. However once it happened that I rushed home for no obvious reason only to find to my dismay the doors all locked and lights turned off. I enquired with our neighbours and got to know that my father had suddenly taken ill and my sister and mother had rushed him to the nearest hospital. Shouldering my bag I retraced my way to the hospital and ran from pillar to post to locate my family. Finally when I did find them my father was in a dangerous situation, and beside him crouched my mother and sister helplessly. I don’t distinctly recall my mental state but I dashed over to the doctor who was kind enough to let me know that the patient was in a critical coma and was in urgent need of higher specialised medical attention. He coolly told me to shift him to another bigger hospital without delay! To my indignation he also let me know that this had to be done within no less than six hours! I was at a colossal loss. I just didn’t know what to do. Somehow I managed to put on a brave face for the sake of not upsetting my mother and sister and withdrew to the porch in search of an ambulance. As was to be expected none was available just then and I had to resort to a way side shop and beg the shopkeeper for the use of his land phone to call nearby hospitals. I succeeded eventually to trace a driver who was condescending enough to bring his ambulance over within an hour or so. I had never felt the ticking of the seconds and the minutes so loud as then when I stood out in the rain all alone in a strange evening waiting for a strange ambulance to deliver my father to another hospital! Gradually the rain cleared or I thought it had cleared when they lugged him on to the backseat of a decrepit van. The three of us crowded round my father in the dingy space while the van tossed and tottered and tooted its way meandering through busy streets and byways. And finally we were in front of a super-speciality hospital. Some helping hands came aboard and rolled the patient inward. We got off to follow suit when the van driver sauntered over to me and demanded his fee: Rs 90/-. I was flabbergasted. This might appear to be a paltry sum of money for many youngsters these days, but back in those days this indeed was a good deal. I searched all my pockets and drew close to forty. But that won’t do. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I took off my watch and handed it over to the exasperated driver! But he was a good soul deep within. He handed it back to me and said: please get me the money as quickly as possible. Now you run after you father and get him all the medical help needed!
I was left holding the watch and for a long minute didn’t know what I was to do. But then I looked at the watch once again and realised how fast time was ticking. There was barely an hour or so left as per the first doctor’s instructions. I dashed in with the crowd and caught up with the stretcher bearing the patient. We were extremely fortunate to run into many medical practitioners who knew us as family friends and their timely help saved my father.
Come to think of it, I was extremely fortunate—there were indeed helping hands that were wilfully extended all through my life in times of dire need. But the situation of the unfortunate man I mentioned at the beginning still turns my insides. Where have we gone wrong as a community? What has happened to our human selves?
Among his favourite poems that my father used to recite was this one Only a Soldier by Agnes Macdonnell: see http://cambridge.dlconsulting.com/cgi-bin/cambridge?a=d&d=Chronicle18800529-01.2.4#
Unarmed and unattended’ walks the Czar’
Through Moscow’s busy street’ one winter’s day.
The crowd uncover as his face’ they see:
“God greet the Czar!” they say.
Along his path there moved a funeral,
Grave spectacle of poverty and woe –
A wretched sledge, dragged by one weary man
Slowly across the snow.
And on the sledge, blown by the winter wind,
Lay a poor coffin, very rude and bare;
And he who drew it bent before his load
With dull and sullen air.
The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”
“Only a soldier!” musing, said the Czar:
“Only a Russian, who was poor and brave.
Move on, I follow. Such’ a one goes not
Unhonored to his grave.”
He bent his head and silent raised his cap;
The Czar of all the Russians, pacing slow,
Followed the coffin as again it went
Slowly across the snow.
The passers of the street, all wondering,
Looked on that sight, then followed silently;
Peasant and prince, and artisans and clerk,
All in one company.
Still as they went, the crowd grew ever more,
Till thousands stood around the friendless grave,
Led by that princely heart, who, royal, true,
Honoured the poor and brave.
This might be read by the rabid post-colonialists that we are as the very embodiment of hegemonial power structure, or even how power is maintained by such devious measures as the fostering medieval values of loyalty and chivalry which lead to heroism. But if one were to read some vestiges of human value into it irrespective of class and cunning, one can still see this short poem as engendering what is dreadfully lacking amidst us these days. A poor man’s dead body is casually being lugged across the street, and the Tzar espies this:
The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”
Move on, I’ll follow, and so saying the Emperor of Russia followed suit. Eventually there are thousands: Till thousands stood around the friendless grave, paying homage to the departed. It did not take long for the Tzar to recognise the significance of this ordinary soldier who is not to be thus dismissed. Each and every human soul requires to be honoured. How can we just turn our heads at the sight of another’s grief? When did we become as callous as to disregard the cries of another human? Sartre has written somewhere: “…all our philosophies fade into meaningless gibberish at the hungry cry of a third world child!” Forgive the discriminatory terminology (the i/thou, we/they, first/third binaries implied in the French philosopher’s statement) and let’s perceive the essential truth behind the observation. Aren’t we human’s still? Or has the machine entered our soul?
The image of the wretched man with the corpse of his wife flung over his shoulder meandering the streets uncared for, overlooked and disregarded by the world that passes this sight by mercilessly is one that is going to haunt a whole generation no doubt. Is he just another soldier battling the unjust elements in a lost world bereft of humanity?
As I said earlier there are indeed several reasons why the sensitive intellectual cannot hold his/her own peace. Life these days is not without its own share of horrors and dreadfulness. “The horror, the horror!” This phrase occurs in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Many have discussed the meaning of this in terms of the horrendous experiences that Mr Kurtz undergoes in the wake of colonialism and imperialism in deep Africa; this has also been linked to the profound state of the protagonist’s sanity that as in a process of onion peeling just comes off layer after layer! But perhaps taken out of context this could fit quite well with our own present day situation. The horror the horror!
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…
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.
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