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.

Avidya and Advaita

Swami Vivekananda stood for a long time allowing his gazing eye to wander all over the stormy waters around him. He was now in the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, at Kanya Kumari the seat of the goddess Mahishasuramardhini, the destroyer of the demon Mahisha. Here the three great seas merged—the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea came together in a great confluence. Earlier, he had asked a local fisherman to ferry him across to the jutting rock face a few meters into the sea, but the man had refused because the sea was too rough. Nothing could keep Vivekananda back from his destiny—he jumped into the raging sea and braving the current swam across to the rock face. Even to this day there is a shrine built on those rocks to commemorate the Saint’s presence. Vivekananda was shocked at the inhuman system of caste hierarchy prevalent in those parts in those days. He termed it a madhouse of superstition and segregation. Even today things have hardly changed, if not in one way but another. Those men in power –the present day politician princes– drunk with the potency of power drive around in huge flocks of cars and vans driving all human traffic away. When a politician prince moves over the highway there will be a pilot streaming with blaring horns ahead and over open windows many men will throw their arms out and wave away all commoners on their path as though the common folk are so negligent as to be non existent. Nothing can or should obstruct the way of power politics. Whether it be in religion or politics we humans are indeed so stupid as to consider ourselves superior to the other in body and soul. Granted a politician’s time is rather precious most often and any delay could be quite decisive, but so is the quality of time and space for all men and women. And now what right does a single individual have in pushing his/her way through?

A Victorian poet wrote:… that men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things!  Rising on their own dead selves to higher things is a process of erasing the ego and arousing the spirit within. However, trampling and treading on other selves to promote their own ungainly selves is still the sick decease of present day actuality. We pride ourselves in having built civil societies of equal opportunity for all and social equity for all. And our religious literature and thought have already scaled great and glorious heights. Human achievements are unimaginably high, and human societies have collectively reached hitherto unreachable heights of excellence and material plenitude. Nevertheless we have hardly changed.

There is a curious but equally mean tale that goes like this: A deal had been stuck between a Japanese company and an Indian company for exporting live crabs from India to Japan. Now when the first packages arrived the Japanese wrote to their Indian counterparts: “Many thanks for the great work you are doing. But, pray, tell us how you manage to export live crabs in open containers?”  “Simple,” wrote the Indian exporters in reply, “simple, indeed! Remember they are from India.  If one crab attempts to scramble up to the open end the other crab would pull it down! So none can escape!” Such is the lethal cut-throat level to which physical and material competition has come to be in this part of the world! Politics and spirituality are two sides of the same paper—tear one you tear the other. And competition is a matter of ego based on the stupid assumption that the physical self is of prime importance. The information-rich society that we have built around us is a huge market place where all values are simply prices, and all wealth is bound around avarice and greed of the advancing physical self that elbows itself around, pushing and pulling. All that we are informed or are interested in being informed is about how to promote ourselves. As Nietzsche derisively wrote: “All waters are impure where the rabble also drinks!”  And the rabble is the majority. The minority that is practically effaced is content to sleep the deep sleep of pretentious ignorance. After all, all life is a mind game, and once we have laid aside our humanness all that remains is our sordid petty self of ignorance and meanness. This is what Sankara terms Avidya. He distinguishes between Vidya (knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance). This ignorance is not the binary opposite of knowledge, but both are complementaries, extending into one another. Avidya is nescience,absence of knowledge.

The modern day politician who sears  through the crowded streets with a pilot car making the way clear for him with horns blaring and arms waving through the open windows is of course so ignorant of what he or she is doing in this world of so called democracy. It is said that once while Sankaracharya was walking down the steps toward the Ganges in Benares he was confronted by a Chandala, a person of low birth walking up the steps leading a couple of hounds on a belt. The jagatguru’s alarmed disciples tried to wave him off the saint’s path but the man stood his ground and stared straight at the Saint. Sankara himself was a little taken aback at this audacity of a lower caste person and quizzically raised his brows.  The Chandala asked him: what are you waving off your path? Me or my body? Isnt my body made of the same annamaya and pranamaya as yours is? Is my spiritual self different and contaminated? 

Sankara found himself dumbfounded and stuck speechless. It dawned on him all of a sudden that his own advaitic teaching had a different dimension. How could he have been so ignorant and blind not to have perceived the sameness everywhere? The poet in him then composed a sloka with this profound meaning of oneness. Now the tale is not merely instructive and illustrative of the universality of the all pervading spirit but it also goes a long way to prove the uniqueness of the saint. It was indeed his humility that made him realize blatant truth hidden from his own eyes thus far. The Chandala was perhaps sent there or it was lord Siva himself, come to open his inward eye. The adavitin realized his avidya or ignorance within a split second. And that is spiritual revelation. Avidya is not absolute ignorance as we would perhaps understand it, but on the other hand it is not knowing the full implications of knowledge, a knowledge that transforms and remakes, a knowledge that leads itself on to wisdom. How far from this is our modern day politician who whisks past us in the crowded streets of the present. We are all Chandalas, perhaps. Well any way it is good to be the Chandala who is potential eye opener for some Sankara rather than being a fully ignorant political leader!

As Tiruvalluvar says: all beings are born alike; their actions make them different.