ON READING SRI AUROBINDO: BLINDNESS, INSIGHT, OUTLOOK AND A PERSPECTIVE

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. .

smurals@gmail.com

                                                                      Acknowledgement

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.

Two New Books 2013

Two New Books from
Authorspress,New Delhi

Communication and Clarification:Essays on English in the Indian Classroom        

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

  • Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics:New Directions  

  • Murali Sivaramakrishnan

Speaking at a Ceremony to honour Dr.Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan at SACAR

The text of Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s speech in which he has discussed the contribution of Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan in the field of research and English language follows:

Auroratna Award 1

‘In English we use a phase which goes like “To carry coal to new castle” which means when one goes to new castle one does not carry coal. So when I come to SACAR and this might appear rather overburdened if I try to introduce either Prema Nandakumar or Shraddhavan because I don’t know them. I know very little about them. In fact I know so little, when I look all around you, most of you know more about them than I do because I am familiar with their work. As persons I have not had the occasion to meet either Sri Aurobindo or the Mother but I came to Sri Aurobindo through the work of Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. Iyengar has been a kind of eye-opener for me. Then I started working on Sri Aurobindo. I am sure Prema-ji started working on Sri Aurobindo ten years before I was born even, I think, because in the 1950s, she was working on Savitri. In 1957 she started working and by around I think 1960 when she finished her book—her monumental work—I was just a kid. Eventually, when I came to do my work so many years later, her book on Savitri was a piece of revelatory sort of experience for me and that I found quite challenging in two ways because I have always felt that the work of Sri Aurobindo needs to be read in multiple dimensions at the same time. Of course we have Sri Aurobindo as the rebel; we have Sri Aurobindo as the creative writer; we have Sri Aurobindo as the political thinker, the historian, the sociologist, the person who has interpreted the Vedas and the Upanishads, a scholar extraordinary who also participated in the freedom movement of India; we have to see him and his work in a multiple sort of dimension and the kind of comparative element that both Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan provided, I think, were real eye-openers for me specially her work in comparing Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with Homer’s epic which I don’t think anybody in the history of the world would have attempted because here is a work which is the longest work in the English language—Savitri with 24,000 odd lines—which happens to be the longest work available in the English language barring perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which runs into 33,333 lines. So if you consider that as a translation, here is an original work in English which is the longest work and to compare that with another epic of multiple dimensions like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad is something which a person with genuine intellectual and at the same time spiritual calibre can attempt. And that is what I found most intriguing in the work of Dr. Prema Nandakumar. So, it is a pleasure to talk about the work of somebody who has actually cleared the way or paved the way or made new wood in the scholarship in relating epics of two separate cultures, two separate cultural backgrounds, two separate idioms. So this is what I found most intriguing about Dr. Nandakumar’s work.

‘And of course Prof. Kittu Reddy has already mentioned Bharati’s translation. That is something which I wanted to cite also. Of course there is a big debate going on in the Tamil circle in support of Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s translation of Bharati; that apart if we were to look at the selections which she had made, it is not the entire corpus of Bharati of course. But whatever she has done with her discerning eye that, I think, is something which has come from her own reading of Sri Aurobindo’s work because Sri Aurobindo has specifically said that the critical eye that operates in poetry is almost superior to the critical eye that operates on poetry. So in that way she has been able to bring together the critical eye in separate perceptions and to be discerning to identify the kind of noteworthy work of Bharati. That, I think, is a good introduction. More than that Prema Nandakumar has done extensive work in bringing Tamil writings and brining regional and discursive elements of a particular cultural ethos in which Sri Aurobindo himself lived. Forty odd years he lived here in Pondicherry and that is something which is amazing for us because he never left Pondicherry. He has continued to be here and he has also translated Andal; he has done some tremendous attempts in bringing together so many other works which were around him. I don’t know whether he was aware of Tamil language, whether he could speak…’

Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘He knew Tamil language. It is there. And he readPanchali-Shabdnam. He was the first to translate Kulasekhara Alwar into English.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan continued: ‘So that way Prema Nandakumar has been able to bring together a totally different cultural ethos into the study of Sri Aurobindo and she has been able to distribute, or rather, been able to bring together these elements into the discourse of Sri Aurobindo and other scholarship around Sri Aurobindo. To that extent, I think, her work is most admirable. And I am a person who loves to look at her work from a distance and I think I have great respect for Dr. Prema Nandakumar. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to honour her.

‘To talk about Shraddhavan: I know that Shraddhavan came here in early 1970s perhaps. Before that she has been a poet in the English language and I have had many occasions to sit near her and talk to her of British poetry. And I was always taken in by the astuteness and the clarity of the rhythms and eloquence of poetry that she has been able to pick up. She had told me that she had worked in the lines of Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Davies and I could hear the reverberations of the late Modernist and the late romantic British poetry. I consider that as a romantic poetry because Ted Hughes was somebody who revived or brought together Tomlinson, W. H. Davies and others who brought together a sort of a romantic element in the line of British poetry back into the flavor bringing together the human and the non-human elements. That, I think, Shraddhavan has brought into me new shraddha. Shraddhavan has been a kind ofshraddha for me through her writings. And I have followed her English in SriAurobindo’s Savitri. [To Shraddhavan] That is an essay a part of which you had presented at my department when you came there—The Englishness of Savitri.

‘I don’t know whether many of you here are familiar with the kind of controversial work written in the late 1970s which is called The Pedigree of Savitri. I am surprised. Even at SACAR I don’t think you have that essay. It is a controversial essay which actually most counter to… Are you familiar with that by any chance?The Pedigree of Savitri? When I read that essay I was working on Sri Aurobindo in the early 1980s. I came here in 1986 and I was working in the Ashram Archives. There I found this particular reference and then I had to go to Hyderabad to dig up in the Osmania University journals and I came across that article. I found that Shraddhavan’s work on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and language actually brings together the lost connection between Sri Aurobindo and European early modernist poetry. At many times I always felt that Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Poet and a person who lives in the present has to always have a kind of connection with what is happening outside. One cannot be a recluse all the while. Sri Aurobindo was never a recluse. You know, I have always defended this view-point. Many people have said: “Oh, here is a man who has chickened out in the phase of action, who has already moved away and who stayed at Pondicherry in the French resort.” They said that he did not want to step out in the British eye because he was afraid of action. But I also wrote a little bit in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and there I have tried to bring together this attitude of action and inaction and the kind of withdrawal that Sri Aurobindo did. So Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was all the time exposed to the multiple elements around him at manyplaces. He was open to that. He always liked to look at what was happening outside. And Shraddhavan has been able to pick up the element of the quality of language, the tonal variation and the subtle nuances of the English language which Sri Aurobindo carried with him as a remnant of his European learning. And that is something which she has been able to link with the spiritual quality of the language. I have read many other scholars trying to expound the quality of spiritual resonance in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry but Shraddhavan’s shraddha has been unwavering and steady. And I don’t think there is any other person who deserves this award in the present other than these two people.

Auroratna Award 2

‘So it is a great honour for me to be able to share whatever I feel about these two Masters who have led the way and opened up their way for people like us who like to see the quality of poetry and philosophy at the same time. Thank you very much.’

Something Rich and Strange: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)– Murali Sivaramakrishnan

            There is something naturally rich and strange[1] about the extremely intelligent creatures on earth—they never tread the trodden path.  Earthly Paths are definitely for the common mortals, for the uncommon there is the sky, water, fire and ether!

At the very outset we may recognize the epical dimensions of these two giants in Indian literary and aesthetic spheres—and their unique positions in contributing to the process of Indian Renaissance–however, this shouldn’t deter us from taking a closer look at each and also together. They lived with their ideals as we would live with our everyday realities. They lived at a time of great change, historically, temporally and culturally. They are products of their history and they have wrought great changes in history after them. Perhaps it may not be easy for us in the postcolonial, post-industrial present to comprehend the profundity of their thought, the largesse of their vision, and the depth of their historical anguish. Both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo aestheticised their political and ideological wills and their work endures as open invitations for any sensitive reader to experience their travails and traumas on their own.  They have passed on the legacy of a struggle: for difference and meaning, for resistance and understanding. What follows is a exploration of these issues in terms of poetry and thought of Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was a poet and painter who early in life dropped out of regular school only later to found a near-perfect alternative school of his own; Sri Aurobindo was a firebrand patriot, groomed up in alien surroundings and foreign customs, who dropped out of political action to withdraw into himself and spend forty years of his mature life in isolation in Pondicherry, refusing to step out ever after! Tagore’s vision of a school was without restraints and grounded on his philosophy of creative freedom; Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Yoga was aimed at total liberation and complete transformation.  No two people could be so alike and yet be as completely different as these two extraordinarily brilliant and creative Indian minds of the last century.  Indians to the core in their insightful thinking and yet profoundly universal and cosmic in their critical outlook, there is so much paradox in the life, thought, and creative output of these kindred souls.

Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo

This essay is an attempt to reflect on the uniqueness and similarity in the life and thought of these two Indian poets—it will examine, for the most, their ideas and ideals of education, the politics of difference and nationalism that each upheld, their notions of nationalism and internationalism, individual effort, experience and their characteristically cosmic and oceanic experience, and, finally of course their poetry and poetics. All these might appear such large issues which cannot be normally contained within the apparent word and spatial limit of a short essay, however, as I shall argue, these issues constitute a sort of organic whole of these two visionary giants.

Both Rabindranath and Sri Aurobindo were brought up in an atmosphere of colonial opulence, although the former on account of his family lineage had the privilege of home tuition and the creative environment of a sprawling family villa, while the latter, on account of his Anglophile paternal legacy was tutored by Irish nuns during early childhood and schooled later in Cambridge in the European classical heritage( perhaps a little less in terms of opulence but well-made up for by the colonial aura). Each were unique intellectuals revealing their poetic identities much early in life. Perhaps it was the oppressive burden of a westernized education which deprived the young Aurobindo of his native connectivity which a little later in life would pave the way for his obsessive search for a national identity. This compulsive desire for an alternate identity was the lynch pin of both, albeit with necessary variations on account of their historical situations. The life histories of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo are so very well known to all readers for needless repetition here.  Although Sri Aurobindo’s life has been set forth by scholars into three clear-cut phases – the early Europeanized boyhood and youth, the return to Indian Nationalism, and the retreat into Yoga (for further details see Iyengar), Rabindranath was fortunate enough to have had a not so disruptive a cultural experience; nevertheless both had to undergo the traumatic experience of a colonial educational burden.  While Aurobindo’s transformation from Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose through Aurobindo Ghose into Sri Aurobindo, corresponding to the geographical, political and cultural changes in his historical life’s tempo are a little too obvious manifestations of his many avatars, Tagore’s changes are not too obvious but subtly revealed in his creative efforts and endeavours. It is in their ideas and attitudes to educational systems and methodologies that we start to see the emergence of a distinct cultural consciousness.

Rabindranath relates his own views and inspirations toward the setting up of a school thus:

I was brought up in an atmosphere of aspiration, aspiration for the expansion of the human spirit.  We in our home sought freedom of power in our language, freedom of imagination in our literature, freedom of soul in our religious creeds and that of mind in our social environment.  Such an opportunity has given me confidence in the power of education which is one with life and only which can give us real freedom, the highest that is claimed for man, his freedom of moral communion in the human world…. I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom–freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communication with the human world.  In my institution I have attempted to create an atmosphere of naturalness in our relationship with strangers, and the spirit of hospitality which is the first virtue in men that made civilization possible.I invited thinkers and scholars from foreign lands to let our boys know how easy it is to realise our common fellowship, when we deal with those who are great, and that it is the puny who with their petty vanities set up barriers between man and man[2].

Tagore’s grandfather, Prince Dwarakanath, was a close associate of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and his father Maharshi Debendranath, was the power behind the Brahmo Samaj for some time. Hence with such lineage it is little surprise that Tagore thought in the lines he did on education. The point worth noting is the insistence on the soul’s aspiration and its urge toward human freedom and expansion that underlies the inspiration to rebuild existing educational systems. This is fairly close to what later Sri Aurobindo would envision as the ultimate possibilities of education. There is idealism here, a combination of the Platonic and European Renaissance models; however, more than anything this is grounded on the Upanishadic ideals as we shall see eventually.

            “We must recognize,” Tagore once declared, “that it is providential that the West has come to India, and yet someone must show the East to the West, and convince the West that the East has her contribution to make to the history of civilization.  India is no beggar to the West.  And yet even though the West may think she is, I am not for thrusting off Western civilization and becoming segregated in our independence.  Let us have a deep association.”[3]

Perhaps there is here a facile marking off of the West and the East, however, the point worth looking into is the insistence on not forcing a separatist attitude but a call for a unique integration and understanding that comes from a deeper profundity of purposive harmony. Here both Tagore and the later Aurobindo would see eye to eye.  Despite being a hard-core activist and an extremist involved in the Nationalist politics with Balgangadhar Tilak and others, Sri Aurobindo too was equally aware of a need toward a synthetic vision which could take all humanity a little forward step by tiny step. From Nationalism to internationalism; from patriotism to liberal humanism; from hard-core activism toward the ideal of human unity—such is the trace of the arc of both Tagore’s and Sri Aurobindo’s thinking. This constitutes also the ground of their thinking on education and human awakening toward greater possibilities. Sri Aurobindo the clearer thinker of the two marks it off like this:

Let us begin then with our initial statement, as to which 1 think there can be no great dispute that there are three things which have to be taken into account in a true and living education, the man, the individual in his commonness and in his uniqueness, the nation or people and universal humanity. It follows that that alone will be a true and living education which helps to bring out to full advantage, makes ready for the full purpose and scope of human life all that is in the individual man, and which at the same time helps him to enter, into his right relation with the life, mind and soul of the people to which he belongs and with that great total life, mind and soul of humanity of which he himself is a unit and his people or nation a living, a separate and yet inseparable member. It is by considering the whole question in the light of this large and entire principle that we can best arrive at a clear idea of what we would have our education to be and what we shall strive to accomplish by a national education. Most is this largeness of view and foundation needed here and now in India, the whole energy of whose life purpose must be at this critical turning of her destinies directed to her one great need, to find and rebuild her true self in individual and in people and to take again, thus repossessed of her inner greatness, her due and natural portion and station in the life of the human race[4].

Here in lies Sri Aurobindo’s universal vision. He talks about the three separate entities in the human being: the essential self, the self in relation to its own national self hood, and finally the cosmic being. It is only in consideration of this tripartite integration can one design a system of education. Not in the mere accumulation of information, not in the acculturation to what is the now of knowledge, but in the realization of the full potential of what it means to be human and the same time more-than-human. In Tagore’s words, while the child “hungers for the Epic we supply him with chronicles of facts and dates.”

In all, education was a desired framework required for the active seeker of the essential self that is cosmic and universal for both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.  They saw nationalist politics as just the tip of the submerged iceberg; the larger portion was the desire for the ideal selfhood that was transcendental. Hence both these poets could not bear to be trapped in their little political selves for long; they shook free and delved into a “beyonding.” Tagore noted for his wanderings returned more often to Santiniketan for regathering himself as a poet and recluse. Sri Aurobindo’s own trajectory is too very well known—from the timid Cambridge graduate, through the firebrand revolutionary, to the reclusive saint at Pondicherry: herein too one can discern the overarching desire to retrieve the self that is oceanic and boundless. This larger self as Sri Aurobindo saw it was the Spiritual, which was immanent and transcendent at the same time.

Amartya Sen[5] has pointed out that Tagore greatly admired Gandhi but he had many disagreements with him on a variety of subjects, including nationalism, patriotism, the importance of cultural exchange, the role of rationality and of science, and the nature of economic and social development. Even in his powerful indictment of British rule in India in 1941, in a lecture which he gave on his last birthday, and which was later published as a pamphlet under the title Crisis in Civilization, he strains hard to maintain the distinction between opposing Western imperialism and rejecting Western civilization. While he saw India as having been “smothered under the dead weight of British administration” (adding “another great and ancient civilization for whose recent tragic history the British cannot disclaim responsibility is China”), Tagore recalls what India has gained from “discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all…the large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth-century English politics.”

In the case of Sri Aurobindo, there too is clear evidence that he sought to instill in the dying soul of India with the inspiring sparks of what he held to be Western enthusiasm for manifest action in the world. As he envisioned it, spirituality is an all-transforming dynamic not a stultifying wet-rag. There is a dire need for both to meet and integrate their essential dharma.

The two continents [Asia and Europe] are two sides of the integral orb of humanity and until they meet and fuse, each must move to whatever progress or culmination the spirit in humanity seeks, by the law of its being, its own proper Dharma[6].

But what is most intriguing is the characteristic prophetic eye that observes further:

A one-sided world would have been the poorer for its uniformity and the monotone of a single culture; there is a need of divergent lines of advance until we can raise our heads into that infinity of the spirit in which there is a light broad enough to draw together and reconcile all highest ways of thinking, feeling and living. That is a truth which the violent Indian assailant of a materialistic Europe or the contemptuous enemy or cold disparager of Asiatic or Indian culture agree to ignore. There is here no real question between barbarism and civilisation, for all masses of men are barbarians labouring to civilise themselves. There is only one of the dynamic differences necessary for the completeness of the growing orb of human culture.[7]

This is definitely an intriguing observation that argues for diversity and difference in world cultures and one which resists the homogenizing vision of a globalisng market economy that marks our post-capitalist present that intends to mask out all differences into a monoculture (read Americanisation or even Cocacolonisation!)

Now both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were essentially poets and whatever their other preoccupations they kept up their poetic spirits. Perhaps in the final analysis they realized that only as a poetic experience could the diversities of the world be resolved. I have often felt that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo held paradoxically their own other in themselves. This double voice becomes recognizable in many places, at the level of the treatment of themes, approaches to the narratives as well as even at the semantic and stylistic levels.

One characteristic that sets Tagore’s educational theory apart is his approach to education as a poet.  “At Santiniketan,” writes Kathleen M. O’Connell, “he stated, his goal was to create a poem ‘in a medium other than words.’  It was this poetic vision that enabled him to fashion a scheme of education which was all inclusive, and to devise a unique program for education in nature and creative self-expression in a learning climate congenial to global cultural exchange.”[8]

One hears the great echo of the early Romantic poet, William Blake here:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. [Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence”]

Perhaps Tagore was essentially a lyric poet never even attempting to rise on the great wings of the epic song, as, on the contrary, Sri Aurobindo was: his Savitri—the longest epic in the English language– was a legend and a symbol that almost grew up with him. Sri Aurobindo worked on this epic poem over a long period and has perhaps enshrined in it the struggles and traumas of an entire generation. As with the late nineteenth century here and elsewhere, the general concerns of both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo was with beauty, love, truth. Thematically this triad would encompass the entire oeuvre of both poets. While Tagore drew sustenance and inspiration from the folk and the rural, Sri Aurobindo hastened to the Vedic and the puranic, for myth, metaphor and substance. Tagore’s songs and poems address the instant and the here and now while reaching into the beyond in a transcendental gesture of word and idea. Sri Aurobindo traces the immanence of the eternal and the spiritual in the here and now. Transcendence does not mean the same for both poets alike: like the Dark God—Krishna– seemingly dancing with a million Gopis at the same time, Tagore’s transcendental spirit hovers and disappears at will, forever elusive, forever charming, forever enduring. While for Sri Aurobindo the dance of Siva is an ever present avastha, a state of being and becoming atonce. As he traces this emanation philosophically through matter, life, mind and psyche (see the Life Divine) he is like a graphic artist taking the elusive line out for a walk in the infinite reaches of human experience. There is a definite purpose behind and within all life as the Master Yogi visualizes it—and that is transcendence and transformation. There is no exclusivity as he envisions it—nothing– not even the lowly amoeba– is excluded from this divine Lila. All life has a purpose and the realization of this becomes their very purpose. In fact, in Sri Aurobindo’s vision all this spiritual evolution is essentially natural and will take place whether one wills it or not, however, as he himself notes, to hasten this long-drawn purpose of nature is the creative function of Integral Yoga. Yoga is thus the inspiration for the natural evolution or unfolding of the Divine Spirit in all and everything. Sri Aurobindo’s vision is thus a future-oriented vision, and one that recognizes the multiplicity and dynamics of all life. His world is thus a multiverse of happening not a universe of limiting. Towards this end he strove to build a contact and connection. This forms his major contributions The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.  However, it is my contention that it is through his poetry that Sri Aurobindo resolves the paradox of all life. As I have been arguing throughout the course of this essay, whatever other vocations Tagore and Sri Aurobindo went through they were poets, and their major vision is essentially poetic. Tagore explored song, short fiction, novel, drama and a variety of other forms, even resorting to visual arts toward the midpoint of his life, but his essential self revolves round the poetic.        

 

Kalpana Bardhan who has done extensive research in this field, has translated a number of songs under the headings: Love, Nature, and Devotion. Here’s one that is metapoetic:

                                    When through a song I see the world

Then I recognize it, then I understand.

Then its own language of light fills the sky with delight,

Then a sublime message wakes up in its dust.

Then it leaves the outside, in my soul it comes,

Then my heart trembles in the blades of its grass.

In streams of the song’s rasa, the lines of beauty lose own boundaries;

Then I find all with each other in close touch[9].

As Kalpana Bardhan notes in her Introduction: “In Rabindranath’s songs, unlike in vocal classical Hindustani and Carnatic music, words are not secondary to melody.  They are of equal or greater significance – the lyrics are no less than verbal, subtle dileneations of complex emotions, miniatures in metaphors and images. (p. x)” There is also a variant version of this original in Bengali that goes like this:

Poet, Singer

Through music the world as I see,

I know it, reveals its intimacy.

Language of its light

Fills sky in loving delight;

Its dust speaks the innate

Divine words ultimate;

Ceases to be external

In my soul melodies to spell;

On its grass

My heart’s throbs pass;

Beauty shapes up, flows the nectar

My own bounds to blur;

With all then I see

My camaraderie.[10]

Little wonder that that Tagore’s vision is unique: it is this uniqueness of what in Keats’s terms would be “negative capability” — the ability to extinguish one’s self and reappear in the other, a high modern “escape from personality!”  Tagore’s vision is universal, and in Sanskrit aesthetic terms this process could be seen as sadharanikarana—universalisation. Let’s now take up an early sonnet from Sri Aurobindo “My Life is Wasted” written in his late twenties.[11]

My life is wasted like a lamp ablaze

Within a solitary house unused,

My life is wasted and by Love men praise

For sweet and kind. How often have I mused

What lovely thing were love and much repined

At my cold bosom moved not by that flame.

’Tis kindled; lo, my dreadful being twined

Round one whom to myself I dare not name.

I cannot quench the fire I did not light

And he that lit it will not; I cannot even

Drive out the guest I never did invite;

Although the soul he dwells with loses heaven.

I burn and know not why; I sink to hell

Fruitlessly and am forbidden to rebel.  [Baroda, c. 1898 – 1902]

We sense herein a deep anguish—the times were terrible, the idea of a nation was in the process of becoming real and the pressures of a growing self-awareness and the touch of immortal spirit all invoking the poet who struggles within “ to quench the fire I did not light!” We can also sense a certain linguistic and semantic freedom in this early poem that slowly is releasing itself from the clutches of a burdened coloniality.  Until now the poet could freely resort to the nineteenth century English clichéd phrases, which are still visible in lines like: “What lovely thing were love and much repined/At my cold bosom moved not by that flame.” However toward the close the touch of the greater poet becomes largely evident:

I cannot quench the fire I did not light

And he that lit it will not; I cannot even

Drive out the guest I never did invite;

Although the soul he dwells with loses heaven.

I burn and know not why; I sink to hell

Fruitlessly and am forbidden to rebel.

Once the poet has commenced sensing the touch of the divine, or better still, once the poet has permitted the greater self awareness to emerge freely into play, the vision affords the greater craftsman to yoke together revelation and inspiration (two key terms in Sri Aurobindo’s poetics the coming together of which lead toward the rendering of what he considers as the most unique poetic: the mantra) Sri Aurobindo’s poetic corpus reveals the graph of an early Europeanised Romantic/Victorian decadent verse evolving self reflexively into an envisioned epic stature.  Of course all his lyric and narrative efforts lead naturally toward Savitri, nevertheless the shorter poems do really require greater attention as enfolding the bounty of his diverse moods and perceptions.  They may not be as visually imaginative as those of Tagore’s, nor would they be musical like those penned by Gurudev, but they are endeavours of a suffering soul that sees and senses and experiences the world in all its manifold sensibilities. Their honesty and sincerity cannot be challenged, nor can their ability to move the reader, given that the reader becomes a sahrdaya—of like-heart!  If in the case of Tagore it is the smaller aspects of life the simple things and ordinary joys and sorrows that undergo poetic manifestations into something rich and strange, in the case of Sri Aurobindo it is the profounder insight into the larger dimensions behind all simple being that poetically get transformed. It may be commonplace to state that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were essentially poets, for its their unique poetic sensibilities which afforded them the visionary eye when it came to philosophize. However, both never held themselves to be academic or systematic in their philosophizing; neither would accept the appellation of a philosopher too. Their vision is of the lineage of the Vedas and Upanishads—simple, sensitive, impassioned, natural, and non- intellectual far from ratiocinative. While Tagore has left his legacy integrated with the rural, the folk, the commonsensical and the imaginative, closely tied to life in all its innocence and freshness, Sri Aurobindo has envisioned an entire universe conceived in poetic meaning and imaginative aspiration—a way of transformation that calls for a heightened poetic sensibility.  In the final analysis it is poetry that answers to the vision of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. And only in poetry could their worlds be resolved.  A world of paradox and contradiction, a world of suffering and resistance, a world devoid of any sense while under the throes of a colonial burden—all this becomes beautiful and transformed into something rich and strange when the touch of rhythm and resonance announces the presence of the divine within and without. Any Spiritual Vision could appear amoral or even ridiculously romantic once taken out of context. But once seen in perspective everything falls into place.

The perspective that both Tagore and Sri Aurobindo afford is the simple truth of being: what was plain and apparent to the visionary eye of the poet– it is for us to shift and readjust our perspectives to catch a glimpse at least of their greater vision.   Tagore and Sri Aurobindo desired to build a world where harmony and understanding reigned over hatred and hostility. They were acutely sensitive to the dangerous ideologies of their own times which were leading the world in a trajectory of crisis and catastrophe; their anxiety is revealed in their thoughts and narratives—be it through songs, sonnets, poems,letters, fiction, drama, speeches or treatises. Of course their approach was certainly individual and different—while Tagore worked alongside people working and singing in their midst, Sri Aurobindo chose to work alone away from all in the isolation of an Ashram that came up around him (But we must remember he continued to publish his work so as to ensure it reached the public at large). It is in their single-mindedness that we perceive their unity. A commitment to humanity in the larger sense.

Rabindranath Tagore’s final lines dictated about a week before his passing are very well known.

The first day’s sun had asked

at the manifestation of new being– who are you?

No answer came.

Year after year went by

The last sun of the day the last question utters

on the western sea shores

in the silent evening –

Who are you?

He gets no answer.

This unquenchable desire to see into the heart of things is what marks off this redoubtable visionary poet. In a voice that counters the depressed voice of the early sonnet quoted a little while ago, Sri Aurobindo writes (again in his mid twenties, perhaps):[12]

I have a hundred lives before me yet

To grasp thee in, O spirit ethereal,

Be sure I will with heart insatiate

Pursue thee like a hunter through them all.

Thou yet shalt turn back on the eternal way

And with awakened vision watch me come

Smiling a little at errors past, and lay

Thy eager hand in mine, its proper home.

Meanwhile made happy by thy happiness

I shall approach thee in things and people dear

And in thy spirit’s motions half-possess

Loving what thou hast loved, shall feel thee near,

Until I lay my hands on thee indeed

Somewhere among the stars, as ’twas decreed.

Despite its strait-jacket form and perhaps a little over-strained narration, this sonnet does convey more than its desired intent. The image of the hunter pursuing his quarry is striking but once the quarry, the spirit ethereal, turns and lays its eager hand on the hunter, he learns to see things afresh:

Meanwhile made happy by thy happiness

I shall approach thee in things and people dear

And in thy spirit’s motions half-possess

Loving what thou hast loved, shall feel thee near…

And having seen and felt that sun’s rays on his eternal self the tireless will of the poet still pursues the spirit, never giving up till it is reached.  Although this sonnet does not reveal all of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical inquiring, it does presage an unsettled poetic psyche a relentless soul that tirelessly worked to transform all earthly being into a spiritual becoming.  If in this sonnet the poet-narrator seeks solace “somewhere among the stars, as ’twas decreed,” the final resolution was never to be elsewhere for the yogi. As Sri Aurobindo envisioned it the involuted Spirit had to reach through Matter, Life, and Mind into the various planes and parts of Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition and Overmind, until it finally united itself with the Supermind in an all transforming unity and integrity. His Integral Yoga was a recognition of the higher than mental life and a step ladder toward its achievement.

In the final analysis Tagore and Sri Aurobindo stood at two different extremities, perceived life in unique angles, thought and wrote differently, but, however, in their most subtle of perceptions they did not differ much.  That desire for the harmonious, for the virtuous, for the beautiful perfection, held them on diverse paths in the same direction. Their journey as we have seen was never on foot on well-trodden paths but over time and space in air, water, fire and ether. And whatever they touched they transformed into something rich and strange!

It is the propensity and capability for being sensitive to the overpowering vision and revelation of strong feelings, to be able to withstand their onslaught and internalize them into levels of profound poetic experience that makes the life and works of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo contemporary and relevant to us in these irreverential and descralised days of market capitalism.  When the youth of India as elsewhere are driven away from their own interior realms from even the minus-one days of their existence by the lures of the playing fields of technology and the tinsel establishments of commercial contrabands, trapped and intepellated in the clutches of a morbid educational system, conditioned into mistaking what they profess as their virtual existence as the real real, the poetic voice of the bard seldom reaches them from the other shores of time. What Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore stood for might appear so far removed from our own everyday existence and their struggles seen to be mere wrestling in the dark to no avail. If only the thin veils of our own deception were to fall off for a fraction of a second we could see their golden boats for what they are worth.  The true calling of poetry is the revelation of the real. And only when the mind’s eye is open can we see and hear properly. Until such times the complete worth and the significance of the struggles of these two visionaries might be condemned to remain in the dark.

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[1] The phrase of course is from the well known song sung by Ariel in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest! But the context is altered suitably and conveniently, retaining only the rich texture of the phrase with no connotations intended.

[2] Rabindranath Tagore 1929: 73-74) “Ideals of Education”, The Visva-Bharati Quarterly (April-July), 73-4.

[3] Iyengar, Sreenivasa K.R. Indian Writing in English, 5th Edition (New Delhi: Sterling, 1985),p101

[4] Sri Aurobindo, A Preface on National Education,Two articles in the “Arya“(Nov-Dec 1920 and January 1921) http://intyoga.online.fr/preface.htm

[5] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity (London: Penguin, 2005) 92ff.

[6]  Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture, p.81

[7] (ibid p 81)

[8] Kathleen M O’Connell, Rabindranath Tagore on Education. http://www.infed.org/thinkers/tagore.htm

[9] Bardhan, Kalpana. Of Love, Nature, and Devotion: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: OUP,2008) p 218.

[11] Complete Poems, Volume 2- The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, p 178.

[12] Op cit p. 180– Baroda, c. 1898 – 1902