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At the Feet of The Mother

A Look Behind – by Mrityunjoy (I)

(Some Early Recollections of the Ashram)

When I reached Pondicherry, the Ashram was already two and a half years old, and a new disciplined life had come into being under the Mother’s direct control and guidance. I heard about it before coming, from friends who had been temporary visitors at the Ashram, and also from a few old associates of Sri Aurobindo who could not adjust themselves to the new conditions in the Ashram. They found it too difficult to change their old ways all at once and turn a new leaf by surrendering themselves to the Mother in a strictly disciplined external life. It would have proved easy enough for them if it had been an accustomed formal surrender, leaving the old ego-self as it was. But to surrender each and every movement of the mind and life, especially of the vital being in its daily activity, was not only very difficult but was felt as suppression of their free development. So these few returned one by one, some confessing their weakness, some critical of the new order. However, when I sought the Mother’s permission to come and join the Ashram permanently, I received a reply written by Srijut Nolini Kanta Gupta, the secretary, on behalf of the Mother, that for the present a temporary stay was permitted, as the time for consideration of a permanent stay had not yet come. When I arrived, it was at a very critical moment in my life. A long, difficult and adventurous journey was ahead — to be completed only by the Grace of the Mother.

As a rule, in those days, the Mother saw people the very day they arrived. So at ten in the morning I followed Nolini-da, who led me up to the small Darshan-room in the Meditation House, where the Mother was waiting. Her first question to me, after a short meditation at Her feet, was: “When did you take up the yoga?” She seemed pleased with my answer, and after a few more minutes She graciously blessed me and by nodding Her head indicated that I could go. Later on I came to know the Mother’s remark about me, “He has good receptivity but the vital is weak.”

I returned to my room, naturally full of happiness. In the afternoon, quite unexpectedly a young sadhak, who had joined the Ashram two years earlier and who was staying in the room next to mine, came to me. He looked at me somewhat inquisitively and asked which province I hailed from. Upon hearing my reply, a spontaneous but mild remark slipped off his tongue: “You see, the people of your province are good for nothing. Their sadhana is to read the Arya and other big books, to do painting, to sing, to compose music, to go for regular walks on the beach and to meditate. Whereas we do work in the Ashram. So they call us ‘Das’ (labour class). But I tell you, if you really want to know what the Mother is, you must work. Only then will you physically feel Her shakti. Otherwise you will miss the chance however much you read and meditate.” Evidently, refinement was not his strong point, but his words left a strong impression on me. Maybe I wanted to verify the truth behind his unasked-for observation, which was undoubtedly for me a big grace from the Mother, and all that on the very day of my arrival!

I at once decided to work. I approached another neighbour whom I had known before, and proposed to meet Nolinida so that I could ask for some work. He agreed to take me the next morning. But, to my surprise, he told me that very night, on his return from the “Soup”, that Nolinida had spoken to the Mother after the soup ceremony and that She had been rather amused and surprised at my request. She instructed him to give some light work in the Library, because I was sickly at that time. Thus on the second day of my stay I joined work in the Ashram. Later still, I began to realise what was behind the first caution of my friend, behind the surprise of the Mother at my having asked for work, the attitude of some of the old associates of Sri Aurobindo who had left the place, and of the new batch of devoted workers who had recently joined the Ashram, most of whom were not intellectuals.

It was not until the third day that the Mother permitted me to attend the morning Pranam, which in those days took place in the present room of Bula, and the evening Soup, which was then being distributed by Her from the Soup Hall, now the Reception Room of the Ashram. Many, I heard, had to wait quite a long time for permission for these two opportunities. Some have already described this Soup ceremony, so I need not go into the details except for some personal experiences. It was in the evening that this function was held and there was a dim light burning near the place where the Mother sat with Her feet resting upon a low stool. She would first meditate and as she opened her eyes, Champaklal would bring the soup vessel, a big cylindrical container with handles, and place it before Her. After putting it on a stool he removed the lid; then over the steaming vapour the Mother stretched forth and brought down Her hands and held them there for half a minute or so. Then each one went to Her with his cup in which she would pour the soup. During this time they made pranam at Her feet, then got up to receive the cup from Her hand.

She explained to someone that when She brought down Her palms She invoked Sri Aurobindo on the soup, and when the soup, so blessed, entered the body it acted on the cells to help transform them. That was the central truth of it, but individual experiences varied. After pranam at Her feet I would raise my head up and look at Her with my hands stretched forward to receive the soup cup. Often She was in trance and Her eyes would suddenly open and with a wonderful smile on Her lips She would communicate much more than by explaining to me in mere words. Not things philosophical or some deep spiritual experience, but things we call practical, of day-to-day life, solutions to problems of the past day or of the next, what I should or should not do, all these and in the most minute detail, were received from Her in those few seconds. The whole body felt as if it was filled with something, with the sense of a purified and raised consciousness. There were days when She did not open Her eyes at all, not even to give the cup to me. I almost had to pull it out of Her hand in order to allow the next person’s turn to come. This meant to me that perhaps I was not open to Her that day. Often, on the succeeding day when I did not follow Her indication from the previous evening Soup-time, things did not go well in peace and harmony. This was a constant factor in my life. But the Mother always gives precious things too easily, so my human nature failed to appreciate properly and to realise the purpose behind — to help me change my nature. It quickly turned them into mechanical routine. Thus when it became a habitual movement for the majority of the Ashramites, it was a foregone conclusion that in the inner world the decision was already there to stop it.

Throughout my life in the Ashram it has been a constant experience that the Mother always gives the chance to approach Her and receive from Her things divine in so many forms, but after some time we turn it into something mechanical, valuable only in the earthly way: to have the right, the privilege to approach Her and receive things that others cannot have. Then it stops after some time. She does not stop the movement by giving a notice or explanation. She has infinite patience, She allows it to continue for quite a long time, giving the utmost chance to ignorant people to be conscious and take the right attitude and receive things in the true spiritual way for the transformation of their being. But when the old way persists sometimes for years together, She falls sick, because of our lack of receptivity, and thus inevitably the movement stops. It begins after sometime in a new form, suitable to the new conditions. In the case of the Soup this was so.

One day, I heard later, some sadhak, a so-called medical man, made some critical remarks on the Soup in front of the Mother, saying it had no food value at all, being left to boil for hours. The Mother, seemingly surprised, made a soft remark, “Do you think so?” Perhaps that was enough indication that the time had come to stop the Soup, and not long after the day came.

The Mother was indisposed due to over-exertion in visiting various departments of workmen, who were celebrating the Ayudha Puja. The Soup was stopped automatically and along with it the morning Pranam. It was 19th October, 1931; one whole month She was indoors. Just a few days before the 24th November Darshan, She was able to come down for the morning Pranam, in the hall below in the Meditation House. The spiritual record of it is there in Her diary, on the last page of Her Prières et Méditations, dated the 24th November 1931.

To return to the Soup ceremony, which was so mystical and profound. One night the Mother looked smilingly at me and held my eyes while giving the soup cup in my hand. Later that night Nolinida communicated Her message to me that She had seen a star at the centre of my heart emanating four rays, which had something to do with the four powers of the Mother. The same thing was repeated the next day. Nolinida called me and told it to me again adding that the Mother had said I should be careful. “Careful about what?” I asked him. He said the Mother had meant that I should be careful in my daily movements, so as not to disturb something that was growing in me.

During those days, generally in the afternoons, I would go for a long walk with some of my elderly friends, whom I had known before and who were now for me very respectable and advanced yogis, specially since I was a novice newly arrived. However, their conduct fully justified the caustic remarks made by my friend on my first day in the Ashram. The whole walking hour was devoted to gossip about everything under the sun, and in the most ordinary way. New lamb that I was, I swallowed everything with relish and argued with myself when the conscience pricked, saying that it was the spiritually enlightened way of seeing things. Within a week’s time I began to feel dull when I approached the Mother at Pranam time or at Soup. I felt quite empty. I then realised the meaning of the Mother’s message to me, ‘to be careful’!

After three days I was allowed by the Mother to join the group for the Morning Pranam. I found it quite different from my arrival day’s Pranam at Her feet. Now Her look penetrated my eyes as if She read through them my secret thoughts, feelings and actions, of which I had not yet become aware. I gradually began to discover, by her constant silent communications, that much of my ignorance was really a pretension. It was a great chance given by Her to all, to convey silently to Her their individual needs, questions or aspirations and to receive Her directions for what they should or should not do. She transmitted Her message through flowers, separate for each person. She had given each flower a significance, and through that we had to decipher Her spiritual message.

Amal was my senior by one year in the Ashram. I lived for some time in the Guest House with him, so I used to visit him, as he was ever generous to allow it, and I saw him painting some of the flowers for the Mother with the messages, that those flowers carried, written below. I got the impulse to do the same with the flowers that I was getting from Her every day. So I began, and sent some of the drawings with Nolinida to the Mother, along with Her messages as I had received them through the flowers of the day. She remarked about my paintings, “He has the capacity but needs practice.” As for the messages, I heard from Nolinida that on some days, ‘they were exact’. On some occasions the remark was, ‘almost correct’, on others ‘he is now writing with the mind.’ A puzzle to me! What is writing with the mind? Man always writes with the mind! Nolinida was kind enough to explain to me that, instead of quietly receiving the Mother’s hints spontaneously from within, I was trying by the external mind to construct a sentence by combining meanings of the flowers; this defeated Her purpose. A new revelation to me. But gradually this opportunity was also lost, like many others. Instead of trying to concentrate on one’s self-discovery, we began to look at each other’s flowers and complained that some got better flowers than others. Thus along with the stopping of the Soup the morning Pranam was also stopped, in October 1931. A month later, just before the 24th November Darshan, when hardly recovered from serious illness, She was gracious enough to come down again to accept the Pranam in the morning, so as to prepare the disciples for the Darshan of Sri Aurobindo. But this time the form of the Pranam was completely changed. It was no longer in the room where one could approach Her in privacy, but in the open verandah in the Meditation House, downstairs in front of Amrita’s room, where we all sat together and looked at each person approaching the Mother, instead of concentrating on how to stand in Her Presence. No longer different flowers to every person this time; She gave the same flower and only one to each.

The dining room in those days was inside the Ashram compound, not even a room but a small tiled shed only, where not more than fifteen people could sit together and eat. No visitor was allowed there, only the sadhaks went there for food, and that also in two batches, due to shortage of space. Servants carried food to the guests in their rooms. There were only enamelled pots, not even tiffin carriers. After sometime I was given the opportunity to go there for some light work, evidently with the approval of the Mother, to spread the carpets (actually narrow mats) and arrange the Japanese-style small tables on the floor, but not to take my own food there. After three months someone left and there was a vacant seat, so I was given permission to take my food there. This was the first time since I came to the Ashram that I had a chance to eat in the dining room. The experience was no less solemn than going for meditation. We would all go in and take our seats as the bell was rung; the same bell perhaps that is rung today in the palatial building that is now our Dining Room. An incense stick was lit to add to the sacred atmosphere, and each one would turn to his dish prayerfully, in an attitude of offering the food to the Divine within. I do not say that this atmosphere was maintained at all the three meals of the day. I was told that it had been far more intense before, when the Mother used to come to the dining room Herself every day and tasted each item which was then taken by all as prasad. But after some time that opportunity was also lost, apparently due to the Mother’s lack of time, but actually because of a general failure in maintaining the attitude pure enough. Later Sri Aurobindo wrote that people’s attitude towards food was responsible.

Gradually I became accustomed to the work in the dining room, but unfortunately also to the old egoistic attitude towards my fellow workers, I fell a prey to the lower vital’s impure reactions that seemed to spring spontaneously from within me. I also copied others thinking that to be the real way of progress in sadhana. The process of opening myself to the influence of the Mother and obeying Her will, always looking at my own defects and drawbacks, was replaced by reports and complaints to Her against the others, always presenting myself to be guiltless or less guilty. It was this that later on was surely responsible for my change of work, although the Mother was extremely patient and compassionate and allowed me to grow in that wild way for a long time.

An incident comes to mind that happened during my first days of stay in the Ashram. Dara in those days became interested in taking photographs of many of the Ashram inmate. I took a fancy to collect some of them and seek autographs of the sadhaks on the pictures, just for my own collection. It certainly was a newcomer’s enthusiasm to come in contact with some of the veteran sadhaks. Some readily agreed and autographed also. I approached Nolinida, but he declined. To him it appeared a wrong movement, because in the Ashram only Sri Aurobindo and the Mother gave autographs. This naturally hurt me but did not fail to make an impression on me. Then, after some others with whom I had succeeded, I approached Pavitra, about whom I had heard very interesting stories even before I came to the Ashram, and who since then has been to me a true child of the Mother. So as soon as I came here I took the earliest opportunity to meet him, even though people told me that he was one of the three persons in those days, with whom nobody was to talk without the Mother’s permission. He kept the photo with him and told me to see him the next day. What a shock and surprise was in store for me, when he told me the day after that he had asked the Mother about it and that She had not approved. Embarrassed and sorry, I asked him whether the Mother was displeased. He assured me very sweetly that She was not displeased. What She meant was that to give autographs was to communicate some power and She did not see any necessity for that in this case. After Nolinida, this was again a lesson to me; more so, because the attitude of Pavitra to refer everything to the Mother, even things which appeared small to the common point of view, was an unforgettable pointer to me, even though I often forgot it.

December 25, 1929 is a date I particularly remember for two reasons. It was perhaps the first Christmas day celebration of that period. In the evening after returning from the Soup Hall and before going up to Her room the Mother distributed some small green leaves from the stairs, in the Meditation House. Just before She began the distribution, She said, “These leaves are called New Birth; not a new birth in the body but a birth in the new consciousness. These will be given to all, and according to each one’s receptivity will be the realisation.” Then She started giving a bunch of those leaves to each one in turn. The appearance of Her face was remarkable, the embodied Divine was present before all.

As the distribution was coming to a close, Nolinida discovered that Barinda had not yet arrived and asked me to fetch him immediately. What a strange situation to find that Barinda was not in his room. By the time I returned to inform about it the Mother had gone up. Next morning both Nolinida and Amrita visited Barinda’s room and found a letter addressed to Sri Aurobindo on a table. Later I learned that he had written to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother saying that he was leaving the Ashram. Later still there were some communications of Sri Aurobindo, which were published, explaining the difficulty of a strong self-centred egoistic man to surrender to the Mother.

I felt sorry for Barinda having left the Ashram. As one of the pioneers of Sri Aurobindo’s historic Bengal Revolutionary movement, and later, after his return from the Andamans life-imprisonment cell, he became a staunch follower and organiser of Sri Aurobindo’s new line of spiritual development. It was unthinkable that he had left. But by then I had come to realise that many of the old-timers could not bring themselves to surrender their outer life to the Mother. In fact complete surrender even today is never an easy thing. Yet today’s Ashram has an advantage, as people with a slight opening can fit in as workers in any of the hundreds of activities, provided they accept the Mother’s decision as final. Question of surrender, even incomplete, does not come up, unless the person behaves in a hostile way. This opportunity which the Mother is giving now was unthinkable then, and unthinkable anywhere in the world today where a spiritual discipline for the development of the consciousness is the first object. But in the case of people like Barinda, and specially in those days of intense sadhana, as the Mother was bringing down the higher Truth and Light in a sweeping succession, the slightest delay in accepting Her ways and directions was a positive hindrance. And the more advanced the sadhak the more difficult it was for him to accept the principle of complete surrender, because it meant the complete rejection of all he had done and achieved in the past and to become a perfect zero and begin anew. This was possible for none except the Mother when She came to Sri Aurobindo the first time in 1914. In Her diary She has kept that history for posterity, the experiences of Her first few days’ contact with Sri Aurobindo.

And a still more interesting thing is what Sri Aurobindo once said to Barinda in answer to his question regarding his first impressions of the Mother, vis-à-vis Hers of Him. Sri Aurobindo told Barinda that even before coming to Pondicherry he had realised that the descent of the Supermind was inevitable and for that the one indispensable condition on the part of the human being was a complete surrender to the Divine, down to the physical. There had been attempts of this before, but none had succeeded. He had never seen an example of complete surrender until he had seen the Mother. In Her he saw the complete surrender down to the very cells of the body, and thus he was convinced that now the time had come for the Supramental to manifest.

I could clearly see that one of the rare old inmates was Nolinida, who found no difficulty in adjusting himself to the situation. Once a newcomer, a person of importance and at the same time admirer of Nolinida, asked him point blank, “Didn’t you have any difficulty, like many others, in accepting the Mother?” His spontaneous reply was, “No, I had no difficulty whatsoever; when Sri Aurobindo accepted Her there was no question of my not doing so.”

to be continued…

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