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At the Feet of The Mother

The Problem of Pain

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A Talk at Savitri Bhavan on November 19, 2005 (Invocation 25:20-47)

There is a beautiful prayer of the Mother – of course all her prayers are beautiful, but this one is perhaps especially appropriate for the topic we have chosen for this evening:

To turn towards Thee, unite with Thee, live in Thee and for Thee, is supreme happiness, unmixed joy, immutable peace, it is to breathe infinity, to soar in eternity, no longer feel one’s limits, escape from time and space.

But then, the touch of divine pathos:

… Why do men flee from these boons as though they feared them? What a strange thing is ignorance, that source of all suffering! How miserable that obscurity that keeps men away from the very thing which would bring them happiness and subjects them to this painful school of ordinary existence fashioned almost entirely of struggle and suffering! – June 18, 1913 [CWM 1: 22]

A few things stand out: first, suffering as part of the schooling process of Nature. It is a difficult process we are going through. Sometimes it is a long schooling because we are poor learners. And what is it driving us towards? ‘To turn towards Thee…’ We have often seen and it is very true that when all the doors are closed in life it is time to turn towards that one door. However difficult it may seem, however obscure it may appear, because that’s how life is: ‘To turn towards Thee’; that is the solution. Ignorance is the cause of suffering, pain is part of the process of schooling in our ordinary life, and turning towards the Divine as the source is the solution, the way to come out of it.

This is the broad canvas, but let us try to fill in the canvas. There is a very touching story of Sri Aurobindo’s life, and I find it very significant. It is a small story, a real anecdote. Once while he was with the Maharaja of Baroda, they were taking a walk together and they came across an old lady who was trying to lift a bundle onto her head. The Maharaja, as a good Samaritan, walks up to the lady, picks up the bundle, and lifts it onto her head. Then he turns towards Sri Aurobindo, looking for a word of praise. That’s what we do – ‘Oh, I have done so many good things, the Divine must have recorded them, or somebody must have noticed them ….’ But a smile comes from Sri Aurobindo, a smile of divine irony perhaps. He makes a remark that is very significant. He says something to this effect: ‘Yes, yes, yes, all this while we have been doing only this: taking the burden of man and putting it back on his own shoulders.’ There is a beautiful line in Savitri to that effect, where Sri Aurobindo says:

And, leader here with his uncertain mind,
Alone who stares at the future’s covered face,
Man lifted up the burden of his fate. [6]

The problem of pain is a really vexed one, and it doesn’t go away through the simple fact of believing that this is a world created by the Divine, the Divine who is Sat – pure Existence, who is Ananda – Bliss, whose very stuff is Consciousness, who is omnipotent. Yet this world, which is full of misery, ‘packed with pain’ – what is it? What or who is struggling here? We have been passing the burden onto man, saying ‘It is your own bad karma, you have called this evil onto your own shoulders.’ Sometimes this sounds so insensitive. As a doctor I have had patients who have suffered a myocardial infarction, a heart attack, or a fractured foot, and as it is traditionally done, people who went to visit them said, ‘It is all karma, so you have to bear it.’ It sounds doubly insensitive. This man has been knocked down by a lorry, and on top of it his friends tell him it is not the fault of the driver, it is not the fault of anyone else, it is his own karma from some lives back! Sri Aurobindo, as if taking a dig at this attitude, says, ‘As if man had much of a role to play in the making of this universe!’ There are so many cosmic forces, so many unseen things around us. How much of a role do we really have? Is it really karma?

There have been other ways of looking at it: it is because of some Titan, some dark adversary force who alone has subjected man to all this. Now obviously, this dark adversary is there, but surely he cannot have much say unless there is behind him some kind of a sanction. What is that sanction behind this pain, this suffering? How does ignorance manifest itself at so many levels? This of course is a broad canvas. We use the word Ignorance and say that it leads to suffering. One simplistic way of understanding this is that we are too much captured by appearances. What appears as death and disaster to our eyes, to a deeper vision is no death, no disaster, but only a changing of forms. This has been one way to look at the problem of pain. But that would perhaps be cutting the problem too hastily. Some can do it, but it is not of much help to one who is really going through the process of grief. How does pain manifest, how does ignorance manifest at different levels?

Let us trace the evolution of pain upon earth. We can see something very interesting: at the level of pure matter, there is no pain. You can leave iron for millenniums, and it remains what it is, hid in the bowels of the earth, god knows how many millenniums and ‘trillenniums’. You take out that iron and use it for some work, some kind of movement. The moment you use it, in a machine or as equipment, in a movement, it begins to show signs of wear and tear over a period of time. It is something very strange: that matter, left to itself, feels no pain, undergoes no perceptible wear and tear. But add to it movement of any kind and it begins to come in clash with other forces and it begins to show wear and tear and with that comes the possibility of pain, not in matter itself but at the next level when the force of life tends to pull matter, it begins to crack and it begins to have the sensation of pain. Sri Aurobindo says that this is because of the inertia of matter. It refuses to respond. Because what really is Ignorance? Who is hiding behind the mask of Ignorance? Who is hiding in this darkness in which we cannot see? It is none else but the Supreme Godhead waiting to be born through this process. And pain is nothing but the labour-pangs of that birth-to-be. Sri Aurobindo beautifully says, ‘For with pain and labour all creation comes [444]. Who is hiding in this darkness? In Alipore jail, Sri Aurobindo did not know what was going to happen to him, outwardly so to say, he could be sentenced to imprisonment, deportation to the Andamans. Yet, just at the time when we might be expecting a lament from him, Sri Aurobindo wrote:

It is He in the sun that is ageless and deathless
And into the midnight His shadow is thrown.
When darkness was dense and covered in darkness
He was seated within it, immense and alone.
[CWSA 2: 203; ‘Who’]

He – All-Bliss, He – All-Truth, is waiting to be born. And he is born first as the force of life. Matter begins to stir with consciousness. But matter doesn’t want to stir: it is inert, it doesn’t want to move. The moment there is movement it begins to crack, to cry out, and that is the first level at which pain appears. Pain comes with life. Where there is no life there is no pain, no conscious pain. And that is because of inertia. And therefore pain is required. In human beings this inertia takes the form of inability to move forward. One is stuck with one’s fixed beliefs, one’s mechanical habit, routine – even turning to God can become a routine! Even our beliefs can become mechanical. And then pain comes to shake us up.

How does it help? How does this schooling process work?  Very beautifully, Sri Aurobindo says in Savitri:

Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break
A dead resistance in the mortal’s heart,
His slow inertia as of living stone.
If the heart were not forced to want and weep,
His soul would have lain down content, at ease,
And never thought to exceed the human start
And never learned to climb towards the Sun. [443]

That is how we are. We lie down content, at ease. It is so easy for all of us to sink into inertia. It is the first thing! This is an in-house crowd: we know how it is: you come and join an Ashram, and the first thing is, ‘Oh, now it’s finished! Everything is fine, because after all we have come here.’ We don’t realise that now the grinding begins, now the hammering begins, now the chipping begins, now the shaping begins. It is very natural, because inertia is the very law of matter. It loves inertia, it wants to remain where it is, and every time it is pulled out it cries out with pain. That is the first impulse – pain. And pain comes to tell matter, ‘No! That’s where the ignorance is.’ Ignorance hides in the inertia of matter.

But as life begins to climb, it again ignorantly begins to seek that Oneness. As a result, in life there is born desire. Desire is a strange thing. There is nothing wrong with desire as such. The only problem is that first we don’t really know what it is we are desiring, and the second thing is that, as it is said, there are two things that are the source of unhappiness in life: one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it. Only these two things.

There is a very nice little story which I have always found very instructive: A person goes into a hospital setting and finds a man crying ‘Lulu, Lulu, oh my Lulu!’ The inspector asks, ‘What is wrong with him?’ The answer comes, ‘Well, nothing much. He was in love with one Lulu, but he couldn’t get married to her, therefore the lament. He is very unhappy.’ The inspector says, ‘Well, it happens in life, he will get over it.’ A few beds further on there is another one crying, ‘Lulu, Lulu, oh my Lulu!’ Once again he asks, ‘Who is this Lulu? She seems to be quite terrible, giving so much pain!’ But the answer comes, ‘No, no – his problem is different. He got married to her, and now he is miserable and unhappy.’ They go a little further, and there is a third one crying out ‘Lulu, Lulu, oh my Lulu!’ He asks, ‘Now what is wrong with this guy?’ The answer comes, ‘There is nothing wrong with him. He doesn’t know who Lulu is. He is just seeing these others crying Lulu, Lulu and thinks she must be someone very desirable and that he must be missing something.’

This is so very true of desire: we think something will give us happiness – until we get it we are miserable. When we get it we are miserable, and for various reasons we are miserable. Therefore, they say there is a very old transaction which Nature has started which the modern market has copied. The deal is ‘Buy one pleasure, and get two pains free.’ You don’t have to pay for it. It comes unasked for, because it is in the very nature of things. It is in the nature of things because it is Ignorance; it is not because of ‘bad karma’.

Someone asked Sri Aurobindo – we don’t have the question, but it was probably something to this effect – ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Sri Aurobindo replies, ‘Blows come to all.’

… blows fall on all human beings because they are full of desire for things that cannot last and they lose them or, even if they get, it brings disappointment and cannot satisfy them. To turn to the Divine is the only truth in life. [CWSA 35: 844]

Bad things do not happen to you because there is something bad in you. Blows come to all human beings. None can escape. Why do they come? Because men are in love with things that are in their very nature transient. We love things that are transient, and we don’t love the Eternal.

Just a few days back I had someone telling me, ‘You know, for me, parents are God.’ Now, this sounds very fine, it is a fine sentiment, many people like it, at least parents like it. But then, if I am so much enamoured by those who have given birth to me in one life and brought me up and nourished me, how much more love I should have for the one has given birth to me for Time sempiternal, who has always been watching over my progress, as over a little baby, waking me up, step to step! So that is the real problem. We are in love with things that cannot last, and we do not understand that what we are really looking for in them is not there. That is why desire is another source of pain and suffering in human life.

That gives us two causes. One is inertia, the second is the principle of desire.

But then, that Godhead who is hidden in obscurity and ignorance is born as mind. With mind something else comes in. Mind believes that it knows – until it notices that it is falling flat every time and learns that it does not know. It is a seeking for Knowledge, but it doesn’t have the Knowledge. This is the problem with mind. Very beautifully, Sri Aurobindo summarises this in Savitri, where he says:

Man, still a child in Nature’s mighty hands,
In the succession of the moments lives;
To a changing present is his narrow right;
His memory stares back at a phantom past,
The future flees before him as he moves;
He sees imagined garments, not a face

He waits to weigh the certitude of his thoughts,
He knows not what he shall achieve or when; [53]

This is how our life is. We try to think – and that adds to our misery. The mind adds to our misery because, at an animal level there is pain, but there is no anticipation of pain. At the level of the animal there is ignorance, but there is no awareness of the ignorance. There is limitation, but there is no conscious awareness of the limitation.

In some places there is the practice of animal sacrifice, and of course animals are sacrificed every day to the belly god, if not to the gods on the altars – it doesn’t make much difference. If you see these animals being taken, except for the moment when they are actually going to be killed, they will be munching. When you take a goat and it is munching, it doesn’t know that it is being taken to the altar to be sacrificed. But put a man in the same place. Even if there is no scope for him being taken, but things begin to weave inside: ‘Oh, if this happens, if that happens, oh, there will be so much pain, this is going to hurt so much.’ Mind brings in its own element of uncertainty. And with that uncertainty comes anxiety and morbid thoughts and all kinds of negative preoccupations that add to the pain. There are a number of examples in real life which one could recount. We have seen instances where people were so much in anticipation of pain due to just a simple injection – they didn’t know that the injection had already been given! – yet they were wincing, as if it was going to come, because the anticipation creates pain. This is the third level.

But does pain stop there? No, there is yet another level of pain. It comes as the spiritual being begins to get extracted out of this obscurity. When life emerges from matter there is pain, when mind comes out of matter there is pain, when the Spirit begins to come out of matter there is pain. We find in Savitri – that is the base, always the base – Sri Aurobindo says,

An absolute supernatural darkness falls
On man sometimes when he draws near to God:
An hour arrives when fail all Nature’s means;
Forced out from the protecting Ignorance
And flung back on his naked primal need,
He at length must cast from him his surface soul
And be the ungarbed entity within: [11]

Why does it happen? It’s an anguish. Many of us have gone through it. The mind conceives an ideal, it wants an ideal world where there is no pain, no suffering, where everything is beautiful, everything is love and peace, harmony and joy. But the first brush of life on this sensitive humanity in which the Spirit is beginning to be born – because as Spirit is being born it expects an ideal world, and yet what it finds is nothing but ‘This earth is full of labour, packed with pain’ [443], ‘This earth is full of the anguish of the gods’ [444] – it translates itself as anguish. What is experienced as wear and tear at the level of matter, suffering at the level of life, anxiety at the level of mind, becomes anguish at the level of the Spirit – an anguish for perfection, for freedom from slavery of all kinds, an anguish for bliss, for Truth, for love.

There is of course another kind of suffering which we experience in certain moments. Sri Aurobindo uses the term ‘psychic suffering’. It is the suffering of the soul. There is a sweetness in it, there is a compassion in it, it suffers when it sees that the mind, life and body are making a fool of themselves, are riding a merry-go-round of desires, are going fruitlessly and vainly in search of god knows what … the soul sees it and suffers silently within.

These are various types of suffering, and this is how ignorance manifests itself at different levels. Essentially, we can look at it like that. We commonly understand ignorance as absence of knowledge, but in yogic terms that would be ‘nescience’. Ignorance is actually that which takes away the Oneness, so that we start seeing everything as separate: ‘I am separate; I am a being and I am most important to myself.’ Sri Aurobindo says that one of the great mistakes that we all do is to place ourselves, our ego, at the centre of the universe, and then we expect God and everyone else to cater to our needs and desires. What a nice God that would be who would fulfil all that I ask! What a bad God who would starve me and stifle me and takes away so many things that I want to hold on to! But that is the regard of the ego. What would be the regard of the soul within us? A very different regard. For,

The spirit rises mightier by defeat;
Its godlike wings grow wider with each fall. [458]

What the soul sees is something very different. It sees that pain is nothing but

… the hand of Nature sculpturing men
To greatness: an inspired labour chisels
With heavenly cruelty an unwilling mould. [444]

And then the poet goes on to tell us who are those who are picked up.

They shape with giant strokes their own; their sons
Are marked with their enormous stamp of fire. [444]

Who are the ones who are picked up? Not necessarily those whom we regard as sinners. In human life, the concept of sin itself, Sri Aurobindo says, was a trick of Nature created to make men move a little more easily towards the Divine. But man has responded to this trick of Nature with a greater cunning: he has become very acutely aware of the sins of others, and completely oblivious to his own. This trick of Nature hasn’t worked, there was no basic truth in it, it was a trick, a device. But what is the truth? Who are the ones who are chosen for this great pain? Those who are marked out to grow in Spirit, to conquer.

Only last night somebody rang me up to tell me about a young lady who is facing imminent death because of widespread cancer. The person who called me was in distress, and I had to speak out these lines of Savitri – and how it changes the whole perspective!

Then this person asked me, ‘But won’t it affect the faith of those who love her?’ Now the problem is that our beliefs and our nonbeliefs are so much on the surface that it really makes no difference. Many times it is very difficult to say who really believes and who doesn’t believe, because we live so much on the surface. What is happening in the depths? That is of crucial importance. We see only outwardly, outward things. And there are people who seem to believe, but at the smallest pain they wince, start cursing God, and start questioning ‘Why me? Why me? Why have you sent this calamity to me? What kind of God are you?’ – as if God is nothing but a genie in the bottle to satisfy all our desires? ‘My life should be happy – then it doesn’t matter if the whole world is going to blazes.’ We wince only when we ourselves have pain? This is the extreme degree of selfishness we can experience, even though we say that we believe. On the other hand, it is also true that there are people who outwardly don’t believe, but who can say that they have less faith? They go through life as if they knew that a silent hand is leading them. Though they don’t speak about it, they are silently doing yoga. In fact, many times I feel a little hesitant, speaking like this, going out to give talks, because I feel there are many more who go through life in such a beautiful way and they are the ones who are a source of inspiration for all of us. They live yoga. We talk about yoga. And very often those who don’t talk, walk on the path much better. So it’s a disqualification, very frankly I feel – to be sitting here!

Coming back to our problem of pain – these are the types of pain that we experience, and this is how ignorance manifests as pain. So what can we do? This is one aspect of it. We are not going into the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of it – how ignorance came into existence, how the inconscient came into existence, why it has been born – because those questions would interest a philosophical mind, but all Sri Aurobindo’s devotees need to have a bit of pragmatism in them, because he is really a spiritual realist. Otherwise we would become like the philosopher who was taking a boat ride: as he was a little way through he asked the boatman ‘Have you read the Vedas?’ He said ‘No sir, I am totally uneducated.’ They went on a little further. ‘You must have read the Gita at least, it’s a sacred scripture?’ ‘No, sir – I have heard about it, my father used to, I believe my great grandfather used to read it, but I have to earn a livelihood.’ They went a little further and the philosopher asked, ‘At least you must have read something from the Ramayana?’ ‘Well sir, it was there in my house but I couldn’t open it …’ Then suddenly they are caught in a whirlpool, the boat is sinking. The boatman asks, ‘Do you know how to swim, Professor?’ ‘No, I never learnt it!’ ‘Well I am sorry, I think your whole life is a waste!’ So let us touch the pragmatic aspect, how to really handle this problem of pain.

Of course, there is the spiritual solution, to get out of Ignorance, to get out of the limits of the ego – and that is what pain is trying to make us do. It is trying to enlarge us, it is trying to tell us that these are the limits and that if we live within those limits there is pain. In fact, Sri Aurobindo says when asked ‘What is pain when transformed in the Divine?’ he says, ‘Pain gets transformed into intolerable ecstasy.’ After all, this world is nothing but delight, but I feel pain because in me that delight is cabined in narrow bounds, I want happiness to be within these bounds, under these conditions, and therefore the touch of the great World-Master and Artisan is felt as pain to me.

We have seen the various sources of pain and how it manifests. But what do are we to do at each level?

At the level of matter, it must open to Light. We know how much Mother has emphasised this, but we shall come back to that a little later. What are we to do if we actually have a pain? If we have a toothache, or a pain in the hand or the foot – what do we do? We have to do precisely that – open to the Light. There is, beyond the borders of Ignorance, a Force, a Stillness, a Power of Immobility and Peace, and we have to bring that down to where our pain is. Now we cannot do that if in everyday life we are not accustomed to do it. It cannot be done suddenly in one day … although it does happen in many people instinctively that when they are in a state of deep crisis or physical pain, somehow they go through it, and afterwards, when it is over, they suddenly realise, ‘Oh my god, it was such a terrible thing!’ – but during that intense phase it is as if something takes hold and instinctively they make the right movement. For instance, fainting: fainting is the right movement when there is sudden stress or sudden physical trauma, because the being goes out of the body and it is one way to bring that peace and stillness into the body from above. But otherwise, hoping that we don’t faint, we can do it voluntarily by literally pushing that power of immobility into the part that is suffering; this is one very complete way. And I can tell you that this is a very very powerful method. One can just practice it and try it and it can really help any kind of pain.

Or else one can cut oneself off from the pain. These are the two alternatives available. One is to still the turbulent movement, the vibration which gets translated in our active mental consciousness as pain. The other is to get out of the zone of pain, that is the spot where the consciousness is in a whirlpool – to cut oneself off.

Now these are temporary solutions; this is not the permanent solution that Sri Aurobindo has mentioned. Sri Aurobindo has also mentioned medicines, and the Mother too was very pragmatic in her approach. People have the idea that the Mother didn’t want anyone to take pain-killers or drugs. It is not true. Yes, she said that this is a temporary thing, it is not the real thing. There are psychological methods by which we can overcome pain, and one is to detach oneself from the pain, from the painful spot and turn the mind elsewhere. Or we can hand over the responsibility to the Divine – that is the best, she says, that is ‘the supreme science’ – instead of all the time bothering about ‘what is happening to my body?’ and observing it acutely, as if the body were such a fascinating thing to observe. ‘Oh, I had five hiccups in the morning, and I had ten now in the evening, can there be something done about it?’ How does it matter? The other alternative is to introduce immobility into that spot and that acts like a balm, or indeed much more powerfully.

Then, on the vital level, the pain is caused by desire and attachment. We saw that desire comes because we are not experiencing the Oneness that all is. Here, isn’t pain also a means which Nature uses to re-create that oneness? Through our mutual affection and attachments? What should be done? The Mother tells us that while one should not ask for suffering, one should not run away from it either. That is what Sri Aurobindo says in Savitri also.

Pain and suffering are evolutionary mechanisms, but Sri Aurobindo is telling us, please, do not ask for suffering.

O mortal, bear, but ask not for the stroke,
Too soon will grief and anguish find thee out. [453]

Already there is enough load of it. We don’t have to ask for an additional quota. At the same time, when it comes we should not turn away from it. What should we do then? Go into the heart of pain, touch its very core from where it originates, into its depth. Go where there is no more separation, where there is Oneness. When we lose someone whom we love, when we lose something that we cherish, what should we do? Go within, go within, go within, into the depths. There is a bedrock of consciousness where there is Oneness, and these things are not abstractions. Indeed, suffering is a powerful lever with which we can open many a closed door if we know how to use it as a handle to go within. But instead, we sit at the face of the door that is closed and fret and fume rather than turn around and look at the door that is opening.

This is the problem with ignorance. We look at the TV, we are so captured by it that when there is a scene which is full of suffering we begin to suffer – because we are attached to it, it is so real to us. When there is something which is comical, we laugh. But we can always stand back from that horror-show and know that we are in ourselves alone and infinite. To go into the depths and discover that bedrock of Oneness, where none is separated from anyone, where all of us are together on the breast of the Mighty Mother, that is the solution, when we face suffering due to the loss of something or someone cherished. To have non-possessiveness about anything since all belongs to the Lord and is given to us on trust for a short while, is to be ever happy and free from the pain that comes through the stress of desire.

But if we cannot do that, there is another thing we can do. It is to face life with calm fortitude and endurance and trust in the Divine. As Sri Aurobindo says,

O mortal, bear this great world’s law of pain,
In thy hard passage through a suffering world
Lean for thy soul’s support on Heaven’s strength,
Turn towards high Truth, aspire to love and peace.
A little bliss is lent thee from above,
A touch divine upon thy human days.
Make of thy daily way a pilgrimage,
For through small joys and griefs thou mov’st towards God. [451]

We may not understand how it happens, but ‘make of thy daily way a pilgrimage’, that is the injunction. We have to do this in everyday life. This equanimity is not indifference to the touches of life, it does not mean becoming hard to pain, it is not becoming insensitive; equanimity is not just a stark facing of life, it is not a shrinking from life either.

There was somebody who had gone away to an ashrama and was staying there, and he was asked, ‘Why did you come here?’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘I have six daughters and you know it is so difficult to get them married, so I thought this is a nice solution for my miseries.’ There are all kinds of things, you know, in this world. But this is not what is meant: ‘Oh, now I am OK, I have no pain, no suffering because somebody else is going to have to take the burden on my behalf.’ That is not the advice. It is not indifference, equanimity is not insensitiveness. It is something much deeper. It rests on the bedrock of faith. It is a leap of faith, to let go and surrender to the Divine, with the conviction that He is there, He will take care. When we have knowledge, we don’t need faith. When we don’t have knowledge, faith is the line that bridges the chasm.

This letting go is again not easy for the human consciousness. There is a very fine story about a man who has an accident and gets thrown over a cliff. He hangs onto the edge and cries out loud, ‘Anyone there?’ A voice comes, ‘Let go.’ He looks down. Below him there is nothing but a gaping abyss. Once again he calls, ‘Anyone there?’ Once again the voice comes ‘Just let go. Have faith and let go.’ A third time he calls out, ‘Is there anyone else up there?’ [laughter].

This ‘let go’ is very difficult. It sounds very easy, and that’s why yoga has to be practiced in real life. It is a real-life event. We cannot practice equanimity unless we have these everyday experiences of life. The Mother says very beautifully in one of her Prayers: ‘the daily activity is the anvil on which all the elements must pass and repass in order to be purified, refined, made supple and ripe for the illumination which contemplation gives to them’ [CWM 1: 6]. They have to pass through the crucible where they are purified. At the end only that pure ingot of gold remains. All else is burnt away. This is what yoga is. It is a fire, and as She would say, do not touch this fire unless you are not only sincere but want to grow more and more sincere. One mistake we should not make in life or rather make it consciously, it is to tell the Divine ‘I want to be Yours’ – because we may say it quite thoughtlessly, ‘Oh, how nice …’ But once we say it, nothing can hold us back. When we say it we have to be willing to be all alone, to be cast out from everything, from every paradise. There’s a beautiful aphorism of Sri Aurobindo in which he says ‘God drives us out of every Eden that we may be forced to travel through the desert to a diviner Paradise’ [CWSA 12: 496]. He casts us out of every Eden. The moment that we say ‘I want to be Yours’, the safe limits begin to crack around us, and all that was our protecting ignorance, all that was the very thing keeping us away from the Divine, it begins to break and break and break to free ‘the ungarbed entity within’ [11].

This is the deep meaning of pain, and this is its significance. It shows us our limits and our weak spots. It comes to liberate us from the boundaries of our Ignorance. It is as it were an evolutionary device to push us towards a greater and greater self-exceeding. But Sri Aurobindo is a perfectionist and wants nothing short of perfect perfection. He says, all these things are fine, these are intermediary ways – equanimity, faith, detachment, practicing immobility, courage, aspiration for light, putting into matter a plasticity and will to progress – all these are solutions, but they are just steps on the way. What is the perfect solution? The perfect solution is only when matter, life and mind would be transformed into their divine equivalents. Matter is pure existence. The Self has become matter, and now it must recover that Selfhood. What is life? Life is pure Consciousness-Force, Chit-Shakti, delight fulfilling itself in manifold ways. The delight of oneness becomes the delight of union, delight of multiplicity. That is life, it is consciousness-force, reaching out to its aims, continuously fulfilling itself. And what is mind but a derivative fall from the supramental Truth? When mind recovers its plenary illumination, when it dwells in a self-existent knowledge where ‘All Time is one body, Space a single look’ [660] and ‘Time’s secrets’ are ‘an oft-read book’ [44], then there will be no more ignorance at these levels. That is the solution.

But who will do this? Who can do this? There we come to the great mystery of December 5 and November 17. Sometimes people wonder ‘Well, if that be the case, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother should not have had any problems, they should be always free from pain. Did not they go through suffering and pain?’ Beautifully, Sri Aurobindo has answered,

He who would save the race must share its pain:
This he shall know who obeys that grandiose urge.
The Great who came to save this suffering world
And rescue out of Time’s shadow and the Law,
Must pass beneath the yoke of grief and pain;
They are caught by the Wheel that they had hoped to break,
On their shoulders they must bear man’s load of fate.
Heaven’s riches they bring, their sufferings count the price
Or they pay the gift of knowledge with their lives. [445]

This is the basic distinction between the old yoga and the yoga of Sri Aurobindo. In the old yogas, you escape from the Law: ‘Here is the rule of Ignorance. This is going to remain forever. Escape from this zone of Ignorance, go into the zone of Light, don’t get caught into this cycle of birth and rebirth and you are free.’ But in Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga there is something else. It is not enough to escape, for

Escape, however high, redeems not life,
Life that has fallen here upon earth. [448]

Earth is the chosen place of mightiest souls;
Earth is the heroic spirit’s battlefield,
The forge where the Archmason shapes his works. [686]

It’s a smithy. This is the place of work that is always our home. We have come here from there, and we have come here for a work. The moment we live in the consciousness that we are essentially That, but we have come here for a work, all pain and suffering vanishes away. What is that work? He says it is to change the very law. Not to escape from the law – to change the law. But how can I change the law unless I pass beneath the yoke of the law? Unless I experience the law, its acuteness, its bitterness, its pang, the struggle and the suffering. When one goes below it, then one sees all the details and works to change it. It is relatively easy to escape from the law. That has been done time and time again for thousands and thousands of years by the great sages and saints all over the world. But here Sri Aurobindo comes to change the law and when one has to change the law one has to pass beneath the yoke of the law. And this is the secret of ‘the dread mysterious sacrifice’. ‘Now is the debt paid, wiped off the original score.’ … ‘The debt the Eternal owes to the fallen kind’ [445]. The incarnate God takes upon Himself the burden of human suffering and pain so that our path may become easier. A small tear drop in His eyes wipes away the tears of a million. That is the secret of God’s labour and His pain in a world that is yet unfinished and betrays Him. That of course is the story from the Divine’s side. How we respond to this divine holocaust is another story. How do we respond?

Hard is it to persuade earth-nature’s change;
Mortality bears ill the eternal’s touch:
It fears the pure divine intolerance
Of that assault of ether and of fire;
It murmurs at its sorrowless happiness,
Almost with hate repels the light it brings;
It trembles at its naked power of Truth
And the might and sweetness of its absolute Voice.
Inflicting on the heights the abysm’s law,
It sullies with its mire heaven’s messengers:
Its thorns of fallen nature are the defence
It turns against the saviour hands of Grace;
It meets the sons of God with death and pain.
A glory of lightnings traversing the earth-scene,
Their sun-thoughts fading, darkened by ignorant minds,
Their work betrayed, their good to evil turned,
The cross their payment for the crown they gave, [7]

This is how man responds. Essentially, we have to change our response towards pain. So far, we shrink from pain, or we try to escape from pain. But as His children, as Her children, we have to work and aspire for the change of the very law of pain, the very law of struggle and suffering. And for that even His children have to go through the test of this purifying fire.

We can pause here, and leave a time for questions and answers, with these lines from Savitri which are very very relevant and evocative. Among the boons that Savitri asks from Death – transformed into his own divine Reality – is the secret of emerging from pain:

“Thy embrace which rends the living knot of pain,
Thy joy, O Lord, in which all creatures breathe,
Thy magic flowing waters of deep love,
Thy sweetness give to me for earth and men.” [697]

Thy embrace which rends the living knot of pain – this is the divine embrace. When we go through life, instead of going as if we are travelling alone, struggling in yoga alone, struggling with life alone, if only we could have this sense that He is with us all the time, it is He who takes our burden upon himself. If we can take this leap of faith, this trust that it is He who strikes in the spears and rides in the chariot, He who slays without stint and is full of compassion, and if we can endure it with that equanimity, which Sri Aurobindo beautifully brings out:

I face earth’s happenings with an equal soul;
In all are heard Thy steps: Thy unseen feet
Tread Destiny’s pathway in my front. Life’s whole
Tremendous theorem is Thou complete.

And what is the victory and failure of life? He says

Failure is cradled on Thy deathless arm,
Victory is Thy passage mirrored in Fortune’s glass.

No power can slay my soul; it lives in Thee.
Thy presence is my immortality.
[CWSA 2: 612, ‘The Divine Worker’]


Questions and answers

Question from the Audience: Sir, what is the role of the subconscient in pain?

It comes in many ways. One, the subconscient holds the slightest impressions that it registers. It is like a place where the memory of pain and the responses which we have made previously all get stamped there as a habit. Therefore, though we know mentally that we could give another response to a situation or event, the subconscient spontaneously throws up the response we are habituated to. The subconscient is a big load – the atavism which we carry. It is the stamp of the past that lurks as a shadow and drags at our feet as we move into the future. Especially with regard to the yoga, when the journey enters into the subconscient it throws up all that. Before we experience that, it is natural for each of us to feel that everybody else is bad and we are the nice person. But when we confront the subconscient we discover what lurks within. And it is in everyone. Its role essentially is that it throws up the same habitual responses again and again – and again and again. One has to be very very patient and persistent when the working is going on in it. No one can work upon these parts himself. It is the Divine who works. But we have to allow the Divine to work. We have to understand that this is a process and this is a stage and a phase. We have to go through it and if we have to go through it, we might as well go through it smilingly and cheerfully, because that makes the pain much more bearable and tolerable.

It is this subconscient which hypnotises us into believing that things are as they are, that they will never change. This is the ancient adversary which has hidden in the subconscient, and Sri Aurobindo alludes to it as ‘the veil of cosmic forces’. These are the forces which are the cause of the question the Mother raises in that Prayer we saw at the very beginning, ‘Why do men flee from these boons as though they feared them?’ [CWM 1: 22]. It is very strange that in this town of Pondicherry or in the world with billions of people hardly a handful really want to seek a solution which is lasting. Why? What is this? In Savitri Sri Aurobindo explains it very beautifully:

A dark concealed hostility is lodged
In the human depths, in the hidden heart of Time
That claims the right to change and mar God’s work.
A secret enmity ambushes the world’s march;
It leaves a mark on thought and speech and act:
It stamps stain and defect on all things done;
Till it is slain peace is forbidden on earth. [447]

Essentially, this is the point where this darkness resides.

Of course, adverse forces work in many ways. Since we have come to this point, we can just take it up – how they contribute to the problem of pain and suffering.

They have three characteristic ways of working. One is that they increase and exaggerate the movements of universal nature which drag us down. If there is anger, they push upon it and even a small irritation becomes like a volcano erupting. The second method is that they distort the image, so that what is small becomes large, out of proportion; what is truly useful and real tends to become small. Because of the action of the adverse forces, that which is true, that which is dear, that which is real, tends to become small and insignificant, and that which is very small, appears very big. That is one of their roles: to make us feel that we are very big and important, or that this or that small problem is very big and out of proportion to their true size. Then there is a third way which is the most dangerous, they throw doubts and depression and discouragement. When these things appear it is a direct action of the adverse forces which throw heaps of suggestions on the mind. ‘You cannot do yoga, you are a failure, your life is miserable, everything is bad in life.’

In Savitri the Queen voices many of these things, and Narad says

Thy mind’s light hides from thee the Eternal’s thought,
Thy heart’s hopes hide from thee the Eternal’s will,
Earth’s joys shut from thee the Immortal’s bliss.
Thence rose the need of a dark intruding god,
The world’s dread teacher, the creator, pain.
Where Ignorance is, there suffering too must come; [443]

The adverse forces throw up all kinds of things and cloud our reason, obstruct it. What should we do during these moments of depression that we all go through? What is the yogic way of coming out of it? There are many ways, of course, there are anti-depressant drugs also, but there is a very beautiful way that Sri Aurobindo gives, something to this effect: ‘To all such suggestions of discouragement and failure and doubt and denial say to yourself, “I am Bacchus and Apollo and Ares. I am Agni, the Fire, the Force. I am Surya the creator. I am a child of immortality called by the Divine. I cannot fail”.’

This is how we must respond to it.

Question from the Audience: Is there any way in which the specific notion of pain is different in Sri Aurobindo’s teaching from that of other spiritual or philosophical traditions?

In the traditional philosophy one origin attributed to pain is desire. One notion is that it is because of desire that the universe is created, and that as long as there is desire, as long as there is universe and as long as you are part of the universe, we are bound to experience pain. This is one explanation. In that case the only solution is to get out of the manifested universe and into some plane of consciousness, into some laya or nirvana, where you don’t have to come back into this.

There is another notion which is more or less parallel. In fact it takes the problem one step backward. Where does desire come from? It comes from Ignorance. Desire is an ignorant attempt to recreate the oneness that has been lost. The more original conception is that pain and suffering is caused by Ignorance – that is, ignorance of our true nature, of who we really are. We are really divine so we don’t need to strive after things, to try to possess things. That is another way of understanding that pain and struggle and suffering come because of ignorance of the true nature of things, of the true divine Reality behind. Again, the solution is more or less similar: get out of this world of ignorance, into some divine status and you are out of this problem of pain.

Of course, there are philosophies that are purely materialistic which hold that pain and suffering are part of the struggle of nature. They don’t even try to explain, but look at pain as the inevitable result of the clash of forces. Now this is also true at one level. These philosophies do not admit the possibility of the Divine or any status of consciousness which is beyond this manifested universe. According to them the very nature of life brings pain because there is a clash and struggle; because of that clash disease, error, death, incapacity, pain and all these things are there.

Sri Aurobindo accepts all these explanations as partial truths. He also adds the new dimension of inertia: why essentially is there pain? Because the Divine is wanting to pull this world out of that Inconscient, but there is the resistance of the Inconscience at the back. Sri Aurobindo goes to great lengths to explain why this Inconscient should be there at all, why this had to come into existence at all. And we can understand it in a very simple way. For example, there is a cricket match going on today I believe between South Africa and India. A lot of people here are waiting to get home and turn on their radio sets or the TV. Now if there were a cricket match between say Bangladesh and India, most people would not be interested, because for it to be really interesting the adversaries have to be closely matched. In the case of the manifestation, the adversary created is almost as powerful as the Creator himself. Naturally the drag which it exercises has to be very powerful. But it helps in the evolutionary process. The greater the pain and difficulty, the greater the inner strength that comes out, the greater the possibilities that begin to manifest. In a nutshell, it is because of the pull of the Inconscient in one direction and the Divine pulling the consciousness in another direction; there is inertia, resistance to that pull of the Divine, and that leads to the sense of pain, translating itself as suffering in the human consciousness. That is why when the divine consciousness is more active, as it is today, many new maladies are being thrown up on earth, many upheavals are taking place – precisely because the divine consciousness is much more active today than at other times. During such phases there is a possibility of new forms of pain and suffering manifesting on earth because of the resistance of earth-nature. This idea has been introduced by Sri Aurobindo.

As to the solution, his solution is radically different. Till now the solution given has been to escape. I’m talking about spiritual solutions, they have been to some way or other find a door of exit and an individual escape from pain. Sri Aurobindo questions this. He asks, if this is so, then why was the cosmos created at all? If escape is the goal, then why all this drama and all this fuss and all this struggle? If the end is the same as the origin? Sri Aurobindo says that instead of just escaping into that zone of light, instead of the finite merging and escaping into the infinite, dissolving in the infinite, we should aspire for the infinite to invade the finite. When the infinite invades the finite it shatters the limits. By that touch mind and life and matter here should be redeemed. The manifestation itself should become fulfilled. It must recover its lost origin. With Sri Aurobindo’s vision there is a whole continuum: life is nothing else but the one Consciousness-Force which is full of delight and self-possessed power. That falls and becomes life as we know it here. It is not that life is different and that is different. If this can recover that lost unity, even while there is an embodied existence, there would be no problem of pain and suffering. There would be no incapacity, no limitation. That is the solution that Sri Aurobindo offers – a solution that is radically different – it is a long process, but a more perfect and complete solution.

Question from the Audience: Since the supramental power has come down, why do the world conditions seem to have worsened instead of getting better?

If we look at things very very impartially, both things are happening. Very interestingly, the Mother has spoken about this. She has spoken about the evil becoming more evil and the good becoming more good. On one side we see things going from bad to worse. On the other side we see exceptionally new things coming up, new forms of thought, new forms of music, new forms of ideas, new forms of groups, many kinds of impulses: women’s liberation, youth unrest, even things which we think are bad because we don’t understand them, things that seem to be destructive, even there a seed of new construction is concealed within. Many of the old things are being brought down to the ground. All of us have old eyes that are still accustomed to the old world, so with these eyes we see the bringing down of the old world. But with a new pair of eyes, we will see right behind it the construction of a new world. The classic example is the hippie movement. The hippie movement, the coming of the Beatles, even the drug culture, appeared to many like something very negative. But if we look deeper into it we find there is a seeking, an anguish for an ideal world. Many of us will remember that song ‘We don’t need no education’ which expresses the feeling that people are being churned out of the schools like products out of a factory. When you listen to it you feel that these singers are open to the light. There is an anguish which outwardly seems to be breaking the old world and all its forms and constructions. But right behind there is a new construction also taking place which is much more free, much more open, and with the new set of eyes we see that also happening.

After all, fifty years is a very short period, and also it depends on how we respond to the Force and the Grace. There are those who open in response, it is just a question of sincerity, and they do emerge into a much greater light. It is far easier today to contact one’s own inner reality than it must have been, say, 200 years ago. Today, if one really sincerely tries to go within and get in touch with what the Mother has termed the psychic being, it is far easier than it would have been 200 years ago. I have instances of children, young boys and girls who have beautiful experiences – it is amazing! And these are genuine experiences. I am not talking about that intermediate zone where experiences are created by the vital or the mind, but something very genuine.

On one side there is the old world which is crumbling and going to pieces, which we see and cry over, but that has to go for the new to come. A clear ground is being made for the new creation to come up. That is one way to look at it.

Some people explain it as the churning of matter, others as the digging of the subconscient: when you stir the depths then the impure things float up to the top. Sugar which appears absolutely white and pure, when we heat it on the fire after some time the white sugar leaves a brown trace which comes to the surface – this is actually the impurity which we were not seeing before. It is just the same thing with human consciousness: we have so much muck inside! Sometimes I feel, and I’m sure many of us share this sentiment, that we are sad for the Divine. We all the time feel sad for ourselves, but if we once look at His work one really can weep.

Coercing my godhead I have come down
Here on the sordid earth
Ignorant, labouring, human grown
Twixt the gates of death and birth.

I have been digging deep and long
Mid in a horror of filth and mire
A bed for the golden river’s song,
A home for the deathless fire.
[CWSA 2: 534; ‘A God’s Labour’]

But how do we respond? The thousand million insincerities of everyday life – this is the response we give to the Divine. The Divine takes it, that is his greatness and divinity. The hope lies in us growing sincere by the touch of Grace – because really without that Grace it is difficult to become sincere. Layers of obscurity after obscurity. But one thing is sure, despite all the present turmoil, chaos and crisis, as the Mother has said: ‘Never for an instant vacillate in the belief that the mighty work of change taken up by Sri Aurobindo is going to culminate in success. For that indeed is a fact…’  [CWM 13: 21].

Already some early signs are visible, for example, in the young children. How truthful and straightforward they are, how free of fear and all the hang-ups that we carry like big loads on our heads. How much freer they are! That is the work that is going on. At a very personal level, I feel that it is going on at a far greater speed than what one expects. Fifty years is nothing in the history of the life of the earth. If you think of the many lives we have lived and the many that are yet to come – if we look from that vast standpoint … which incidentally is one of the ways of escape from pain also. The Mother says, ‘Whenever you are tormented, step back from this whirlpool of forces and see how many lives you have lived and how many lives are still going to come and what is this period of pain but a small fraction in eternity?’ Fifty years is really nothing.

For example, some people ask about what Mother said, that India and Pakistan would become one. Of course, playing cricket is bringing people together. These are the strange ways of the Divine. These two are coming closer, thanks to cricket and earthquakes. But apart from that, how long have India and Pakistan existed as two separate nations? Fifty years. What was there before? A thousand years ago people did not even know India as India and Pakistan as Pakistan. There was an entirely different geography. And what is going to come after another 100 years we cannot conceive – who knows what is going to be where? We should live in that vaster state and then we see that this is a small fraction of all vast Time. Fifty years does look a lot to all of us because we live in that frame, but for the Divine it is one moment in Eternity.

There is something very nice that the Mother has said about how to face the Adversary. She has said that the Adversary can be vanquished only by a greater joy. Someone asked her, ‘Mother, unless we have conquered the Adversary, how do we get that greater joy?’ The Mother said, ‘No, go past him, laugh in his face.’ He is there to threaten us. Say to him, ‘Who art thou, wearing this mask? Are you not my lover who comes masked as the torturer?’ The moment we have that attitude: ‘You want to play with me the game of fighting? Come and play it, let us fight, but let it be a game’, then we discover a deeper reality behind. It’s a question of looking at the whole of life from that perspective. It should become a way of living, so that every time we face suffering from an adversary, whether it be in the form of individual or collective suffering, we have to look beyond the mask. Even in the terrorists, we should not forget – in fact, very frankly I feel that because of them, so much awakening has come into human beings. Our world is changing today thanks to the terrorists. People are coming together and uniting, thanks to the terrorists. They would not want to unite, the nations would fight against each other, but today because there are terrorists there is a global war against terrorism. Now the earth has become a unit and a unity because there is a common enemy: no longer one nation against another nation, but an ideology – a way of life that is atavistic, a way of behaving which drags us backward, a way that takes away human freedom – this becomes the enemy, not one government against another one. Of course, politics is the last thing to change, so we should give it time.

Everything helps in the process of divine creation, everything helps. Even destruction helps:

He saw in Night the Eternal’s shadowy veil,
Knew death for a cellar of the house of life,
In destruction felt creation’s hasty pace,
Knew loss as the price of a celestial gain
And hell as a short cut to heaven’s gates. [231]

Sometimes that which appears worst and most terrible is actually the swiftest road, ‘For daring Hell’s kingdoms winds the heavenly route’ [210]. As Sri Aurobindo said, hell is the shortcut. This is the shortcut he has taken us on and naturally it is a bumpy ride; we are sitting in a big Tata Sumo on a very rough road, with rough weather all around. What we should know is that, even though we don’t see him, the unseen pilot holds the rudder well, he does not sleep.

Even those who sink in the victorious flood,
Where do they sink? Into his breast.
He who to some gives victory, joy and good,
To some gives rest.
(CWSA 2: 281; ‘To R. On her Birthday’)

Always we should stand back behind appearances and look at life from that vaster landscape; then we see that all ‘shall be safe in the breast of the One’ [CWSA 2: 650]. Behind even the terrorists, ultimately it is He who is playing.

Question from the Audience: What is the role of past karma in present pain?

Past karma does have a role, but not in the way we often understand it according to the popular notion. The popular notion is that you have done a good deed, you will be born in a king’s family with a silver spoon in your mouth. Obviously, this is absurd, for that would mean that God values the silver spoon and the king’s palace just as we do. And it would also contradict many of the facts. Even in Indian mythology, the people who suffered most were the Pandava brothers who were born in the jungle, who lived in the jungle, who got the kingdom and were thrown back into the jungle by deceit, they won the kingdom again but decided to go back into the jungle, and they died in the jungle. While Dhuryodhana, the so-called evil one, was born in a palace, remained a king, fought like a king, died like a king. But that is the outer life. If you look at the inner life, with one there is trouble, pain, strife, even though he has a kingdom; with the others, they were also anguished but they had the delight of the Divine’s company. The repercussion of karma is essentially inner. It is an evolutionary mechanism and not a mechanism of reward and punishment – that is what Sri Aurobindo says. God is not a big CEO, rewarding some and punishing others. It is more like, when I do a selfish action it makes me narrow, and when I am narrow my consciousness is more obscure, more ignorant, more dull, and more unresponsive to the delight that is always there in the world. Essentially, selfish deeds bind my consciousness, make me narrow. It is a well-known thing that people who lead a selfish life really lead a very miserable life, even though outwardly they have everything.

Today we see that many people cannot smile. And it is so nice to see that by the very fact of turning to the Divine we begin to smile, we begin to laugh, even to the extent that people wonder, ‘What has gone wrong with you, why are you laughing?’ – and we won’t even be able to give any tangible reason.

Karma is a mechanism for evolution, its role is to help the soul to learn. Gradually it learns that if I do this I am bound. Take the view of the Gita, what it says about tamasic action, for instance. Krishna doesn’t say that if you have done tamasic deeds you will be punished by being born half blind or with bowed legs: he says your consciousness will become dull and obscure, you will be more and more deluded. What about rajasic karma? He says it will bring pleasure and pain together. What about sattwic karma? He says it will increase sukham and prakasham – gladness and light. It is not that suddenly you will hit a jackpot. He doesn’t say that. And what happens when you turn to the Divine? That also is asked in the Gita. Arjuna says, ‘Everyone cannot get full realisation in one life, so if I fail, what will happen in my next life?’ Krishna does not give the assurance that because you have turned to God, in your next life I will ensure that you are born to a billionaire and everything is available to you on a platter. He does not say that. He says ‘You will be born into a family that is already turned towards the Divine and you will very soon regain that lost yoga, and will cover the path that is left.’ This is the real significance of karma. It is essentially an inner mechanism of evolution, not reward and punishment.