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At the Feet of The Mother

Forty Years Ago – by Sahana Devi (II)

Within a few days after my arrival as an aspirant to the Ashram, permission was granted to me to meet the Mother once a week. She even came to my room once in a while and sanctified it by her presence. It was on these occasions that I have been able to fill the pages of my “Book of Life” with her priceless instructions. It seemed as if she taught me to walk step by step, to see true by granting the inner vision, gave me the strength to know myself by sifting the rubbish heap of falsehoods to get at things that were true. She was moulding our entire life for a God-oriented existence, a birth into a new consciousness, an inner life. Before my coming here Nolini once wrote to me, “Very few things of the ordinary life would be of use here” — gradually this remark of his was becoming clear while living here. The Mother’s visits to the sadhaks were usually timed as she was going out for her regular evening drives. Our meetings, however, when we wanted to see her used to be in the mornings. She used to come to Dilip’s house on Sundays. An English lady named Miss Maitland once came here to stay for a period of six months. She too was asked to come to Dilip’s place on Sundays in case she wanted to ask Mother any questions. Besides Miss Maitland, several of us regulars were also present, namely, Doraiswami Iyer (not yet a regular Ashramite but a very old disciple and a frequent week-end visitor from Madras) who was a very well-known lawyer of Madras, an American couple called Janet and Vaun McPheeters (Janet was given the name ‘Shantimayi’ by Sri Aurobindo), Pavitra, Nolini, Dilip and myself. At the commencement the Mother used to meditate with us; at times she asked us to meditate on a special subject asking each one of us at the end about the result of meditation on that particular subject. She asked if anyone had any questions to ask, if there were any she answered them. These questions and answers were noted down by Shantimayi in shorthand. These questions and answers began on the 7th April 1929, continued for fifteen weeks and were published in 1931 in book form having fifteen chapters titled “Conversations with the Mother”. The book was meant for sadhaks to be distributed according to the Mother’s choice and was not for sale. Much later, however, it came to be put up for sale. It was at Dilip’s that I first had the opportunity to hear Mother giving answers to our questions. Our minds on these occasions became submerged in wonder at the touch of the light emanating from her vast and fathomless knowledge.

The Mother would sometimes take one of us by turn in her evening drives — of these we were the following: Doraiswamy, Nolini and Chadwick (Chadwick, an Englishman, came to India as a lecturer in Philosophy at the Lucknow University, but later came away to the Ashram as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo who gave him the name Arjava), Dilip and myself. It was Pavitra who drove Mother’s car with Doraiswami at his side. We others followed in a small Fiat car. Our drives used to be quite long ones, at least so it seemed to us. I believe Pavitra was instructed before where to go and on arrival the Mother would get down from the car and we would follow. The Mother, it seemed, knew quite well the paths we traversed. These walks were at times fairly long. Sometimes she would choose a spot and sit down and we would gather around her enjoying the scenery in the open — how pleasant it was with the Mother! She carried with her some sweets and gave one to each. Here too Mother often answered if anyone asked her a question. At times there was meditation. On one occasion while we were thus seated with the Mother a local person approached with some fruits carefully wrapped in banana leaves and offered them to the Mother. On being asked by her if anyone wanted to eat them, I remember only Dilip and myself took one each. Another day I remember, we had seated ourselves comfortably when I saw an ugly looking insect creeping slowly towards me. Needless to say I began to feel rather uneasy and began to fidget, the whole of my attention was solely upon the insect and I was thinking of getting up if it became necessary. The Mother, however, quietly pushed it away without the slightest show of perturbation. The Mother and Sri Aurobindo never approved that anyone should be frightened at anything, as it is very harmful for sadhana. Sri Aurobindo once wrote to me,

“All fear ought to be cast out.”

The Mother fell seriously ill on 18th October 1931, and we did not see her for a whole month. All this while we were very heavy of heart. When we again met her at “Pranam” what a joyful day it was! The intensity of our feelings was as thrilling as when we had the occasion of Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan. It is quite impossible to express in words the feelings of joy, a joy that is of a quite different quality — as if it was descending from heaven.

The trend of life in the Ashram became different after this illness of the Mother. The morning pranam was delayed, even the place was changed, that is, from the usual room where it used to be, it was shifted to the hall in front of Amrita’s room. The evening drives, Mother’s visiting the sadhaks in their rooms, the distribution of soup at night, all these came to an end. It was fifteen years later in 1946, that the Mother once again came out amongst us at the commencement of the sports activities. It became her daily routine to come to the playing fields to set in motion these activities of games etc.

A French lady named Madame Gaebelé used to come to the Ashram to teach French to the inmates. I do not recollect the year it began. She took several classes in the week. My initiation to French was begun by her — there were quite a few of us who began studying the language. The lady was given a new name — Suvrata, by the Mother. She is a frequent visitor to the Ashram even now and is strongly attracted to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. After some time, however, I gave up attending her classes and was taken in hand by Nolini. Nolini, as is well-known, is a versatile scholar of the Greek, Latin, French and Italian languages as he had learnt them all from Sri Aurobindo himself. My study of French did not go very far and I gave up the study with only a smattering of it.

After the Mother’s illness in 1931 we could go to her only if she asked us to come. All fixed hours of meeting her were also dispensed with. When one speaks of Mother’s illness it means only what is apparent to all to an exterior view. This is what Sri Aurobindo wrote in answer to a question by a sadhak on this matter:

“I have not yet said anything about the Mother’s illness because to do so would have needed a long consideration of what those who are the centre of a work like this have to be, what they have to take upon themselves of human or terrestrial nature and its limitations and how much they have to bear of the difficulties of transformation. All that is not only difficult in itself for the mind to understand but difficult for me to write in such a way as to bring it home to those who have not our consciousness or our experience. I suppose it has to be written but I have not yet found the necessary form, the necessary leisure.” (Sri Aurobindo on the Mother)

Soon after the Mother’s illness she wrote in her Prayers and Meditations of the 24th November 1931, giving some idea of the real matter. Although all that is well beyond our conception yet I venture to quote it here: “O my Lord, my sweet Master, for the accomplishment of Thy work I have sunk down into the unfathomable depths of Matter, I have touched with my finger the horror of the falsehood and the inconscience, I have reached the seat of oblivion and supreme obscurity. But in my heart was the Remembrance, from my heart there leaped the call which could arrive at Thee: ‘Lord. Lord, everywhere Thy enemies appear triumphant; falsehood is the monarch of the world; life without Thee is a death, a perpetual hell; doubt has usurped the place of Hope and revolt has pushed out Submission, Faith is spent, Gratitude is not born; blind passions and murderous instincts and a guilty weakness have covered and stifled Thy sweet law of love. Lord, wilt Thou permit Thy enemies, falsehood and ugliness and suffering to triumph? Lord, give the command to conquer and victory will be there. I know we are unworthy, I know the world is not yet ready. But I cry to Thee with an absolute faith in Thy Grace and I know that Thy Grace will save us.’

Thus my prayer rushed up towards Thee; and, from the depths of the abyss, I beheld Thee in Thy radiant splendour; Thou didst appear and Thou saidst to me: ‘Lose not courage, be firm, be confident, — I COME.’”

I began to correspond regularly with Sri Aurobindo from 1932. Perhaps I began to write even from 1930 but that was intermittently and not regularly and the regular writing continued till November 1938, when Sri Aurobindo met with that accident. In the letters all my inner states, movements of my mind, stages of sadhana, all were mentioned. He too wanted to know everything in detail. He wrote,

“It is absolutely necessary to write everything freely and write daily.”

Thus good or bad everything had to be written. It was not often that the mind would agree to write all, quite frequently some ruse was in the offing to enable one to side-track the entire truth of the matter. Nevertheless, we could detect these games of the mind around us. All communications were addressed to the Mother but were answered by Sri Aurobindo. My letters were written in Bengali and English as well according to the need, but Sri Aurobindo’s answers were all in English. I have, however, received a line or two from him in Bengali as well. What was amusing was that even if before beginning to write one had decided to keep back something, at the end it was seen that nothing was left untold in the letter — as if someone from behind was at work. I remember once I was very reluctant to write, not that I did not realise that one should not pamper this unwillingness, so I wrote to say, “I do not feel like writing today”, in answer the letter came back with three large notes of exclamation (!!!) on the left margin. On receiving it I had hardly any idea whether to laugh or to cry. One day arose a great desire in me to eat a few things and I was quite unable to resist it. The mind was busy trying to find some pretext or other. In the end I wrote

“Mother, I feel extremely greedy today. Do you know what I would like to eat? — eggs, lobsters and some kind of sardines. Either you remove this desire from me or permit me to eat them with your protection.”

Sri Aurobindo wrote an answer the next day!

“Certainly not! You can eat up your desire — that is the only fish or flesh that can be given to you! It is simply an old samskara rising from the subconscient — these things have never to be indulged, they rise in order to be dismissed.” (12.11.33)

– a banter replete with laughter! But strange to relate, soon after sending the letter all that inclination to eat had completely gone — this filled me with an unalloyed joy and satisfaction. The joy one feels to be able to rise above desire was first brought home to me on that clay. There were a few lines of Nolini, I have forgotten when I had read them, shining bright before my eyes: “… when you grant me a vital desire I am not pleased, your granting shows that the vital is still unprepared to forgo its food. But when you withhold from me an earthly satisfaction, a secret ease and joy flow into me; by this sign I feel I am ready for the Delight that is yours.” — every word of these lines was impressed in my feelings.

Let me now relate here two very strange dreams, so clear and tangible that I realised immediately that they were not just dreams. The significance of these dreams as was received by me, I wrote to the Mother. I am setting down here the two dreams with the answer from Sri Aurobindo:

First dream: “From my room I observed that the sea-waves were rushing from afar towards my room and were swelling tremendously, as high as the mountains. I felt that if these terrible waves broke in then the entire town where I lived would be totally washed away. Yet in spite of being face to face with this deadly peril I was not the least afraid or perturbed. It seemed I was in safe protection. Even if there came a flood on the breaking of these waves they will flow over my room and there was no danger or harm that could touch me nor come anywhere near me — such a feeling of safety as an armour was within me. So quite unruffled I was observing that tide from behind the glass panes of my window. Soon I saw that in fact the waves broke with water covering all around. There were several waves that broke and as soon as they were breaking the mass of water like an inundation was flowing past my room extending far behind it. I was observing it all without any excitement as if all this had nothing to do with me. I was a mere observer of that huge flood. When the flood waters had subsided and as I came out to look at all that had happened, I saw all of a sudden that a portion of the house I was staying in was broken but through it I could see a part of a new construction coming up. Surprised I thought, “hello, it is strange that I was not at all aware that under the old house one had begun to build a new one — one could only see that because a portion of the old house had fallen.” As if it only waited for the flood to demolish that part of the mansion to reveal the new building as it was being constructed! In a mood of appreciation I was wondering how it could happen, strange that the new building was not seen even after so much work had been done! For some reason or other I had entered the house but as I came out again the old house standing as a covering had totally crumbled and in its stead was standing a new house of a new design. Even the material of which the new house was made was quite other than that of the old one. The idea of the dream seemed as if the room in which I was feeling quite safe in the midst of danger was a Divine protection which did not allow the danger to enter there but had made it to pass over. I was quite untouched within. Perhaps the sense of it was that the flood of one’s desires and longings surging from the vital plane comes to drown one but if at that moment one could invoke the Divine protection in one’s true self then the flood passes over without touching one and one could detaching oneself observe the huge waves passing over. To me the significance of the first half of the dream was that. I am noting down also the significance of the second half of the dream, that is, as much as was clear to me: The old house where I resided was the external being with its old value, — from the depths of the old nature unperceived one goes on building the new nature; the new edifice is not visible as one is not conscious, thus when the veil of obscurity of the old nature is rent (that is what was meant by the crumbling of a portion of the old house) I become somewhat conscious how much the Divine unperceived has built up from within the covering of the old nature and still continues to build. And in the measure of the growth of consciousness the veil of darkness is gradually dropping away. In the end I saw in the true light of consciousness the aspect of the integral transformation of nature. The new building was the symbol of the integral transformation of the ordinary human nature.”

To all this Sri Aurobindo replied:

“It was a good symbolic dream and your interpretation seems to me correct except for one detail. The sea cannot be the tide of desires; it must be the flood of the world forces.”

Second dream: A few of us were walking along the seashore. It was a different sort of sea, something frightening and terrible it was, jet black was the water packed tight with the beasts of the sea, so thick they were that one could see less of the water and they were ugly to a degree bringing uncomfortable feelings to the mind and body. Of these beasts a species of huge reptiles were preponderant, long, thick and black were they, really frightful to see. There were no waves. As far as one could see it looked like a black mountain of frightfulness lying stretched creating horrors. Far away one could discern an island, a beautiful one where the Mother and Sri Aurobindo were. I must go to them but could see no way to do so. On one hand the dark deep waters, on the other all kinds of terrible beasts filled it so thickly that it would be doubtful if one could find enough space to swim through them — one was sure to come in bodily contact with them. All of a sudden as soon as my companions had gone on a little ahead I found that plunging into the water I was swimming through those wriggling beasts. I was moving straight and fast pushing these beasts away from me with my hands, there were more of these beasts I was touching than the water but I hardly noticed them aiming only to reach the island where were the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, nothing else came within my purview. As I came quite close to the island, my feet touched the ground and ceasing to swim I began to wade up towards the shore. All of a sudden I saw Sri Aurobindo lift me out of the water with outstretched hands. He said, “So, you have come across.” It felt strange to have heard him. Even when I awoke from the dream this thought was constantly in my mind: I am sure to cross when it is Sri Aurobindo who has said so. The dream became clear to me signifying what the Mother and Sri Aurobindo mean by “taking the plunge”. I realised that if one did not look at any other side, did not wait to weigh the pros and cons, but plunged in only for the Divine then He himself took one up to the shore. For as long as one continued to debate with the mind to find a way one could never take the plunge. Once one has plunged in then all worrying thoughts of what one should or should not do, all obstacles, all dangers could find no foothold. In fact, the dream showed the way fraught with so much dangers but nothing could matter. At the moment of plunging in, one did so, nothing could impede or draw one back, one did go through all those dangers aiming only for that island where Sri Aurobindo himself drew one on to the bank. In spite of being a dream the experience received was indelibly impressed for ever. Next morning, my day for meeting the Mother, I related to her all in detail. She listened with great attention, then placing her hand on my head for some time she looked straight into my eyes and said in a slow measured tone, “It is not just a dream.” She added much more but it is not possible to speak of it here.

This is all about dreams. Now let me tell here of a remarkable experience while singing — there used to be quite a number of such strange things. Here is a letter I wrote to the Mother on 20.12.31:

“Mother mine, I had a strange experience, I can hardly wait to write about it to you. I was singing a song of Kabir (‘In whose heart resides Sri Rama…’) on the roof of my house at about 7 p.m., with the idea of singing this very song to you the next Friday. Quite frequently I have had fine experiences while singing; often have I felt the descent of a Presence bringing in its wake the idea in my mind as if I was just the instrument expressing the movement of that Presence through my song. At times I have felt a total inner opening through which from a deep source an aspiration like a mounting flame was lifting the whole of my being up. I have had such experiences before as well. But what has come today I have never experienced before. This is what happened. After singing the song for a while I could feel the Power descending in me and I was aware that the volume of my voice was increasing as well. Not only was there an inner opening but remarkably fine improvisations were spontaneously issuing forth with an amazing rapidity that I can hardly find words adequate to tell you. I was astounded to see these unimaginable expressions and improvisations and the surpassing increase of the volume of my voice. I felt, too, unmistakably that all this was not mine at all, they were only being expressed through me — they were crowding into me in a rapid and impatient succession to express themselves. As all this was taking place the strength of my voice seemed to have doubled — so powerful it seemed. Further, not only did I feel it but actually heard another voice coming through my throat; when this came home to me, this other voice bursting out, I became somewhat nonplussed. I became more clearly sure that it was not I who was singing at my own volition. Even it became impossible for me to stop singing as it did not depend on me. I have never before sung a song for so long — I had no hold upon my voice which was moving with ease over the notes touching them lightly and the tone was so fine that I myself was charmed and felt overwhelmed at all that was revealed.”

Sri Aurobindo wrote to say:

“Yes, it was quite right and a very high experience.”

Since this experience I often noticed that whenever I sang sitting on the roof in the presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo the songs I sang became quite other than when I sang elsewhere. So I wrote to the Mother (18.3.1932):

“Mother, I have remarked that when I sing in your presence on the roof, my voice becomes much more powerful. At any other place the timbre of my voice is different. So I wrote to tell you that I tangibly feel singing in quite a different manner, feeling at the same time a particular influence of a power which was much more prominent. This is your power, is it not? I, nevertheless, am aware that it is your power in me that is compelling me to sing. It is far more intense than anywhere else, the difference is so clear. But why should it be so? If it is your power then it should be the same wherever I might sing. If between you and me there is a direct contact through the psychic then there should not be any difference on account of a change of place and time. Is it because one is not in the right consciousness, a true condition, that the difference creeps in?”

Sri Aurobindo wrote:

“You have seen very accurately (as expressed in today’s letter) the reason for the difference between your singing on the roof and your singing elsewhere. But that is no reason why you should not sing elsewhere.”

Even so many years ago, that is, when I first arrived here, the Mother used to accord us the special blessings of the New Year at midnight. It used to be a remarkable experience for us at that hour. In the silent depths of us all everything seemed to be self-gathered within in tune with the sombre night. The Mother too seemed to reveal herself in an eternity of expressive beauty. We too lost our limited selves as we silently mounted the stairs to receive the eternal touch from her, carefully guarding within the aspiration of the possibility of a new birth. On crossing the threshold into the room we would see the Mother seated on a chair faintly illumined by only a dim pink light — a dreamland of roseate hue. Her face alone was bright, as bright as the first glow of dawn. What we felt must remain unuttered as no language could properly express it. As we got up after bowing to her she blessed us with her radiant smile handing us something more concrete in the shape of an orange or a piece of chocolate. Whatever she gave, however apparently insignificant, seemed to us as something designed to shatter our sleep in ignorance. For three years this was the manner in which the Mother blessed us at the moment when the New Year arrived. Since 1932, however, after her illness, the procedure was changed. Everyone was gathered in the meditation hall below and in the courtyard merged, as it were, in meditation — in those days whatever we did was connected with a spirit of being withdrawn within — when just at the right moment like a flash of light tearing asunder the veil of darkness, pealed out a resonant chord from the organ and with it flooded out her voice in song. Her voice had a quality of magical power rising from the profundities as if endeavouring to awaken our consciousness to meet the light from above. To call it fascinatingly marvellous is quite inadequate. The singing over, we trooped in to receive the Mother’s Blessings as well as something or other in the shape of fruits or sweets in the very room dimly lit. She was seated there as if with a world of gifts to bestow on us. Every New Year she did play upon the organ but perhaps we heard her sing only a couple of times. We too were in eager expectation every year of that night of music. Her music was her own that came readily to her as she sat down to play after a short concentration with closed eyes before she touched the keys, without any prior preparation, with never a false jarring note. Since 1939, that is, after the accident to Sri Aurobindo’s right leg, her organ was shifted to Pavitra’s room and she played from there. Since this year too we did not meet her after the music as before but met her on the stairs at six in the morning to be greeted by her with “Bonne Année”, we too replied with the same greeting, receiving from her a bunch of leaves signifying “New Birth”. I remember, however, that she used to give us the blessings of “New Birth” on the 24th December — this was before 1939.

to be continued…

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There is nothing sentimental in the true weeping that comes from the soul. All that you feel now is the blossoming of the psychic being in you and the growth of a real bhakti.