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At the Feet of The Mother

Forty Years Ago – by Sahana Devi (IV)

There was a period when the Mother used to go on to the terrace and remain there for sometime, this she did nearly every day in the evening. I recount here what occurred one day and wrote to the Mother.

“Recently I notice that when you come down from the terrace in the evenings you stand for a longer time and I feel just at that time you give us something special, so I also concentrate to receive and feel what you give; but this evening suddenly I saw your physical body had disappeared, there was no sign of your body, then again in a few seconds your figure reappeared. I felt at that moment that ‘you became merged in the sky (ether?) and became one with all things.’ ”

On this Sri Aurobindo wrote:

“The Mother makes an invocation or aspiration and stands till the movement is over. Yesterday she passed for some time beyond the sense of the body and it is perhaps this that made you see in that way.”

My mistakes in English used to be corrected by Sri Aurobindo, it was at my coaxing that he took this trouble in spite of his being so pressed for time. It seems to those who deal with the heaven, the earth and the nether regions even a grain of sand on the seashore is not insignificant!

The Mother and Sri Aurobindo came to me as Guru although I hardly understood at first what and how much is meant by the word “Guru”. Slowly and much later I saw them installed in the temple of my life as my God and Beloved — they are that to me and I know no more nor do I wish to know.

In 1934 a proposal was made to translate into Bengali the “Six Poems” of Sri Aurobindo and offer them to him printed in a small booklet.

Six sadhaks were to translate those six poems. It was Nolini who asked me to try one of them. The other five chosen were Nolini, Suresh Chakravarti, Anilbaran Roy, Dilip and Behari Barua. The one I was asked to try was “In Horis Aeternum”, a difficult poem, and I was in doubt if it could be done by me. Yet I was rather reluctant to let go such a lucky opportunity. Depending on the force from the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, I agreed. On being asked, Sri Aurobindo too approved of it. With a great enthusiasm I began the translation. At nearly every step I was asking Sri Aurobindo much about the poem. I am quoting here a few of the diminutive letters. I wrote to Sri Aurobindo:

“I am in great difficulty with your poem ‘In Horis Aeternum’. Many say it is a very difficult poem seemingly impossible to translate, quite a few have made an essay but have failed. It is only Nolini who supports me from another angle and that is, it is always beneficial to try. We are all quite aware that the poem is a difficult one, yet I have set myself to do it not depending wholly on my power or ability but depending fully on your help and inspiration with this idea that as I am relying on the force of one who can turn something impossible into a possibility, it may come to fruition! Moreover to be able to feel and give a form to your expressions brings in its wake a great satisfaction and joy. I have, however, translated four lines tentatively which will be much changed as I go on. Dilip has already seen them but he does not seem to think as if they will do, for he says, ‘It is hardly anything at all, they will have to be recast all over’. I am quite prepared to do them over again but I am still uncertain as to what it would be. Do you, too, think that this poem is truly untranslatable, if so then please tell me as much, and I too shall not cling to an impossibility.”

Sri Aurobindo’s reply:

“The poem is not at all easy to translate but one cannot say that it is impossible, one can always try provided one is prepared not to mind if it is a failure or a half-success. To try sometimes even impossible things can be a very good training for the capacity.”

I wrote again:

“No one can hope to come to a par with the original while translating some works of the Mother’s or yours. Still is it not adequate enough to come as near as possible assimilating the inspiration from you maintaining the thought and movement generally?”

SRI AUROBINDO: “Yes. A complete equivalent is not likely — but something approximative can be done.”

SELF: “One thing more, I have begun the work in blank verse. Dilip strongly objects saying ‘how can it be done without rhyme?’ Are you, too, of the same opinion?”

SRI AUROBINDO: “If it can be done in rhyme so much the better — as the original is in rhyme. But if not, it can be tried in blank verse. The form will not be the same, but to keep something of the movement may not be impossible.”

SELF: “Lord Sri Aurobindo, I have begun it anew and in rhyme this time. I find it difficult but very enjoyable. There is a strong urge and I am putting all my ability into it. Even now the first four lines are not to my satisfaction — I can feel the movement but the words to express it are still eluding. Thus I am not satisfied yet with the result. Something has been done in the ‘yogic rhyme’ in long lines. Nolini remarks that it is slightly heavy and consequently I am changing again. I am still unable to find the right words in Bengali to express “unchangeable monotone”. H. has come and given a few good suggestions and he feels very pleased about it. Normally they are beautiful but somehow somewhere they do not seem to bring out that grandeur, that restrained note is missed, missed too that solemnity. Please enlighten me and inspire me as well. Let me try some more. I would like a little clarification here:

Over its head like a gold ball the sun tossed by the gods in their play

Follows its curve…

This second ‘its’ means the sun, does it not? At least that is what it seems to me.”

SRI AUROBINDO: “It is the sun’s own curve.”

SELF: “Whether I am able to do your poem or not, I nevertheless feel transported with joy. I feel a constant contact with you — the consciousness is ever turned upward. That is why I have set myself to do it. If you would say so, I could send you the little bit done, as a sample, as then you can see if it will pass muster.”

SRI AUROBINDO: “Yes, you can send.”

And the sample was sent.

Sri Aurobindo’s remark on the sample:

“You have made an excellent start.”

SELF: “Lord Sri Aurobindo, will you, pray, explain this bit to me as I don’t get it correctly. ‘Something that waits, something that wanders and settles not, a Nothing that was all and is found.’ — this underlined portion”.

Sri Aurobindo replied to me in Bengali (translated here):

“The inner thought is this ‘a something inexpressible — as if it is nothing, inexistent, yet that is all, everything is in it, — it is not there, yet can be found; further when this is found everything has been found. I don’t know if I have made it clear.”

SELF: “Lord Sri Aurobindo, I am in no way satisfied with the translation of the last line of your poem. Something is missing somewhere. I am trying hard and changing some. Dilip insists on further change and is helping a lot — the last three words as changed by Dilip are being sent here, please go over them. If they meet with your approval, and the change by Dilip is better, then they will be accepted.”

SRI AUROBINDO: “I cannot say that I approve of either of Dilip’s last three words or any of the other alterations suggested by N. All seem to miss the mark.”

The poem after many alterations later did come to stand. Dilip worked a great deal with me on this translation. Without his help and Nolini’s ardent enthusiasm perhaps this poem that seemed impossible would not have been made possible. When the poem was at last done Dilip wrote a letter to Sri Aurobindo. This episode will be closed here with Dilip’s letter and Sri Aurobindo’s answer to it. It will be well understood from these letters with how much patience and in how many ways Sri Aurobindo has taught us all these things with his help.

Dilip wrote:

“I feel the last verse makes clear meaning anyway, but since Sahana is not pleased with it and she has been labouring at it for days, I think I may have mistaken your meaning. Doubtless, the ‘something’ I could not keep is, I took it to mean, that the passing movement reflects the Eternal when ‘caught by the spirit in sense’. Tell me therefore O Lord, I must stop. Dilip.”

Sri Aurobindo wrote to Dilip:

“I think it is a very fine rendering. For line 4, however, I would not say that there is no reference to day as a movement of time but only to the noon, the day as sunlit space rather than time, it is the fixed moment, as it were, the motionless scene of noon. The eye is of course the sun itself, I mark by the dash that I have finished with my first symbol of the gold ball and go off to a second quite different one. In the last line your translation is indeed very clear and precise in meaning, but it is perhaps too precise — the ‘something’ twice repeated is meant to give a sense of just the opposite, an imprecise unseizable something which is at once nothing and all things at a time. It is found no doubt in the momentary things and all is there, but the finding is less definite than your translation suggests. But the expression nasti rupe silo se sarvasti is very good.

“One point more. ‘Caught by a spirit in sense’ means there is a spirit in sense (sense not being sense alone) that catches the eternal out of perishable hours in these things.”

At one period I set myself to writing a lot of poems, this may be called a bright period of poetry. Many were they who wrote — Nolini Gupta, Suresh Chakravarty had been doing so for many years — even Anilbaran Roy was found writing. Dilip and Nishikanta had increased their tempo, even Behari Barua, Jotin Das of Chittagong were at it. Nirod’s niece Jyotirmala (she was called Jyotirmoyee before) began writing after her coming here and did remarkably well. Nirod too got down to it and was flowering out. Even from my youthful days I had put my hand to composing poems but it was always when I felt the urge and again for quite long periods I did nothing. Anil Bhatta was also at it. Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna) wrote in English which he has been doing very well even before but here his poetry took a different turn. Arjava (Chadwick) began here and soon became a renowned poet, leaving behind a lot of his work that was brought out in book form after his death. Romen, although a youngster, began in English and was doing well. Nolini, Dilip, Nirod wrote in English as well as in Bengali — perhaps Anilbaran also was in this group. Nolini, versatile linguist that he is, wrote poems in French too. Harin Chattopadhyay came with his genius and wrote a large number of poems and did most of them at his typewriter. He was, however, a recognised poet. Sri Aurobindo has spoken much about his poems in his book “Future Poetry” and elsewhere too. Nishikanta began writing while he was at Shantiniketan and his extraordinary genius began to show itself even there, but here his poetry reached a level quite other than where it was before. Sri Aurobindo has been profuse in high praise of his poetry.

We, Jyotirmala, Nirodbaran, Anil Bhatta, Amiya and myself, began to learn poetics from Dilip, who had then attained a good mastery over the subject. It was from Dilip that I learnt a particular kind of Sanskrit rhyming. Dilip and Nishikanta were experimenting with Sanskritic metre and rhyme that they toiled to introduce into Bengali poetry — I believe they have succeeded in doing so.

Jyotirmala, Nirod, Anil Bhatta and myself used to sit down to write daily at a fixed hour calling down Sri Aurobindo’s force with prayers to him, as we tried to make this too as a limb of our sadhana. With what enthusiasm we aspired to water the very roots of our poetry with the inspiration cascading down from Sri Aurobindo! We, all of us, were moving together with the sole and sincere effort towards progress through poetry. A new taste in writing was ours aided by a constant impetus from Sri Aurobindo. Every poem written was eagerly submitted for Sri Aurobindo’s perusal and with a greater eagerness we were waiting to receive his comment brought by Nolini the next morning. It was Nolini’s job to distribute to everyone letters from Sri Aurobindo. By 7 a.m. we got our letters. His comments, “good”, “fine” or occasionally “very beautiful” were hailed with joy filling our efforts to the brim. All these were fresh experiences and delightful feelings. We often asked for not only his comments but his suggestions also and whenever a suggestion was due he rarely failed to give it. When several expressions giving the same idea were put before him for the better choice, he indicated them with such remarks as “On the whole this seems to me better”.

We were as it were moulded by hand to learn from him. We probed not only into poetic thoughts but also into rhyme and metre, the intricacies of these made the taste more and more delectable to write and read poetry. Dabbling in metre and rhyme I suddenly found a closed door — writing English poems — open and many lines began to form and this I could hardly believe. My knowledge of English is hardly worth mentioning and yet the following lines came as if by themselves:

Mother, in my deep heart I find
A jewel shines amidst the night,
When all the mortal senses are blind
It speaks to the stars of unknown height.
Mother, a flower of eternity
Unfolds its petals within my soul.
I sing to the light that unveils to me
The crystal tower, your shining goal.
Mother, in my precious secret spot,
I am nestled on your breast alone
Where all my parts are gathered and brought
Before the dream of your opening dawn.

When these lines came to me our correspondence with Sri Aurobindo had stopped, so Nirod was entrusted with it to be shown to Sri Aurobindo, who corrected and re-cast it as below:

Mother! deep in my heart I find
A jewel glimmering in the night,
When every mortal sense is blind
It speaks to stars of unknown height
Mother! a love-flame swift and sweet
Swaying along the path of gold,
It rises to your heavenly feet
Where sun and moon and stars you mould.
Mother! the flower of eternity
Unfolds its petals in my soul,
I sing to its light that unveils to me
A crystal tower, your shining gold.
Mother! in a lonely secret spot
I am cradled on your breast alone
When all of me is gathered, brought
Into your dream of opening Dawn.

It will be appropriate to mention another incident here.

It was the period when I was working with the ‘Building Service’, superintending the work of masons, carpenters and others. One day the house called “Nanteuil” was being whitewashed. I was sitting and keeping a watch on the work when I heard within a line like a refrain continually coming — “Travels from height to height unseen,” — I could not make it out at first because in spite of my repeated pushing it away it did not stop coming before my mind’s eye. Then I got hold of a piece of paper and went on writing the whole thing. That piece of paper is now lost, perhaps the result of negligence, but I have the other piece where Sri Aurobindo did the correction. It is thus:

An emerald soul of peaks within
Travels from height to height unseen;
The shadow of the Infinite falls on earth’s pain
A golden desire, a heavenly rain.
Transcendent of Time’s moments’ power
Comes encircling the eternal hour.
The sun above, the moon below,
Unheard footfalls come soft and slow,
A bell rings from Eternity.
Whirling the Almighty’s power,
She creates a land of blue and white
Within the smoke and doze of night:
She comes in her golden robe of fire
To release God-music from earth’s lyre.

A few days later as I sat down to write at the usual hour a poem in Bengali began to come in whose meaning was escaping my understanding. It was mysterious, since Bengali is my mother-tongue and yet I could understand nothing. So I tore it to pieces and got up. But every time I took up the pen the same poem came repeatedly and this went on for six days. At last quite exasperated I spoke to Nirod thus: “I don’t know what’s happening. Whenever I sit down to write there comes in this one and only poem that I can make no head or tail of and I do not want to write it for the same reason. And I am continually throwing it into the waste paper basket. What do you think I should do?” Nirod asked: “What sort of lines? Can you recall a few lines?”

The lines had impressed themselves upon my memory as they were being repeated for the last six days. So I recited the lines. On hearing them Nirod said “Are you sure this is not a mystic poem, Sahanadi? I seem to feel they are mystic lines coming to you. Don’t throw them away. Please write down the whole of it and I will show them to Sri Aurobindo.”

So it was written down and given to Nirod. While writing it gave me a good deal of pleasure although it was not intelligible. Nirod, as he returned after showing the poem to Sri Aurobindo, said before I could ask, “Sri Aurobindo said after reading the poem — ‘If Sahana throws away this sort of inspiration, then what kind of inspiration can I give her?’” The meaning that Sri Aurobindo gave to the lines not only left me astonished but I was stupefied to think how it was possible that through my pen matters of unseen worlds could be expressed. Nirod encouraged me to go on writing even if nothing was understood. I too kept myself at it for some time. At times a word here or there would come that I had never heard of before. So I looked them up in a dictionary or asked someone to find out if such words did really exist. There came a poem that when read seemed to indicate that I was a great pundit of the Bengali language. Later there dawned upon my eye of consciousness the image of Shiva although the poem was still unintelligible and a great feeling of satisfaction was pervading in me as I wrote. After I had completed I took it to Nolini who can not only penetrate into the meaning but likes mystic poetry. He said that it was a poem on Shiva. Nirod took it to Sri Aurobindo who also said it was Shiva and related to the higher regions beyond my comprehension. I dare not put here all that Sri Aurobindo said. However, after writing some mystic poems it became clear to me that no mystic poem can be written by any mental effort; nor can it be corrected, as the words come they have to be put down on paper accurately; moreover, if any change is needed that too comes in like manner and no mental effort is called for. For, what a mystic poem wants to reveal is not known ordinarily, the mind cannot reach it. The only thing the intellect can do is to become a docile instrument. This became very clear to me after several attempts. Mystic poems create an atmosphere of their own and the language made use of often hides the inner meaning under a shroud of mysterious words. It seems that the words can reveal an infinity of messages replete with boundless knowledge, the more one can go deep within the more light they shed, seemingly withholding much more as one goes on into its depth.

Nolini translated one of my mystic poems, and with that let me close the chapter of mystic poems.

The first tremor of the Light, to the dream-journey
Night’s desire is now appeased, she feels the Sun within her,
The Mother of Infinity holds in her bosom her first guest;
The call awakes in the lotus-scented senses!
On the far shore where moves the Fiery Wheel
Rose, unheeded, the cry of the Spaces –
It spread and enveloped even our shadowy horizons:
A golden vision flutters on earth’s eye-lids,
As the flaming spider weaves his luminous web around himself!
The Bard wheels onward in his sweeping march:
He gathers in perfect rhythm the soul’s obeisances,
Urges secreted in the heart of the sun-flower,
Hymns limned in her petalled gold!
Darkness massed on darkness has burst all of a sudden:
Eyes once closed open to the Lightning’s flare!

Once I asked Sri Aurobindo if song and poetry were akin to each other. This was his answer:

“No, a song is not a kind of poem, or need not be. There are some very good songs which are not poems at all. In Europe, song-writers or the writers of the librettos of the great operas are not classed among poets. In Asia the attempt to combine song-quality with poetic value has been more common, but this is not essential. In ancient Greece also lyric poetry was often composed with a view to being set to music. But still poetry and song-writing, though they can be combined, are two different arts.

“The difference is not that poetry has to be understood and music or singing felt (anubhuti). If you only understand the intellectual content of a poem, its words and ideas, you have not really appreciated the poem at all. And a poem which contains only that and nothing else, is not true poetry. A true poem contains something else which has to be felt just as you feel music and that is its more important and essential part. It has first, a rhythm, just as music has, though of a different kind, and it is the rhythm that helps this something else to come out through the medium of words. The words by themselves do not carry it or cannot bring it out altogether, and this is shown by the fact that the same words written in a different order and without rhythm or without the proper rhythm would not at all move or impress you in the same way. This something else is an inner content or suggestion, a soul-feeling or a soul-experience, or vital feeling or life experience, a mental emotion, vision or experience (not merely an idea) and it is only if you can catch this and reproduce the experience in yourself, then you have got what the poem can give you, not otherwise.

“The real difference between a poem and a song is that a song is written with a view to being set to musical rhythm and a poem is written with a view to poetic rhythm or word music. These two rhythms are quite different. That is why a poem cannot be set to music unless it has either been written with an eye to both kinds of rhythms or else happens to have (without specially intending it) a movement which makes it easy or at least possible to set it to music. This happens often with lyrical poetry, less often with other kinds. There is also this usual character of a song that it is satisfied to be very simple in its content, bringing out a single idea or feeling, and leaving it to the music to develop it; but this is not always done.” (4.7.31)

The French litterateur and poet Maurice Magre was coming. I was busy embroidering a curtain for the big door of the Mother’s room on the design submitted by Sanjiban, one of the best artists in the Ashram. The old French houses of Pondicherry have large doors and windows. Consequently the curtain too was large.

I had gone to ask the Mother about some points as regards the curtain when, after a moment’s reflection, she asked, “Maurice Magre is expected, do you think you will be able to finish the curtain before his arrival? There are still three months in hand.” Guessing her intention, I said enthusiastically, “Yes, Mother, most certainly.” Mother was very pleased and blessed me, I too made my obeisance. She gave me a big red rose, signifying “All passion turned into love for the Divine.” This gave me further impetus to finish the curtain in time, cost what it may. Mentally working it out, it seemed that to finish the curtain within three months would entail a work of eleven to twelve hours a day, which I put in, but strange to say I never felt tired even after such long hours of work. The work was intricate and extensive — a very thick trunk of a tree spreading proportionate branches mounting upwards, on a branch towards the top a white peacock looking down and on a lower branch another white peacock gazing up towards the other bird. The size of the birds would come up to the stature of a full grown Bengali girl. The design was superb too. I was surprised at the energy with which I was able to complete the work without tiring — it was clearly derived from the Mother herself. When it was taken to the Mother and spread on the floor for her inspection, I can hardly describe the expression of her eyes, I wonder if I have ever seen anyone appreciating in like manner. After looking at it for a long time, with a face beaming with joy, she said in French, “Oh! c’est magnifique!” Even today the same curtain is hung in Sri Aurobindo’s room on every Darshan day of the 24th November; and each time I remember and gaze at it in wonder; I try to imagine what I had offered the Mother and how she has transformed it, that even after nearly four decades it hangs as perfectly as on the first occasion — a perfect example of preserving a thing with the utmost possible care.


to be continued…

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