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At the Feet of The Mother

In Memory of Sahanadi


Today I propose to break the tradition. Instead of speaking on the Master on the eve of his sacred birthday, I intend to speak on one of his close disciples who lived in the Ashram for many decades and is now gone to the higher worlds after completing her mission here. Her name is Sahana. I shall confine myself to her spiritual life.

I offer two reasons for this choice: one, we have been speaking on the Master for many years. Though he is inexhaustible, for me at least, I have exhausted for your sake the little stock he gave me about himself.

I am not like my versatile friend Arindam over there who can speak on many wave-lengths. That is why the month of August has now become a kind of nightmare for me and, perhaps, for the ‘Sri Aurobindo society’ as well. For they know that they would have to approach me and receive a growl. But this time both sides have been spared this tension, for the Lord has given me a prepared subject and I readily agreed to their proposal, to their happy surprise.

Besides, this subject is very relevant today. When there is the danger of our forgetting life’s central aim it is good to remember what the Ashram stands for, what sadhana is, how to practise it, where it leads and what crowning result waits for us. The saga of Sahanadi’s spiritual life will be an example to us in this respect.

Affectionate niece of Deshbandhu C.R. Das, beloved ‘Jhunu’ of poet Tagore, nightingale of Bengal whose melodious voice once ravished the heart of that province and who was the unquestioned authority on Tagore’s music, she heard suddenly one day a call from within and threw away the world’s glamour like a trinket — even the asylum offered by Tagore. Inspired and assisted by her intimate musician — friend Dilip Kumar Roy she started for Pondicherry via Bangalore. While she was waiting there for permission, she had the darshan of Sri Aurobindo in a dream. Long ago, when Sahanadi was just a little girl, she had seen him at the place of C.R. Das. It was on the day he was released from jail, and was invited to come there along with all his young companions. Her memory of Sri Aurobindo was that he was of a fair complexion, thin, and very quiet, as if in-drawn. At Bangalore it was different. In her dream he was going somewhere, crossing a green field or perhaps coming in her direction. She rushed towards him and, making her pranam, said, “I want to come to Pondicherry. Please give me permission.” He replied in a sweet playful voice, “What’s the hurry? Why not continue your singing for some time longer?” She broke down and began to sob. Then, patting her on her back, he added, “All right. Your place has been fixed: tomorrow the permission will come.” Overjoyed, she fell again at his feet. The next day the permission came and she started for Pondicherry. Two sadhaks received her at the station and took her to her appointed lodging. Nolini came to see her later on. Thus she found her abode in the Mother’s sanctuary and did not take a single step outside Pondicherry for the rest of her long life. This fact, which she very proudly used to repeat to her friends, is enough to prove that she belongs to the rank of devotees like Mirabai who had left the world for God.

The next day she was to see the Mother. Let us hear her own words:

“As soon as I saw her I felt that she was no human being. She smiled and looked at me. What a smile, what a look! I did pranam and she touched my head. My eyes closed of themselves. Then my consciousness began to rise; at the same time a power descended and, passing through the head, it passed through all the chakras. I felt that the body was a vessel which was getting so filled up that it began to swell and become hard; the body went on expanding. The Mother was touching my head from time to time but I couldn’t open my eyes. At last she put one of her fingers on the middle of my brow. Suddenly I saw she was sternly looking into the very depths of my being. What power in those eyes! Then I told her my past story. At the end she drew me with both her hands towards her bosom and kissed my forehead. After a while she gazed at me; there was a supreme assurance in her look. My eyes were overflowing with tears. I went home, locked myself in my room: tears started flowing and flowing!

“The next day she came to my room. She asked me to sing. I sang three or four songs of Mirabai. Then she departed filling my entire being with love and gratitude.

“The Darshan was at 7 a.m. next day. When my turn came, I glimpsed Sri Aurobindo from a distance sitting majestically on a sofa, immobile like the Himalayas. Of a fair complexion he wore a white silk dhoti and chaddar; the bust was half-covered, the hair and beard were flowing down to the chest. As I came near I saw the Mother, all radiant, sitting on his right side. As I bowed to her she placed her two hands on my head and poured her ineffable honeyed smile as her blessings. Then my eyes turned to the feet of Sri Aurobindo. How beautiful they were! As I laid my head on them, slightly leaning forward he put his right hand on my head. I could not say what magic was in that touch. I felt I received something inconceivable… As I looked at his eyes, I could not turn away my gaze and the very bottom of an immeasurable sea was, as it were, exposed to my vision. He then lowered his eyes, I got up. How I found myself back in my room, how the whole day passed I had no idea. The image of his eye-entrancing beauty filled my entire day.”

This was in 1928 I believe, soon after her arrival. Sri Aurobindo had of course gone into seclusion by that time and could be seen only three times a year but he kept contact with the sadhaks through correspondence. I do not know exactly what form her sadhana took at that time. Was it through work or through meditation? The only thing I know from a letter written to me by Sri Aurobindo is that she had cut off all connection with the outer world and was living a sort of secluded life and doing intense sadhana. From her own writing we come to know that she used to see the Mother and that the Mother herself would visit her room once a week in return. She also had the special privilege of going out in a car accompanying the Mother’s car once a week — along with a few sadhaks like Nolini, Dilip, etc. There used to be meditation, conversation on various subjects. She had also permission to cook for the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Of course her singing was there too, which she practised all by herself. One thing that comes out quite clear from this description is that her life was turned inward.

When I arrived in 1933 I found that there was a good number of sadhaks in the Ashram and with it there was increased outer activity. I came to know that Sahana had made good progress in sadhana. As I knew very little of sadhana at that time, I was interested to observe the ways of life of such disciples. And as I happened to know Sahana through Dilip and was interested in her singing some of the traits in her outer nature did not seem to me quite in accord with her sadhana. A bit puzzled I wrote to Sri Aurobindo: “I am tempted to ask you a delicate question about Sahana. She seems to be in a good state of sadhana though I find that she spends much of her time in a very ordinary manner… Still she seems very happy and her sadhana must be very good, since she suffers from no depression.” Sri Aurobindo replied: “You forget that for a long time she was often keeping much more to herself. During that time she built up an inner life and made an attempt to change certain things in her outer movements. There is still an enormous amount to be done before the inner change can be outwardly visible, but still she is not insincere in her resolution. As for her not having any depression, it is because she has established a fundamental calm… She also a day or two ago had the experience of the ascent above and of the wideness of peace and joy of the Infinite (free from the bodily sense and limitation) as also the descent down to the Muladhara. There are 3 or 4 others who have had this experience recently so that the working of the Force is not altogether in vain as this experience is a very big affair and is supposed to be, if stabilised, the summit of the old yogas. For us it is only a beginning of spiritual transformation. I have said this though it is personal so that you may understand that outside defects and obstacles in the nature or the appearance of unyogicness does not necessarily mean that a person can do or is doing no sadhana.”

Then I asked: “But what is the secret of it? I think she has a great love for the Mother. Is that the reason?”

Sri Aurobindo: “Partly. She got hold of the sadhana by the right end in her mind and applied it — just the thing D failed to do because of his doubts and pride of intellect and denials, etc.”

This was written in 1936. This letter helped me much in having a right view of sadhana. I learned not to judge people and things too hastily, depending on the outer appearance which is often misleading. Later on I came to know that Sahana was passing through periods of great inner difficulties so much so that she was once on the point of going away. I shall refer to it again later.

After 1938 I saw her taking up supervision work in the Building Service. She used to move about from site to site wherever construction work was going on. She was the first and only woman, I believe, to do this kind of work. But the wonder of it was that she used to have experiences of what Sri Aurobindo called ascent and descent even during the supervision. Once she had an experience of her consciousness rising high up and disappearing into a Void as it were and she was almost losing her body-consciousness. On hearing of it from me — I was then attending on Sri Aurobindo — Sri Aurobindo remarked that it was an experience of the Nirvana of her personal being. In spite of all these high conditions, he hinted that some days earlier she had passed through period of revolt by her outer nature. I give one or two examples of her dark periods.

At one time for small and trifling reasons her wrong understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s words made her stop going to Pranam and sending her daily diary to the Mother. Sri Aurobindo noted this and wrote to her. “I see that you have not sent your book nor any letter and I am told you did not come for Pranam. Are you then determined to reject us and our help and shut yourself up in your despondency?”

Mark here Sri Aurobindo’s humility in the expression, “determined to reject us”; as if we were going to oblige him and the Mother by our stay in the Ashram and doing sadhana!

At another time she was in a more serious mood of revolt and had decided to leave the Ashram. Here are her own words about it: “In January 1937, my condition started with my abhiman (hurt pride) towards the Mother, my reason being that she didn’t appear to love me… the situation rose to climax and I took the decision to leave…. As I was ready, Nolini came quietly and said, ‘What? Are you going?’ ‘Yes, Nolini-da,’ I replied with tearful eyes. He kept quiet, then again: ‘Mother asked me, “Is Sahana going tomorrow?”’ He repeated it thrice. My being was then filled with silent sobs…. Utterly broken I cried, ‘Nolini-da, please tell Mother I won’t go.’ After this, there was no further repetition of the dark moods.”

Let me cite one small instance of Sri Aurobindo’s humour from her correspondence. Once she had a strong desire to eat some sweets. She pleaded with the Mother for her permission. Sri Aurobindo wrote, “No, certainly not. Eat your desire.” Reading which Sahana laughed and laughed and the desire was swallowed! Now I shall say a few words about other aspects of her personality that opened up as a result of Yoga. About the literary faculty some of you may know how at one time the Ashram was buzzing with poets. She also turned into a poet and was receiving inspiration from Sri Aurobindo even while working as a supervisor. She was writing mystic poetry. As she could not understand her own poems I would carry them to Sri Aurobindo. Once she threw away some beautiful lines since she could not make out their meaning. When Sri Aurobindo was shown these lines, he said, “If she throws away such lines, then what’s the use of my sending her inspiration?” She used to receive lines in English too. Her last poem in Bengali on Sri Aurobindo’s samadhi excels all others. It is a supreme achievement, indeed.

Now, a few words about her singing. You have been told that she was the nightingale of Bengal. But when she arrived in the Ashram, Sri Aurobindo says that for the first few years she lived exclusively in herself, cutting off all contact with the outside world, even with D, which made him very sad indeed. She used to sing to herself all alone and the music had an uplifting effect.

Once while singing she had a very strange experience. She was singing a song of Kabir at about 7 p.m. on her terrace. She writes: “I felt that a force was descending in me, the volume of voice was increasing and the music was becoming exquisite. Suddenly I felt that another voice was expressing itself through my own, I had no control over it. I was just a passive instrument and the music was superb in every way. I had never sung in this way. I was simply charmed beyond words.” She wrote to Sri Aurobindo. He answered, “Yes, it was a very high experience.”

Then she speaks of another experience quite the reverse of this one. She says it was for the first time in her long singing career that she realised what is known as nervousness. She writes: “It was the day of Darshan in 1929. In the afternoon of the Darshan Dilip and myself were to sing in the Meditation Hall upstairs in the Mother’s presence. Sri Aurobindo was to hear our song from the next room. Instead of offering my best my song became an utter failure. The voice would simply not come out however much I tried. I was extremely nervous as never before, though I had sung a lot in great gatherings. When I asked Mother for the reason, she answered, ‘You forget before Whose Presence you were singing. Your vital being became nervous before that Divine Presence.’”

There was another demonstration later which I myself witnessed. It had a comic ending. It was in the Meditation Hall downstairs. The Mother was sitting where now hangs a big picture. Sahana, Dilip and his party were to sing. It was Dilip’s turn now. The atmosphere was surcharged as if higher powers had been called down. Now as soon as Dilip started with the accompaniment of Tabla, an old sadhak, Purushottam, started dancing in a very rhythmic manner. We were astonished and didn’t know whether to smile or keep a straight face. But the Mother was simply observing. After a while the dancing stopped. The next day when Dilip asked Sri Aurobindo what had caused this strange event he replied that it was the Tabla that was responsible for it.

A few months after Sahana arrived here, she started feeling a sort of uneasiness because she could no more be moved by the name of Krishna nor could she sing the songs about him as before. Love, devotion, etc. were diminishing and in their place emotions were crystallising around the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. The change brought about an inner conflict. She says: “I thought they are all divine… Why then this difference?” This tormented her for a long time. Then she had a splendid experience while meditating, which removed all her doubts. She had a vision of Krishna. There appeared before her a Radiant Image, agleam with blue light. She fell prostrate at his feet with tears flowing and kept repeating, “O my Lord, my Beloved God!” In that utterance she felt such an unknown exquisitely sweet feeling of ‘oneness’ with him that she exclaimed, “Oh, how intimate, so intimate that there can be none so much ‘my own’.”

Overwhelming her with this feeling he vanished, uttering these benedictory words: “Why this lassitude? I am united with Sri Aurobindo.”

She wrote everything to Sri Aurobindo and asked, “How shall I, so unfit a person… take this experience? Have I understood it rightly?” He answered, “Who else can unite with me except Krishna?”

A similar experience of another devotee comes to mind. She was offering food to the photos of Krishna and Sri Aurobindo. Then she saw the right hands of both of them take the offering from the dish and leave the rest as Prasad.

Another faculty that opened up in Sahana was embroidery. Women in the Ashram at that time were doing this embroidery work as a part of sadhana on the designs drawn by our artist Sanjiban. The Mother asked Sahana to do one piece, the one that is even now hung between Sri Aurobindo’s room and Champaklal’s. She finished it in a specified time working 10 to 12 hours a day. The Mother was very pleased. It was meant to be shown to Maurice Magre, a noted French writer on the occasion of his arrival here.

Now I shall cite a letter of capital importance from Sri Aurobindo, probably written in 1937, where he explains the import of Sahana’s experience. He writes: “The experience you have is the experience of the true self. Untroubled by grief and joy, desire, anxiety or trouble, vast and calm and full of peace, it observes the agitation of the outer being as one might the play of children. It is indeed the divine element in you. The more you can live in that, the firmer will be the foundation of sadhana. In this self will come all the higher experiences, oneness with the Divine, light, knowledge, strength, ananda, the play of the Mother’s higher forces. It does not always become stable from the first, though for some it does, but the experience comes more frequently and lasts more till it is no longer covered by the ordinary nature.”

We can understand from this letter what Sri Aurobindo wrote to me about her already in 1936: “She was on the way to a very high stage of sadhana, though still not quite free from the troubles of the lower nature.”

At this moment came the big interruption in our sadhana and in the entire course of our life. Sri Aurobindo met with an accident, fracturing the thigh-bone of his right leg. As a result all correspondence stopped and we were engaged in different fields of activity. One year later, World War II broke out. The Ashram was invaded by an influx of devotees from outside with their families. Consequently, the sadhana underwent a radical change. It became a collective sadhana. In this reorganisation of life, my contact with the outside world was reduced and meetings with Sahana were very rare. There was virtually a break with her due to our preoccupation with Sri Aurobindo in the latter part of 1950 before the great calamity overtook the Ashram on December 5. And it was long afterwards, when life had regained its normal tenor, that I came to know how that calamity had affected her and what a great storm she had passed through. She gives a long historic account of her experience from the moment she heard that Sri Aurobindo had left his body till he was laid in the Samadhi — an account that in my opinion surpasses all that we others have written about it. I shall deal only with that part when she was all broken down and desolate. She was witnessing the last scene of Sri Aurobindo’s body being laid in the Samadhi. She was in a flood of tears during the whole procedure and took note of every detail but with an impassive attitude as it were. When the last touch had been given she returned home along with others in a mechanical manner. A few days passed. Then again an utter desolation seized her and she felt as if she was drifting into a limitless darkness of Inconscience and would herself pass away. In that gloomy condition of soul she came to the Samadhi, uncontrollable tears flowing in incessant streams. Then suddenly she saw three lines of a poem as if carved out in light before her eyes and she was startled. She felt Sri Aurobindo himself standing behind her head and whispering these lines into her ears and at once a spate of light swept away the deep gloom in which she was plunged. She returned home, sat down to transcribe the lines as they were coming down in a constant flow. She went on scribbling for days and long hours of the night, almost without sleep and very little food. When the poem was complete she had also taken a new birth into Light and Bliss.

As regards the poem itself, it is a veritable tour de force. There is nothing like it in Bengali and it will be hard to surpass this magnificent creation in sublimity, splendour, power, eloquence and every other poetic excellence one can think of. I have a strong feeling that the entire poem is inspired with an overmind rhythm, at least with what Sri Aurobindo calls an overhead rhythm. There is no doubt that Sahana was seized by an enthousiasmos and in that mood composed the entire piece running into nearly 350 lines. It is extremely difficult to translate it into English; at least my power is insufficient. The poem starts with only the physical body of Sri Aurobindo passing away, but he is not confined to this small area of the body, his supreme Being has become in its illumined consciousness one with the universe. His origin from the Supreme and manifestation as the integral Avatar, his descent into the world of Inconscience to create a new supramental race and eventually transform the world itself into its original divine consciousness — his infinite Love, supernal Knowledge and Power: this in short is the theme.

After Sri Aurobindo’s passing, my knowledge about Sahana’s sadhana and her life is not precise and I shall give just a brief summary of it. I know that she was busy with her creative writing, publishing her books, letters of Sri Aurobindo, teaching music to the young and setting up a tailoring department where sadhikas worked under her supervision. It seems that she had found at last a vocation native to her own temperament. I used to be called now and then for advice about literary matters or about her health. Her field had enlarged; more and more people came to know about her; particularly among the Ashram women she became very popular and they used to hold her in great respect and love. The greatest attraction about her was her songs and her talks about the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. People from Calcutta came to record her voice, and others when they visited the Ashram made it a point to see her and hear her voice. Thus she had become an institution. She was living in the Mother’s consciousness, always cheerful and never tired of speaking about the Mother and Sri Aurobindo to people.

This is what one would call the psychic path of love and devotion. She was at the same time frequently suffering from one illness or another. She told me once that she could not sleep for nights and nights due to severe nervous pain in her lower limbs. At one time her condition was so bad that she thought she would pass away. But she had no fear or regret. She had completely surrendered herself to the Mother. Then the Darshan came and she had a marvellous experience. She saw that she was being carried by her soul in a boat and she felt so happy that she recovered from her illness.

During the last two or three years of her life she was always living in this psychic condition and people have been astonished to see her so happy and particularly her singing kept its original charm even at that old age. She attributed this capacity to the Mother’s Grace.

From her example, I would say that two clearly demarcated paths came out distinctly in our sadhana — one, essentially, the path of knowledge, and the other the path of love. Of the former Nolini-da was the exemplar, Sahana-di was the exemplar of the latter. They were the two pioneers and pillars, so to say, of the twofold path, the path of karma being common to both.

At one time I used to wonder, seeing so many apparently uneducated women in the Ashram, what sadhana they would do of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. I vented my feelings in my egoistic pride of the male to Sri Aurobindo. He replied somewhat to this effect: your doubt may have some justification, but the letters I receive from these women show that they have experiences of a high order, and though they cannot label them, their description of the experiences are very precise and vivid. Seeing Sahanadi’s example I realise that one need not have knowledge of Sri Aurobindo’s great philosophy to do his Yoga. There is a path of Love and Devotion which can unfold all the mysteries of the Divine and which I believe is more natural to women and gives them their right to achieve the Supreme Goal.

In conclusion, let me read out a letter from a friend of Sahanadi’s written about her after her departure. She wrote: “During this visit I could be in Sahanadi’s company for some time. I felt as if it was for the last time. The sweetness, calm, happy trust in the Mother that I was witnessing have made me feel that we are not worthy even of touching the hem of her sari.”

(Mother India, December 1990)

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It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it.