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At the Feet of The Mother

The Formation of The Ashram

There are some utterances of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother which indicate that they were not really eager to become gurus. And yet they adopted this role when it fell on them in the natural course of events. Something similar was the case with the Ashram which was not consciously planned or necessarily intended from the beginning. This can be seen from Sri Aurobindo’s statement:

“There was no Ashram at first, only a few people came to live near Sri Aurobindo and practise Yoga. It was only some time after the Mother came from Japan that it took the form of the Ashram, more from the wish of the Sadhaks who desired to entrust their whole inner and outer life to the Mother than from any intention or plan of hers or of Sri Aurobindo.”[1]

What the Mother and Sri Aurobindo had in mind was not an Ashram in the traditional Indian meaning, but a kind of spiritual laboratory in which a new integral, Divine Life was to be tried on a much larger scale than had ever been attempted before. Even though Guru and disciples were gathered here for God-Realization, which justifies the name ‘Ashram’ (Sri Aurobindo accepted the term after some hesitation), the model was basically different. When Surendranath Jauhar, an Indian businessman, came to South India on a tour and visited the Ashram, he at once noted this difference. There were no monks and ascetics here, no idols, recitations, devotional chanting and other forms of traditional Indian Ashram life: “When we got into the building, we saw a number of people, all in simple and neat dresses, and some even in pants and coats, but no sants or sannyasis, no monks or mahants, no shaven heads…, no preaching or prayers, no siksha or sermons…”[2] Then he saw the Mother: “In her gait there was majesty, in her face a glowing grace and her eyes flashed gleams that pierced the darkness below and around. My gaze was fixed at the fairy-like figure whose calm and beautiful face was radiating light and making the whole atmosphere so supernatural that she looked every inch an angel descending from Heaven…”[3]  Surendranath Jauhar joined the Ashram with his whole family and later founded, on the Mother’s suggestion, the Delhi Branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, with ‘The Mother’s International School’ attached to it.

It would be wrong to assume that the new life style in the Ashram and the turning away from Indian tradition implied the complete rejection of the latter. In fact, what was being done here was the overcoming of the ascetic phase of Indian tradition, which in a one-sided way equated spirituality with renunciation. Through this approach, values such as prosperity, health and work had often not only been neglected, but despised outright. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were consciously working against this trend, even though they were proceeding slowly, since they had at first to create a new basis for the larger life which was not to be merely an improved imitation of ordinary life. We have also to note that some elements of Indian spirituality did find their place in the Ashram life, e.g. Pranam, or prostration before the Guru; Darshan, the seeing of the Guru and receiving his blessings; the distribution of food as Prasad, offered to the Divine; meditations; use of incense sticks, etc. If we wanted to find a link with Indian tradition, we would have to go back to Vedic times, when integral life, fullness and prosperity, equality of the sexes and a life-affirming attitude were similarly cultivated by spiritual seekers. This integral approach was lost in later epochs when Mayavada (Illusionism) and one-sided asceticism prevailed.

In a letter of 10 February 1933 the Mother explained the life style in the Ashram to her son André:

“The life we lead here is as far from ascetic abstinence as from an enervating comfort; simplicity is the rule here, but a simplicity full of variety, a variety of occupations, of activities, tastes, tendencies, natures; each one is free to organise his life as he pleases, the discipline is reduced to a minimum that is indispensable to organize the existence of 110 to 120 people and to avoid the movements which would be detrimental to the achievement of our yogic aim.”[4]

What was tried here was a spiritual life with variety and relative fullness, which should yet not deviate into the enjoyment of luxury and comfort. The sadhaks were required to learn to use all things with a right attitude and not to misinterpret the fullness as a fulfillment of the ego. Sri Aurobindo clarified this point in a letter:

“The Mother does not provide the Sadhaks with comforts because she thinks that the desires, fancies, likings, preferences should be satisfied – in Yoga people have to overcome these things. In any other Ashram they would not get one-tenth of what they get here… The first rule of Yoga is that the Sadhak must be content with what comes to him, much or little; if things are there, he must be able to use them without attachment or desire; if they are not he must be indifferent to their absence.”[5]

The number of sadhaks was rapidly growing now. 24 disciples had been present during the descent of overmind on 24 November 1926. By the middle of 1927 there were about 30 disciples staying in five houses. In August 1929 more than 85 stayed in 17 houses, a year later their number was almost one hundred in 21 houses. In a letter to André, dated 23 August 1930, the Mother takes stock: The Ashram has now, among other things, 5 cars, 12 bicycles, garages, workshops, a library and a reading room, general stores, a dairy and a bakery. “You can see,” she writes, “that it is no small affair. And as I am taking care of all this, I can truly say that I am busy.”[6]

The Mother started her day early in the morning at about 4 o’clock and at about 6 o’clock she came to the terrace of her house with some members of the Ashram. Then a sadhak blew a conch to announce her arrival in the Meditation Room. The pranam took one or two hours. Thereafter there were interviews with her which lasted until noon. After this the Mother personally distributed the dishes to the sadhaks in the Dining Hall. Then she went to Sri Aurobindo’s room and finally sat in the Prosperity Hall with some sadhaks. At times she held a meditation. Otherwise there was general conversation and she gave some special talks. There were also ‘flower games’: the Mother had given spiritual meanings to numberless flowers, such as ‘Realization’, ‘Purity’, ‘Faith’, ‘Surrender’, ‘Perfection’ etc. and at these sessions she arranged some flowers in a particular way. The sadhaks were then asked to put together the meanings in such a way that they formed a significant sentence. In the following we give two examples:

Only to those who have a true humility will power be given.  (10.10.1929)

Approach the Divine with loving gratitude and you will meet the Divine’s Love. (14.10.1929)

The sadhak who found the sentence intended by the Mother or who came closest to it got some prize like sweets. The Mother also arranged for other games like balancing a big lemon on the head and other skill games. There was no fixed programme, the group followed the inspiration of the moment. The sadhaks experienced the Mother here as a Mother among her children, giving them relief from the strict concentration of Yoga, which is not to say that Yoga was not being continued here. But it happened more invisibly, just ‘like playing’.

A regular item after 1927 was the ‘soup distribution’, which however was less a ceremony than a deep spiritual exchange between the Mother and the sadhaks. It took place in the late evening, at 7 or 8 o’clock. The Mother sat in an armchair, with her feet resting on a small stool. She meditated for a while, holding her hands over the container of the soup with the palms pointing downwards, as if she was pouring her force into the liquid. Then the container was moved to her right and she distributed the food with a big spoon to the sadhaks who kneeled down before her one after another and offered her their cup. Sometimes she fell into a trance during the distribution and the respective sadhak waited for a while, until his cup was filled by her. As Sri Aurobindo explained, the soup was “a means by which the sadhak might receive something from the Mother by an interchange in the material consciousness.”[7] In his report about it, K. D. Sethna has captured something of the mystical atmosphere which prevailed during the soup distribution: “It was a very important function every evening. It impressed me like a snatch of the Ancient Mysteries. The atmosphere was as in some secret temple of Egyptian or Greek times…”[8]

Since 1927 the first day of the month had been the ‘Prosperity-Day’. On this day the Mother gave to the sadhaks their monthly needs and requirements, such as clothes, stationery and other things. The disciples could make their requests in advance on a chit. Some of them often asked only for the Mother’s blessings, whilst others made a long list of their requirements. In both cases the requests were fulfilled.

In 1930 there was pranam on five days in the week and on the other two days flowers were distributed at soup time. Many sadhaks gathered now in the morning on the pavement facing the Mother’s balcony in order to catch a glimpse of her. As a rule, she was expected at 6.15 a.m., but often her coming was delayed. Even then a few sadhaks kept waiting until she appeared. This developed into a regular balcony darshan which was continued for 30 years to come. In the following quotation the Mother explains what she was doing for the disciples during darshan:

“Every morning, at the balcony, after establishing a conscious contact with each of those who are present, I identify myself with the Supreme Lord and merge myself completely in Him. Then my body, completely passive, is nothing but a channel through which the Lord passes freely His forces and pours on all His Light, His Consciousness and His Joy, according to each one’s receptivity.”[9]

Moreover, there were three special darshan days: the birthdays of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo (21 February, 15 August), and 24 November, the day of the descent of overmind. 24 April (day of the final arrival of the Mother in Pondicherry) was added in 1939. The darshan began at 6.30 a.m. and lasted until about 2 p. m. It took place in a small room to the south east of Sri Aurobindo’s room and every sadhak or visitor was given about 1½. minutes to spend in the presence of the two avatars. This arrangement remained unchanged until 1938 when Sri Aurobindo suffered a fracture of the right thigh-bone and could not come for the November darshan. Afterwards the number of sadhaks and visitors increased so much that this kind of individual darshan was not possible any more and so they passed before Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in a long line to shorten the procedure.

Darshan should not be considered as a mere ceremony of reverence towards the guru. The proper purpose was to enable the disciples to share the respective inner advance and achievement of the master and to transfer something of it on them. The Mother stated in this context:

“In the days when Sri Aurobindo used to give Darshan, before he gave it there was always a concentration of certain forces or of a certain realisation which he wanted to give people. And so each Darshan marked a stage forward; each time something was added. But that was at a time when the number of visitors was very limited.”[10]

We may assume that this purpose of a transfer of spiritual force remained the same even in later times, but it did not take place any more in the same intensive and concrete form.

[1] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:236

[2] S. Jauhar, My Fateful Journey, pp. 5-7

[3] Ibid., p. 7

[4] CWM 16:7-8

[5] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 2:45

[6] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 2:60

[7] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 2:57

[8] K. R. S. Iyengar’s On the Mother 1:289

[9] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 2:68

[10] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 2:71

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