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The Ashram's Spiritual History ->Some Spiritual Aspirants from the West


Some Spiritual Aspirants from the West




Some days back I came across the March issue of the English periodical Encounter. Among the books reviewed I saw the title: Wittgenstein's lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939. The editor had drawn upon the notes of four students of that brilliant Austrian who had become the most influential thinker of his day with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In the list of the students I noticed the name : R. G. Bosanquet.

My mind flew back to the late 'thirties when my brother had gone to Cambridge for a year and in the course of his research had attended some of the talks of Wittgenstein. He got to know R.G. Bosanquet, a nephew of the well- known Bernard Bosanquet who had ranked next to F.H. Bradley as the best and most original English exponent of the metaphysical world-view designated "Absolute Idealism". My brother spoke to the young man of Sri Aurobindo and his Ashram of Integral Yoga at Pondicherry. Bosanquet immediately caught fire and wanted to get into touch with Sri Aurobindo.

At my brother's suggestion he wrote an account of his search for ultimate reality. This account was sent through me to Sri Aurobindo, along with a photograph of the writer. The picture showed a tall handsome bearded youth. The story of the search had a deep tone and rang absolutely sincere. Sri Aurobindo went through it an communicated to me his opinion as well as the Mother's of both the search-story and the photographic representation. He said: "The Mother and I were both extremely well-impressed by Bosanquet's photograph which shows a remarkable personality and great spiritual possibilities. If he come here, we shall be glad to give him help in his spiritual aspiration." (13-12-1938)

Seldom have the Master and the Mother given so positive an estimate and evinced such a glad and even eager acceptance of a seeker. Naturally Bosanquet was overjoyed. He planned an early trip to India. But some unexpected delay occurred and in the meantime the Second World War broke out. The young student had to join the army. Now the Pondicherry pilgrimage depended on when he could return to civilian life. From his letters home to his sister, letters which my brother was subsequently sent for perusal, it was clear that Bosanquet found the war a series of extreme horrors. A person with an extraordinary inner development was bound to suffer terribly in the gruesome game of mutual slaughter. Again and again he must have longed to escape from it. The escape came sooner than expected but in a form one would never have hoped for. Bosanquet was killed in action in Italy.

In the literal sense this was a most regrettable casualty in the spiritual field. It makes us realise the battle that is always on between the forces of Light and those of Darkness — a battle in grim earnest, the long-entrenched powers of obscurity even on the alert to spoil the chances of the Divine's work.

Bosanquet's death in early manhood has always struck me as comparable in its own way with the mortal collapse of Keats at the age of twenty-three as a result of pulmonary tuberculosis — a stupendous promise cut short. But, while Keats left behind him a body of poetic composition which will keep his name alive forever, we can apply to Bosanquet with perfect truth the self-depreciatory epitaph the English poet in a mood of dejection had framed for his own tomb: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Nothing remains of the philosophy- student except fragmentary notes of his studies. Who will dream that he had so bright a future in the realm of spiritual attainment? It is, therefore, with profound pleasure that I put his name on record as one of the worthiest aspirants to the Integral Yoga.

All the more fitting is it to associate him with the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother rather than with any other spiritual discipline, because what Sri Aurobindo says apropos of the photograph implies a very unusual "psychic" development. "Psychic" refers not to a sort of mediumistic opening to occult planes as understood in so-called "psychic phenomena" but to the inmost soul which Sri Aurobindo terms "the psychic being", indicating the true spiritual individual behind the apparent mental-vital-physical personality ruled grossly or subtly by what he dubs "the ego". The emergence and activity of the psychic being are the key to the special process that constitutes Sri Aurobindo's "Yoga of Supramental Descent and Transformation".

The psychic being is the only directly divine element in the evolving human composite. All the others, even at their highest, function as part of the cosmic formula with its various ascending planes of decreasing yet never annulled Ignorance and of increasing yet still limited Knowledge, a gradation whose top Sri Aurobindo distinguishes from the Supermind as Overmind. But the psychic element has hailed from the Transcendence to which the Supermind belongs and so it alone can serve as the dynamic basis of the supramental action in its full purity in our world. Its role is complementary to that of the infinite Silent Self (Atman) which is needed to serve as the static basis, the medium through which the Supermind can descend without distortion into our world. Once the psychic being has taken charge of our whole nature and set the mind, the life-force and the body working in accordance with its spontaneous truth-sense, it is ready to be the Supermind's central poise in the cosmic formula for an all-round irradiation of our nature, a process whose final result will be a totally transformed (that is, entirely divinised) mentality, vitality, physicality. No doubt, the Yoga of the Supermind's descending and transformative operation carries in its train a lot of other experiences and realisations than the psychic being's progressive emergence and activity: none of the constituents of our human composite can be neglected, all have to grow to their finest spiritual potential, but, while they contribute to the ultimate richness of manifestation, they do not form the pivotal power of it. That power is the psychic being - a sun round which they will brightly revolve to make a harmonious system of superhumanity.

All of us talk of our souls — and not always vainly, for most of us have some feel of it in general, but we are apt to confuse it with our vital-mental self. Neither the mind's ethereal abstractions nor the life-force's ecstatic sensations are an index to the real psyche. They certainly have a veiled touch of it, for all extreme intensities of our psychology express it in however oblique a way: the psyche holds the pure essence, as it were, of all our faculties and it works to raise them to their finest articulations. But its proper presence rather than its oblique penetration through them is glimpsed only at rare moments. When the sight of beauty leaves us utterly breathless in a perfectly disinterested rapture, when the enthusiasm for a noble cause leads to a deep and all-enveloping dedication of our energies, when the common man in us rises out of his rut to a sudden height of heroism, when the social self breaks from its routine relationship into a passion of love which gives and gives without any thought of return, when "the still, sad music of humanity" moves us to a silent generosity forgetting every personal grievance and flowing forth in impartial help — when any of these moments in which a Heart of extraordinary sensitiveness, light, strength, sweetness and amplitude breaks into the open from behind our habitual source of sentiment and emotion, then the psychic being has out-flowered. And a veritable Rose of roses it is in its burst be- yond the ego into a blaze of devotion to the Divine, in- vocation of the Infinite, possession by the Eternal.

At the root of these three states lies the constant act of self-surrender to the Supreme. The Aurobindonian Yoga of Supramental Descent and Transformation can also be termed the Yoga of Self-surrender. And with such an appellation goes another equally apposite. Corresponding to the psychic being's natural gesture of what the Gita calls abandoning all set rules (dharmas) and taking refuge in God alone, there is the action of the Divine Grace, the Godhead coming forward in all its plenitude to up- lift the human instrument. And it is fundamentally by the Divine Grace that the Integral Yoga can be fulfilled. Man's consciousness can climb by its own initiative up to the Overmind, the highest range of the Cosmic Consciousness. To mount further than this, there is required the leaning down of the Grace from the Supermind, that Face of the sheer Transcendent turned towards the cosmos. And for this Grace to operate at its most intense and immense the call of the Transcendent's own representative in the cosmic formula, the cry of the psychic being with its absolute gift, is needed. The interplay of the psyche and the Supreme Grace, the vibrant ceaseless communion of the soul that is at once a child and a seer with the Supreme Grace that is the outpouring of a Divine Motherhood: such in its essential form is the sadhana Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were so happily willing to carry on for young Bosanquet, insighting in him a rare capacity of self-surrender to the Highest.

Two statements of Sri Aurobindo's bring into sharp focus the spiritual posture we have been depicting. He writes: "In this yoga, the psychic is that which opens the rest of the nature to the supramental light and finally to the supreme Ananda.... If the inmost soul is awakened, if there is a new birth out of the mere mental, vital and physical into the psychic consciousness, then this Yoga can be done; otherwise (by the sole power of the mind or any other part) it is impossible."¹ Again, we have the words: "No Sadhak can reach the supermind by his own effort and the effort to do it by personal tapasya has been the source of many mishaps. One has to go quietly stage by stage until the being is ready and even then it is only the Grace that can bring about the real supramental change." ²  




Talking of the Cambridge Englishman I may not inappropriately mention the Frenchman in whom I felt and observed a similar capacity: Philippe Barbier St. Hilaire, known in the Ashram, under the name given by Sri Aurobindo, "Pavitra" (meaning "The Pure"). When I first came to the Ashram he also had a fine brown Bossanquetish beard as a base to a highly intelligent and happy-looking face. After a search in the Far East — Japan and inner Mongolia — he had arrived at the Ashram a few years before me and established close contact with the Master as well as the Mother. His face kept its happy look all through — except on the repeated occasions when on meeting the other companions of Sri Aurobindo he would intend to allay the suspicion of "white superiority" common to those pre-Independence days and tell them with the typical semi-smothered guttural French r and with the o  sounding as in "pot": "I am a brother to you all", and they would hear "brother" instead of "brother" and always hasten to reply, "No. no."

My westernised education and cheerful temperament, along with the same spiritual quest as his, brought us together from the beginning in a friendship which kept fresh to the end of his life. I could not help understanding why he had been renamed "Pavitra" and I was glad that the inner purity was free of all taint of prudishness and went with an outer gaiety which in turn had nothing loud about it. The Mother bestowed a lot of attention on him and it was reported that the consciousness which had manifested through Jesus. Chaitanya and, most recently, Ramakrishna — three examples par excellence of the psychic being's love-light within the context of the old-world spirituality which put its goal in the Beyond — had taken Pavitra as its channel for the new Yoga. There can be no question that the presence of the psychic being could be perceived in him by all who enjoyed even a little association with him. At times a school-masterish trend in his mind came to the fore and then one found it somewhat difficult to get the radiant touch. At its best, with its limitations at a vanishing point, this trend made him a very competent Director of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. But what rendered him a most consecrated Director was the drive of the soul with its utter self-giving to the Mother. The true spiritual child in him was evident in the way he took the Mother's scolding now and again. Such gentle humility is scarce indeed — and it is thrown into striking relief all the more in a Westerner hailing from a psychological environment in which the stress on individuality is very prominent.

I remember the Mother's comment on an American sadhika's plea about her little son that he was finding adjustment o the education at the Ashram's International Centre difficult because of the "more active vital and highly developed individuality" of the Western child. The Mother wrote to me: " 'Highly developed individuality' means a magnified ego trying to rule the being." In Pavitra this product of the West helped only to place at the disposal of the psychically illumined servitor of the Mother a highly talented and finely trained external mind and life- force. The West contributed also a non-ritualistic and tradition-free approach to the Guru. The Mother herself occasionally surprised her Indian disciples with her own uninhibited behaviour. In India one is taught to shudder at the idea of eating from the same spoon as somebody else. Champaklal has told me how his body instinctively shrank when once the Mother asked him to taste some- thing with the spoon with which she had herself tasted it. The devotee in him got immediately the better of the traditionalist and he did with gusto what the Mother had asked. I recollect too the shock received by Chandulal, our sole engineer and architect in the early days, when the Mother told him to do something which was likely to bring his feet in close proximity, if not actual contact, with an old bound volume of Sri Aurobindo's periodical Arya. Similar was Champaklal's amazement on seeing Pavitra blithely spring on to the seat, which once used to serve Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Darshan days, in order to reach up to a point on the wall where a fixture was to be made to suit the Mother. No Indian would commit such a "sacrilegious" act, but champaklal, recounting the incident to me, said "It is impossible to doubt Pavitra's devotion to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. I can never consider it as less in any manner than my own. So one can pass no judgment at all on what he did. It's all a matter of different conventions."

Sharing a common interest in the thought-structure of modern physics, Pavitra and I often met to discuss new turns of scientific theory and experiment. During these meetings many personal subjects also were discussed. In the course of a talk on his early life he answered to a question of mine about a certain period of it in France: "I can't recall anything. A complete blank has come over it as a result of Yoga." I was set wondering how such a thing could happen. But I understood it some years later during a visit to the Ashram from Bombay. My sadhana was passing through a phase in which the psyche had suddenly burst to the surface and covered the whole consciousness for days on end, a great warmth of aspiration and love for the Divine blazing out through the heart- centre and surrounding the body and leaping upward from the head toward unknown immensities. I felt cut off from all that had been connected with my ordinary life. The most astonishing result was that, try as I might, I could not visualise in the least the face of my wife Sehra who was in Bombay! After a week or so, the memory came back in a tentative fashion, but I had caught a glimpse of the tremendous life-revolutionising power possessed by the psychic being.

Apropos of Westerners turned towards the Integral Yoga I may criticise a common tendency among us Indians to underestimate the spiritual urge in those who have come from a sphere of existence where most of the taboos still lingering in India have vanished. Even in regard to the Mother a group of sadhaks in the 'twenties, when she returned to India for permanent stay near Sri Aurobindo was averse to accept her as an incarnation of the Divine — merely because she was from the West and a woman besides, while all the Avatars of tradition had been Indians and, furthermore, exclusively of the masculine gender. Gradually the Mother having been a 'Frenchwoman" stood as no bar to the worship offered her by thousands of Indians. In fact, Amrita once remarked to me; "What a difference for the worse would be there if an Indian instead of A European lady were at the head of this Ashram !" However, a prejudice continues in some quarters against Western aspirants.

No doubt, a few of them are rather brash and conceited and take spiritual truths too facilely, mistaking small supernormal experiences for lofty realisations. A visiting American had spoken to me of his daily trips to the Supermind. When I made a mild protest, he shut me up with the words: "It may be difficult for you people, but for us it is very different." This was said years ago, but quite recently I was told by another American in quite a casual tone that he was living mostly in the Overmind and that a good friend of his in the States was constantly going to and fro between Overmind and Supermind. Nor is such commuting confined to Americans. A small number of Europeans are equally prone to spiritual megalomania. On 24 February 1973 the Mother is on record as saying: "In Auroville there are people who believe that they are already manifesting the Supramental. And when you tell them that it is not so, they don't believe you." In fairness, however, to many of my Western friends I must state my repeated impression of their genuine psychic urge, their humbleness in face of the realisation to be achieved, their dogged perseverance in the spiritual endeavour despite the heat and dirt and disease they can- not help confronting in the subtropical places of the East: neither bad health nor difficult conditions discourage them from the inner adventure on which they are launched. This holds for Aurovilians no less those who come to live in the Ashram. Not only I but several friends of mine have observed the admirable intensity with which young people from Europe and America live the life of Yoga — pretty girls who could in a trice get any man, and handsome boys who could easily have a good time, and many of these boys and girls coming from circumstances in which every comfort and any career were open to them. Then there are the Westerners settled here for decades: they have had the grit to stand against all odds and, concentrating on the Mother's Grace, persisted in their endeavours to know their own souls.

As for spiritual fantasies, Indians are not immune to indulgence in them. In some letters of the 'thirties Sri Aurobindo refers to the frequent jump by several sadhaks, all Indian, to the conclusion that they have reached the Supramental Consciousness when they have just got an inkling of the "overhead" ranges. Thus he says: 'You were quite right in what you wrote about the supermind — people here do indeed use the 'big word' much too freely as if it were something quite within everybody's grasp."¹ He also marks "an eagerness in the vital to take any stage of strong experience as the final stage, even to take it for the overmind, supermind, full Siddhi", and adds: "The supermind or the overmind either is not so easy to reach as that-.-.-" ² As a general comment we may quote: "It is very unwise for anyone to claim prematurely to have possession of the supermind or even to have a taste of it. The claim is usually accompanied by an outburst of superegoism, some radical blunder of perception or a gross fall, wrong condition and wrong movement."³ In one of the talks I gave a long time back I spoke of a fellow-sadhak who, on the strength of an upward opening to the Divine Light, harboured the delusion that the Overmind was descending into him and that henceforth Sri Aurobindo and he would press towards the final victory — with, of course, the Mother as. their assistant. The delusion played havoc with him and he had to leave the Ashram. A wit coined a spiritual epitaph for him: "Undermined by Overmind." 

Yes, Indians too are liable to fall or go astray on the Yogic path. Yet, by and large, they have a more pervasive sense of the genuine and the spurious in spiritual experience: a long historic background charged with realisation on realisation by numerous followers of various Yogas — Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Tantra — is responsible for this sense, so that, as the Mother said to the Aurovilians on 5 February 1972, a simple and ignorant peasant here is in his heart closer to the Divine than the intellectuals of Europe. At the same time we must not forget that Western and Eastern are often mere masks: people coming from the West may very well have inner beings with that Indian background of spiritual history from their past births springing to life again in their present ones. Even otherwise there can be a host of awakened


 ¹Ibid., p. 327.     ² Ibid.,pp.22&-230.     ³  Ibid., p. 330.

 consciousnesses in the West — owing to certain special conditions there.

One such consciousness was surely the American lady whom we all knew by her Ashram name "Nishtha". Sri Aurobindo wrote on 5 November 1928: "the name means one-pointed and steady concentration, devotion and faith in the single aim — the Divine and the Divine Realisation." Nishtha was the daughter of the one-time President of the U.S.A., Woodrow Wilson. She lived for several years in the Ashram and died amongst us. Few can show the strength of character which came so easily to her. The Mother had most considerately made her as comfortable as possible in the Ashram and even given her a special cook. Once, in Lalita's presence, she told her: "You are not used to a vegetarian diet. If your health requires a non-vegetarian one, don't hesitate to have it." Nishtha replied: "No, Mother, I will not have it — even if I were to die as a result." A declaration in the same strain broke from her when a physical ailment of hers tended to be grave. It was suggested to her to go back to America, be with her family and consult her special doctor. She flatly refused, saying with some animation: "They can take care of my body, but who will take care of my soul?" The conversations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have many allusions to her. One at hand is the entry dated 18 December 19938, from Nirodbaran's Talks with Sri Aurobindo. On the eve of 24 November, a darshan day, Sri Aurobindo suffered a fracture in his right thigh-bone. He had to be confined to bed, and a group of attendants was formed. It is with these that he carried on the talks noted down by Nirodbaran. The entry I have mentioned begins:


8.30 p.m. N read an article in Asia, an American paper, to Sri Aurobindo on himself and Yoga. It was written by Swami Nikhilananda.

N: It is surprising that a Ramakrishna Mission Yogi should write on you.

Sri Aurobindo: It is Nishtha who arranged for its publication. He was a friend of hers before she came here. It is peculiar how they give an American turn to everything.

N: The Americans seem to be more open than the Europeans. Why?

Sri Aurobindo: They are a new nation and have no past tradition to bind them. France and Czechoslovakia are also open. Many from there are writing that they want to do Yoga.

N: Was Nishtha in communication with you for some time?

Sri Aurobindo: Oh, yes. She was in touch with us for three or four years. She has very clear ideas about Yoga and she was practising it there.

At this point Dr. M arrived. He heard the reference to Woodrow Wilson's daughter.

Dr. M: She must be disappointed because there was no darshan in November.

Sri Aurobindo: No, She has taken it with the right Yogic attitude — unlike many.

It was Margaret Wilson who interested Henry Ford in the Ashram. A believer in reincarnation, he asked her whether anybody in India could show him his past lives. The Mother accepted to do so. He arranged to visit the Ashram. Unfortunately the Second World War intervened to stop his journey just as it had stopped Bosanquet's. Like Bosanquet, though in peaceful circumstances. Ford died before he could have a chance to carry out his wish.

In relation to Nishtha's own death I may bring out a fact which may make an appropriate conclusion to this article on Western aspirants. The fact is an extraordinary one and I derive it from Nirodbaran. He has told me that margaret Wilson had an extreme devotion for Sri Aurobindo and that the Master responded to it in an unusual way when she died. At the moment her demise was reported to him, Nirodbaran saw a soft shine in the Master's eyes. Never before or after has the attendant caught on the imperturbable face of the Super-Yogi a reflected hint of what a Virgilian phrase in Savitri calls "the touch of tears in mortal things".


¹ On Yoga II, Tome Two (Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry 1958), pp.206-207.

² Ibid., p. 329.

- K. D. Sethna

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But to have this precise perception...listen, as I had when I came from Japan: I was on the boat, at sea, not expecting anything (I was of course busy with the inner life, but I was living physically on the boat), when all of a sudden, abruptly, about two nautical miles from Pondicherry, the quality, I may even say the physical quality of the atmosphere, of the air, changed so much that I knew we were entering the aura of Sri Aurobindo. It was a physical experience and I guarantee that whoever has a sufficiently awakened consciousness can feel the same thing.

- The Mother (17 March 1951)
Volume 4, Questions and Answers 1950-51