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August 2002

Building bridges

- by Alan

There are many photographs of Mother, few of Sri Aurobindo. When Cartier-Bresson photographed him in 1950 they were the first photos taken of him for almost thirty years. This, of course, was a result of Sri Aurobindo's decision to seclude himself to concentrate upon bringing down the supermind.

One consequence of the dearth of photographs is that Sri Aurobindo's image has tended to be defined by how he appeared in those final portraits: exalted, detached, Olympian. Even the liveliness of his correspondence and later conversations as revealed by, among others, Amal Kiran and Nirodbaran, has failed to supplant that magisterial image -"Lonely his days and splendid like the sun" - which is further reinforced by the uncanny resemblance between those final photographs and traditional representations of God the Father in Christian iconography.

Does this matter? Some would argue that it is a positive advantage as it leads us to approach him with the proper gravitas, reminding us of how much he exceeds our understanding. Yet I believe there's a considerable downside to this. For not only does it sell short his multi-facetedness and the playful aspect of his nature, but it may also lead us to view him as a 'singularity', untrammeled by the tides, emotions and preoccupations of ordinary humanity and thus, perhaps, less immediately relevant to lives lived under the shadow of a mortgage or the break-up of a relationship.

If one adds to this the difficulty even native English speakers have in understanding his extended Latinate constructions and etymologically-derived archaisms - to say nothing of the many-sidedness, subtlety and depth of his thought - one can understand why Sri Aurobindo's worldwide fan club is not exactly overpopulated.

"And a very good thing", goes the orthodox response, "for he was quite clear he was not interested in beginning any mass movement. Moreover, those whom he calls will be lead to him by one means or another, so we don't have to worry about making him better known." Well, maybe. But, having used the same argument myself, I'm aware it can also be used as a guise for lazy thinking. The assumption, for example, that it's all taken care of by a higher power so we don't need to do anything undervalues the importance of each one of us as potential agents in the process. If someone ends up in Auroville because he saw a photo of Sri Aurobindo on the wall of a dusty teashop in Madhya Pradesh, it's at least partly because somebody somewhere took the trouble of putting an image of Sri Aurobindo on a calendar.

The whole issue of communicating Sri Aurobindo and Mother to a wider audience is a complex one. Mother herself made a careful distinction between information and publicity.

Publicity does not discriminate between the persons to whom one speaks. Publicity means addressing a public which cannot understand.

What we try to do is to carry the Light where it can be understood and received. It is a question of discernment and choice. It is a question of selection: not to spread the thing without discernment. It is to choose which milieu, which people, which conditions can understand and to act there only.
In publicity, to make the ideas comprehensible, one lowers them while we keep our teachings at the height...The selection then takes place of itself. It is the comprehension which makes the selection.

Well and good. However, such guidance appears to have been interpreted in a way which may not have been exactly what Mother intended. For example, the vast majority of books on Sri Aurobindo and Mother are overtly devotional. This makes for a ready readership among devotees, but tends to leave the uninitiated reader out in the cold, contemplating a cozy club of believers warming their hands at the fire of their faith.
In other words, there are no bridges, no ropes flung out to help the inquisitive across the chasm of doubt. Instead they are confronted with a host of cast-iron givens. Sri Aurobindo and Mother are avatars. They are battling the hostile forces. They are precipitating the next stage of human evolution. Take it or leave it.

Partly, no doubt, this uncompromising approach is born of a wish to "keep our teaching at the height". Hence the copious quotations. But how to get non-devotees to the point where they want to read them?

Two bridges spring to mind. The first is the use of language and forms which are more immediately understandable by the modern reader. No doubt, the primary texts will remain primary, irreplaceable. But it should be possible to communicate something of their essence to readers unfamiliar or uneasy with terms like 'the Divine', 'Supermind' and 'cellular transformation' without dilution or cheap popularisation. A recent article in What is Enlightenment?, a U.S. magazine is a case in point. Entitled "Why Sri Aurobindo is cool" and catchily subtitled "Even dead gurus kick ass", it conveys a surprising amount of information about Sri Aurobindo, Mother and the descent of the supramental in language understandable by members of even the hip-hop generation.

The second bridge is, perhaps, more controversial. For it requires the writer about Mother and Sri Aurobindo to bring themselves more completely into the frame. Many of those who write about Sri Aurobindo and Mother appear to have emerged from the womb as full-blown devotees. With the possible exception of Satprem, there's never a moment of doubt, never a questioning of the Masters, never a sense of the writer being a three-dimensional being, someone who catches colds, gets angry, frustrated, swears, falls down and makes a fool of themselves, of someone who sometimes makes remarkable discoveries in seemingly the most unpropitious of circumstances. When did you last read of someone suddenly comprehending something about the new consciousness while buttering toast, changing the baby's diapers or even - God forbid - while making love?

Does this never happen? Or, more likely, is it edited out as being somehow illusory or unworthy of the great topic at hand? For here, I suspect, we stumble upon a number of tacit yet seminal assumptions made by writer-devotees, the most important of which is that only Sri Aurobindo and Mother have had the major experiences of transformative evolution. Secondly, and allied to this, is the assumption that such experiences can only occur in the manner already described by Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Nobody seems to conceive of the possibility, for example, of a wino sleeping on the banks of the Thames being brushed by the wing of the new consciousness.

But exactly why does this sound so outrageous? Partly it's because it's almost impossible, given Sri Aurobindo's and Mother's descriptions of the enormous travails they had to undergo, to imagine ordinary mortals stumbling upon even the hem of the supermind as if by chance. Yet Mother has pointed out that the new force is now permeating everything, everywhere, and that its future working is unpredictable (she herself was surprised by hearing of the experiences of 'quite ordinary' people which were similar to her own). But there's another reason why I think it's difficult for many sadhaks to conceive of 'ordinary' people being in some way involved in the transformative yoga. And that is because, I suspect, there is an enormous yet unacknowledged element of elitism in this yoga, reflected in a feeling that we are the chosen few, that the yoga is not meant for the masses and that here (the Ashram or Auroville) is the only place it's happening and will happen.

You know, we may just be in for a big surprise...

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