Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Sri Aurobindo Is Cool


When most of us think of Sri Aurobindo, we probably think of that famous image of him, sitting there in that throne of a chair, long white beard and hair, looking like something straight out of a Hollywood movie in which he was cast in the role of God. You can almost imagine his voice, thundering with frightening authority in perfect King James English like Robert Powell's classic rendition of Jesus of Nazareth. But take a look behind the scenes at the life of this revolutionary mystic, and you'll find yourself face-to-face with a very different sort of character. You see, the real Sri Aurobindo was no otherworldly ivory tower patriarch, calling out to the lost masses from on high. No, he was a man of action, a fiery wit, a power yogi, a spiritual renegade if there ever was one. In a word, this guy was cool. Really cool. As Michael Murphy, best-selling author, co-founder of Esalen Institute, and a former resident of Sri Aurobindo's ashram, put it: "Aurobindo is a stupendously great guy. He opened up so much. Hardly anyone has this vision that puts the two together—God and the evolving universe. Hardly anyone! Most people in Eastern philosophy take the more traditional view that's represented by Huston Smith or Ram Dass. Which is the classical mystical view that factors in evolution little if at all."

Let me translate. What Mike is saying here is that Sri Aurobindo brought a radical (not in the California sense) new vision to spiritual life that, as far as anyone can tell, no other mystic before him had done. The fact is, with the possible exception of Judaism, almost all religious and mystical traditions, East and West—even if they promote doing good works in the world, chopping wood and carrying water, or being a bodhisattva dedicated to the liberation of all beings—ultimately see the goal of spiritual practice as some kind of vertical liftoff, out of this world into either a transcendent beyond, a heaven, or a final cessation in nirvana. Sri Aurobindo had the audacity to say that this view was a mistake. A big mistake. He even had the chutzpah to say it was a mistake made by the likes of Shankara and the Buddha. To him, the goal was something much more significant. He said that if we were only willing to consciously participate in EVOLUTION, we could create a "divine life" right here on earth. No vertical liftoff. No great escape, but a ceaseless, dynamic, miraculous unfolding of ever-higher expressions of harmony and unity, here in this world.

And there's more. A lot more. Take poetry. Poetry is cool these days, right? Well, let me tell you, if Sri Aurobindo were alive, he'd take the "poetry slam" to a whole new level. He'd make the beats look like deadbeats. He'd have the rappers running back to grammar school. He published his first poem when he was twelve. His longest poem,Savitri, which took him almost thirty-five years to write, is twenty-four thousand lines long. It's his highest example of what he called "future poetry" or "overhead poetry"—poetry written from the highest planes of consciousness. And it's high all right. Good luck digesting more than a few stanzas without going into samadhi [ecstatic absorption]. Definitely not to be read while operating heavy machinery. And did I mention that Aldous Huxley, Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, and others independently nominated Sri Aurobindo for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Now, being a political revolutionary is seriously cool, right? Well, how about the fact that, after reading a poem by Shelley on the French revolution at the age of eleven (that's right, eleven), Aurobindo decided that he, too, would like to devote his life "to a similar world-change" and lead his then oppressed homeland to freedom. And after finishing a star-studded academic career at Cambridge University while surviving on little more than "toast and tea," he became, by the age of thirty-four, the leading figure in the Indian independence movement. The British even labeled him the "most dangerous man" in India, and threw him in jail—solitary confinement to be precise—for the better part of a year while he was on trial for his alleged involvement in a terrorist bombing.

But guess what he did in jail. Did he get depressed? No. He meditated. Boy, did he! In fact, it was there, in a barren six-by-nine cell, that he underwent one of the most extraordinary transformations of his remarkable, if not epic, spiritual journey. After a short time, as he tells it, "I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was [God] who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was [God], it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw [God]. . . . Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover." So much for solitary confinement.

And while we're on the subject of spiritual breakthroughs, let's take a look at his yoga. And, I'm not talking here about the curvaceous-blond-doing-suptavirasana-by-the-
California-seashore-at-sunset Yoga Journal calendar kind of yoga. This was yoga in the traditional sense: Seeking union with the Divine through real, disciplined, inward spiritual practice. Meditation and contemplation, as most of us would call it. Now, for Sri Aurobindo, although he was never one to slouch in the face of required effort, the yoga part seemed to come easy. In fact, the very first time he went to a teacher for guidance, he found himself thrust into a state of consciousness many never reach in an entire lifetime of practice. After simply following the instructions of this little-known yogi to reject any thoughts that tried to enter his mind, he found that "In a moment my mind became silent as a windless air on a high mountain summit and then I saw one thought and then another coming in a concrete way from outside; I flung them away before they could enter and take hold of the brain and in three days I was free."

And just so we're clear, the "freedom" that he experienced-and continued to experience from that day on—was, in his words, none other than "Nirvana," the "concrete consciousness of stillness and silence" most of us think of as the ground and goal of all true mystical pursuit:
To reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own yoga. It threw me suddenly into a condition [in which] there was no ego, no real world . . . no One or many even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. . . . What it brought was an inexpressible Peace, a stupendous silence, an infinity of release and freedom.
But for Sri Aurobindo, the experience did not end there. Although it was "attended at first by an overwhelming feeling and perception of the total unreality of the world," his experience eventually began to give way to the recognition of a deeper truth:
The aspect of an illusionary world gave place to one in which illusion is only a small surface phenomenon with an immense Divine Reality behind it and a supreme Divine Reality above it and an intense Divine Reality in the heart of everything that had seemed at first only a cinematic shape or shadow... Nirvana in my liberated consciousness turned out to be the beginning of my realization, a first step towards the complete thing, not the sole true attainment possible or even a culminating finale... And then it slowly grew into something not less but greater than its first self.
In these Buddhistically enlightened days in the West, Sri Aurobindo's claim that nirvana is not the end of the path may seem a little strange. After all, doesn't nirvana by its very definition mean "the end," the final cessation toward which all of our striving is headed? I mean, sure, if we'rereally selfless bodhisattvas, we might think about postponing our nirvana for a few eons. But we all know where we're going in the end, right? Cessation, release, transcendence, the Beyond.

                                                                              - Craig Hamilton

4 comments:

Bijaylaxmi Mishra said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I felt heavenly.

KUMAR RAMANANDA JANAMANCHI said...

The audio attached is from mother's piano plays.We also hear Mother's voice in this audio.

KUMAR RAMANANDA JANAMANCHI said...

The audio attached is the mother's piano play and we can also hear mother's voice. Its a great treat for people like me to be able to visit a page like this. thanks for posting.

KUMAR RAMANANDA JANAMANCHI said...

Piano play from mother's works is a great treat for us.