COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality:
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
The Mother and Sri Aurobindo in 1950, the year of Aurobindo’s death
In his 1933 novel, The Avatars, the Irish Theosophical mystic George William Russell (AE) prophesied that the future Avatar would not be a man like Jesus or Krishna, but a divinized couple of a man and a woman. AE’s prophecy was not so much a glance into the akash of futurity, but a sensitive recognition of a presence in another country on the other side of the world that like Ireland was struggling to throw off the rule of the British Empire.
Aurobindo Ghose was a Bengali from Calcutta who studied as a boy in England and went on to take a degree in classics from Cambridge. He returned to India and became a revolutionary nationalist--one that the British police called “the most dangerous man in India.” When the British imprisoned him on a charge of terrorist bombing and homicide, Aurobindo used his time in jail to meditate, and in three days said he achieved moksha or liberation—rather depressing for the rest of us who have been meditating for forty years and are still schlemils.
In 1910, when he was acquitted, Aurobindo escaped surveillance and traps the police had set for him and made it into the French colony of Pondicherry in Southern India where he remained for the rest of his life until his death in 1950. While he was in Pondicherry he continued his yogic sadhana, attracted a group of disciples, and developed a new approach that he called Integral Yoga.
Of Egyptian parentage, Mira Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878 at the time when Paris was the cultural capital of the world. She grew up in a milieu of painters and occultists, traveled the world, married twice, studied Zen in Japan, and in 1920 left her second husband Paul Richard to stay in the French colonial city of Pondicherry, India to become the initiatic consort of Sri Aurobindo.
What is an initiatic consort?, you ask. Ah, thereby hangs a tale.
In the Tantric Shaivism of India the tale is a cosmological story of the god Shiva and the goddess Shakti. In Tantra Yoga the story can be one of physically enacting the union of Shiva and Shakti in contemplative sexuality, or similar physical acts that go against the principles of Vedanta that state that the ascetic path should deny the world and see it all as maya or illusion of the senses.
Tantrics go naked, meditate on death next to corpses or in graveyards, or live hidden in the normality of the everyday world, but all the time they use the senses to transcend the senses. Tantra’s contemplative practices are intended to raise a vital energy in the etheric body that is an envelope around the physical body. This sheath of energy is called the pranamayakosa in Sanskrit. In the Tantric system it is one of five sheaths, and each sheath has higher dimensionality than the preceding one. The food sheath, or the annamayakosa, has the three dimensions familiar to us, but the fifth, the anandamamayakosa, is said to be infinite.
The seat of this Shakti energy is at the base of the spine and is described as the snake of the Goddess. As the energy of kundalini ascends, it alternates to the left and right of each chakra, and so, metaphorically speaking, it is said to slither upwards like a snake. Through techniques of meditation, hatha yoga asanas, and/or the maithuna of contemplative sexual intercourse, this energy opens the third eye to make spiritual worlds visible and moves to the crown of the head before settling down in the heart chakra at the core of one’s being for a new life of unity of body and soul in time.
The physical and hormonic basis of this transformation of consciousness is indicated by unusual conditions in the practioner’s body. One may have olfactory perceptions, such as smelling auras rather than seeing them; or one may begin to receive “transmissions” or lessons from an invisible guru. In the case of the female, the woman’s menstrual period may cease—indicating symbolically her movement out of lunar time, with its production of the ovum--to giving birth to her own higher eternal self.
The statues of the Virgin Mary in my parochial school classrooms depicted Mary as standing above the moon and trampling the snake rather than holding a serpent in each hand--as is the case with the prehistoric statue of the Minoan Snake Goddess. To be Derridean, one can say in deconstructing the statue that it presents what it pretends to negate, and so subliminally affirms it. The Virgin is not trampling the snake, she is standing on it and supported by it, and so the statue becomes an expression of the ancient matristic religion and not the patriarchal Roman Catholic one. Protestants were uncomfortable with this imagery of Papistry and felt that Roman Catholicism was primitive and not as patriarchal as those Puritans wished to be.
In the case of the male, the penis may withdraw into the abdomen with only the glans showing as a kind of androgynous large clitoris—one of the 28 signs of the Buddha by the way—and the seminal fluid, in an alchemical and equally androgynous process, is sublimed into a new cerebral-spinal fluid in the symbolic vagina of the spinal cord and brain stem that now gives birth to a new subtle body with the aid of the chakras along the spinal column and brain.
In the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, this androgynous condition is what is meant by Jesus’ cryptic remark to St. Peter when the orthodox Jewish Peter tries to prevent Mary Magdalen from joining the meeting of the male apostles. Jesus says that Mary should be allowed entry to the inner chamber because he shall make the female male, and the male female.
This esoteric Tantra antedates Vedic culture and is fairly universal; its iconography can be seen around the world from the snake and Goddess of European prehistory to the dance of bird and snake in Tai Ch’i in China to the bird and snake of Quetzalcoatl in ancient Mexico.[i] When St. Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland what is meant is not literally snakes, but the serpent mysteries of the Druids and the pagan religion of the Celtic Triple Goddess.
Cretan Snake Goddess Asherah, Ugaritic Snake Goddess
This mystical union in the crown is called the marriage of Shiva and Shakti. In T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” the mystical marriage is described in more sublimated Christian terms as a condition of complete simplicity “When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one.”
Now this system of Tantra is precisely the one the Mother and Sri Aurobindo did not practice, and we fail to understand Integral Yoga if we try to turn it into Tantra Yoga. The Mother was not the sexual partner of Aurobindo, but his initiatic consort. All the action was in the spiritual bodies and not the physical or etheric bodies—hard as this is for us Americans to understand in our sexually saturated culture.
Integral Yoga starts where Tantra Yoga ends, so there are no “techniques,” because what Aurobindo calls “the psychic being” that is hidden in the Upanishad’s “cave of the heart” comes forward to direct the individual ego’s development in time. Aurobindo’s “psychic being” is the sum of all one’s incarnations and is what would be called the Daimon by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues and Yeats’s A Vision, or the Nahual in the teachings of Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl.
The Mother said that it would be the psychic being that would unite with “the Descent of the Supramental” in the next stage of human evolution. If the psychic being is the one who takes over the direction of the sadhana of the individual incarnate ego, then each path to the Supramental is unique, so there can be no uniform religion with standardized rituals, techniques, and practices. “The guru within” takes over.
The paradoxical implications of this radical anarchism are that the Yoga of each student of Aurobindo will be different from the Integral Yoga of the Guru. So those who try to become traditional followers of Aurobindo and the Mother are actually subverting their innovations. It is small wonder, therefore, that there has been conflict with the followers of Aurobindo with the followers of the Mother, and that there has been conflict between the conservative members of the Ashram with the countercultural utopians of Auroville.
The Integral Yoga in which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sit in their chairs for decades and suffer agonies as they fight with “the Hostile Forces” who they say wish to block humanity’s Supramental evolution is their particular Yoga. It may not necessarily be the yoga of those who have learned from them but follow another path up the mountain. So those who follow devoutly do not understand the deeply post-religious nature of Integral Yoga.
This new Efficient form of spirituality means that the old form of guru-chela has become Deficient, which is one reason why so many gurus have gone rotten and been exposed as con-men or delusional narcissistic psychotics interested in power, money, and sex. In the last decades of the twentieth century one guru after another--whether Yogic, Buddhist, or an ordinary Catholic parish priest--was exposed for sexual abuse, extravagance, and tyrannical behavior.
In cultural evolution, those who do not take the next quantum leap upwards, can slip down into an evil caricature of the old culture. Those who did not take the step upwards offered by Chartres, the Sufis, and the Cabbalists of the Zohar in Spain, as well as the poets and artists of the thirteenth and fourteenth century’s first wave of the Renaissance, slid down into the Catholicism of the Inquisition. Small wonder then that Yogananda said that the age of the guru was over and chose to institute a self-realization fellowship rather than anoint a successor.
Some of the conservative male Indian disciples of Sri Aurobindo, much like St. Peter, had a hard time accepting a woman as Sri Aurobindo’s partner in Integral Yoga—especially a Western woman who had been married twice. Since the second millennium BCE Aryan invasion from the west, India has been an intensely patriarchal culture. The Goddess cultures are more present and practiced in the Dravidian south. Indian women do not sit at the dinner table to dine and converse with the men—as I learned when I was a guest for a week in the home of the yogi Gopi Krishna in Srinigar. With customs like arranged child marriages and sutee, India--both Hindu and Muslim--is not feminist Paris or Manhattan.
So when Sri Aurobindo and the Mother reached back into the Goddess culture of prehistory, and, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, “culturally retrieved” the archetypes of the shaman and la sage femme, they encountered resistance. It was not until Aurobindo retired to his room and turned over the running of the ashram to the Mother that resistance became more open, and eventually overcome as the undeniable powers of the Mother were experienced by all.
The story of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo is well known and has been told in countless books, even in little RoRoRo German monographs that you can get at tram stops in Zurich.[ii] Since this is a column and not a monograph, I am going to concentrate on the essential features of their post-religious approach.
There are four fundamental ways in which the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother differs from the Kriya Yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda:
Sri Aurobindo saw the human as a transitional creature between the animal and the superhuman. As a cultural historian looking around the world today at all our political and ecological problems and our highly problematic behavior, I would have to confess that I find it hard to believe that our species is viable and that we are not headed for extinction. So it is comforting to hope that there is some future ahead in which we pass the torch to the next evolutionary manifestation. The MIT mechanists led by Ray Kurzweil say that this creature will be a conscious computer or spiritual machine coming to a lab near you somewhere around 2020. The mystics led by the Mother say that the Supramental Manifestation began its process of emergence and envelopment of the Earth in 1956.
When I read about this special year in the writings of the Mother, I sat up and took notice, for 1956, when I was 18, was the year that I experienced an overwhelming transformative experience while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth String Quartet--an experience that has different explanations, depending upon your religious tradition. I won’t bother to inflict on the readers of a short column a long description, as that would be too self-centered and out of place here. I mention it only because this—what I would call yogic—experience was part of my motivation for going to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville in 1972—the centenary of Aurobindo’s birth.
The post-religious nature of this new spirituality was explicitly stated by Aurobindo when he said: “I must say that it is far from my purpose to propagate any religion, new or old, for humanity in the future. A way to be opened that is still blocked, not a religion to be founded, is my conception of the matter.”[iii] And in her foundational document for Auroville, the Mother described a life for Aurovillians:
Program—Research through experience of the
A Life Divine
Looking at the Israeli militarist occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the fanaticism of the Orthodox West Bank settlers, the terrorism of Hamas, the Hindu Nationalist bombing of Mosques, the Islamist terrorist counter attack in Mumbai, the murder of doctors and the bombing of medical clinics by Christian fundamentalists in the USA, as well as their efforts to eliminate the teaching of science in public schools, it is easy for me to understand why the Mother wanted no religions in Auroville. And yet, paradoxically, her manner of being and her mode of dressing in goddess robes stimulated the growth of adoration and absolute devotion in her disciples.
Stephen Batchelor has argued that there is nothing in the Pali Canon of the Buddha to justify turning his sadhana into a religion.[v] And yet his followers did. Similarly, Jesus had no fixed address, one seamless robe, and a straightforward moral teaching that had little tolerance for the Pharisees and the moneychangers. But that didn’t stop the Christians from setting up an ecclesiastical hierarchy with an infallible pope on a throne, cardinals and bishops in palaces, and a priestly demand for mind-destroying obedience.
Since the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are already saying: ”Mother said this, and Mother said that,” just as the followers of Rudolf Steiner in Dornach, Switzerland constantly say, “Der Doktor hat gesagt,” I am sure human devotionalism will stick to the Mother like barnacles on a great whale and turn her teachings into a religion. In fact, her followers already have done so.
When I was visiting Auroville in 1972 and talking to one of its architects, and thinking about how very much in the French utopian tradition of Fourier the Mother was working, we were interrupted by a breathless messenger who said: “The two Americans, the two Americans, they are to come to see Mother immediately.” My traveling companion and I were deeply impressed. It was as if she knew we were there--I who had participated in the great 1956 event. And then I skeptically thought that that was all vanity, and that the Director of the Society and chief fund-raiser Navajata, who had interviewed us for permission to tour Auroville, had seen the three page interview with me in Time magazine that week, and decided I was to be given VIP treatment in the hope of raising money for all his projects.
Of course, we suspended our tour and got in the car sent to bring us into the presence. It was, however, not to be a VIP audience or private darshan, and there was a line of pilgrims waiting outside the Mother’s apartment on a balcony for the daily ritual of pranam. In typical Indian fashion, the pilgrims began quietly pushing themselves ahead of me in line so that they could be the first to eliminate their egos. I thought to myself that since I was in their country, the Indians had a right to be first, so I moved to the end of the line of the twenty or so people waiting for pranam.
When it finally came my turn to enter the apartment, I saw the mother seated in her chair and was shocked. She had a pronounced curvature of the spine and neck and seemed the oldest creature on Earth. A doubting Thomas, I wondered if she was really in there with a clear mind in that impossible body, or if she was senile and simply being manipulated by the vain and ambitious director I had met. But when I approached her, she looked at me with eyes that were bright and alert and seemed to speak silently into my mind: “Oh, it is you! I have been waiting for you for a long time.” I knelt so as not to be looking down on her, and received the small packet of flower petals that she gave to all the pranam pilgrims of the day. She never spoke, may have touched my head lightly, but I did not wish to prolong the moment selfishly, so I quickly moved on so that my friend could have pranam.
This silent mind-to-mind transmission, which I also experienced three years later in 1975 when I received Shaktipat from Swami Muktunanda in New York, is indeed a strange experience. Scientifically, there is absolutely no way of proving that I am not simply imagining things--impressed as I was with the transmission of energy and the unusual context. It is much like a channeling transmission when silently you hear a lecture from an invisible spiritual guide or are given instructions for a path of action that ends up saving your life. As a poet, of course, I have a highly developed imagination, so I ask no one to believe in anything I write here. As in a memoir, I am simply describing what the experience with the Mother felt like for me.
On the night the Mother died in 1973—I was living then at Lindisfarne in Southampton, New York--I had a dream that I was seated next to the Mother in an old fashioned luxury car like a Bentley—I did not know at that time that she actually did have an old Bentley. In the front seat were the driver and another man, and I thought to myself: “Well, she’s the real thing, but those two guys are not.” We came to a house, and without transition, the scene shifted to her apartment where she as a much younger woman stood and looked at me and said: “You have a great work to do for the ashram.” I thought to myself, “Now, hold on, Lady, not so fast. I have my own Lindisfarne work to do.” And I reached out my left hand, as if to hold her back. Then I was hit with what her disciples would call “Mother’s force.” My eyes rolled up into my third eye, my right arm extended and I began to whirl like a dervish in a trance. There was no denying her power. My friend Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen, who lived at the ashram for a year and a half, also told me how he too had experienced that Shakti from her.
I woke up from the dream, and later in the day I learned the Mother had died. Theosophists would say I had been summoned to her on the astral plane as part of her dying process that, of course, would have included others around the world. Yet I am baffled, because I am not a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother—though I have read twenty of their books--and to date have done no great work for the ashram. But somehow our fates are entangled in the global experiences of 1956 and 1973.
In my own commitment to a post-religious spirituality through founding the Lindisfarne Association with its Fellowship, I am most definitely entangled with their work, but this cultural transformation seems larger to me than the work of my own Lindisfarne, or Findhorn, Auroville, and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is too personally suited to him and too cloud-like and elevated for me; Yoganananda’s sadhana is more accessible. Like Arthur Murray’s simple diagrams that teach the clumsy how to dance, Yogananda’s lessons were something within my reach. If Aurobindo could meditate for three days in prison and achieve enlightenment, then he existed above on a cloud I could not reach no matter how high I stretched, which is the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word Tantra--to stretch thread on a loom for weaving.
And yet I am pulled in two directions, for in his politics, Sri Aurobindo was very down to earth. He disagreed with Gandhi and thought that India in order to avoid partition should accept the Cripps-offer in 1942 of Dominion status within the British Empire. Gandhi’s refusal of the offer of Dominion status and Jinnah’s desire for a Muslim state would cost the lives of millions. A religious state—whether a Roman Catholic Ireland, an all Muslim Pakistan and Iran, or a totally Jewish Palestine—is one of history’s really bad ideas.
As we can see from history, Pakistan has never worked as a state and has always been a succession of dictators and military rule. The recent apparent collusion of Pakistan’s S Wing of the Intelligence Services (ISI) with Osama bin Laden indicates that not even the Pakistani government knows who is truly governing Pakistan.[vi] Given that country’s nuclear weapons, and the possibility that one could be sold to Al Qaeda by a corrupt cabal angry at the public shame of the successful attack on Bin Laden and the drone attacks in Waziristan, our new situation is truly scary.
And in the case of the politics of the Cold War, Aurobindo was not a follower of Gandhi’s ahimsa, for he regarded Stalin as even more evil than Hitler and was in favor of President Truman’s use of force to contain the expansion of a tyranny that was anything but communistic. If Nehru et alia had listened to Aurobindo and not become advocates of non-alignment during the Korean and Cold Wars with their shifting support for China and the Soviet Union, then the world’s richest democracy might have supported the development of the world’s largest democracy and not wasted its funds on the sequence of military dictatorships that is Pakistan.
Of course that is a perspective with 20/20 hindsight, for the jingoist McCarthyism of the US in the 1950s was hardly attractive, and the genocidal evil of Stalin and Beria was repulsive. Seeking out a third way of non-alignment must have made sense at the time. So Nehru leaned heavily to the Left, as did the intellectual apologists for the Soviet Union in Paris like Sartre and Althusser, and the U.S. and the CIA created the disastrous anti-democratic foreign policy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and supported anti-communist dictators all around the world.
If Aurobindo was that prescient and worldly-wise about Indian politics, one wonders why he was not also other-worldly wise in the development of his Integral Yoga and taken steps to prevent it from becoming just another religion. But then again, why should I expect him to do what Buddha and Jesus could not?
For me the essence of post-religious spirituality is not expressed in simply becoming a devotee of the Mother or Sri Aurobindo and declaring them to be Avatars and Devas of Light fighting the Asuras of Darkness on the higher invisible planes—which is a typically religious response--but learning from them, and Yogananda, and Einstein. Devotees will say I am benighted and suffer from a lower consciousness than theirs, but I shall still go my own way with an Irish sense of humor and an equally Irish light touch of irreverence for the public sanctimoniousness of followers and the hierarchical authority of religions.
[i] I go into these esoteric matters at greater length in my books, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1981) and Blue Jade from the Morning Star: An Essay and a Cycle of Poems on Quetzalcoatl (Lindisfarne Books: Great Barrington, MA, 1983), and the novel, Islands out of Time: A Memoir of the Last Days of Atlantis (Dial/Doubleday: New York, 1985). These three books constitute a trilogy of three different genres exploring the world of Tantric transformation of self and culture.
[ii] See Otto Wolff, Sri Aurobindo: mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Rowholt Tachenbuch Verlag: Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1967).
For a more recent study by a very religious disciple, see Georges Van Vrekhem, Beyond Man: The Life and Work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Harper and Collins Publishers India: New Delhi, 1997).
[iii] Van Vrekhem, p. 81.
[iv] Robert McDermott, The Essential Aurobindo (Inner Traditions/ Lindisfarne Press: Great Barrington, MA, 1987), p. 249.
[v] Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs (Riverhead Books: New York, 1997).
[vi] See Lawrence Wright’s “Annals of Diplomacy: The Double Game” in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011, p. 95.