Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"God, Religion and Rites" by Aju Mukhopadhyay


The whole of India is replete with stories of Rishis, Munis and Sadhus from ancient time who realized God, established relationship with God and inspired people to live a pious and righteous life. There were deviations as in every field of life but usually spiritualism is an accepted fact of Indian life which gradually got mixed up with various other modern motives and ways of living; unnecessary rituals.
The hoary tale of Agastya coming to Pondicherry to spread Vedic teaching and culture in the south, coupled with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s venture in establishing their ashram in recent past at the same spot where Agastya had his own, were the main sources behind the spiritual ambience of Pondicherry. The olden temples of the age old gods, foundation of churches by the Europeans and different places of worship fixed by other communities added flavor to this spiritual ambience. South India is full of temple-towns. Pondicherry is one of them. A large number of temples, semi-temples, some masjids, churches and other similar constructions dot its lanes and by lanes besides the not-too-broad highways where bare footed women often move to and from temple doors with thalis full of puja materials in their hands and the temple staff clear the air blowing trumpets.

Temples, churches, mosques and ashrams are places for collective religious practices. Places of worship by their association and tradition are often holy but it does not always hold good. They become sources of business; those who run them become dogmatic, sometimes help corrupt or criminal practices as they are the source of huge income at some places. Without entirely denying the dignity of the places of worship and rituals, for they too have their virtues and values in their respective areas for a devotee who meticulously follows them without any paraphernalia to go up the ladder and leave them when he reaches the real site. All worships are for seeking the divine, for establishing a relationship with the God at the personal level. This relationship is neither democratic nor autocratic nor to be forcibly claimed or snatched away by any. If we dive deep into our psyche we will find how true the realizations of the few are compared to the clamoring crowd. But such things are really rare.

We know of perfunctory rituals galore in different religions. Think of the three times call, now-a-days almost everywhere, over the amplifier by the muezzin. And a story of going to the church or in absence of it somewhere as collectively decided on Sundays, comes to mind as told by the Mother of Pondicherry.
“The first time I came to India I came on a Japanese boat . . . .

“Now, Sunday came. There had to be a religious ceremony on the boat, or else we would have looked like heathens. . . .

“It took place in the lounge of the ship. We had to go down a few steps to this lounge. And that day, all the men put on their jackets- it was hot, I think we were on the Red Sea- they put on their jackets, stiff collars, leather shoes, neckties well set, hats on their heads, and they went with a book under their arm, almost in a procession from the deck to the lounge. The ladies wore their hats, some carried even a parasol, and they too had their book under the arm, a prayer book.

“And so they all crowded down into the lounge, and the Presbyterian made a speech that is to say, preached his sermon, and everybody listened very religiously. And then, when it was over, they all came up again with the satisfied air of someone who has done his duty. And, of course, five minutes later they were in the bar drinking and playing cards, and their religious ceremony was forgotten. They had done their duty, it was over, there was nothing more to be said about it.” (The Mother/148-49)
What we see around us; a few usurpers grab temple lands for their own gains or people of a community create great sound pollution by playing popular songs through amplifier during pujas disregarding the immense disturbance of the other sane and peace loving people whose work and smooth sailing life get disrupted by such worshippers who raise money from the public, a usual practice in Bengal, by request and threat or force as it suits the circumstances, to use for the festivity and excitement, to satisfy their whims and personal ends; displaying lighting and decoration in extravagant ways for the show of puja in most such collective worshipping in public places. Durga Puja and large numbers of other pujas in Bengal, particularly Kolkata, Deepavali or Diwali, Christmas and many such ever increasing ceremonies elsewhere, have come to a stage of popular festivity giving place to all political plays underground and display of popular but poor culture. These are not simply rites but doing the other paraphernalia in the name of God.

Let us come to the most important festival and pilgrimage of the year 2013; the Maha Kumbh Mela which is being held after 12 years at Prayag, at the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river which is invisible. Leaving the last, the other two rivers do not have adequate flow of water to allow the most auspicious dipping during the period up to 10 March 2013. During the time world’s largest number of pilgrims, 100 million, has reached the mela, it has been reported. Waters have been released from barrages and dams hundreds of miles up the river to help pilgrims to fulfill their ardent wish to dip in the confluence. The congregation is 80 times bigger than the population of the host city, Allahabad, five times the population of Mumbai and two and half times the population of Tokyo. Despite huge security and other arrangements large number of people have died due to stampede and breaking down of a bridge over the river. The pollution like overflowing excreta, feces, urine, plastic bottles, cans and various ingredients like puja offering materials have flooded the mela ground; toilets are overflowing and drinking water is not pure enough for health. Many have been suffering from diseases, especially diarrhea. To help such a large body of humanity to stay and visit the rivers, live and enjoy the visit, are gigantic affairs which must have some expected fall out. British and Indian researchers have published papers which have recorded that despite cold weather, polluted atmosphere, huge noise and risk of disease the mental makeup and physical health of the devotees who participate in the program are generally good and they have a very high level of wellbeing. The strong faith and aspiration of the devotees, of tasting perhaps some nectar that fell in drops on these rivers in the mythical age due to churning of the sea, kept them going, living with not too healthy food in unhealthy atmosphere. They perform all rites and take Ganga water in bottles for use throughout the year in spite of pollution as they believe that Ganga water remains pure. It may have some truth too as scientifically proved at certain levels. (Down To Earth/26-30)
On the whole no one who has once dipped or has so done more than once will know whether all sins of this life and the life before have been washed away, whether they would be born again or would melt with the divine forever. If it happens they become utterly pious without any trace of self-contradiction, without an iota of conflict with the others in mundane affairs once they visit the holy spot. Still, such pilgrimage takes place in growing numbers as a result of blind faith and the spirit of fulfillment; pilgrimage galore throughout the globe including the Hajj to Mecca. Does it mean that those who haven’t ever gone to participate in such fairs would have less pious lives? Has it ever happened that any such visitor has become really spiritual after the visit? As the pujas so these pilgrimages thrive on gross human faith and sense of achievement. True spiritual life has to be achieved usually through the process of yoga or doing some other types of ascesis, tapasya.

Such festivals have become, besides meeting ground for people accompanied by all merriment mixed with unsavory display of consumption of national energy, occasions for publicity and propaganda, for sales and for business. Real worship is almost absent in such public places; a display of collective might.

In some temples certain restrictions are not only irrational but also contrary to the real ideas of worshipping for which such things were created. Some are not allowed inside the temple precincts on the basis of sex, caste or race. They create communal feelings. In an age when atheism is gaining ground more and more, superstitions or age old practices should not turn back those who want, are willing to enter the temple and offer prayers, etc. to the God for after all, such practices give chance and hope for further growth.

While temples and idols for public worship on the roads and parks may help in collective worship, their increase in numbers does not bring forth equally the quality of bhakti, quality of life. Temples, when constructed encroaching public places or others’ lands creating great inconveniences to the general public, become redundant, contrary to the ideals of a bhakta who tries to lead a righteous life.

Great people have always denounced elaborate worship and dry rituals. They realized that the true spirit of godliness is in physical cleanliness, cleanliness in the heart, in thought, ideas and actions. “Be pure in mind. That is Dharma. All else is but pompous show,” said Thiruvalluvar (Tirukkural No.34/9). But when one goes to a higher realm of truth he realises, like the follower of Lao Tse that, “That is everywhere, - That which I searched for, That, That is my soul” and the sage replies, “Look at the scene around. The trees, the mountains, the sea, they are your brothers as are air and light . . . . Tao is in us. Tao is in repose.” (Wu Wei/6-7). Our age old Upanishad proclaims the same truth of God’s presence everywhere, especially in our hearts. Go to Raman Maharshi and find that he only searches the soul inside, “Who am I?” When you get the answer you reap the fruit of your life long search without going into any place of worship. Sri Aurobindo began Book One, Chapter Four of The Life Divine with his own translation from the Taittiriya Upanishad, “If one knows Him as Brahman the Non-Being, he becomes merely the non-existent. If one knows that Brahman Is, then is he known as the real in existence.” (The Life Divine/18/1)
It is the same as saying that God is all existence as Tao is.
Swami Vivekananda, during his lecture at Jaffna, said that the meaning of Vid is to know. It is the root of Veda which means divine knowledge which is eternal and infinite. The meaning of Rishi is one who has the vision of the mantra, the idea and words of God which already exists. The Rishis visioned them. They carried the spiritual message as seen and realized. But they did not create Vedas, the oldest scripture of the world so far discovered, which carry the eternal message of the God, as it already existed. In his Vedic Religious Ideal he said that the mantra or revealed words which created a wave in the thought world of ancient India and which shall be the focal point in the world of religion in future is: “Ekam Sadviprah Bahudha Vadanti”, the truth is one, the wise called them variously.

In the chapter titled “Religion and Spirituality”, in his voluminous The Foundation of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo presented and discussed the aspects of Indian religion and spirituality, their respective areas and perspectives.

Indian civilization and culture are based on the foundation of spiritualism. At the beginning man required the scaffolding of dogma, worship, image, sign, form and symbol in order to build the pure temple of the spirit, Sri Aurobindo said. The first stages belong to religion. Spiritualism is the freedom from outward forms and rituals. Those who achieve spiritual consciousness realize the truth. In their ascent they leave the paraphernalia of religion behind. About Hinduism Sri Aurobindo wrote, “It gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion . . . it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavor of the human spirit.” (Indian Culture/122)

A seeking for beyond, a curiosity to know more than what we find in our vicinity is the innate urge in human beings. It is more so with Indian mind. About the history of Indian religion Sri Aurobindo wrote, “It is sheer falsehood or a willful misunderstanding to say that it has lived always in the externals only of rite and creed and shibboleth. On the contrary, the main metaphysical truths of Indian religious philosophy in their broad idea- aspects or in an intensely poetic or dynamic representation have been stamped on the general mind of the people . . . .

“The one Godhead is worshipped as the All, for all in the universe is he or made out of his being or his nature. But Indian religion is not therefore pantheism; for beyond this universality it recognizes the supracosmic Eternal. Indian polytheism is not the popular polytheism of ancient Europe; for here the worshipper of many gods still knows that all his divinities are forms, names, personalities and powers of the One; his gods proceed from the one Purusha, his goddesses are energies of the one divine Force . . . .

“Observing the one Truth from all its many sides, it shut out none. It gave itself no specific name and bound itself by no limiting distinction . . . .

“First comes the idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the One without a second of the Upanishad who is All that is, and beyond all that is, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God or Purusha of the Theists who holds in his power the Soul and Nature, - in a word the Eternal, the Infinite . . . .

“Follow this great spiritual aim by one of the thousand paths recognized in India or even any new path which branches off from them and you are at the core of the religion. For its second basic idea is the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite. The Infinite is full of many infinities and each of these infinities is itself the very Eternal.’ (Indian Culture/128-136)

Why forget the famous lines from an earthly poet, close to our heart, Rabindranath Tagore?
Whom does thou
worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open
thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. (Gitanjali/11/46)
Whatever it is, it is not the rites that we do on the streets of towns and metropolis.
Work Cited
  1.  The Mother. Collected Works of The Mother. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Centenary Edition. V.8. 1978
  2.  Can Faith Heal? Down To Earth. February-1-15, 2013
  3.  Tirukkural. V.R. Ramchandra Dikshitar. Madras; The Adyar Library and Research Centre. 2000. Reprint
  4.  WU WEI. Henri Borel. Translated by Shyam Sundar Jhunjhunwala. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo’s Action.1997
  5.  The Life Divine. Sri Aurobnido. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram-SABCL. V.18. 1972
  6.  The Foundation of Indian Culture. Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram- SABCL. V.14. 1972
  7.  The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Ed. Sisir Kumar Das. Sahitya Akademi. 2004. Reprint.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

"The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature" Book Review by Prof. Vasudeva T. Reddy


                                                  

Aju Mukopadhyay’s latest work The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature, recently published by AuthorsPress, N. Delhi in 2013, is yet another contribution to the ever increasing world of appreciative evaluation of Aurobindo literature. The writer has done tremendous work before undertaking the writing on the creative literature of Sri Aurobindo. Only after having gone through the works of Sri Aurobindo and some of the critical works on the great literary giant and having acquired adequate knowledge of and mastery over the creative writings of Sri Aurobindo he has undertaken this critical venture on the great master.
He has divided the book into twelve chapters with the first one as usual on Sri Aurobindo’s life which stretches from 15th August 1872 to 5th December 1950 covering a span of seventy-eight years, indeed a dynamic life vigorous with professional, political, literary, yogic and spiritual parts and activities connected with four different and distant places - Bengal, England, Baroda and Pondicherry. Even after becoming a Mahayogi he was never indifferent towards his nation and he was so deeply committed to the full freedom of the country that he sent a message in 1942 to Gandhi and his close circle to accept the proposal of Sir Stafford Cripps which, of course, was thoughtlessly rejected by Gandhi which is responsible for all the future ills of India i.e. Partition of India, the resultant communal violence and endless blood-shed, Kashmir problem etc. His active spiritual role at the subtle level in turning the tide of the World War II in favour of Britain resulting in the unexpected reversal of fortunes of Hitler the leader of the Asuric forces is a well-known fact though it is beyond the pages of history. As ordinary people on this earth we do not know the gravity of the great sacrifice he made by suddenly leaving this mortal coil in order to expedite the process of transforming this life on earth as life divine by bringing the supramental consciousness to the earth atmosphere.
While the second chapter, a tiny one, introduces the creative literature of Sri Aurobindo in a threadbare way, the third chapter is a reasonable sketch of Sri Aurobindo as a poet and it refers to many poems, short as well as long pieces such as ‘Night by the Sea’, ‘A Thing Seen’, ‘His Jacket’, ‘Songs to Myrtilla’, ‘Envoi’, ‘To a Hero Worshipper’, ‘Chitrangada’, ‘Ulupi’, ‘The Rishi’, ‘Urvasi’, ‘Love and Death’, ‘Invitation’, ‘Who’, ‘Surrealist’, ‘Electron’, ‘In the Moonlight’, ‘The Sea at Night’, ‘The Tiger and the Deer’, ‘The children of Wotan’, ‘Bride of Fire’, ‘Rose of God’, ‘God’s Labour’, ‘Journey’s End’, ‘The Pilgrim of the Night’etc. Aju Mukhopadhyaya writes that “‘A God’s Labour’ is a biography and history of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual odyssey, not on the surface but in its occult depth”(p.49). Most of the poems are philosophical and the writer thinks that ‘The mystic and spiritual poems are full of autobiographical references of a yogi’ and ‘his poetry is a complex product of his being’ (p.52). The writer’s critical eye does not fail to see some of the defects and he remarks that “there are repetitions galore” (p. 52).

Then comes the 4th chapter ‘Sri Aurobindo’s Greatest Creation: Savitri’, a relatively detailed sketch of the great work which “is a yogic creation by a poet who became a seer by his tapasya, repeating the Vedic world in the twentieth century. It has no parallel anywhere so far on earth: the creation of a spiritual epic of 23,800 and more lines, the largest in English language in modern age.” (p.54). What Savitri is in poetry, The Life Divine is in prose; while one is a great poem, the other is a monumental philosophical work. The lines of Savitri came from a higher consciousness, termed as Overmind level, higher than the intuitive level. Aswapathy’s sadhana, his yoga and spiritual experiences and travel through graded paths, planes and levels of consciousness are in fact the spiritual experiences and visions of Sri Aurobindo himself. The descent of Savitri to the earth is an answer to the yogic call of Aswapathy’s yoga and meditation and tapas. The writer is fully conscious of the fact that “The poem is full of drama”(p.62) when the sage Narada comes and reveals to Aswapathy and his wife that Satyavan is destined to die exactly in a year. With her firm will she resolves to marry Satyavan the man of her choice:
I am stronger than death and greater than my fate,
My love shall outlast the world, doom falls from me
Helpless against my immortality.
Fate’s law may change, but not my spirit’s will. (Savitri, pp.429-432)
She marries Satyavan and after a pleasant year of marital joy he dies at the fated hour in the forest with Savitri by her side. Now the real test begins for Savitri and the rest of the poem is a description of her epic struggle with Death to rescue the soul of her husband from the iron clutches of the Lord of the Underworld. At last she, being the Divine Mother, succeeds in persuading and convincing Death and in releasing Satyavan’s soul from the irreversible grip of Death. As the writer aptly says, “By saving Satyavan, Savitri saved the earth. As the earthly dawn was blooming forth, Savitri’s bosom nursed a greater dawn” (p.65).

The fifth chapter deals with the critics of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry and refers to the adverse remarks of some established Indo-English poets such as Nissim Ezekiel, P.Lal, Keki N.Daruwalla. While P.Lal after a few years revised his opinion and wrote an appreciation of Sri Aurobindo acknowledging him as a Titan of Indo-Anglian literature, Daruwalla remains a confirmed person in his negative approach and does not come out of the narrow confines of his critical bias and fractured understanding. Aju Mukhopadhyaya makes a mention of the views of the early critic Mr. James Cousin who could see both the positive and negative aspects and also Sir Herbert Read who considers “Savitri is undoubtedly one of the world’s great poems”. The present writer seems to have gone through the recent work on Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs and as such he quotes the opinion of this controversial biographer too: “Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print” (p.81).

The next six chapters from six to eleven deal with Sri Aurobindo the dramatist and with some of his select plays such as Perseus - the Deliverer, a comedy with Syrian background, Rodogune - a significant tragedy with Syrian background, The Viziers of Bassora - the most entertaining romantic comedy and an adaptation of the story of the well-known Tales of the Arabian Nights, Eric - a romantic play with a gripping theme from the heroic age of ancient Norway and Vasavadatta - an interesting play with a pleasant ending taken from Somadeva’s Sanskrit workKathasaritsagara.
The twelfth chapter which is the last one deals with Sri Aurobindo’s short stories, a less-known area, for he is mostly known as a poet, a revolutionary, a scholar, a philosopher and a yogi, but he is ‘little-known as a story-teller’. “I also wrote some stories but they are lost; the white ants have finished them,” Sri Aurobindo sighed lightly and continued humorously “and with them has perished my future fame as a story-teller…. Most of my stories were occult.” He recollected it before his disciples on 3rd January 1939. Now we are fortunate that four of his stories written in English were spared by white ants and they are ‘Golden Bird’, ‘The Phantom Hour’, ‘The Devil’s Mastiff’ and ‘The Door at Abelard’ and they are all under the common title Idylls of the Occult. It ends with the story The Door at Abelard and as the writer says “This is not only occult but also a horrible story, which keeps its strong after-effect on any reader of ordinary nerves” (p.159).

Thus Aju Mukhopadhyay’s literary work The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature covers almost all the genres of the great writer’s literary works. The diligence with which he has studied the critical and biographical works on the Mahayogi and the hard work he has put in collecting some of the details of a very rare nature are something quite commendable. The book as a whole reflects not only the scholarly bent of the writer but the characteristic creative side of his personality shaping his critical perspective in interpreting the literary works of the Sage of Pondicherry. The beauty of the book gets definitely boosted by the quality of the publication by the Authors Press.
The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature by Aju Mukhopadhyay
AuthorsPress, New Delhi. 2013 Hard Cover. Pp. 161 Price Rs.600

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