Death in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
By Anurag Banerjee
Apropos of my biography of Arjava (published in www.savitriera.wordpress.com) where I’ve discussed how his demise had freed the Ashramites from the spell of the myth of becoming immortal, I’ve been urged to write about how the notion of attaining immortality arose among the sadhaks of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. To them, physical immortality appeared to be an attainable reality though Sri Aurobindo himself had said that he had not conquered death though he had control over it. It was expected that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother would complete the yoga of transformation and divinize their bodies and hence would become immortal and so would the sadhaks.
It is not precisely known how and when the notion of becoming immortal crept into the minds of the sadhaks. However, it can be assumed that this notion originated after 24th November 1926, that is, on the day Krishna or the God of the Overmind had descended and established himself in the body of Sri Aurobindo. On that day, after a meditation that lasted for forty-five minutes when Sri Aurobindo and the Mother went inside, Datta (Dorothy Hodgson) was inspired to make a ‘gorgeous proclamation’ (to quote Sri Aurobindo’s own words). However, we have different versions of her proclamation. According to A .B. Purani, she said: “The Lord has descended into the physical today.” Champaklal remembers Datta saying:
“Krishna the Lord has come.
He has ended the hell of suffering.
He has conquered pain.
He has conquered death.
He has conquered all.
He has descended tonight
Bringing Immortality and Bliss.”
Nolini Kanta Gupta, who was present in the Ashram on 24 November 1926 recalls Datta saying: “The Lord has descended. He has conquered death and sorrow. He has brought down immortality.” Another sadhak, Rajani Palit writes about her proclamation: “Now Datta came out, inspired, and declared: “The Master has conquered death, decay, hunger and sleep!” And according to Rajangam, Datta has said:
“He has conquered Life.
He has conquered Death.
He has conquered All.
Krishna the Lord has descended.”
It is understandable that the exact words spoken by Datta were not remembered precisely by those who were present on the ‘Siddhi Day’, as 24 November is known in the Ashram, but the message she tried to convey was clear: the Lord had descended into Matter, that is, in the physical body of Sri Aurobindo and that he had conquered death.
Two days later, the Immortality Day was observed in the Ashram. But what exactly had happened on that day, that is, 26 November 1926? The answer is not known to all and only very few people were aware of the significance of this day because except Datta and Champaklal no one else was present when the Mother had declared the significance of the day. Let’s read what K. D. Sethna alias Amal Kiran has written about the Immortality Day:
“A day or two before November 26, Champaklal arranged flowers on the floor of the Mother’s room in the form of the Swastika. The Swastika is the sign of immortality. The Mother commented that it was remarkable that he should have chosen to make this particular sign on that particular day. Her words seemed to suggest an inner spiritual movement going on, significant of what the Swastika represented. Then on the 26th, in the passage-room where soup used to be prepared, the Mother stood before a basin of water and, holding her hands over it, appeared to pass into the water a spiritual consciousness and power descending into her. She declared that a most important and fundamental event had occurred but it was both very sacred and secret. She asked for some small glass bottles. When they were brought, she poured the occultly charged water into them and gave them to those who were there. According to her, the divine principle of Immortality had been brought down on that day.
How should we understand the message of the event? Just as November 24 promised with the descent of the delegate consciousness of the Supermind the advent of the true Supramental Divinity, November 26 confirmed to the very last particular of supramentalisation what the earlier occasion had betokened in general: the very last particular is the divinisation of the body. In Indian spirituality, from the beginning Immortality has stood for much more than personal survival of physical death: it has stood for a realisation of Divine Consciousness which is infinite and eternal, the Supreme God-Self both within and beyond the changeless series of birth and death in which our common terrestrial existence is caught. Immortality, in the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, necessarily includes this experience. When the Overmind came down into his body and the Mother’s, the highest range of the past realisation of the Immortal Being was compassed not only in the inner consciousness but also in the outermost, with wonderful consequences in the material sheath itself and an earnest of the full and final result which would come by the arrival of the Supramental Truth. The total earnest of the Godlike future was revealed on November 26—a signal almost incredible to the human mind haunted and obsessed by millennia of mortality. That is why the Mother considered the revelation not only sacred but secret and that is why the memory of it was allowed to hide in the background.” (The Mother: Past-Present-Future, pp. 158-160)
Another interesting information: on 26 November 1926 a cat was born which became the pet of A.B. Purani. The cat was named ‘Amar’ meaning immortal.
Just as a sapling becomes a tree over a period of time, the notion of attaining immortality also became a conviction. Moreover, the Mother too had made a statement that death was not a part of their programme. Even senior sadhaks like K. Amrita too were confident of achieving physical immortality. Amal Kiran writes about a particular incident:
‘Psychologically, one of the most central facts of the early days [of the Ashram] was the conviction that complete divinisation of the physical being was not only an aim of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga but also a practical goal. “Supramentalisation” was clearly understood to include a complete change in the body itself. What is most significant is that by “body” was meant the physical instrument of even the sadhaks and not simply of the Master and the Mother…In this context I remember some words of Amrita, one of the earliest sadhaks. He used to be often in my room. Once when he was there we heard the sound of a funeral passing in the street. In a whisper as if conveying a secret, he said: “I have the feeling that this will not happen to me.” I did not raise my eyebrows in the least, for most of us who understood the originality of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual vision and his reading of the Supermind’s implications could not help the expectation of a radical bodily change.’
However, Sri Aurobindo had categorically mentioned that he had not conquered death. When in March 1935, a sadhak breathed his last in the Ashram, Nirodbaran wrote to Sri Aurobindo: ‘I firmly believed that death was impossible here. Since it has been possible, it means that hostile forces have become victorious.’ Sri Aurobindo replied: ‘There have been three deaths since the Asram [sic] began—one, of a child in a house that was not then part of the Asram and the other of a visitor. This is the first death of an Asramite in the Asram itself.’
Nirodbaran continued: ‘You said, I hear, that you have conquered Death, not only personally, but for others as well.’
Sri Aurobindo answered: ‘I am unaware of having made any such statement. To whom did I make it? I have not said even that personally I have conquered it. All these are the usual Asram legends.
The conquest of Death would mean the conquest of illness and of the psychological and functional necessity of death of the body—that is one of the ideals of the Yoga, but it can be accomplished only if and when the supramental has driven its roots into Matter. All that has been acting here up to now is an Overmind force which is getting gradually supramentalised in parts—the utmost that it can do in this respect is to keep death at a distance and that is what has been done. The absence of death in the Asram for so many years has been due to that. But it is not impossible—especially when death is accepted.’
But Nirodbaran would not give up. He further asked: ‘From whatever you have said in joke or in earnest, it logically follows that you are immortal. Because if you say that Supramental can alone conquer death, one who has become that is evidently and consequently immortal. So if one is immortal or has conquered death, no poison or accident can affect him.’
Sri Aurobindo replied: ‘Your Syllogism is:
“One who became supramental, can conquer death.
Sri Aurobindo has become supramental.
Sri Aurobindo has conquered death.”
1st premiss right; second premises premature; conclusion at least premature and in any case excessive, for “can conquer” is turned into “has conquered” is immortal. It is not easy, my dear doctor, to be a logician; the human reasoning animal is always making slight inaccuracies like that in his syllogisms which vitiate the whole reasoning. This might be correct:
“One who becomes wholly supramental conquers death.
Sri Aurobindo is becoming supramental.
Sri Aurobindo is conquering death.”
But between “is conquering” and “has conquered” is a big difference. It is all the difference between present and future, logical possibility and logical certitude.’
Again a year later, Nirodbaran writes to Sri Aurobindo about the conquest of death: ‘In [your] letter to me, there was a very high optimistic, almost a certain tone about the conquest of death. Now it appears that you no longer hold that view and say that death is possible because of the lack of a solid mass of faith [in the inmates of the Ashram]…’ Sri Aurobindo replied: ‘In what does this change of views consist? Did I say that nobody could die in the Asram? If so, I must have been intoxicated or passing through a temporary aberration…Surely I never wrote that death and illness could not happen in the Asram…Conquest of death is something minor and, as I have always said, the last physical result of it [meaning the supramental change of the consciousness], not the first result of all or the most important…To put it first is to reverse all spiritual values.’
What led Nirodbaran to ask his query regarding the conquest of death was the demise of Dahi Lakshmi, the wife of a sadhak named Tulsi. Her death had shaken up many a sadhak. Sri Aurobindo, in a letter to Dilip Kumar Roy dated 18 October 1936, writes: ‘…the madness of Premshankar following on the death of Dahi Lakshmi has created a panic and at the least thing each person thinks he is going to go mad or die.’ But even then the conviction of attaining immortality was so intense and profound that Dahi Lakshmi’s death failed to create the impact it should have.
After Sri Aurobindo met with his accident in November 1938, during one of the talks which his attendants used to have with him, someone told him: ‘There are people who think that as soon as they have entered the Ashram they have become immortal.’ Sri Aurobindo answered: ‘People think so, because for a long time no death took place in the Ashram. Those who died were either visitors or who had gone back from here.’
But death did visit the Ashram within the next few months and this time it was none other than Arjava, one of the finest poets of the Ashram, who left his body in May 1939. But since he died in the train to Bangalore where he was going to receive medical treatment, his death was accepted only as an unfortunate incident. However his death was able to eradicate the conviction of becoming immortal to a great extent.
In April 1942, the wife of a sadhak named Madangopal died. With reference to this context, let’s read the following account of Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya who had come to the Ashram for the very first time in that month only: ‘In 1942, on the first day of my arrival in the Ashram, I went to the Dining Room for dinner. There I found out that the wife of a sadhak named Madangopal had died and the sweetmeat was being served as a part of her funeral rites. Something struck me as odd. So death did exist, after all, in the Ashram, I wondered. Later, I found out that Madangopal’s wife was not an inmate of the Ashram but lived outside. My mind was assured. Madangopal’s wife died because she had not lived in the Ashram. Had she lived in the Ashram she would not have died.’
So we see that though the inmates were gradually coming out of the spell of the myth of becoming immortal there were many who still thought that once they have joined the Ashram they have conquered death. But this gala dream was scheduled to break soon.
Two years later in 1944, Margaret Woodrow Wilson who was given the name of Nishtha by Sri Aurobindo breathed her last in the Ashram. But since she was suffering from kidney ailments even before she joined the Ashram, the news of her demise didn’t create quite a stir. But the death of Chandulal Shah in November 1945 eradicated the myth of becoming immortal for once and for all. Chandulal, who had become an inmate of the Ashram with his sister Vasudha in 1928 was in charge of the Building Service of the Ashram. He was an extremely devoted follower of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and was quite close to the Mother. He had gone to the Town Hospital to for a hernia operation and died immediately after the operation. Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, who had become an inmate of the Ashram by then, recounts:
‘At that time the Ashram did not have even a van to take the corpse to the cremation-ground. We carried him there on a cot for the funeral. His death shook my belief greatly. But I controlled myself and went on single-mindedly on the path indicated by Mother and Sri Aurobindo.’
Pranab had asked the Mother whether she and Sri Aurobindo had realized the supramental consciousness. The Mother answered: ‘No, not yet.’ She explained that the supramental consciousness had come down into them from time to time but it was not established. However she assured Pranab: ‘But we have caught the tail of it.’ Pranab admits that he was very disheartened but he consoled himself thinking that though the supramental consciousness was not established in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother they were marching on the path and before long the result will be visible to all. The Mother too on her part had assured him: ‘Pranab, this time there will be no tragedy. We will certainly complete our work. Pavitra, Nolini and all these old sadhaks are waiting to witness the supramental realization. I can’t dishearten them.’
A few words regarding Chandulal’s death wouldn’t be irrelevant here. Chandulal’s death was not death in the ordinary sense. Since he was a yogi, he was in a habit of going out of his physical body; that’s what he did when his operation ended. But the doctors judged from their medical point of view and declared him to be dead. So before his soul could come back to his body, Chandulal was taken to the crematorium. Thus the link was cut off and he couldn’t reenter the body. The Mother speaks about this incident in her conversation with Satprem:
‘He [Chandulal] had learned to go out of his body, he knew how to do it: he would go about and see things; he would see, note things, and come back into his body. then, when he was operated on, the doctors didn’t take the necessary precautions and the heart couldn’t withstand the shock of the operation: five days later, it was over. But he was in the habit of going out, so he went out and came to me (that’s how I knew it before they came to tell me he was “dead”). But he wasn’t at all aware of being dead: he had gone out of his body as he used to, and he came to me. He was with me. So there, it was quite fine, he remained peaceful. Then, at a certain point…(he died in hospital, and naturally, at that time nobody listened to me: they burned him much too soon—it would have been too soon anyway, because in his case, precisely because he had that practice, much precaution and time would have been required; but it was all rushed through), then all of a sudden, when they burned him (I didn’t even know the time of the cremation), he suddenly came into my room, you know, appalled…appalled, crying, miserable: “But I am dead! I didn’t know I was dead, but I am dead and they’ve burned me, they’ve burned me!...” Oh…it was horrible, horrible. So I calmed him down, told him to stay there, be calm, be with me, and that I would find him another body. And for a long, long time I had him consciously near me. Then I taught him to reincarnate—it was all done in detail.” (Mother’s Agenda, Volume VIII, 4 October 1967)
Does it mean that the grand dream of becoming immortal will never be fulfilled? The answer is: only the superman will be immortal. The conquest of death and the supramentalization of the body are the last of a long series of transformations that should take place. Physical immortality will be an attainable reality. But till then we have to wait and carry on with our work. So, as the followers of the Integral Yoga, what sort of attitude should we have towards the body’s death? Let’s quote Sri Aurobindo:
‘For the spiritual seeker death is only a passage from one form of life to another, and none is dead but only departed…Of course, that is the real fact—death is only a shedding of the body, not a cessation of the personal existence. A man is not dead because he goes into another country and changes his clothes to suit that climate.’ (Letters on Yoga, Part 1, p. 463)
‘Although Death walks beside us on Life’s road,
A dim bystander at the body’s start
And a last judgment on man’s futile works,
Other is the riddle of its ambiguous face:
Death is a stair, a door, a stumbling stride
The soul must take to cross from birth to birth,
A grey defeat pregnant with victory,
A whip to lash us towards our deathless state.’
(Savitri, Book X, Canto I, pp. 600-01)
And therefore the Mother advises:
‘One must never wish for death.
One must never will to die.
One must never be afraid to die.
And in all circumstances one must will to exceed oneself.’
(Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 4, p.356)