“I just don’t get it,” my friend said after we left the ashram, searching for our abandoned sandals amongst the hundreds of pairs left on the doorstep by pilgrims. “They worshipped him like a god. Did you see that?”
I had, of course, but was not surprised. This wasn’t my first visit to Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry, where his samadhi tomb is located. Sri Aurobindo, a Cambridge-educated revolutionary, spiritual giant, and author of hundreds of books (including his unparalleled classic, The Synthesis of Yoga) is revered all over India. For the last three decades of his life, this extraordinary man sequestered himself in his private quarters above the Samadhi in order to devote himself fully to his intensive yoga of self-transformation. When Aurobindo died in 1950, at the age of 78, his body lay in state for three weeks in the equatorial heat, showing no signs of physical decay. Yogic attainment of this magnitude leaves a kind of perfume behind it, a gravitas kindled with light. Entering the small courtyard around the tomb, my friend and I sensed this immediately and were taken aback by the scene before us.
The white marble tomb was blanketed with flowers—marigolds, lotuses, jasmine, tulasi—a blanket of brilliant, multi-hued flowers covering the top of his resting place and all around it, in utter silence, pilgrims knelt and sat alone in various states of absorption and prayer. The stillness itself was pulsating. A white-haired woman with a hunched back and cane did an elaborate ritual at the foot of the samadhi, dipping her fingers into a bowl of holy water, first the left hand then the right, and sprinkling the droplets in four directions before rubbing her palms through her hair. A female executive (work suit and high heels) stood knees-to-stone with her eyes closed, lost in a state of deep meditation, while a teenage boy bent down and touched his forehead to the cool marble, mouthing a silent invocation. Each of us in his-her own way was meeting the place of the holy within us—the fathomless silence, the reverence, and light.
I found a seat under the portico and closed my eyes. My noisy mind was nowhere to be found. I felt myself slipping into silence, and deep space, effortlessly; it would have been harder not to meditate, in fact, in that limpid atmosphere. After fifteen minutes, it could have been 30, I opened my eyes and saw my friend looking tranquil and pleased. That’s when we slowly made our way back to the street, leaving the diaphanous stillness for the honking madness of an Indian street.
“Why are they praying on their knees to him?” my friend asked. He wasn’t mocking them; he was simply confused, as a Catholic-born agnostic, by the spectacle of worshiping a human form other than that of Jesus Christ. Why would they give themselves over that way to a mere human being? he seemed to be asking. Wasn’t that idolatry, or worse, a kind of cult brainwashing? I understood his honest confusion. Despite our religiosity, Americans have trouble with the idea of guru worship. It offends our sense of self-reliance. There are reasons to be skeptical, obviously of guru communities where charlatanry and scandal happen (just as urgent reasons exist to doubt a church that hides sexual violence). But in our rush to reject the guru tradition, we also miss a vital point. As Irina Tweedie writes in Chasm of Fire, a classic of guru-devotee literature, “One doesn’t surrender to the guru. One surrenders to the light within oneself, the light of the soul, the part in us which belongs to eternity. God, guru, and self are the same.” Devoting oneself to an enlightened master, we pay homage to our own potential for freedom. We do not give that freedom away.
We turned off the boulevard to a quiet street leading back to our hotel. An ancient woman making bleating sounds like a goat reached a henna-ed hand up from the gutter, begging us, eyes full of misery. A man tended lotuses in a stall nearby, pink, fuchsia, orange blossoms, and chatted to customer happily. A sadhu with matted hair giggled to himself, stroking a dried hunk of cow shit. A beautiful girl in a purple Audi leaned forward, doing her lipstick in the rearview mirror. Why does India remind us so incontestably of holiness, we ask ourselves? I think it’s because this country forces us, by displaying such an abundance of beauty and horror, in public, to contemplate a third position, a tertiary take on reality wherein such extremes exist naturally all at once without any conflict or contradiction. Forced to inhabit this third position, this holy perspective, the mind is no longer able to pick and choose what it considers real but is forced to expand, to tolerate, the whole mandala of human existence.
Half a block from the beauty of Aurobindo’s tomb a starving old woman sits in a gutter, bleating into a stream of pilgrims who rarely stop to give her a rupee. Both these things are true. The “synthesis” of yoga that Aurobindo invented was a radical attempt to bridge the split between material suffering and Divine grace. Science fiction as it sounds, this brilliant man believed that if he could “divinize” a single cell in his own body, draw a permanent ray of supreme light into the cellular structure of his being, that could usher in a great transformation of the human condition. “There have been glimpses of it [divine light] till now….but it has not been brought down into the consciousness of the earth and fixed there. To bring it down is the aim of our yoga,” he wrote.
Spiritual visionaries provide us with hope for the future, that’s my point. The holy gives us strength for today. We pay homage to our mystical pilot fish for illuminating paths to explore for ourselves. They inhabit the holy, third position beyond the two-angled view of the world—good versus bad, beautiful versus ugly, sacred versus profane—and deliver to us the shock of the real. The holy startles us to attention. That’s what I tried to say to my friend as we made our way through Pondicherry on that brilliant-blue morning in February. But words were no substitute for the truth.