On Sunday, I rose at 6:00 am – not something to which I am accustomed – to board a bus for Auroville. Usually, I cycle to Auroville; but this morning I was in the company of members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram who were making their bi-weekly visit to help in the landscaping of the gardens of the Matrimandir, the spectacular meditation hall which sits at the epicenter of the Auroville community.
I’m not big on gardening; nor am I a devotee of Sri Aurobindo – though I think the man was one astoundingly brilliant poet and a bad-ass philosopher, at least until things get so deep and twisted I can’t even pretend to follow. But the ashram and Auroville are nonetheless special to me as, between them, they house the large majority of the people I have come to love in my adopted home.
What better did I have to do on a beautiful Sunday morning than to assist in the building of a community I admire in the company friends I adore?
The outing was led by a longtime ashramite named Narad. He is something of an expert on flowering plants, and is the co-author of the book Flowers and their Messages. To understand the book title, the Matrimandir, the gardens, Auroville, the ashram, the outing, and just about everything else in the circles in which I travel in Pondicherry, you need to understand that Mr. A is not the be-all-and-end-all of spiritual life in these parts, notwithstanding that the ashram and Auroville both bear his name. Certainly he was the intellectual and spiritual force which drew this community of seekers to Pondicherry, beginning shortly after his own arrival in 1910 and continuing ever since. But from 1920 until his death in 1950, and beyond to 1973, he had help.
His partner, to whom he entrusted the endeavor to build a formal, if somewhat unorthodox ashram community from among his devotees was a woman who came to be known as the Mother.
Let me get my prejudices on the table from the outset: anyone who calls herself “the Mother” starts with two strikes against them. And the icky hubris of the moniker is, to my mind, not the least of her shortcomings; although it is, in a way, representative of all of them. The Mother fancied herself as a mystical teacher of some significance, a status that was reaffirmed and given considerable importance in Sri Aurobindo’s later writings. But whereas Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy was meticulous and analytical, the Mother’s take on metaphysics was either superficially derivative of Sri Aurobindo’s work or consisted of vague, airy, disjointed pronouncements about the nature of the universe. Whereas Sri Aurobindo is one of the greatest poets of the English language, the Mother’s aphoristic declamations sound, to my admittedly spiritually tone-deaf ear, like the pabulum found in cheap greeting cards. One of her supposedly major contributions to spiritual understanding was to have “given names” to numerous flowers – “Psychological Perfection” to Plumeria and “Wealth“ to Water Lilies, as examples – to indicate their deeper significances. “Flowers speak to us when we know how to listen to them”, the Mother said. “It is a subtle and fragrant language”. No comment.
She was not, however, without tremendous wisdom and skills. She was a peerless administrator, a brilliant educational theorist, and a far-seeing, astonishingly progressive social architect. As important as any of these impressive talents, though, was her legendary capacity for empathy and compassion. Everyone who knew her marvels, to this day, at her uncanny ability to connect one-on-one with people; and they back-up their uniformly glowing assessments with story-after-story to drive-home the point.
I give my biases and impressions here, even though I readily acknowledge that I know little about spiritual matters and care even less. Certainly, the ashram and Auroville communities – people who knew her and have studied her work and writings far more extensively than I ever will – take the Mother very seriously. Indeed, ashram folks are a generally non-frivolous bunch when it comes to spiritual matters – which brings me back to Narad, who seems about as painfully earnest as they come, and to the gardening expedition.
Before we commenced the morning’s work, Narad gathered the three-dozen volunteers by the great banyan tree that presides in the foreground of the Matrimandir and delivered a pious, over-wrought benediction on the planned activities. He explained that the building of the Matrimandir and the landscaping of its gardens was a decades-long project, which reflected “the divine vision of Mother.” Our specific task would be to turn-up the soil and rid certain someday-to-be-planted areas of nutgrass, a persistent weed that requires painstaking attention to properly eradicate. Not only must the roots be pulled, but the hard, bulbous “nut” must also be gotten. Narad likened the exercise to the meticulous, painstaking weeding we must each do within our own consciousness. Frankly, I’d rather he left my consciousness out of it. I generally prefer my consciousness to be a wild, unkempt “English garden” than a carefully manicured “French Garden.”
That, plus I’m lazy.
Narad reminded us that it was a privilege to be working in “Mother’s gardens,” which would ultimately “manifest not according to our plans for them, but in accordance with the divine plan.” That fatalistic admonishment somehow didn’t have the uplifting effect on me I suspect it was designed to provoke, but I dutifully picked up a steel rod anyway and set to work breaking soil and hunting for nutgrass nuts.
It turns out the beds we were weeding had been weeded hundreds of times before. Each time, the nutgrass would grow back as verdantly and unperturbedly as the last. In the years since the plan for the Matrimandir gardens had been determined – perhaps passed down in stone tablets to a landscape architect on some mountaintop, no one was saying – these flower beds have yet to see a flower. What they have nurtured is generation-after-generation of extremely healthy nutgrass.
“Doesn’t it seem possible,” I cautiously suggested to Narad, “that the divine plan for this garden is nutgrass?” Narad laughed for a moment before succumbing to a sense that one should not make light of these kinds of things. He immediately sobered up and said dismissively, “You have much to learn about the divine.”
More than he had to teach, as it turned out.