Room Darshan

Sri Aurobindo Ashram Golden Day Darshan Program

Today is known as “Golden Day” at the Sri Arobindo Ashram.

On this day in 1956, Sri Aurobindo’s lieutenant and chief disciple, the Mother, had an occult vision of the next phase of human development. Sri Aurobindo described this as the transcendence from the conscious mind to the supramental state, in which one understands themselves to be a part of the completeness of existence, which he called “the divine.” He’s how she described her experience:

This evening the Divine Presence, concrete and material, was there present amongst you. I had a form of living gold, bigger than the universe, and I was facing a huge and massive golden door which separated the world from the Divine.

As I looked at the door, I knew and willed, in a single movement of consciousness, that “the time has come”, and lifting with both hands a mighty golden hammer I struck one blow, one single blow on the door and the door was shattered to pieces.

On special days, like Golden Day, the rooms of the Ashram which belonged to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are open to devotees, who take advanced appointments and queue for hours for the chance to spend five minutes walking through the private spaces, and among the relics, of the two people they consider their ultimate teachers. Today, we were gifted two passes for “room darshan.”

One enters the Ashram building, entering immediately into the central courtyard which contains the samadi (interment memorials) of the pair, beneath a wonderful old tree. I was somewhat surprised to realize that, in the years I’ve lived in Pondicherry, within a few blocks of this historic building – which plays such an important symbolic role in the lives of so many of my close friends – I had never before been in this place, though it is open daily.

It is my nature to react strongly to physical spaces I know are significant to people I care about; and I had a strong feeling of affection for the inner recesses of the Ashram. It’s not clear in this case, however, how much of this feeling was empathy, and how much was a function of the fact that it is an absolutely wonderful old building. The Mothers room, in particular, displayed an astonishing character. While the rest of the rooms were decorated in a rather precious Belle Époque style, her chamber has an entirely different feel, anachronistic and distinctive. With simply jointed teak paneling, and clean, spare detailing, the space mirrors some of the earliest experimental work of the Bauhaus architects, before they found their pallet in steel, concrete, and glass. The furnishings bear evidence of the fin de siecle and art deco periods, but he overriding impression is of proto-modernism, if not modernism itself. This would be far less surprising if this woman had not remained in this relatively remote corner of South India from 1920 until her death in 1973, at the age of 95. Given her own radical, progressive social engineering, she certainly should have had an affinity for the modernist movement – which, without overstating the point, shares quite a bit of philosophical common-ground with Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga – but it is not obvious from a simple viewing when the room was made or from where the design influence came. Perhaps historians of the ashram will know the answer to this fascinating aspect of the Mother’s private space.

Walking through the ashram’s inner rooms evoked one other strong sentiment: that of I’m-missing-something-good-here-if-only-I could-see-it, drive-by voyeurism. The items of décor, as well as simple, everyday objects from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are preserved, displayed, and fetishized. The rooms were half left-as-they-were, half museum dioramas. Sure, it is fun to get an up-close look at the way important historical figures lived in their homes; that part I got. But one need only look in the adoring faces of the supplicants as they pass through these treasures to know that they could still feel the presence of the people in the objects – and in the space itself. There is only one place in the world that makes me feel that way and, improbably enough, it is also an ashram: Sabarmati, which Gandhi-ji call “home” for much of his adult life.

It is quite odd that I find myself living amid so much deeply felt spirituality to which I am so perfectly immune. (It is all the more interesting and ironic to be doing so for much of each year in India, a country that, for all its famous and much-trumpeted ancient experience, is well-and-truly bereft of much-of-anything even resembling spiritual awareness, as most spiritual people would probably define the term. But that is an essay to write – and a fight to pick, no doubt – on another day.)

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, I went to hear L. Pearce Williams, an eminent historian of the history of science, give a benediction at Sage Chapel entitled, The Faith of an Atheist. While there was nothing earth-shattering about that lecture/sermon, the experience of sitting in a church listening to him speak marked a right-of-passage for me. I had always been quite comfortable in my own godlessness and spiritual vacuity; but part of my conviction had included a corollary dismissiveness of religion and faith as just-so-much-silly-crap. Though Pearce’s talk didn’t address the topic, it somehow put me a peace with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo in which others seemed so caught-up. (By the way, I can call him “Pearce” because we had occasion to meet twenty-five years later, and to discuss my experience of his lecture over a companionable cup of coffee.) It was the beginning of my lifelong, outsider’s fascination with the crazy shit people thought, and felt, and did in pursuit of spiritual satisfaction.

You would have thought I’d have learned quite a bit in the interceding years. In all honesty, I haven’t. I don’t find this particularly disquieting, although I acknowledge it comes dangerously close to the delusional paradigm of the one-sane-guy in a world comprised entirely of madmen. Somehow, my seemingly intractable ignorance hasn’t diminished my curiosity with the subject. I have discovered one thing, though: always take a darshan when you can get one – even when it is with a room.

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1 Response to “Room Darshan”


  1. 1 Deeps 15 March 2008 at 5:09 am

    M

    This reminds me of your so-called spiritual immunity.

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
    – Sir Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-1971)


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