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Room Darshan Published 29 February 2008 Art & Culture , Bio , India , Religion, Spiritualism & Other Make-Believe Tags: ashram, atheism, Cornell University, darshan, Golden Day, L. Pearce Williams, modernism, Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo, The Mother
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 representational vision of the next phase of human development. Sri Aurobindo described this 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; an 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 far from clear from where the design influence would have come. 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.