Swans Commentary » swans.com November 1, 2010  



Breathing Right In India
Part I, Pondicherry


by Peter Byrne





"A fathomless zero occupied the world."
—Sri Aurobindo, Savitri


(Swans - November 1, 2010)   I lazed up on the roof of what was not quite a hotel in Kerala. But "Bed and Breakfast" isn't an expression to use in a country where many bed down on the pavement and have to hustle to break their fast. A head popped out of the stairwell, rose to six feet, and spoke in Bostonian with a hung-over edge. He was sorry. He mistook the floor. He was looking for the niche with the tea kettle.

My London friend, who ran the place, mainly from a prone position on the beach, soon came up to shoo away the vicious local crows. I asked him about the zombie Americans that had checked in.

"Those two? Bill, Ph.D. Yale, and Chet, MBA Dallas School of Management. They're from the Swami's joint up the road and come down here every so often to dry out."

"A local hot spot? Tell me more."

"Sex, drugs, but no rock 'n roll, only deep breathing. Don't you know about Hindu holy men? They're the subcontinent's cash crop. The Swami owns a hunk of India, he's a corporate guru."

"What does he peddle?"

"Charisma, it runs off him like sweat. He's listed on the stock market. It's the Third World striking back. The spiritually deprived come from afar to offer him their credit cards. He lets them into his prison camp. But it's hard to get out again."

"But Bill and Chet do."

"They're shills, half-way into the scam, brains not all washed yet. They herd the johns in from New York and L.A. Bill and Chet come to us for a swim and Johnny Walker normalcy. First morning they're still groggy with the Swami dude's fairytale. You say hello and they come back with, 'Swami makes the sun come up.' Honest to Christ."

"But all those diplomas?"

"Swami trumps them with karma. Something looks dubious, he rubber-stamps it 'karma' and they shut up."

"Don't the authorities step in?"

"They're on the take. You have to understand Indian non-violence. Swami and his peace mantra are the Indian version of those Mexican drug cartels. It's only the villagers who complain. He keeps expanding and taking over more of their fields."

"He's into real estate?"

"At a safe distance. Sweat shops, up-market hotels, travel agencies, the lot."

"So he produces more than charm."

"His best seller is package-tour rebirth. It comes with a money-back guarantee. But customers usually take a refill."

"The villagers don't buy it?"

"They have a problem buying their dinner and they don't like the hanky-panky. Every once in a while a widow from Miami breaks out and chases a local Romeo down Main Street. The sweepers complain that it lowers the tone and gives their wives ideas."

He preyed on my mind, the tall, punch-drunk Ph.D. Gita and the Upanishads filled the subcontinent with their music and I wasn't even singing along. I spent my time with the crossword from the The Hindu, India's national newspaper. I vowed to change my ways and my reading. Downstairs I pawed through the abandoned toilet literature. There was a copy of Elle that said Julia Roberts had become a Hindu and no longer believed in deodorants. But I wanted something more uplifting and took away a booklet with photos titled Sri Aurobindo and His Ashram.

Aurobindo had been a big man in Pondicherry in the twentieth century. Together with his associate, reassuringly dubbed "The Mother," he reshaped the place to his personal taste. I kicked myself for not having looked into his doings on my visit to the city. I'd simply sniffed out Gallic relics in the former French colony. Now I determined to go back and inventory the other side of the moon.

Let's skip the journey. With a stubborn refusal of all advice, I set out on the local buses. (I couldn't say no to their lurid paint jobs.) I'd like to think my time and anxiety weren't wasted because I spent hours and hours of brisk wrong turns and stymied traffic plunged in reading about Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sri Aurobindo, aged seven, was taken from Calcutta to England in 1879 and only returned to India fourteen years later. He brought back an elite British education, excellence in Latin and Greek, and a complete ignorance of his native land. Only as an official employed in the princely state of Baroda did he begin to explore Indian culture. He favored national independence and when a movement took shape in Bengal he returned to Calcutta as a college principal.

Aurobindo was soon an authoritative voice of the Nationalists, looking after the party's publications. The government accused him of revolutionary activity and sent him to jail for a year. In prison, often locked up alone, he devoted himself to yoga. He came out a changed man. His active political life was over and he would thereafter concentrate on what he called "his inner spiritual life." To avoid government harassment he made his home in the French colony of Pondicherry. It was 1910.

The Mother was born to a banker from Turkey and his Jewish Egyptian wife in Paris in 1878. As a child she studied art and in retrospect remembered having been visited in her teens by spiritual enlightenment. She took to occultism and organized spiritualist circles. Traveling at the time of the First World War, she met Aurobindo in Pondicherry and immediately claimed he was the force that had been directing her spiritual development from the outset. After more travel, including years in Japan, she returned to Pondicherry where she remained until 1973 when, at ninety-five, in her coy phrase, she "left her body." (Aurobindo had shipped out of his substantial carcass in 1950.)

Pierre met my bus. He'd never been closer to France than the Jean Gabin season at the local Cercle des Cinéphiles but, Francophile that he was, I knew he'd try to put the Marseillaise between me and Indian Pondicherry. So I steered him clear of a phony Left Bank café and explained my project to him in what looked like an Indian tea shop. (He said the waiters were Nepalese, exploited immigrants.) Pierre listened in pugnacious silence, all Gallic moues and shrugs. Then he exploded.

He admitted but glided over his city's loss of French sheen. But that only increased his disdain for what he called the Auro-Mama neo-colonial takeover. The old woman had been a Levantine Madame Blavatsky escaped from an Edwardian drawing room and doing her orientalist Ouija-board act among the Indians. However, they were already busy in cyberspace and in any case always thought Theosophy one of the dumber European confidence tricks. Old Bindo himself was straight out fin-de-siècle Cambridge University. The Brits had called him a nigger and so he got his revenge by writing Savitri in English. It's a blank verse poem of twenty-four thousand lines in ten books, a suicidal read. The old graphomane was still cranking it out when he floated off, letting fall his punishing fountain pen.

Clearly Pierre was not an adept. But I had no other guide. I'd simply have to make allowance for his conviction that the empire of Sri Aurobindo and his stern CEO was just another Western scam. Pierre's bitterness was understandable. The odd couple had connived to cast a shadow over the faded little bit of France that he adored. It would be unkind to remind him that the earlier carve up of India between Britain and France was another shady deal blown in from the West.

Luckily Pierre's mimic of French gregariousness won out and we mapped our enquiry. The first thing he did was turn me around in that tearoom. On the wall behind my seat was a framed photo labeled "The Mother." A bullfrog's mouth and beady eyes on the front of a woman's head. The mouth bubbled all the answers; the eyes traced the route she insisted mortals take.

Pierre sighed.

"You think Big Brother was a control freak. Here you can't get away from the Queen Bee. She was not only a full-time goddess but better at numbers than any brothel-keeping madam."

"How did she get so powerful?"

"Money. Old Bindo thought he found the perfect dupe in the banker's daughter from the Levant. She bankrolled the Ashram from its start with a dozen or so starvelings in the 1920s. She paid right up to the Second World War when there were a thousand well-fed boarders lounging about playing at yoga. Bindo had never been strong on poverty. He insisted that money was godly and that it had been wrong for spiritual people to shun it. He said grab the cash before 'hostile forces' put it in their own pockets. He grabbed The Mother."

"That's what I call a far-thinking realist."

"But he'd misjudged her. She was duping him. It was self-aggrandizement not gold she cared about. This was the girl who at fifteen announced that her incarnations had included Queens Hatshepsut and Thy of Egypt. In 1922 she moved in with Bindo and took the reins (the whip between her teeth). He was relegated to the back of the ox cart with his halo and a ream of paper. By 1926 he'd withdrawn from public view entirely."

"And the rest is history, the history of a company town?"

"That's it. We have only one industry. We teach the developed world how to breathe. The raw material costs nothing and as for customers -- you know what they say -- there's one born every minute. The Ashram has more than four hundred buildings in town and The Mother still stares you down in all of them. But let's go see."

For sentimental reasons I insisted on walking the long way around by the Rue St. Gilles. Pierre, with still another shrug, snapped me under a street sign. This approach took us through the heart of mystic Pondicherry. There was the Harmony Boutique that featured Ashram Handicrafts under The Mother's froggy gaze. She also kept an eye on Auro Travels & the Boutique d'Auroville. She was behind the counter at the Vak Bookshop & Auroshree Boutique.

I couldn't pass books for sale without a browse. Pierre winced and in we went. Of course The Mother glared at us there too. A whole wall was filled with Sri Aurobindo's works. I looked at Pierre in awe.

He was sour.

"That's only a selection."

"Look at this!" I said

I'd discovered that most of the books were published in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, by something called the Lotus Press.

"Incredible," I said. "I know the place. It's a rundown resort just over the Illinois border. Al Capone used to hang out there during Prohibition. It was just beyond the reach of the Chicago cops. To think that now they've got religion there too!"

Pierre wasn't impressed and asked me rhetorically if I'd never heard about globalization. We passed a lower, feminine wall of The Mother's books and exited into the fresh air. Pierre pointed out the Ashram Dispensary.

Pondicherry was a study in urban contrast. There were the Tamil districts on the wrong side of a putrid canal. The streets there, it was said, had been tilted toward Mecca. But the tumult in them didn't give you the leisure to get your bearings. Then you crossed into a neater, French-scented order that strained to keep its place in the sun. In its midst were the clustered buildings of the Ashram whose fresh, clean gray walls, trimmed in white, could have borne a sign, "Money from elsewhere."

Pierre and I went into the Ashram and made our way to a courtyard full of shade trees. He said the white marble rectangle was Samadhi, the tomb of Bindo and The Mother. It knocked me out to think that the little rich girl from Paris, after several marriages and a lot of jabbing with her elbows, had got herself entombed here as a divinity. She lay beside the misfit who had swotted Greek verbs shivering in Cambridge. Sri Bindo, whom she kept incommunicado in his last years, had gone under the marble first of course. That allowed her to poeticize windily in an incised inscription. THEE in capitals appeared six times in six lines. The sense was, first, that Bindo was the greatest, not excluding any of the top men of the big-time religions and, second, that The Mother had made him.

Pierre was telling me about the corporation logo decorating the tomb: Two entwined triangles with a bath tub in the middle where a lotus flower was wilting.

A couple came from the fringe of the courtyard and approached the tomb. I wasn't sure if this was a church or a tourist situation. I said "Hi" not too loud and kept my smile low key. The very tall woman with straggly yellow hair ignored me and sleepwalked toward the tomb. It stood under a lone tree that bent over in contrast to the stick-straight blond. In front of the marble box, she folded forward and went down on her belly, her face in the dust.

"Jesus Christ, Pierre, what's happening?"

"They're sadhaks, Mother's slaves, from Auroville, down the road."

The other figure was a roly-poly woman. She had a you-guys-are-goin'-to-be-surprised smirk on her face. She let herself down all in one piece like a brand-new sponge and kept her chin just off the ground, turtle-wise.

"Wait a minute, Pierre. The Mother shed her body back in 1973. How can they be her slaves?"

"The sadhaks still do all the heavy work around the barracks. The Mother used to get them up a three-thirty a.m. She'd hand out the buckets and mops and explain how 'nothing in the service of the Divine can not be a perfect delight.' These two miss her whip hand and what they've heard of the good old days."

"Look, I want to have a few words with these sad sacks when they resume human shape. I'd like to know their point of view."

"Won't work. Didn't you hear them? They're Dutch. Anyway they'd only repeat The Mother's spiel. You can read that in her oeuvre complète, seventeen volumes' worth."

"Still, that would make a great interview. 'How we found the Divine cleaning toilets in India. Canning tomatoes was never like this in old Amsterdam.'"

"You think this place is maboul? I'll take you to Auroville. It's the 1968 branch that our little Ayn Rand set up out of town where no one could watch over her shoulder."

"That's for tomorrow, Pierre. Just now the inner self of my astral body needs an Indian beer. Let's make that a Kingfisher Ultra."


Read Part II: Auroville


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 1, 2010