When Truths realized by enlightened sages and prophets are relayed down the ages without proper understanding, they tend to get frozen into customs observed by the masses out of habit or due to fear of God. Such archaic customs tend to accumulate until they are shattered by the next enlightened sage who appears on the scene. In this context, these are some striking observations of Mother Mirra Alfassa on some encrustations of Hinduism.
Self-mortification in the guise of Askesis
The practice of extreme self-mortification was very much in vogue in ancient India and continues to this day even in other religions. These are the Mother Mirra’s observations on the subject.
Mother Mirra Alfassa: These practices, which consist of ill-treating the body in order, so they say, to liberate the spirit from it, are in fact a sensuous distortion of spiritual discipline; it is a kind of perverse need for suffering which drives the ascetic to self-mortification. The sadhu’s recourse to the bed of nails or the Christian anchorite’s resort to the whip and the hair-shirt are the result of a more or less veiled sadistic tendency, unavowed and unavowable; it is an unhealthy seeking or a subconscious need for violent sensations. In reality, these things are very far removed from all spiritual life, for they are ugly and base, dark and diseased; whereas spiritual life, on the contrary, is a life of light and balance, beauty and joy. They are invented and extolled by a sort of mental and vital cruelty towards the body. But cruelty, even with regard to one’s own body, is nonetheless cruelty, and all cruelty is a sign of great unconsciousness. Unconscious natures need very strong sensations, for without them they can feel nothing; and cruelty, which is one form of sadism, brings very strong sensations. The avowed purpose of such practices is to abolish all sensation so that the body may no longer stand in the way of one’s flight towards the spirit; but the effectiveness of this method is open to doubt. It is a recognised fact that in order to progress rapidly, one must not be afraid of difficulties; on the contrary, by choosing to do the difficult thing at every opportunity, one increases the will-power and strengthens the nerves. Now, it is much more difficult to lead a life of moderation and balance, in equanimity and serenity, than to try to contend with over-indulgence in pleasure and the obscuration it entails, by over-indulgence in asceticism and the disintegration it causes. It is much more difficult to achieve the harmonious and progressive development of one’s physical being in calm and simplicity than to ill-treat it to the point of annihilation. It is much more difficult to live soberly and with- out desire than to deprive the body of its indispensable nourishment and cleanliness and boast proudly of one’s abstinence. It is much more difficult to avoid or to surmount and conquer illness by an inner and outer harmony, purity and balance, than to disregard and ignore it and leave it free to do its work of destruction.
The sacred cow
Question: Does the cow really have a special sanctity or is it merely a tradition based on economic needs?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Mere tradition based on old symbols.
The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: Symbols
Some background needs to be developed to understand her remarks. According to Sri Aurobindo, the verses of the Rig Veda have a dual meaning – esoteric and exoteric. If the verses are read in the exoteric sense, they seem to be a description of bucolic life complete with rituals to some sacrificial fire and battles between gods and demons. However, some of the verses appear incoherent when read purely in the external sense. Sri Aurobindo, with the light of his spiritual illumination, decoded and outlined the esoteric meaning of the various symbols. According to him, the Rig Veda describes man’s spiritual journey which commences with the kindling of the inner fire (Agni), using which one has to battle the inner and outer demons(Dasyus, Vritra, Vala). Success in the spiritual path is signaled by the arrival of dawn (Usha). The cows are the rays of light which are released by the coming of inner illumination, and their milk symbolizes the knowledge and power which descends from the Divine Consciousness.
For illustrative purposes, consider Rig Veda verse V.14.4,
“Agni born shone out slaying the Dasyus, the darkness by the Light; he found the Cows, the Waters, Swar.”
agnir jāto arocata, ghnan dasyūn jyotiṣā tamaḥ, avindad gā apaḥ svaḥ.
The esoteric sense of verse is that the cows and the rivers of higher consciousness are released when the inner fire burns bright during meditation(see Descent experience). With the passage of time, this inner meaning was lost and the cows came to be revered as sacred symbols of Hinduism.
Much more on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Rig Veda can be seen in his work The Secret of the Veda available online here.
Sleeping aligned in some direction
Question: There is an old Hindu belief that one should not lie down or sleep with one’s head towards the North. Has it got any real significance, Mother?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Many things have been said on the subject but, as far as my own experience goes, I do not attach much importance to that belief.
The Mother, Some Answers from the Mother: 24 March 1936
Question: Has X spoken to you about some influence of Saturn he has found in my horoscope? I forgot to ask you about it on my birthday.
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Yes, he spoke to me about it. But you must know that yoga frees us from subjection to the horoscope; the horoscope expresses the position one has in relation with the material world, but by the sadhana(spiritual practice) we get free from the slavery to that world.
The Mother, Some Answers from the Mother: 14 September 1936
For more on astrology, see another post : Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on astrology.
The water of the Ganges have been held in great regard in India since antiquity. The Mother encouraged consecration and contemplation instead. The real Ganges is the flow of spiritual energy (Kundalini) within the body which has to be awakened.
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Sincere devotion is much more effective than the Ganges water.
The Mother, Words of the Mother – II: Devotion
In a similar vein, we see Ramana Maharshi stating:
Question: Is there efficacy in bathing in the Ganges?
Ramana Maharshi: The Ganges is within you. This Ganges does not make you feel cold or shiver. Bathe in it.
(Talks with Ramana Maharshi, p 144)
Festivals – Indian and other
It must be stressed that these observations were made to disciples living in an Ashram practicing Yoga. For the masses, some external observance or ceremony may be required to remember and renew contact with the Divine but for those who have progressed on the spiritual path, such observances can be dispensed with. When one is established in the Timeless, every day becomes sacred.
Question: What is the origin, significance and purpose of festivals such as Deepavali, Dasera, Rakhipurnima, etc. − and also some of the western festivals? On these days do the gods respond more to human aspirations? Thirdly, what is the connection between the inner truth and the external functions of these festivals? Lastly, what should be our attitude towards these festivals?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Men like festivals.
Question: As an answer to my letter on the significance of festivals you wrote to me: “Men like festivals.” Does it then mean that they are men’s fancy and whim ? Have they no meaning and no utility ?
Mother Mirra Alfassa:It is men who give a meaning to festivals in order to legitimate their presence.
The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: The Gods
The caste system in India began as a classification of man’s inborn predilections similar to Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul. Those gravitating towards contemplation were called Brahmins, those possessing dynamism and governing skills were Kshatriyas, those with mercantile ability were Vaishyas, and those endowed with physical capacity were Shudras. In each person, there is a mixture of these four tendencies and the purpose was to discover and refine one’s abilities and play one’s part in the greater life. Eventually, this truth was lost and the mechanism deteriorated into a rigid system of discrimination based on one’s birth in a certain family. For more on this, see an earlier post on the True Intent of the Caste system
Holy places with favorable vibrations
On the positive side, the Mother spoke favorably of the various places of pilgrimage in India which are imbued with a beneficial occult atmosphere. This is her conversation with a French disciple Satprem.
Mother Mirra Alfassa: There are places that are favorable for occult experiences. Benares is one of these places, the atmosphere there is filled with vibrations of occult forces, and if one has the slightest capacity, it spontaneously develops there, in the same way that a spiritual aspiration develops very strongly and spontaneously as soon as one lands in India. These are Graces. Graces, because it is the destiny of the country, it has been so throughout its history, and because India has always been turned much more towards the heights and the inner depths than towards the outer world. Now, it is in the process of losing all that and wallowing in the mud, but that’s another story … it was like that and it is still like that. And in fact, when you returned from Rameswaram with your robes, I saw with much satisfaction that there was still a GREAT dignity and a GREAT sincerity in this endeavor of the Sannyasis (renunciants) towards the higher life and in the self-giving of a certain number of people to realize this higher life.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: November 22, 1958