Towards the end of September 1947, leading Indian newspapers carried reports that Sri Aurobindo, in seclusion since 1926 had received two visitors, the first it was said since his meeting with Rabindranath Tagore 19 years earlier. These two visitors who remained with Sri Aurobindo in his room for three-quarters of an hour were M. Maurice Schumann, leading a cultural mission despatched to newly-independent India by the Government of recently-liberated France, and M. Francois Baron, then Governor of Pondicherry. Three members of Auroville International France were privileged to meet M. Schumann in December 1988 and to interview him about his visit to Sri Aurobindo. The text that follows is an extract translated from the account of this interview published in the Summer 1989 issue of La Revue d’Auroville. It tells us something of what happened in Sri Aurobindo’s room that day. This article was written by Shraddhavan and has also appeared in the 1989 issue of the Mother India magazine and Summer 1990 of the Collaboration magazine
M. Maurice Schumann(1911-1998), at that time 35 had been an official spokesman of the Free French forces in London throughout the war. Later he became Secretary of State in his country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and was its Minister from 1969-73. He was a member of the French Senate and the Academie Francaise, known not only as a statesman but as a philosopher and writer. Outside his own country he was best known for his championship of the idea of a United Free Europe and the steps he took to foster the formation and growth of the European Economic Community, which is now the political union envisaged by Sri Aurobindo (note: Sri Aurobindo’s book The Ideal of Human Unity written between 1915-1919 has a chapter “The United States of Europe“).
Interview with Maurice Schumann
Maurice Schumann: When I reached Pondicherry, I found as governor there Francois Baron, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo steeped in Hindu mysticism, but, above all, a former volunteer in the Free French forces linked to me by those ties of loyalty that very rightly still connected … all those who had made the right choice already in 1940-and not just in 1942-3 or in 1944. And Francois told me. “We’ll go straight away to see the Mother of the Ashram, Mme Alfassa-an extraordinary woman I have often spoken about.” [We then] spent an hour with Sri Aurobindo who impressed me vividly by the tremendous radiance that flowed from him. I also noticed at once something that stuck me several times in India, that the modem Hindu thinkers were essentially and initially marked by the West. In return they were to have an enormous influence upon the West, but it was from the West that they came.
This struck me at the bedside of Gandhi, with whom I spent a whole day. I noticed in particular, that he was reading the Bhagavad Gita in Edwin Arnold’s English version. That struck me forcibly. Sri Aurobindo’s essential book is The Life Divine, also in English.
He also spoke excellent English, and if one closed one’s eyes one would have thought oneself in Oxford rather than in Pondicherry, listening to a man who had discovered Hindu mysticism through his Western culture. This impression was above all a physical one–I don’t want to make a doctrine or a theory out of it, much less a discovery.
The conversation with Sri Aurobindo was very short. The interview was long, and the conversation was very short: one has to know India to understand what that means. There one can remain together for I don’t know how long, look at each other and not say anything. This was true, on the political plane, with Nehru(India’s first prime minister); and it had been true with Sri Aurobindo who cultivated silence and had lost the taste or feeling for conversation. But at the beginning there was a very characteristic scene: Francois Baron, who was a disciple of his, knelt before him and expressed the emotion he felt at seeing him for the first time almost alone. And it started with a conversation, in which each spoke only a few words, about how Francois Baron’s life had been transformed: brother of a surrealist poet, a Parisian of between the wars, that was Francois Baron … dreaming of writing (and he did write a novel later); and he had been transformed by two encounters: he had become a man of action because he met de Gaulle; and he became a mystic and thinker because he met Sri Aurobindo. He was dreaming of retiring to Pondicherry for the rest of his life.
I think I must have been the last person from outside the Ashram to have met Sri Aurobindo, and especially to have had such a long interview with him, because he was already very old. He even referred to his departure from the earth in the near future .. (emphasis: Sri Aurobindo left his body three years later in 1950, so it seems he had already decided to do so much earlier. Yogis acquire the power of “Iccha-Mrityu” – death at will. )
Interviewer: Do you remember what he said?
Maurice Schumann: No. no … It was quite commonplace, but clear: “I who already no longer entirely belong here …..”
Interviewer: Did Mother take part in the conversation?
Maurice Schumann: At the beginning, to make the introductions; after that she did not say a word. In 1947, she must have already been 70 …
Interviewer: She was born in 1878.
Maurice Schumann: In ’78? 1947 … yes, she was 70. No need to tell that to me, who am 77 today. She seemed like a great-great-grandmother. How could anyone be 70 years old? But she floored me, because, after the frugal evening meal, she asked me, “Wouldn’t you like to play ping-pong? I’ve heard you know how to play … ” And I replied, “Yes, I used to play well when I was 18, but now I have other things to do.”
She replied, “But that makes no difference, come along quick!” And then I saw this 70-year old lady flying from one side of the table to the other … and she beat me hollow! (laughter)
Interviewer: Did you discuss anything with her?
Maurice Schumann: She only asked me about France.
Interviewer: About the political situation in France?
Maurice Schumann: About the political situation in France, how things were after the war, Alsace, etc. I told her, “You remind me of Marco Polo, who thought only of Venice… but he returned… “
Well, that’s what the Mother was interested in. She was completely absorbed in Sri Aurobindo and his thought and at the same time she remained there where she was totally French. She was completely…I don’t want to say ‘Hindu’ but completely immersed in Hindu mysticism; and at the same time totally connected with the land of her origin.
Interviewer: Did you meet Pavitra (French disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother)?
Maurice Schumann: Barbier de Saint-Hilaire? Yes, for quite some time. He was not disposed towards conversation. The atmosphere of the Ashram was one of witness . . . one could not stand questioning or interviewing. Barbier de Saint-Hilaire, with his Polytechnician’s mind, explained to me at length the difference between a community of thought and a community of life. He was the one who explained to me what the Ashram was. He didn’t want me to confound it with a seminar at the Sorbonne, if you see what I mean …
When I left Pondicherry, I was two people: the man charged with a mission; and the man who had practised or taught philosophy all his life, and who was, naturally, enthralled by The Life Divine … But since I had never gone any deeper into the superficial knowledge that I had about Hindu philosophy and thought, I felt myself carried several years back into the past as soon as I met Sri Aurobindo. Why? Well, because the Song of the Blessed Lord( Bhagavad Gita) had been a real bedside book for me. And what interests me very much in the Bhagavad Gita is that it celebrates resistance to evil, not non-resistance. It is a gospel of commitment. The dialogue of Arjuna is something absolutely extraordinary.
(When M. Schumann was told that the Mother had left her body in 1973, he exclaimed, “She died at 95! At 70 she was playing ping-pong as if she were 18!”)
Nirodbaran’s account of this meeting
(Nirodbaran was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This account is taken from his book “Twelve Years With Sri Aurobindo”.)
Among the interviews granted to public figures by Sri Aurobindo the first one was in September, 1947, followed by a few others at a later date. It was a great concession on his part to break his self-imposed seclusion. A prominent French politician, Maurice Schumann, was deputed by the French Government as the leader of a cultural mission to see Sri Aurobindo and pay him homage from the French Government and to propose to set up at Pondicherry an institute for research and study of Indian and European cultures with Sri Aurobindo as its head.
I was happily surprised to hear this great news, great in the sense that Sri Aurobindo had at all consented to the proposal, for I hailed it as an indication of his future public appearance. The fact that it came on the heels of India’s Independence pointed to her role as a dominant power in the comity of nations, as envisaged by Sri Aurobindo. It seems Sri Aurobindo asked the Mother in what language he should speak to the delegates. The Mother replied, “Why in French! You know French!” Sri Aurobindo protested. “No, no! I can’t speak in French.” The Mother, Sri Aurobindo, and the French delegates were closeted in Sri Aurobindo’s room, and we didn’t know what passed among them.