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(399–400) Early in the afternoon the Mother rejoined him, and they walked together to the small outer room where they sat together on a sofa, the Mother on Sri Aurobindo’s right. Here they remained for the next few hours as ashramites and visitors — more than a thousand by the end of the 1940s — passed before them one by one. “There is no suggestion of a vulgar jostle anywhere in the moving procession,” a visitor noted. “The mystic sits bare-bodied except for a part of his dhoti thrown round his shoulders. A kindly light plays in his eyes.” Sri Aurobindo looked directly at each person for a moment. “The moving visitor is conscious of a particular contact with these [eyes] as he bends down to do his obeisance. They leave upon him a mysterious ‘feel’ that baffles description. The contact, almost physical, instils a faint sense of a fragrance into his heart and he has a perception of a glow akin to that spreading in every fibre of his being.”<Footnote 147> Most visitors had similar positive experiences. But some, particularly from the West, were distracted by the theatricality of the setting and the religiosity of the pageantry. Vincent Sheean, a well-know American journalist, had read some of Sri Aurobindo’s books before coming and was deeply impressed by them. Butas he stood in line to have darshan, with incense swirling around him and people throwing themselves at the guru’s feet, he was hit by “a shock of sledge-hammer quality, to see human beings worshipped in this way.” Failing to make sense of it, he at least was glad to see that “whatever others may think or say”, Sri Aurobindo did not seem to “to be deceived or befuddled by these extravagant manifestations.”<Footnote 148>
Text of footnotes 147 and 148:
147. R. Ganguli, “Pondicherry’s Mystic,” Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 22, 1950.
148. V. Sheean, “Kings,” 75.
(380) As had been the case for years, the only time anyone could see him was during the darshan celebrations. People now had less than a minute before him, but most went away impressed. A French professor spoke of being filled with “a feeling of certitude, stability — an impression I had received often before on seeing a huge mountain.” He was sure, from the first glimpse, that this “was what I had so long searched for, the solution of my problems.”<footnote 87> A Bengali writer who had admired the political Aurobindo thirty years earlier now found him the very picture of “the venerable ‘Rishi’ of old which we have in our mind’s eye with long grey hairs and beard — a picture of purity, a living deity — calm, collected, serene, cheerful and loving,— at whose sight the head stoops low spontaneously in esteem and reverence.”<Footnote 88>
Whether spontaneous or conventional, a reverential attitude was becoming the only acceptable way to approach Sri Aurobindo. Disciples took it for granted that he was an avatar, or incarnation of God. He never made any such claim on his own behalf; on the other hand, he never dissuaded anyone from regarding him in this way, and wrote openly that the Mother was an incarnation of the Shakti. She reciprocated when speaking about him with disciples, but insisted on “great reserve” when people wrote articles for the general public.<Footnote 89>
Footnote texts [both misnumbered]: “G. Monod-Herzen, “Reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo,” 497; Sri Aurobindo, Letter of November 25, 1933, in SAAA.”
(413) In the half-century since Sri Aurobindo’s death, his reputation has continued to grow. Discussed by historians, philosophers, literary critics, and social scientists, and admired, even worshipped, by thousands of spiritual seekers, he regularly is numbered among the most outstanding Indians of the twentieth century.<Footnote 9> Like all icons, he is misrepresented by his admirers as well as his detractors, praised or reviled for things he never said or did.Most people allow their opinions of him to be shaped by authorities. His followers and their spokesmen present him as an avatar or incarnation beyond any sort of criticism. Conservative writers and politicians seize on aspects of his thought that appear to support their agendas, ignoring or suppressing other aspects, while other writers and critics cite his works out of context to present him as one of the causes of India’s social, political, and literary ills. Still others reject the religiosity of the devout and the zeal of one-sided critics and admirers in an attempt to arrive at a more balanced idea of what Sri Aurobindo was and what his legacy is and will be.
It is difficult to offer a balanced assessment of a man who is regarded by some as an incarnation of God and by others as a social and political reactionary. To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith, and matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma. Besides, the term “avatar” has lost much of its glow in recent years. Once reserved for “descents” that come “from age to age,”<Footnote 10> it now is applied to any spiritual leader with a halfway decent following. As for the label “reactionary,” it is itself a reaction against Sri Aurobindo’s appropriation by members of the Hindu Right, who claim his posthumous endorsement for their backward-looking programs.
The value of Sri Aurobindo’s achievements can only be gauged by examining the historical and literary evidence and assessing the nature and effects of his thought and action. For this, assertions of supernatural influence are no more help than assertions of ideological certitude. Sri Aurobindo’s role in changing the course of India’s freedom struggle is evident from contemporary sources. Before him, no one dared to speak openly of independence; twenty years later, it became the movement’s accepted goal. His focus on freedom made him give insufficient importance to social and cultural problems that continue to haunt the country, such as interreligious and intercaste conflict. But there is no contemporary evidence that his actions or words exacerbated these problems. Some of his ideas might, in fact, help to solve them — for example the idea that India’s religious and ethnic diversity was “a great advantage for the work to be done” in the future.”<footnote 11>
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Text of footnotes 9–10:
9. See, e.g., “The 100 Indians Who Shaped Our Century,” Gentleman (February 1986); “100 People Who Shaped India in the Twentieth Century,” India Today, The Millennium Series, vol. 1 (2000); “Indians of the Century,” The Times of India (2000), originally published online at http://www.timesofindia.com/century/vote.html, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20000301113723/http://timesofindia.com/century/vote.html, accessed July 31, 2007.
10. Bhagavad Gita 4.8.
11. Sri Aurobindo, letter of November 17, 1932, in SAAA. See also Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, 642–643; Karmayogin, 23; The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination, 286, 288, 307–308.