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Musings on authoritarianism, freedom and fanaticism at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram:

January 4, 2013

One may wonder why the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, which are notable for their lack of authoritarianism, and their complexity, flexibility, and stress on the individual, have so easily been hijacked by authoritarian groups, who make them the basis of a simplistic, rigid and mob-oriented movement?

The very lack of authoritarianism – that is a hallmark of the organization founded by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother – has opened the doors to authoritarian groups who make use of the incredible freedom given to people here (asuras excluded!) to openly plot the overthrow of the organization.

Where else but here – to give one example – can a person who has lodged a case against the organization demanding the ouster of its leaders sell his tapes in the courtyard of the organization’s central building, with the saleslady offering anti-ashram sentiments for free!!! The formula seems to be that a non-authoritarian leadership engenders (inevitably?) an authoritarian opposition, which then tries to gain control of the organization.

It would be possible to argue that the ashram was “authoritarian” before 1973, since the Mother’s word was law, but if we look at Sri Aurobindo’s letters and the Mother’s conversations it becomes clear that neither of them was authoritarian in the normal sense of the term, since they tried to encourage each individual to act freely and responsibly. Indeed, if one compares the ashram to other spiritual organizations it is clear that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother offered an enormous amount of freedom to their disciples – much more than is usually available in such places.

But once they were gone, those whose responsibility it was to keep the place running had to keep the non-authoritarian framework without being able to give the final word. They had to listen to everyone, and this meant that people who wanted to become authorities were able not only to subvert ordinary decision-making but also to organize mobs, start signature campaigns, go to the courts (through the exercising of their sacred constitutional rights), and so forth.

But why – a second question – are those with authoritarian personalities drawn to teachers who encourage freedom, individual effort, flexible minds, etc.? There seems to be no answer for that one yet, even as there seems to be no answer to another question that has long puzzled a few members of the Ashram: how is it that people who seem to have no understanding of (and apparently no desire to try to understand) what makes Sri Aurobindo’s yoga distinctive so attracted to his path of yoga, as opposed to the paths of the dozens of other gurus/avatars available in India and abroad? Surely there are lots of simpler if not simplistic paths to choose from.

This is not to suggest that people have to be able to explain the reasons for what in most cases is an individual and personal response. But when one gets a lot of people together who don’t really know what Sri Aurobindo himself (not in his role as generic holy-man) has said or thought about anything, it seems likely that these people will be more inclined to gravitate towards authoritarian “leaders” for “guidance”, and that these leaders (in a lovely symbiosis) will make use of them to fulfill their ambitions.

An Observer

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– Well-wishers of Sri Aurobindo Ashram –

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One Comment
  1. Ajoy S Bhattacharya. permalink

    Our Ashram is a microcosm of the wider world and as such represents all that is in it-the good,the bad,the ugly and….the profound.The current problems[and others] will indubitably be resolved in a unique manner.If I might respectfully quote Sri Aurobindo;”All things will change in God’s transfiguring hour”.

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