THE SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM AND ITS ADMINISTRATION – By Jayantilal Parekh
We have recently come across an article that was written by the late Jayantilal Parekh, a senior and greatly respected member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, that was published in the June 2001 issue of the Mother India magazine. This article describes the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its administration and was explicitly written by him in the backdrop of adversely critical articles that were being planted by anti-Ashram elements in the various newspapers and journals in order to malign the Ashram. Given that history tends to repeat itself, and that anti-Ashram elements like Raman Reddy, Sraddhalu Ranade, R.Y. Deshpande and their ilk have been resorting to similar anti-Ashram smear campaigns in the media, we have found it beneficial to also reproduce this clear, logical and most honest piece about the Ashram and its functioning.
As the article is comprehensive and detailed, it runs for a considerable length. The article however is divided in several distinct parts that cover the following topics which can also be read individually, depending on one’s interest or preference:
1) Aim of the Ashram
2) Growth of the Ashram
3) Membership of the Ashram
4) The Ashram Trustees
5) Functioning of the Ashram
6) Ashram Finances
7) Ashram Property
8) Educational and Cultural Life
9) Sex and Spiritual Life
THE SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM AND ITS ADMINISTRATION
[During the past few years, several articles critical of the Ashram have appeared in newspapers and journals. These reports contain much incorrect, distorted and exaggerated information, conveying a wrong impression of the Ashram. The following statement is an attempt to answer some of the points raised in the articles and, more generally, to explain the aim, character and functioning of the Ashram as it has evolved since its founding in 1926.]
Aim of the Ashram
THE Sri Aurobindo Ashram was not conceived as a cloister for the recluse. It was not meant to be a place for the exclusive pursuit of the Absolute, divorced from the activities of life. It was, on the contrary, intended to be a centre of life with the Divine as its base and growth in the divine consciousness as its aim. It has a creative purpose, many-sided and complex, which is part of the evolutionary unfolding of the higher possibilities in man and Nature.
This conception is born of Sri Aurobindo’s view of human existence and its destiny. According to him, man is a transitional being caught in the knot of body, life and mind, yet he has the possibility of coming out of his limitations because there is a spirit within him which has the power to change life into its own image. In the past, individuals have often tried to achieve self-realisation by withdrawing from worldly activities, but now the time is ripe to make this endeavour without withdrawing from the world, using spiritual means to effect a dynamic solution of the increasingly complex problems of life.
The Ashram is not a planned project, but an adventure of consciousness with innumerable possibilities and dimensions. Such an intricate and difficult path, with its goal of transformation, creates its own difficulties for the common man’s under standing. This has been the main reason why some’ people have not appreciated the life in the Ashram with its seemingly laissez-faire attitude in certain respects. But according to Sri Aurobindo, any worthwhile unfolding ‘of the inner life must have as its base a large freedom.
Growth of the Ashram
The Ashram came into existence at the end of 1926. At the beginning it consisted of hardly two dozen members, some of whom had been associated with Sri Aurobindo earlier in Calcutta and joined him after he came to Pondicherry in 1910. The whole emphasis initially was on spiritual progress, the opening of the inner being and purification of the nature to receive the creative Shakti that was being invoked and coming down in response.
Later, in the 1940s, when children were admitted to the Ashram and a school was started, the Ashram became more broadbased and was organised into a well-knit institution with different departments and services. There was greater freedom of movement and seemingly less pressure of the spiritual Force. Over the years, this system of organisation has grown larger and become more complex. A full-fledged International Centre of Education, which is part of the Ashram, has also come into being with various activities and experiments. It is not unnatural that a community of over two thousand should have to face from time to time its own share of problems, considering all the resistances and impurities of people coming from many different backgrounds and levels of inner development.
Membership of the Ashram
In the early period, up to the 1950s, someone who wished to join the Ashram had only to approach the Mother, and if she permitted it the person became a member of the Ashram. There were no formalities, no initiation to be gone through by the newcomer. The Mother’s approval was the essential thing, both for one’s living conditions and spiritual guidance. However, the person was clearly informed about a written set of rules laying down a few basic conditions to be observed; the most important were no intoxicating drinks, no drugs, no sex-life and no politics. These restrictions on one’s outer life had to be observed.
It was also understood and expected that if the Ashram provided the newcomer with all the necessities and conveniences of life, he should in tum give his all, including wealth and property, to the Ashram. Although this was not made a condition, it was considered a kind of spiritual obligation. While many people came almost empty-handed, there were others who were well off and yet they gave everything. But in no case was a member made to feel that his material contribution determined the treatment and benefits he received.
It was also an aspect of the spiritual process that all had to do some physical work as their contribution to the common organised life of the community. The work assigned to each member was determined by the Mother in the beginning; later it was decided by those she had trained, on the basis of the perceived needs of the situation. The work assigned had to be taken as a part of one’s sadhana or spiritual effort.
The Ashram Trustees
Till 1950, the Ashram was Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s estate by virtue of their being its joint spiritual heads. The Ashram was their property in the traditional sense of the word “Ashram”: the Master’s house and establishment. The seekers who came to the Master (the Guru) had no claims and they lived in the Ashram by the consent and grace of the Master. It was not an association, trust or legally constituted body.
A few years after Sri Aurobindo left his body in December 1950, the Mother decided to constitute the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust to administer and manage the affairs of the Ashram. She got it registered as a Public Charitable Trust in October 1955 in order to conform to the law of the land, and she formally set forth its central work and goal and objectives in a seminal way, without elaborating them, in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust Deed. Under the Trust Deed, a five-member Board of Trustees was responsible for the administration of the Ashram; the Mother remained its President and final authority.
After the Mother left her body in November 1973, the administration of the Ashram by the Board of Trustees has continued, with one of the Trustees being designated the Managing Trustee by a resolution of the Trust Board. Trusteeship is a responsibility and the work assigned has to be executed with the collaboration of all; it is not a position conferred on anybody as an honour. None of the Trustees has any declared spiritual status or claim. The spiritual authority of the Ashram rests entirely with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. We firmly believe that their guidance and spiritual presence are ever here for all who need it and look for it. This has been the basis of work and organisation in the Ashram since the Mother withdrew from her body in 1973.
When a Trustee passes away or resigns, another is appointed in due course. It has been the practice from the beginning that responsible persons associated with the Ashram’s working are chosen as Trustees. As and when a vacancy arises, the choice of the person to fill the vacancy is a joint decision of the remaining Trustees, taken with the consent of the person so chosen.
Functioning of the Ashram
Work – physical work as well as intellectual, artistic and other kinds of work-has an important place in the life of the Ashram. All members take up some work as a useful contribution to the community and as part of their spiritual life. Beyond this, the practice of spiritual discipline is left to the choice and inclination of the individual and there is no imposition of any kind, direct or indirect. There is perfect freedom for one to meditate, pray, study or work, depending on one’s inclination, aspiration and understanding of the aims of the Integral Yoga as explained by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in their writings. Each one has to find his or her own mode of approach to the Divine. But the one all-important factor is the palpable presence of the guiding light and power of protection that pervade the very atmosphere of the Ashram; this light and power are due to the subtle presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Although there is great freedom in the Ashram, it should be obvious that there can be no stable and healthy organisation unless the Trustees, who are the managers of the organisation, have the right to take corrective action when there is some errant behaviour on the part of a sadhak. This is true for the smooth functioning of any collective organisation, particularly in the area of work.
The Ashram is run largely on the donations and offerings of disciples, devotees and admirers. An attempt to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency was made at the beginning with the starting of a couple of agricultural farms and industries. More recently some small enterprises managed by disciples and members of the Ashram have also come up. These enterprises provide financial support to the Ashram and its activities by donating their profits to the Ashram under Section 35(1)(ii) of the Income Tax Act.
Due to the rising costs of housing, commodities and services in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living, the Ashram’s expenditure has been rising constantly. In earlier years the inmates lived in rented houses, which usually accommodated six or eight persons in a house. Gradually these rented houses had to be given up because the rents increased sharply. As a result, the Ashram was obliged to build large residential complexes in the space available on the lands in its possession. The costs of construction have run into many lakhs of rupees, but the work had to be done as there was no alternative available to the Ashram for accommodating its members.
The financing of the Ashram is not on budgetary lines; apart from recurring expenses, it is essentially need-based, depending upon the necessity and importance of the work and the availability of funds. Any surplus is invested in approved banks and financial institutions. Annual audited accounts are filed with the Government authorities and the Income Tax Department in strict accordance with the law. Tax exemptions to donors are available under Sections 80G and 35(1)(ii).
It has been reported that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram has property worth 500 or 600 crores of rupees. We have no idea who has estimated this improbable figure or what their method of reckoning was. But whatever be the figure, it does not mean anything to the life of the Ashram. The value of real estate has certainly escalated over the years and the process still continues. For example, a house purchased in Pondicherry for Rs. 25,000 some forty or fifty years back may now be worth Rs. 25 lakhs in market value, a rise of 100 times. But so long as the owner of the property does not indulge in speculative trading, this appreciation in value is only nominal and does not add in any way to its utility value to the owner; The houses belonging to the Ashram do not accommodate more members simply because the price of the properties has risen nor do its agricultural lands produce several times more crops than they used to do years back just because their monetary value has appreciated many times over. This fact is generally lost sight of by people who advance arguments against the Ashram. ‘
Educational and Cultural Life
It was Sri Aurobindo’s wish to see the Ashram grow as a spiritual centre in its fullest sense, embracing every aspect of life. Encouraged and supported by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, a distinct aesthetic and cultural ambience has grown in the Ashram. Writers, poets, painters, dramatists, musicians, dancers and others proficient in arts, crafts and skills of various kinds have blossomed and continue to do so. This cultural aspect of the Ashram has a special purpose and intention in the overall view of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Self-expression in various artistic forms is a training of the mind and the creative faculties of the being. To achieve power and beauty of expression is one of the great objects of education and culture. This aspect of life acquires a deeper meaning in a spiritual context, where the aim is communion with a higher Reality and an expression of its content.
Sex and Spiritual Life
The problem of sex and spirituality has been discussed through the ages. It is necessary to be clear-headed about it. Sex is neither a sin nor a perversion; it is a process of Nature, a biological necessity in animals and animal-man. However, it is inconsistent with true spiritual life because the sexual desire and act bring down the consciousness, whereas spirituality is an attempt to raise the consciousness and keep it stationed above the promptings of the lower nature. For the generality of men, this process of raising the consciousness is not simple or easy or even understandable. Even for the most ardent aspirants to the spiritual life, there are innumerable difficulties. During the process of the seeker’s sadhana, it is not unusual for him to have upsurges of sexual desire, which have to be progressively controlled, sublimated and transcended. This is the way in which a seeker of spiritual light and knowledge progresses; the ordinary man, on the other hand, lives within the ambit of his animal consciousness, tempered by social, moral and cultural constraints.
A seeker should not be shocked when this sexual urge surfaces and invades his consciousness. There is hardly any saint or sage who has not suffered from it at some time or other in his life before he attained spiritual enlightenment. Sri Ramakrishna, when he first became aware of it, wanted to kill himself if Mother Kali did not remove it from his nature.
Sri Aurobindo has dealt with the subject of sexual desire in many of his letters to disciples when they complained of its disturbance. He always said that this force of Nature, so deeply rooted in man, should first be seen as coming from outside, then controlled and ultimately transcended and transformed. Sex-energy becomes a crea tive power when it is purified and transformed. This creative energy has to be made a part of our life and not suppressed out of fear.
Sex need not be made a bugbear of spiritual life. It is only one part of the obstinate resistance of the lower nature. If there are falls in the course of one’s spiritual effort, if there are lapses in the process of self-purification, they have to be viewed with understanding and sympathy so long as the seeker realises his failings and does not try to justify them. Often for a long time, spiritual aspiration and the pull of the lower nature go side by side.
In the Ashram there is no attempt to hide instances of sexual lapses by individuals or to cover them up. At the same time, it is not necessary to publicise them or make a public confession of them for the gratification of the curious and the lovers of scandal, much less to fabricate stories which have no basis.
Having admitted children into the Ashram and taken charge of them, the problems arising from their attaining puberty cannot be ignored. Every boy and girl, the moment he or she reaches the age of puberty, becomes aware of the insistence of this force of Nature. It is a part of the problem that life has set before us to solve with love and patience towards the young. Spiritual life is not imposed on the children growing up here. It is for them to decide the course of their life when they are ready to take a decision on their own. Spiritual life can never be imposed on anyone. It is a call of the soul in its endeavour to conquer the lower nature.
In our Centre of Education, boys and girls study together, play games together and develop their physical and intellectual capacities in full freedom. Romantic ideas are not encouraged, but there is no segregation of men and women in cloisters; rather, a sense of responsibility for their behaviour is allowed to grow in them. If there is risk in this arrangement, the risk is taken with the full awareness and knowledge that men and women have to live together in life as well as in spiritual endeavour. This equality of men and women is being admitted in most countries and accepted even in spiritual pursuits. In our school, as in our Ashram, men and women are treated equally in all respects – in education, in work, in opportunities to progress.
The Ashram is an organisation which provides the needed atmosphere and facilities for those who seek to pursue the goal of our human existence as envisaged by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The primary aim, as stated innumerable times by them, is for the individual to seek the Divine and come constantly nearer to Him. In this seeking, no social or political objectives come into play. The realisation of the Divine is the one ultimate objective and if this is not achieved, nothing is gained by the individual or the community. The facilities created in the Ashram are for this purpose only. If any individual finds that the facilities created by the Mother help him, he avails himself of them and follows the goal he has set for himself. If he does not find them agreeable, he has to find conditions suitable to him elsewhere.
All enjoy equally the facilities provided by the Ashram. There is no deliberate inequality of treatment of members, no intentional social inequality; a privileged class has not grown up here. It can be said without exaggeration that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is one of the best-organised communities in the country in terms of living conditions: housing, nourishment, education, health-care, care of the old and infirm, and cultural avenues for growth and recreation. The Ashram provides an atmosphere with ample comfort, security and freedom of life. This is not to claim that the community and its working are perfect. A society made up of diverse human types from many cultures and backgrounds, having different degrees of growth, understanding and aspiration, is bound at times to exhibit prejudices and imperfections; but it is in such a mixed milieu that life has to exist, flourish and find its fulfilment to whatever degree it can.
If there are problems in the administration of theAshram as an institution, solutions to them can only be found by people who have travelled the spiritual path shown by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; and these people must have understanding and benevolence and sympathy for evolving humanity. There are no short-cuts on the path of transformation, but a combined effort does help. Problems of disharmony must find harmonious solutions by the parties concerned, if possible free from unnecessary controversies and their distorted display in the news media. The press is not the best place to discuss the trials and tribulations of spiritual life; exaggerated and misleading reports about our difficulties will not provide enlightened solutions to them.
It should be recognised that no democratic assembly, no commission of inquiry, not even a competent judiciary can fairly sit in judgment on matters spiritual. The truth of spiritual reality has first to be perceived and then realised by the individual in life. No outside agency can help the individual other than his spiritual master and guide. In our case, we tum to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother for help in solving our problems. We believe that their guidance, support and protection will always be with us if we sincerely try to follow the ideal they have set before us. What is most important is that we always remember the spiritual objective that is the aim of our life in the Ashram.
(N.B. The article was found among the papers of the late author and has been touched up here and there for publication.)
Source: Mother India (magazine), June 2001