Editorial

Articles #7 & #8: Sri Aurobindo frequently evoked an “image of oceanic profundity and awe­ inspiring grandeur” even in those who wondered about his perpetually grave countenance and thought of him as incapable of humour and laughter. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo once remarked that comic laughter of the rollicking type did not fit his “style of hilarity” and that it had been a long time since his laughter had “been continuous and uncontrolled”. He humorously proceeded to remark however that for it to be true again in his case he would have to “wait till the year 1, S.D. (Supramental Descent)”.  Nonetheless, those who were fortunate enough to interact with him closely were witnesses to Sri Aurobindo’s constantly flowing and continuously “sparkling wit and humour”.

In two different articles (articles 7 & 8), the late Shri Jugal Kishore Mukherjee, a teacher of Physics, Mathematics, History of Science and Philosophy at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, gives us glimpses of Sri Aurobindo’s sophisticated wit and humour while referring to Sri Aurobindo’s interactions with his disciples and even to some passages from the Master’s most serious writings such as “The Life Divine”.

Sri Aurobindo and Humour

Jugal Kishore Mukherji

Part-1

Sri Aurobindo and humour? What a preposterous subject! And to venture to write a book of almost four hundred pages on a theme like ‘Humour in Sri Aurobindo’s Writings’? What a queer idea bordering on the incredible! And to try to evoke the image of a smiling Sri Aurobindo? Is it not divorced from all facts of the case? Can one remember having seen a photograph of Sri Aurobindo, even a single one, – pertaining either to his early period of sojourn in England or to his days of active youth spent in Baroda and in Calcutta or even to his last year of physical existence, – where Sri Aurobindo is found even with the faintest trace of a smile? No, one will fail to find any. Now, contrast with this the available photographs of the Mother. Side by side with some showing a serious mien we shall find a good many of them which bless and please our hearts with the images of sweetly smiling beaming Mother. It is not without reason, at least apparent, that Nirodbaran, one of the closest associates and most intimate disciples of Sri Aurobindo, once complained to him about his “Himalayan austerity and grandeur that takes my breath away, making my heart palpitate”, and went to the extent of jocularly writing to him at the approach of a “Darshan Day”:

“The Darshan is coming next month and I can’t remain in this condition and come to you with a glum face to see your glum face too!”

Of course, pat came a witty reply from Sri Aurobindo: “I won’t be glum – I shall receive you with a cheerful grunt.”[1]

But that was not so easy for Sri Aurobindo to do. We shall presently come to that point.

An image of oceanic profundity and awe­ inspiring grandeur but surely not one of ‘human jollity’

We were talking about the Mother’s smiling face as contrasted with the “smileless” appearance of Sri Aurobindo clothed in the austere snow-white grandeur of Mount Everest. Yes, indeed, being struck by such a contrast Nirodbaran could not but write to Sri Aurobindo:

“You thrashed me for calling you grave and austere at the Darshan time. But see, when we go to the Mother, how seraphically she smiles, while yourself being near, appears still far away at some Olympian height. It is difficult to discern the gravity or the jollity of a face at such a height….”[2]

Yes, that was and still is the image of Sri Aurobindo as imprinted in the minds of most men who have come to know him either through his photographs or through his various famous books – an image of oceanic profundity and awe­inspiring grandeur but surely not one of ‘human jollity’. Nirodbaran has so aptly given expression to this widely held impression in the following words:

“Sri Aurobindo, as we had come to know him… had created in our minds a picture of him, high-poised as his Life Divine, far-moving as his Synthesis of Yoga, unapproachable, except perhaps by the gods, not at all close and intimate… or accessible to our mortal longings.”[3]

And to associate humour with Sri Aurobindo’s writings? – How incongruous it sounds! For whenever Sri Aurobindo’s image as a writer flashes in our mind’s firmament, we invariably remember passages like the following:

“Our evolution in the Ignorance with its chequered joy and pain of self-discovery and world-discovery, its half-fulfilments, its constant finding and missing, is only our first state. It must lead inevitably towards an evolution in the Knowledge, a self-finding and self-unfolding of the Spirit, a self-revelation of the divinity in things in that true power of itself in Nature which is to us still a Supernature.”[4]

Writings of this nature issuing forth from the pen of Sri Aurobindo possess a magnetic charm of their own. But these, being concerned with illumined clarity, more often dazzle us with their impersonal effulgence than warm our hearts with any soothing personal touch.

This personal touch is, of course, very much present in the six bulky volumes of Sri Aurobindo’s collected Letters – three on Yoga, one on Poetry, Literature and Art, and one each on Himself and on the Mother. But even there, in those more than three thousand pages of printed matter, is there any sign of the chiaroscuro of his wit and humour? Alas, the answer is in the negative. The normal tenor of his letters as published in the above-mentioned six volumes is as follows:

“I take it therefore that the condition you describe is a period of transition and change, negative in its beginning, as these movements often are at first, so as to create a vacant space for the new positive to appear and live in it and fill it.”[5]

Yes, such is the style and temper of Sri Aurobindo’s writings as known to the reading public outside. Even if there is found here and there an occasional sparkle of his humour, it is conspicuous by its utter rarity. And this is to such an extent that although Sri Aurobindo has established himself in the hearts of his admirers as a Mahayogi, seer-poet, philosopher and a literary critic, to name only four facets of his multiform creative genius, a vague murmur is often heard that in the many-splendoured personality of Sri Aurobindo there is perhaps a serious lacuna caused by the absence of any articulate humour.[6]

And this idea is prevalent not only in the not so well-informed public mind outside but even in Sri Aurobindo Ashram itself. Before the “Correspondence” began in the early thirties of this century, there was an all-round sense of awe vis- a-vis Sri Aurobindo who appeared to be so great and so grave! – “too great,” as Dilip Kumar Roy has observed, “too great for such as we, is he not? – we asked ourselves almost with a pang.”[7]

This image of Sri Aurobindo, the image of someone who was always grave and far removed from any penchant for comic laughter, was somehow imprinted in the public mind even from the early days of his public career. “The man who never smiles,” said Henry W. Nevinson, English writer and journalist who had met Sri Aurobindo in 1907 during the latter’s full revolutionary activities. Nevinson, a quondam Prime Minister of U.K., has left his impressions of Sri Aurobindo in his book The New Spirit of India. Here are two extracts from that book, which among others helped to reinforce in the popular mind the above- mentioned image of Sri Aurobindo:

In the Surat Congress Session of December 1907, “Grave and silent – I think without saying a single word – Mr. Aravinda Ghose took the chair, and sat unmoved, with far-off eyes, as one who gazes at futurity….”[8]

“I called on one whose name is on every lip as a wild extremist across whose path the shadow of the hangman falls…. He talked of things which trouble the soul of man; he wandered into the dim regions of aspiration where the mind finds a soothing resting-place. He was far more a mystic than a politician…. [He looked] a youngish man, I should think still under thirty. Intent dark eyes looked from his thin, clear-cut face with a gravity that seemed immovable…. Grave with intensity, careless of fate or opinion, and one of the most silent men I have known, he was of the stuff that dreamers are made of, but dreamers who will act their dreams, indifferent to the means….”[9]

Such was the impression Sri Aurobindo left in Nevinson’s mind in the year In May 1908 he was arrested by the Government of the day on a trumped- up charge of complicity in the Muzzaferpore outrage and kept in detention for full one year in the notorious Alipore jail.

Now, while in detention, Sri Aurobindo granted an interview to a corres­pondent of the Anglo-Indian evening newspaper The Empire, on 15 August a few months after his arrest and the beginning of the trial proceedings in the Magistrate’s court. This is how the said correspondent described Sri Aurobindo’s demeanour at that time:

“Ever since the commencement of the trial… Aravinda has preserved a stolid demeanour. From the first day’s hearing to the thirty-sixth, he has occupied one bench, his eyes immovably fixed on the floor, totally indifferent to the unfolding issues of the case.”[10]

Now how to associate comic laughter with a person of such unmitigated gravity and impersonal aloofness? This seems well-nigh impossible and Dilip Kumar learnt this truth years later in 1943.

On February 4 of that year Sri Aurobindo granted a long interview to Dilip Kumar. The writer-disciple prepared a detailed transcript of all that had happened during that interview and sent the typescript to Sri Aurobindo for necessary correction and approval so that it could be subsequently published in print. At one place of his transcript Dilip Kumar had written:

“Tell me,” I said, “shall I have a try at this process of domesticating my mind?” No sooner had I blurted it out than I dreaded lest he reply in the affirmative.

“He must have read my mind, for he laughed till his body shook. He answered: ‘But mind you, you mustn’t try as did one Iyer here.’ He paused again and laughed, then went on: ‘It was so comic, you know! He asked me how he might still the mind. I told him. He followed my direction and, by a rare stroke of fortune, succeeded. But fancy him rushing to me, scared to death! ‘Oh, my brain is empty of thoughts, I cannot think! Good God! I am becoming an idiot!’ ‘Little did he realise,’ he laughed once again, ‘that one could not very well become what one already was.’

“I joined in his happy laughter.”[11]

After having gone through Dilip Kumar’s transcript, Sri Aurobindo deleted the description and wrote on the margin:

“This won’t do. It is a too exhilarating over-description. It calls up to my mind a Falstaff or a Chesterton; it does not fit in my style of hilarity. It is long since my laughter has been continuous and uncontrolled like that. For that to be true I shall have to wait till the year 1, S.D. (Supramental Descent). And ‘rollicking’? The epithet would have applied to my grandfather but not to his less explosive grandson.”[12]

Well, this is so far as comic laughter is concerned. But what about Sri Aurobindo’s smile? Was it a very common phenomenon?

I do not laugh but I smile

This question arises because Sri Aurobindo is reported to have once remarked: “1 do not laugh but I smile.” Alas! even that smile was such a rarity in public. For, is it not a fact that even within the four corners of his Ashram itself, even on such a happy and auspicious occasion like the periodic Darshan of himself and of the Mother, and even towards his most intimate disciples like Nirodbaran and Dilip Kumar, Sri Aurobindo wore the appearance of a calm and serene but smileless countenance. We have already referred to Nirodbaran’s witty complaint on this score made to Sri Aurobindo. Here is a very interesting and altogether revealing experience that came to Dilip Kumar on the same score.

It is well known to all who have had the rare privilege of having Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan even for once that during Darshan time he looked absolutely calm and serene, golden and majestic, with his eyes reflecting the Unfathomed. But one could not discern any sign of a smile there in his face. Now, it so happened that Dilip Kumar, on whom Sri Aurobindo showered his affection in unbelievable profusion through the medium of his correspondence, fondly yearned to be greeted with a smile of recognition from the Master when he (Dilip Kumar), whom Sri Aurobindo considered as his “friend and son”, would go to him at Darshan time for receiving his blessings. Dilip Kumar expressed his heart’s wish in a letter addressed to Sri Aurobindo and the latter duly agreed to grant him his prayer. Very soon after that the Darshan Day arrived and the beloved disciple went to his Master. But did, or rather could, Sri Aurobindo smile on Dilip as previously agreed upon? Let us listen to Dilip Kumar narrating the whole episode from its very beginning to its comic ending. The disciple writes:

“Few people who have known Sri Aurobindo will disagree with my estimate that he was essentially a man of deep reserve, a denizen of the deeps. It reminds me of a joke I had with him nearly fifteen years ago.

“On three (and later four) occasions in the year when he used to come out for us as well as for the visitors, we used to take a look at him, but not, alas, a long look. His eyes rested on each of us but for a few seconds – because the whole procedure had to be concluded in about a couple of hours. On me he used to shed a kind glance but I searched in vain for a smile. I was indeed impressed by his grave face but I missed the smile of a friendly recognition which made to me all the difference in the world.

“When Sri Aurobindo came to know of my disappointment he did try to change but equally in vain. At all events, that was my impression, I insisted. But a lady who happened to be next to me drove me to the wall by asseverating that he had smiled at me. So I wrote to him more in shame than in sorrow: ‘O Guru! here you put me out of countenance once more – possibly to pulverise the last vestiges of my self-confidence. For Lady Emphatic swears – and none can outswear her, as you know – that she saw your lips bend into a curve which can only be equated to a smile. So, it follows, as the rain the drought, that I have forfeited even the right to believe in the testimony of my own senses, or is it that you only gave me a Supramental Smile? If so, why did you waste such a boon on us, humans, whose mentality cannot possibly recognise it as such?’

“To that he wrote back: ‘But Lady Emphatic is right. For I did indeed smile to you though it was not the broad smile of a Tagore or the childlike smile of a Gandhi. But I assure you I will try to be more convincing in future…’ [13]

So, such is Sri Aurobindo who has to make special effort to make his. supposed smile look really like a smile! It is no wonder that Dilip Kumar concludes his narration with these words:

“But even when his smile had to be warmly mooted before one could be convinced as to its authenticity, how could one call him anything but a reserved man?”[14]

Impersonal-personal Sri Aurobindo

Yes, Sri Aurobindo was indeed a reserved person and he once sought to account for it when Dilip Kumar lovingly complained to him that he would never laugh nor even smile. In one of his letters to Dilip, Sri Aurobindo explained that since his early childhood he had been estranged from his family and accustomed to live a solitary life. His nature had therefore become reserved, somewhat remote and he felt shy of too much personal emotion.[15]

Be that as it may or whatever be the explanation of the phenomenon, the fact remains that his outwardly shy and reserved nature greatly contributed to the vast impersonality that characterised the Sage of Pondicherry. Nolinikanta Gupta, one of the earliest and closest disciples of the Master, once called him ‘Impersonal-personal Sri Aurobindo’. The designation is so very apt; for, Sri Aurobindo was impersonal even in his personal relationship and in his habitual demeanour, and impersonality marked even his utterances. A feeling of surprise overtakes us when we come to know from Nirodbaran, one of Sri Aurobindo’s constant companions during the last twelve years of his physical existence, that Sri Aurobindo “would, while talking, hardly look at us or address us by our names, for his eyes were cast downwards or looking away in front… and were seldom fully open.”[16]

And even while living in the midst of people who crowded his small room, Sri Aurobindo used to live aloof somewhere else in some other plane of consciousness. At times he would not even be aware of what was going on around him in his room itself. Here are two small incidents testifying to this fact; these have been gathered from Nirodbaran’s intimate account of the outer life of the Master as recorded in his Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo:

“Once the Mother came to inform Sri Aurobindo that Bhishmadev, a former disciple and an eminent singer of Bengal, was going to sing on the radio, and he very much wanted Sri Aurobindo to hear him. So the radio was brought near and the sponge-bath and the music went on simultaneously. When at the end of Bhishmadev’s programme we asked him how he had liked the music, he answered, ‘Oh, I completely forgot.’ We had a good laugh.”[17]

“A similar instance happened in Dilip’s case. He had sent the timing of his radio programme from Calcutta and beseeched Sri Aurobindo to hear him. Sri Aurobindo asked Champaklal to remind him of it. When the music was over, he asked Champaklal, ‘Where is Dilip’s music?’ Champaklal laughed and said that it was already finished!”[18]

Sri Aurobindo was not a conversationalist as we normally understand and use the term. Nirodbaran was a regular participant in Sri Aurobindo’s conver­sations for a good number of years. Basing himself on his close observation and personal experience, he makes an illuminating contrast between the styles of Tagore who was a conversationalist par excellence and of Sri Aurobindo and remarks apropos:

“Those who have heard or talked to Tagore, recall their experience as ‘great’. When we read his talks, we can well imagine how brilliant he must have been with his rich similes and metaphors, his sparkling wit and banter, the twinkling of his eyes, the rise and fall of his voice and all the other concomitant dramatic gestures so that his personality came in front more than his talks. Sri Aurobindo is quite a different study in perfect contrast. Life here is steady, there are no eddies or whirls, the stream flowing unobtrusively in a quiet rhythm, the jokes uttered rather casually, in an even tone in a typically English fashion…. Here the personality remained behind and the subject-matter became more prominent.”[19]

Jokes during periods of relaxed intermission

Sri Aurobindo’s impersonal far-away-ness is even more distinctly brought out when we watch him in his normal daily life as lived in the company of six of his disciples who attended on him during and after the period of his re­covery from a serious thigh injury that he incurred due to an accidental fall in 1938.

As reported by Nirodbaran who was Sri Aurobindo’s literary secretary and one of his medical assistants, Sri Aurobindo would pass most of the time of his day in silent aloofness and his serene and silent human-divine Presence pervaded the room in which he lived and talked with his disciple-attendants. But – yes, there is an interesting ‘but’ to this story. And this has emboldened us to embark on this venturesome project of writing a bulky volume on Sri Aurobindo’s humour. The ‘but’ is as follows:

Due to some inscrutable reason or, perhaps, as a gesture of his unbounded grace towards the young disciples who were serving him day and night so loyally and with so much love, Sri Aurobindo used to put off his mantle of reserve for a short period every day and engage himself in animated conversation with these young attendants. He would then help these young men forget for a while the sublime Guru-Shishya relationship and rise above all feelings of constraint or sanctimonious awe that might have possibly put a check on their spontaneous impulses. Here is Nirodbaran’s description of Sri Aurobindo during those short interludes:

“It was quite a different Sri Aurobindo from what he was at other times of the day. The high, serene and silent snow on the Himalayan peaks had melted down into a quiet and cool gurgling stream. Hold the pure sanctified waters in your hands, sprinkle them over the body, drink them or play with them like a child. How perennially fresh and diversely rich, sparkling always with his ready wit and humour!”[20]

Yes, ‘sparkling with his ready wit and humour. Here are two specimens of Sri Aurobindo’s conversational jokes made during these periods of relaxed intermission. Nirodbaran is recounting:

“Champaklal is the custodian of all their relics such as hair, nails, teeth. He has even stored up all the ashes of the burnt mosquito-coils. Here is a humorous incident in connection with the ashes: Once during our evening talks, the Mother came in with a telegram in which somebody had asked Sri Aurobindo to send ‘ashes’ for the marriage of his daughter. We were perplexed for we could not make out the meaning. Purani had an intuitive flash and said, ‘It may be Indian word ashish for benediction.’ ‘Oh, I see!’ exclaimed Sri Aurobindo, ‘I was wondering how I was supposed to carry ashes with me, perhaps on my head! Of course I can give them some from Champaklal’s mosquito-coils. If I had not given up smoking, I could have given some cigar-ash.’ ”[21]

“One day suddenly breaking his silence he [Sri Aurobindo] addressed Purani and said, ‘There is something nice for you, Purani.’ (for once he used his name!)

“Purani: For me?

“Sri Aurobindo: Yes. A letter has come from America addressed to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The writer says, ‘I have heard that you are a great yoga. I am also a yoga. I have started to predict sporting events. I can go into trance and know everything. If you agree to work in collaboration with me, we will share the profits. Let me know your terms. If you don’t want to take the money yourself, you can give it to the poor. Our collaboration will be a service to yourself, to me and to the poor.’ What do you say, Purani? You too can go into trance or send Nirod into trance!”[22]

Yes, Sri Aurobindo used to become somewhat expansive and indulge in humour during these times when he would put off his mantle of majesty and high impersonality and the amiable aspect of his nature would come to the forefront. But, alas, this was so only for a short duration during the day. As Nirodbaran has pointed out:

“The stream flowed at some particular time and not for a long period. Again the grand, serene and silent Presence on the peaks! One could say that the austere ‘cloak of a reclining God’, the robe of silence, had slipped down and brought to our view the body of a human godhead. But he would put on the robe of silence again; yet, both the visions had their unfailing charm and grandeur.”[23]

But even this short period of expansiveness every day could not become a permanent feature all along. It went on decreasing in its duration till, in the closing years of Sri Aurobindo’s earthly existence, he became his silent self again. In Nirodbaran’s words, “As the years passed, the original stream of abundance began to get thinner and thinner till in the last years there was practically a silent attendance on a silent Presence…. Only when Dr. Manilal arrived from Baroda, the still atmosphere quickened with life for a while but he too would soon lapse into a quiescent mood.”[24]

A lavish yet most apposite humour

So we are back to square one and our readers may reasonably wonder how can then one hope to weave a garland of humour around a personality of such high aloofness. Indeed, even two or three decades back one could not have possibly dared to associate humour with Sri Aurobindo in any great measure. But then occurred some happy events, and a new till-then-unknown Sri Aurobindo emerged into our full view. A few precious books written by his intimate disciples appeared in print in quick succession. First came out Dilip Kumar’s Sri Aurobindo Came to Me whose chapter “Avowedly Personal” showed to the reading public how humorous Sri Aurobindo could be in his written correspondence. Then came out in 1967 Amal Kiran’s Life-Literature-Yoga which revealed Sri Aurobindo’s humour enlivening literary topics in rich profusion. The Second Series of Nirodbaran’s Correspondence saw the light of day in 1959 and it brought the humorist Sri Aurobindo in sharp focus. With 1974 came to the reader’s notice Nirodbaran’s Sri Aurobindo’s Humour which happened to be a collection of humorous exchanges between the writer and Sri Aurobindo. This particular book opened the eyes of the reading public to a quite unfamiliar aspect of the great Yogi-philosopher – his wonderful humour “pre­sented with an intensity of concentration and a profusion of new material.” This particular book of correspondence was followed by Fifty Poems of Nirodbaran: with corrections and comments by Sri Aurobindo which was published in 1983. Fifty Poems showed Sri Aurobindo in another light, in the role of a poet-maker. In this role Sri Aurobindo offered again and again ‘patient and empathic corrections’ to the not-so-successful compositions of his disciple who, although a medico by training, aspired to be a good poet. Now the interesting point relevant to our present discussion is the surprising discovery that all the lessons in poetry-making Sri Aurobindo gave to Nirodbaran were always suffused with “a lavish yet most apposite humour.” Finally, only a few years back, in 1984, has come out the ‘unexpurgated’(!) edition of the complete set of Nirodbaran’s Correspon­dence with Sri Aurobindo. This peerless book of more than twelve hundred pages is replete to saturation, almost in every one of its pages, with exquisite instances of Sri Aurobindo’s wit and humour.

A careful perusal of all these books opened the world’s eyes to a most lovable side of Sri Aurobindo’s personality and a most charming aspect of his luminous writings. It became confirmed beyond any shadow of doubt that although in society Sri Aurobindo generally withdrew into “the shell of his deep, congenital reserve”, with his intimates of the inner circle he always loved to indulge – albeit through the medium of writing – in banter and laughter and quips of every description.

So in his inner disposition Sri Aurobindo was not after all ‘grim and austere’ as Nirodbaran had complained in one of his communications! Sri Aurobindo’s riposte is ringing in our ears:

“O rubbish! I am austere and grand, grim and stern! every blasted thing that I never was! I groan in unAurobindonian despair when I hear such things. What has happened to the common sense of all you people?”[25]

On another occasion when Nirodbaran wrote to Sri Aurobindo: “I am much delighted and relieved to find that you have not lost your sense of humour by your Supramental transformation, Sir”, Sri Aurobindo wrote back:

“Where the deuce do you get these ideas? From Dilip? The supramental being the absolute of all good things, must equally be the absolute of humour also. Q.E.D.”[26]

“From Dilip?” – yes, Sri Aurobindo’s query was justifiable. For Dilip Kumar, a close friend of Nirodbaran, himself could not believe that Sri Aurobindo – with all the widening and heightening and deepening of his spiritual consciousness – could still retain his mood of humour. Hence was his sense of happy relief and rapture when he started receiving from his Guru his first letters addressed to the disciple and laved with the balm of humour. Dilip Kumar has given adequate expression to his mood in the following words:

“When such a living orb of superhumanity comes down to us with letters limpid with love and human understanding, then comes the thrill because the incredible thing then seems to have come to pass: even such a giant can then, on occasions, dwarf himself so that we may feel his humanity! I can almost recapture the thrill which his first letters gave me and the mystic thanksgiving that rose from my heart like vapour from a calm lake at sundawn, wistful and yet iridescent with romance. For such a great revolutionary, who matured later into an even greater Yogi of invulnerable gravity, to have retained unimpaired the human zest for laughter and humour and repartees!”[27]

So, it may not after all be altogether impossible to write a whole book on the subject of Sri Aurobindo’s humour nor would it be, let us hope, blasphemous on our part to associate jollity with such a Mahayogi like Sri Aurobindo. For has he not himself assured us? –

“I am not aware that highly evolved personalities have no sense of humour or how the person can be said to be integrated when this sense is lacking. ‘Looseness’ applies only to a frivolous levity without any substance behind it. There is no law that wisdom should be something rigidly solemn and without a smile.”[28]

Yes, in Sri Aurobindo’s case his humour has always been “the flower of his wisdom”. As Nirodbaran has pointed out, “Sri Aurobindo’s jokes were never really trivial; they could be playful but always had an intellectual element in them.”[29]

Sri Aurobindo once remarked, “Can’t afford to play jokes like that in public.” – Yes, ‘not in public’, but in his voluminous correspondence with his intimate disciples Sri Aurobindo has shown himself to be a supreme artist of humour and in unbelievable profusion. And this is especially so in the case of his written exchanges with Nirodbaran, his doctor-disciple. Dilip Kumar used to remark to Nirodbaran: “In your ‘Correspondence’ Sri Aurobindo has revealed himself in a totally new aspect.”[30] Such deeply intimate personal touch trans­mitted through the indirect contact of letters – its magic Sri Aurobindo alone seemed to know.

And what an unceasing cascading of wit and humour is found in Sri Aurobindo’s correspondence with Nirodbaran! It is simply amazing to observe how the entire gamut of the correspondence is irradiated through and through with the sunny humour of Sri Aurobindo. Nirodbaran, delightfully surprised by this breath-taking outpouring of grace, once asked Sri Aurobindo from what perennial fount flowed so much silent laughter; to that puzzled query the Master’s cryptic answer was the Upanishadic ‘Raso vai sah’, ‘Verily He is Delight.’[31] But what strikes us in these epistolary compositions of Sri Aurobindo is the remarkable fact that he passed from the serious to the light moods and back again to the serious with an astounding ease of transit. Even the Mother, in referring to these ‘dialogues’ between the Master and his beloved disciple, remarked to Satprem years later in 1972:

“Have you read the whole ‘Correspondence with Nirod’?… There are extraordinary things in there. He seems to be joking all the time but… it’s extraordinary.

“You see, I lived – how many years? Thirty years, I think, with Sri Aurobindo – thirty years from 1920 to 1950. I thought I knew him well, and then when I hear this, I realise that… [Mother makes a gesture as if to indicate a breaking of bounds.][32]

And so far as the quality of Sri Aurobindo’s humour is concerned, here is the Mother’s appraisal of it:

“And you know, from the point of view of humour, I have never read anything more wonderful, oh!… He had a way of looking at things… it’s incredible. Incredible.”[33]

And this remark applies to Sri Aurobindo’s humour not only as expressed in his “Correspondence” but also in all his other writings beginning with those of his early teens and ending with those of his advanced years. But this fact is not so well known to people in general. The world at large is still not aware of the vastness and sublimity of this ride of Sri Aurobindo’s personality, of his personality aglow with a sense of rich and variegated humour.

Hence arises this humble attempt on our part to acquaint the reading public with this not so familiar but altogether engaging aspect of Sri Aurobindo. As the readers will go through the various chapters of this book, they will not fail to make the pleasant discovery that Sri Aurobindo has been a genius even in this popular field and that “he could, if he wanted, flood one with torrents of comic laughter on any subject, on any occasion, without a moment’s thinking.”[34]

A deep vein of sublime humour even in Sri Aurobindo’s most serious works

And this has been a constant trait with him. For even in his most ‘serious’ books like The Life Divine, Essays on the Gita, The Human Cycle or The Problem of Rebirth we come to meet at times a deep vein of sublime humour. Here are just three examples.

From The Life Divine:

“It is so that ascetic philosophy tends to conceive it. But individual salvation can have no real sense if existence in the cosmos is itself an illusion…. Who then profits by this escape?… For the Illusionist the individual soul is an illusion and non-existent except in the inexplicable mystery of Maya. Therefore we arrive at the escape of an illusory non-existent soul from an illusory non-existent bondage in an illusory non-existent world as the supreme good which that non-existent soul has to pursue!”[35]

From Essays on the Gita:

“An inner situation may arise in which all duties have to be abandoned, trampled on, flung aside in order to follow the call of the Divine within. I cannot think that the Gita would solve such an inner situation by sending Buddha back to his wife and father and the government of the Shakya state, or would direct a Ramakrishna to become a Pundit in a vernacular school and disinterestedly teach little boys their lessons, or bind down a Vivekananda to support his family and for that to follow dispassionately the law or medicine or journalism.”[36]

From The Problem of Rebirth:

Sri Aurobindo is jibing here at an erroneously held popular theory of Karma:

“We see the good man thrust down into the press of miseries and the wicked flourishing like a green bay-tree and not cut down miserably in his end. Now this is intolerable. It is a cruel anomaly, it is a reflection on God’s wisdom and justice, almost a proof that God is not; we must remedy that….

“How comforting it would be if we could tell a good man and even the amount of his goodness, – for should not the Supreme be a strict and honourable accountant? – by the amount of ghee that he is allowed to put into his stomach and the number of rupees he can jingle into his bank and the various kinds of good luck that accrue to him.

“Yes, and how comforting too if we could point our finger at the wicked stripped of all concealment and cry at him, ‘O thou wicked one! for if thou wert not evil, wouldst thou in a world governed by God or at least by good, be thus, ragged, hungry, unfortunate, pursued by griefs, void of honour among men? Yes, thou art proved wicked, because thou art ragged. God’s justice is esta­blished!’

“The Supreme intelligence being fortunately wiser and nobler than man’s childishness, this is impossible. But let us take comfort! It appears that if the good man has not enough good luck and ghee and rupees, it is because he is really a scoundrel suffering for his crimes, – but a scoundrel in his past life who has suddenly turned a new leaf in his mother’s womb; and if yonder wicked man flourishes and tramples gloriously on the world, it is because of his goodness, – in a past life, the saint that was then having since been converted, – was it by his experience of the temporal vanity of virtue? – to the cult of sin….”’[37]

The non-discerning readers may not be easily convinced about the presence of great humour in these long passages taken from three of Sri Aurobindo’s well- known prose works. But what, after all, is humour? What is its true nature and essential trait? Has it undergone any upward evolution? Is it synonymous with anything that causes laughter, or not? And, finally, does the expression of humour have a unique form or it may express itself through many different forms?

These and some other allied questions must be thoroughly discussed before we can be in a position to appreciate in full Sri Aurobindo’s humour in its polychrome manifestation. And such a discussion will form the theme of our second chapter.

Click here to read Part 2
Explore the Journal
Archives

Renaissance, the monthly e-journal of Sri Aurobindo Foundation of Indian Culture (SAFIC), features inspiring articles, essays, book reviews, interviews, and reflections that speak of how the eternal spirit and creative genius of India are being reborn and renewed in various domains – spiritual, artistic, literary, philosophic, scientific, aesthetic.

Copyright © 2019 Renaissance | Powered by Sri Aurobindo Society

Scroll to Top