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
The poet-maker? What is meant by the startling phrase? Are not true poets born and never made? At least that is the significance of the old Latin tag: Poeta nascitur, non fit. By the way, this classical dictum, so the rumour goes, has two mis-translations, though obliquely ‘meaningful’. A schoolboy is reported to have made the stunning translation: “Poets are nasty, but don’t you get a fit!” Another philosophic youngster has this sententious rendering: “Poets are born, but they are not fit to be!”
Ignoring these frivolities we may indeed affirm with certitude that a veritable poet, if not really born, can never be trained into poetry. A born poet, on the other hand, may exhibit his poetic propensity even from his early adolescence. As a digression we may recall here the case of Alexander Pope, the 18th century classic. Here is the narration in the words of Amal Kiran:
“From his very childhood he [Alexander Pope] made poems. He has autobiographically written:
I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.
But his father was extremely displeased with this waste of time as he considered it, and so he took little Alexander to task rather severely. He often scolded him and once put him across his knees and administered a good whacking. Poor Alexander cried and cried, and promised his father he would not indulge in that waste of time. But the promise he sobbed out ran:
Papa, Papa, pity take!
I will no more verses make.
Poets can be made “through Yogic sadhana and the application of Yogic Force”
So a born poet uses the medium of poetry to promise that he would not make poetry! And he cannot do otherwise, because poetry is in his blood. Amal Kiran, a born poet himself, has told us a story concerning his own experience, which is quite revealing. At a stage of his poetic life he discovered to his pleasant surprise that when he talked prose, “there came suddenly in the midst of commonplace language bright poetic phrases that led me [Amal Kiran] away from the conversation along strange trails of image and rhythm. Or, out of the talk of others, some casual word would bring me vivid suggestions and set me off to write a poem. And at the oddest moments poetry would rush in…” ,
Well, such is the situation with born poets. But cannot poets be made at all? The answer is: “Yes, they can. At least the latent and not yet manifest poetic faculty can be brought to the fore and made creative there.” But how? The answer is: “Through Yogic sadhana and the application of Yogic Force.” And this experiment was successfully undertaken by Sri Aurobindo himself in his Ashram in the third and the fourth decades of the present century. Quite a few of Sri Aurobindo’s disciples who had never written a single line of poetry before they joined the Ashram, but opened themselves to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritually creative Force, became very good poets in course of time. Two especially striking examples are those of Dr. Nirodbaran and the mathematical philosopher John Chadwick otherwise known as Arjava in the Ashram. Arjava and Nirodbaran became Sri Aurobindo’s disciples respectively in 1929 and 1933.
Before he came to the Ashram, Arjava had a fellowship in mathematical or symbolic logic at Cambridge: his was a mind that used to move among arid abstractions. A distinguished Cambridge philosopher entertained great hopes from Chadwick’s brilliant abilities in mathematical philosophy of the specifically ‘Cambridge’ brand.
Very soon after Arjava joined the Ashram, his sadhana under Sri Aurobindo’s guidance brought about a profound transformation in his nature and, as a result, he whose language had hitherto been limited to the arid propositions of intellectual philosophy became a poet of the first order and, with the aid of poetry, entered the mysteries of the inner worlds.
Let us listen to what Ronald Nixon alias Krishnaprem has to say on the phenomenon that was Arjava ne John Chadwick:
“Traditionalists and those who take a narrow view of sadhana will perhaps wonder what poetry has to do with yoga. The truth is that the reintegration of the psyche that is brought about by sadhana has the effect of releasing unsuspected powers that were lying latent in the heart of the sadhaka, as, indeed, they are in the hearts of all…. The truth… is witnessed to by these poems left behind by Arjava when, at what seems to us the early age of forty, the Sovereign Dweller of his heart decided to withdraw to inner worlds.”
Now about Nirodbaran. He was trained as a doctor and had never dreamt of becoming a poet before joining Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram. He had read very little of poetry either in English or in his native tongue Bengali, during his academic life. When he came to the Ashram in the early thirties, he found that poetry was one of the vocations taken up by some disciples as a means of their sadhana. Sri Aurobindo was giving inspiration to them and very often taking an active interest in their compositions. Nirodbaran’s heart warmly responded to this situation. He too, though engaged in the practice of medicine, wanted to become a poet. He appealed to his Guru, and Sri Aurobindo took in his hands the task of moulding the medico into a creative poet. And what was the result? Let Amal Kiran, N’s poet-friend, speak now:
“Nirodbaran was trained to be a doctor, but his aspiration was towards Apollo, not Aesculapius. He wanted to write sonnets, not prescriptions. He yearned to dispense not medicines, but Coleridgean ‘honey-dew’. Here, too, Sri Aurobindo did the trick. Sri Aurobindo knew how to give a poet birth in one who was not born a poet. That is the master art of Yoga to bring the subtle planes into re-creative action.”
Now a third example, the example of Prithwi Singh. He was a scion of a well- known aristocratic family of Calcutta, who joined the Ashram in 1944. He had not composed a single verse till his fifty-second year. Then, one day, almost casually a brother disciple repeated to him the words the Mother had pronounced in reference to Sri Aurobindo: “He has many Names and Forms.” These words stirred him to his depths and began vibrating in his heart like the words of a potent Mantra. While recounting this event of momentous value to his soul-evolution, Prithwi Singh has written:
“I meditated day after day on the Mother’s words. Then, with a sudden unexpectedness, these words in conjunction with others began to form themselves into lines of rhythmic measure, and a desire arose in me to put these down in writing. In this way the first poem came to be written – ‘O Lord of many Names and Forms!’ Then I discovered that I could write poems in English. In a flash, as it were, the first secrets of rhythm and versification, the manipulation of words of varying lengths in a foot and their subtle movement and variation, were revealed to me.”
Nishikanto offers us a fourth striking example. He joined the Ashram in 1934 when he was twenty-four years old. He had written before some poems in Bengali which were good but not of any superior quality. But after only a few months’ stay in the Ashram he could open himself to Sri Aurobindo’s Yogic Force and ‘a sudden Brahmaputra of inspiration’ gripped him and his new poetical compositions reached in quality a remarkable height and profundity. Nirodbaran wondered and wondered, and then asked Nishikanto for the secret. Here is how he reported the matter to Sri Aurobindo:
“N: Nishikanto says that before writing… he bows down once before the Mother and you. If that is the secret, why, I shall bow a hundred times, Sir!
Sri Aurobindo: It depends on how you bow.
N: Methinks it does not depend on it. Even if it did I don’t think Nishikanto knows it. Or was it in his past life that he knew it?
Sri Aurobindo: Well, there is a certain faculty of effacing oneself and letting the Universal Force run through you – that is the way of bowing. It can be acquired by various means, but also one may have the capacity for doing it in certain directions by nature.”
But a far greater miracle was still to come. For very soon Nishikanto who had never written a single line in English, whose knowledge of English metre was almost nil and whose familiarity with the language was neither deep nor extensive, and who always committed outstanding mistakes in spelling and grammar, started composing poems in English, poems any gifted born poet would be proud of.
We now come to our last example – last, yes, but not least. Dilip Kumar Roy, a scholar, musician and novelist, came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1928. Before that he had scribbled a few so-called poems which were defective in every way. His style, diction and rhythm were all halting, so much so that the great Nobelist Rabindranath Tagore who spoke highly of Dilip Kumar’s musical talents, never gave him a word of encouragement about his poetical utterances.
Thus when Dilip Kumar joined the Ashram he had to start from a scratch, so to say. He came to learn from Sri Aurobindo that Yoga could help one develop a perfect sense of rhythm. He was thrilled to hear this and kept praying to Sri Aurobindo, his Guru, that he might flower into a poet. And, then, in due course the ‘miracle’ happened. With Sri Aurobindo’s active outer help added to his invisibly operative Yogic powers Dilip Kumar achieved authentic poetic utterance. Let us listen to the story as narrated by the new-born poet himself:
“I posted a bunch of my [new] poems to Tagore and requested him to tell me frankly what he thought of them. ‘Also, please guide me once more in my poetic aspirations’, I added, ‘and indicate the errors, if any, in my chhanda (rhythm and metre).’ Kind as ever, Tagore replied to me… He commented on my Bengali poems thus:
‘Now let me come to your poetry. The quantity you sent to me in one sweep did gave me a scare! Hitherto I have seen many of your writings which are supposed to belong to the category of verse. But they made me feel that you had missed your way to the heart of melody of our Bengali language, that you were a cripple in rhythm….
‘But what is this? You seem to have acquired rhythm overnight! You have left me no scope to correct with a vengeance. How did you manage to train your ears? Now you have no cause to be diffident any more. But how a cripple can possibly dispense with his crutches one fine morning and start to run straight are what I find unfathomable deeps. At times I almost ask myself if you might not have had it all written by somebody else?’ ”
Such was then ‘the incredible which yet happened’, for Sri Aurobindo was, indeed, the poet-maker. What is still more striking is the fact that in a few years’ time Dilip Kumar mastered the Bengali metres to such an extent that he was regarded by the connoisseurs as one of the foremost authorities in the field; he even wrote a celebrated book on Bengali prosody.
Thus, as soon as they started doing sadhana in right earnest and opened themselves to the creative Yogic Force of Sri Aurobindo, Arjava the mathematician, Nirodbaran the medico, Prithwi Singh the novice, Nishikanto the improbable and Dilip Kumar the inexperienced became in time successful poets. But a doubt may arise in some minds: was it really due to the action of the Force or, perhaps, it was their own personal labour and efforts which brought about this surprising phenomenon?
The poet-maker confirmed that “it was by the Force” that poets had been made
Nirodbaran, one of the ‘new-made’ poets of the Ashram, was himself beseiged by such doubt and sent a long letter to Sri Aurobindo asking him about the real secret of the matter. He concluded his letter with this fervent appeal: “Give an answer that will pierce the mind-soul. By an answer only. I don’t expect more!” Sri Aurobindo’s reply was equally long, illuminating, emphatic and unambiguous. We feel tempted to quote portions of this letter rather in extenso:
“It has always been supposed since the infancy of the human race that while a verse-maker can be made or self-made, a poet cannot. ‘Poeta nascitur non fit’, a poet is born not made, is the dictum that has come down through the centuries and millenniums and was thundered into my ears by the first pages of my Latin Grammar. The facts of literary history seem to justify this stern saying. But here in Pondicherry we have tried, not to manufacture poets, but to give them birth, a spiritual, not a physical birth into the body. In a number of instances we are supposed to have succeeded – one of these is your noble self – or if I am to believe the man of sorrows in you, – your abject, miserable, hopeless and ineffectual self. But how was it done? There are two theories, it seems – one, that it was by the Force, the other that it was done by your own splashing, kicking, groaning Herculean efforts. Now, sir, if it is the latter, if you have done that unprecedented thing, made yourself by your own laborious strength into a poet… then, sir, why the deuce are you so abject, self-depreciatory, miserable?… a self-made poet is a miracle over which we can only say ‘Sabash! Sabash!’ without ever stopping. If your effort could do that, what is there that it can’t do? All miracles can be effected by it and a giant self-confident faith ought to be in you. On the other hand, if, as I aver, it is the Force that has done it, what then can it not do? Here too faith, a giant faith is the only logical conclusion. So either way there is room only for Hallelujahs, none for Jeremiads. Q.E.D.”
“In a number of instances we are supposed to have succeeded”, so says Sri Aurobindo. But the task was not at all easy in all cases. Apart from the psychological resistance that operated against a successful “opening”, the raw ore one had to start with offered often to Sri Aurobindo a daunting task. The would-be poet could not become overnight a flawless writer of verse. Also, “inspirations were often mixed up, attenuated in transit, sometimes even lost leaving nothing but a half-memory or a faint echo of the original.”
Take the case of Nirodbaran. For a long time Sri Aurobindo had to intervene even outwardly and amend and emend his poetic efforts. As the doctor-poet has himself written in a reminiscent mood:
“He [Sri Aurobindo] took up my juvenile spurts of fancy and set his heart, as it were, upon turning them into true works of imagination. I had my own sense or non-sense of metre and when I practised it most freely, thinking that I was writing it in trochaic metre while it was a jumble of iambic and awkward anapaest, Sri Aurobindo thundered jocularly, but neither ceased to correct me nor asked me to put a stop to my wild pursuit…. After a long painful period of gestation, travail, pathetic failure, gradual success, the poet shone forth…. Oh, it was a marvelous journey, the Guru at the helm and the disciple pulling the oars at his behest, the Master often swearing at the pupil’s gaucherie…. [One] will not fail to appreciate what tremendous labour and time Sri Aurobindo spent till he succeeded in what he had undertaken” – to deliver a poet out of the medico! And Sri Aurobindo jocularly remarked to him: “The poet seems to have come out after all. So the pains of labour, and even the forceps, were useful.” So after this long introduction of almost six pages whose purpose has been to show that Sri Aurobindo was not only a Master Yogi-philosopher or himself a great poet but he was a poet-maker too, we now turn to the delineation of his lavish yet most apposite humour displayed in the process of turning a non-poet into a poet.
Poet-maker’s humour remembered
As in the case of other chapters that have gone before, here too we shall categorise the material into different sections. In return for the ‘solemn’ perusal of the last six pages the readers will, we hope, now be compensated with peals of unadulterated laughter. So, let us now take a plunge into the river of learning-cum-humour.
On the budding poet’s rhyming faults:
N: Wandering thoughts, sails of life drifted by wind
Grow still on a transparent sea of hush As an immensity from thy fathomless Mind Falls like dawn-hues in an invisible rush.
Sri Aurobindo: Too rushing – moreover, how can there be invisible rush of hues? But this confounded hush of yours “opens” only to impossible rhymes:
“bush, blush, crush, flush, brush, lush, mush, push, slush, thrush, tush, gush” – what can a serious poem do with these light-hearted and rollicking rhymes? So I have kept rush and tried to do my best with it.
On the budding poet’s metrical/rhythmical faults:
N: What about the thought, sequence, etc. [of my poem]? Please show the defects with your opinion and criticism. Is it a metaphysical or philosophical poem?
Sri Aurobindo: God knows! But the matter is that the metre of some, of your lines is enough to make the hair of a prosodist stand on end in horror! I have marked all the quadrupeds you have created in situ – also put in the margin my five-footed emendations of them.
N: The couplet seems flat. What do you say?
Sri Aurobindo: Flat! The rhythm is like that of a carriage jolting on a road full of ruts.’
N: I have scanned thus a line of my poem:
“Flash like / a lightning intensity /”, you don’t seem to accept this scansion.
Sri Aurobindo: Because that is purely arbitrary and contradicts the natural cadence of the line…. You might write and scan
O you / damned fool! / what an / ass re / ally! / and call it an iambic pentameter, but it could not be anything of the kind.
N: “Intimate secrets from invisible spheres caught…”
Sri Aurobindo: How the deuce is this scanned and rhythmed? Without “caught” it is a complete pentameter line. After that, “caught” comes in like a cough or hiccup (caught by the spheres?).
N: This is how I have scanned these lines:
“Of immortality shines / like a glittering sound Reach not / that In / fini / ty’s o / cean-edge.”
Sri Aurobindo: How the devil can any stress go on “mor” and ”li” of Immortality? It is like making an elephant balance on two walking sticks.
On the budding poet’s stressing faults:
N: What do you think of the first line, Sir? – “My clouded soul, do you know where you are?” Flat? and the clouded soul?
Sri Aurobindo: Flat? By God, sir, abysmal! The soul can get as clouded as it likes but do you know where you are? In Pondicherry, sir, in Pondicherry – the most clouded soul can know that. You might just as well now write “My friend, do you know that you are an ass?” and call it metre and poetry.
N: Here are some new lines:
Trickle, trickle, O mighty Force divine.
Pour, pour thy white moon dreams Into my stomach, heart and intestine In little silver streams.
Sri Aurobindo: Two most damnable blunders, sir. “Intestine” is stressed on the second syllable and pronounced intestin, so how the blazes is it going to rhyme with divine? A doctor misstressing “intestine” – shame! How are you going to cure people if you put wrong stresses on their anatomical parts?