At the Feet of Sri Aurobindo: Some Reminiscences of Early Days in Pondicherry by Jaya Devi

Dear Friends,

Jaya Devi alias Nonibala was among the earliest followers of Sri Aurobindo who was present at Pondicherry on 24 November 1926 when the descent of the Overmental Consciousness took place in Sri Aurobindo’s body. She lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for a long time and passed away at a ripe old age. Those who knew her in Pondicherry remember her as a frail old lady with a most angelic face through which the very soul of devotion to the Divine seemed to come out in a soft radiance. Written originally in Bengali, At the Feet of Sri Aurobindo: Some Reminiscences of Early Days in Pondicherry was translated into English by Dr. Sisir Kumar Ghose.

With warm regards,

Anurag Banerjee

Founder,

Overman Foundation.

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                  At the Feet of Sri Aurobindo: Some Reminiscences of Early Days in Pondicherry

                                                                                                                                                       Jaya Devi

Far back in 1926, I had an urge to visit Rameshwar. My younger brother Upen (Dr. Upendranath Banerji) casually said to me: “Sister, let’s go to Pondicherry, you’d able to see A.G. There.” The initials stood for Aurobindo Ghose. “Let us”, I replied. We decided to leave in June (Bengali Asharh). Expecting to meet A.G. at Pondicherry we came here. The day after reaching Pondicherry, at about eight in the morning we went towards the Ashram to have A.G’s darshan. While going up the stairs I was so upset, thinking: “How shall I look at him?” But again the thought followed: “Why are you so worried at the prospect of meeting a great soul?”

On the verandah of the house where Anilbaran was later to stay, A.G. was sitting on a chair. What a wonderful sight! It was as if light were flooding out from all sides. He was engaged in reading a newspaper. Holding the leg of his chair I sat down on the floor. With a smile he asked me: “From where have you come?” “Sir, we are from Calcutta.” “What brought you here?” “I had a desire to visit Rameshwar. But Upen said we should go to Pondicherry because a Mahapurusha lives there and I would be able to see him. I agreed and so I have come to see you.” “Won’t you be going to Rameshwar?” he asked. “No. I shall not go there any more. Having seen the living Rameshwar, I have no need to see an image of stone.” “Well, this human Rameshwar that you have seen, do you have faith in him?” “Oh yes, I have full faith,” I answered.

Hearing this, he placed his hands on my head and gently said: “Then you may stay here.” “I have planned to stay for only three months. How shall I stay longer than that?” I asked. “Have you no attachment to the world and are there no obstacles ahead? Better not to return to Calcutta. Stay and see how things develop,” he said. There was some more talk, about the nature of my sadhana and my chosen deity (ishta devata). I answered frankly and fully. Yet I had a feeling that all had not been told.

Those days there were no Bengali ladies staying in the Ashram. I used to visit him every day. He would make me sit near him and listen to everything carefully. After four or five days I asked A.G.: “Why are these chairs here?” “They are for people who listen to my words and practise meditation — they sit in these chairs.” Somehow I didn’t like the idea. So I said: “Lord, this doesn’t look proper. That the sadhaks, your disciples, should be sitting in the chairs along with you doesn’t look nice. Better to have mats or carpets on the floor. While you sit in the chair, the rest can sit below.” He only smiled a little and kept quiet. Two days later, I noticed that the chairs had been removed and a durree spread out on the floor.

In those days the Ashram was less crowded and I used to go and see him every day. One day I asked him: “Lord, why do they call you A.G.?” “A.G.? Who says A.G.?”, he counter-questioned. “These sadhaks speak like that, I have heard it.” Then he said, with a smile: “Well, it’s a good idea of yours.” Seven or eight days later, I found on the notice-board: “Sri Aurobindo.” I was told the Mother had given that name. This made me rather happy.

After two days, I went to see him with a pair of garlands which I had woven with my own hands and rolled inside a handkerchief. Looking at the hidden object in my hands he asked: “What is it you have brought?” “A pair of garlands,” I answered. “What will you do with the garlands?” “One I shall place around your neck and the other at your feet,” I chirped gaily. Pleased with my reply, he said: “Well, give me one, and there, within the house, is your Mother. Go and give her the other garland.” “Lord, where is the Mother? In which room? I do not know anything; please guide me a little.” He then explained: “As you go up the inner staircase you will find a room in front. The Mother lives there. You will give the garland to her.” “Lord, permit me to go there,” I said. Smilingly he agreed: “Yes, go now.”

I came down, wondering with whom to go. But, I also thought, what was there to worry about in going to the Mother? “Oh my mind, take me there. When the Lord has said so, I will certainly be able to meet her.” Going downstairs with this thought, I found Purani’s wife Lilavati standing at the bottom. I said to Lila: “Dear sister, please accompany me a little.” “Where to?” inquired Lila. “First let us go up the inner staircase. Then I shall tell you,” I said. “Then let us go,” she answered. After we had gone up the stairs we saw a room in front. I went inside with the garland in my hand. There I saw the Mother standing, in a red-bordered sari. She came a little closer to me and I offered the flowers and made my pranām to her. The Mother had a veil on, and when I gave her the garland she was smiling, but since I didn’t know any English I couldn’t speak with her. After a while, I came away. Lilavati followed suit. When she had come we went to our respective places.

Next day, at darshan, I said, “Lord, I was able to meet the Mother. She was standing inside the room. But since I didn’t know English I could not talk with her. So I came away after giving the flowers to her. Lord, I wish I were independent and could learn many languages and move about freely from place to place. Make me a man. I have no wish to stay a woman any longer.” He smiled and said: “Very well. What’s the worry? You’ll be free, men and women will become equal. What is there to be afraid of?” “Let me go now,” I said. “What will you do when you go down?” “Oh, someone becomes angry. He says, ‘You talk with him too long and I don’t get any chance.’” “Who is the person that speaks to you like that?” These words from the Lord made me uneasy. “No,” I hurried to add, “he isn’t quite angry, he just says…” “No, you do as you are doing,” the Lord said. Since the Lord put it like that, I stayed on a little longer before going away. On the other hand, X was quite angry. Barinda [Barindra Kumar Ghose, Sri Aurobindo’s youngest brother] and he wanted to know what had happened. “The Lord asks me to stay on and he makes many enquiries. It all takes time. This inconveniences X and he gets annoyed,” I told Barinda. “A.G. loves to hear Bengali. So he goes on talking with you. What’s there to get upset about?” said Barinda. “No, X doesn’t really get angry, but his darshan is delayed, that’s what he says.” Then I returned home.

One day in the early hours I was sitting neat the window of my room on the upper storey of the Guest House. All of a sudden I noticed a young person, seventeen or eighteen years of age, near the window below. But how handsome and radiant! The entire road seemed to be lighted up. A small stick or baton in his hand, he was tying up a number of beautiful white cows to the window below and running and playing with them. I saw it all so clearly. The night was nearly gone, and a faint light was trickling through the dark. A little afterwards it all brightened up, but there was nothing more to be seen. At the time of darshan I asked: “Lord, what is the significance of this that I have seen? And oh, how beautiful!” “How did it strike you?” he asked. “I thought it was Sri Krishna; who else can have such beauty, such radiance?” “Who could that Sri Krishna be?” he asked. “Who else but you?” I answered. “You think it was I?” “Yes, of course.” Then he said: “What you have seen is true and good,” and he put his hands on my head, adding: “Good, good.”

Another day at the time of meditation I saw in a vision that I had gone to a big hall full of lotuses, out of which flames of light rose up and my eldest son was blowing them out. But the lights would come up again. Next day I asked him: “Lord, why did I see that during meditation?”

“Within you the light has shone. Your son is trying to put it out. He will not succeed. Nothing to cause worry.”

“It was in the month of Asvin [October] in 1926. At the time of Sri Aurobindo’s daily darshan I said: “Lord, the month of Asvin is here. Every year I celebrate Mahastami puja. I am wondering what to do now; shall I return home or what?” “Why, won’t there be puja here?” he asked. “Yes, it’s possible: the worship of Shiva-Durga. If I can perform your worship and the Mother’s, then perhaps I need not go from here. That is why I am wondering…”

“Well, you can do that.”

On the day of Mahastami Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sat in two chairs side by side. With the usual offering I performed the puja. I put garlands round both of them. Oh, it was as if Shiva and Durga had come down to accept the worship! It is impossible to describe all that I felt. It was ineffable, beyond thought. After the puja he left the room. The next day he asked: “You have to go now? You have done your puja.” I said: “Yes, my Lord; it was a puja such as I had never dreamed of.” “Well, well,” he said.

In the old days the Mother did not leave the Ashram compound. She would sit for meditation in an upper-storey room. There were about twelve or thirteen of us including Bijoy Nag, Roti Nag, Rajani, Monibabu, Upen, etc.— with whom the Mother would sit in meditation. There were then only two Gujarati girls, I happened to be the only Bengali girl.

One night I dreamt that I was floating in the air while an elephant, hoping to catch me, was prowling below. All the time Upen was as it were pushing me up. I seemed to roam about, as if I had been in a state of daze and stupor.

In the morning I went for darshan. As usual I sat holding the leg of the chair. Then I spoke of the previous night and asked: “Lord, why did I dream like that?” “You are on the upward way. But the natural body does not like you to escape like that and so it is pursuing you. Upen is helping you up. It is the body that is obstructing.” He said many other things as well, which I cannot now call to mind.

Next day Barinda said to me: “Didi, for long Sri Aurobindo hasn’t tasted Bengali food. Now that you are here, what about preparing some dishes?” “All right,” I answered.

Bijoy Nag procured a big hilsa fish, dressed it up and all that. I cooked it in an aluminium pot. In those days we had no crockery. Sri Aurobindo sat down for lunch in the room below with five disciples around him. I placed the pot near his plate. He only smiled but did not say anything.

One day a sadhak from Chandernagore came to Pondicherry for Sri Aurobindo’s darshan. He had set out on a pilgrimage and expressed a desire to see Sri Aurobindo en route. The next day I went to the darshan at eight in the morning. I told Sri Aurobindo, “Lord, a sadhu from Chandernagore is here for your darshan. He will come today.”

“Have you seen him? What sort of sadhu?” he inquired.

“I don’t know anything, Lord. But he didn’t seem to be quite open and pure. You will see,” I said.

After I had come away the sadhu said to me: “Didi, I am going for darshan but I have a feeling of fear about it.”

“What is there to fear in visiting a holy person? Go,” I said.

The sadhu left. But he could hardly walk up the stairs, his heart was trembling so. Reaching the door near the upper veranda he saw a luminous glow emanating from Sri Aurobindo’s body. His eyes were dazzled and he was unable to have the darshan.

Somehow he reached the house where I was staying. There he fell into a kind of fit. After lying on the ground for a while he got up and said to me: “Didi, I didn’t have a darshan of Sri Aurobindo, I could not bear so much power. I am going away today.”

The day after, at darshan time I told Sri Aurobindo: “Lord, the sadhu could not have your darshan. He said, ‘When I was going up the stairs, my heart began to beat violently. Still I reached the upper storey, but then I saw a flamelike light which blinded me. It was as if I lost consciousness and somehow reached your place. I shall not stay here any longer. I am going.’ Saying this, he left last night.” On hearing this Sri Aurobindo said: “He is like a chest, so tightly closed that he has only been wasting his energy. He has not gone round the four quarters… Except for that egoism, there is nothing else in him.”

“Lord, why didn’t you give him something?” I queried.

“One needs strength to receive strength. One cannot have that merely by speaking of it. It will be a long time before that sadhu can go round the four quarters. It is doubtful if he can do it in this life.” After saying this he kept quiet. I also came away.

November came along. A strange feeling of joy took possession of all the sadhaks present. The whole of Pondicherry was fragrant with incense, a great delight seemed to be at play. There was the feeling one has during the time of Durga Puja, but this was more intense. I told Bijoybabu and Barinda: “Brothers, I am feeling so happy inside. Such peace! Why is it like this?” “Indeed, sister,” answered Bijoybabu, “What feelings of peace and delight!” At the time of Sri Aurobindo’s darshan I said, “Lord, for the last few days I have been filled with such a sense of peace and delight. The whole of Pondicherry has a festive air, one of incense and perfume everywhere. Why is it like this, Lord?”

Smiling, he said: “You are able to feel this?”

“Not only I but all the sadhaks are able to feel this great wave of peace and delight. We are dancing with inner joy. Why, O Lord?”

“Wait and see, there will be more delight to come,” he said.

On November 24 a little before evening all the sadhaks were asked to assemble. One after another we trooped to the upper hall. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother blessed us all with both hands. I was told: “Mahashakti, the Supreme Consciousness-Force, has descended into Sri Aurobindo.” I could myself see light and glory bursting out of his body.

Next day when I was carrying with me two garlands of tulasi leaves, I heard that Sri Aurobindo would not come out again but stay in his room. Disappointed, I placed the garlands on the door of his room and turned back. A chapter of our life was over.

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6 thoughts on “At the Feet of Sri Aurobindo: Some Reminiscences of Early Days in Pondicherry by Jaya Devi

  1. What a beautiful, wonderful glimpse of life in the early years of the Ashram and the simple, complete surrender to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. It must have been so enlightening and a blessing that the people in those days had the Divine living among them, one with them.

  2. Dear Anurag,
    “There is a great beauty in simplicity”.
    Going through the reminiscences was also a delight, the delight of watching
    “…an eternal child, playing an eternal game in an eternal garden.”

    Thanks for scattering this delight, Anurag, thanks. Carry on. Congrats.
    Dhanavanti

  3. The reminiscences of a Soul surrendered to the Supreme Purushottama have a magical effect on the reader of a spontaneous openness! Grateful for sharing!

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