Professor Gabriel Monod-Herzen of Paris was a Doctor of Science in Physics from the Sorbonne. He had behind him a rich experience as a Professor, a Dean and a Director of several Science Institutes in various universities ranging from Paris to Kabul, Hanoi and Saigon. He was also a member of the “Free French” movement during the Second World War and later the French Consul in Ethiopia. His connection with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry went back to 1935-36 and since then he was an admirer of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
The text of a talk on Sri Aurobindo Professor Gabriel Monod-Herzen had given to the students of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in 1972 has been published in the online forum of Overman Foundation. It has been translated into English from French by Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet.
With warm regards,
Amita told me the other day that since I had had the good fortune to see Sri Aurobindo and since this is the Centenary Year of his birth I could try to relate something of that encounter. Then I thought of applying “Free Progress” to the occasion, that is, I asked several among you to tell me what you would like me to speak about. In this way I collected six different questions which will be the basis of my talk; it is not I therefore who have chosen the topics.
To begin with, how did I meet Sri Aurobindo?
There are several ways to meet a person; it can be as I am meeting you now, personally; or else one can meet a person through his works. Well, it so happened that I met Sri Aurobindo without realizing how.
One day in Paris a very good lady-friend who was interested in India and who had been there and, knowing I was also interested, spoke to me of a young Indian who had just arrived in Paris to study science: would I like to introduce him to people and allow him to work with me at the University? Naturally I said “Yes”. He was a charming young man born not far from Madras, whose name was Ramaya Naidu. We both gave our Physics examinations at the Sorbonne at the same time. He was actually from Pondicherry. He invited me to his house and there introduced me to a big, magnificent man named Paul Richard whose wife, I was told, had remained in Pondicherry and would stay there for the rest of her life. Though I was greatly surprised I did not doubt for a second that this was the Mother. Some time later the lady who had introduced Ramaya to me said, “You know that a journal was brought out in Pondicherry in French called the Arya.” Then she lent me all the numbers she had. I was fired with this literature, and not long ago I found the Notes I had made while reading The Secret of the Veda. I never doubted what Sri Aurobindo was to be for me later. I had completely forgotten that reading, which was my first contact with him.
Many, many years passed. When I came to Pondicherry during the period I was Professor in Afghanistan it was in order to spend my vacation with my mother who lived here since she could not bear the altitude of Kabul because of her health. The first time I came down, a lady whom many of you know, Suvrata (Madame Yvonne Robert Gaebelé) said to us, “You know, there are two absolutely extraordinary people in our town, and I must introduce you to them.” She took us to the Darshan of November 24, 1935. That was the first time I saw Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
I see on this paper that the questioner would like to know what my first impression was. It is very difficult to say in a definitive manner what it was. When I saw Sri Aurobindo seated next to the Mother I had a feeling of certitude, of stability—an impression I had received often before on seeing a huge mountain… At the first glance I had the surety that what I had so long searched for, the solution of my problems, was there. I did not know why, there was no logic in it; but it was an absolute certitude which has never since changed. At that time I did not know any of his works; I began studying them from that period on: that is, 1935-36.
One used to see the Mother pretty frequently then. I was very friendly with Pavitra and in order to see him without bothering anyone I used to go and have breakfast with him in the room he occupied above the Atelier. Later it became a big office. I had the opportunity of seeing the Mother there, who often needed to see Pavitra. She had the look of a kind, gentle, affectionate grandmother. She would come in her dressing gown, with her grey hair pulled back: it was extraordinarily comforting because one felt to what extent she was human, direct, and one could tell her anything, ask her anything. Naturally one avoided questioning her at that moment, but in other interviews I was able to ask for explanations on Sri Aurobindo’s works that I was then getting acquainted with.
I have also been asked what side of Sri Aurobindo’s work appealed to me most. There are two attitudes in him which I most admire: the first is that he does not reject anything or anyone. There is a place for all opinions, even those which he does not accept, in his work. He has come to find that particle of truth that exists in everything because without it that opinion itself could not exist. One never feels a prisoner of ideas when one reads him. One never says, “This is a falsehood,” or else “That person is wrong”; one says, “Here is an incomplete idea.” Being a physicist, I was deeply struck because I had always been greatly impressed by the fact that the long succession of scientists did not contradict one another, as say those who have not studied science themselves. In fact they complement one another. Take, for example, the ancient Greek thinkers, or those of the Middle Ages, who had very different ideas from ours. Granting what they knew, one cannot say they were mistaken. They had a certain form of thought which, in relation to us and our present knowledge, is incomplete. Sri Aurobindo has maintained this attitude throughout his writings; this gives us the possibility to appreciate all forms of thought, even those apparently in opposition to ours. As a man of science, this is what originally impressed me and taught me so much. I said to myself, “Finally I have found someone who does not demand that I reject certain things in order to carry me towards others, someone who leaves me absolutely free to choose. Naturally, he also leaves me with the responsibility of choice.”
This was the second question. The third was: Sri Aurobindo’s cheerful disposition. When I learned from various disciples that he was humourous and used to smile and laugh readily, I said to myself, “Here is someone in whom I can have confidence, because a philosophy that makes one sad cannot be a wise one.”
I had the good fortune of meeting four or five persons who had really practised Yoga throughout their lives, who had totally consecrated themselves to it. They were all happy, good-humoured. I knew Sri Ramana Maharishi at Tirruvanamali. He used to smile readily in spite of his bad health and pain. I knew Sri Krishnaprem (Ronald Nixon): he was very cheerful and had maintained his British humour intact. I knew his Guru, Srimati Chakravarti: she was equally cheerful. An anecdote confirmed for me Sri Aurobindo’s humour. I was acquainted with the Chief of the French Police here, and I asked him to search through his files to see if he could find something concerning the Ashram in its early days. He came back later very intrigued and said to me, “Just imagine what I have discovered! I can’t give you the files but I can tell you that I found a police report which began by saying, ‘I, secret agent’—this way everybody knew it, didn’t they?—‘being stationed at the corner of rue de la Marine near a room where Sri Aurobindo and his friends had gathered, heard him laugh loudly: which goes to prove that these people are not very serious.’”
Hearing this, I said to myself, “This time I have found the right thing!” Sri Aurobindo was always like that. Purani once told me that a disciple had been very much preoccupied with the idea that in the future we would become Supermen. Not us, perhaps, but later on there would be a humanity higher than the present one on all levels. And so this disciple wanted to know if, given the proper conditions of reincarnation, he would become a Superman or a Superwoman. And he asked how his physical appearance would be. And naturally he wanted to know if he would be handsome. His anxiety was so great that he thought of speaking to Sri Aurobindo about it and asking him what he would look like. Sri Aurobindo very seriously told him: “Have you thought of one thing? You know that the Superman will be able to capture the energies of Nature in order to maintain his vitality. Therefore he need not eat. If he does not need to eat, he will not need teeth. Do you think that will be very pretty?”
The next question is: “What has been in my opinion, Sri Aurobindo’s special contribution to our knowledge, which distinguishes him from other teachers?” I had often asked myself the same question, because I had a passion for his works.
I wanted to write a book in French on Sri Aurobindo, and I had many opportunities because Sri Aurobindo was still here at that time. He agreed with my project and each time I wrote a chapter I would give it to Nirod, who would then read it to Sri Aurobindo and Sri Aurobindo would send it back with his comments. I am going to make a confession because we are talking here freely. Whenever there was a question which baffled me, I would imagine a solution and write it down, as if I was certain about it; and very often Sri Aurobindo would send me word: “No, it’s not like that. These are the facts.” And so I had the guidance I wanted, because if I had asked him directly, I knew that very probably he would have sent a message as follows: “It’s unimportant.” He knew quite well that this was a little game on my part and he accepted it, because he was not able to let any errors go by, even those of little importance. And he did this with absolute precision, and I give you the following two examples.
Generally one makes the distinction between the literary mind and the scientific. Sri Aurobindo is the perfect proof of the artificial and inexact character of that distinction. Here is a purely literary man, with the knowledge of ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and four modern European languages, who certainly respected science but never practised it; yet he had the scientific spirit. Here is the first example.
During the war Sri Aurobindo would have the English communiqué read out to him every day. I know this because when I would go for breakfast with Pavitra it was the time for military news. The receiving room was at Pavitra’s, who was then in charge of conveying the news to Sri Aurobindo. One day Purani went to Sri Aurobindo in the afternoon and, referring to military matters, said, “It’s terrible to think that yesterday again the German submarines sank 65,000 tons of Allied shipping.” Sri Aurobindo said, “No, 67,500.” He did not want any approximations.
Now for my second example. While I was writing my book I related how Sri Aurobindo began publishing the Karmayogin at Calcutta again after coming out of prison; and how in the newspaper once, he suddenly (as I wrote) “received the order to go to Chandernagore.” The next morning I was sent a little piece of paper where the word ‘recut’ which I had used was crossed out by Sri Aurobindo and in its place “perçut” was written. Well, one really has to know French in order to make a correction like that. Sri Aurobindo had a literary mind but of a perfect precision. It is a good point to keep in view: when you read him, say to yourselves that each word has been chosen and no other can be put in its place.
Here then is a primary original characteristic of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching: his openness to all opinions, his capacity to understand them and then to inject a new element.
I believe it was the corrections he made in my book that showed me just how rare it is to meet a teacher who is so completely attached to the Truth as to be able to see it everywhere, even under a mass of errors. And this not only in dealing with current theory but also in contemplating the unfolding of time.
Sri Aurobindo never depreciated the past in order to give value to the future—which is the goal of his action. On the contrary, he has sought as far as possible the eternal truth. For India he rediscovered it in the secret of the Veda, followed its evolution through the Upanishads up to the epics, then in the spiritual expansion that ensued, guided mostly by the Gita, until the appearance and magnificent development of the cult of the Divine Mother which characterizes our era and gives the key to the future, a future entirely different from the past.
This is another profoundly original aspect of Sri Aurobindo: to show the new and at the same time inevitable character, according to the Divine Will, of the transformation he announces and to indicate that everything which had preceded it was in effect a preparation.
I wish to emphasize this point: that which Sri Aurobindo announces and describes is not a theory which pleases him or which is to him personal; it is a truth he has experienced. One cannot help remarking once again that this is precisely the scientific attitude, and Sri Aurobindo knew this, since he himself said that his room was his laboratory. There he tried everything, verified it before offering it to us. I think you all understand how his teaching was, and still is today, the inspiration behind my work as a physicist.
We have here another question: his relationship with his disciples. I was not able to observe this directly since I did not have the good fortune to see Sri Aurobindo except at Darshan. But I had an indirect relationship with him through my books. And I have already given you an example of the care with which he attended to it. When it was finished, Nirod came to announce that Sri Aurobindo had asked him to tell me, “It can be published. No important errors remain.”
Another thing that I was able to confirm with him—and I have seen the same in the Mother—is that neither he nor the Mother is indulgent. They understand all the failings of the disciples but are not weak in dealing with them, not at all! When there is a mistake, they see it and speak of it. But they speak of it with a smile, and when it is not a serious matter they add, “If you insist, try, you will see, you will have the experience.” This always inspired absolute faith in the sense that I had the impression of seeing someone who possessed the Truth but who, at the same time, was closer to me than my own self, and to whom consequently I could say everything, someone who could understand all. I could even hope to understand what was being said to me, because it was said in such a familiar way: no big words, nothing extraordinary, no difficult vocabulary. Take the Mother’s Conversations. With what precision of language and thought she manages to deal with the highest subjects without ever using complicated words! It is truly an example. The reader has the feeling of finding everything very simple, even that which he has not understood at all.
Before arriving at any conclusions I must speak to you about a final, rather delicate question—without answering it—because it has been posed to Sri Aurobindo himself on a number of occasions and he has not answered. It is: “Why has Sri Aurobindo not spoken of his own Sadhana, since everybody would like some information on the subject?” I once asked Pavitra the reason for this reticence. Pavitra answered, “The reason is extremely simple. Sri Aurobindo used to say, ‘I don’t eat this, or I don’t eat that; I use this type of soap or that toothbrush, I meditate at such and such an hour. Everybody will do the same thing.’ And that is precisely what Sri Aurobindo does not want, because it is not by copying him that we can become him. It is up to the disciple to choose not only his hours for meditation but even the smallest necessities of life. It is up to him to acquire the proper attitude which will permit him to utilize his daily routine for spiritual progress.”
It is said that ready-made clothes never fit as well as those made to order. Well, it is the same thing regarding spiritual life but with much vaster consequences. If one imitates someone even though it be his Master, one is not what he could be and what he should be in all sincerity. Sri Aurobindo wanted to allow each of his disciples to discover the truth of himself. One can verify this in his letters. What is extraordinary is their varied forms. One feels therein the respect he had for that which was unique in each disciple. He used to answer apparently insignificant questions, without forgetting to add a little remark, brief but just necessary, and this without ever stressing errors.
There is only one really important case where he spoke of himself, in a very revealing manner. A disciple wrote to him, saying that what Sri Aurobindo had done was marvellous, admirable, but that surely he had come to this life with a past that was helping him, that he was, as one commonly says, well-equipped. To the disciple the proof was that when Sri Aurobindo wanted mental silence he obtained it and, what is unique, in three days he had been able to reach the state of Nirvana. Sri Aurobindo answered:
“… You write as if I never had a doubt or any difficulty. I have had worse than any human mind can think of. It is not because I have ignored difficulties, but because I have seen them more clearly, experienced them on a larger scale than anyone living now or before me that, having faced and measured them, I am sure of the results of my work…”
This statement—from a letter of December, 1933 (Second Series, p. 72)—seems extremely important to me, because it affirms at once Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of our difficulties and the possibility to overcome them, of which he was a living example.
At the time that I saw this letter The Life Divine had just appeared in two volumes. My mother and I had read them with passionate interest, such passion that meeting the Mother one morning at Pavitra’s I said to her, “Mother, this is the fourth time I am reading the first volume…” To which she answered, “That’s very good, but it would be good if you read the second also…”
That’s what I did. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. The impression I had, reading The Life Divine, was not at all that of receiving what is ordinarily called a lesson in philosophy, but that of listening to a traveller who had discovered a new land. He climbed a hill first, then a mountain and he described the panorama, first in one direction: in spirit he made me see its different aspects, from night to morning, under the stars, in daytime, with sun and clouds, I saw the seasons following each other… Then he turned in another direction to reveal another aspect; finally, I thought I knew this new land, knew how I would be able to live there.
And naturally the strong impression made me desire and then will to go to that country myself, made me desire to leave, to walk towards him… And it is perhaps for this reason that I am here today with you.
But don’t imagine that I was very far! My position—and I feel that there are many in the same situation—is a bit like a traveller who leaves for the United States (for example), having read very well a guide-book of the country. He disembarks and begins the stretch from New York to Washington. He notes the perfect concordance between what he sees and what the guide-book has taught him and he concludes that the book probably speaks the truth about the rest of the country. But this remaining portion is immense. I therefore took Sri Aurobindo’s book as a guide and Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as teachers. I forced myself to apply what I was learning to my daily work, that of a physicist in his laboratory, of a professor before hundreds of students: I always found precise and true indications.
Particularly in my laboratory where I had the opportunity for many years to advise researchers who were preparing their theses. Naturally they knew nothing of Sri Aurobindo and I did not speak to them of him; also I had to continually make an adaptation of his thought which was a marvellous job for me since I confirmed each day how the new vision of the world that Sri Aurobindo gives us was rich and true in its practical application.
This is applicable to students and professors of all ages. You know that in the case that interests us at present this application is “Free Progress”. Thanks to you, I begin to know its beauty and difficulty, and above all to become that which is lacking, so as to conform better to the original inspiration. But I must tell you that after having spoken in France with young people and with those not so young, I found, especially among the former, a good majority who understand that that is the direction necessary in order to come close to the realization of an ideal which is the essence of our lives.
I would like you to find in this testimony a further reason to make the Birth Centenary year, according to the wishes of the Mother, for all a very good year.