It has been decided that throughout the month of July 2011 we would publish a series of articles on Amal Kiran alias K.D. Sethna as a humble tribute to him. We are starting the series from today with an interview of Amal Kiran taken by Anie Nunnally in 1999.
You are also invited to share your reminiscences and articles on Amal Kiran with us.
With warm regards,
An Interview with Amal Kiran by Anie Nunnally
Amal now calls home the Ashram Nursing Home on Goubert Boulevard where he has resided since May 1999 after his hip was broken. He does not want to return to his house as he is well taken care of at the nursing facility and is freed from all the responsibilities of “housekeeping” as he says. The monsoon rains were teeming on many days that I visited him, but there was always sunshine when I entered his room because of his warm, welcoming and sunny disposition. This was true, also, of his lovely assistant, Minna. He is given daily physical therapy sessions, receives many visitors and when I arrived he was often sitting in the sun room overlooking the Bay of Bengal, pondering the tireless waves and surf that pound the concrete walls along the boulevard. He seemed quite peaceful and contented there.
Following are some of the questions I put to Amal and his answers:
ANIE: Would you describe your first darshan with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. What experiences did you have with them?
AMAL: The first darshan with the Mother I had the impression of a radiance all around Her. When I first saw Sri Aurobindo I had the sense of something leonine, as well as a mountainous calm. He leaned forward and blest me with both hands about my head. The Mother kept smiling all the time as if to set me at ease in the presence of Sri Aurobindo. My turn to go to them was to follow an American couple that I overheard discussing whom to bow to first. They solved the problem by bowing between them. This way they touched the feet of neither but had the rare experience of being blest by both of them at the same time. I looked at Sri Aurobindo and saw Him gently moving His head forward and backward with an expression on His face as if he saw my inmost being. I felt afterwards a little disappointed with myself for having examined His look and general appearance. I liked the shape of His nose and the way he seemed to look deep within me. But afterwards, I did feel disappointed with myself for having concentrated on His outer appearance. When I met the Mother later on I asked Her “Mother has Sri Aurobindo said anything about me”? She said “Yes, He told me that this young man has a good face”. So it seemed to be “tit for tat”. I was a little disappointed but I told myself that to have a good face in Sri Aurobindo’s eyes cannot but mean a great deal—at least it meant that I could face the difficulties of the yogic life. Sri Aurobindo had a soft, very soft voice, I am told, but I never heard Him speak.
ANIE: Can you describe the atmosphere of the ashram when Mother and Sri Aurobindo were in their physical bodies and the difference since that time.
AMAL: The general atmosphere of the ashram did not change radically. When both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had left their bodies, I could still feel their presence. Perhaps because their subtle physical was said to have extended a number of miles beyond their bodies. I remember being told that their subtle physical bodies extended up to the Lake Estate, several miles away. So it may be said that they hold us close to them even at a great distance.
ANIE: In what way did your sadhana change after They left Their bodies? How has the sadhana changed for you at this stage in life and what new forms has it taken?
AMAL: The sadhana has not fundamentally changed since my first experience which was the opening of the heart center about six months or so after I settled in Pondicherry. I was persistently after this opening of the heart and several times I made the Mother touch me with Her hand in the middle of my chest asking Her to break me open there and at last there was an opening. At that time, I realized just how shut human beings are in their heart region. With that opening came the sense not only of a great wideness but also of a lovely atmosphere full of flowers and fragrances accompanying this happy warmth. Sometimes the sense of the opening was so intense that I felt almost breathless and prayed that this heavenly feeling would never go away.
ANIE: What changes do you see taking place in the ashram in the future and will it be different, in any way, from what it is now?
AMAL: So long as there exists a nucleus of sadhaks in the ashram really doing the yoga, the ashram will remain as it always has.
ANIE: What do you see as being the strongest attributes and contributions of Americans to the work of Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
AMAL: Mother felt that external help for the growth of the ashram would come imminently from America, but She said there would be a sort of tantalizing connection. I remember Her saying that Ganesh, the Lord of wealth, would always help Her but often in a wayward way. There were times when the ashram was almost desperately in need of money. The Mother had to sell Her own saris to obtain the needed relief. There were some American followers who bought the saris and then offered them back to the Mother. A great deal of money began to pour in to the Mother from America after Her departure.
I always felt a special admiration for those who had never seen Mother or Sri Aurobindo in their physical bodies and yet could dedicate themselves to the ashram life…especially those people from America and other countries. I know of some who had come here as fulfilling a part of their pilgrimage in India but having stayed on here for some time dropped their idea of seeking elsewhere and stayed on in the ashram. The first Americans to settle here were a couple named Mr. and Mrs. McPheeters. The husband went out to travel to various places and when he returned was not quite the same person. During his absence his wife was made by the Mother a part of the small group that used to meet the Mother in the prosperity store room before the soup ceremony took place. Janet McPheeters would have stayed on if it had not been for her husband who wished to return toAmerica.
ANIE: One difficulty occurring in the sadhana is straying from the path, doing what one knows not to do, becoming discouraged, etc. Did this happen in your sadhana? How to guard against this happening and what to do if and when it comes?
AMAL: Straying from the path and doing what one knows not to do are real obstacles in yoga. Becoming discouraged now and again is a very common phase but one can get over this condition by appealing again and again to the Divine for help. In any kind of difficulty the most powerful help lies in praying to the Divine to carry one safely through the dark periods. The Divine is always ready to pick you up whenever you fall. A certain passage in the Mother’s Prayers and Meditations has been the chief support of my yoga. It begins “O Divine and adorable Mother, what is there that cannot be overcome with Thy Help?” There is also the passage “Thou hast promised to lead us all to our supreme destiny”. Not always to go on struggling but to appeal to the Mother to take up our struggle is one of the major secrets of success. Perhaps it is best summed up in the formula “Remember and Offer”. To practice this most fruitfully one must stand back inwardly from the invading impressions.
ANIE: Now that you are in your 90’s, what has yoga done for you at this stage in your life?
AMAL: My paramount aspiration, as stated earlier, was to have the opening in the heart—what Sri Aurobindo called the Psychic Being. This gave me an intense feeling of joy that was self-existent. I was always afraid it would not last, but last it did, though not always at the same pitch. Ever since this first breakthrough there has always been a sense of a radiant response to the presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
ANIE: Could you explain what it was like to be Sri Aurobindo’s correspondent for Savitri?
AMAL: A friend of mine with some literary accomplishment gave, on my invitation, his comments on Savitri. Mostly they were critical. I submitted them to Sri Aurobindo and he considered them by answering. He found them not sufficiently penetrating because the writer had no spiritual background, but as they were from an accomplished literary consciousness, Sri Aurobindo thought it worthwhile to enter into a discussion with him. When I sent a copy of Sri Aurobindo’s answer to my friend he was rather apologetic and said that if he had known that Sri Aurobindo would read them, he would have been less “downright” in his tone. It was good that he was “downright” because thereby he gave Sri Aurobindo an opportunity to reply at length. Sri Aurobindo considered his comments as representative of a competent critical mind and he wanted this kind of mind to realize the newness of such poetry as Savitri, which was written from a yogic consciousness. Sri Aurobindo’s answers to various criticisms by me helped to make clear the level from which Sri Aurobindo wrote his spiritual poetry. Sri Aurobindo said my questions to Him were based on some understanding of the kind of poetry he wrote and the plane from which He did so. Whereas, my friend’s comments were lacking in sympathetic understanding. Savitri struck me as opening up an entirely new world not only of experiences but of literary expression. It was a great help to me because I was eager to write from what Sri Aurobindo called the overhead planes. Of course I aspired to participate in that consciousness but more directly my aim was to open myself to the influence and receive the direct utterance of poetry. It was possible to be receptive to it without myself getting stationed on those higher levels. Sri Aurobindo distinguished these levels as higher mind, illumined mind, intuitive mind and overmind intuition. He considered these planes as being communicated by us through our poems. The sheer overmind was difficult to tap and examples of the sheer communication could be found mostly in the Rig Veda, Upanishads and part of The Gita. It was interesting to realize that by silencing one’s mind and keeping the consciousness looking upward, as it were, it was possible to write the highest spiritual poetry now and again without being stationed on those overhead levels. It is also interesting to note that one or two skillful changes in a poetic statement could mean a leap from the mental level to the overhead one. A striking example can be given by the small change made in one line like:
“A cry to clasp in all the one God-hush”
A sheer uplifting of the plane can come by transferring two words from the middle of the line to its end so that the line would read:
“A cry to clasp the one God-hush in all”
The first version suggests that this cry could be suggested by an effort to catch it while the other version transmits the plane directly.
ANIE: For many years you had been going to the samadhi for long meditations on a daily basis. Would you describe what you experienced in these meditations?
AMAL: There was a response from the samadhi towards me and from myself towards the samadhi. The presence of Mother and Sri Aurobindo became more intense during these visits to the samadhi. Afterwards the persistent feeling was that I carried the samadhi within myself, so I do not feel an acute need to be physically face to face with it any longer.
Some days later I returned to the nursing home to visit Amal. It was Christmas Eve morning and he was dressed in a bright red shirt and was also wearing his ever- present bright and happy smile. On this day, the last interview day, I had no specific questions. We spoke of many things among them being that of feeling the Mother’s presence within. I told him that after my near death experience from an automobile accident in 1962, that the Mother had come to me miraculously bringing me back from the portals of death. At that time she entered my consciousness, opened my psychic being and since that time has remained permanently in my heart center. I stated that I felt Sri Aurobindo as a vast Presence looking down on me from very high above as the Purusha consciousness. Amal said “Yes, Sri Aurobindo is too large to live within our hearts; we live within Him”!
Amal told me that the Mother said if someone came to her even once she did two things: She linked their outer being to their psychic being and the other was that she put out an emanation of Herself to go with that person for all of their lifetime. That emanation would go out in accordance with the spiritual needs of the sadhak.
We discussed death further and he said that he spoke to the Mother on a crucial point about going on doing yoga life after life. The Mother said “That is not a part of our program”!* Amal said for him this was a thundering statement. How then did Sri Aurobindo pass away? His passing was called “The Great Sacrifice”. It was not a death in the ordinary sense. Paradoxically, Amal said, with His death the “power of death” died. Death as a regular, fixed principle of evolution no longer exists. Of course people still “die” but death and decay was the last victory of the work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother for the earth and it is from the subtle physical plane that this work continues until it is completed. Amal said that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo have a “home”, an actual “abode”, on the subtle physical plane. Many ashramites have “visited” this plane and have seen them there.
After this discussion silence fell and we remained in this vast moment of eternity for quite sometime. I quietly left with no further words exchanged.
* In the complete fulfillment of Sri Aurobindo’s vision, physical immortality is seen as a culminating result and there was a belief in the early years of the Ashram that Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and all the (then few) disciples would become immortal. The Mother’s later conversations (as in the Agenda), make clear that she was pushing the limits of her physical consciousness towards the immortal supramental body, but was unsure if it was to be done now. In this conversation with Amal Kiran, some time after Sri Aurobindo’s passing, she affirms the view of a physical supramentalization in this life. Corresponding to this, she contextualizes Sri Aurobindo’s passing as “The Great Sacrifice’, which destroyed the “principle of death”, so that physical death was no longer “necessary” and would eventually disappear, once the human physical consciousness awoke to this fact and eradicated the “habit”. The “death” of the Mother herself, then, may also be seen in this light as a concession to the present human condition.