Surrendering in Pondicherry

Back in the distant past of December 2010, I was at home in my parents’ house in Liverpool. It was a typical family Christmas where tensions were running high, resulting in squabbles. The wider picture of my life wasn’t too bright either – my mother had recently had a major health scare, I had failed my driving test, split up from a very intense relationship and I had started to use alcohol as a way of escaping my woes. I loved London life but it was exhausting. I was single and unfulfilled in my job. I came down with a nasty flu bug and spent most of the holiday season lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and meditating on what my life had become. During this time I was reading a book about India which was rekindling a long held desire to come to this place. At one point I remember reading the word surrender - this word literally jumped out of the page. I threw my head back onto the pillow and dropped my book to the floor. That was it. I would pack up my life and go to India.

Colonial architecture in Pondicherry 
Fast forward to the present: having left Mumbai I travelled the 23hrs to Chennai in relative luxury in a high class cabin. I befriended my fellow passengers, a newly wed Indian couple who were also Shiva devotees and in the morning we sang bhajans (religious devotional songs) together as the landscape changed as we moved through three Indian states. After an overnight stop in Chennai and a 4 hour local bus (which only broke down once) , I arrived in the picturesque former French colony of Pondicherry. This breezy breath of fresh air on the South East coast of India provides welcome relief from the stonking heat of the Tamil Nadu summer. Magenta bougainvillea explodes from the greying, elegant facades of characteristic colonial architecture and for a moment, you could be in Europe. No doubt the peaceful serenity of Pondi is owed to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, which lies at the heart of it.

The serenity of the house in Pondicherry
I had arranged to stay with my friend's great uncle Praveen and had been warned that my accomodation for the night was a 'pure house', but I had no idea what to expect when I rocked up after my epic journey. I arrived to the beautiful, circular front door of one of the oldest and grandest houses in Pondi and stepped into the cool marble of a room hung with pictures of Sri Aurobindo and 'The Mother', the spiritual leaders of Pondicherry and Auroville. Through the translucent blue of an enormous fish tank, I could see flashes of the golden fins of enormous koi carp. The place was so calm and silent that it was almost intimidating, like a museum. I shuffled uncomfortably in my tattered travellers' clothes and was promptly packed off alone to the ashram for a simple yet wholesome lunch. This being India, I had not been given any clear communications as to what I was supposed to be doing, so I spent the afternoon amusing myself taking in the beauty of Pondi, sipping chai and smelling the sea air and meditating in the cool breeze of the ashram, next to the flower strewn tomb where Sri Aurobindo and The Mother are laid to rest. 

Sri Aurobindo image c/o
Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta in 1872 and, despite being educated in England during his formative years, returned to India at the age of 21 to play a strong and passionate role in the fight for Indian independence, becoming leader of the Indian national party and later being detained by the British government.  Devotees say that he paved the way for Gandhi to continue and complete his work. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo received a calling to withdraw from the political stage and instead dedicate himself to a life of the evolution of the spirit - he spoke of having a direct channel to the consciousness of Vishnu. He settled in Pondicherry in 1910 to continue to work towards the greater good of mankind through his writings and teaching his system of 'integral yoga'.

The Mother image c/o 
Six years after the birth of Sri Aurobindo (and on the other side of the globe), Mirra Alfassa (later to become known as 'The Mother') was born in Paris to a Turkish mother and Egyptian father who had previously settled in France in 1877. At a very early age The Mother knew that she had innate psychic and spiritual abilities and that she had direct access to a higher consciousness (that she called 'Vishnu'), realising around the age of 11 that she was to "manifest Him on earth in a life divine".  Although she studied occultism and directed spiritual gatherings, The Mother led a relatively secular life, marrying and having a child, and it was not until the age of 36 that she met Sri Aurobindo and saw that he was her spiritual counterpart. She was unable to return to India until after the First World War and settled in Pondi in 1920 to collaborate with him, founding the ashram in 1926. Together, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother represented the male and female consciousness - the yin and yang - spiritual collaborators in perfect harmony. 

The Mother's vision for Auroville
After Sri Aurobindo's death, The Mother continued his work and in 1968 called for the creation of Auroville a "universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and nationalities. Auroville lies on the coast, just north of Pondicherry and consists of communities which are mostly self sustainable, vegan and utilising permaculture farming methods. The communities all have very evocative names such as Solitude, Certitude, Shanti, Fertility, Discipline, Sincerity. The only requirement to live in Auroville is to be a "willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness". 

Later that evening, I enjoyed a warm, intimate evening of generous hospitality with Praveen's family and yet I still hadn't connected with him. Back at the house, I sat awkwardly with him and had no idea what to say. There was something that made me uncomfortable: I felt that he disapproved of me with my womanly western ways, my nervous chit chat and small talk. His silence and piercing stare was disarming. And then - a breakthrough. I started talking of my spiritual journey thus far - of how I wrestled with 'faith versus expectation', my struggle with dualism, how I was scared to let go and become 'spiritual'. Though all of this Praveen sat, calm and beautific and gave me answers to all of my questions with so much compassion, gentleness and wisdom, that I wept at the table. In Praveen's presence, I felt closest to the divine. 

The Matrimandir meditation centre, the soul of Auroville
Praveen's story goes like this: he was a complete atheist - having been an entrepreneur in his late teens the only god he had worshipped was that of wealth. He wanted a better life and sought that out through material gain. However, at the age of 21 he received an inner calling to go to Pondicherry to meet The Mother. He told me that she imbued flowers with great significance and when he went to meet her for the first time, he carried with him a pink rose - said to denote 'surrender'. I couldn't believe the coincidence. Praveen took one look into the blue-grey eyes of The Mother and said that he saw directly into God. He has lived in the ashram ever since. 

I slept wonderfully...
Despite being a little scared at first of the monastic nature of the house, I slept the sleep of angels in my clean room, beneath pictures of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The next day, after several more hours of discussion in the ashram, during which time he seemed to answer the questions in my head that I had before I had even voiced them, I set off for Sadhana Forest - the self sustainable community which was to become my home for the next 4 weeks. It was with some trepidation that I left for there as I had heard rumours of large numbers of hospitalisation due to food poisoning and even that a rape had taken place in the surrounding area. However, I was eager to come to my own conclusions about it and give it a try.

Little did I know that during my stay in Sadhana forest I would make a beautiful connection with a scientist from Ohio. One day, we were to break out and walk to the Aurovillean town of 'Surrender'. For us, there was no other place to go...


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