Sri K.D. Sethna (1904 - 2011), popularly known as Amal Kiran, was one the foremost and very learned disciples of Sri Aurobindo. A poet, writer and cultural critic, he published more than 40 books.
The doorbell rings. I enter the premises. Sri K.D. Sethna sits alert in his Mother India editorial office... Since 1949 he has been editing Mother India... At the age of 86, Sethna, in spite of his physical constraints, continues unabated on his mission. He is in constant touch with his inner world. His inner being is at peace, always. ...
I took an opportunity to talk to this man during my visit to Pondicherry. He was warm, affectionate and cordial. He spoke without reservation, with full confidence.
Q: Could you give an outline of your early life and how you happened to come to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry?
A: I was born in Bombay and educated at the Roman Catholic St. Xavier School & College. I passed my B.A. from Bombay University and started my study for M.A. In the course of these two years, I came in touch with somebody who had been acquainted with the Bengalee saint Pagal Harnath. After that I began to be interested in matters spiritual and looked out for all kinds of yogis passing through Bombay to show me some way to go beyond the mind and learn something of what they called the soul in me.
I came across a Marathi yogi, and asked him what should I do. He told me, “Try to pull your whole self-awareness from the feet right up to your head and feel as if you were sitting on the top of your head; your consciousness should be there.” Then he said, “When you feel you are there, you will see a ring of light. Try to jump into that ring and then you will be in Samadhi.” So I tried to do this, day after day, night after night, but I never got to the top of my head! What happened one day as I was practicing this meditation was that I found myself out of my body and floating in the air above my body. It was very vivid. There was no question of dreaming. I would touch the wall on one side, go to the other side of the room and come back. Then I tried to analyse what was happening. But as soon as I did this I lost that state and I seemed to go back to my body with a rush. Then I could open my eyes but could not move any part of my body, which was for a short time as if paralysed. Thus I had an experience that had given me the conviction that I was not only my body and could live without it. When my materialistic friends argued with me, my experience which had been so vivid and concrete came to my rescue. This was the first abnormal or supernormal experience I had.
Looking for some spiritual guidance I got one very unexpectedly. I went to a market in Bombay to buy a pair of shoes and bought my shoes. The man put them in a box, wrapped with a piece of old newspaper. I came home, opened the wrapping paper and my eyes fell on the sheet in front of me. There, in bold type, was the title of an article, “A visit to the Ashram of Aurobindo Ghosh.” I read the whole article and said to myself, “This is the place for me!” That is how I came to Pondicherry and the shoes I had bought became the shoes of a pilgrim.
That was quite a long time ago. I am now 86 years old, and at that time was 23 years of age. I went to see the man who had been the intermediary between me and the Ashram: Ambalal Purani. From his room, through the north-side window, I saw the Mother walking on the roof-terrace of her house, drying her hair after a shampoo. It was a vision of beauty. It went straight to my heart.Then after a time I had an interview with the Mother. In the interview I very dramatically told her, “I have seen the whole of life and now I only want God.” The Mother smiled a little and said, “What is your age?” I said “23”. “Oh at 23 you have seen the whole of life? Don’t be in a hurry, stay here and look around and then you can decide.” That was like cold water splashed on my enthusiasm. But I realized that here was a Guru who was not greedy to have disciples. Otherwise, generally Gurus say, “Of course, you can stay here.”
The first Darshan of Sri Aurobindo I had on Feb 21, 1928 – the Mother’s birthday. I made a few observations as to how he looked, what kind of beard he had, the shape of his nose, etc. I thought he was a nice Guru to accept. The next day I met the Mother and enquired of her whether Sri Aurobindo had said anything about me. She said, “Yes. He said that you have a good face.” I was examining Sri Aurobindo’s face and it turned out that he was doing the same for me – a sort of tit for tat!
Then came a period of six months before the next Darshan on August 15, Sri Aurobindo’s birthday. In that period a great deal happened which was spiritually very decisive for me. I continued with my practice of meditation every day. In those days there used to be a pain in my chest as soon as I started to meditate. I reported the matter to the Mother and she told me not to worry about it – it would go away of its own. After a time that pain disappeared. I had a feeling that a wall had broken down in front of my chest: such a wonderful sense of opening, wideness, freedom, quietude and a great delight, almost an unbearable joy that seemed to be self-existent – not depending on any external circumstances. I was wondering how long it would last. Naturally, it could not remain all the time. It went away. But it left behind a permanent opening, and with such an opening a human being can have a natural devotion for the Guru and God. This opening is called the opening of the psychic being.
Q: People are searching for a clue to life’s mystery. Could a spiritual Guru help them? What would you say about your life in the Ashram?
A: People in general are not inclined to look for a Guru. If they look for a Guru, they would like a Guru who would benefit them in their material life. The call for the spiritual life is very rare and that life is not an easy thing. People think it is leaving everything and all cares are gone, you will be troubled no more. In the spiritual life we are trying to swim upstream and that is quite a difficult job.
Specially, at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram here you cannot just retire into a room and do your sadhana. We have to come out and mix with people. All kinds of people are here. This is a laboratory. Not only intellectuals and highly developed people live here but also people with an ordinary mental capacity. We have to interact with people of different types and that is not very easy. It is like the life outside but on a more concentrated scale. Here, if you do not like somebody you cannot run away from him; you have to come in contact with him again and again. The problem that is in you has to be worked out.
So life in the Ashram is much more complex than the outside life. Our life is not one of seclusion. We have to be active and in our activities we have to manifest the spiritual consciousness. Whatever is within has to be worked out outside. Sri Aurobindo once wrote, “I have no intention of giving my sanction to a new edition of the old fiasco.” The old fiasco means: when you mediate you go within, you feel very fine, uplifted, but when you come out of your meditation and mix with people you are the same old person. No real change has taken place. Sri Aurobindo does not want that. The Mother once gave the example of a man who was very good at meditation. He could meditate hours on end. All that was very fine and uplifting. But once when he was in deep meditation somebody came and knocked at his door. He got up, opened the door and said, “You damn fool, don’t you realise what I am doing? How dare you disturb my Samadhi?” The Mother remarked that his meditation was worth nothing.
The outer life and the inner life have to be in harmony: the same thing manifested in two ways. That is the yoga we are trying to do here.This is the yoga of life’s transformation, that is why it is difficult. But at the same time the Guru’s grace is very great. When I came here, Purani once told me, “I have no desire to look at the Himalayas after seeing Sri Aurobindo! He is so grand.”
Sometimes I would go to the Mother with a few queries of my own, but as soon as I would face her all the problems would get automatically dissolved. You won’t know what to ask her. Everything seemed to be all right. Still, life is difficult because the inner and the outer harmonization has to take place. When you read Sri Aurobindo’s books and you hear the Mother’s talks and receive Sri Aurobindo’s letters, theoretically a lot of problems are solved. You know what is the end of life; you know how evolution has taken place and where it is heading to; what is it that survives after death, life after life. All that becomes clear to you, of course mentally. When you have a spiritual experience you begin to know who exactly you are and how the Divine is within you all the time, how the soul in you is a part of the Divine. But what is the soul? The experience I have told you about was of a self-existent bliss. If you have something of that experience then you are free from anxiety, from any kind of animosity and you do things according to the inner guidance. At the same time you will have to practice a kind of equanimity. You remain undisturbed in the midst of everything. Somebody says some harsh word, but there is no reaction. You do not react to anything. That is part of this yoga.
Q: All sorts of theories have flourished throughout ages. No theory or philosophy could claim absolute success, however grand it may be. Not only did most of them degenerate with the passage of time but also ceased to exist. From that viewpoint how would you look at Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga?
A: I think the Integral Yoga covers the whole of our being. It tries to put us in touch with the whole of existence and cannot be compared to partial-philosophical, religious or spiritual-experiments in the past. That is my feeling. I think that it lays the foundation of a new future for the world. A great deal can be done if we follow the light of Sri Aurobindo. But it is not easy to do so because of the inertia and resistance of the nature. It will take time.
Sri Aurobindo has a real solution to all the problems. He says that as long as we remain confined to the mental level we cannot solve all the problems. We have to go beyond that, we must enter a deeper and higher state of consciousness; then things will come to us, solutions will arise by inspiration and revelation. Then a lot of things can be done. Ultimately, I think, the world has to come to Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga, if it wants to solve its persistent problems. The Integral Yoga will never cease to exist. It may change according to the circumstances. But the core of it, the heart of it, will remain for all the future. If Sri Aurobindo takes a body again and improves upon his own work, that is a different question.
There is a certain finality in what he has seen, experienced, realized, written and tried to establish, having had an integral view. When I came to the end of reading ‘The Life Divine’, I felt that the author of the book must be the author of the universe!There was so much knowledge about everything. If my impression has any truth in it, Sri Aurobindo’s work will go on.
Q: Do you think that without knowing the Integral Yoga no one can practice it?
A: I think one can if one is open to one’s inmost being; there could be a natural Integral Yoga. But the meaning of integrality may not be the same. What Sri Aurobindo meant by integrality people may not be able to get by themselves. So, I believe, some familiarity with Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga is required. If one has to practice really the Integral Yoga as visioned by Sri Aurobindo, then of course one should read Sri Aurobindo’s books. When someone like Sri Aurobindo comes to the world, he spreads his light everywhere. Some receptive minds may practice the Integral Yoga spontaneously, but what Sri Aurobindo meant by Integral Yoga may not be very clear to them. There are certain radical experiences – for instance, the finding of the psychic being, which is a first basic step. How many people can do that? Ideas of goodness, truth, beauty are not the things the psychic being searches for. Its most spontaneous urge is to dedicate itself to the Supreme, to God. There is an aspiration to unite with the Highest. Truth, Goodness and Beauty are ingrained in the self of man. To find the psychic being, the true soul, is not an easy thing. Indirectly, many can contact it, but to go to its very core, as it were, to the throbbing centre of it, is not easy. It requires discipline, concentration, leading a certain regulated life, with the knowledge which Sri Aurobindo has brought. Unless you are in touch with Sri Aurobindo’s literature and have or had some inspiration, it is difficult to really get into the spirit of the Integral Yoga.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: I have no future plans but to remain at Pondicherry and to realise what the Mother and Sri Aurobindo expected of us. I do not know how long I will live, but my effort will be to go deeper and deeper into my own being and open myself more and more to the influence and the light of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.I am a writer. I have to go on writing. I still have 18 unpublished books on all kinds of subjects. For that finance is required. Once in a dream I saw that all my unpublished books had been stolen; they were not there. What a shock! I cannot write them all over again. At the same time it struck me to ask myself, “Am I not doing Sri Aurobindo’sYoga?” I realized that I could be calm, unruffled, detached, no matter what happened. When I got up, then only I found that it was only a dream. Sri Aurobindo has put something so very concrete in me that even in a dream my being was doing yoga!
Q: Are you afraid of death?
A: No. We know that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are waiting for us. We know where exactly we should go. As the Mother had said, Sri Aurobindo will remain not as a general influence but as a concrete embodied presence on the subtle-physical plane. He will remain close to the earth until his work is completed. We know we are not mere bodies but immortal souls. The experiences that I have gone through have confirmed the immortality of the soul, and naturally there is no fear of death. We want to live as long as possible because, according to the Mother, yoga can only be done in the embodied state. After death there is no evolution till we come back. We would like to live but live without fear.