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A Meeting with Amal Kiran (KD Sethna)—An Interview

by on July 3, 2012

How did you come here?
There came a time when I began to be interested in things beyond the ordinary course of events. I was a disbeliever for a long time and was critical of all ideas about God and soul and free will and such things. Then owing to certain circumstances an aspiration arose in me for looking for things which are ordinarily kept aside. Consequently I went to see a Maharashtrian super-Hatha-yogi, and asked him for some method for spiritual progress. He told me to try to feel myself drawn up from the whole body to the top of my head. From there I was supposed to see a ring of light. If my mind could jump into it I would be in what is called Samadhi. I never succeeded in getting to the top my head, but one night I suddenly found myself out of my body, quite conscious, not as in a dream, you know. I was floating from one wall of the room to the opposite wall. Out of my body, quite conscious not as in a dream, you know. Then I began to analyse my condition: “How the devil could it be that I’m lying on the bed and still am high up here?” As soon as I tried to do this I lost that experience. It was my first, concrete, occult experience. After I came here this kind of experience started happening again and again.

The first time I read of Sri Aurobindo was that he was a Yogi who could appear at two places at once and was also scholar knowing seven or eight languages, several of them foreign ones. I thought, “Any Yogi can do the first feat. But that a Yogi should be such a linguist is indeed extraordinary.” Later I met a theosophist who, knowing that I was in search of something spiritual, spoke to me of Sri Aurobindo. He told me that Sri Aurobindo had realised the cosmic consciousness, and that He was the only yogi who would satisfy such a complex person like me who makes demands on all fronts, poetry, science, philosophy, etc. A year or so after, I happened to go to Bombay’s Crawford Market to buy a pair of shoes. The shopkeeper put my purchase in a box and wrapped the box in a big newspaper sheet and tied it with a string. Returning home I untied the box. The newspaper fell open in front of me and I saw the headline: “A visit to the Ashram of Aurobindo Ghose.” I read the article immediately and said, “This is the place for me, where life is not impoverished but all our natural faculties are developed at the same time as the spiritual aspirations are fulfilled.” So I wrote to Pondicherry that I would like to come there. I got the reply to come and see how the conditions there would suit me. So in December 1927 my newly wedded wife and I took a detour through Calcutta, Puri, till Pondy was reached.

I had my first view of The Mother the day we arrived. She had come out on the terrace, and the day happened to be one on which she had shampooed her hair. I was struck by that vision of beauty. I said, “My God! What a beautiful person this is!” My wife and I were captivated. On the 21st of February we had our first darshan. We bowed to The Mother first, for we had seen her and known her, and then to Sri Aurobindo, and I looked at Sri Aurobindo. He appeared so very grand. I said to myself, “What a fine nose he’s got, and a fine beard, and a most majestic look on his face! This is a guru worth having.” Next day I met The Mother and asked her very hopefully: “Did Sri Aurobindo say anything about me? She said: “Yes, he said you’ve got a good face.” See, I had watched his face and he paid me back in my own coin! Then in the next six months a crucial change took place; something opened up in the middle of my chest and I felt as if all the time I was in meditation. Some kind of devotion would stream out of me. That was an experience which went on for months and months. Occasionally there was an almost unbearable ecstasy felt deep inside me, this is usually called the opening of the psychic being. Then came the second darshan: August 15, 1928. After it I again asked The Mother whether Sri Aurobindo had said anything. She took me inside her room and told me: “Sri Aurobindo was very pleased with you, there has been a great change.” I was so very happy!

Did you have any problem in accepting The Mother?
No, some people had that problem but I never had it at all. There were people I heard, who objected to The Mother, firstly because she was a foreigner, and secondly because there was no history of a woman being an avatar. So she could not be the Divine!—that was the argument. Two fellows who were very close to Sri Aurobindo had gone away from here because of this. Her being a foreigner didn’t affect me in the least. On the contrary there was an attraction because of my westernised education. Besides, he was so gracious, always trying to understand all our problems and meeting us so very often.

When did your correspondence with Sri Aurobindo start?
My correspondence began quite early. I wrote to him about finding yoga difficult. I had married just two months before—so naturally as a young man I had my problems. Sri Aurobindo wrote to me that everybody had his difficulties and that if my central being had chosen this path there was nothing to fear. It was a very fine letter and the most interesting part of it was that it was dated 1998 instead of 1928. So it will become mature ten years hence! It is a rarity as a document. So that is how we started and then come my introduction to Savitri. This was a very important thing in my life. I had heard that Sri Aurobindo was busy at a poem, on which he had been working for years and years and which he had been revising and rewriting and that it was called Savitri.

Once Sri Aurobindo sent me two lines of poetry to illustrate a point connected with a poem of mine which I had submitted to him. They ran:

Piercing the limitless Unknowable,
Breaking the vacancy and voiceless peace.

These lines seemed to have something immeasurably deep and their rhythm seemed wide-spreading. Naturally I asked Sri Aurobindo where they were from. He answered just one word: “Savitri”. This was my first introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s masterpiece.

When did you start writing poetry?
Oh! I had been writing poetry before I came here. When I sent my collection of poems to Sri Aurobindo he sent some back with his remarks. In the course of our correspondence Sri Aurobindo wrote to me about something he called “overhead poetry.” That means an inspiration that comes from above the thinking mind. And the highest place is the Overmind. From there come what is termed the Mantra, the most inspired spiritual utterance. This is very rare, you find it in the old Indian scriptures. In English poetry there are very few instances of this type. So I wrote to Sri Aurobindo, “I want to write overhead poetry from the highest plane. Please send me eight lines of sheer overmind.” Then Sri Aurobindo wrote to me: “Good heavens! I cannot give you like that on order poetry of pure overmind manufacture, but I will send you something already written in which you may find something overmindish though I doubt it.” So he began sending me passages from Savitri. He asked me to keep them a secret. There seemed a double purpose in our correspondence. I was helped to get a feel of “overmind poetry” and perhaps Sri Aurobindo was testing the future readership by marking my response. I used to type out the lines sent and make my remarks—sometimes a little cheeky – in the margins. All the letters published at the back of the printed editions of Savitri were addressed to me. They are very illuminating.

Did you ever talk to Sri Aurobindo?
No, unfortunately not.

It seems that The Mother was not very happy about you questioning Sri Aurobindo regarding Savitri?
There is a lot of misunderstanding on this point. But it is too complex to be explained briefly here. My so-called questioning was always meant to ensure that future critics might not raise questions. For example, there is a line in the opening canto of Savitri:

The darkness failed and slipped like a falling cloak.

I wrote to Sri Aurobindo that in the symbolic context this looked too realistic and too physical, I suggested to put something more spiritual. He said that in its own place it was quite all right and that he wanted it to be clearly like that. But he added a new line which had struck him. This line was:

From the reclining body of a god.

Then I said this was perfect! Such things used to go on and there are several lines which Sri Aurobindo has added not in order to satisfy my criticism but somehow that criticism brought about some kind of new inspiration. So my occasional cheekiness server some purpose. But nowhere was it meant that I could improve on Savitri or rewrite anything.

Once Nirod and I told the Mother that certain parts of Savitri had not been thoroughly revised, so people might think that this was Sri Aurobindo’s final version. But somehow the approach was not in the right spirit and she argued back: “How do you know that Sri Aurobindo did not intend to let it stand as it is?” So we kept quiet. Afterwards I wrote down all my points and when I met her again I told her that there were some suggestions regarding Savitri which we might put in a footnote somewhere. She said: “But why in a footnote? Put them all in an introduction.” You see, exactly the opposite because the attitude or approach had undergone a change somehow. So I learnt from these experiences that the attitude makes the greatest difference; the same thing which she had almost ruled out she accepted totally! Her ways are very difficult to gauge, you know.

As things are moving on now in the Ashram some people tend to get sceptical about the whole affair. What is your opinion about it?

It depends on how you live. If you live inwardly I think the same intensity is possible, there is no essential difference there. But to our outer being there is a certain disappointment because The Mother and Sri Aurobindo are not physically present. When Sri Aurobindo passed away it was terrible shock to me. Again and again in my correspondence he had given me to believe that he would finish the work which he had undertaken. I understood it to be—complete transformation, the supramentalisation not only of the consciousness but of the whole body too. Once he wrote to me: “I am not doing anything for myself, as I have no personal need of anything… If I am seeking after Supramentalisation, it is because it is a thing that must be done for the earth-consciousness and if it is not done in myself it cannot be done in others.” So all that gave me the faith that he would complete even physical transformation.

When I saw Sri Aurobindo’s body after he had left, my impression was that waves of power were coming out of it. And there was such an overwhelmingly exalting atmosphere, that I would say that in my life with Sri Aurobindo and The Mother I never had an experience spiritually so enjoyable as when Sri Aurobindo left his body. It’s a sort of paradox, but that experience was as if something was coming from above with a thundering intensity right down to the heart-center. And that gave me an idea of what Sri Aurobindo had done. He had made a breakthrough somehow like that. I was very much used to Sri Aurobindo seeing all that I wrote, so I was really disappointed and didn’t know what to do now that he was no more in his body. I spoke to Udar about it. He conveyed my predicament to The Mother. When I met her she held my hand and said: “Nothing has changed.” That really heartened me and then later when I met her again I asked her what had happened. She said: “It is perfectly clear to me but I am not going to tell you. You have to find it out yourself.” So I said that she should give me the power to find it out. She then put her hand on my head. Later I went to Bombay where for about a fortnight I just sat in the dazed condition and made my appeal to Sri Aurobindo: “If I cannot write something which will do justice to this great event which has taken place, all that I have written so far is useless. And if I can write something worthy, I don’t care whether or not I wrote anything else in future.” Then at the end of the fortnight all of a sudden I seemed to see something coming to me… I typed out my whole article and sent it to The Mother. I received a telegram which said that the article was fully approved. So what The Mother had told me that nothing had changed was absolutely true. The inspiration from Sri Aurobindo had come! This is the best article I have ever written. Even now when I come up against a difficult problem which I cannot solve, I appeal to Sri Aurobindo at night and every time the help comes. So his help, his presence are always there. The Mother’s presence is also there but the physical absence of both is sometimes really galling, because some of us used to meet The Mother every day. But apart from that I don’t think the inner working has changes in any way. Nolini has said, and I agree with him, that the work of the physical transformation has been postponed. Without them the physical transformation, the supramentalisation of the body which requires very special conditions is postponed. But before that there is ample scope for any kind of inner development, you can go as high as the Overmind and when you reach a higher consciousness many things can happen to you, even physically things can happen. But the last transformation is not possible at present. That is the only difference I see. Naturally when our gurus are not outwardly there people feel that they have no guidance and so some sort of laxity, inner-life laxity, is not impossible, it can happen, human beings are like that. If people really want to do yoga and lead a spiritual life they can do it with as much intensity as before and they can get a great deal of help from their own inner beings as well as from Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. That is how I see it.

Who is a real poet according to you?
A real poet is one who has the capacity to express himself with intensity of vision, intensity of word and intensity of rhythm. These three intensities in whatever degree are required to make a poem a poem; otherwise it is at best some kind of very efficient verse. But there are various types of poetry, one must admit. A true poem can be about anything but in all poetry there is a spiritual force at work; it can work directly and it can work indirectly. Mere belief in God will not do, your every line must move like a god. Then whether you believe in God or do not, it does not matter so far as poetry is concerned. You have to write from some inner source—that is all. Of course, the crowning phase in the history of poetry is a varied expression of spirituality, as in Savitri.

What are you working on now?
There are three or four things I am doing now. A lot of my time is spent on discussing the problems of the Critical Edition of Savitri, because various questions are raised and one has to come to some kind of working conclusion. Another thing is that I want to put all my unpublished books in order, there are about 18 unpublished books so they should be ready for publication before I decide to say good-bye. Otherwise they might be chaos. Another job is to complete a series of researched I have undertaken in ancient Indian history. Two books of mine have already come out on this subject and a third book which is the longest, about 700 printed pages, and I hope the best, as well as the last, is shortly due. I have also plenty of significant correspondence to attend to. And of course there is Mother India on my hands. Every month I have produced it for nearly forty years, we have never failed our date. Formerly Mother India used to be partly concerned with political themes but then The Mother said: “I’m bored with politics.” So we made Mother India a purely cultural magazine.

Which are the poets or writers who have influenced you?
After coming here of course it was Sri Aurobindo, but before that and even now there are certain poets whom I like a great deal and one of them is Wordsworth, the younger Wordsworth. As he grew older and older, he became more conservative, conventional. When he was young he was a bit of a revolutionary. And he has real spiritual inspiration. Among others, Shelley and Keats have been my favourites. Among the modern poets it is A.E and Yeats whom I like the most. Much of modern poetry is very poor.

Do you form your poems mentally or get inspired?
Well, some sort of a seed or spark is suddenly felt falling into one at the beginning and then round it one tries to evoke some structure of imagery, idea, feeling and one waits for the development to take place. In the early days my poems used to start anywhere, sometimes I wrote the last stanza first, and from there I’s finish the poem. Later, poems as wholes started to come and the writing was an even flow.

Can you give a poem of yours as an example of your work?
Lately there has been a lot of discussion over a tree in the compound next to Pranab’s place, which was sought to be cut down. In the midst of the opposition to the cutting-down, someone remembered that I who had been staying on the opposite side of the road had written a poem inspired by what I had seen of that tree one early morning. So let me give you that poem. It is titled “Tree of Time” and runs:

I am a tree of time, a swaying shadow,
With one sole branch lit by eternity—
All of me dark save this song-fruitful hand.
There the large splendour tunes my blood and makes
Fragments of deathless ecstasy outflower;
And I but live in these few fingers that trace
On life’s uncoloured air a burning cry
From God-abysses to God-pinnacles.
Some day the buried vast which hold me rooted
In dreamful kingship to the height of heaven
Shall wake: then through each quivering nerve shall course
Like the brief passions of earth, but nectar-flame—
A force drunk with its own infinitude.

Will you tell us of Sri Aurobindo has said anything about this poem?
Yes, he has said something. For your sake I will overcome my modesty and quote him! He commented: “These lines are very good and this time you have got a true movement of blank verse.”

Valeria and Sudhakar
August 1988

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