“The Mother: The Birth and Growth of a Flame”—A Review by Dr. Alok Pandey

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Title: The Mother: The Birth and Growth of a Flame. Author: Anurag Banerjee. Publisher: Overman Foundation, Kolkata. Number of pages: 362. Price: Rs. 475.

The briefest and the most comprehensive biography of the Mother is undoubtedly the sixth chapter of Sri Aurobindo’s small booklet, The Mother. He reveals:

‘The One whom we adore as the Mother is the divine Conscious Force that dominates all existence, one and yet so many-sided that to follow her movement is impossible even for the quickest mind and for freest and most vast intelligence. The Mother is the consciousness and force of the Supreme and far above all she creates…

There are three ways of being of the Mother of which you can become aware when you enter into touch of oneness with Conscious Force that upholds us and the universe. Transcendent, the original supreme Shakti, she stands above worlds and links the creation to the ever unmanifest mystery of the Supreme. Universal, the cosmic Mahashakti, she creates all these beings and contains and enters, supports and conducts all these million processes and forces. Individual, she embodies the power of these two vaster ways of her existence, makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature…

All the scenes of the earthplay have been like a drama arranged and planned and staged by her with the cosmic Gods for her assistants and herself as a veiled actor.

The Mother not only governs all from above but she descends into this lesser triple universe. Impersonally, all things here, even the movements of the Ignorance, are herself in veiled power and her creations in diminished substance, her Nature-body and Nature-force, and they exist because, moved by the mysterious fiat of the Supreme to work out something that was there in the possibilities of the Infinite, she has consented to the great sacrifice and has put on like a mask the soul and forms of the Ignorance. But personally too she has stooped to descend here into the Darkness that she may lead it to the Light, into the Falsehood and Error that she may convert it to the Truth, into this Death that she may turn it to godlike Life, into this world-pain and its obstinate sorrow and suffering that she may end it in the transforming ecstasy of her sublime Ananda. In her deep and great love for her children she has consented to put onherself the cloak of this obscurity, condescended to bear the attacks and torturing influences of the powers of the Darkness and the Falsehood, borne to pass through the portals of the birth that is a death, taken upon herself the pangs and sorrows and sufferings of the creation, since it seemed that thus alone could it be lifted to the Light and Joy and Truth and eternal Life. This is the great sacrifice called sometimes the sacrifice of the Purusha, but much more deeply the holocaust of Prakriti, the sacrifice of the Divine Mother.’

In other words, for any biography of the Mother to even remotely come close to even a semblance of truth must contain the following:

1. There should be some touch of oneness between the biographer and his Divine subject. Mere respect, admiration or a human appreciation is not enough.

2. Her movements and actions cannot be fathomed by the analytical mind and even the swiftest of intelligence since it has neither the inner data nor is aware of the inmost springs of action that move the heart and mind of the Avatara. Even when something is revealed in their own words still the mind not in resonance with the truth behind the words cannot really grasp it.

3. It should touch upon not only the scenes of her individual and personal life (if there is any such thing in isolation) but see them in the light of the two vaster ways of existence, — her universal and transcendent Self. It is nearly impossible to connect these three unless one is blessed oneself with the seer-vision of a Vyasa or a Valmiki.

4. It should take into full account the challenges, difficulties, resistances and possibilities of the cosmic play that the Avatara comes to deal with.

That it is impossible to fulfil all these conditions is only a truism and hence the general advice about the futility of such an endeavour.

And yet it cannot be denied that a well-written biography of even a Vibhuti or a great man, let alone an Avatara, has a great inspirational value for generations to come. The actions of an Avatara leave upon Earth the touch of Heavens, sets into motions new forces and new yardsticks of conduct, releases forces and energies into the flux and flow of Time for generations to follow. Herein lies perhaps the justification of such an effort.

But how to bridge the vast gap between the human ignorance the Divine Gnosis, between the animal man aspiring towards divinity and the Divine becoming human to lift us up and out of our animality? The answer lies in faith and devotion, in aspiration, prayer and surrender that can open the doors of our soul and for a moment we are able to glimpse a little bit of the Marvel and the Mystery whom we know and adore as the Mother.

It is here that we must give full credit to a biographer like Anurag Banerjee. His sharp intellect is made subservient to the intuitions of his heart; his scholarly mind is made into a living and surrendered tool in the hands of the Master; his writing and his work turns into a prayer and an obeisance. It is not just a book but homage by a scholar-devotee or a historian-disciple.

This is not to say that the book has been written only from a devotee’s point of view. On the contrary, it is a very well-researched work. If anyone has any doubt that a devotee cannot write a good biography without subordinating his devotional element then here is the proof to the contrary. In fact after reading this book written in a scholarly way one can only affirm that it is only a devotee who can write a truly well-researched book. The reason is very simple and obvious. Firstly, being in love with his subject, the author spares no effort to dig out the smallest details that would add to the glory of his Master. There is plenty of new information for those who have not had the fortune to dwell much on the unique life of the embodied Divine and His Shakti. For example he reveals the significance of the name Sri Aurobindo which is albeit not known to many even in the circle of devotees and admirers. Thus, for instance, he writes:

‘Regarding the significance of the word ‘Sri’ in the name of Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Nolini Kanta Gupta wrote in a letter dated 30 November 1961:

Soeurette, [Little Sister]

Mother has shown me the letter you wrote to her about the problem of “Sri” that is troubling you. She wishes me to communicate to you my view of the matter. Well, I shall be frank and forthright. It is an error to think that Sri is only an honorific prefix to Aurobindo which is the real name. It is not so. Sri does not mean Mr. Or Monsieur or Sir, etc. It is part of the name. Sri Aurobindo forms one indivisible word. This is the final form Sri Aurobindo himself gave to his name. And I may tell you that the mantric effect resides in that form.

Sri is no more difficult to pronounce than many other Indian or Euro-American syllables. And I think it is not always healthy either to come down to the level of the average European or American under the plea that that is the best way to approach and convert the many. I am afraid it is a vain illusion; better rather to oblige the average to make an effort to rise up and grapple with the truth as it is.

Mother has seen this admonition of mine to you and fully approves of it.

Begging to be excused for perhaps a highbrow tone in my letter, I remain

Your very sincere and affectionate grand frére, [big brother]

Nolini Kanta Gupta

He further goes on to tell us also how and when perhaps Mira Alfassa became the Mother:

‘Nolini Kanta Gupta recalls in his reminiscences: ‘In the beginning, Sri Aurobindo would refer to the Mother quite distinctly as Mira. For some time afterwards (this may have extended over a period of years) we could notice that he stopped at the sound M and uttered the full name Mira as if after a slight hesitation. To us it looked rather queer at the time, but later we came to know the reason. Sri Aurobindo’s lips were on the verge of saying “Mother”; but we had yet to get ready, so he ended with Mira instead of saying Mother. No one knows for certain on which particular date at what auspicious moment, the word “Mother” was uttered by the lips of Sri Aurobindo.’1 We shall henceforth address Mira Devi as the Mother.

But it was not Sri Aurobindo who had addressed Mira Devi as the Mother for the first time. It was Madame Marie Potel (1874-1962) who had met her in 1911 and 1912 and became the first person to address her as ‘Mother’ for she considered her to be the spiritual guide of her life. She paid a visit to Pondicherry in March 1926 and spent two years in the company of the Mother. Apart from receiving the new name of ‘Ila’ from Sri Aurobindo before her departure in March 1928, she also had the good fortune (because in those days he hardly encouraged correspondence) of receiving three letters from Sri Aurobindo one of which formed the idea of the sixth chapter of the booklet, The Mother. Though Sri Aurobindo had begun to address Mira Devi as the Mother, the followers would begin to do so only towards the end of 1926. We shall discuss it in detail in the following chapter.

A question might arise: when Sri Aurobindo had declared that he and the Mother were the same Power in two forms, what was the cause of addressing Mira Devi as the Mother? In India, one’s parents and guru occupy the most respectful positions in one’s life. By addressing Mira Devi as the Mother, Sri Aurobindo not only gave her the highest position in the household but also tried to inform the inmates about her true self. It would only be in 1928 that Sri Aurobindo would pen his booklet The Mother in which he openly described the features and powers of the Mother.

The Mother, on her part too, changed the outlook and attitude of the inmates towards Sri Aurobindo. His young companions looked upon him, not as a spiritual guide, but as a close friend and an elder brother for whom they had left behind everything only to be with him. They freely drank wine and smoked in Sri Aurobindo’s presence. Nolini Kanta writes that though Sri Aurobindo occupied the position of a Guru in the minds and hearts of the inmates but outwardly the behaviour was such that it seemed as if he were just like one of them. Moreover, Sri Aurobindo himself was also reluctant to be addressed as a Guru. Therefore the Mother, through her manners and speech, showed the inmates what the true relationship of a Guru and his disciple was and should be. ‘She showed us,’ Nolini Kanta reminisces, ‘by not taking her seat in front of or on the same level as Sri Aurobindo, but by sitting on the ground, what it meant to be respectful to one’s Master, what was real courtesy.’ At the same time, he adds what Sri Aurobindo had once told them ‘perhaps with a tinge of regret’: “I have tried to stoop as low as I can, and yet you do not reach me.”

Secondly, when presenting outer facts that may not be well understood he takes the pains to provide the missing links to the readers to enrich their understanding. Thus, for example when he talks about the attacks of illnesses that the Mother had to bear, he goes on to explain beautifully taking help of his understanding of Yoga as to the real reasons of her illness. Thirdly, he allows Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to speak for themselves most of the time. This gives a unique flavour to the book making it appear as if the story was being largely narrated in first person by the subject of the biography and the role of the author is largely that of a sutradhara who connects the narrative. Fourthly, given the wealth of information that has gone about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, he displays a rare sensitivity to shift it in a way that the central narrative and goal is not lost from sight. And what is that goal, if one may hazard a reasonable guess after going through the book in entirety? It is to bring us closer to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo through a subtle process of awakening and inspiring us to the Greatness and Glory that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo represented in a human persona.

How does he do so? As we have said, because the author is in love with his subject. Therefore he has access to a kind of understanding that comes as an act of Grace. It is the understanding that his soul brings into the narrative as a subtle fragrance that makes nourishes not just the intellectual parts in us but also fulfils and satisfies the heart. Besides as mentioned above there is plenty of useful and extensive information here that one does not find in other biographies.

Normally biographies are best written by those who have lived and moved closely with a person and have been in some kind of sympathy with the subject. Mr Anurag Banerjee who probably belongs to the third generation of historians as far as the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are concerned compensates for this inevitable limitation by looking at Them with the mystic light of his soul and is thereby able to bridge the gap in time and space. The Mother once asked Rishabchandji to write a biography of Sri Aurobindo up to His coming to Pondicherry, stating further that none can write anything about Him after that period. Our present biographer seems to have taken note of this since his biography stops with the Mother assuming the charge of the Ashram in 1926. What happened after that period is something that no human mind can ever know and no human tongue can ever describe. The period covered by the biographer is precisely that which marks the progressive manifestation of the Divinity of Mirra and its full blossoming into the Divine Mother through an inner identification with That who She really always was and is. And it is done with such finesse that it becomes a richly rewarding experience to the initiate and the seeker alike.

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About the Reviewer: A practising psychiatrist in Sri Aurobindo Ashram Dispensary and an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram (Pondicherry), Dr. Alok Pandey, M.B.B.S., M.D. in Psychiatry from AFMC, Pune, is a former Associate Professor in Psychiatry at the Institute of Space and Aviation Medicine, Bangalore. He is the author of the famous book Death, Dying and Beyond and is also a member of Sri Aurobindo International Institute for Integral Health and Research and an Editor of the journal, NAMAH.

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The Mother’s Photographs taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Dear Friends,

Considered to be the father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson (22 August 1908—3 August 2004) was a world-famous French photographer who co-founded ‘Magnum Photos’ along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger and William Vandivert. He spent more than thirty years on assignments for the Life magazine and other journals. He documented some of the great upheavals of the twentieth century which included the Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Paris in 1944, Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral in 1948, the fall of the Kuomintang administration in China, the student rebellion at Paris in 1968 to name a few. His published works include reputed titles like The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1947), The Decisive Moment (1952), The Europeans (1955), People of Moscow (1955), China in Transition (1956), Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1963), About Russia (1973), etc.

In April 1950 Henri Cartier-Bresson had visited Pondicherry and taken several photographs of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Some of his photographs of the Mother have been uploaded in the online forum of Overman Foundation.

With warm regards,
Anurag Banerjee
Founder,
Overman Foundation.

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1The Mother with Dilip Kumar Roy

1AThe Mother with Indira Devi

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The History of the Ashram School by Prof. Kittu Reddy

The history of the Ashram school – now known as the International Centre of Education – can be probably divided into four periods. The first period is from 1943 to 1950, the second one is from 1951 to 1958, the third is from 1959 to 1967 and the fourth one is the period after that.

This article will deal mainly with the third period – that is to say from 1959 to 1967. However, the first two periods will be briefly touched upon.

Before the 1940s children were, as a rule, not permitted to live in the Ashram. But when, during the war, a number of families were admitted, it was found necessary to initiate a course of instruction for the children. Consequently, on 2 December 1943 the Mother opened a school for about thirty children. She herself was one of the teachers. The number of children increased gradually over the years to around 150 by the year 1950.

The first striking feature of the school in those early days was that almost all the students were children of devotees or disciples, most of whom resided in the Ashram as sadhaks.

Another feature was that the Mother was in constant touch with the teachers and students, guiding the teachers and following the students’ progress. All students and teachers would meet Her at least once a day and the teachers would submit reports about their classes regularly. Sri Aurobindo too was kept informed of all the developments in the school, although he did not interact directly with the school.

On 2 December 1946, the Mother came for the first time to the playground to see the demonstration of Physical Education. From then onwards, the Mother started coming regularly to the Playground in the evenings.

In 1950, Sri Aurobindo left his body and from 1951 the Mother started taking classes in the playground for the children (known as the Wednesday and Friday classes).

On 24 April 1951 the Mother presided over a convention where it was resolved to establish an “international university centre”, and on 6 January 1952 she inaugurated the Sri Aurobindo International University Centre. In 1959 this was changed to the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

In December 1958 the Mother stopped coming to the playground on a regular basis and the classes too were stopped.

The first two periods from 1943 to 1958 may be called the luminous seed-time and a period of enthusiastic effort guided by the direct presence of the Mother. That was the time when most of the basic ideas and concepts on education were expounded by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. This was done through the classes, their interaction with the students and teachers and Their writings in the Bulletin. As a matter of fact, the Mother was constantly in touch with both students and teachers and intervened whenever She felt the need to do so.

However, the outward organisation was not too different from other schools. No doubt, the teachers and the administration were distinctly aware of what the Mother wanted but this was not translated in the organisational structure. The Mother’s direct presence and involvement obviated the need of any such organisational structure. She was there to look after everything in its smallest detail.

Even though, the Mother stopped coming to the playground on a regular basis from December 1958, contact with Her continued through letters or through interviews. Indeed, the Mother kept a constant watch over the school and playground activities from Her room.

During this period, 1959-1967, certain experiments were made which were to have a great bearing on the future development of the Centre of Education.

Firstly, some tentative experiments were made in organising the Free System of education with a small section of students and certain organisational structures were put in place; all these attempts were gradually evolving and were to prove very useful in arriving at the more developed and organised system that was built later on.

But more importantly, from 1959, the overall structure and organisation of the Centre of Education was laid down. Here are some of the main developments that took place during this period:

1. The Higher Course was restructured. It was divided into the Art and Science sections. Earlier, there was no clear demarcation between art and science courses.

From this point on, like in other institutions, art students and science students were divided into two distinct categories with different compulsory subjects.

At the same time, two other courses were introduced, the Common Course which was compulsory for all students and the Optional course open to both Art and Science students; in the Common course, both Arts and Science students had compulsorily to study selected books of Sri Aurobindo. There were five books in this course, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human Cycle, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga. These were studied for one year. Thus all students of the Higher course had to study these 5 books spread over the three years . In the first year, The Ideal of Human Unity was studied, in the second year, it was The Human Cycle and The Foundations of Indian Culture, and in the third year, The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

But in the Optional Course, the same books were studied over a period of two or three years. This more intensive study of the books was optional and was open to both Science and Art students. Each one of these books was studied after a preparatory course; thus for the book The Ideal of Human Unity there was a course on World History; for The Human Cycle, there was a course on Sociology, for The Life Divine there was course on Philosophy, both Western and Indian, for The Synthesis of Yoga, the course was History of Religions and for The Foundations of Indian Culture, a study of Indian History was added.

2. It was also during this period that the Boards for all subjects were constituted. Thus there was an English board, a French board, a Mathematics board and so on. A group of teachers was selected to form the Boards and these teachers overlooked all the details concerning their respective subjects. Their work was mainly to define the syllabus, the course, the text books and to monitor the overall performance of the students and teachers in their subjects.

3. A whole new system of evaluation was determined. This system was based on the following: Regularity, punctuality, behaviour, homeworks, class tests and quarterly tests. This last item – quarterly tests was introduced in 1959. All students of the secondary and the Higher course were to sit for tests four times a year, reduced from 1960 to three times a year. These tests conducted over a period of two weeks, were held at the end of March, June and October. The test for more important subjects like English, French, Mathematics etc were of three hours each, while for the other subjects they were of one and a half hour each. The results of the quarterly tests had a great bearing on the evaluation of the students.

Quite naturally, these tests were a period of great tension for the students, for the results were given great weight in the final evaluation of the student.

As I was working in the administrative office at that time, I was entrusted with the organisation of the Quarterly Tests. My duties consisted of the following tasks.

1. Fixing the dates, the timings, the rooms and the invigilators for the tests.

2. Collecting the question papers at least ten days in advance from all the teachers and getting them typed in strict confidentiality and finally distributing them to the concerned invigilators just before the commencement of the test.

3. Handing over the answer papers of the students to the respective teachers after completion of the test .

4. Getting the results of the tests from the teachers in the form of marks allotted and computing the final quarterly report for each student. The report for each student was based on the following principle: 40% marks were allotted to the Quarterly Tests, 30% marks were allotted to Class Tests, 20% marks were allotted to Home Works, and the remaining 10% marks were given to Regularity, Punctuality and Behaviour.

Evidently, it was quite a complicated exercise and entailed a fair amount of work and coordination among teachers and the administration.

This was a period of great tension for most students and slowly and in a sense, quite inevitably, certain tendencies started manifesting themselves right from the beginning in 1960 and began to take serious proportions in the later years.

These included copying from notebooks which the students smuggled into the test room, trying to find out the questions before the tests, and sometimes even tearing whole pages from the text books which they managed to smuggle into the test room.

In 1967, while invigilating a class, a student was found copying. I just tapped the boy on his shoulder but did not chide him or speak to anybody else; instead, I wrote a letter to the Mother. Here is an extract from the letter:

(Concerning cheating in tests)
What should I do? Must we do what is done outside— put three teachers in a room to invigilate? The teachers do not like doing things in this way here in the Ashram.
Or should we abolish tests? I find this proposal doubtful, since the same thing happens with homework and essays.
In any case the problem exists, and in order to find the real solution we should understand why the children behave like this. Please tell me the cause of this misbehaviour and the solution to this problem.

Mother sent me a reply immediately reproduced here in full.

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It is very simple. It is because most of the children study because they are compelled to do so by their families, by custom and prevalent ideas, and not because they want to learn and know. As long as their motive for studying is not rectified, as long as they do not work because they want to know, they will find all kinds of tricks to make their work easier and to obtain results with a minimum of effort.

June 1967

She also added that a prayer should be repeated each day by all the students. Here is the prayer. To be repeated each day by all the students:

It is not for our family, it is not to secure a good position, it is not to earn money, it is not to obtain a diploma, that we study.
We study to learn, to know, to understand the world, and for the sake of the joy that it gives us.

June 1967

Later, She wrote to me another letter regarding the Quarterly tests. We reproduce it in full.

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The whole question is to know whether the students go to school to increase their knowledge and to learn what is necessary how to live well or whether they go to school to pretend and to have good marks of which they can boast.

In front of the Eternal Consciousness, a drop of sincerity has more value than an ocean of pretension and hypocrisy.

We reproduce below more letters on Tests written by the Mother in answer to teachers. Most of these letters were written during the period June-October 1967 with the exception of the first one.

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Sometime I would like to know, Mother, Your intentions with regard to regrouping these classes in the new year, whether with an examination or without.

I consider an examination as quite necessary. In any case there will be one in French.

My love and blessings.
29 October 1946

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It is not by conventional examinations that students can be selected for a class. It is only by developing in oneself the true psychological sense.
Select children who want to learn, not those who want to push themselves forward.

29 October 1965

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The only solution is to annul this test and all that are to come. Keep all the papers with you in a closed bundle—as something that has not been—and continue quietly your classes. At the end of the year you will give notes to the students, not based on written test-papers, but on their behaviour, their concentration, their regularity, their promptness to understand and their openness of intelligence. For yourself you will take it as a discipline to rely more on inner contact, keen observation, and impartial outlook.

For the students it will be the necessity of understanding truly what they learn and not to repeat as a parrot what they have not fully understood. And thus a true progress will have been made in the teaching.

With blessings.
21 July 1967

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I find tests an obsolete and ineffective way of knowing if the students are intelligent, willing and attentive. A silly, mechanical mind can very well answer a test if the memory is good and these are certainly not the qualities required for a man of the future.
It is by tolerance for the old habits that I consented that those who want tests can have them.

But I hope that in future this concession will not be necessary. To know if a student is good needs, if the tests are abolished, a little more inner contact and psychological knowledge for the teacher. But our teachers are expected to do Yoga, so this ought not to be difficult for them.

22 July 1967

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Naturally the teacher has to test the student to know if he or she has learnt something and has made a progress. But this test must be individual and adapted to each student, not the same mechanical test for all of them. It must be a spontaneous and unexpected test leaving no room for pretence and insincerity. Naturally also, this is much more difficult for the teacher but so much more living and interesting also. I enjoyed your remarks about your students. They prove that you have an individual relation with them—and that is essential for good teaching. Those who are insincere do not truly want to learn but to get good marks or compliments from the teacher—they are not interesting.

25 July 1967

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The immediate impact of these events and remarks made by the Mother was a radical change in the attitude and organisation of the school.

Briefly, consequences were:

All quarterly tests were abolished once and for all.

The secondary classes were restructured as the consequence of some interaction with the Mother by some teachers

The Higher Course organisation was radically restructured.

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We shall now go back in time to see how the Free Progress System was introduced in the school.

From the year 1959, many tentative experiments were being made in the Free Progress System. These attempts were first made on a small scale with a small number of students and teachers who were willing to try out the experiment. The source of inspiration for these experiments were in the writings and talks of Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

We are quoting one of the passages from The Human Cycle that served as an important source of inspiration:

The discovery that education must be a bringing out of the child’s own intellectual and moral capacities to their highest possible value and must be based on the psychology of the child-nature was a step forward towards a more healthy because a more subjective system; but it still fell short because it still regarded him as an object to be handled and moulded by the teacher, to be educated. But at least there was a glimmering of the realisation that each human being is a self-developing soul and that the business of both parent and teacher is to enable and to help the child to educate himself, to develop his own intellectual, moral, aesthetic and practical capacities and to grow freely as an organic being, not to be kneaded and pressured into form like an inert plastic material. It is not yet realised what this soul is or that the true secret, whether with child or man, is to help him to find his deeper self, the real psychic entity within. That, if we ever give it a chance to come forward, and still more if we call it into the foreground as “the leader of the march set in our front”, will itself take up most of the business of education out of our hands and develop the capacity of the psychological being towards a realisation of its potentialities of which our present mechanical view of life and man and external routine methods of dealing with them prevent us from having any experience or forming any conception. These new educational methods are on the straight way to this truer dealing. The closer touch attempted with the psychical entity behind the vital and physical mentality and an increasing reliance on its possibilities must lead to the ultimate discovery that man is inwardly a soul and a conscious power of the Divine and that the evocation of this real man within is the right object of education and indeed of all human life if it would find and live according to the hidden Truth and deepest law of its own being.

Here is another passage from the Mother’s conversations which was often quoted and which became the basis for the Free Progress System.

Essentially, the only thing you should do assiduously is to teach them to know themselves and choose their own destiny, the path they will follow; to teach them to look at themselves, understand themselves and to will what they want to be. That is infinitely more important than teaching them what happened on earth in former times, or even how the earth is built, or even… indeed, all sorts of things which are quite a necessary grounding if you want to live the ordinary life in the world, for if you don’t know them, anyone will immediately put you down intellectually: “Oh, he is an idiot, he knows nothing. But still, at any age, if you are studious and have the will to do it, you can also take up books and work; you don’t need to go to school for that. There are enough books in the world to teach you things. There are even many more books than necessary.

But what is very important is to know what you want. And for this a minimum of freedom is necessary. You must not be under a compulsion or an obligation. You must be able to do things whole-heartedly. If you are lazy, well, you will know what it means to be lazy…. You know, in life idlers are obliged to work ten times more than others, for what they do they do badly, so they are obliged to do it again. But these are things one must learn by experience. They can’t be instilled into you.

The problem was: how to create a system of education which would help them to know themselves and choose their own destiny, with the ultimate result of bringing the psychic being of the child forward as “the leader of the march.”

Gradually, these attempts began to increase in number and by the year 1962, there was one whole section of the school that was following this system. It was named Vers la Perfection. In this process some interesting experiments were tried out, some seemingly a bit impractical. However, the Mother allowed things to develop and encouraged the teachers to find out by themselves how to implement the free progress system. As all these attempts were going, quite naturally, a lot of discussion was generated among the teachers. The Director and the Registrar – Pavitrada and Kireet Joshi – were deeply involved in all these discussions and often the matter was referred to the Mother. As a result of all these discussions and efforts some basic principles were laid down.

The basic principles on which the Free Progress system was founded were as follows:

• The first assumption was that every child was essentially a soul and the business of the educator was to help the child to bring it forward as the leader of his march.

• Since each child was a soul and therefore unique, he had to be treated according to his nature and temperament. The natural consequence was that individual attention was given great importance and consequently group classes were not encouraged too much.

• Another consequence was that each child was encouraged to work at his own pace, depending on his capacity. It followed also that a child could be at different levels for different subjects.

• There was also an effort to replace text books by worksheets which were prepared in such a way as to make it more relevant to the child’s needs and interests.

• Finally, the whole purpose was to encourage the child to take up the full responsibility of his own education and choose his own destiny.

Evidently, this was not easy for it meant a total reversal of the existing system of education; in a sense, it was a big risk that was being taken.

As already mentioned, the attempt was first made on a small scale with a limited number of students and teachers fully supported by The Mother. By the middle of the year 1962, it was felt that this system could be tried out on a bigger scale for all the secondary classes from December 1962.

Here another problem cropped up. It was understood that this system would be succesful only with those students whose psychic being was somewhat prominent for only then would they be able to use their freedom properly without being distracted by the vital and other pulls of the lower nature. The question was: who is to choose the students? Since most of the teachers did not feel confident in their own judgment the matter was referred to the Mother and She graciously agreed to make the selection herself.

Accordingly, the students numbering about 150 were divided into 5 batches. Mother came down to the first floor and the students, over a period of five days passed in front of her. She indicated which students could be selected and even in some cases made some remarks on certain students. All these were noted down by a teacher standing beside the Mother. I remember that in some cases, the Mother made some remarks about a child; in one case, she remarked about a young girl: “Oh, she in an old friend.”

It will be interesting to note that almost all the students were selected by the Mother for the New Classes.

The Functioning of the System

Let us now see how the system functioned on the ground level

Firstly, there was no fixed time table; when the students came to the school, they went and sat in the class rooms allotted to them. Three or four teachers would be sitting in the same room. After the bell rang the students would start working on their own on any subject of their choice. Whenever they needed any help from the teacher, they would consult him. During the course of the work, if either the teacher or student felt the need to fix an appointment with the teacher for further consulation, it would be done by mutual consultation. Similarly whenever the teachers or students felt the need of a group class, that too was fixed by mutual consultation.

There was great freedom for the students and the teachers were there only to help and guide the students.

In sum, the whole responsibility of education was on the students themselves. They had to decide for themselves the subjects they would study, determine the pace at which they would work and even the quantity of work done.

Many teachers felt that the attempt was premature, but all agreed to give it a try. However within a few months, it appeared that the system was not working very well. The majority of students were misusing their time and were unable to use their freedom properly. Finally a group of teachers wrote a letter to the Mother. We reproduce in full the letter with the answer of the Mother.

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August 1st, 1963

Pavitra-.da,

For quite a long time, and particularly during the last few months, many of us — teachers of the New Classes — have noticed a growing disorder and confusion in the School. We therefore decided to make a report with the hope that a timely intervention by the authorities might change the situation and improve matters. In making this report we have given our considered opinion and judgment, always keeping in mind the welfare both of the students and the Institution.

The disorder that we see can be placed under three headings:
1) Indiscipline,
2) Irregularity and consequently
3) Poor work done by students.

Indiscipline: This problem which probably has always existed to a certain degree has now assumed rather serious proportions and has become quite acute. It is now quite a common feature to see students enter the class ten or fifteen minutes late and stroll out again a few minutes before the bell. Many of them go to the News—Paper Room, the Post—Office and the Projector Room during class hours. Very often children are seen loitering about, sometimes in the streets and sometimes in the School compound during class hours. The other problem, which we shall only just mention —, for it is too well known — is that of the stealing of notebooks and books, both of teachers and students.

Irregularity: This is a problem of a somewhat different nature. Very few students have attended regularly all the classes. Many of them started with great enthusiasm, but after a certain time — particularly when they had to give a test — dropped out and rarely came back. Finally, when they restarted, they had forgotten much of what they had learnt and much valuable time was lost in catching up. This also makes it impossible for the teacher to do any kind of Project work; for he never knows when a student will turn up again the next time.

In the afternoons, also, many students are found in the Library; many others do not come to School at all. As a result, the number of hours that a student devotes to his studies is between 4 and 5 hours, as there is no homework to be done; much of the time in these 4 or 5 hours is spent in chatting and gossip and work without concentration.

The consequence of all this has been poor work by the students. Not only is the amount of work done insufficient but also the quality is poor.

Taking into account the overall performance of the students, 59 may be said to have done quite poor work, 45 very poor, while only 23 have done average work, 4 good and 3 very good.

Taking into consideration, subject—wise performance of work, we find, that 77 out of 116 are below normal in English; 63 out of 71 are below normal in French; 130 out of 142 are below normal in Maths; 66 out of 69 are below normal in Physics.; 33 out of 38 in Chemistry; 99 out of 139 in Natural Science; 95 out of 127 in History; and 115 out of 127 in Geography.

We have all felt therefore that something should be done before it is too late. Th. first and moat essential step, we feel, is to have a minimum of fixed periods for each subject; this minimum number can only be decided later on. Some of us, however, that all classes should have fixed periods. The timetable will be fixed by the office and once a student decides to attend a class, he should be regular and punctual.

Another point which we should mention is that of teaching only through work-sheets. Many teachers feel that all subjects need some oral, treatment, the proportion varying with the subject. A combination of the work—sheet method with oral exposition and discussions seems to be a possible solution.

First for the teachers:
I am satisfied with the figures indicated in the report. In spite of what one might think the proportion of very good students is satisfactory. If out of 150 students, there are 7 individuals of genuine value, it is very good.

Now for the organisation:
The classes as a whole may be reorganised so as to fulfil the needs of the majority, that is to say, of those who, in the absence of any outside pressure or imposed discipline, work badly and make no progress. But it is essential that the present system of education in the new classes should be maintained, in order to allow outstanding individuals to show themselves and develop freely. That is our true aim. It should be known—we should not hesitate to proclaim it—that the whole purpose of our school is to discover and encourage those in whom the need for progress has become conscious enough to direct their lives. It ought to be a privilege to be admitted to these Free Progress classes. At regular intervals (every month, for example) a selection should be made and those who cannot take advantage of this special education should be sent back into the normal stream. The criticisms made in the report apply to the teachers as much as to the students. For students of high capacity, one teacher well versed in his subject is enough—even a good textbook, together with encyclopaedias and dictionaries would be enough. But as one goes down the scale and the capacity of the student becomes lower, the teacher must have higher and higher capacities: discipline, self-control, consecration, psychological understanding, infectious enthusiasm, to awaken in the student the part which is asleep the will to know, the need for progress, self-control, etc. Just as we organise the school in such a way as to be able to discover and help outstanding students, in the same way, the responsibility for classes should be given to outstanding teachers. So I ask each teacher to consider his work in the school as the best and quickest way of doing his Yoga. Moreover, every difficulty and every difficult student should be an opportunity for him to find a divine solution to the problem.

5 August 1963

What is important to note is that the Mother despite the apparent failure at the beginning was insistent that the Free Progress System should continue with whatever modifications in the organisation of the school. The direction for the future was clearly laid down by the Mother.

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We shall first review the developments in the school from the year 1959.

As already stated earlier, the Free Progress System was introduced on an experimental basis in 1959 at the Secondary level; from there it evolved to a surer and larger base in 1961; a small group of students were trying out this method and the Mother named it Vers la Perfection. However the whole of the secondary section was not following the Free System. One section – in fact the larger section was still continuing with the old method. The school at the secondary level was thus divided into two sections.

In 1963, as already mentioned in the previous issues, the whole secondary section was united and was brought under the purview of the Free Progress System.

In August 1963, some teachers wrote a letter to the Mother regarding the Free System. This letter has been published in one of the previous issues. As a consequence of this letter the secondary section was again divided into two. One of them was following the Free progress method and was named Vers la Perfection and the other was following a modified form of the Free Progress System. This pattern continued from 1964 to 1967. It may be noted that the students of the Free Progress System did not have to sit for the quarterly Tests; for the other students it was compulsory.

As already mentioned, in July 1967, many letters were written to the Mother regarding quarterly tests and as a consequence, these tests were abolished.

In November 1967, two teachers Amita and myself wrote a letter to Mother making some suggestions regarding the reorganisation of the secondary. This letter is reproduced below.

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The letter suggested reorganising the curriculum of the students of a certain age-group. It advised reducing the number of scheduled classes; teachers would give individual assistance to their students in the mornings and meet them as a class only in the afternoons. The letter ended: Many teachers feel that the division between X’s classes and what is called the “Old System” is not desirable. With the reorganisation we suggest, the differences between the two will be greatly diminished. Do you think that this division should continue? Must we go on waiting for it to disappear?

The Mother’s answer:

It would be infinitely preferable that the division should disappear immediately. The effectiveness of what you suggest will become apparent only in practice. Therefore it seems to me that the best thing is to try, either for a full year if the results are slow to show themselves, or for three months if the results are clearly apparent by then. With sincerity and flexibility you should be able to solve the problem.

6 November 1967

On the 11th November, Mother gave an interview to three teachers, namely Tanmaya, Arati and Kittu. In this interview the details of the new proposals were discussed. The Mother also gave the name En Avant to the new section.

However in 1968, the two sections did not unite. It happened only in 1969. Thus there were two sections at the Secondary level, one named Vers la Perfection and the other named En Avant. Both these sections were following the Free Progress system with minor differences.

In 1969, the two sections got united, and it was given the name of En Avant Vers la Perfection or E.A.V.P.

During the interview of 11th November, the Mother made some important remarks on the importance of Sanskrit. We are reproducing some extracts from the interview. This is what the Mother said:

The ideal would be, in a few years, to have a rejuvenated Sanskrit as the representative language of India, that is, a Sanskrit spoken in such a way that—Sanskrit is behind all the languages of India and it should be that. This was Sri Aurobindo’s idea, when we spoke about it. Because now English is the language of the whole country, but that is abnormal. It is very helpful for relations with the rest of the world, but just as each country has its own language, there should… And so here, as soon as one begins to want a national language, everyone starts quarrelling. Each one wants it to be his own, and that is foolish. But no one could object to Sanskrit. It is a more ancient language than the others and it contains the sounds, the root-sounds of many words. This is something I studied with Sri Aurobindo and it is obviously very interesting. Some of these roots can even be found in all the languages of the world—sounds, root-sounds which are found in all those languages. Well, this, this thing, this is what ought to be learnt and this is what the national language should be. Every child born in India should know it, just as every child born in France has to know French. He does not speak properly, he does not know it thoroughly, but he has to know French a little; and in all the countries of the world it is the same thing. He has to know the national language. And then, when he learns, he learns as many languages as he likes. At the moment, we are still embroiled in quarrels, and this is a very bad atmosphere in which to build anything. But I hope that a day will come when it will be possible. So I would like to have a simple Sanskrit taught here, as simple as possible, but not “simplified”—simple by going back to its origin… all these sounds, the sounds that are the roots of the words which were formed afterwards.

Kittu Reddy

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About the Author: Kittu Reddy was born on 2 July 1936 in the district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. His father Narayan Reddy was one of the members of the Swaraj Party founded by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and his uncle Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the sixth President of India. At the age of five he was brought to Sri Aurobindo Ashram by his parents. After graduating from Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in 1957, he joined the very Centre as a teacher in 1958. After teaching the students at the school level for a decade he began to take classes at the Higher Course (college level) of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education from 1968. His areas of specialization are History, Political Science, Social Science and The Foundations of Indian Culture. He was also involved in the administration of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education from 1958 to 1976. In 1987 he came in contact with the Indian Army and has been giving talks and conducting workshops on Motivation, Leadership and the Mission of India for the armed forces at various training centres in India. At the request of General B.C. Joshi (the then Chief of Indian Army), he shifted to New Delhi in 1994 for two years to help the former in his work. He was appointed Advisor to the organization named Army Welfare Education Society which looks after the Army Schools. He was also entrusted with the task of penning capsules for the training institutions of the Indian Army right from the stage of induction to the rank of senior officers with the purpose of introducing spirituality as a factor of motivation. At present he is a Founder-Member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Army Welfare Education Society. He has also worked with General Shankar Roy Chowdhury after the demise of General B.C. Joshi. In 1995 he visited the United States of America and England. In England he addressed the Royal College of Defence Studies. In November 2006 he was invited by the Indian Army to its Headquarters at New Delhi for a discussion on stress management and tackling problems of suicide and fratricide. In 2006 he visited Sweden and gave a few talks at the Indo-Swedish Association and the National Defence College in Stockholm. He has also delivered several lectures at Jadavpur University and Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture on Social Science and World Unity, Education in India and various allied topics. He has also organized workshops for NIIT on stress management. Presently he is working with the Indian Army on Morals and Ethics. He has contributed a number of articles to prestigious French journals on the problems of World Unity and psychological development on spiritual lines. He has authored the following books: Bravest of the Brave, Kargil: The Manifestation of a Deeper Problem, Secularism, Religion and Spirituality, History of India—A New Approach and A Vision of United India—Problems and Solutions.

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