"Art and Beauty, Opposition and Growth in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram"
Sri Aurobindo (nee Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), a native of India, spent his youth studying poetry and the classics in England. Upon his return to colonial India, he became influential in Indian revolutionary politics. Inspired by his own spiritual experience, S'aktism, Vedanta, Tantra, and the Bhagavad Ghita, he later developed his own "integral yoga" in the French colonial city of Pondicherry. Instead of transcending the Earth, his yoga seeks to transform matter into what he calls "the new supramental creation." He wrote over 30 books in the areas of yoga theory and practice, social, political, and cultural reflection, art and poetry. He wrote his most important work, his epic poem Savitri, over a 35-year period as a way to develop his spiritual practice. Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) shared Sri Aurobindo's goals and joined him in 1920. She was a gifted painter and musician and a spiritual seeker from Paris whom he named "the Mother" when they established the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926. He considered her the feminine ?akti to his masculine ?vara role, and their followers believe them to be their Avat'ras (God/dess in human form). After he died, the Mother continued to guide the Ashram until her death. For 52 years she used painting to grow in her spiritual practice. Both gurus encouraged many of their disciples to use the arts for spiritual growth. Sri Aurobindo's work has inspired various prominent thinkers, and is considered a significant contribution to Hindu studies, as well as 20th-century colonial Indian history. He is regarded as one of the pioneers of the modern yoga renaissance; however, since the 1980s there has been a lack of scholarship on his thought, and particularly as this applies to art and religion. Also, the Mother's participation has never been critically examined in this tradition. This dissertation investigates the following question: What are the Mother's and Sri Aurobindo's aesthetic theory and to what extent does their artwork and their collaboration with their disciples demonstrate their aesthetics? This study uses a historical-critical methodology to examine the development of thought in their written texts on culture and aesthetics, and a visual culture approach to interpret their use of art, architecture, and visual culture. It relies upon disciples's diaries, reproductions of drawings and paintings by the Mother and her disciples, and the author's ethnographic data collected during his stay in the Ashram in India in 2012-13. The results of this dissertation: 1) their yoga is "descendant," demanding a principle of growth that welcomes oppositions found in life to stimulate the universalization of the basic consciousness and to divinize the Earth; the arts aid this process by helping the disciple to face oppositions with sincerity and resilience, and to unveil spiritual potentials that were not known until the creative process uncovered them; 2) they prize the intuition and higher spiritual faculties of consciousness in their creative process and spiritual experience, which diminishes and potentially annihilates the importance of the intellect; 3) for them, the arts are essentially tied to beauty, which aids their goal of the "new creation;" their ideal of beauty occurs when the physical art media harmonizes with the meaning of the artwork, uniting qualities of beauty with the value of beauty. This study concludes that if Sri Aurobindo is a guru who is primarily an artist, his teaching is principally found in an examination of his creative process, his poetry, and his work with his and the Mother's disciples. Likewise, as an artist-guru, the Mother's teaching is chiefly encountered in an investigation of her guidance of the Ashram, her painting, music, architecture, and visual culture, and most importantly her claims to the transformation of her own body. Their combined teaching is intended to be a transformative experience of growth through beauty, which for them is a way to create a non-sectarian sacred gaze in their followers. Their aesthetic goals might be characterized as expanding the basic consciousness in order to critique past uses of beauty that have become an abuse of others; to reinterpret past achievements in beauty with an intent to include all; and still further, to create new, more inclusive expressions of beauty in one's own historical context.
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