Pondicherry is repose for the spirit. It is a pit-stop in the journey, offering a salve of calm, sitting easily besides the clamour of noisy small town traffic and accumulated garbage. The French Quarters on the Eastern side and the Tamil Quarters on the Western side are separated by a double carriage-way. A distinctive promenade along the Bay of Bengal is an interesting walk. Rocks and small benches make inviting seats for contemplation at the waterfront. French colonial style buildings dot one side of the promenade.
This area is the French quarter, with wider, tidier streets. Streets arranged crisscross make reading the map very easy. It’s hard to tell local from tourist. Port towns are melting pots and a cultural mishmash. One can play a game of trying to identify people associated with the Ashram. Dressed in cottons and with poised composed expressions and often in loose shorts, they go about riding bicycles or walking. Their lives appear purposeful arranged in neat and orderly fashion, just like their streets. Their lives appear well-arranged and disciplined. There is an unmistakable air of self-importance in the movements of some as they go about like they hold some greater truth within them. There is lightly veiled impatience and slight irritability in some, perhaps the stream of visitors and tourists makes one live perpetually as if under scrutiny. Perhaps they are higher in the administrative hierarchy at the particular unit of the Ashram.
The Ashram is not one structure but structures and units peppered about the French quarter. They are distinguishable, grey-blue flat walled and solidly shaped with welldefined lines. There are few ornamental flowering trees and vines. What one sees is from the outside. The structures have tall gates and one may see an occasional Ashramite going in or out on a two-wheeler or bicycle. A courtyard in the central area with structures on 4 sides seems to be a pattern followed. The structures are mostly single storeyed and might carry two symbols, the 6-pointed star, the emblem of Sri. Aurobindo, and the 12-petalled lotus within a circle, symbol of the Mother.
We enter the Ashram ensconced within a small compound with an entrance and a few flower beds with flowering gladioli bulbs and a cactus garden, and an unpretentious walkway lead to the Samadhi. This is made sacred as the final resting places of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and comprises two upraised structures decorated with a ‘rangoli’ made from flower petals. This place is the cusp of devotion, and all material and spiritual purpose for the people who work and live here radiates from this nucleus. The manner of offering prayer is unique. Sitting head bent between elbows that rest on the tomb-like structure. The visitors appear to be in a deeply personal communion.
The Ashram book shop and reading room are the two places a first time visitor discovers quickly. A friend who spent a month in the ashram as PhD scholar sent me a detailed list of the ‘must do’ around the Ashram. The book shop opened up a glimpse in to the world of the history of the life, work and philosophy of Sri. Aurobindo Ghosh. On display are his life works as poet, philosopher, patriot and psychologist. The prolific writing, the breadth and the depth of the learning and the wisdom is overwhelming.
Within a week of planning this trip to Pondicherry, I had interesting, spontaneous interactions with two people influenced by and working with the lessons of Aurobindo. These people just “happened”, a reconfirmation of previous experiences in synchroncity. Priya Vaidya is an educationist, a doctorate in Philosophy who teaches Philosophy in Mumbai. Her thesis is based on the application of Aurobindo’s principles to Education.
The second instance was a call from Margot Borden, a psychotherapist and brand consultant who lives and works in Paris and the US. Margot is an interesting Englishwoman, proficient in French and in Sanskrit. Margot is a research professional and consultant and in her work applies Aurobindo’s principles and his theory of evolution of the self to the way consumers engage with brands.
Both people independently directed me to places and books and to experiences I must have in Pondicherry. Priya told me of simple, ‘sattvik’ Ashram meals, and of meditation at the Samadhi and on rocks at the sea front. Margot informed me of Aurobindo’s theory of the evolution of the spirit and introduced me to his psychology and ideas on the self in the context of the physical, the vital, the mental, the supramental and the Divine. About the self, the subself, and his epic poem Savitri. Giving me initial directions they have set me off on a new journey of reading and study.
Researchers like us work in the realm of the consumers’ conscious self and the unconscious ‘subself’. We attempt to study brands as animate entities with an essence with an inner and outer world, the brand context, and the brand’s aspirations and constraints. We apply learnings from the social sciences sociology, psychology and anthropology and marry these with our understanding of business.
In his book, Aurobindo writes about a Yogic psychology and provides a guide or system of decoding the self. The book ‘Our Many Selves’ contains selections from the works of Sri. Aurobindo and the Mother and is compiled by A. S Dalal. It provides us with two constructs to study the human being, an entity inseparable from the universal being. The first or the concentric system explains the human being via a series of rings consisting of the outer being, the inner being, the inmost being, and the core or the psychic being. Each of these stages has three constituents – the physical, vital and mental. Sri Aurobindo goes on to explain the constituents of each of these selves. The second system is the hierarchical system arranged like a staircase which indicates gradations or planes for consciousness ranging from the lowest or the ‘inconscient’ to the highest, ‘Sachchidananda’. He indicates that the spiritual journey is one of an ever-evolving consciousness whereby the self will traverse through each of these planes ultimately resulting in realization of the highest Truth in this Lifetime.
In our work we apply constructs to study habits, attitudes, behaviours, and mindsets by studying individuals and groups. We organize and interpret the responses and our observations. It appears intuitively that an application of Aurobindo’s Yogic psychology can offer a rich and interesting dimension on which to study the behaviour of consumers and their interaction with brands. Margot is working in this space and it will be interesting to learn from her and from our own readings. Thinking that is inclusive and that seeks to integrate and synthesize different approaches to understand the purpose of this world and of man can open doors with richer answers to problems of brands and business, as as also of life. It is to honestly explore each facet of knowledge and seek to apply it to ones understanding continuum helps one delve deeper into the psyche and to understand, interpret and arrive at richer insights. It is an ongoing journey into the discovery of the Truth.
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