58. Sri Aurobindo and The Mother – The Hidden Forces of Life (1914 – 1958)

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother were yogic theosophists who worked together to produce a vast amount of writing. In The Hidden Forces of Life, A.S. Dalal performs the heroic feat of boiling down this thought to 200 pages of selected quotations.

In doing so, he opened my eyes to the vast importance of Aurobindo and The Mother’s work for understanding Burroughs’ philosophical approach.

Burroughs’ mother was an avid follower of the yogic pairing. It is for this reason that Burroughs already felt well-versed in Eastern spiritualism when Ginsberg and Kerouac started reading into it in college, and why his mother continued to send him spiritually-tinged books like Siddhartha.

Burroughs quoted Sri Aurobindo in his final journal, Last Words: the phrase “it is all over”.

I have tracked this down to a passage in Questions and Answers (1957-1958) in which Aurobindo is describing young men and women who come to him with their suffering. “It is just like a compass needle”, he states:

“I shift the needle in my consciousness which contains you all, and when they go away they are completely comforted. It is just like a compass needle; one shifts the needle a little in the consciousness and it is all over.”

One has only to rearrange ones thoughts, he suggests, and the seemingly inescapable reality of human suffering pops like “soap bubbles”.

One might also imagine Burroughs seeing in this needle the stylus of a gramophone, shifting forward and back through the time-track.

He also cites Aurobindo at numerous times in his life as saying “this is a war universe”.

The full quote of Burroughs’ being: “This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games.”

I have searched through the entire collected works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and found no such passage. I presume, therefore, that this teaching was taken second hand from Burroughs’ own mother. The linguistic flourish was either added by Burroughs himself, or perhaps was his mother’s way of parsing Aurobindo’s complex writing and making it accessible to her son.

It most likely refers to the earlier sections of The Life Divine (1919) where Sri Aurobindo is explaining why, despite being part of a universal supermind, our daily life is so dominated by pointless struggle.

“Life is at war with the body” (228), he states, while “the Mind is at war with both” (228). There is a “war of our members which the mind cannot satisfactorily resolve” (229). While “Life is at constant war with Matter” (247), “Mind has its own quarrel with both Life and Matter: it is at constant war with their limitations” (247). Ultimately, “war is declared between the spirit and its instruments” (248) and “the world is a discord” (248).

Everything, in other words, struggles with everything else; both physically and psychically within the individual before spreading out across individuals, groups, nations, and ultimately life, matter and the stuff of the world itself.

The image of total struggle is aptly summarised by Burroughs’ pseudo-quote: “this is a war universe”.

What Burroughs’ quote does not provide, however, is the context for this. In Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s work, all of this warring is part of the cosmic turbulence that brought the universe into being. The universe is merely a set of vibrations that play out on entirely predictable lines.

“All life is the play of universal forces,” writes Sri, “one is in the midst of a big universal working”. One way of describing this is Karma, or Fate, he says. The Mother gives a clearer image:

“it is as when you push your first into a heap of iron filings or saw-dust, all the infinitesimal little elements of the iron or dust are organised to take on the form of your fist, but they do not do this either deliberately or consciously. It is through the work of the consciousness that pushes that this thing happens. There is no decision that each element is going to be exactly in this place, like that […] there is the psychic consciousness at work in life, organising all the circumstances, but not with a deliberate choice of the details.”

So we are all individual little iron filings moving around, living with what appears to be free will. Meanwhile, the universal fist is pushing us into an overarching pattern.

Notably, for Laura Lee’s father, this idea would have been recognisable as well. His Calvinism argued that the world was predestined. It may have been “God’s Will” rather than the “psychic consciousness”, but the idea is the same.

It also appears in Burroughs’ own thought, taking first the form of Dunne’s “time tracks”, before evolving, via Hubbard’s writings, into Burroughs’ paranoid image of “Control”.

The power that Burroughs attributes to “word lines” is also explained by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s philosophy. Their yogic practice emphasises psychic as well as bodily health. To keep the mind healthy, one must control one’s thoughts.

“If you have a thought, this thought clothes itself in subtle vibrations and becomes and entity which travels and moves about in the earth-atmosphere in order to realise itself as best it can.”

Your thoughts have autonomy. One is reminded of Burroughs’ statement that one’s books needn’t be read for their ideas to change the world. “How many people have actually read Marx?” he asks, “now compare that number to the third of the world whose lives are currently ordered by his ideas” (Burroughs was speaking in the 1960s).

SA&TM expand upon this idea. That thoughts emanate from the self means that one is, after producing them, surrounded by their “aura” (we have seen many types of auras in Burroughs’ work). They can be harvested by “vampires” and malicious “spirit entities” can also take one’s thoughts and substitute them with evil ones of their own: “You think it is you who decide. It is impulses coming from outside.”

The Burroughsian world of possession, evil spirits and psychic warfare is already conjured for us, here in the work of two Indian spiritualists.

To fight back against this attack, one might use hypnotism – “it is a form of occultism which has been put in modern terms to make the thing modern,” according to the Mother – (is this why WSB was so sold on it as a practice, even before Dent?) – or else one might “accumulate the universal vital forces” (The Mother here refers to yoga, but Reich’s orgone accumulator is surely not a huge leap?).

There are even forces of Law in the psychic world. “The Divine Grace is there ready to act at every moment, it manifests [from] the Law of Light”, says Aurobindo.

Is this not a bridge from Calvin, through Aurobindo, to Dion Fortune, and finally to the Nova Police?

The entire structure of Burroughs’ metaphysical world seems to lie, already in place, beneath the surface of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s own philosophy. All of the terms are different, and many of the ideas change almost beyond recognition, but provided the kind of intellectual archaeology I’m doing is followed up, in each case his ideas find their initial root here.

Of course, the interest in Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, coming from Burroughs’ own mother, is no doubt part of an evolution of her father’s Calvinism, but then one cannot expect ideas to emerge ex vacuo.

Even Gysin, whose ideas about “space travel” were so influential upon Burroughs during the intense cut-up years, appears to be only reminding Burroughs of ideas he may have encountered as a boy, received through his mother, from her yogis:

“The physical is not the only world; there are other that we become aware of through dream records, through the subtle senses, through influences and contacts, through imagination, intuition and vision. There are worlds of a larger subtler life than ours, vital worlds; worlds in which Mind builds its own forms and figures, mental worlds; psychic worlds which are the soul’s home; others above with which we have little contact.

“In each of us there is a mental plane of consciousness, a psychic, a vital, a subtle physical as well as the gross physical and material plane. The same planes are repeated in the consciousness of general Nature. It is when we enter or contact these other planes that we come into connection with the worlds above the physical.”

Outer Space is here, in Sri Aurobindo’s writings, the spaces that lie beyond the material body. They are the outer consciousness in which we all partake, although few are awake to it. It is surely this space that Gysin talks about when he talks about the need for space travel, and the fact that we must evolve in order to realise what space is and means.

“Anyone who prays in space is not really there,” as Burroughs says. Why shut ones eyes and address God through language when the universal consciousness is right there with you? Space is where mind and supermind can finally meet.

There’s a lot to fathom out here, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve left it until late in the game in order to encounter Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s work. Without all the reading I’ve done so far it’s likely that they’d just appear as yet another of the many Eastern spiritualists in and out of fashion among the Beat collective. In fact, they stand far above the Dudjom Rinpoches and Chogyam Trungpas, whose influence over Allen Ginsberg appears to be a bone of contention with Burroughs, and should, I think, be felt to be key formative influences on Burroughs’ ideas.