Perhaps, first of all, for the reader who is confronted here, surprisingly, with his latest and most mature work, with the essence of his present knowledge, without perhaps knowing the earlier ones, one should allay the suspicion that he is a philosopher, mystic or guru. Satprem is an adventurer - or, to use the title of his very first novel, which he never denied, a gold-digger. Though one of those who bring back from exotic lands not only unheard-of experiences, but also a key to the questions that plague us in our youth, and which are exactly the same as those we struggle with as adults: those about the meaning of life, and especially, which I think boils down to the same thing, our own lives.
Please do not expect me to explain Satprem's answer to these questions in this short introduction, especially as he has none. His key message is that the question is the answer. The answer is already contained in the question: in the intensity, in the urgency, in the unrelenting way in which we personally ask the question. The answer, like the question, is something experienced. A way, an adventure. "The fire that burns within us." For him, everything else is an intellectual pastime, "something that only happens in the mind".
The most common metaphor used by Satprem is that of the goldfish bowl. He compares us to fish in an aquarium, who see real life, who know about him from heightened moments, from premonitions, from dreams, which, however, have difficulty breaking through to him. "La vraie vie est ailleurs", real life is somewhere else, as Rimbaud already says. He himself calls these moments when we are completely with ourselves and we must extend them to our whole life: "Ça", "that". The longing to push through to the "that", the happiness of finding it at times, the despair of feeling it disappear again and again, pervades the manifold work of this man, which perhaps moves us particularly because he is a man of the West, because he had to conquer himself by fighting, which seems to be a birthright granted to the man of the Far East.
The tremendous distance Satprem had to travel to come to the permanent possession of his "that" left him with a sympathetic, even touching understanding for those of us who are still on the road. He does not presuppose anything at all in conversation, except that we need "that", that we cannot live without it. All other knowledge, be it political, economic, psychological or artistic, seems secondary to him. He refuses to enter into the dualisms which we consider to be the fundamental ones of our time: Freedom and tyranny, religion and materialism, sexuality and moral rigour, and so on. He believes that our existence today, in East and West, has become equally intolerable and absurd, albeit for different reasons and thanks to different ideals.
In north and south there is as little unspoilt nature as there is independent culture. Everywhere "the borders are guarded, the tickets are clipped". We have tried to make the world a well-oiled machine, but "everything crunches". No one feels comfortable in their skin any more, under whatever system. Everyone has the dull feeling that we are inevitably heading for a catastrophe that nobody wants to see happen, but nobody has any idea how to avoid it. Because ideas are no longer enough. We are shocked to discover that even our political and intellectual heroes are no more bright than we are. Our dreams have become pragmatic. "Right" and "left" ultimately boil down to a matter of taxation, of social legislation. What is there to believe in today? It is becoming apparent that religions have also failed, just like ideologies. The insecurity of modern Christianity can apparently contribute as little to saving humanity as the zeal of the Ayatollahs. Now a whole youth rushes to the redeeming East, which, long since corrupted, offers you salvation carriers hungry for money and power - last proclaimers of a teaching which we were not able to use in time.
So what remains, what remains? The "last adventure, the inner. For that is the positive thing at the end of our twentieth century," says Satprem, "that today we come to the real question. Twenty-five years ago people were still full of illusions, political, economic, metaphysical, that everything could still go well. Now those illusions no longer exist. Now there is only one question, and one way to ask it: with our breath, with our heart, with our body - to become this question, to be this question. And then you have the answer that is yours." For this is Satprem's primal experience, which he obviously had as a child. And his whole "work" (he hates this term) is nothing but the ever more advanced attempt to draw the only possible conclusion for him from this inner experience. That the person who has found his life unbearable (and only he) is able to transform himself, to penetrate to another form of existence. And since a growing part of humanity is in this state today, he believes that we are indeed on the threshold of a new stage of evolution, just as when the first ape began to walk on two legs. Yes, he is convinced that one man has already succeeded in breaking open the gate and reaching this higher, "supramental" level of consciousness. This person is the woman who is called "the mother" in India and in whose vicinity Satprem spent nineteen years of his life until she left her former form of existence in 1973. She also gave him the Indian name by which he is known today, which means nothing other than "One who really loves".
Satprem does not see this name as a mantra, a kind of magic formula that belongs only to him. Only recently, at a dinner party of his Parisian friends, I met a small green parrot with a red beak, which had just arrived from India with its owner, and which in turn, with Satprem's blessing, bears this name. Satprem is a man with humour and wit, indeed with an eloquent aggressiveness. He does not feel the slightest calling within himself to be a saint. Nor does he wear a beard or loincloth, nor does a fragrance of incense float around him. He is a rather small, slender, though muscular Frenchman, "stubborn like all Bretons", as he says of himself, with the clearest blue sea look you can imagine and a strong mouth that cannot be described, which is probably the secret of the East: a smile across all abysses. This smile also has his partner, the Indian Sujata.
Satprem's house stands at 2000 metres above sea level, close to a tea plantation, on the edge of a hilltop in the south Indian Nilgiris Mountains. In the evening, after the heat of the day, sitting on a tree trunk lying there, you have a view over these "Blue Mountains", which gives you the same feeling as if you were floating above the world in a glider. There is no better place to talk. Not far from there is a second house, also from colonial times, for his colleagues and friends, and is connected to his by an intercom. Satprem has furnished his living rooms with a Japanese-style sparseness. On the soft fitted carpet a low table, under which he, sitting on the floor while writing, stretches his legs like a child. Otherwise there are only a few white wicker chairs for visitors. A globe. On shelves the collected works of Sri Aurobindo, and on the walls a single picture: that of Aurobindo's companion, the "Mother". However, Satprem stays outside as often as he can. He is a marcher, a traveller who has walked countless thousands of kilometres in his life. He is, like Arthur Rimbaud, an amazing wanderer, a passant considérable.
Comparisons are always ridiculous, but the one with Rimbaud comes to mind. Little Bernard - we will leave out his unloved surname - is the son of an Alsatian father and a Breton mother who is still alive today. He turns out to be an "unbearable child" because he cannot bear his deceitful bourgeois environment. "I suffocated. Everything crunched inside me, everything was repugnant to me." He only feels comfortable in the small wooden boat with which he sails out to sea as far as possible, like the child Rimbaud in spirit with his "drunken ship". "At such moments there was no more I, no more words. I could breathe again. It was the fullness." These are the same expressions he still uses today: suffocating, crunching, being able to breathe again. Only that it is now the whole of humanity that should be able to breathe again. "For that is the only difference between people. Not intelligence, not this or that quality, but how much they feel their need, how much they crave air, how desperately they need the feeling of being alive."
During the German occupation of France, young Bernard goes underground. He photographs the bunkers of the Atlantikwall for the resistance movement. A comrade betrays him, he is arrested by the Gestapo. "In the Grüne Minna, torture and death before my eyes, I saw through the grating the housewives with their shopping baskets, getting their bread from the baker. And suddenly it seemed so outrageous, so grotesquely nothing meant anything any more. It was one of the decisive minutes of my life. It was like the destruction of everything I had thought was real. He is sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, later to Mauthausen. "Such complete destruction. I am not talking about the atrocities. It was man who was destroyed, my whole being. Everything that had been stuffed into me for twenty years was broken there. And out of it came a kind of human substance that kept asking: What? What? What? What remains of a human being when there is nothing left? Where are YOU? And suddenly it was as if I stood above it, almost smiling. An unspeakable joy! A power! Nothing more could harm me. When I was a child, I always wanted that guy who was inside me to spit out his truth! And now it was suddenly there. There is only one experience at all, one! To be taken where you really are. And all the plagues of life are only there to help you. You don't need a Guru for that, you have him inside you. Everything is a guru."
After the end of the war, he is invited by a cousin who works in the colonial administration to the South Indian town of Pondicherry, then still a French enclave. There he has a meeting with Sri Aurobindo, the first Indian "sage" who tried to unite eastern and western sensibilities. And immediately he knew: "That which I had felt as a child, and later in the camps - here it was, alive, in one look. It was as if all of a sudden I had found my place: where I came from, where I could breathe. I was there. The whole thing lasted perhaps four seconds. It was like a deep yes. It was 'that'. Not a stranger looking at you: myself looking at me! And that, I wanted to live now."
But he still has some detours to make. "Sri Aurobindo had all these disciples around him, this ashram. Another church wall was out of the question for me. I ran away." In Paris, in the display of a travel agency, he sees a map of the world with marked sea routes. He studies it, as Rimbaud must have studied his school atlas. One of these red lines leads to Cayenne, in French Guyana. "I said to myself: Good, Cayenne. That's where you're going." And he goes there, on steerage, in his Parisian slippers, with Sri Aurobindo's Divine Life under his arm. "I found a companion, I went with him into the jungle as a prospector, in my loafers. I was enraptured. It was really hell here. No idea what I was after. But if I was going to hell, I was going to enjoy it." He finds little gold, but something else: "I wanted to get rid of everything, myself, this whole world I no longer understood. To start all over again, with the prehistory, when there were no people - especially no people. Little by little I learned my lesson. I was obsessed with freedom. But I was looking for it outside. I didn't know yet that freedom was in your consciousness - the only one. Because nobody can take it away from you. Now they can send me to Paris, to New York or Mauthausen. And I will have the same look as today, exactly the same look. Not the shadow of a difference."
Again, it is a single moment that turns him upside down: "This jungle was strong, a power! Such a power that I got the fever. The next morning I woke up, and suddenly I had to laugh: What am I actually afraid of? That a snake will bite me, that I will die? If I touch a snake, that is how it will be. And I do not care! With this moment the fear had disappeared. I agreed with everything. I no longer looked where I put my foot. I threw myself into the arms of the forest. And nothing could happen to me after that. I was one with the forest! Its delirium, its brutal beauty, its silence. I was the forest itself!"
He spends ten or eleven months there. And then: "I don't remember on what occasion, but suddenly it was clear to me: That I had become a prisoner of this jungle - a citizen of the jungle - caught! I immediately took a boat and returned to Cayenne. And off to Brazil!" This experience will be repeated regularly from now on. In the Amazon Basin, a cacao plantation will be given to him. In the north of the country an old American wants to adopt him and use him as a successor in his mica farm. They even offer him a yacht as a bonus. "And of course I had this beautiful Brazilian girl." With a sudden decision he also escapes this trap. In Africa he joins a traveller who sells French dictionaries to the natives. They hitchhike from village to village, across Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Nigeria. At last he reaches his destination, the Sahara, where he hopes to "lose himself" again, as he did in his time on the open sea, in the jungle. Unfortunately the rainy season is just beginning.
"Anyway, there was something else: The Divine Life of Sri Aurobindo, which I had been carrying with me all the time. Shouldn't I go back there after all? I was very desperate when I heard that he had died, as they say. That look no longer existed. But at least the 'mother', his companion, was alive. I said to myself: Maybe there is still a secret there after all? Because you can't pile up adventures forever - in the end you become an official of adventure. Do they have a secret there that you don't have to keep renewing, that lasts?"
At the age of thirty he returned to Pondicherry. "I remember going to the beach there, hiding behind a fishing boat and smoking my cigarette. And I said to myself: 'My friend, do you know that you are now smoking your last cigarette? You will enter an ashram.' I did not feel comfortable. If it wasn't for the mother. And I fought with her too, for six years. Always away from the ashram, always back. And away again."
One day he stays away completely. He met a sannyasin, a wandering monk, a kind of mendicant monk. On foot he takes him through Ceylon, then they come back to India. They stop at a river. The sannyasin makes him take off his clothes. Then a fire is lit. "You throw everything in, everything. Family, past, his mind. Good, evil, pain, joy. I don't want any more of that. I want that thing that is, that always remains the same."
Satprem - because that's his name now - gets an orange robe and a copper kettle. Then he is sent on a journey, mostly by train. "I spent weeks on the trains of India, in this murderous heat, this filth everywhere, vermin. Overnight on platforms. It was a nightmare in which I no longer knew whether it was day or night, whether I was sleeping or walking. Until there was nothing left in me to break. I was beyond. Then I went to the Himalayas. Known yogis, sat beside them. I meditated with closed eyes. This unclouded serenity - no more problems. And then? That was always my question - and then? When you open your eyes again and the world is still the same."
Satprem is no friend of the gurus, especially when they are idolized by their disciples. They seduce them into laxity - the guru will do it. When the work can only be done by yourself. "Every moment, every encounter, every coincidence can be a guru - if you only know how to see. Every thing shows us the way. You just have to have the courage to go for it. And so Satprem understood in the end that his fear of the ashram was also only one obstacle he had to overcome to reach the one who was the only one who still had something to give him - his last challenge. He returned to his mother, "her smile, her irony, the sword in the depth of her eyes".
The amazing self-experiment of the mother, of which Satprem was a witness for nineteen years, forms the content of the present book. She has tried to define her experiences to him, and sometimes to the disciples of the Ashram, week after week, year after year, in words which he recorded on tape. The written transmission of the totality of these statements is his life's work. The mother, unlike Sri Aurobindo, was not a poet, not a writer. She had no "poetic vein". What Sri Aurobindo had foreseen in his visions, she tries to realise in her own body, says Satprem: For the transformation of man into "the man after the man" takes place in the cells of the body. So the mother's statements are dry, objective, sometimes ironic, always as precise as she can be. They are like clinical observations, like notes from a laboratory. One admires Satprem's self-discipline in dealing with this strict business for many years, which he also regularly escapes, in parantheses if you like, with one of his novels, essays or fables. Again and again he returns to his meticulous work, convinced that every single word counts. And again and again he finds new riches in these sentences, which feed his desperate hope - he himself calls it certainty - that the key is found here, which opens the door to a new uplifting history of mankind. I do not allow myself to judge this conclusion. It was only my intention to introduce the author, to make him understandable as someone who does not indulge in abstruse speculation, but always starts from experience and therefore for all those who can experience it.
I myself met Satprem in spring 1980, spent too few days with him and made a short television film about him. Of the many hundreds of people, women and men I have met in my professional life, he is certainly the most impressive. One of the few without personal ambition, without pretence, without any vanity. It is as if I had always been looking for him: a trained adventurer, a Rimbaud who survived and who now knows something. He is the only one to whom I can tell everything and from whom I impudently expect him to understand everything. No, it is more than understanding. It is even more than compassion. It is, from his side, the absolute confidence that you too can do what he has done, and why not go further? When you meet Satprem, he tells you such things as: "It is not bad to make mistakes, even horrible mistakes. It is only bad not to want to get out of it - not to believe in what you are. The only sin is to let yourself be walled in by something." Or he says: "You can't make up for anything with suffering, with guilt, repentance, remorse and the like. The only way to make amends for the things you have done to others is to find joy for yourself. And the childish simplicity. That makes up for everything. One commits the greatest of stupidities just to achieve that freedom." Or he says, "There is no such thing as happiness. You have what you deserve. You always have the fate you accept. And all resistance is for something. All your mistakes are useful because they allow you to discover the key to yourself." He hates it when people talk about his "ideas": "I have no ideas. I am only one who breathes an experience, who is an experience." When it comes to political or other discussions, he waves them off. He has no taste for compromise, muddling through. What really appeals to him are inner personal events - he always wants to know if your heart is still beating, if there are still possibilities: "Brilliant is soon to be one." That's why he loves children, because they can still love uninhibitedly. His companion, Sujata, as well as all his friends, also have this open, accessible, changeable nature of children.
In his letters, which he always writes by hand, Satprem calls me his brother. I hope he has many brothers. And I wish everyone that he will one day find a brother like him.