CIIS, Sri Aurobindo & the Practical Transformation of Human Consciousness

An Open Letter to Robert McDermott, Part III

Robert McDermott is president emeritus of CIIS, author of The Essential Aurobindo (1973), & program chair of CIIS's 'Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness' department.

 [Link to Part I or Part II]

30 August 2011

Dear Robert, Thanks for taking the time to reply to my 2nd letter. [Link to RM's response] I was left wondering why you wrote ‘NO’ regarding Haridas Chaudhuri being a Sri Aurobindo student. Perhaps you misread that part of my letter. He was a student of Sri Aurobindo and I was not implying that Sri Aurobindo knew anything about CIIS (especially considering his Mahasamadi was 5 December of 1950). I did find in my research that, as you write, Sri Aurobindo recommended Chaudhuri to Speigelberg for a position at the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS) in San Francisco. I also found an excerpt of a letter that Speigelberg wrote to Chaudhuri:
‘Aurobindo is the guiding spirit of this earth and the prophet of our age. I believe that the last most important contribution that Sri Aurobindo made before passing was to send you here.’
I did read directly from the CIIS website that CIIS was originally established as a branch of the Cultural Integration Fellowship (CIF) which was known as California Institute of Asian Studies (CIAS) until 1980.

Here is some more history on that matter for you or anyone else interested in the back story of CIIS: ‘… a disagreement arose between some students and faculty who wanted to seek accreditation for the Academy, and others who opposed accreditation in the belief that it would limit their freedom of expression. Haridas Chaudhuri sided with the former group, and in 1968 he left the Academy [of Asian Studies], taking many of its students with him to continue studying at his Cultural Integration Fellowship. The Academy could not withstand this split, and soon collapsed. Meanwhile, the Cultural Integration Fellowship continued its educational activities with many students who had been at the Academy, and began to call its educational branch The California Institute of Asian Studies. In 1974 The California Institute of Asian Studies was incorporated separately as a private, non-sectarian, non-profit graduate school.’ (Excerpt from ‘The American Academy of Asian Studies’, CIIS Archives)

So I guess what I do not fully understand yet is how CIIS, being in its origin the ‘educational branch’ of CIF, has lost its close ties with CIF…. and also how CIAS/CIIS so quickly lost the sense expressed by Speigelberg that Sri Aurobindo ‘is the guiding spirit of this earth and the prophet of our age.’


I suppose I have suspected for quite some time that there is little true interest in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s yoga at CIIS. Certainly the majority of the guiding faculty and staff of CIIS has not shared Speigelberg’s original sense (and perhaps Chaudhuri’s) of the importance and magnitude of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga.


I see that is true. Alan Watts gives an interesting description of the original atmosphere in which CIAS/CIIS immerged, which gives a sense of this pluralism and of the transformation of consciousness which was the eclectic faculty’s and community’s concern.
‘The entrepreneur [Louis Gainsborough] who gave the initial funds for this project [AAAS] leaned to the view that it should be an information service at the graduate level. At the time this made sense, because American universities were largely ignoring Asian studies; their offerings at the undergraduate level were almost nil, and at the graduate level were mainly preoccupied with research. But Spiegelberg and I had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service about Asian culture, nor was this what really concerned Chaudhuri, Aiyar, and Tyberg. We were concerned with the practical transformation of human consciousness, with the actual living out of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist ways of life at the level of high mysticism: a concern repugnant to academics and contemptible to businessmen, threatening to Jews and Christians, and irrational to most scientists. Two professional fund-raisers cost us more than they raised, and the Ford Foundation shrugged us off with a shudder. Clearly, we were just another California cult trying to assume the mask of a respectable educational institution. But then ‒ only twenty years ago ‒ it was not as easy to see as it is today that when you make a powerful technology available to human beings with the normal form of egocentric consciousness, planetary disaster is inevitable. Moreover, the point had to be made that the egocentric predicament was not a moral fault to be corrected by willpower, but a conceptual hallucination requiring some basic alterations of common sense; a task comparable to persuading people that the earth is round rather than flat.
‘This was very largely the subject of discussion at the weekly colloquium of the Academy's faculty, at which Spiegelberg was the invariably provocative moderator, and which became an event increasingly attractive to San Francisco artists and intellectuals.’ ‒ Alan Watts (‘The American Academy of Asian Studies’, CIIS Archives)
It is just endlessly curious to me that this search for ‘the practical transformation of human consciousness’ did not take more advantage of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s teachings on the matter. I am now wondering if the faculty of AAAS, CIF, or CIAS interacted with the Mother at all before her passing in 1973. I have not seen any records on this. I have recently been reading from the Mother’s 1961 Agenda about her assessments of an organization called World Union, which makes me imagine that she would have felt similarly about the pluralistic mixture of teachings at AAAS and CIAS.
4 March 1961

‘Z was saying, ‘Nothing can be done unless we base ourselves EXCLUSIVELY on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and they are behind us giving support.’ And J. said, ‘No, no! We are not sectarian! We accept all ideas, all theories, etc.’ I replied, and as it happens, I said that Z was right, though with one corrective: he had been saying that people had to recognize us as their guru. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s absolutely useless – not only useless, I refuse. I don’t want to be anybody’s guru. People should simply be told that things are to be done on the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s thought.

‘Y asked me some direct questions, without beating around the bush, and I replied directly: ‘World Union is an entirely superficial thing, without any depth, based on the fact that Sri ‘Aurobindo said “the masses” must be helped to follow the progress of “the elite” – well, let them go ahead! If they enjoy it, let them go right ahead!’ ... I didn’t say it exactly like that (I was a bit more polite!), but that was the gist of it.

‘Now it has all fallen flat. They are carrying on with their little activities, but it’s absolutely unimportant.

‘These people aren’t even asked to understand what Sri Aurobindo has said but simply to participate. It’s a different matter for those in World Union, who are working for an ideal: they want to prepare the world to receive (laughing) the Supermind! Let them prepare it! It doesn’t matter, they will achieve nothing at all, or very little. It’s unimportant. That’s my point of view and I have told them so.

‘… at World Union they asked me what their mistake had been (they didn’t state it so candidly, but in a roundabout way), and I replied (not so candidly, either – not exactly in a roundabout way, but in general terms). I told them their mistake was being unfaithful and I explained that to be unfaithful means to put everything on the same level …. I told them, ‘Your error was in saying: “One teaching among many teachings – so let us be broad-minded and accept all teachings.”’ So along with all the teachings, you accept every stupidity possible.

‘But if someone is taken in, it proves he’s at an elementary stage and unready.’
Ten years later (30 June 1971), she wrote in the same vein:
‘We’re receiving letters from all over with the “true knowledge” of what should be done according to Sri Aurobindo, and.... There’s such a mixture, things are all scrambled, oh!...

‘It is Falsehood putting on a mantle of truth in order to appear credible.’
For many years, I have had the idea in my head that CIIS was originally founded on Sri Aurobindo’s teachings and then veered off. But it seems from what you are saying and from what I have gathered in my research, that CIAS/CIIS was, pretty much from the beginning, like this ‘World Union’ endeavor described by the Mother in that CIIS founders simply mixed a limited understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s yogic ideals with the ideas other teachings and teachers that were considered the cutting edge of the transformation of consciousness at the time.

So from that point of view it does seem highly unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that CIIS would somehow now, after all these years of academic and intellectual pluralism/freedom, begin to give the Integral Gnosis/Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet any central importance.

But still, if the issues of the ‘practical transformation of human consciousness’ and developing an Integral perspective of world existence remains in the interests of the CIIS community, I am fairly certain that Patrizia’s teachings on Integral Gnosis, Supramental Truth-Consciousness, Vedic Wisdom, Sacred Geometry, the Enneagram, the Zodiac, Evolution, Geo-Cosmology and the Supramental Vision of Time would add much to CIIS’s knowledge base.

You asked where Patrizia lives and where I live. She is in the Palani Hills near Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu (Southern India) and I live in Marin County, 20 miles from CIIS. Whether Patrizia would actually be able to make the long trip from India to California to present at CIIS, I do not know. All I know is that if CIIS wants to maintain some real and meaningful connection with the Integral and Supramental yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (no matter how tangential), Patrizia should be invited to share her knowledge on the matter. If she cannot make the trip, then perhaps other means of transmission of knowledge can be arranged.

Wishing you the Best of Light in your pursuits, Lori

[Additional Note]
I forgot to address above, regarding the bit in my Letter #2 about 'Sri Aurobindo’s perspective that these incarnations [Christ and Buddha] were indeed evolutionary forces, in a sense, errors in consciousness that plunged humanity deeper into darkness and encouraged an escape from the material woes of the world for the past 2,000 years.' I was referring to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's perspective not yours. My thought was that this contrasted or didn't match your own perspective. I would like very much to read your introduction to The Bhagavad Gita and the West.


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