From Sage to Simulacrum: Sri Aurobindo a Photographic Essay ….rc

From Sage to Simulacrum: Sri Aurobindo a Photographic Essay

R. Carlson


The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed rations, which ultimately touch me, who is here, the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed beams of a star. …. Roland Barthes Camera Lucidia

From time to time images of others, portraits, are indeed able to usurp reality because a photograph while an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. While a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, never does more than state an interpretation, a photograph never does less than register an emanation’ (light waves reflected by objects)—a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be. ….“Susan Sontag”, On Photography

To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life”
…. Henri Cartier-Bresson

“I have never seen a man like this he was absolutely immobile.”..
…Henri Cartier-Bresson after photographing Sri Aurobindo


Every photograph is both an absence and a presence, temporally displaced yet spatial immediate, false on the level of perception, but true on the level of time, an image trace whose absent referent is indexed in a coming to presence of something that once was there. Roland Barthes called it a temporal hallucination whose “noeme” is the transmissible thought-image whose “eidos” is death, or perhaps our being toward death.

In meditating on a photograph of his deceased mother Barthes reflected “we can be certain that the image will outlive the subject, whose photograph lingers long after her death”.  But more than this the photograph represents a certain kind of death as a subject undergoes transformation into an object.

The process of reification that transforms a specific instance into a permanent image is a process in which the subject becomes a specter. Other than as a photographic image, the only other time that one can be viewed solely as an object is when one achieves the status of a corpse.  “Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph.” (Barthes)

For Barthes a photograph involved three different phenomena, a simulacrum, a spectrum, and the return of the dead.

“The person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (Barthes)

Before considering the simulacrum and spectrum we will remain with death for now specifically, how it relates to memory. It is interesting that Barthes uses the term “the return of the dead” rather than the memory of the dead because even if it reveals the past with precise detail a photograph is scarcely a memory.  In fact there is a question as to whether images and memory can co-exist at all. Images interrupt memory’s work turning eidetic imagination inside out. .  “Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes)

Among concerns that this raises critical questions regards to what extent the fabricated idols/eidolon of any technological milieu can replace internal memory. When one relies on photographs for memory, one performs a McLuhanian flip and an outering of the sensorium occurs. In this sensory “outering”, a technological extension necessitates a biological atrophy. When a new technology takes on the task that was previously done manually or mentally that particular biological/brain function falls into disuse and slowly begins to atrophy.

While McLuhan instances the processes of automation and mass media, this is also precisely the phenomena that King Thamus of Egypt warned against when presented with the gift of writing from the god Thoth, as a recipe for memory and wisdom. Thamus responds that writings true effects are likely to be the opposite; it is a remedy for reminding, not remembering, he says, while it gives the appearance it is not really wisdom. “Future generations will hear much without being properly taught, and will appear wise but not be so, making them difficult to get along with”(Plato). In Plato’s retelling of this tale writing is considered to be external to our internal memory.  We could take this same lesson and apply it to photography and memory.

But, while Plato argument seems convincing, Jacques Derrida in interrogating this dialog in Phaedrus demonstrates that Plato also has to admit that writing penetrates to the core of memory, that it infects memory as a supplement.  “Memory always needs signs in order to recall the non-present, with which it is necessarily in relation”. (Derrida) As a supplement a photograph can spark memory in a way that can facilitate recall or realization.

When the spectators consciousness coincides with the instance of the light spectrum that comes to presence in the chemical reactions on a photosensitive negative, memory is augmented by a unique supplement, a true image of the referent. If one brings to the photographic encounter a certain reverie for the objectivity of these supplemental images a new category of space-time opens, one of spatial immediacy and temporal displacement.  While one may question the effect on memory this process can allow one to participate in a mythical presencing of a subject over time.

The space-time of a photograph poses new questions to our understanding of temporality  and presence that boarder on the metaphysical. Barthes even compares photographs to “mediums” who put us in touch with the world of deceased people and things. Barthes study of photographs was not only critical but also phenomenological. He believed that the “noeme” of photography – its essence or thought-image – are its transmissible packets of self-referential thought that reveal what materially “has been”.

The phenomena that began in 1837 with the daguerreotype invented by Louis Daguerre who created an image on silver-plated copper, coated with silver iodide and “developed” with warmed mercury constituted a rupture with the past, “Since that moment of the first photographic image a door opened between worlds and a parallel universe of captured time began to flood across boundaries erected by the language of written symbols.” (Stiegler)

In the early 20th century the Surrealist used photographic images to open portals to the uncanny. Their photographs allow entrance into alternate realities, rendering uncharted regions of the unconscious, assessable through art. In constructing their photographs they favored natural images, objects with real referents rather than, retouched photographs.  The real image was thought to be better vehicles for accessing the chaotic semiotic reality underlying our own.

Man Ray

(Man Ray used the photogram method and solarization photography methods to create his works. A photogram is created without a camera. The subject is laid directly on the paper and then exposed to light and developed. Solarization was used to create a surreal effect in his photographs.)

In his 1920 essay on Max Ernst, André Breton 1920 refers to automatic writing as “a camera of poetry, a blind instrument for recording a landscape to which no human effort can add a single new element”. (Sontag) In the juxtaposition of surrealist imagery one encounters fragments of worlds whose contours thrust images at us violently that puncture our gaze.

“Photography has powers that no other image-system has ever enjoyed because, unlike the earlier ones, it is not dependent on an image-maker. However carefully the photographer intervenes in setting up and guiding the image-making process, the process itself remains an optical-chemical (or electronic) one, the workings of which are automatic. Its machinery will inevitably be improved to provide still more detailed and, therefore, more useful maps of the real. The mechanical genesis of these images, and the literalness of the powers they confer, amounts to a new relationship between image and reality. And if photography could also be said to restore the most primitive relationship—the partial identity of image and object—the potency of the image is now experienced in a very different way. The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image.” (Sontag)

If primitives often fear photographs it is because of the encounter with the spectral image, the haunting presence of an absent referent, whose light emanations remain.  Bergson says, ”the conscious present is the condensing of the entire past” if so, then what allows an image to live in the present is the displacement of temporality as a light spectrum from the past settles onto an immobile photographic surface.

“The instant of the snap coincides with the instance of what is snapped and it is this co-incidence of two instances that the basis of the possibility of a conjuncture of past and reality allowing for a transfer of the photographs immobility in which the spectators consciousness coincides with the appearance of the spectrum. “(Stiegler)

It is from the photographs haunting immobility that primitives withdraw, fearful of being photographed and having ones soul imprisoned in the photographic image. Here we will flip the question and rather than consider soul stealing will explore whether the two dimensional photographic surface could serve as a vehicle for soul revealing?

If photography is a technology of objectivity it is also a technology of aesthetics and the question that can be asked is one posed by Thomas Mann in 1928:  “Technologization of the aesthetic—it certainly sounds bad, it resonates with decay and the downfall of the soul. But what if, even as the soulful falls victim to the technical, the technical becomes ensouled?”(Mann/Downing)


When asked to pose for a photograph in1940 Sri Aurobidno responded “plenty of people have proposed that before” (Heehs) It would be another decade until Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Pondicherry before he finally agreed. The encounter was short and as intense as it was unique as one of India’s greatest yogis met one of the great photographers of the 20th century. As described by Robi Ganguli who accompanied Cartier-Bresson to Sri Aurobndo’s room “after his ten minutes of shooting he was perspiring and visibly agitated, when asked how it went? with elation he replied “I have never seen a man like this he was absolutely immobile.” (Ganguli)

Aurobindo was born in India but raised in England where he had been sent by his Anglophile father to be educated. He graduated from Kings College of Cambridge University where he studied the classics of Western Civilization and won prizes for Greek and Latin poetry. He could read and write in multiple European and Indian languages. Culturally he was a cosmopolitan figure with certain literary and philosophical affinities to Arnold, Nietzsche, Bergson, Tagore.

After graduating from Kings College he returned to India but rather than becoming a privileged member of the British Indian Civil Service (ICS) he embarked on a rediscovery of his Indian heritage.  He immersed himself in India’s indigenous spiritual traditions and the practice of Yoga. His will to cultural and self-discovery transformed him into both a yogi and a revolutionary who fought against the foreign powers occupying India. It did not take long for him to find himself on trail for his life on charges of treason.

As the 20th century began Sri Aurobindo became one of the first leaders of the revolutionary movement in India against British occupation that would eventually result in its independence. In response to the injustices of the Raj he advocated insurrection and led a resistance movement in Bengal whose armed tactics conferred upon him the status of terrorist.

As an author he took on the task of marshaling the heroic spirit of self-determination that had languished on the subcontinent after centuries of occupation and its subjugation to foreign powers. But, he was equally as critical of India’s malaise and its caste system, whose injustices he renounced vehemently. He also wrote and edited one of the key early journals of the independence struggle called “Bande Matram”, whose name invoked the goddess Durga, slayer of demons. The British considered the publication most dangerous and constantly monitored it for seditious activity.

Aurobindo was eventually arrested, placed in solitary confinement and put on trail for his life on the charge of treason, of waging war against the King. While in his cell he claims to have heard the voice of another one of India’s great cultural and spiritual figures Swami Vivekananda. The voice he heard promised him that India would be free and so summoned him to pursue the path of yoga.

His decision to dedicate his life to a process of spiritual transformation had begun while in a solitary cell nine feet by five feet that had no windows. In front stood iron bars and a hole in a wooden door beyond a small stony courtyard. When he finally stood trail he silently looked out from his courtroom cage but his vision had been entirely transformed. The judge, jury, the prosecuting attorney appeared to him as divine forms of the gods Vasudeva, Narayan and Krsna. He lost all fear that they could do him any harm and was eventually acquitted of all charges.

After he was freed he received an inner calling to go to the French territory of Pondicherry in South India. There he could avoid further British harassment although they still pestered the French to keep close watch on him. The French surveillance of him did not last long however, when the Chief of Police suddenly walked in and found there were Latin and Greek books lying about on his desk, he was so taken aback that he could only blurt out, “Il sait du latin, il sait du grec!” — “He knows Latin, he knows Greek!” — and then he left with all his men. How could a man who knew Latin and Greek ever commit any mischief?(Purani)

He was subsequently left in peace. Having been given an inner assurance that India would he now began to seriously embark on the practice of yoga (sadhana). It was a practice that he believed had evolutionary implications, both for himself and for the nation. He was one of the first voices to speak of an evolution of consciousness.

The first step of his yogic practice includes achieving perfect stillness, or the silencing of thought in attaining a nirvanic state. Aurobindo’s yoga is called “purna” or “integral yoga”. The aim of his yoga does not end at nirvana but rather, uses the experience of nirvana as a foundation for a spiritual practice that aims at synthesizing knowledge, devotion, works in a project of immanent transformation, in which the yogi functions as a physical laboratory at the vanguard of species evolution.

In 1926 after having experienced a “siddhi” -a Sanskrit noun that can be translated as “perfection”, “accomplishment”, “attainment”, or “success – in ones yogic practice- he retired completely into his residence in Pondicherry until he died in 1950.

Aurobindo’s main activities during the period of his retreat involved walking meditation and writing, mostly hundreds of letters to those spiritual seekers who sought his counsel. He did however continue to meet with a close circle of followers and would occasionally entertain such notable guests as the Nobel prize winning author Rabindranath Tagore who wrote of him “India will speak through your voice to the world, Hearken to me”

His presence is described by those few who visited him during the period of his retreat in terms of the sheer force of its silent immobility that could be felt throughout his entire room.  One person describes being in his presence in Heideggerian terms of being “geared up” or prepared. In this case, the preparation was for a transition from man to superman.

By first insisting on a silent mind and perfect equanimity integral yoga begins with the deconstruction of thoughts that intruded into consciousness. One comes to spontaneously see how thoughts are generated outside oneself and enter the mind conditioned by culture, history and desire. By detaching oneself from the compunction of desire one gains freedom to perfect action in the world. But perfected action began with the cultivation of a silent mind as a solvent for the world’s disturbances.

His spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa once describes racing to his room to close the windows during one of the raging typhoons that often hit southern India. Although the Ashram buildings were being pummeled by gale force winds with torrential rain and the compound was in disarray when she arrived in his room the window was wide open but, everything inside was perfectly still, all she found was the lone figure of Sri Aurobindo immobile in silent meditation.

Although he may have maintained an immobile poise Sri Aurobindo was reluctant to remain still for a posed photograph.  In fact, -and for good reason as we shall see- he does not seem to have been drawn to photographs at all. While many pictures were taken of him when he was a public figure between 1906-1910, only about ten photographs exists that were taken between 1910-1926 when he withdrew to dedicate himself to yogic practice. (Heehs) In 1940 when asked to allow himself to be photographed Sri Aurobindo responded “plenty of people have proposed that before”.

There were no photographs taken of him after that time until 1950 when Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Pondicherry and asked permission to take his picture. The photographs Cartier-Bresson took were the first ones taken in approximately twenty-five years and are the last ones we have of Sri Aurobindo prior to his death in December of that year. The only ones taken of him after that were those taken after he had left his body as he lay in the crystal blue silence of samadhi.

Perhaps Aurobindo intuited something in Cartier-Bresson who viewed photography in much the same integral terms as Sri Aurobindo did his yoga”, he wrote photograph, “is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.”  When we look at his portraits, that head-eye-heart relationship is especially evident.”

Cartier-Bresson saw the world in terms of light and the reverie of form in which he declared; “in all this chaos, there is order” and through this process we are left to “to revel in the pure pleasure of form”. Although he trafficked in the singularity of the photographic images he also was a cinematic collaborator with famed director Jean Renoir on three films. He was “an artist who sees himself an artisan but who nevertheless established Magnum, the most prestigious of all photo agencies, and who immortalized his major contemporaries: Mauriac in a state of mystical levitation, Giacometti, Sartre, Faulkner or Camus, and as many more all taken at the decisive moment, all portraits for eternity.” (Assouline)

During his lifetime Cartier-Bresson witnessed some of the centuries most tumultuous events. Through his camera he captured some of the great social movements of the era, the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, the joyous liberation of Paris, Mohandas Gandhi just hours before his assassination, Mao’s liberated China.

In the midst of all these events Cartier-Bresson approached photography by stilling the mind as a yogi or more precisely as a Zen archer would do. During this process the photographer like the archer perfects technical acumen by first emptying consciousness of all thought in surrender of the self to the process of perfecting the shot.

The archer starts with attentive practice by slowly drawing the bowstring backwards. Because if the arrow is properly drawn the archer is no longer conscious of herself, she gazes at the target while emptying consciousness of content and self as attention is enrapt in the “other”, in the target. It is a process that readies the string so once released it sets the arrow on a prefect trajectory.

“The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art…” (Herrigel)

To Cartier-Bresson the camera was an “instrument of intuition and spontaneity –the master of the instant which in visual terms questions and decides simultaneously” Like the Zen archer Cartier Bresson’s process involved silencing the mind before engaging the photographic act, when his finger triggered the shutter, all thought was stilled as the Zen photographer targeted his subject with an arrow of light.

When he shot a portrait he looked for an inner silence. He said “I seek to translated the personality not expression”. The force of photography is that it prolongs instants which the normal flow of time immediately closes. This freezing of time—the insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph—is what produces beauty To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. As Cartier-Bresson said It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis. (Magnum Photos)

If there was any photographer qualified to take photographs of Sri Aurobindo it was Henri Cartier Bresson.

The photographs that Cartier Bresson took of Sri Aurobindo reveal an almost uncanny immobility in its subject. They reveal a perfectly composed Sri Aurobindo with one eye serenely looking into the camera and the other as if gazing inward into the depths of some other hidden world. Many of Sri Aurobindo followers use these pictures to facilitate meditation and as a vehicle of darshan.


Sri Aurobindo by Henri Cartier-Bresson 1950 (original images)


If the photograph is employed as a darshanic image it is to facilitate a direct transference of the master consciousness into the aspirants own meditative state via a gaze that pierces its subject like an arrow. This form of wisdom transmission has a long history on the subcontinent stretching back to its ancient religious and philosophical traditions.

“In everyday language, darshan means “to see.”  But there are also specialized meanings to the word darshan.  Darshan also means spiritual philosophy.  All the schools of philosophy in India are known as darshans.  And thirdly, darshan is an encounter with an icon or a guru.   Darshan involves a form of non-dual seeing.   To arrive at this point, however, we must first acknowledge the fact that we start from dualistic phenomenal experience. In our experience is one of an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’, there is always that separation. There is a plurality of beings that are encountering one another. In the encounter with the icon or with the guru, the encounter of darshan too, we start with a dualism:  two states of consciousness encountering one another.  But eventually there is an overcoming of that duality, and this is the moment of darshan”. (Banerji)

Darshan is a hierophany, a revelation of the sacred gathered from, a direct seeing of and being seen by the divine in the form of an icon or guru. Traditionally darshan involves a personal audience with the guru or icon but with the evolution of technology a photograph or even a digital image (cyber-darshan) can stand in for the guru or icon. Since a photograph consists of traces of actual photons that reflect off the guru its use is seen as most appropriate.  As Barthes reminds us the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent.

Barthes splits the effect of the photograph into two aspects that he calls the studium and the punctum. The studium is the socially coded value of the photograph. It is its cultural, and political interpretation of the whole photograph that we tacitly interpret whenever we see it. Studium is the element that creates interest in how the photographer has composed the photograph.  By decoding the image we as spectators experience the photographers intention.  Culture is perhaps the most important reference within studium, as Barthes says ‘it is culturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions,’


In contrast the punctum refers to that particular portion of the photograph that has personal meaning; that “stings us”, that punctures our attention. This may or may not have been part of the photographer’s intention but rather it is that visual attractor that draws our gaze toward on a particular feature, face or form within the image. It is that part of the photograph that reaches out and pricks ones eyes with a form that we invest with personal meaning, The punctum allows us to establishes a direct relationship with the referent within the picture. It is that event horizon on the still photographic surface that reverses the flow of time between image and viewer to facilitate an affective connection.

“The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward “the rest” of the nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together  it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me “ (Barthes)


The posed photograph facilitates a self-encounter within the subject photographed, which opens her up to the camera in such a way that the punctum can emerge from the individual’s psyche itself. The pose in a photograph for however brief an instant punctures time with the intentionality of the subject as she assumes complicity in her transformation into an object fashions duration to crystallize a time-image.

If the interchange of darshan occurs within the immobility of a photograph it would be within its punctum, in the personal space where the delayed star beams of its subject evoke emotional meaning for the viewer. The punctum in the photographs taken by Cartier-Bresson of Aurobindo are usually reported by followers as located in his gaze.

Sri Aurobindo by Henri Cartier-Bresson (original)

Unfortunately, in the case of these photographs Sri Aurobindo suspicion of photographs of himself was bore out when  –without the photographer’s permission- some were juxtaposed with unflattering captions in the British periodical The Illustrated  (Jan 1951) and satirized in the German magazine Heute (Nov 1950).

The Aurobindo Ashram wound up buying the negatives of the photographs. It was unprecedented that Cartier-Bresson agreed to sell, because both he and the artistic corporation that owned the rights to his photographs Magnum Photos had a strict policy prohibiting sale of negatives.

The Aurobindo Ashram paid three thousand dollars in 1951 for the photographs. It was an astronomical fee for the time yet, they would in turn churn out thousands of copies of these photographs over the next sixty years and that would make them a tidy profit,

Although Cartier-Bresson’s original photographs of Sri Aurobindo were successful in conveying his immobile presence, after his death some of Aurobindo’s more “geared up” followers in Pondicherry would retouch some of his negatives before circulating copies for distribution and sale. In these photographs suddenly a white halo or aura emanates from the serenely framed white clad, white haired, white bearded figure of Sri Aurobindo.

Sri Aurobindo by Henri Cartier-Bresson (retouched with aura)


In the context of one of the major works on photography it is ironic to think that the reproduction of Sri Aurobindo’s photographs would be framed by an aura, because it is precisely the erosion of “aura” in the reproduction of photographs that is Walter Benjamin’s subject in Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Painting Sri Aurobindo’s images with an aura was done to suggest a certain excess of presence, a force of physical manifestation. For Benjamin an aura also suggests an excess of presence. Although for him this presence occurs through the historical testimony given by an artwork such as a painting or sculpture that is embedded in a culture or tradition. Benjamin saw in the photograph, an artwork in which presence was diminished, whose aura was eroded through its mechanical reproduction.

During the years before World War II while Sri Aurobindo was still in self-exile practicing his supra-mental yoga, struggling inwardly to free a new nation in the waning days of the Raj and Henri Cartier-Bresson was in Spain documenting the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, Walter Benjamin was living penniless in France; the specter of the Third Reich looming, contemplating his own future self-exile. In 1936 he wrote Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it he interrogates the mass production of art works, the proliferation of image that through photography and cinema had become the commodity form of what Horkheimer and Adorno in1944 called the Culture Industries that were emerging in America and Western Europe.

In his essay Benjamin compares a painting to a photograph. He argues that a painting or sculpture is obviously reliant on an original object whose materially provides historical  testimony of its existence within a culture and tradition.  In contrast a photograph is not dependent on a fixed object within a specific temporal sequence or spatial coordinate and therefore succeeds through the economics of mass reproduction.

A photograph undermines the authority of an original by replacing it with a copy. A photographic negative -more so the digital image- can produce limitless identical copies and for all practical purpose any copy can stand in for the original. The event of the invention of photography made possible the capture, copying, and circulation of an image of time. In the wake of this event two thousand years of Platonic metaphysics of forms began to flip. Susan Sontag writes:

“Since Plato philosopher’s tried to shed the dependence on images for interpreting reality in authoring an image free way to apprehend the real. “But when, in the mid-nineteenth century, the standard seemed finally attainable, the retreat of the old religious and political illusions before the advance of humanistic and scientific thinking did not—as anticipated—create mass defections to the real. On the contrary, in the new age of unbelief the allegiance to images was strengthened. The credence that could no longer be given to realities understood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood to be images, illusions.

In the preface to the second edition (1844) of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach observes that “our era” “prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being”—while being aware of these preferences. And his premonitory complaint has been transformed in the twentieth century into a widely agreed on diagnosis: that a society becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality, and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience, become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

Feuerbach’s words—he is writing a few years after the invention of the camera—seem, more specifically, a presentiment of the impact of photography. For the images that have virtually unlimited authority in a modern society are mainly photographic images; and the scope of that authority stems from the properties peculiar to images taken by cameras.”(Sontag)

While photographs may carry more authority in a hyper-modern civilization to Benjamin aura is the cost for of authority. In tracing the erosion of “aura” and the loss of the real to a proliferation of copies, Benjamin understands the rupture that is underway as historical testimony shifts from reality to the strange cultural attractor of simulation. In contrasting paintings to photographs Benjamin finds that while both painting and photograph are representations, a painting is a cultural artifact, whose materiality allows it to be located within a ritualized collective space. Historically this collective space can be traced back from museum and cathedral to the caves that housed our earliest ritual apprehension of paintings.

To experience art is to encounter presence, in which the distance from its creation in time is overcome by the immediacy of the artist’s intentions and that like photograph’s pose, fashions duration to crystallize a time-image. To locate oneself inside a specific cultural space that facilitates a ritual apprehension of the object is to experience an artworks materiality. This phenomenological dimension of art we share with nature and its natural object such as a mountain, whose presence over eons is sustained before us.  Similarly, the aura of an artwork envelops us in its cultural essence and inscribes in us its historicity.

This experience of aura could also be found in early photography or the daguerreotype that produced only singular originals. But, the discovery by Maddox, of an emulsion of gelatin and silver bromide on glass to create the “dry plate” process in 1871 coupled with the Eastman Kodak’s corporation’s pricing and production strategies resulted in the availability of cameras for the masses and easily reproducible images fin de siècle.

In the 20th century photography accelerated its subversion of the dominant cultural logic since Plato, which privileged the singularity of the original or the “true form”” over its copy. With the widespread deployment of affordable cameras mass produced photographic copies would increasingly replace “true form” as ritualized space collapsed under the zero-weight of simulation.

In an age of mass production aura erodes with the public space that surrounds art. As the image draws closer to us the photograph or phonogram circulate for private viewing or listening. As the mass produced artwork draws closer to us it infiltrates (un)consciousness in ways that an object with aura would not, since the very presence of aura envelops the object with a distancing effect, that sustains its singularity. Mass produced artworks however more often are culturally assigned an entertainment value and are absorbed uncritically into our imagination.

This colonization of the imagination by the Culture Industries accelerates with the circulation of globalization’s commodity fetishism. When the copy replaces original and false consciousness replaces true witness the function of art is reversed.  The effect on consciousness is hypnotic as original is replaced by copy, and then copy is replaced by copy as the process re-doubles until what remains is a copy that lacks any original referent.  This makes it easier to employ images as efficient frictionless commodities with increasing propaganda value.

The positive value of photography Benjamin found in two ways, in its phatasmagoric function and in its location within the family tradition. In the former Benjamin believed that photography could bear witness to the ills of economic barbarism in such a way as to awaken us from our everyday stupor. As a phantasmagoric witness to the worst excess of mass culture the camera’s power resides in its very objectivity and its ways of capturing “fleeting and secret images”. The critical eye of the camera allows the inequalities of society to be revealed. He specifically references Eugene Atget’s photographs of crime and vacant Paris streets which “wiped off the mask [off the bourgeois profession of photographer] and then set about removing the makeup from reality too”(Benjamin) .

Eugene Atget – Paris

Ironically, one consequence of aura’s demise in mass culture is in the camera’s very ability to reveal the demise. Benjamin believed the camera has a critical eye for detail that no observer can claim because it portrays society in ways that enable the viewer to deconstruct its façade to wipe its mask off. This is what he calls the phantasmagoric characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions of realistic images that are also found in surreal art and literature.

These shadows and images reveal what otherwise we would blind to. The photographs prefect objectivity bears witness to the illusionary reality we inhabit as citizens and reveals our collective bad faith. “In the image it produces it reveal that which to us in everyday life as natural, is in reality socially constructed and destructive” (Benjamin)

Aside from photography’s potential for objectively bearing witness to the ills of society, there was one form in which Benjamin believed that photography sustained aura and that was in the tradition of the family photograph or album.  Benjamin believed that aura persisted in family photographs because in viewing a photograph of a family member especially, a deceased relative one interns oneself in a relationship to the person in which ones own gaze preserves ones own historical identity within the narrative of a family.

In this respect the photographs of Sri Aurobindo can be said to be handed down within a family tradition. That is if one considers an Ashram a kind of family, which seems reasonable given one often discards ones worldly identity when entering an Ashram or a Monastery. This is particularly true within the Aurobindo Ashram whose patriarchal figure can be found in Sri Aurobindo and whose Mother is so named in the person of his spiritual collaborator Mira Alfassa. The Ashramites often hail one another as brother and sister, aunt or uncle.  In this way the photographs of Sri Aurobindo, are certainly handed down and cared for within the context of a family.

In this context Benjamin’s critique supports a photograph’s authenticity in sustaining aura within a close intentional community, such as an Ashram. However, it remains to be interrogated how much further we are distanced from the real or original presence when the legacy of patriarch is sustained through the creation of an aura by artificial means. Because it is precisely here when the original referent disappears that a simulacrum begins to orient collective life.

The photos by Cartier-Bresson taken in 1950 were not the first to be retouched, earlier photos from the period between 1910-1926 when Sri Aurobindo allowed photographs to be taken also were retouched by followers.

Copies of photographs taken during this period were later sold to devotees some of whom commented “that the Sri Aurobindo that they saw at darshan looked quite different.” (Heehs) In retrospect it is not surprising they made this observation.

One of the most interesting things about the negative reception among the Sri Aurobindo Ashram community to the recent biography The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs has to do with the actual photograph with which the author chose to represent Sri Aurobindo on its cover.

In the photograph Sri Aurobindo heroically posed stares unflinchingly into the camera, his dark brown eyes shine with the fire of a revolutionary his face radiates with the tranquil composure of a yogi. It was an image that the author admitted his fondness for while seeming perplexed that others would prefer a retouched version of the photograph.

Sri Aurobindo Circa 1920 (original)


Sri Aurobindo (retouched)

About the retouched photograph -whose original no longer exists-  Heehs writes: “There is hardly a trace of shadow between the ears, with the result that the face has no character. The sparkling eyes have been painted in, even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false.” (Heehs)

Susan Sontag in her essay Photography: The Beauty Treatment, gives us a brief history of the retouched photograph

“People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their “best.” They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are. But few are lucky enough to be “photogenic”—that is, to look better in photographs (even when not made-up or flattered by special lighting) than in real life. That photographs are often praised for their candor, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of course, are not candid. A decade after the Englishman Fox Talbot’s negative-positive process had begun replacing the French daguerreotype in the early 1840s, a German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative. His two versions of the same portrait—one retouched, the other not—astounded crowds at the World Exposition held in Paris in 1855 (one of the earliest worlds, and the first with a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.” (Sontag)

That some who pledge allegiance to Sri Aurobindo were offended that Heehs would choose a photograph that is striking in its stark naturalism, while preferring the widely circulated touched up photo is startling given Sri Aurobindo’s unsparing commitment to truth telling. The fact that the book’s detractors would prefer to replace the original representation, that captured the actual photons that emanated from his body, in favor of an image that was retouched, that is in essence an artistic rendition testifies to the power of the floating signifier to unconsciously structure conscious perceptions and to transpose the “mana” of a belief system into “floating chains of signifieds” that becomes the “doxa” of the community. But is the difference between the original and the retouched images simply a matter of preferring an image faithful to the truth to one that is a historical lie?

Retouching a photograph is a way for a photographer or whoever the customer is to regain control over the subject. In the posed portrait photograph “the subject’s psychological experience of self and the physical manifestation of this experience on the face and the body are one of the few elements outside of the photographer’s control.” (Espinosa)

The history of photography is already full of images that have been manipulated in some way or other. In fact now we realize that even the naturalist image is also an intentionally manipulated one that is specifically framed and constructed by the photographer through his cultural and historical orientation as well as through the physical constraints in fixing an artistic gaze through a camera lens. In early photography retouching portrait photographs was a common practice but today in the age of Photoshop it is ubiquitous. The ability for almost anyone to manipulate and reproduce countless images and transmit them globally at light speed is part of the evolution of photography since Benjamin, Aurobindo, Cartier-Bresson.

The effect on consciousness has been hypnotic as the manipulated original is increasingly  replaced by a copy, the copy by another copy, until what remains is a copy that lacks any original referent whatsoever.  This makes it easy to employ images as an efficient frictionless commodity form with an exponentially accelerating propaganda value. When reality disappears into simulation, Plato’s “theory of forms” flips into the post-human dawn rising under the sign of the simulacrum.

Before going further it is important to define two terms:

Simulation: “the action or practice of simulating, with an intent to deceive,” then as “a false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something,” and finally as “the technique of imitating the behavior of some situation or process…by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus” (OED online)
Simulacrum: “a material image, made as a representation of some deity, person, or thing,” as “something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities,” and as “a mere image, a specious imitation or likeness, of something” (OED online).

“A simulation is a process whose intent is to deceive. Like the simulation, the simulacrum bears a resemblance to the thing that it imitates only on the surface level but as opposed to the simulation’s mimicry of a process or situation, the simulacrum is defined as a static entity, a “mere image” rather than something that “imitat[es] the behavior” of the real thing on which it is based.” (Sandoz)

In tracing the erosion of aura Walther Benjamin was working in an age in which the mass reproduction of images had just begun. Benjamin began his work on art and mechanical reproduction well before World War II, during the age of radio. He applied both an aesthetic and critical interrogation of the technical and economic apparatus that was employed by the emerging entertainment and cultural industries in “mechanically” proliferating images as commodity forms.


Jean Baudrillard writing in the age of satellite television and the internet theorizes the “technological” (cybernetic) proliferation of images. What begins in Benjamin’s concern with modernity’s mass reproduction of photographic images becomes in the post-modern concerns of Baudrillard the fact that the “copy” no longer has any “real” referent whatsoever in the world; it is an image without an original. In Baudrillard’s view the current age is one in which the real is replaced by the hyper-real.

Lets extend Bernard Stiegler earlier quote on photography:

“In that moment of the first photographic image a door opened between worlds and a parallel universe of captured time began to flood across boundaries erected by the language of written symbols.

he continues:

With the exponential accumulation of images since the time of silver on metal plates exposed to light and mercurial gases, to today’s unlimited digital replications, the realm of imagination has risen as a flood that threatens everything that civilizations once accepted as true.” (Stiegler)

The technological evolution of media reconfigures the sensorium so that it becomes increasingly more difficult to distinguish reality and simulation, authentic from mediated experience, truth from deception.

“When media reach a certain advanced state, they integrate themselves into daily “real” experience to such an extent that the unmediated sensation is indistinguishable from the mediated, and the simulation becomes confused with its source. The simulation differs from the image and the icon (and the simulacrum) in the active nature of its representation. What are forged or represented are not likenesses of static entities, but instead the processes of feeling and experiencing themselves. Beginning as a primarily visual representation, the simulacrum (provisionally: the image of a simulation) has since been extended theoretically, and in the recent theory exemplified by the work of Baudrillard functions as a catch-all term for systems still operating despite the loss of what previous meaning they had held.  Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulations that an effective simulation will not merely deceive one into believing in a false entity, but in fact signifies the destruction of an original reality that it has replaced”(Sandoz).

If Baudrillard believes that simulation is the process through which reality is usurped, then simulacrum is the term for the reification of the process that produces an icon which stands in for a real object.  It is an image embodying a system of empty signs

According to Baudrillard the process by which our attention shifts form nature to its hyper-real replacement follows an evolutionary course:

1.The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct that, a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality”, this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.

2.The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality. Here, signs and images do not faithfully show us reality, but can hint at the existence of something real which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.

3.The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”.

4.The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. “Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims.”  (Baudrillard)

Baudrillard goes on the equate the stages involved in the replacement of the real with three orders of historical process

1.First order, associated with the premodern period, where the image is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality.

2.Second order, associated with modernity and the Industrial Revolution where distinctions between image and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass produced copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the original version, especially when the individual person is only concerned with consuming for some utility a functional facsimile.

3.Third order, associated with postmodernity, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept. (Hegarty/Wiki)

The retouched photograph of Sri Aurobindo present several unique problems. Foremost, because of his own unsparing commitment to truth but also because of the status assigned to him in India both as a spiritual and cultural figure. As a spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo shunned being labeled a guru, since he believed the guru resided in everyone’s heart. An Ashram did grow up around him because even if he was immobile thousands sought his spiritual guidance and made pilgrimages to Pondicherry, if just for darshan. As a spiritual leader he followers view of him ranges from status of a great teacher (mahaguru) to a god-like (avatar) stature imparted on him by his staunchest devotees.

Although one suspects that an evolutionary tendency in culture would be non-linear and much too complex to put into an ascending series of stages and orders, the curve of technology does follow specific physical laws that allows it to redouble its colonization of human consciousness every few years. In these terms there does seem to be a correspondence between the evolution of technology in advanced societies with the displacement of the real. So one could attempt to evaluate the original and retouched photographs of Sri Aurobindo in terms of the stages and orders of displacement of the real as follows:

The original photographs taken by Cartier–Bresson is an image that is still a faithful copy where we believe, and it may even be correct that, a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” align with what Baudrillard calls the “sacramental order” This would also be true of the original photograph on the cover the Heehs biography taken of Sri Aurobindo after both standing trail for his life and his spiritual transformation.

These images are stark in the naturalness and correspond to Baudrillard’s first order when  images still stood in for what they replaced “where situations marks them as ir-reproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality”.

This photograph of Sri Aurobindo was retouched in France in the 1930s (Heehs) around the same time when Walter Benjamin, also living in France, was composing his thesis on aura and photography. Once photographs are retouched to beautify the image such as the one Heehs refers to in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo we begin to spiral from the faithful copy of the real toward the hyper-real. At this stage the copy is no longer faithful to an original but rather “masks and denatures” reality. –it can be retouched-  Here, signs and images do not faithfully show us reality.

This transformation of Sri Aurobindo’s image parallels that of his exploitation by Hindu fundamentalist groups like the RSS and VHP who cleave to him as cultural icon, leader of the early independence struggle and a champion of Vedanta. To these groups Sri Aurobindo is a heroic figure of both the Bengal Renaissance and the Indian struggle for self-determination. While his spiritual followers favor this particular image to bolster their assessment of him as an “avatar” members of the Hindu right exploit the image for its value as heroic representation of Hinduness.

A further evolution of Sri Aurobindo’s image that facilitates his transformation from sage the simulacrum occurs after 1950 when Sri Aurobindo’s Cartier-Bresson portraits have been painted with an aura. But perhaps more demonstrative of this move away from reality occur in some of the pictures after his death that seem to be brushed with a bluish light emanating from his lifeless body. At this point his transformation into simulacrum is complete.  This is Baudrillard’s “order of sorcery” where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original.

In the case of the Samadhi photographs after he left his body it was displayed to his followers for four days. It is widely reported by many of those who viewed him during this time that his body- depending on accounts – radiated with either a golden or bluish light and showed no sign of decomposition despite the south Indian heat. Even though there are many who claim to have witnessed the phenomena of the bluish glow unfortunately in 1950 there was no color film available at that time in Pondicherry.  The following is an account given by Robi Ganguli, the gentleman who accompanied Cartier-Bresson to Sri Aurobindo’s room to take his photographs:

“What Vidyavrata has said about the glow around Sri Aurobindo’s body is correct. Like him I did not see this ethereal glow at night but only the next morning. At the Mother’s suggestion Chiman tried to procure from Madras a roll of colour film, which had for some time reached the commercial market. Perhaps the Mother thought that the glow around the body, which though visible to our eyes had eluded the black and white negatives, could possibly be captured in the colour shots. But unfortunately even in a big city like Madras, these colour rolls were not available.

I distinctly remember that only four of us took photographs. None other than Vidyavrata, Venkatesh, Chiman and myself were involved.  On the 9th when Sri Aurobindo’s mortal remains were put into the Samadhi, the four of us also took pictures of the ceremony. “

Although some may have indeed witnessed an ethereal glow the technology would simply not have been available at the time to portray any other colors than black and white.  It would have therefore been impossible to photograph the color emanating from his body.  Just like the aura on the Cartier-Bresson photographs these images would have had to be doctored to simulate the effect. Whatever the validity of the reports an image faithful to that event simply could not exists. That is the images of auras of ethereal glows are simply copies without an original.

Sri Aurobindo Samadhi (retouched)

Sri Aurobindo’s body (retouched with bluish glow)

When these images are employed by Hindu Nationalist to depict the god-like stature of their political mascot we are close to transiting to the fourth stage of Baudrillards hyper-real in which signs merely reflect other signs without any reality so that ethereal glow and painted aura only reflect the vacant fundamentalist signs of Hindu Nationalism.

The need to distort Sri Aurobindo’s images although troubling in exercising an ideological agenda is simple unnecessary, even for those whose agendas lie in fashioning idols. The authentic reproductions of the Cartier-Bresson photographs make those augmented by the wizardry of an aura, ghostly and unreal.  The faithful image of Sri Aurobindo’s repose in samadhi is more majestic in death than the bluish simulacrum. In the original Sri Aurobindo assumes a last immobile poise, a final profile of perfected peace and equanimity emanating onto a film base of cellulose acetate. The faithful image a “reflection of a profound reality”

Sri Aurobindo Samadhi (original)

Barthes believed that Photography was the eidos toward death in part because “we can be certain that the image will outlive the subject, whose photograph lingers long after her death”.

Susan Sontag argues that “the iconic properties of the more durable photograph will inevitably replace the myriad details of the experience represented in the image; in the end it is the photograph itself that is remembered” (Sontag)

Ironically, what is remembered of the retouched photographs of Sri Aurobino is the precession of simulacra across the screen of hypermodern consciousness.  This accelerating technomaya disappears the questing subject, who Sri Aurobindo envisioned in the first half of the 20th century as the transitional human form. One who through cultivation of the psychic being’s puissant silence fashion a liminal environment to channel supramental consciousness into human evolution.  In contrast the hyperreal desiring machines of neo-liberal globalization consume the psychic imagination of “real idea” excrete it as simulacra.

For those who fashion Sri Aurobindo into either cultural hero or spiritual avatar their desire follows a similar although more ancient  trajectory in which the real is replaced by simulacrum; the fashioning of idols. Today long after his passing the retouched images of Sri Aurobindo demonstrate just how easily the eidos of photography shape-shifts as the eidolon of photography.

References :

Assouline, Pierre: Henri Cartier-Bresson, l’œil du siècle
Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucinda Hill and Wang; Second Edition edition (May 1, 1982)

Baudrillard, Jean:  Simulacra and Simulation University of Michigan Press (February 15, 1995)

Benjamin Walther: Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction CreateSpace (September 23, 2010)

Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution Dover Publications; Unabridged edition (February 6, 1998)

Banerji Debashsih: On The Record of Yoga (2011) Forthcoming

Derrida, Jacques: Dissemination, University Of Chicago Press (February 15, 1983)

Downing, Eric: After Images: Photography, Archaeology, and Psychoanalysis and the Tradition of Bildung (Kritik German Literary Theory and Cultural Studies)Wayne State University Press (September 30, 2006)

Espinosa, Julie  The Advent of Myself as Other: Photography, Memory and Identity Creation. Gnovis Journal Spring 2010

Heehs, Peter: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo Columbia University Press (April 28, 2008)

Hegarty, Paul (2004). Jean Baudrillard: live theory. London: Continuum.

Herrigel Eugene, Zen in the Art of Archery Vintage (January 26, 1999)

Plato: “Phaedrus” Plato’s Dialogue Princeton University Press (September 15, 2005)

Sandoz, Devin (2003)

Sontag Susan. On Photography Picador; 1st edition (August 25, 2001)

Stiegler Bernard Stanford University Press (December 15, 2010)

Other References (Web Sites)


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One thought on “From Sage to Simulacrum: Sri Aurobindo a Photographic Essay ….rc

  1. rakeshgade says:

    Interesting article.

    “The need to distort Sri Aurobindo’s images although troubling in exercising an ideological agenda is simple unnecessary, even for those whose agendas lie in fashioning idols”

    I agree with you. As you also point out the photographs that are polished do not have the same gaze that get the attention or transmission of the original mood in the photo to the observer.

    You are also right about the yogic practices of stilling the mind. There is such superficiality, consumerism and importance of living for the moment and complete
    ignorance of long term vision of our society and individual values. Sometimes one feels like it is choking with falsehood all around you.

    Not only the pictures of Sri Aurobindo but others like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna and many others have been distorted. Such deception propagates the culture of surrealism, superstition and beyond the reach of the ordinary man. It servers the purpose of Religion but not yogic practice and discovery of the truth behind appearances. And if there is any chance of the original darshan from the photogragh, that is destroyed in our desire to magnify the personality we destroy the originality and the power in it.

    I am guessing and I may not be right, that if it comes to ascetic yogi’s or monks like Ramana maharshi, there are several pictures online that are not distorted or polished. I am guessing it is our desire to show that certain yogi’s who claimed higher powers were polished more than the ascetic monks.

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