Sri Aurobindo

Image Sri Aurobindo represents “the completest synthesis that has been realized to this day of the genius of Asia and the genius of Europe…” —Romain Rolland, French Vedantist and Nobel laureate.

Years ago I saw Aurobindo in the atmosphere of his earlier heroic youth and I sang to him, “Aurobindo, accept the salutations from Rabindranath.” Today, I saw him in a deeper atmosphere of .. wisdom and again sang to him in silence, “Aurobindo, accept the salutations from Rabindranath!” —Rabindranath Tagore


One hundred years after the birth of Raja Rammohan Roy, one of India’s greatest sons, Aravinda Ghose, or Sri Aurobindo as he later became known, was born on August 15 th , 1872 in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. His father, Dr. Krishnadhan Ghose, a Government Civil Surgeon known for his reckless generosity, and maternal grandfather, Rajnarayan Bose, hailed as “the grandfather of Indian nationalism” and as one of the “makers of modern Bengal” were both prominent members of Bengali society. As a result of his father’s admiration for most things European, young Aurobindo was enrolled at the Irish nun managed Loretto Convent School in Darjeeling and then sent to England where he was privately tutored by a congregational minister’s family in Manchester before he joined St. Paul’s school in 1884. By the time he left St. Paul’s for King’s College, Cambridge, Sri Aurobindo had mastered English, French, Greek, and Latin, and become very familiar with German, Italian, and Spanish, much to the astonishment of the school’s headmaster. Despite the penury that haunted him during much of his stay in England, Sri Aurobindo immersed himself fully in literature, poetry, and history, and won not just prizes but high acclaim from Cambridge’s intellectual elite for his literary and poetic work.

With India’s subjugation weighing heavily on his mind, Sri Aurobindo had actively begun to work for her independence well before he left the shores of England in 1893. He wanted India to be independent because he felt it was her inherent right to be free and in charge of her own destiny and not because of “any charges of tyranny or misgovernment” nor out of any rancor towards the English. What was needed for India to throw off the foreign yoke, he determined, was not an “impotent moralism’ or a ‘weak pacifism”, which Indians of the time already had plenty of. Rather, what was essential to achieve self-rule was a strong and widespread feeling of patriotic fervor, and organizational strength both for effective political action and a national insurrection should it become necessary. Using his formidable “strength of knowledge”, Sri Aurobindo, still only 22 years old, began to act by writing a series of articles in the Indu Prakash analyzing India’s political situation, the British, as well as the instincts, methods and abilities of the Indian Congress leadership. That Indians were the “..blind being led, if not by the blind, at any rate by the one-eyed” was a part of his incendiary analyses which provoked enough consternation for the newspaper to be threatened with legal action. Deciding that the country
was not yet ready, Sri Aurobindo withdrew for a while to study the situation further and to wait for a better opportunity to continue his political work. He also used this time in Baroda for “selfculture”, steeping himself in literary activities along with mastering Sanskrit and coming into contact with the deeper layers of Indian culture. It was also in Baroda that he was drawn to spirituality and yoga and he had his first major spiritual experience of Nirvana.

When Viceroy Curzon partitioned Bengal to suppress the strengthening movement against British rule, Sri Aurobindo found the right moment and again plunged headlong into the task of liberating India. Writing for a newly started English newspaper Bande Mataram, he mesmerized and inspired an entire nation day after day and fired up the Nationalist movement, unnerving the so-called moderates and the British government in India. Simultaneously, he also began to organize people to confront the British on multiple levels. Soon after he restarted his political work in close association with Balgangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and others, Sri Aurobindo almost instantly captured India’s imagination and catapulted the Nationalists to the frontline of the country’s independence movement.

Not surprisingly, the British declared him to be “the most dangerous man” that they had to deal with in India and tried several times to prosecute him on false charges. Sri Aurobindo’s arrest in the Alipore Conspiracy Case and his year-long detention as an under-trial prisoner laid bare British desperation but also marked a turning point in his political and spiritual life. Following his acquittal and release, he spoke publicly for the first time of his spiritual experiences while in Jail, of ‘the central truth of the Hindu religion – the Sanatana Dharma or eternal religion…and the fundamental truths in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita’. We know this address now as the “Uttarapara speech.” As a consequence of his spiritual experience in jail, Sri Aurobindo would follow – from then on – only the inner voice to make all his decisions.

Without any respite for almost a year after his release, Sri Aurobindo was again in the thick of things editorializing two weeklies (the English Karmayogin and the Bengali Dharma) and inspiring the public with his speeches. Meanwhile, the British government became restless again and decided to arrest him once more on sedition charges. Upon learning of his impending arrest and while contemplating his next move, Sri Aurobindo received an inner “adesh” (directive) to leave for Chandernagore and then to proceed to Pondicherry. Both Chandernagore and Pondicherry were French enclaves in India that could provide him sanctuary. By this time, large numbers of Indians, with their “old apathy and timidity…broken,” were beginning to feel greatly rejuvenated and thirsty for independence as never before. Sri Aurobindo was reassured by what he foresaw and predicted that Britain would soon be forced by the “pressure of Indian resistance and…international events” to concede independence to India. He thus eventually began to withdraw himself from political work, much to the disbelief of the government.

Many of his former associates tried to coax and cajole him to return to British India, but Sri Aurobindo never once left Pondicherry, refusing even the Presidentship of the Indian National Congress several times. He, however, “kept a close watch on all that was happening in the world and in India and actively intervened whenever necessary” such as during World War II where he publicly supported the Allies convinced that Hitler was a very great danger to human civilization. He also interceded, albeit in vain, with the newer crop of Indian leaders to accept the Stafford Cripps’ Proposal granting Dominion Status to India as a prelude to complete
Independence. Had his advice been heeded, India would have, in all probability, avoided the horrors of Partition and its aftermath. For the next 40 years, Sri Aurobindo devoted himself entirely to his spiritual and intellectual work receiving indispensable help along the way from his collaborator, known as The Mother. It was during this remarkable period that he published a philosophical monthly, the Arya in which some of his important and voluminous works appeared including The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Upanishads, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Secret of the Veda, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and The Future Poetry. It was also in Pondicherry that he completed Savitri, his epic poem written in 24,000 lines of blank verse and the longest such composition in the English language. A year before his passing, Sir Francis Younghusband, Aldous Huxley, and the Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pearl S. Buck nominated him and made vigorous efforts to have him awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and intellectual ideas continue to captivate and draw people from all over India and around the world. His mellifluous English translation of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (which appeared first in Chatterjee’s 1882 novel Anandamath), his messages to America, to the Andhra University, and on the occasion of India’s independence never cease to thrill and inspire many others. Indeed, when India became independent, he revealed that his “aims and ideals” had included 1) “a revolution to achieve India’s freedom and unity; 2) “the resurgence and liberation of Asia and her return to the great role which she had played in the progress of human civilization”; 3) “international unification” …and “the rise of a new, a greater, brighter and nobler life for mankind”; and 4) “a new step in the evolution which, by uplifting the consciousness to a higher level would begin the solution of the many problems of existence which have perplexed and vexed humanity, since men began to think and to dream of individual freedom and a perfect society”. Sri Aurobindo insisted that India had gained “only a fissured and broken freedom” and that the partition of India “must and will go” to enable her achieve a great destiny in a new world order.

The Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org) and the UNESCO-supported international township of Auroville (http://www.auroville.org) were both conceived and shaped by The Mother to be vibrant embodiments of these aims and ideals of Sri Aurobindo.

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