Who is Shri Aurobindo?

Posted on August 8, 2010

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The year was 1907. The freedom movement in India was gathering momentum. Its leader was detained by the police. The poet Rabindranath Tagore paid him a visit and wrote the now famous lines:

“Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee! O friend, my country’s friend, O Voice incarnate, free, Of India’s soul….The fiery messenger that with the lamp of God Hath come…Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee.”

The year was 1928. The leader had now left politics and had gone to Pondicherry where he had plunged himself into the practice of yoga. The poet Tagore once again paid him a visit and declared:

“You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world, `Hearken to me!’…

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 a reticent richness of wisdom and again sang to him in silence: `Aurobindo, accept the salutations from Rabindranath!’

How does one describe or speak about such a personality? Sri Aurobindo has been called a scholar, a literary critic, a philosopher, a revolutionary, a poet, a Yogi and a ‘Rishi’. He was all these and much more. To have even a glimpse of the true Sri Aurobindo we have to turn to the Mother:

“What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation; it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme.”

Therefore Sri Aurobindo declared, in no uncertain terms that nobody could write his biography:

“Neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for men to see.”

But he was not altogether averse to this effort and even made corrections when some biographers made the attempt. In the process the veil that hid the divine mystery was lifted a little.


Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta. The day was August 15, 1872, the time – 5.00 a.m., the hour of dawn. The date is doubly important. Seventy-five years later, exactly on that date – August 15 – India attained her freedom. In a message given on that day Sri Aurobindo, who had played a leading role in the freedom struggle, said:


“I take this coincidence, not as a fortuitous accident, but as the sanction and seal of the Divine Force that guides my steps on the work with which I began life, the beginning of its full fruition.”

The date has an even greater and deeper significance. Sri Aurobindo has explained it thus:

“The 15th August is the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; it implies that the physical nature is raised to the divine Nature…”

And this was in a way the goal of Sri Aurobindo’s life. To divinise the earth, to make matter the Spirit’s willing bride.

The name given to Sri Aurobindo at birth was quaintly Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose! His fatherDr. K. D. Ghose had returned from England with a completely Western outlook. He was enamoured of everything Western and, because a British lady Miss Annette Ackroyd happened to be present, her name was also added to Aurobindo’s name. Later Sri Aurobindo was to say in a humorous tone about his father:

“Everyone makes the forefathers of a great man very religious- minded, pious etc. It is not true in my case at any rate. My father was a tremendous atheist.”

But Dr. Ghose was also `generous to a fault’. Nobody went empty- handed from his door. And the mother of Sri Aurobindo, Swarnalata Devi, was so beautiful and gracious that she was known as the “Rose of Rangpur”. Sri Aurobindo was the third among five children. The two elder brothers were Benoy Bhushan and Monomohan and the younger sister was Sarojini followed by the youngest brother, Barindranath.


When Sri Aurobindo was five years old, he was sent to Loretto Convent School at Darjeeling. Two years later, in 1879, Dr. Ghose sent his sons, including Aurobindo who was then only seven, to England, with strict instructions that the young Aurobindo should have a completely Western education and should not even come into the slightest contact with anything Indian. A new chapter in his life had begun.

Sri Aurobindo lived at Manchester with the Rev. and Mrs. Drewett. While his brothers studied at school, he was taught at home by the Rev. Drewett. He developed, very early, a love for poetry, which was to last him throughout his life. Even at that young age of eleven he contributed a few poems to the local “Fox” Magazine.

Mastering Western Culture

In 1884 Sri Aurobindo shifted to London and was admitted to St. Paul’s. The headmaster was so pleased with his mastery of Latin that he took it upon himself to teach him Greek. It is here that Sri Aurobindo plunged into the literature of the Western world and studied several languages – French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin, and absorbed the best that Western culture had to offer him.

But these were also difficult times. The generosity of his father Dr. Ghose, had brought succour to many an unknown person in need in Khulna, where he was posted. But it had also made the stipend he sent to his own sons very irregular. Sri Aurobindo was then in his early teens. He describes how he spent several years in the bitter cold of London:

“During a whole year a slice or two of bread and butter and a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening only a penny saveloy (a kind of sausage) formed the only food.”

For nearly two years he had to go practically without dinner at that young age. He had no overcoat to protect him from the rigours of the London winter and there was no heating arrangement in the office where he slept, nor had he a proper bedroom.

But Sri Aurobindo was immersed in his books and was feasting on the thoughts of the great. He got the Butterworth Prize for literature, the Bedford Prize for history and a scholarship to Cambridge.

Cambridge

In 1890, at the age of eighteen, Sri Aurobindo got admission into Cambridge with a senior clasical scholarship. He studied the classics doing brilliantly and passed high in the First part of the Tripos. The famous Oscar Browning had examined Sri Aurobindo’s classical papers at the scholarship examination. He remarked to Sri Aurobindo:

“I suppose you know you passed an extraordinarily high examination. I have examined papers at thirteen examinations and I have never during that time seen such excellent papers as yours (meaning my Classical papers at the scholarship examination). As for your essay, it was wonderful.”

It was thus that Sri Aurobindo grew, away from his family, away from his motherland, away from his roots and his culture. He knew seven foreign languages but could not speak his own tongue, Bengali. He would not have been able to speak fluently with his own mother.

The ICS

To comply with the wish of his father, Sri Aurobindo also applied for the ICS while at Cambridge. Here too he did brilliantly. But Sri Aurobindo was not meant to be an ICS officer, serving Her Majesty’s Government as one more cog in a giant bureaucratic machine.

Dr. K.D. Ghose had by now become aware of the atrocities being committed by the British on Indians and began to send paper clippings of these to Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo also felt that a period of great upheaval for his motherland was coming in which he was destined to play a leading role. He began to learn Bengali and joined a secret society, with the romantic name of `Lotus and Dagger’, where the members took an oath to work for India’s freedom.

Sri Aurobindo now looked for a way to disqualify himself from the ICS and did not appear for the horse-riding test. In normal circumstances this would have been a very minor lapse but the British Government, too, was aware of his political views and activities, and found this a good opportunity to reject him. Wrote Lord Kimberly, the Secretary of State for India, on his file: “I should much doubt whether Mr.Ghose would be a desirable addition to the Service.”

Although he had done brilliantly in the ICS – a most sought-after vocation – Sri Aurobindo now, because of his own choice, found himself in London without a job. But destiny intervened. TheGaekwad of Baroda happened to be in London and offered him a place in his service. For long after, the Gaekwad boasted to his friends that he had got an ICS man for Rs.200/- per month.


Thus Sri Aurobindo sailed back to his country in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, having spent the most important and formative fourteen years of his life, in a foreign land. He had grown up in England but did not feel any attachment to it. Now India beckoned him. He wrote in his poem called “Envoi”.

“Me from her lotus heaven Saraswati Has called to regions of eternal snow And Ganges pacing to the southern sea, Ganges upon whose shores the flowers of Eden blow.”

And how did Mother India receive her son after fourteen years of exile? With her unique and price-less gift – a spiritual experience. The moment Sri Aurobindo put his foot down on Indian soil, at Apollo Bunder in (Mumbai)Bombay, a vast peace and calm descended upon him, never to leave him. Unknowingly and unasked the spiritual life had also begun, which was later to become his sole preoccupation.

But for the moment what occupied him was service in the Baroda State. He started by working in the survey and settlement dept., then in the department of revenue and finally in the Secretariat. He also drafted the speeches of the Gaekwad, who once remarked to Sri Aurobindo that nobody would believe that the Gaekwad could have written such speeches. But his interests lay elsewhere. The Gaekwad, in a report, praised his ability and intelligence but also commented on his lack of punctuality and regularity. After some time Sri Aurobindo was, therefore, transferred to the Baroda College, first as a teacher of French, and then as Vice- Principal, where he was very popular with the students for his unconventional way of teaching.

In 1894 Sri Aurobindo was 22 years old. He wrote humorously in a letter to his sister Sarojini in Bengal:

“I am quite well. I have brought a fund of health with me from Bengal, which, I hope it will take me some time to exhaust; but I have just passed my twenty-second milestone, August 15 last, since my birthday and am beginning to get dreadfully old.

” And this is how Sarojini describes him:

“a very delicate face, long hair cut in English fashion; Sejda (older brother) was a very shy person.”

The Study of Indian Culture

In Baroda Sri Aurobindo plunged himself into a study of Indian culture, as if to make up for all the years he had lost. He learnt Hindustani, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Sanskrit. He was a voracious reader, and two bookshops in Bombay kept him regularly supplied with books sent in crates. Sitting by a kerosene lamp he would read late into the night, unmindful of the swarming mosquitoes and often quite unaware of the waiting food. His cousin Basanti Devi wrote about him in a letter:

“Auro Dada used to arrive with two or three trunks and we always thought it would contain costly suits and other luxury items like scents etc. When he opened them I used to look at them and wonder. What is this? A few ordinary clothes and all the rest books and nothing but books! Does Auro Dada like to read all these? We all want to chat and enjoy ourselves in vacations. Does he want to spend even this time in reading these books?

But because he liked this reading it did not mean that he did not join us in our talks and chats and our merry-making. His talk used to be full of wit and humour.

” Sri Aurobindo read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bankim as well as Homer, Dante, Horace and many others. He also wrote a lot of poetry and his first collection of poems was published from Baroda.

A New Future

But another future was preparing itself for Sri Aurobindo at the same time. It began in a most unobtrusive way soon after he came to Baroda. K.G. Deshpande, a friend from his Cambridge days, was in charge of a weekly, “Induprakash”, published from Bombay. He requested Sri Aurobindo to write upon the current political situation. Sri Aurobindo began writing a series of fiery articles under the title “New Lamps for Old”, strongly criticising the Congress for its moderate policy. Wrote Sri Aurobindo:

“Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.”

And he added,

“I say, of the Congress, then, this, – that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it proceeds towards their accomplishment is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness, and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and the leaders in whom it trusts, not the right sort of men to be leaders; – in brief, that we are at present theblind led, if not by the blind, at any rate by the one-eyed.”

It would be interesting to remember that, when Sri Aurobindo wrote these scathing words with such insight he was merely 21 years old. The editors were frightened and requested Sri Aurobindo to write on cultural rather than political themes. Sri Aurobindo lost interest and the series stopped.

Mrinalini Devi

In 1901 Sri Aurobindo married Mrinalini Devi. Mrinalini had to go through all the joys and sorrows which are the lot of one who marries a genius and someone so much out of the ordinary as Sri Aurobindo.

Revolutionary Activity

The period of stay in Baroda, from 1894 to 1906, was significant in several ways for Sri Aurobindo. It was here that he started working for India’s freedom, behind the scenes. He perceived the need for broadening the base of the movement and for creating a mass awakening. He went to Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, contacted the secret groups working in this direction, and became a link between many of them. He established close contact with Lokmanya Tilak and Sister Nivedita. He arranged for the military training of Jatin Banerjee in the Baroda army and then sent him to organise the revolutionary work in Bengal.

Spiritual Experiences

At the same time the Divine too, continued to work unseen, within, revealing himself only on certain occasions. In his very first year at Baroda, Sri Aurobindo was going in a horse carriage and there was the possibility of a major accident. Suddenly he felt a Being of Light emerge from him and avert the accident. He described it in a sonnet written later on:

“Above my head a mighty head was seen, A face with the calm of immortality And an omnipotent gaze that held the scene In the vast circle of its sovereignty. His hair was mingled with the sun and breeze; The world was in His heart and He was I: I housed in me the Everlasting’s peace, The strength of One whose substance cannot die.”

In 1903 Sri Aurobindo went to Kashmir with the Maharaja. There on the Hills of Shankaracharya he had a beautiful spiritual experience. In another context, he described a similar experience thus:

“One stands upon a mountain ridge and glimpses or mentally feels a wideness, a pervasiveness, a nameless Vast in Nature; then suddenly there comes the touch, a revelation, a flooding, the mental loses itself in the spiritual, one bears the first invasion of the Infinite.”

Once Sri Aurobindo visited a Kali Temple on the bank of the Narmada. He said:

“With my Europeanised mind I had no faith in image-worship and I hardly believed in the presence of God.”

But he was compelled to do so when he looked at the image and saw a living Divine Presence. As he wrote afterwards:

“You stand before a temple of Kali beside a sacred river and see what? – a sculpture, a gracious piece of architecture, but in a moment mysteriously, unexpectedly there is instead a Presence, a Power, a Face that looks into yours, an inner sight in you has regarded the World-Mother.”

The fourth experience has an interesting background. His younger brother Barin fell seriously ill with mountain fever. When the doctors were helpless, a Naga Sannyasi happened to come there. He took a cup of water, cut it into four by making a cross with a knife while chanting a mantra and asked Barin to drink it. The next day Barin was completely cured. Sri Aurobindo was greatly impressed and this also proved to be his conscious entry into the field of Yoga.

“I thought that a yoga which requires me to give up the world was not for me. I had to liberate my country. I took it up seriously when I learnt that the same tapasya which one does to get away from the world can be turned to action. I learnt that yoga gives power and thought: why should I not get the power and use it to liberate my country?”

Backdoor entry into Yoga

Sri Aurobindo said humorously that he had a backdoor entry into yoga. But the immediate result was that he took up the practice of pranayama. Soon there were some startling physical and psychological results. His mind and memory worked with a greater illumination and power. His skin also became smooth and fair. But it ended with that and when Sri Aurobindo fell seriously ill he stopped, and began to look for another way. This new way opened up much later on but for the moment, the important outer event was that the scene shifted from Baroda to Calcutta.

Calcutta

We may perhaps end the Baroda period with a comment of A. B. Clark, the principal of Baroda College:

“So you met Aurobindo Ghosh. Did you notice his eyes? There is a mystic fire and light in them. They penetrate into the beyond.” And he added, “If Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices, Aurobindo probably sees heavenly visions”.

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