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An Ancient Seer in Modern Age - Sri Aurobindo (1872 - 1950) by Prof. S. Naganath

Sri Aurobindo’s full name is Aurobindo Acroyd Ghose. His alma mater Cambridge University classified “Acroyd” as a Christian Middle name. His father Dr. Krishnadhan Ghose was a civil surgeon and his mother Swarnalatha Devi (Basu) hailed from a Bengali aristocratic family. His ardent disciples consider his date of birth 15th August 1872 as an ominous indicator of India’s future date of liberation from British colonial shackles.

Dr. K. D. Ghose was a diehard Anglophile and a great lover of Western culture. He sent his three sons to England for proper English school and University education. Sri Aurobindo the youngest son was only seven when he was sent to a distant foreign land six thousand miles away. The three boys were boarders in a clergyman’s house in Manchester city with strict instructions to the caretakers that these three boys must not be allowed to interact with any Indians, and not speak any Indian tongue during their stay in England.

Sri Aurobindo later went to St. Paul’s School in London and later went to Cambridge University on a senior classical scholarship to King’s College. He earned a First Class classical Tripos third division certificate after two years of study and did not graduate from Cambridge University as he did not pursue his final year studies there. Sri Aurobindo had become a true WOG (Westernised Oriental Gentleman) with a good knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish. He was a European scholar of classics and he did not know any Indian languages including his mother tongue Bengali and the classical language of India Sanskrit. He wrote the I.C.S open examination and got selected in 1890. He deliberately misled the compulsory horse riding test conducted by the examiners and hence got disqualified. Then His Highness Sayyaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda offered him a job in Baroda Civil Service.

This quotation sums up this dilemma of a highly westernised Indian even at present,

For fourteen years he had lived in England, divorced from the culture of his forefathers; he had developed foreign tastes and tendencies and he had been de-nationalised like his own country itself and Aurobindo was not happy with himself. He should begin all again from the beginning and try to re-nationalise himself

Aurobindo returned to India in 1893. The return voyage of three brothers to India was not without any dramatic and unwarranted sensational tragic incident. The three brothers were supposed to travel by a particular steamer to India. This steamer near Portugal got shipwrecked in a storm. Dr. K.D. Ghose received a telegram informing him that his third son Aurobindo had been drowned. He came to the sad conclusion that all his three sons were dead. He died as a heart broken man with Aurobindo’s name on his lips during the last few moments of his life.

Aurobindo’s rich eventful life can be divided into three phases.

I. A man of letters

II. A politician and a revolutionary

III. The enlightened yogi.

In Baroda he lived on Bengali non-vegetarian cuisine, smoked cigars and occasionally enjoyed port wine.

I. A Man of letters

Sri Aurobindo served the Baroda state for thirteen years (1893 -1906) as a civil servant where he began his service in the settlement department and then moved to Revenue Department. He taught French in the Baroda College during his spare time. On his own request he was appointed as a Professor of English in the College. He was made vice-Principal and later in-charge Principal of the college.

In Baroda Aurobindo began to learn Bengali and Sanskrit. He started practicing yoga in 1904. Yogi Vishnu Bhaskar Lele taught him meditation techniques which were later pursued independently. Like Bhagavan Sri Ramana he did not have a guru to guide him on the spiritual path. Aurobindo was an avid reader of books that he received from Bombay. He was writing English poems in England. His literary outputs like “Savithri” and “The Future Poetry” were harbingers of a new philosophy. He wrote later several essays on “Mahabharata”

It is relevant to quote a few haunting and tantalizing lines from “Savithri” his epic poem.

“He kept the vision of the vast behind:

A power was in him from the unknowable.

An archivist of the symbols of the Beyond,

A treasurer of Super human dreams,

He bore the stamp of mighty memories,

And shed their grandiose ray on human life.

His days were a long growth to the Supreme.

A skyward being nourishing its roots

On sustenance from occult spiritual founts,

climbed through white rays to meet an unseen sun.”

(The yoga of the King: The yoga of the Souls Release - Canto III)

II A Politician and a Revolutionary

A storm like this has swept also our national life…… Repression is nothing but the hammer of God that is beating us into shape so that we may be moulded into a mighty nation and an instrument for his work in this world. We are iron upon his anvil and the blows are showering upon us not to destroy but to re-create. Without suffering there can be no growth…..”

(From Sri Aurobindo’s Speeches - Pp 99-100)

Sri Aurobindo’s forays into politics are well documented. His involvement in politics with the Congress’ nationalists like Tilak lead to his active participation in active National Congress Session at Ahmedabad in 1902, the National Congress session at Bombay in 1904 and National Congress session at Banaras in1905. In all these sessions of the Congress, he tried to prevail upon the leaders to fight for full independence, free from British control and submit to no compromise. He wrote a manifesto during this time called “No compromise”. He was invited to take charge of the newly started National College in Calcutta and left Baroda in July 1906.

The partition of Bengal ignited a revolutionary fervor in the youth of Bengal. Sri Aurobindo and his younger brother Barindra Kumar Ghosh were passionately involved with the revolutionary resistance movement.

Sri Aurobindo was sentenced to one full year solitary confinement for his alleged involvement in Alipore Bomb case in 1908. In Alipore jail he avidly studied “Bhagavadgita” (the only book available to him) which finally lead him to a vision of Vasudeva (Sri Krishna), which transformed him forever. His real spiritual journey began from there and finally culminated in his arrival at Pondicherry.

Some of the important political views of Sri Aurobindo have been vindicated by History.

1. He did not approve of the Gandhian methods adopted for liberation of the country. They have proved counterproductive. When Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru visited Pondicherry on different occasions, they sought an interview with Sri Aurobindo, but he declined to see them.

2. During Second World War, Hitler had conquered whole of Europe and the conquest and defeat of Britain was imminent, both Aurobindo and Ramana made similar prediction. They both foresaw German invasion of Russia and its palpable defeat at Leningrad (St. Petersburg). At that time there was in force “Treaty of Non-aggression” between the two countries.

3. Though Sri. Arobindo lived in total isolation, still he followed national and international events with keen interest. In 1942 Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India with a mission to harness Indian support for II world war effort. The British offered Dominion status to India in return for active Indian participation in the Second World War. Sri Aurobindo sent a telegram to Sir Stafford Cripps expressing his “hope that it will be accepted by Indian leaders.” He sent messages to Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru through emissaries urging them to accept Cripps offer unconditionally. But Indian political leaders did not heed to Sri Aurobindo’s advice. Sri Aurobindo could foresee the partition of the country on religious grounds and thought that the Dominion status offer would be the best way to avoid it.

4. Sri Aurobindo and Mother both endorsed the display of the map of undivided greater India along with the central circle representing the divine consciousness in the Ashram.

III. The enlightened Yogi

Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is not easy to understand by a mere reading of a few books. Throughout life Sri Aurobindo and Mother offered spiritual guidance to thousands of Sadhakas. Some of his important philosophical works are:

a) The Life Divine

b) The Secret of the Veda

c) Savithri – a legend and a Symbol

d) Discourses on Upanishads – Isha and Kena

e) Essays on Gita and Mahabharata

f) The synthesis of Yoga

In this brief article Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy cannot be analysed and explained. Hence, the following random quotations, which shall shed some light on his revelations of ultimate truth.

(i) “The spiritual life on the contrary proceeds directly by a change of consciousness, a change from the ordinary consciousness, ignorant and separated from its true self and from God to a greater consciousness in which one finds one’s true being and comes first into direct and living contact and then into union with the Divine. For the spiritual seeker this change of consciousness is the one thing he seeks and nothing else matters.” (Letters on Yoga Vol I)

(ii) “The Vedic sacrifice is psychologically a symbol of cosmic and individual activity become self-conscious, enlightened and aware of its goals. The whole process of the Universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary. Self-fulfillment by self-immolation, to grow by giving its universal law. That which refuses to give itself, is still the food of the cosmic powers. “The eater eating is eaten” is the formula, pregnant and terrible in which the Upanishad sums up this aspect of the Universe and in another passage men are described as the cattle of the Gods. It is only when the law is recognised and voluntarily accepted that this kingdom of death can be overpassed and by the works sacrifice Immortality, made possible and attained. All the powers and potentialities of the human life are offered up, in the symbol of a sacrifice, to the Divine life in the Cosmos.”(The Secret of the Veda - Pp 278-279)

(iii) “But Vyasa has not only a high political and religious thought and deep seeing ethical judgments, he deals not only with massive aspects and worldwide issues of human conduct, but has a keen eye for the details of government and society, the ceremonies, forms and usages, the religious and social order on the due stability of which the public welfare is grounded. The principles of good government and the motives and impulses that move men to public action no less than the rise and fall of states, and the clash of mighty personalities and great powersform, incidentally and epically treated, the staple of Vyasa’s epic.

(Notes on the Mahabharata - P.58)

(iv) “The vedantic idea of knowledge does not present the same difficulties. The Gita takes it over at once and completely and throughout the six chapters quietly substitutes the still immutable Brahmans of the Vedantins, the one without the second immanent in all cosmos, for the still immutable but multiple purusha of the Sankhyas. It accepts throughout these chapters Knowledge and realisation of the Brahman as the most important, the indispensable means of liberation, even while it insists on desireless works as an essential part of Knowledge.

(Essays on the Gita - P. 90)

Sri Aurobindo in a letter written in September 1949 “On the Kashmir problem” makes a surprising forecast –

But the most amazing thing is your disastrous suggestion of a coalition government between the loyalists and the rebels in Kashmir. That would give a position and influence and control over all the affairs of the state to the supporters of Pakistan, which they can never hope to have under the present circumstances. They will be able to appoint their own men in the administration, use intimidation and trickery in order to press people to vote against their will and generally falsify the plebiscite, and they certainly would not hesitate to do all that they could for that end.

(“Autobiographical notes and other writings of Historical interest” - Pp 517-518)

I wish to conclude my humble homage to Sri Aurobindo by quoting him on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa –

We believe what he did not express orally he did in action. He modeled the future India, seating the representative of the future India before him. This representative happened to be Swami Vivekananda. Many think that Swami Vivekananda’s love for his country was his own contribution [to the nation]. But when seen with a delicate vision it is understood that his love for the country was his contribution of his Gurudeva whose feet were supremely worthy of worship. He too never claimed anything to be his own. The way in which the world teacher (Loka-Guru) moulded him is the superior way to mould future India.

(From Darkness to Light - [Selected writing from Prabuddha Bharata] - Vol I pp 226-227)

Prof. S. Naganath

Retd. H.O.D of English

The National Degree College,

Jayanagar, Bangalore.

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