Sri Aurobindo, A short biography(1)

Matthijs Cornelissen
Indian Psychology Institute
Pondicherry

 

Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta, on 15th August 1872. His father, a thoroughly Anglicised Indian doctor in British Government service, wanted his sons to have a solid, British education, and when Aurobindo was seven, he sent him, together with his two brothers, to England with the specific instruction that the three brothers should be kept free from Indian influence. The young Aurobindo was a brilliant student who was consistently amongst the top of his class in English, and for much of this time, he and his two brothers were supported by his scholarships. He attended what was at the time one of the best public schools in London (St. Paul’s) and later studied in Cambridge where he obtained the highest score ever awarded in Greek. When he returned to India in 1893, he had an excellent command of English, Greek, Latin and French, and knew enough German and Italian to enjoy Goethe and Dante in the original, but … he knew rather little about India. While still in England, he obtained a job with one of the Indian princes, the Gaekwor of Baroda, and after his return, he worked in Baroda for twelve years, as teacher, as private secretary to the Gaekwor, and finally as Vice-principal of the Baroda College. During this period he immersed himself deeply in Indian culture and learned Sanskrit as well as several modern Indian languages. Though he became fairly fluent in what should have been his mother tongue, Bengali, he remained more at home in English, and it is in this language that he wrote all his major works.

As he became more familiar with the Indian tradition, his admiration for the Indian tradition grew, and it became increasingly clear to him that the Indian civilization could not regain its full stature as long as India was under foreign occupation. Interestingly, at that time, this was not at all a common view: the Indian elite of those days had widely accepted the superiority of the English culture, and Aurobindo would become the first Indian intellectual who dared proclaim publicly that complete independence from Britain should be the primary aim of Indian political life. As his increasing political involvement embarrassed his employer, whose position was entirely dependent on British approval, he left Baroda service in 1906 and moved to Calcutta where he soon became one of the most outspoken leaders of the political movement for Indian independence. His writings brought him in frequent conflict with the British authorities but he carefully chose his language and repeatedly managed to escape conviction.

During a visit to Baroda in 1907, Aurobindo took some private lessons from a Maharashtrian yogi, Bhaskar Lele. Aurobindo had no interest in personal liberation, but he knew from experience that prāṇāyāma could increase one’s mental energy and clarity, and he hoped that yoga could develop other psychological powers, which he intended to use for his political work. Within three days he managed under Lele’s guidance to completely, and permanently, silence his mind. Soon after, he had the realisation of the silent, impersonal Brahman in which the whole world assumed the appearance of “empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance”—

There was no ego, no real world—only when one looked through the im­mobile senses, something perceived or bore upon its sheer silence a world of empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance. There was no One or many even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation nor something glimpsed somewhere above,—no abstraction,—it was positive, the only positive reality,—al­though not a spatial physical world, pervading, occupying or rather flood­ing and drowning this semblance of a physical world, leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or  substantial. I cannot say there was anything exhilarating or rap­turous in the experience . . . but what it brought was an inexpressible Peace, a stupendous silence, an infinity of release and freedom. (Aurobindo, 1972b, p. 101)

There are two things noteworthy about this experience. The first is that it was not a fleeting experience but a true realisation in the sense that the peace and inner silence never diminished. The other is that the experience of the silent Brahman and the māyāvādin sense of the unreality of the world were not at all what Aurobindo had expected or wanted from yoga, and they did not fit either within the mental framework of his instructor, Lele, whose own experiences were with the personal Divine. During the following weeks Lele still taught Aurobindo how to rely both for his outer work and for the rest of his inner development on an inner guidance, but after that, they parted ways. The presence of the silent Brahman never left Aurobindo, though it subsequently merged with other realisations of the Divine. Interestingly, all this happened during one of the busiest periods of his life while he was at the peak of his political influence, and he managed, in his own words, to organise political work, deliver speeches, edit his newspaper and write articles, all from an entirely silent mind.

In the mean time, his younger brother Barin got involved in daring but largely ineffective exploits of violent revolt. After a bomb-blast in May 1908 in which two British ladies died who happened to occupy the coach in which Barin expected some hated official to travel, Aurobindo was arrested by the police under suspicion that he was the brain behind the increasing violence. He was put on trial for “waging war against the King”, a charge that could have sent him to the gallows if convicted. Lack of evidence of direct, active involvement in violent action lead, however, to his acquittal, much to the discomfort of the British Viceroy, who by that time had come to the conclusion that Aurobindo was “the most dangerous man in the British Empire.”  His incarceration had one major effect, which the British police could not have foreseen, or, for that matter, understood. Aurobindo took his arrest and yearlong incarceration as a God-imposed opportunity to concentrate fully on his inner, spiritual development, or sādhanā. While in jail, he showed remarkably little concern about the court-case, but made an in depth study of the Bhagavad Gītā and realised the presence of the personal Divine in everything and everybody around him. In his own words:

[I]t was while I was walking that His strength again entered into me. I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva(2) who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell, but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Srikrishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me.


... [and later, in court:]


I looked at the Prosecuting Counsel and it was not the Counsel for the prosecution that I saw; it was Srikrishna who sat there, it was my Lover and Friend who sat there and smiled. (Aurobindo, 1997, p. 6-7)

After his release from jail, he remained for another two years in Calcutta, where he started another journal that focused more on culture and yoga, less on politics.(3) He was by now convinced that the political independence of India was only a matter of time, and that he had to concentrate on another, inner work. In 1910, he decided to relocate to Pondicherry, which was at the time a French enclave in India, where he would be more safe from harassment by the British police.  Though he expected initially to stay in Pondicherry only for a few years of intense inner work after which he intended to re-enter the active, political life he had been used to, he was to stay in Pondicherry till the end of his life in 1950.

Shortly after his birthday on August 15, 1912 he described in a letter to an old friend another major turning point in his yoga:

My subjective Sadhana may be said to have received its final seal and something like its consummation by a prolonged realisation and dwelling in Parabrahman(4) for many hours. Since then, egoism is dead for all in me except the Annamaya Atma,—the physical self which awaits one farther realisation before it is entirely liberated from occasional visitings or exter­nal touches of the old separated existence. (Aurobindo, 1972, 433–35)

In spite of his political involvement, Sri Aurobindo had a rather private disposition and rarely spoke or wrote directly about his own experiences, so most of what we know about them is derived somewhat indirectly from his other writings. A notable exception is, however, the detailed record he maintained during some of the early years of his stay in Pondicherry. This Record of Yoga came to light more than 25 years after his death, and its 1500 pages shed a fascinating light on his inner development and on the way his personal experiences related to his public writings of the same period. Though the Record is written in the manner of laboratory notes -- in telegram style and with extensive use of technical terms and abbreviations which are often difficult to follow -- they leave one with the definite impression that he hardly ever, if at all, made any general statement about the possibilities of yoga which he had not first extensively verified in his own experience. 

In 1914, a French couple, Paul Richard and his wife, Mirra Alfassa, visited Pondicherry and soon became acquainted with Aurobindo. Paul Richard invited Aurobindo to join him in bringing out a new journal. The intention of the journal was, in Aurobindo’s words, “to feel out for the thought of the future, to help in shaping its foundations and to link it to the best and most vital thought of the past” (1915/1998, p.103). By the time its first issue came out, the first World War had started and soon after, the Richards had to return to France. This left the task of filling the 64 pages of the monthly journal to Aurobindo, and he faithfully fulfilled this task for the next 6 years, by serialising, in parallel, several books. By the time he closed down the journal, he had completed almost all his major works, The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Secret of the Veda, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Essays on the Gita, Foundations of Indian Culture, translations and commentaries on several major Upaniṣads, a trilogy on social psychology and politics, etc. Only a few of these texts, Essays on the Gita, The Life Divine and the first part of The Synthesis of Yoga, he revised and brought out in book form during his lifetime. Others were published as books only posthumously. 

Paul Richard and Mirra Alfassa returned to Pondicherry in 1920. Paul Richard found it difficult to accept the by now obvious spiritual and intellectual superiority of Aurobindo and left soon after, but Mirra Alfassa stayed, and gradually took up an increasingly important role in the small community that began to form around Aurobindo. Initially she was simply the most gifted of Aurobindo’s disciples, but over time, Sri Aurobindo, as he now came to be known, began to address her as “the Mother”, in honour of her complete identification with the śakti, the Power which mediates between the Divine and the manifestation. In letters to his disciples, he often stressed that their consciousness and realisation were essentially one, and that they differed only in their most outer roles and forms of manifestation.

In 1926 Sri Aurobindo had another major breakthrough in his own sādhanā, which he later described as the embodiment of Krishna’s Overmental consciousness. One should take this event in the context of what future generations may well consider Sri Aurobindo’s greatest contribution to our human understanding of the world and our role in it: the distinction he made between what he called the Overmental and the Supramental planes of consciousness.

After 1926 Sri Aurobindo retired entirely to a small, first floor apartment in order to concentrate fully on his inner work. From this time onwards, he left the daily care for the small community that had begun to develop around him, to the Mother, and this became the formal beginning of the “Sri Aurobindo Ashram”. We know relatively little about what Sri Aurobindo did during the 24 years after his retirement to his rooms. He spoke hardly to anybody, except for a short period just before the Second World War when he needed physical assistance after breaking his leg, and he saw his disciples only 3-4 times a year in a silent “darshan”. What we know of his inner life during this period is largely from his letters, from his poetry, and from the changes he introduced in some of his earlier writings. During the 1930s Sri Aurobindo answered a staggering number of letters to his disciples, of which over 5000 have been published. Most of them deal with sādhanā, quite a few with literature, and a smaller number with other issues. Roughly during the same time he also took up the revision of a few of his major works like his Essays on the Gita, the first two parts of The Synthesis of Yoga, and The Life Divine. His poetic writings include besides sonnets, other short poems and metrical experiments, also his most important written work, the epic poem Savitri. With its over 24000 lines and 724 pages Savitri is in a class of its own. Its richness of imagery, beauty of expression, and sheer number of memorable lines could remind one of Shakespeare, but in terms of depth and width of spiritual experience it simply has no equal in the English language. It would not be surprising if posterity would count Savitri amongst the most valuable texts ever composed.

It may be noted that in spite of his official retirement from politics, Sri Aurobindo was one of the very few major public figures in India who recognised how serious the consequences of a victory of Nazi Germany and Japan would have been for the future development of human civilization, and during the Second World War he gave his full support to the Allied war-effort.

After the war, in a radio message, which he gave on the occasion of India’s Independence (15-8-1947), which coincided with his 75th birthday, Sri Aurobindo described the main areas of his life’s work as five world-movements which he wished for as a young man, and which he worked for during the different phases of his life. They all looked, in his own words, like impractical dreams when he was young, but he saw all of them fully or partially fulfilled during his lifetime:

  1. a free and united India;
  2. the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia and her return to her great role in the progress of human civilization;
  3. a world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind;
  4. the [spread of the] spiritual gift of India to the world;
  5. a step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society.

All these “world-movements” have begun, though none of them has been perfectly accomplished in the direction Sri Aurobindo envisaged. In the long run, it seems likely that Sri Aurobindo will be remembered mainly for his role in the fifth movement, on which he worked incessantly during the last 40 years of his life. Just before his death in 1950, he still wrote a few essays for a newly started Ashram Journal on the transitional period between our present state and the supramental stage he envisaged for the future. He also completed the revision of the first part of The Synthesis of Yoga and the whole of Savitri. The Mother continued his work till her own passing in 1973 at the age of 95. The Ashram and the international township, Auroville, which she started in 1968 (at the age of 90), still exist and continue to develop as creative spiritual communities.

 

Recommended reading

All Sri Aurobindo’s writings are available from http://www.sabda.in

His Collected works are also available for download as PDF files, at: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/ashram/sriauro/writings.php

To get the basic flavour of Sri Aurobindo’s writing, one could have a look at a few representative short texts, collected at http://www.saccs.org.in/texts/integralyoga-sa.php

For original (auto)biographical material, one can consult volume 35 and 36 of The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Himself and the Ashram (still to be published) and Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest (2009). Both published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Puducherry, INDIA.

Three entirely different biographies are:

A.B. Purani. (1978). The Life of Sri Aurobindo. Puducherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Satprem (1970). Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness. (Translated from the French. Original title: Sri Aurobindo ou l'Aventure de la conscience.) The English edition, successively brought out by several publishers, is presently out of print.

Peter Heehs (2008) The lives of Sri Aurobindo. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

Footnotes

(1)   For many details in this biographical note, I have made use of Peter Heehs (2008).

(2)   Vasudeva and Narayana are different names for Krishna.

(3)   His previous Journal, the Bande Mataram, had been closed down by the British Government.

(4)   The parabrahman is, in Aurobindo’s words, “the supreme Reality with the static and dynamic Brahman as its two aspects.”