One hundred and ten years ago, on April 4, 1910, Sri Aurobindo arrived at the old port of Pondicherry. And this little town by the bay and rest of India and the world gained a maha-yogi, a purna yogi, whose yoga is meant for the entire earth herself, to make the earthly life a life divine.
On the 110th anniversary of this momentous occasion, I share below some relevant extracts from a research monograph I completed last year. That research presented the work of Sri Aurobindo as a yogi-revolutionary, prior to his arrival in Pondicherry, focused on the period 1893 (when he returned to India from England after 14 hours) to 1910. It also explored the continuing significance of his spiritual nationalism for India of today and tomorrow.
Sadly, to this day, most Indian students in schools and colleges are given a partial, limited and one-sided history of India’s freedom movement. An Indian deeper view of freedom, nation, nationalism, and patriotism remains completely missing from the discourse most Indian youth are exposed to in their educational institutions. This monograph is a humble contribution toward bringing greater awareness amongst Indians of all ages, awareness of the essence of Sri Aurobindo’s deeper, spiritual vision of nation and nationalism, and its continued relevance for our times. While painting a picture of the immense contribution Sri Aurobindo made toward India’s freedom struggle, this work attempts to bring out the idea that Sri Aurobindo’s political work was guided by his deeper vision for India’s future and her destined work as a free and independent nation toward the betterment of the world and humanity.
The research monograph was self-published in December 2019 and can be accessed HERE.
“…neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for men to see.”[i]
Sri Aurobindo wrote the above as a part of his reply to someone who had expressed an interest in writing the Master’s biography.
Indeed, how does one speak of the outer life of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)? How does one write about someone who has been spoken of and regarded as a modern Rishi, a maha-yogi, a sage-philosopher, a seer-poet, a political revolutionary, a visionary intellectual, an explorer and adventurer in consciousness, also an Avatar?
More challenging is to speak of any one selected aspect of the multi-faceted, integral and complete personality that Sri Aurobindo was, is, and will be for all times to come. Yet with all humility and as an offering to the Master himself, an attempt has been made here to summarise and highlight a few salient points to present for the readers a picture of the yogi-revolutionary aspect of Sri Aurobindo – an Integral Yogi who declared that “All Life is Yoga”, and a fiery revolutionary who declared that “The return of India on her eternal self, the restoration of her splendour, greatness,…is the ideal of Nationalism.”[ii]
Selected aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary work are presented in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s deeper, spiritual vision of nation, nationalism and India’s true role in the future destiny of humanity. The continued relevance of this vision and this truth of India’s soul is explored in the concluding chapter. Readers are also asked to reflect on the question whether we, the citizens of a politically independent India, are conscious of and prepared to take up the work for a regeneration of India in the light of her true spirit. Finally, we ask the question if the view of spiritual nationalism given to us by Sri Aurobindo also opens a path toward a greater unity.
Sri Aurobindo infused into the Indian nation a consuming thirst for the liberation of the country, a passion for complete and unqualified independence. He spoke of the religion of patriotism, the worship of India as the Mother, for whose emancipation her children must be willing to suffer and sacrifice themselves. He appealed to the religious or spiritual sense of the people, which, like Swami Vivekananda, he proclaimed as the true basis for the whole fabric of Indian life and culture.[iii]
“There were three sides to Sri Aurobindo’s political ideas and activities. First, there was the action with which he started, a secret revolutionary propaganda and organisation of which the central object was the preparation of an armed insurrection. Secondly, there was a public propaganda intended to convert the whole nation to the ideal of independence which was regarded, when he entered into politics, by the vast majority of Indians as unpractical and impossible, an almost insane chimera. It was thought that the British Empire was too powerful and India too weak, effectively disarmed and impotent even to dream of the success of such an endeavour. Thirdly, there was the organisation of the people to carry on a public and united opposition and undermining of the foreign rule through an increasing non-cooperation and passive resistance.”[iv]
It is important to remember that Sri Aurobindo did not think that the secret revolutionary action would by itself be effective in India “if there were not also a wide public movement which would create a universal patriotic fervour and popularise the idea of independence as the ideal and aim of Indian politics.”[v]
Srinivasa Iyengar explains that while in public Sri Aurobindo advocated non-cooperation and passive resistance as the means to Swaraj, and no doubt hoped that things might turn out that way, he also shrewdly kept in reserve the weapon of secret revolutionary activity to be brought into the open and used to clinching effect when all else failed[vi]. He knew that India was indeed woefully unarmed, but on a balance of probabilities it seemed to him that “in so vast a country as India and with the smallness of the regular British armies, even a guerrilla warfare accompanied by general resistance and revolt might be effective.”[vii]
Let us hear again from Sri Aurobindo describing the core of his political revolutionary work – its guiding principle and practice. In these passages we also get a good picture of his deep thinking on the place and value of violence in a nation’s struggle for its freedom, unity and integrity.
“In some quarters there is the idea that Sri Aurobindo’s political standpoint was entirely pacifist, that he was opposed in principle and in practice to all violence and that he denounced terrorism, insurrection etc. as entirely forbidden by the spirit and letter of the Hindu religion. It is even suggested that he was a forerunner of the gospel of Ahimsa. This is quite incorrect. Sri Aurobindo is neither an impotent moralist nor a weak pacifist.
“The rule of confining political action to passive resistance was adopted as the best policy for the National Movement at that stage and not as a part of a gospel of Non-violence or pacific idealism. Peace is a part of the highest ideal, but it must be spiritual or at the very least psychological in its basis; without a change in human nature it cannot come with any finality. If it is attempted on any other basis (moral principle or gospel of Ahimsa or any other) it will fail, and even may leave things worse than before. He is in favour of an attempt to put down war by international agreement and international force, what is now contemplated in the “New Order”, if that proves possible, but that would not be Ahimsa, it would be a putting down of anarchic force by legal force, and even then one cannot be sure that it would be permanent. Within nations this sort of peace has been secured, but it does not prevent occasional civil wars and revolutions and political outbreaks and repressions, sometimes of a sanguinary character. The same might happen to a similar world-peace. Sri Aurobindo has never concealed his opinion that a nation is entitled to attain its freedom by violence, if it can do so or if there is no other way; whether it should do so or not, depends on what is the best policy, not on ethical considerations. Sri Aurobindo’s position and practice in this matter was the same as Tilak’s and that of other Nationalist leaders who were by no means Pacifists or worshippers of Ahimsa.”[viii]
Sri Aurobindo’s open plunge and involvement in Indian politics after the partition of Bengal in 1905, though only covered a few short years, proved to be momentous years in the history of Indian freedom movement. Iyengar[ix] groups these years in the following way:
- July 1905-July 1906: This period roused and united the people of Bengal and if India as a whole against their unwanted British rulers. This marked the transitionary period of Sri Aurobindo’s silent withdrawal from Baroda and of the beginnings of his open participation in Bengal and national politics.
- August 1906-August 1907: Sri Aurobindo was now in Calcutta as Principal of the newly started National College and as de facto editor of the Bande Mataram. The year climaxed in the first prosecution against Sri Aurobindo as the supposed editor of the paper, ending in his acquittal for want of proof that he was indeed the editor.
- September 1907-April 1908: The first prosecution had pushed Sri Aurobindo from comparative obscurity to national eminence. He was now recognised as one of the four outstanding leaders of the Nationalist party, the other three being Tilak, Lajpat Rai and Bepin Chandra Pal. The split at the Surat Congress in December 1907 was followed by Sri Aurobindo’s first Yogic realisation of Absolute Brahman at Baroda. His articles in the Bande Mataram and his public speeches made him the pace-maker and tone-setter of the movement for India’s freedom.
- May 1908-May 1909: This period was marked by Sri Aurobindo’s arrest and imprisonment in the Alipur jail, his second great Yogic realisation of Vasudevam Sarvam Iti in prison, the prolonged trial, and the honourable acquittal.
- May 1909-February 1910: Sri Aurobindo emerged from prison a changed man with an accession of spiritual strength and a new serenity, edited the Karmayogin and the Dharma, and in response to a divine adesh, an inner command, left for Chandernagore in February 1910.
Sri Aurobindo’s sojourn in the political arena was thus a brief but a sensational one. The preceding account of his work both in Baroda and Bengal makes it clear that it was his turn to yoga in the early years of twentieth century which gave a clear conviction and depth to his political ideas and work. In fact, as Nandkumar (2011) reminds, Sri Aurobindo first started yoga to be able to perfect his instruments in order to serve the country more efficiently and purposefully.
The more Sri Aurobindo got involved with political work, the deeper he also being drawn into yoga. The experience of Silent Brahman at Baroda in January 1908 became a turning point in his life.
“Henceforth he was in politics, but not quite of it. He was like a man in a trance; he seemed to work and talk as other men but he also seemed to be detached from it all. In 1907 Henry Nevinson had found Sri Aurobindo, “grave with intensity, careless of fate or opinion, and one of the most silent men I have ever known…of the stuff that dreamers are made of…” In 1908 Sri Aurobindo was, if anything, graver and serener, unattached to the ebb and flow of the political flood.”[x]
The second great spiritual experience that Sri Aurobindo had in the Alipore jail opened a new chapter in his yoga. From the deep stillness and static nature of detachment he now moved on to a deeply purposeful yet detached commitment.
Up until 1908, he was concerned with problems like the formulation of a programme for India’s regeneration, self-development through self-help — swadeshi, national education, arbitration, etc.— and passive resistance to evil in any of its forms. In many respects, though not in all, the Gandhian ‘Constructive Programme’ and Civil Disobedience movements both took their inspiration from the policies and programmes envisioned by Sri Aurobindo. But as Nandkumar reminds us:
“He [Sri Aurobindo] did not, of course, make a fetish of the word ‘passive’, as K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar points out. ‘Sri Aurobindo did not rule out violence in all circumstances, but it appeared to him that the bureaucracy… could be effectively countered by passive resistance.”[xi]
After he came out of prison in May 1909, Sri Aurobindo felt that the movement of national independence and regeneration would now take its own proper course and achieve ultimate victory. And he could, therefore, devote himself entirely to the much vaster problem of human perfection and earth-transformation, for which he needed to devote himself exclusively to yoga of transformation.
On April 4, 1910, Sri Aurobindo reached Pondicherry.
He had now abandoned all outward and public political activity in order to devote himself to his spiritual work, acting only by his spiritual force on the movement in India. As he would later describe in his own words, writing again in third person:
“At Pondicherry, from this time onwards Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Yoga became more and more absorbing. He dropped all participation in any public political activity, refused more than one request to preside at sessions of the restored Indian National Congress and made a rule of abstention from any public utterance of any kind not connected with his spiritual activities or any contribution of writings or articles except what he wrote afterwards in the Arya. For some years he kept up some private communication with the revolutionary forces he had led, through one or two individuals, but this also he dropped after a time and his abstention from any kind of participation in politics became complete…Apart from all this, the magnitude of the spiritual work set before him became more and more clear to him, and he saw that the concentration of all his energies on it was necessary…The British Government and numbers of people besides could not believe that Sri Aurobindo had ceased from all political action and it was supposed by them that he was secretly participating in revolutionary activities and even creating a secret organisation in the security of French India. But all this was pure imagination and rumour and there was nothing of the kind. His retirement from political activity was complete, just as was his personal retirement into solitude in 1910.”[xii]
We need not forget however that even from his retreat in Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo had a clear view of the Indian and world situation, and was ready to exert the force that was in his hands – a higher mental or intuitive power of consciousness and, after 1926, an overmental consciousness. But all that is beyond the scope of our present inquiry.
FROM POLITICS TO YOGA
In February 1910, Sri Aurobindo left for Chandernagore without previous notice to anybody and was received by Motilal Roy who made secret arrangements for his stay. Only Motilal and a few friends knew the whereabouts of Sri Aurobindo. Writing in third person, he described this decision and move in these words:
“Sri Aurobindo one night at the Karmayogin office received information of the Government’s intention to search the office and arrest him. While considering what should be his attitude, he received a sudden command from above to go to Chandernagore in French India. He obeyed the command at once, for it was now his rule to move only as he was moved by the divine guidance and never to resist and depart from it; he did not stay to consult with anyone but in ten minutes was at the river ghat and in a boat plying on the Ganges, in a few hours he was at Chandernagore where he went into secret residence. He sent a message to Sister Nivedita asking her to take up the editing of the Karmayogin in his absence. This was the end of his active connection with his two journals. At Chandernagore he plunged entirely into solitary meditation and ceased all other activity.”[xiii]
Motilal saw Sri Aurobindo regularly and had many talks with him about yoga. He later spoke of the impression Sri Aurobindo made on him. In Motilal’s words, as cited in Purani’s book, Life of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo appeared to be completely surrendered to some Higher Source, the Divine.
“…one felt when he spoke as if somebody else was speaking through him…I placed the plate of food before him – he simply gazed at me and then ate a little – just mechanically! Sri Aurobindo appeared to be absorbed even when he was eating. He used to meditate with open eyes.”[xiv]
At Chandernagore, Sri Aurobindo delved deep and intensely into his sadhana. He had many visions on subtle planes, including the visions of three Goddesses. Later when he went to Pondicherry, he identified them as the three Vedic goddesses Ila, Mahi (Bharati) and Sarasvati.
A little later, Sri Aurobindo received another divine command and left for Pondicherry. Writing in third person, he spoke thus of his move to Pondicherry:
“Then there came to him a call to proceed to Pondicherry. A boat manned by some young revolutionaries of Uttarpara took him to Calcutta; there he boarded the Dupleix and reached Pondicherry on April 4, 1910.”[xv]
Around the same time, another prosecution was launched against him, because the British still considered him the most dangerous man! But now Sri Aurobindo had decidedly left political work and was devoted more and more exclusively to his yoga. Again, in Sri Aurobindo’s own words, we hear:
“A third prosecution was launched against him at this moment for a signed article in the Karmayogin; in his absence it was pressed against the printer of the paper who was convicted, but the conviction was quashed on appeal in the High Court of Calcutta. For the third time a prosecution against him had failed.”
“Sri Aurobindo had left Bengal with some intention of returning to the political field under more favourable circumstances; but very soon the magnitude of the spiritual work he had taken up appeared to him and he saw that it would need the exclusive concentration of all his energies.”[xvi]
Just as all his political activity was God-directed, so was his decision to leave politics. It was a Divine command which he followed when he came to Pondicherry in 1910. He spoke about it in his letters. In one such letter in Oct 1932, he said something else as well, which throws additional light on the yoga of this revolutionary. He said:
“I may also say that I did not leave politics because I felt I could do nothing more there; such an idea was very far from me. I came away because I did not want anything to interfere with my Yoga and because I got a very distinct ādeśa in the matter.
“I have cut connection entirely with politics, but before I did so I knew from within that the work I had begun there was destined to be carried forward, on lines I had foreseen, by others, and that the ultimate triumph of the movement I had initiated was sure without my personal action or presence. There was not the least motive of despair or sense of futility behind my withdrawal. For the rest, I have never known any will of mine for any major event in the conduct of the world-affairs to fail in the end, although it may take a long time for the world-forces to fulfil it.”[xvii]
Such was the will of the yogi Sri Aurobindo. Such was the spiritual nationalism of the revolutionary Sri Aurobindo.
[i] Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (CWSA), Vol. 36, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, p. 11
[ii] CWSA, Vol. 7, p. 1087
[iii] Rishabhchand, (1981) Sri Aurobindo: His Life Unique, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, p. 107
[iv] CWSA, Vol. 36, p. 47
[v] CWSA, Vol. 36., p. 46
[vi] Iyengar, K.R.S (1985/2006) Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and a History, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education, p. 191
[vii] Iyengar, p. 47
[viii] Iyengar, pp. 48-49
[ix] Iyengar, p. 201
[x] Nandkumar, P. (2011), Sri Aurobindo’s Saviri, A Study of the Cosmic Epic. Delhi: Wisdom Tree and Sri Aurobindo Society, p. 29
[xi] Nandkumar, p. 29
[xii] CWSA, Vol. 36, pp. 64-65
[xiii] CWSA, Vol. 36, pp. 63-64
[xiv] Purani, A. B. (1978), Life of Sri Aurobindo, Puducherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, p. 132
[xv] CWSA, Vol. 36, p. 64
[xvi] CWSA, Vol. 36, pp. 8-9
[xvii] CWSA, Vol. 35, pp. 26-27