Aurobindo was born in Calcutta on 15 August, 1872. In 1879, at the age
of seven, he was taken with his two elder brothers to England for education
and lived there for fourteen years. Brought up at first in an English
family at Manchester, he joined St. Paul's School in London in 1884
and in 1890 went from it with a senior classical scholarship to King's
College, Cambridge, where he studied for two years. In 1890 he passed
also the open competition for the Indian Civil Service, but at the end
of two years of probation failed to present himself at the riding examination
and was disqualified for the Service. At this time the Gaekwar of Baroda
was in London. Sri Aurobindo saw him, obtained an appointment in the
Baroda Service and left England for India, arriving there in February,
Sri Aurobindo passed
thirteen years, from 1893 to 1906, in the Baroda Service, first in the
Revenue Department and in secretariate work for the Maharaja, afterwards
as Professor of English and, finally, Vice-Principal in the Baroda College.
These were years of self-culture, of literary activity -- for much of
the poetry afterwards published from Pondicherry was written at this
time -- and of preparation for his future work. In England he had received,
according to his father's express instructions, an entirely occidental
education without any contact with the culture of India and the East.
At Baroda he made
up the deficiency, learned Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages,
assimilated the spirit of Indian civilisation and its forms past and
present. A great part of the last years of this period was spent on
leave in silent political activity, for he was debarred from public
action by his position at Baroda. The outbreak of the agitation against
the partition of Bengal in 1905 gave him the opportunity to give up
the Baroda Service and join openly in the political movement. He left
Baroda in 1906 and went to Calcutta as Principal of the newly-founded
Bengal National College.
The political action
of Sri Aurobindo covered eight years, from 1902 to 1910. During the
first half of this period he worked behind the scenes, preparing with
other co-workers the beginnings of the Swadeshi (Indian Sinn Fein) movement,
till the agitation in Bengal furnished an opening for the public initiation
of a more forward and direct political action than the moderate reformism
which had till then been the creed of the Indian National Congress.
In 1906 Sri Aurobindo came to Bengal with this purpose and joined the
New Party, an advanced section small in numbers and not yet strong in
influence, which had been recently formed in the Congress.
The political theory
of this party was a rather vague gospel of Non-cooperation; in action
it had not yet gone farther than some ineffective clashes with the Moderate
leaders at the annual Congress assembly behind the veil of secrecy of
the "Subjects Committee". Sri Aurobindo persuaded its chiefs
in Bengal to come forward publicly as an All-India party with a definite
and challenging programme, putting forward Tilak, the popular Maratha
leader at its head, and to attack the then dominant Moderate (Reformist
or Liberal) oligarchy of veteran politicians and capture from them the
Congress and the country. This was the origin of the historic struggle
between the Moderates and the Nationalists (called by their opponents
Extremists) which in two years changed altogether the face of Indian
The new-born Nationalist
party put forward Swaraj (independence) as its goal as against the far-off
Moderate hope of colonial self-government to be realised at a distant
date of a century or two by a slow progress of reform; it proposed as
its means of execution a programme which resembled in spirit, though
not in its details, the policy of Sinn Fein developed some years later
and carried to a successful issue in Ireland.
The principle of
this new policy was self-help; it aimed on one side at an effective
organisation of the forces of the nation and on the other professed
a complete non-cooperation with the Government. Boycott of British and
foreign goods and the fostering of Swadeshi industries to replace them,
boycott of British law courts, and the foundation of a system of Arbitration
courts in their stead, boycott of Government universities and colleges
and the creation of a network of National colleges and schools, the
formation of societies of young men which would do the work of police
and defence and, wherever necessary, a policy of passive resistance
were among the immediate items of the programme.
Sri Aurobindo hoped
to capture the Congress and make it the directing centre of an organised
national action, an informal State within the State, which would carry
on the struggle for freedom till it was won. He persuaded the party
to take up and finance as its recognised organ the newly-founded daily
paper, Bande Mataram, of which he was at the time acting editor. The
Bande Mataram, whose policy from the beginning of 1907 till its abrupt
winding up in 1908 when Sri Aurobindo was in prison was wholly directed
by him, circulated almost immediately all over India. During its brief
but momentous existence it changed the political thought of India which
has ever since preserved fundamentally, even amidst its later developments,
the stamp then imparted to it. But the struggle initiated on these lines,
though vehement and eventful and full of importance for the future,
did not last long at the time; for the country was still unripe for
so bold a programme.
Sri Aurobindo was
prosecuted for sedition in 1907 and acquitted. Up till now an organiser
and writer, he was obliged by this event and by the imprisonment or
disappearance of other leaders to come forward as the acknowledged head
of the party in Bengal and to appear on the platform for the first time
as a speaker. He presided over the Nationalist Conference at Surat in
1907 where in the forceful clash of two equal parties the Congress was
broken to pieces.
In May, 1908, he
was arrested in the Alipore Conspiracy Case as implicated in the doings
of the revolutionary group led by his brother Barindra; but no evidence
of any value could be established against him and in this case too he
was acquitted. After a detention of one year as undertrial prisoner
in the Alipore Jail, he came out in May, 1909, to find the party organisation
broken, its leaders scattered by imprisonment, deportation or self-imposed
exile and the party itself still existent but dumb and dispirited and
incapable of any strenuous action. For almost a year he strove single-handed
as the sole remaining leader of the Nationalists in India to revive
He published at
this time to aid his effort a weekly English paper, the Karmayogin,
and a Bengali weekly, the Dharma. But at last he was compelled to recognise
that the nation was not yet sufficiently trained to carry out his policy
and programme. For a time he thought that the necessary training must
first be given through a less advanced Home Rule movement or an agitation
of passive resistance of the kind created by Mahatma Gandhi in South
Africa. But he saw that the hour of these movements had not come and
that he himself was not their destined leader. Moreover, since his twelve
months' detention in the Alipore Jail, which had been spent entirely
in practice of Yoga, his inner spiritual life was pressing upon him
for an exclusve concentration. He resolved therefore to withdraw from
the political field, at least for a time. (see note 2)
In February, 1910,
he withdrew to a secret retirement at Chandernagore and in the beginning
of April sailed for Pondicherry in French lndia. 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. Eventually
he cut off connection with politics, refused repeatedly to accept the
Presidentship of the National Congress and went into a complete retirement.
During all his stay at Pondicherry from 1910 onward he remained more
and more exclusively devoted to his spiritual work and his sadhana.
In 1914 after four
years of silent Yoga he began the publication of a philosophical monthly,
the Arya. Most of his more important works, The Life Divine, The Synthesis
of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Isha Upanishad, appeared serially in
the Arya. These works embodied much of the inner knowledge that had
come to him in his practice of Yoga. Others were concerned with the
spirit and significance of Indian civilisation and culture (The Foundations
of Indian Culture), the true meaning of the Vedas (The Secret of the
Veda), the progress of human society (The Human Cycle), the nature and
evolution of poetry (The Future Poetry), the possibility of the unification
of the human race (The Ideal of Human Unity).
At this time also
he began to publish his poems, both those written in England and at
Baroda and those, fewer in number, added during his period of political
activity and in the first years of his residence at Pondicherry. The
Arya ceased publication in 1921 after six years and a half of uninterrupted
appearance. Sri Aurobindo lived at first in retirement at Pondicherry
with four or five disciples. Afterwards more and yet more began to come
to him to follow his spiritual path and the number became so large that
a community of sadhaks had to be formed for the maintenance and collective
guidance of those who had left everything behind for the sake of a higher
life. This was the foundation of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which has
less been created than grown around him as its centre.
Sri Aurobindo began
his practice of Yoga in 1904. At first gathering into it the essential
elements of spiritual experience that are gained by the paths of divine
communion and spiritual realisation followed till now in India, he passed
on in search of a more complete experience uniting and harmonising the
two ends of existence, Spirit and Matter. Most ways of Yoga are paths
to the Beyond leading to the Spirit and, in the end, away from life;
Sri Aurobindo's rises to the Spirit to redescend with its gains bringing
the light and power and bliss of the Spirit into life to transform it.
Man's present existence in the material world is in this view or vision
of things a life in the Ignorance with the Inconscient at its base,
but even in its darkness and nescience there are involved the presence
and possibilities of the Divine.
Sri Aurobindo left
his body on December 5, 1950. The Mother carried on his work until November
17, 1973. Their work continues.
1. It may be observed
that Sri Aurobindo's education in England gave him a wide introduction
to the culture of ancient, of mediaeval and of modern Europe. He was
a brilliant scholar in Greek and Latin. He had learned French from his
childhood in Manchester and studied for himself German and Italian sufficiently
to study Goethe and Dante in the original tongues. (He passed the Tripos
in Cambridge in the first class and obtained record marks in Greek and
Latin in the examination for the Indian Civil Service.)
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:
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
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:
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
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
father Dr. 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:
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.
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.
In 1890, at the
age of eighteen, Sri Aurobindo got admission into Cambridge. He studied
the classics doing brilliantly and passed high in the First part of
the Tripos. The famous Oscar Browning happened to correct his papers
and told Sri Aurobindo:
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.
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
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. The Gaekwad 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
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.
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."
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
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:
actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying
weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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?"
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.