7 Nov 2008

All Life is Yoga—A Brief Sketch of Sri Aurobindo’s Life

While commenting upon an early biographer’s attempt to present his life Sri Aurobindo, in the course of a conversation with his attendant-disciples, once remarked as follows: “Nobody except myself can write my life—because it has not been on the surface for man to see.” Yet we should be concerned with a few worldly facts from a certain point of view. And the strange thing is that, for a discerning eye, these facts also bring an intuitive vision which can provide a distant bio-spiritual peep into the secrecies of the person whom we so much adore. No wonder, philosophers have described him as the greatest synthesis between the East and the West; critics have acclaimed him as a poet par excellence; social scientists regard him as the builder of a new society based on enduring values of the life of the spirit; devotees throng in mute veneration offering their heart and their soul in a silent prayer that can secure for them the beatitude of the Supreme; Yogins long to live in the sunlight of his splendour to kindle in it their own suns; in the tranquil benignity of his spiritual presence is the fulfilment of all our hopes and all our keenest and noblest aspirations; gods of light and truth and joy and beauty and sweetness are busy in their tasks to carry out his will in the creation; in him the avataric incarnation becomes man to realize the divine in man. Such is the real birth of the Immortal in the Mortal. He comes here as Sri Aurobindo.

Sri Aurobindo was the third son of Swarnalata and Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose and was born on 15 August 1872 in the early hours of that Thursday in the aristocratic area of Calcutta. At home he was brought up in a highly Anglicised atmosphere, to the extent that he did not know even his mother tongue, Bengali. His father intended to bring up his children in perfect style and manner of the English society, adopting its ways of life and thinking. Hence the five-year old Auro was put in Loreto Convent School in Darjeeling which was otherwise exclusively meant for the English children. In 1879, at the age of seven he, along with his brothers, was taken to England where he mostly stayed with an English family. In September 1884 Auro was admitted to St. Paul’s School in London and there had his education until July 1890. Later, in October of the same year, he joined King’s College at Cambridge. He also passed the Indian Civil Services examination, but did not take the compulsory horse-riding test.

Never during the entire period did young Sri Aurobindo come in contact with the traditional Indian life or manners or culture. At the same time he “never was taught English as a separate subject but picked it up like a native in daily conversation. Before long he was spending much of his time reading. Almost from the start, he devoted himself to serious literature. As a ten-year-old he read the King James Bible.” Soon the attentive and wakeful student mastered half a dozen European languages, including Greek and Latin in which he scored highest marks ever obtained in a school examination. Not only languages, which as if he seems to have just remembered; he knew thoroughly and intimately the literature and culture that for centuries dominated European life and history. These Western classical themes later found great expression in his poetic writings, for example, in Perseus the Deliverer as a play and Ilion as an epic in Homeric quantitative hexameter based on the naturalness of temperament of the English language. Here it may be mentioned, en passant, that Sri Aurobindo wrote that play, with a Grecian theme, during his most hectic political activities in Bengal. It was published in 1907 in the weekly Bande Mataram.

After his return to India, in 1893, Sri Aurobindo straightaway joined the state services of Baroda, accepting the invitation of Sayajirao Gaekawar. But, and more importantly, he plunged into the mainstream of Indian life and literature, even as he learnt several native languages, including classical Sanskrit. Not only did he study the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, works of Kalidasa and other authors in the original; he also mastered Vedic, Upanishadic and quite a few scriptural writings, to the extent that he wrote extensively on these subjects and on issues concerned with them. In fact, we see on all that he took the indelible mark of an intuitive thinker, luminously disclosing their deeper and truer sense. He offered very independent and penetrating interpretations in the spirit in which these were actually revealed. While we witness in them both the robust pragmatism and subtlety of the modern mind, perhaps we more pertinently recognise the seer who rather visibly stands behind them. Sri Aurobindo by now acquired the foundational basis to give expression to his own creative talents in the wide and incandescent range of universality, very characteristic of an authentic Indian personality. Knowledge flowed with the spontaneity of a crystalline stream, as if it suddenly took birth in some perennial mountain-source of the hoary Wisdom. This wide-ranging and, at the same time, intensive Abhyasa Yoga of Sri Aurobindo prepared a thorough and strong base for his missioned task which he would soon pick up as a part of his commitment.

During this period Sri Aurobindo was drawn more and more into the rushing current of the national life. Nay, he gave to it another direction, even as he gave to his own life by plunging into the thick of the active political life. Presently, he left that secure life of the princely Baroda State and went to Calcutta accepting all the hardships entailed in it. The immediate provocation was the ill-conceived partition of Bengal in 1905. There he initiated a comprehensive programme of building a nation founded on its sounder values, on its ancient wisdom and culture. In it was born Indian nationalism, in the nourishing soil of its rich and gleaming past, firmly established in its worthy tradition, with its own natural disposition and governing character, its innate swabhāva and swadharma. True nationalism for Sri Aurobindo was Sanatana Dharma itself, the eternal religion based on spiritual knowledge and experience. He saw that, in it alone grow the values that acquire merit in every respect, worldly and otherwise. To it he now dedicated himself completely. In a letter written to his wife Mrinalini, in 1905, he states the following:

I have three madnesses. The first is this. I firmly believe that the accomplishment, talent, education and means that God has given me, are all His. Whatever is essential and needed for the maintenance of the family has alone a claim upon me; the rest must be returned to God… The second madness which has recently seized hold of me is: I must somehow see God… If He exists there must be ways to perceive His presence, to meet Him. However arduous the way, I am determined to follow that path. In one month I have felt that the Hindu religion has not told lies—the signs and hints it has given have become a part of my experience… My third madness is that other people look upon the country as an inert piece of matter, a stretch of fields and meadows, forests and rivers. To me She is the Mother. I adore Her, worship Her. What will the son do when he sees a Rakshasa sitting on the breast of his mother and sucking her blood? Will he quietly have his meal or will he rush to deliver his mother from that grasp? I know I have the strength to redeem this fallen race. It is not physical strength, it is the strength of knowledge… This feeling is not new, I was born with it and it is in my marrow. God has sent me to this world to accomplish this great mission.

In this dynamic pursuit and accepting its dangers without a second thought he, as the Mother would say later, attempted all and achieved all. In the words of Nagendrakumar Guharay, Sri Aurobindo was always fearless, abhi, and nothing deterred him from action. He spoke with God-given courage and acted totally unmindful of the consequences that would follow in the sequel of the missioned task. Freedom as birthright was proclaimed when it was considered as a crime and war waged against the rulers of the time. He was charged for seditious activities and incarcerated for one year from 5 May 1908. But during this period a new and glorious transformation came upon him. “That one year in Alipore jail was perhaps the most eventful for his future. The nationalist and political leader was now changed wholly into a mystic and a yogi.” Another world of astounding dimension opened out in front of Sri Aurobindo. A mighty hand was all the while guiding him, perhaps even without his knowledge.

Barrister C. R. Das triumphantly defended Sri Aurobindo in the Alipore Bomb Case and, in his concluding argument, made an inspired appeal in the following words: “My appeal to you therefore is that a man like this who is being charged with the offences imputed to him stands not only before the bar in this Court but stands before the bar of the High Court of History. And my appeal to you is this: That long after this controversy is hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation ceases, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands.” Prophetic words, indeed! We may say that this marks the completion of Sri Aurobindo’s Jivan Yoga.

After his acquittal on 6 May 1909 Sri Aurobindo addressed a large gathering at Uttarpara: “When I went to jail the whole country was alive with the cry of Bande Mataram, alive with the hope of a nation, the hope of a million men who had newly risen out of degradation. When I came out of jail I listened for that cry, but there was instead a silence.” He felt a deep concern for the country no doubt, but there was never an element of worry in him; he had the certitude that someone else had definitely taken the reins in his hands to guide the career and speed of events. In the course of the speech he gave a hint of what he had experienced in the jail. He was given the central truth of the Hindu religion and he knew that in it alone is the destiny of the nation, as if marked out for the fulfilment of a higher purpose. Personally, he had the experience of being surrounded by Vasudeva from all the sides. He looked here and there over the place with a new experience. “It was not the Magistrate whom I saw,” he says, “it was Vasudeva, it was Narayana who was sitting there on the bench. I looked at the Prosecuting Counsel and it was not the Counsel for the prosecution that I saw; it was Sri Krishna who sat there, it was my Lover and Friend who sat there and smiled.” All is Vasudeva, vāsudeva sarvam iti, became the basis for everything in life.

A new chapter had opened and soon Sri Aurobindo was to find his cave of Tapasya in the South. There he was to carry out the task given to him as a Divine Command. With it Diksha Yoga stepped into the luminous Jnana Yoga of the Protagonist.

A great work waited for him and for it he spared no effort. In a letter dated 12 July 1911, a little after one year of his coming to Pondicherry, he tells us what he was busy with.

I am developing the necessary powers for bringing down the spiritual on the material plane… What I perceive most clearly, is that the principal object of my Yoga is to remove absolutely and entirely every possible source of error and ineffectiveness… It is for this reason that I have been going through so long a discipline and that the more brilliant and mighty results of Yoga have been so long withheld. I have been kept busy laying down the foundation, a work severe and painful. It is only now that the edifice is beginning to rise upon the sure and perfect foundation that has been laid.

The One who had kept him busy in the severe and painful work also arranged in 1914 for a collaborator in the Mother. In that glorious joint venture first began the announcement of the divine Agenda in the nature of a monthly, the Arya. It ran into some five thousand pages for seventy-eight months and carried the knowledge and power of realisation by which the lower could reach the higher, in as much as the higher manifest in the lower. The Life Divine, the Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, Vedic and Upanishadic revelations, the nature of future Poetry, Social, Political and National themes—all these writings which he received in a silent mind brought a new vision and a possible new mode of collective life. Global in their outlook, they encompassed in their fold the worlds of men and gods and higher beings preparing themselves to participate in the terrestrial possibilities in the greatness of the triple Spirit itself. Obviously such an outcome is not conceivable in the analytical or linear method of our thinking. A new source of creativity was discovered, an infallible creativity that has its own power of expression and effectuation. Indeed, what we have in the Arya “was composed in the organ mode of Sri Aurobindo’s English.” There is no doubt that while it endures, it also attains what it attempts. His yogic power is present in the Word.

Not long after his coming to Pondicherry in 1910 Mme Alexandra David-Néel, who acquainted herself deeply with Tibetan occultism, met Sri Aurobindo in 1912. About her meeting with him she reports: “His perfect familiarity with the philosophies of India and the West wasn’t what drew my attention: what was of greater importance to me was the special magnetism that flew out of his presence, and the occult hold he had over those who surrounded him.” A glimpse of that special magnetism, which grew more and more luminous as his Yoga progressed, we may get from his diary records of the period between 1912-1920. Meticulous as a scientist’s were his observations of the various spiritual siddhis or realisations achieved by him. These constitute a unique record in the entire annals of spirituality. About these documents collectively called Record of Yoga, the compiler writes as follows: “This document is noteworthy in at least three respects… It provides a first-hand account of the day-to-day growth of the spiritual faculties of an advanced yogin… The language of Record of Yoga is bare, unliterary, often couched in arcane terminology… What it provides is a down-to-earth account of a multitude of events, great and small, inner and outer… It may be looked on as the laboratory notebook of an extended series of experiments in yoga.” The intent must have been to fix what was experienced, fixed in the occult way in the working of the yogic process.

In the yogic parlance we may say that this was the period when Sri Aurobindo’s attempts were towards supramentalisation of the mental planes that presently govern our limited evolutionary consciousness. There was soon to follow the supramentalisation of the vital. The last significant stage of the great triple transformation was to be preceded in 1926 by what Sri Aurobindo called over-mentalisation of the physical. But ahead of this Siddhi Yoga we also have two remarkable poetic creations of the Master-Poet.

Sri Aurobindo had started writing his epic Ilion while in Alipore jail; he took it up again and worked upon it during the early period at Pondicherry. This was lightly revised by dictation in the late 40s. Then, during 1916-1918, in the midst of his multidimensional Arya-scripting, Sri Aurobindo also made a preliminary draft of his magnum opus Savitri. Eventually it “became a poetic chronicle of his yoga.” We have similarly the record of his later Yogic realisations in his poetic compositions of the 30s. But what stands out as the double autobiography, his and the Mother’s spiritual realisations in the transformative Yoga of the earth-consciousness, is his supreme creation—in the Mother’s phrase, supreme revelation—Savitri. That indeed marks Divya Yoga of the Supreme himself.

Sri Aurobindo left his body on 5 December 1950, Tuesday at 1.26 a.m. In crimson-gold splendour it lay there for 111 hours before it was put in the Samadhi. The Mother’s prayer expresses the gratitude for all that he had done in triumphantly accomplishing the divine task. “To Thee who hast been the material envelope of our Master, to Thee our infinite gratitude. Before Thee who hast done so much for us, who hast worked, struggled, hoped, endured so much, before Thee who hast willed all, attempted all, prepared, achieved all for us, before Thee we bow down and implore that we may never forget, even for a moment, all we owe to Thee.”

About the significance of this event the Mother said later: “He was not compelled to leave his body, he chose to do so for reasons so sublime that they are beyond” our grasp. As soon as Sri Aurobindo withdrew from his body the Mind of Light as the leader of the intermediate race, prior to the arrival of the gnostic being, got realised in the Mother. It was only by “consciously experiencing and transforming death” that the divine pace could be hastened in the earth consciousness. It was an occult imperative, an aspect of yogic action itself. The result was the manifestation of Supermind in the earth’s subtle-physical on 29 February 1956. Thus in a bid to get things done in a most definitive way Sri Aurobindo left his body and completed the supreme or Param Yoga.

RY Deshpande

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