Sri Aurobindo, Parthasarathy Iyengar and Pondicherry
A Note Towards Clarifying Their Connection
[For those who have publicly displayed their spiritual insensitivity and ignorance of the facts relating to Sri Aurobindo’s life, Amal Kiran’s article should be an eye-opener. The article was first published in the Mother India issue of May 1988, pp. 305-310 and later in Aspects of Sri Aurobindo (2000), pp. 196-204. It is a rejoinder to Peter Heehs’ interpretation of the Adesh (divine command) that Sri Aurobindo received in 1910 to go from Calcutta to Chandernagore, and then from there to Pondicherry. The discussion is subtle and abstract and even Amal Kiran says that at first he “was inclined to agree broadly” with Heehs. But he changed his mind “on a closer inspection” when he realised the deeper implications of the author’s presentation of the event in the Archives & Research issue of December 1987. For the consequences of whether you agree or not with Heehs’ presentation (as also in the recent case of his book) are tremendous. Either you conclude that Sri Aurobindo ran away in fear of being arrested by the British police or that the Divine commanded him to escape in order to make him undertake in Pondicherry the much greater work of the supramental transformation, of which he was not aware at that point of time. In both cases, the outer actions remain the same, but the motivations behind are totally different. The result of our silence with regard to such mischievous interpretations is that instead of dispelling the impression that Sri Aurobindo ran away from the revolutionary scene, we have reinforced it with further evidence.]
IN the issue of Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research for December 1987 the “Archival Notes” are partly aimed at setting certain queries raised by some statements of the writer two years earlier in the same periodical. His new statements too have come in for criticism. It may be that his true drift has failed to be caught, but the cause of the failure, if any, must lie at his own door. For, whatever his intentions, a persistent trend in his way of putting things has led to an impression of inaccuracy and of hazing the real posture of some extraordinary events.
This is rather unfortunate, for in his article the dissatisfying portions are in the midst of much admirable analytic matter – acute comparative evaluation, pointedly phrased, of documents and of the various shades of historical fact. There should be no question of disqualifying all his work or doubting in general his talents. That would be sheer injustice to him as a researcher. We are now concerned only with one particular theme of his, which calls for serious reconsideration: “What role did the man named Parthasarathy Iyengar play in Sri Aurobindo’s connection with Pondicherry?”
Parthasarathy belonged to a group of patriots which includes his brother Srinivasachari and Subramania Bharati. They had established an office in the French enclave of Pondicherry for a Tamil weekly, India, in order to carry on more securely their anti-British work as well as their work of regenerating Indian Culture. Previously Parthasarathy was the Secretary of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company which the Iyengar family was financially supporting for patriotic reasons. During his tour in Northern India in that capacity he met Sri Aurobindo in Calcutta and discussed the nationalist and cultural activities in which both the parties were engaged, mentioned the group of patriots in Pondicherry conducting India and suggested that Sri Aurobindo might find Pondicherry more congenial for his mission than British India where he suffered constant harassment from the foreign government. Sri Aurobindo’s meeting with Parthasarathy is confirmed by his own diary note of Tuesday, 20 July 1909, which was meant to remind him of the appointment.
Some time after Sri Aurobindo had gone to Chandernagore in French India he sent through Suresh Chakravarti a letter to Pondicherry requesting the friends there to make arrangements for his stay in that town. The letter was received by Srinivasachari, but he has himself reported that it was addressed to “S. Parthasarathy Iyengar, ‘India’ Press”. As Parthasarathy was away at the time, Chakravarti, on learning that Srinivasachari was connected with India, gave it to him and asked him to read it and do the needful. The fact that Sri Aurobindo remembered Parthasarathy more than half a year later than the meeting in Calcutta shows the significance of that meeting for him in relation to Pondicherry.
The readers’ queries raised by the earlier Archives issue seem to centre on a passage which is reproduced now as a point de départ for, among other matters, a defence against a charge of minimising the role of the ādesh (divine command) Sri Aurobindo had received about going to Pondicherry:
“We have seen that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry at the suggestion of no one, but in obedience to a divine command. But by speaking to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry, Parthasarathy may have played an instrumental role in his coming.”
The opening sentence in the above makes it clear that the writer does not support what M.A. Narayana Iyengar, who had no idea of the ādesh which Sri Aurobindo had obeyed, wrote in his Foreword to Parthasarathy’s posthumously published Bhagavad Gita: A simple Paraphrase in English. After recounting, apparently from information supplied by his friend and relative Parthasarathy himself, the interview with Sri Aurobindo in which Pondicherry had been recommended to him and the story of the letter addressed to “Parthasarathy Iyengar, c/o India, Pondicherry” and opened by Srinivasachari in the addressee’s absence from the place, Narayana ends: “It may thus be seen that a suggestion from Sri S. Parthasarathy Iyengar lay behind Sri Aurobindo’s visit to Pondicherry, which led in turn to the establishment of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.” In fact, the Archives article says that Narayana “was evidently giving his relative’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo more significance than it deserves”. But the writer also tells us that, as a historian, his acceptance of the ādesh as the cause of Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry does not oblige him “to suspend all considerations of the political and other circumstances surrounding his departure” from British India. He bases himself on Sri Aurobindo’s view in a letter of 1936 that the divine Force does not act independently of cosmic forces. Sri Aurobindo has written: “The Force does not act in a void and in an absolute way… it comes as a Force intervening and acting on a complex nexus of Forces that were in action and displacing their disposition and interrelated movement and natural result by a new disposition, movement and result.” It seems to the Archives writer that an ādesh operates also within the same nexus and he concludes: “I think it at least plausible that the ādesh that directed Sri Aurobindo to go to Pondicherry operated within a nexus of forces that included the attempts of the British to have him arrested, and the recently established contact between him and the revolutionaries of Pondicherry.”
The writer’s impression is not unnatural at first sight. I was myself inclined at one time to agree broadly. But a closer look should lead us to doubt if one can equate the action of the divine Force with that of an ādesh like Sri Aurobindo’s. As far as we can gather, the latter has nothing to do, as the former has, with a nexus of other forces. It acts exclusively in the consciousness of one individual alone and it acts but once: there is no continuity of action as with the divine Force which may be concerned with several circumstances outside an individual, circumstances on which it goes on exerting itself. The ādesh such as Sri Aurobindo received is also described by him in a letter of 5 January 1936 as “imperative”: “it is clear and irresistible, the mind has to obey and there is no question possible, even if what comes is contrary to the preconceived ideas of the mental intelligence.” The divine Force of which Sri Aurobindo has written does not seem quite like this single absolute momentary stroke from the Supreme within only one person. Its comparison with the ādesh would hold simply in both having their source outside the common natural world: the modus operandi of each appears to be different. But we can grant that the situation in which the imperative ādesh occurs may include political factors. The Archives writer demonstrates easily the impossibility of overlooking these factors in the case of Sri Aurobindo, but his summing-up is challengeable: “I have no difficulty in accepting that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry as the result of an ādesh, and at the same time accepting that there were political factors behind his departure.”
What does the last phrase mean? Does it just mean that the ādesh operated in the midst of politics and with an awareness of their trends? If it does, there can be no quarrel, for here we have plain history and its call for attention. But the word “behind” gives us pause. It prompts the notion that “political factors” were pushing Sri Aurobindo towards what actually transpired. To put the matter in an extreme form: we may start thinking that even without the ādesh Sri Aurobindo would have gone to Pondicherry out of political considerations. Surely, the writer could not have meant this, though such an interpretation is possible on the ground of the unfortunate preposition “behind”. A more likely interpretation would be that the ādesh operated for political reasons. If such was the idea, the writer has failed to plumb the depths of the spiritual intervention.
Among the documents quoted before the “Archival Notes” we find Sri Aurobindo saying in a talk of 18 December 1938: “I heard the ādesh ‘Go to Pondicherry.’ …I could not question. It was Sri Krishna’s ādesh. I had to obey. Later on I found it was for my yogic work that I was asked to come here.” A variant of the closing words of this record by Nirodbaran is Purani’s version: “I found it was for the Ashram and for the work.” In either instance Sri Aurobindo takes us clean beyond any political causes for the ādesh. The divine command came in the midst of a political situation and must have had its current posture in sight but its drive was wholly spiritual. If Sri Aurobindo’s own gloss is to be credited, no political factors can be taken to lie behind his departure in answer to Sri Krishna’s ādesh.
One may protest: “You are bringing in ‘teleology’ and explaining an event by what lay ahead and came later: you should act the historian and give weight to what went before.” But should we not ascribe to the ādesh its own vision, its own aim? Although we may not know the goal it had in view, we should be certain that it did not come purposelessly. Hence its purpose was definitely in play before Sri Aurobindo went to Pondicherry. Once a historian admits the ādesh he has to judge things in terms of it. To cry “Teleology!” in such a case is a hasty move.
Besides, we are now looking backwards to 1910 and seeking explanations. We are not writing in that year itself, ignorant of the motive of Sri Krishna’s command. With our present knowledge of it we cannot write of 1910 as though we knew nothing. From our coign of vantage today, all talk of “teleology” would be inapposite.
If the ādesh brought Sri Aurobindo to Pondicherry for only his Yogic work, there is little point in being told after Narayana’s exaggeration of the significance of Parthasarathy’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo has been countered: “Still, it is not at all far-fetched to suppose that when Parthasarathy spoke to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry… he dwelt on its political advantages. After all, the India, with which Parthasarathy was connected, was being brought out from Pondicherry for political reasons.” Whatever Parthasarathy had said was irrelevant in relation to the ādesh. We also perceive the oddity of the opinion expressed on the heels of the declaration about Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry at the suggestion of no one, but in obedience to a divine command: “But by speaking to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry, Parthasarathy may have played an instrumental role in his coming.”
Apart from the causative irrelevance of politics to the ādesh concerned, the opinion I am discussing is couched in a questionable turn of language. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1979), p.680.col.2, defines “instrumental” as “acting as an instrument or means: serving to promote an object: helpful.” The word “instrument” in the context of “coming” would imply either that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry because of Parthasarathy had put the idea into his mind at an earlier time, thus serving to promote the coming, helping to bring about the transition – or else that Parthasarathy was used by some causative agency other than himself to send Sri Aurobindo to Pondicherry at a later date. The first alternative is impossible to entertain when it has been unequivocally said at the very start that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry at no one’s suggestion but in answer to an ādesh. There is a patent self-contradiction here. The second alternative makes Parthasarathy a “means” in Sri Krishna’s hands, the mouthpiece of a plan by the Supreme Being to hint to Sri Aurobindo in advance at what was to happen. It is as if Sri Krishna played secretly in modern Calcutta a variant on his great declaration to Arjuna at Kurukshetra in remote antiquity: “The Kauravas have already been slain by me in my mind. Be you only my instrument to slay them now.” In our context we may imagine Arjuna’s Charioteer (called “Parthasarathy” in the Gita) to have brought Sri Aurobindo to Pondicherry already in his mind and was using his namesake of the Iyengar family as his instrument to let Sri Aurobindo know the advantages of settling there. However, there are a number of snags to this highly poetic picture.
Sri Aurobindo went to Pondicherry on the afflatus of a divine injunction and not on a hint from Parthasarathy: a special message from Sri Krishna himself had to be received. And this injunction differed radically from the hint: whereas the hint was in connection with politics as the moving power, Sri Krishna’s message turned out, according to Sri Aurobindo, to have had nothing to do with them in its purpose. If we have to think of Parthasarathy as influencing Sri Aurobindo by acquainting him with the advantages of Pondicherry, we must seek a different light in which to look at him.
Before we do that, let us trace from another angle the incongruity we are trying to focus. How does Parthasarathy figure at all when the town outside British India to which Sri Aurobindo went from Calcutta, the sphere of the harassment by the British Government to which Parthasarathy had referred in his meeting with Sri Aurobindo, was Chandernagore in French India and not Pondicherry? In a letter of 15 December 1944 which the Archives quotes, Sri Aurobindo recalls the situation in the Karmayogin office in Calcutta where a search by the police was expected: “While I was listening to animated comments from those around on the approaching event, I suddenly received a command from above in a Voice well known to me, in three words: ‘Go to Chandernagore.’ In ten minutes or so I was in the boat for Chandernagore… I remained in secret entirely engaged in Sadhana… afterwards, under the same ‘sailing orders’, I left Chandernagore and reached Pondicherry on April 4th 1910.”
The original ādesh, taking Sri Aurobindo away from the obstructed political field mentioned by Parthasarathy, did not concern Pondicherry. Thus his advice to Sri Aurobindo had no direct relation to the latter’s move out of British India. Surely, we cannot plead the general fact that Chandernagore no less than Pondicherry was a non-British French enclave? Their common Frenchness does not blur their geographical difference. Nor can we say that Chandernagore was obviously a stepping-stone to Pondicherry. The divine command did not tell Sri Aurobindo: “Go to Pondicherry via Chandernagore.” Chandernagore alone held the stage at the time: Pondicherry was completely off it. Even when Sri Aurobindo reached Chandernagore we cannot claim to discern an involvement of Pondicherry in his thoughts. He continued to stay there as if there were nothing further to do or at least as if he had no notion of any future step. In the talk of December 1938, Purani adding to Nirodbaran’s transcript makes Sri Aurobindo say: “some friends were thinking of sending me to France.” In Nirodbaran’s transcript we read simply: “and there as I was thinking what to do next, I heard the ādesh ‘Go to Pondicherry.’”
It was after this second ādesh that, recollecting what he had learnt from Parthasarathy over six months earlier, Sri Aurobindo wrote the note to which we have already alluded. Apropos only of this note we have to set Parthasarathy in our picture. And he emerges in a role quite other than that which the Archives writer with unconscious self-contradiction surmises for him. The true role is to be spotlighted by the request Sri Aurobindo made to him from Chandernagore. Through Parthasarathy’s group in Pondicherry about which he had learnt in the interview at Calcutta, Sri Aurobindo wanted arrangements to be made for, as Srinivasachari has put it in his memoirs, “a quiet place of residence… where he could live incognito without being in any way disturbed”. While his coming to Pondicherry was due exclusively to the ādesh, his getting privately accommodated in that town was the result of his meeting with Parthasarathy.
Not that Parthasarathy actually arranged for Sri Aurobindo’s residence. He was not present to do so. Srinivasachari and Bharati, accompanied by Suresh Chakravarty, made the proper arrangements. Direct credit in the concrete sense goes to them. But inasmuch as Sri Aurobindo’s memory of Parthasarathy led him to write the letter given to Suresh Chakravarty to take to Pondicherry where the addressee was supposed to be, Parthasarathy formed a link between the ādesh at Chandernagore and Sri Aurobindo’s finding a suitable residence in Pondicherry among solicitous friends. And as such he has a significance in Sri Aurobindo’s life at an important turning-point.
In an earlier issue of Archives – Vol. IX, No.27 – we read: “Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry in April 1910 with no intention of staying more than a few months. He remained in the French colony for the rest of his life.” This confirms that he had never thought of following Parthasarathy’s suggestion of establishing his political headquarters in Pondicherry and acting from there. The indefinite prolongation of stay was due exclusively to his discovering Sri Krishna’s far-reaching spiritual plan for him that was implicit in the ādesh to go to Pondicherry. But in the years after his arrival the patriotic group which included Parthasarathy, Srinivasachari and their associates contributed to his welfare. Srinivasachari’s family is known to have been in intimate relation with him up to 1926.
K.D.Sethna (Amal Kiran)
Aspects of Sri Aurobindo (2000), pp 196-204