3 May 2015

Matriprasad Satyamurthy’s Remark on a Controversial Take on Sri Aurobindo’s Life – by Bireshwar Choudhury

This is with regard to the news story titled “Bengal minister’s Aurobindo play sitting on a time bomb / Controversial Take On Guru’s Exit From Freedom Struggle” published in The Times of India (Mumbai edition) on 25 April, 2015. The controversial take is stated in the following manner:

“Did Rishi Aurobindo ‘run away’ from the freedom movement?”

“Standing behind prison bars, Hemchandra bursts out in anger: “You (Aurobindo) have saved yourself but history won’t forgive you.” In another scene, Aurobindo’s brother Barin says: “Why did I tell my brother’s survival lies only in mixing religion with politics? Little did I know he’d give up politics and take refuge in religion.”

This cynical view on why Sri Aurobindo left the revolutionary movement is nothing new! In fact, many historians of the Freedom Movement of India have misunderstood Sri Aurobindo and have thus downplayed his role in it. When they have recognised his contribution, they have immediately labelled him as a terrorist, making him share the dais with Osama bin Laden! Peter Heehs is no exception in this matter, and if he has offered his “kind help” to the writer of this play, be sure that he will mess it up further despite all his concern for sensitive issues which, according to him, “should be examined with diligence and respect for the person under study”. Gosh! Since when has Peter Heehs started talking so sweetly about sensitive issues!

But I have no problem with Peter Heehs or Bratya Basu, the cheeky Bengal tourism minister who, I am sure, would never like to speak about the spiritual dimension of Sri Aurobindo’s retirement from politics, because that is taboo in Bengal, the birthplace of so many great spiritual personalities of India. I fully agree that people have a right to express their opinions, though the ones who keep insisting on free speech are the ones who generally have the worst opinions! However, truth is not simply plurality of opinions and living in a state of profound mental confusion, but what gets established over time despite all negative criticism. Therefore when a playwright courts unnecessary controversy in order to achieve quick fame, the record has to be set right in the public domain by those who totally disagree with him, and especially by those who hold responsible public positions. So when Matriprasad Satyamurthy, the secretary of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, comes up with the following remark in the face of this controversial take on Sri Aurobindo, I do have an objection. The Times of India reports,

Matri Prasad, a Sri Aurobindo Ashram inmate in Puducherry, isn’t closed to the idea of the play. “Everyone should be free to approach the truth in his own way. Why doubt the efforts of a playwright? I understand Bengali, but won’t go the extra mile to watch it.”

A word on Matriprasad Satyamurthy before I proceed with my objection: He is right now considered the super Trustee of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, for the others, including Manoj Das Gupta the ageing Managing Trustee, pale into insignificance before him, because he “protects” the Ashram Trust (read “gets it into deep trouble”) with the help of God knows how many lawyers in various courts across India. He also exerts tremendous influence in Delhi simply because he happens to be the representative of the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo, for whom there is no dearth of esteem among highly placed officials of the Govt. The irony of ironies is that at present he keenly defends the right of Peter Heehs & Co. to denigrate and vilify Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram! The overt pretext for such an outrageous stand is the defence of the noble principle of “free speech”, so that “everyone has the right to think in his own way”; “the Trustees do not want to impose anything on the members of the Ashram”; “the Ashram is not a religious institution”, etc, etc. – we have heard enough of this shallow talk, so I will not go into the merits of this stand which, to say the least, has flabbergasted the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Suffice it to say that there is something called internal discipline which applies to any organisation worth the name, be it political or cultural or spiritual. You cannot insult the very Guru whose Ashram has given physical shelter to your body and spiritual refuge to your soul. In other words, you cannot spit on the hand that feeds you! And if you really feel like spitting, then spit out your venom elsewhere; why insist on messing up a sacred place and picking up a quarrel with other disciples who would like to preserve its sanctity?

To come back to the main issue, what did I expect Matriprasad Satyamurthy, a person holding such an important position in the Ashram, to say? To declare at least the official position based on Sri Aurobindo’s own words, which I have quoted at the end of this piece for the convenience of the readers ― that Sri Aurobindo did not run away from the revolutionary movement, that he was not a coward, and that the Divine commanded him to work not only for the spiritual rebirth of India but of the world as well. That this spiritual work was of far greater importance than the revolutionary movement, due to which he had to concentrate all his energies on it. That in any case he had the inner assurance that India will be free, and that he felt his personal intervention in politics was no longer necessary because there were others to carry forward the freedom struggle. That would have been sufficient and you don’t have to be a learned scholar to state this position!

But what did Matriprasad Satyamurthy say? That “everyone should be free to approach the truth in his own way. Why doubt the efforts of a playwright?” Does he realise the implication of this highly irresponsible remark for somebody in his position? It means that even the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, which is an institution started by the Mother to preserve the spiritual legacy of Sri Aurobindo, does not  know the reason why Sri Aurobindo left the revolutionary movement! An Ashram spokesman is not required to say “that everyone should be free to approach the truth in his own way” – that is best left for the critics of Sri Aurobindo to insist upon when they are confronted with the official view of the Ashram Trust. The official view again is not what the Trustees or the disciples of Sri Aurobindo interpret or misinterpret but Sri Aurobindo’s own views in the matter. So what was the problem in stating Sri Aurobindo’s own position instead of passing such an ingratiating remark on a playwright who is bent upon portraying Sri Aurobindo in the wrong light? But perhaps Matriprasad Satyamurthy really believes that Sri Aurobindo escaped to Pondicherry out of fear than was moved by an inner Adesh! Or, as Peter Heehs would say with his convoluted logic, he finds no essential incompatibility between the fear of arrest by the British police and the irresistible inner command that Sri Aurobindo implicitly obeyed, that even the inner command could work under the circumstances of fear!! For more on the distortions on Sri Aurobindo’s Adesh as presented by Peter Heehs, read the following articles “Amal Kiran on Sri Aurobindo’s Adesh (posted on 27 May, 2009 on this site) and “on Misinterpreting the Adesh” by Raman Reddy (posted on July 2, 2009).

Let me quote without any further ado what Sri Aurobindo himself wrote in the third person with regard to his sudden withdrawal from the revolutionary movement: 

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. 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.

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. As his vision of the future grew clearer, he saw that the eventual independence of India was assured by the march of Forces of which he became aware, that Britain would be compelled by the pressure of Indian resistance and by the pressure of international events to concede independence and that she was already moving towards that eventuality with whatever opposition and reluctance. He felt that there would be no need of armed insurrection and that the secret preparation for it could be dropped without injury to the nationalist cause, although the revolutionary spirit had to be maintained and would be maintained intact. His own personal intervention in politics would therefore be no longer indispensable. 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. Accordingly, when the Ashram came into existence, he kept it free from all political connections or action; even when he intervened in politics twice afterwards on special occasions, this intervention was purely personal and the Ashram was not concerned in it.

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 63-64)

I will give a couple more quotes on the same event so that the reader is convinced that my main concern is to let Sri Aurobindo speak for himself and not let him be drowned in this silly and irrelevant debate on free speech and fundamentalist accusations on those of us who want him to be heard in the public domain without the interference of the Ashram Trustees.

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 adesh 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. As for the possibility of failure in my spiritual work, I shall deal with that another time. Difficulties there are, but I see no cause for pessimism or for the certification of failure.

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Letters on Himself and the Ashram, pp 26-27)

These are the facts of that departure. I was in the Karmayogin office when I received word, on information given by a high-placed police official, that the office would be searched the next day and myself arrested. (The office was in fact searched but no warrant was produced against me; I heard nothing more of it till the case was started against the paper later on, but by then I had already left Chandernagore for Pondicherry.) 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 the three words; “Go to Chandernagore.” In ten minutes or so I was in the boat for Chandernagore. Ramchandra Majumdar guided me to the Ghat and hailed a boat and I entered into it at once along with my relative Biren Ghosh and Mani (Suresh Chandra Chakrabarti) who accompanied me to Chandernagore, not turning aside to Bagbazar or anywhere else. We reached our destination while it was still dark and they returned in the morning to Calcutta. I remained in secret entirely engaged in Sadhana and my active connection with the two newspapers ceased from that time. Afterwards, under the same “sailing orders”, I left Chandernagore and reached Pondicherry on April 4th 1910.

I may add in explanation that from the time I left Lele at Bombay after the Surat Congress and my stay with him in Baroda, Poona and Bombay, I had accepted the rule of following the inner guidance implicitly and moving only as I was moved by the Divine. The spiritual development during the year in jail had turned this into an absolute law of the being. This accounts for my immediate action in obedience to the adesh received by me.

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 89-90)


  1. Another proof of the enthusiastic " enemies within" efforting to support denigration of Sri Aurobindo. The in-house distortionist of facts( Peter) is ever ready to help the bengali play to paint Sri Aurobindo as a coward and fugitive runner to Pondicherry. Perhaps he is wont to churn and fish in muddy pool to derive publicity and promote sale of his own books by positioning himself as an authority on Sri Aurobindo.The fugitive from USA has in the past presented distortion and lies about Sri Aurobindo- ranging from urinary organs/poetry/literary works/ marriage/ love/ teaching/ sex dreaming followers etc.What else can we expect from him.
    Regarding Matriprasad Satyamurti it is reported that he isn’t closed to the idea of the play. “Everyone should be free to approach the truth in his own way. Why doubt the efforts of a playwright? "he is reported to have said. Thus he has taken the line of Peter and the likes of him, by completely overlooking the truth about why and how Sri Aurobindo came to Pondichery- which has been indicated by Sri Aurobindo in his own words.One is left to wonder whether despite his position of power in the Ashram setup, Matriprasad has not read Sri Aurobindo or willfully feigns ignorance; perhaps his master is not Sri Aurobindo but Peter and his ilk.
    I am pained, deeply pained that those of us who draw spiritual sustenance from The Mother and Sri Aurobindo are witnesses to denigration of the Master by those who draw only material sustenance and prosperity by trading on the name of Sri Aurobindo.
    As per the stand of Matriprasad that everyone should be free to approach truth in one's own way, can we say that the former taxi-driver from USA came as fugitive to Pondicherry because of his domestic and family problem/situation or because of compulsions of some court cases ? Can we also say that Devilprasad Asatyamurti came as a fugitive to Pondicherry because he was a failure in whatever he did earlier in life and was extremely poor and came to Pondicherry in search of greener pastures/ ?

    Truth bears repetion but not distortion, more so in the case of eminent sons of India like Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo, whose lives are open books. More so in the case of Sri Aurobindo who has himself narrated facts about his coming to Pondicherry.
    Better sense should prevail on those who are aware of the truth but pretend not to know it , Thrice woe to them. who distort the truth or abet in the same -in the name of intllectual freedom and freedom o f expression.


  2. > " Gosh! Since when has Peter Heehs started talking so sweetly about sensitive issues! "

    Perhaps the BJP government coming to power in the Centre has changed his mind ?

    His friend Jairam Ramesh no longer runs the show