Sri Aurobindo – Biography
‘ No one can write about my life because it has not been on the surface for man to see.’ – Sri Aurobindo from: On Himself
Yet his writings and outer life give a profound glimpse into the life of this unique spiritual master. Sri Aurobindo paved a new approach to yoga, which he termed ‘Integral Yoga’. Unlike the Yogi’s of old he felt yoga and spirituality need not involve retreating from the world. Sri Aurobindo wished to bring the Divine into all aspects of life. For the last 40 years of his life he worked tirelessly for this goal of bringing down a new spiritual consciousness.
“We are Sons of God and must be even as He.”
- Sri Aurobindo
Early Life – Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo Ghosh was born on 15th August 1872, to an anglicised father Dr Krishnan Ghosh. He wanted his children to be schooled in English, therefore at the age of 7 Aurobindo was sent to study in England. Aurobindo studied first at St Paul’s, London and then at Kings College Cambridge. Life in England was often tough for Aurobindo; resources were meagre and for many years he had to often survive on a frugal diet. However he proved to be a scholar of great intellect and capacity. He mastered the classics and English poetry (later he wrote extensively on the English poets). The famous don Oscar Browning declared Aurobindo one of the greatest scholars he had seen.
It was at Cambridge university that Aurobindo first became aware of the plight of his country, at the time under the rule of the British Empire. Aurobindo became inspired to join a society committed to overthrowing British rule. This period was an important landmark in Aurobindo’s life. With his new political perspective he turned down an opportunity to join the British civil service. He had passed all his exams but failed to turn up for the obligatory horse riding test. Therefore at the age of 21 he returned to India increasingly committed to working for Indian independence.
Sri Aurobindo the Revolutionary
On his return to Indian soil Sri Aurobindo was overwhelmed with a feeling of intense inner peace. This experience came unsought and was an indication of his future spiritual capacity. However at the time Sri Aurobindo’s main concern and main passion was political independence of his beloved motherland. Sri Aurobindo threw himself into revolutionary politics, associating with the great figures of Bengal such as Bipin Pal, B.C Chatterji. He was dismayed with the weakness of Congress and argued for direct action aiming for complete independence. Through his journal Bande Mataram, Sri Aurobindo was the first leader to call for the full independence for India.
For several years Sri Aurobindo was a pivotal figure in the movement for independence. He had the qualities of a natural leader but was always happy to work in the background as much as possible. It was during this period that Sri Aurobindo also became increasingly interested in Yoga and meditation. Whilst engaged in spiritual disciplines Sri Aurobindo came across a teacher of meditation, Lele Maharaj. He taught Sri Aurobindo how to control thoughts and not let them enter into his mind. Sri Aurobindo followed his instructions to the letter and within 3 days he succeeded in completely emptying the mind and entered into a state of nirvana. This same experience had taken Lele Maharaj over 6 years to attain. Lele Maharaj was amazed at the progress of the young Aurobindo.
However it was the political struggle which held the greatest sway on Aurobindo, the freedom of India was his primary concern.
After a fatal incident involving revolutionaries, Aurobindo became a marked man. In 1908 he was arrested for the possession of weapons and was held in jail for a year before his case came to court. His trial became a major event with much attention placed on the incident. The evidence against Aurobindo was quite weighty and he feared he would be convicted. However Aurobindo was fortunate to have C.R.Das as his defence lawyer. C.R.Das threw himself heart and soul in to Aurobindo’s defence. His commitment and capacity meant Sri Aurobindo felt completely assured and did not have to even concern himself with his own defence.
The Spiritual Mission of Sri Aurobindo
By a curious stroke of fate it was in a British jail that Sri Aurobindo began to be seriously awakened to the inner life. Confined to his own prison cell Sri Aurobindo was able to practice meditation and read about the ancient principles of yoga, undisturbed by outer commitments. Sri Aurobindo began to have profound meditations. Entering into higher realms of consciousness he became aware of the omnipresence of God.
As Sri Aurobindo himself said.
‘I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me his shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover. This was the first use of the deeper vision He gave me. I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and as I looked at them I saw Vasudeva, it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies. Amongst these thieves and dacoits there were many who put me to shame by their sympathy, their kindness, the humanity triumphant over such adverse circumstances.”
- from The Uttarpara Speech 30 May 1909
It was also in prison that Sri Aurobindo was visited by the soul of Swami Vivekananda, who instructed Sri Aurobindo about the workings of the superconsciousness which was above the mind. Sri Aurobindo also became aware of a divine inner guidance, that was never to leave him. From this divine source he was given an Adesh ‘inner command’ that henceforth he should not worry about politics. India would gain her independence in due course but this would be achieved by others. The task for Sri Aurobindo was the renewal of ‘sanatana dharma, the eternal religion.’ To pursue this spiritual task it was necessary for Sri Aurobindo to leave the political arena. In his own words Sri Aurobindo said of his mission.
‘We must return and seek the sources of life and strength within ourselves… It is the spiritual revolution we foresee and the material is only its shadow and reflex.’
After gaining a dramatic acquittal Sri Aurobindo was released, but was still pursued by the British, who considered him ‘the most dangerous man we have to reckon with…’ It was around this time that he again came into contact with Sister Nivedita, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda and fellow revolutionary. She warned Sri Aurobindo of the dangers he was in. After a while Sri Aurobindo followed another ‘Adesh’ to move to the French province of Pondicherry. At Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo was able to dedicate himself fully to his spiritual disciplines. Despite frequent requests to return to politics, Sri Aurobindo spent much of his time in meditation becoming more aware of the supramental consciousness. Through his practise of Yoga Sri Aurobindo also gained the capacity to be a prolific writer producing many articles, writings and poetry.
Gradually spiritual seekers began to be attracted to Pondicherry and so an informal ashram began to be set up. A significant moment in the life of Sri Aurobindo and the fledgling ashram was the arrival of a French women, Mira Richards, who would later be affectionately known as the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo ashram. The Mother instantly recognised Sri Aurobindo as the one who had been guiding her sadhana (spiritual practices). In turn Sri Aurobindo entrusted the organisation of the ashram to the Mother and under her guidance, which continued for nearly fifty years, the Ashram grew into a dynamic spiritual community. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram still flourishes today and has a unique character in the sense that it does not involve retreating from the world. In Sri Aurobindo’s words:
“The way of Yoga followed here has a purpose different from others, – for its aim is not only to rise out of the ordinary ignorant world-consciousness into the divine consciousness, but to bring the supramental power of that divine consciousness down into the ignorance of mind, life and body, to transform them, to manifest the Divine here and create a divine life in Matter.’
Sri Aurobindo was a rare combination of poet, philosopher, writer and spiritual Master. During his time in Pondicherry he wrote several books explaining his view on Yoga and spirituality. His most notable exposition was perhaps in ‘The Life Divine’ which is a comprehensive explanation of his integral yoga. Sri Aurobindo was also a noted poet. Many of his poems are vivid and soulful portrayals of his supramental experiences. For example.
Only the illimitable Permanent
Is here. A Peace stupendous, featureless, still.
Replaces all, – what once was I, in It
A silent unnamed emptiness content
Either to fade in the Unknowable
Or thrill with the luminous seas of the Infinite.
(last verse of Nirvana by Sri Aurobindo)
In November 1926 Sri Aurobindo would retreat from Ashram life, (he felt this withdrawal was necessary to be able to complete his work) however he spent many hours every day carefully replying to the letters of his disciples. These letters were an opportunity to explain his yoga and how it applied in particular situations. With good humour and great compassion he was able to relieve the fears and anxieties common to many seekers. Sri Aurobindo’s letters show great wisdom and he often displayed a good sense of humour as he said himself:
‘A God who could not smile could not have created this humorous universe.’
- Sri Aurobindo.
It is rewarding to read these letters and also stories by disciples such as Dilip Kumar Roy who maintained a long and fruitful written communication with his Guru. In these letters and other writings Sri Aurobindo gives an insightful look into the play of cosmic forces that work unseen behind external circumstances.
Although distanced from any direct involvement in politics Sri Aurobindo still took a keen interest in political events from around the world. In particular he saw in Hitler and Nazi Germany a great threat to the whole of civilisation. Therefore at the outbreak of the Second World War, Sri Aurobindo, the former revolutionary against the British Empire, came out with his full public support for the Allies and their cause. Some Indians who still saw Britain as the main enemy did not always appreciate this decision.
However although Sri Aurobindo was a prolific writer he felt his main task was to bring down a new consciousness, which would usher in a new era where spirituality and truth were given a higher profile. But Sri Aurobindo went to great pains to say he did not wish to bring about a new religion or creed.
As he wrote in his article ‘Sri Aurobindo On Himself.
“This is Sri Aurobindo’s teaching and method of practice. It is not his object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion – for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his Yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the One Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.’
August, 1934 From SABCL, Vol. 26, “Sri Aurobindo on Himself ”
He offered a new vision of yoga and a spiritual path that could be followed by sincere seekers. However Sri Aurobindo never desired to have a large numbers of disciples or followers. He admitted his path was not always easy and could be quite arduous. But to attain a real transformation of one’s nature was not possible without maintaining certain spiritual standards and spiritual discipline.
Sri Aurobindo taught that the different world religions were right in their own way. However Sri Aurobindo also stated that there was no need to repeat what had happened in the past. The world is in continuous evolution and there is a need to bring down a higher truth with each age. Continuing the vision of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo sought to combine the best from Eastern spirituality and Western materialism.
“I saw them cross the twilight of an age
The sun-eyed children of a marvelous dawn…
The massive barrier-breakers of the world..
The architects of immortality…
Bodies made beautiful by the Spirit’s light,
Carrying the magic word, the mystic fire,
Carrying the Dionysian cup of joy.. “
From: Savitri -Sri Aurobindo
After a short illness Sri Aurobindo entered his mahasamadhi on 5th December 1950. During his last illness Sri Aurobindo refused any major surgery or even to heal himself. He said by leaving his body he would most effective in continuing his spiritual mission.
Sri Aurobindo’s life was of constant service to bringing down a higher ideal and vision.
“The vast universal suffering feel as thine:
Thou must bear the sorrow that thou claimst to heal;
The day-bringer must walk in darkest night.
He who would save the world must share its pain.
If he knows not grief, how shall he find grief’s cure?
If far he walks above mortality’s head,
How shall the mortal reach that too high path?
If one of theirs they see scale heaven’s peaks,
Men then can hope to learn that titan climb.
God must be born on earth and be as man
That man being human may grow even as God.”
- From Savitri by Sri Aurobindo
Article Copyright: Richard Pettinger13/10/2005
- Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga by Sri Chinmoy