Sri Aurobindo: What Transformed A Firebrand Revolutionary Into A Content Yogi
On August 15, 1947, India attained independence from the British Raj. Seventy-five years earlier on the same day, it had given birth to Sri Aurobindo, a great yogi and a spiritual reformist, who was one of the pioneers of the Indian independence movement.
Aurobindo’s father Dr Krishnadhan Bose was a professional doctor in England. Krishnadhan was so influenced by Western culture that he wanted to raise and educate his child according to Western standards. So, Aurobindo’s entire upbringing, including his education, happened in England.
When he was five, he was sent to Loreto School in Darjeeling, and when he was seven, he was sent to England. He spent the next 14 years studying at a school in Manchester, and later attended St Paul’s College, Cambridge.
In 1892, Aurobindo received top marks for the main paper of the Indian Civil Service examinations. By then, he had already become well-acquainted with the freedom fighters of the Indian independence movement, and an intense nationalistic fervour and patriotism had awakened in him. He refused to become the administrator of the English establishment by deliberately skipping horse-riding competition, which was the final part of the test. Instead, he became an active member of Lotus and Sword, the revolutionary, semi-underground organization based in India. It was during this time that he met Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda, who urged him to return to India for good and work for the government of Baroda while continuing to help the Indian independence movement.
In 1893, Aurobindo received his degree and returned to India. For the next nine years, he served the Baroda government. During this time, he also got acquainted with Indian culture, yoga and the Indian freedom movement.
While he was still stationed in Baroda, Aurobindo married 14-year-old Mrinalini Devi. During this time, he also became close with the leaders of the Indian independence movement and was active in organizing armed rebellion against the British rule in India. As his political aspiration deepened, his interest in meditation and spirituality matured, too. Due to the sanskars of his past lives, in spite of his hectic schedule, he started managing time for inner exploration, and his search for a Guru led him to Bishnubhaskar Lele of Maharashtra. Lele could see great potential in young Aurobindo. He urged him to spend some time with him and meditate together. It was very difficult for Aurobindo to arrange free time but he managed three days out of his busy schedule. He meditated in seclusion with Lele for three days and had deep experiences of meditation. He experienced the state of thoughtless consciousness and realized that he was a witness – a state that often takes years for a normal meditator to achieve.
Lele was extremely impressed by the progress and advised Aurobindo to leave his worldly affairs and devote full-time to meditation. Aurobindo felt that leaving India under the British rule to go and meditate would be escaping the need of the moment and didn’t agree to do so. However, he continued meditating regularly. He started to get instructions and inspiration from within during his meditation. He shared his experiences with Lele who was very happy to hear them. Lele told him, “If you have full faith in your inner voice then you don’t need any advice from outside.”
In 1906, Aurobindo left Baroda for Kolkata, which was a fertile ground for the revolutionaries. He had accepted the post of principal at the Bengal National College but spent most of his time encouraging the revolutionaries, editing pamphlets and newspapers, and supporting organizations. In 1908, the family of Kingsford, the British Governor of the area, was assassinated in a bomb blast. Aurobindo was one of the prime suspects. On May 5, he was arrested and put in Aligpur Jail. Initially, Aurobindo had been disheartened but when he started to meditate in the jail, his inner voice said, “Just wait and watch.” The message immediately restored his peace and calm.
Since his political and professional career had hindered him from exploring the deeper aspects of yoga and meditation, he found out that his arrest had been a blessing in disguise. He had had a lot of free time to devote to his spiritual quest now. He spent his days studying the Gita and the Upanishads and meditating. In his books, Aurobindo has time and again expressed his gratitude to the English for keeping him in the jail for a year. Had it not been for his arrest, he would have never been able to immerse in deep meditation.
In Alipur Jail, among other things, Aurobindo experienced levitation of his body. He also heard instructions from Swami Vivekananda continuously for 15 days, although it had already been six years since Swami Vivekananda had left his body. While meditating in the jail, a lot of his dormant siddhis also awakened.
There was a kadamba tree right in front of his cell. Aurobindo had the darshan of Lord Krishna, who, too, advised him to leave all other work and devote full-time to his meditation. Aurobindo was still worried about the Independence Movement. Lord Krishna assured him, “You just meditate in solitude; I will take the responsibility of India’s freedom. The Independence of India will come as a gift on your birthday.”
One year later, after Aurobindo was released from the jail, the talented revolutionary and fiery writer had transformed into a peaceful, content yogi. After coming out of the jail, Aurobindo gave a very heartrending and historically significant speech in a spiritual conference in Utarpada, a town near Kolkata. It is now famously referred to as the Utarpada speech. In this speech, Aurobindo has clearly explained about the experiences and insights he gained during his stay in the jail. He said, “Going to the jail and coming out of it were both a part of an existential plan. The purpose of the jail life was to detach me from my strong attachment towards politics.”
His speech also related the vision he had of Lord Krishna in which Krishna had said, “India’s main problem isn’t political: it’s spiritual. The prevailing foreign interference is simply a consequence of the spiritual cowardliness and lack of spiritual fervour. You’ll have to revive and re-establish the authentic spiritual values of Hindu wisdom in the world.”
Lord Krishna had indicated that a new leader was now ready to spearhead India’s political independence, referring to Mahatma Gandhi. It was his prison experience that propelled Aurobindo to take the bold decision to abandon politics in order to continue his spiritual journey.
The chief disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Bhagini Nivedita, had become Aurobindo’s political and spiritual assistant. She told him that the British were planning to re-arrest him and advised him to leave British India. I feel that it was Vivekananda’s love for Aurobindo that manifested in Nivedita’s words. Aurobindo got a similar guidance from his inner self as well. Immediately, he left Bengal for the French colony of Pondicherry in South India via Chandranagar and arrived there on April 4, 1910.
In ancient times, the mystic Agyasta Muni of North India had also made Pondicherry his last destination. It was from there that he had propounded Vedic culture in South India. In the ancient texts of the Ramayana, there is a beautiful description of how Ram had met Agyasta Muni and received his blessings and spiritual power before winning the war with Lanka. To revive the same old Vedic culture, another North Indian yogi, Sri Aurobindo, reached Pondicherry, where he established his ashram and spent the rest of his life there.
In its initial days, the ashram was very poor and Aurobindo lived there with three other seekers. There was not even a bathroom in the ashram and the ashramites had to take a shower under the public tap and even had to share the same towel. There was only one lamp in the ashram under which all the activities were carried out once it got dark. Every evening, Aurobindo received a stick of candle to read by.
In 1912, Aurobindo wrote a very poignant letter to his friend, Motilal Roy, which depicted the state of poverty in the ashram. The letter read, “There is only half a rupee left in the ashram fund while six-seven people are sheltered in it. Immediately, send us 50 rupees. All your physical, mental and spiritual energy can be used to attain this 50 rupees. I know that the divine shall take care of us but it has a very bad habit of making one wait till the end.”
In 1914, French couple, Paul and Mirra Richards, arrived in Pondicherry. Later the same Mirra Richards became known as the Mother. As soon as she saw Aurobindo, she realized that he was the same yogi that she had been seeing in her visions throughout her life. Every Sunday, the Richards invited Aurobindo and his disciples for dinner. That was the only time in the week they would get to eat a full sumptuous meal and drink fine French wine. Despite his high yogic sate of consciousness, and unlike most Indian yogis, Aurobindo used to eat non-vegetarian food and drink alcohol. As he came from a Bengali family and grew up in the West, this was a normal practice for him. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda also came from Bengali families and used to eat fish regularly as a part of their diet. Even today, fish is accepted as a part of the daily meal in Ramakrishna Ashram.
A devotee of the South Indian enlightened master, Raman Maharshi, a contemporary of Sri Aurobindo, had complained to him about Aurobindo’s consumption of meat and wine. Raman had instead praised Aurobindo, “He was born in a Bengali family and grew up in the West, that’s why he has such eating habits. Don’t evaluate a yogi through his habits. Aurobindo is in a very high state of yoga.” Later, Aurobindo, seeing that non-vegetarian food and alcohol was hindering his spiritual practice, quit both and turned a vegetarian. Today, all Aurobindo Ashrams are fully vegetarian.
In 1920, the Mother divorced her husband and started to live permanently in the ashram and took the full responsibility of running it. After this, Aurobindo confined himself in his room. November 24 is celebrated as the siddhidiwas of Sri Aurobindo. It was on this day of 1926 that the supramind consciousness descended on him.
Aurobindo left his body on December 5, 1950. He was buried four days later in the ashram compound. Aurobindo had refused the post of the President of the Indian National Congress in 1907 and later refused to be the first President of Independent India. Aurobindo felt that the main reason for the misery of man was his spiritual unconsciousness and made efforts throughout his life to uplift human consciousness and to make arrangements to descend the supramind consciousness to the earth.
In the last 24 years of his life, Aurobindo came out of his room to give darshan to his disciples only four times a year. The time he spent alone in his room is steeped in mystery. He says, “Meditation is for those who can come out of the society and the world, and travel the lonely journey towards the unknown. Prince Siddhartha left his wife and palace at midnight, and also set out on his spiritual journey all alone, because this path is very personal and its destiny is also dependent on one’s being. A sadhaka is free from the traps of those worldly desires that the world runs after. The fulfillment of worldly desires dwells in the crowd, while a free soul quenches its spiritual thirst away from the world, immersed in the bliss of numinous solitude.”
(Bodhisattva Swami Anand Arun is a key public figure from Nepal with a global following of millions as a spiritual leader, life coach, meditation and yoga teacher, celebrated author, orator and the founder of Osho Tapoban International Commune and 200 other Osho ashrams and centres around the world)