November 27, 2005

The Life of Sri Aurobindo

Winston Michael R.
We are concerned today primarily with Aurobindo's ideas, but a brief account of his early life will help to locate him in the historical and cultural environment in which he evolved those ideas. Aravinda Ackroyd Ghose, as he was known in childhood, was born in Calcutta on August 15, 1872, the third of five children of Dr. Khrishnadahan Ghose, a physician prominent in the cultural life of Calcutta, and Swarnalata Devi Ghose. An enthusiastic admirer of England, Dr. Ghose insisted that his children have a complete English education, and took his three sons to England in 1879. For thirteen years the Ghose boys lived with English families and had no contact with India or theirs parents except through correspondence. Aurobindo lived in Manchester (1879-1884), London (1884-1892), and Cambridge (1890-1892), developing into brilliant student of Latin and Greek at St. Paul's School (London) and King's College, Cambridge University. As was often the case, the results of this thoroughly British imperial education were unpredictable. "It appears," Leonard Gordon has written, "that the fruits of Aurobindo's education were a thorough knowledge of several Western languages, an elegant English prose style, and an extreme hostility to the rulers of India."[3]
After his return to India in 1892, Aurobindo began a process often described as his "renationalization." He read the classics of Indian thought, studied Sanskrit, Gujarati, Marathi, and Bengali, and immersed himself in the contemporary cultural life of India. A professor of English at the College of Baroda from 1892 to 1906, he also served for a time as vice principal of the college, a perfectly respectable academic--to all outward appearances. He was also clandestinely becoming one of the leaders of the extremist wing of the Indian nationalist movement, causing historians to attach such odd-sounding labels to him as "the mystic patriot" and the "metaphysical revolutionary."
Prolific writer of political tracts, he urged Indians to follow the example of the violent American, French, Italian, and Irish revolutionaries, and was among the first of the Indian nationalists to recognize the need for creating a mass base for the generally elite nationalist movement.[4] From 1901 to about 1905, Aurobindo was also engaged in the establishment or extension of number of secret revolutionary groups in Bengal and other provinces. During these critical years he was convinced that religious ideas were essential for the overthrow of British power. He believed that the debilitation of India was a result of its masses not being aware of the potential power that could be derived from the unification of active individuals. The key to that realization was religious consciousness, since, in his thinking, the source of all strength was spiritual--"the one inexhaustible and imperishable source of all the others."[5]
In 1906 he left Baroda, ostensibly to become head of the Bengal National College, but more importantly to become more active in the nationalist agitation in India's most politically volatile province. There he helped to establish the nationalist paper Bande Mataram (I Bow to the Mother [Country]), and was associated with the more radical paper Yugantar (New Era). For a time he was leader of the faction attempting to displace the moderate leadership of the Indian National Congress and actively worked underground in preparation for an armed insurrection against British rule.[6].
The British authorities rightly regarded him as a dangerous man, and his writings were among the provocations for a crackdown, reflected in the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908, which gave sweeping new powers to the authorities to jail allegedly seditious authors and speakers. In May 1908 he was arrested under suspicion of involvement in a terrorist bomb plot and imprisoned for a year, although he was eventually acquitted. A British government security report of the time said that Aurobindo was "the master-mind at the back of the whole extremist campaign in Bengal. He is not only a fluent and impressive writer, but an organizer of great ability and ingenuity; and it is probably to him more than anyone else that is due the extraordinary mingling of religion with politics which has imparted such a dangerous character to recent developments. ... [H]e is hopelessly irreconcilable."[7].
While in jail, Aurobindo had intense religious experiences that convinced him that his life was an instrument of God, with a global mission. From 1909, when he was released from prison, until 1910, he continued to write for newspapers; but he was undergoing a change in outlook, from political agitator to religious and cultural thinker. In 1910, just a step ahead of the police, he suddenly left British India for the French territory of Pondicherry by way of the French stronghold of Chandernagore. His political career was over. He devoted the remaining forty years of his life to religious and philosophical inquiry, building an ashram that was to become one of the most influential in India.

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