The details of Sri Aurobindo’s outer life are rather well-known and easy to search and find. But these outer details, informative though they are, do not tell us much about the person. They create an image, much like a mirror creates an image that captures the form but the essence, the soul escapes our discovery. It may be therefore useful to very briefly focus on the many-sided genius of Sri Aurobindo, known and revered as a yogi of yogis, revolutionary and poet, philosopher and saint, critic and writer, political thinker and the prophet-visionary who foresaw the coming of a New Race, the Supramental Race or a divine-humanity of the future evolving out of our animal-humanity. Indeed, Sri Aurobindo belongs to that rare type of humanity who defies any category and for whom the very word humanity becomes too small. In India he is revered as the yogi-seer who discovered the path of Integral Yoga that would lead man, the mental being, to a divine humanity in a not too distant future.
Born in Kolkata, India, on the 15th Aug 1872, Sri Aurobindo’s birth is like the much awaited Light amidst a world torn by strife and struggle, besieged by Asuric and dark propensities, where the only lamp of Reason was proving to be insufficient to light up man’s goal or give him a worthwhile cause to live. As if to experience the nadir of false glitters and artificial lamps, Sri Aurobindo spent his early years from the age of 7 until the age of 21, as a student at Manchester and Cambridge. Recognised for his brilliance and mastery of many languages he returned to India and enrolled himself as Secretary to the Baroda Estate. A preparatory period followed, during which Sri Aurobindo found himself entering the realm of spiritual experiences until the call to liberate his motherland, India, took hold of him, and he plunged in the Indian Independence Movement. Soon enough he became well-known as the spearhead of the Freedom movement, whose writings brought alive the very soul of India, inspiring and awakening the young and old to seek both political and spiritual freedom. The first freedom was necessary for India to resume her rightful place in the comity of nations. The second and more important freedom is needed for India to undertake the work she is destined to do for the future. He is known as one of the main leaders of the Indian Freedom Struggle who, in a short span of a few years had laid the broad lines along which India would gain its independence. Having done what he was destined to do, he withdrew from active politics, following an inner call, and plunged into a deep and intense tapasya, for the liberation of the human race from its slavery to ignorance. Thus he changed his role, enlarging the scope of his work from the leader of the freedom movement to being among the foremost leader of humanity.
Little can be said about Sri Aurobindo’s life at Pondicherry. All that people know is that since his arrival at Pondicherry in 1910, he had completely withdrawn from public life and was engaged in what came to be later known as the Supramental Yoga. The aim of this yoga was to facilitate the descent of Supermind upon earth just as once the Mind-principle descended and awoke amidst our animal life full of vitality and force. Drawn by his Presence, a few disciples naturally gathered around him as a sample of aspiring and representative humanity.
Whatever little we know about him during this period is mainly through Sri Aurobindo’s conversations and letter exchanges with these disciples. But that is indeed very little to fathom his inner life. Of course one can get useful indications from his poems, especially Savitri since a poet creates what he has experienced within him. Yet just as the poet is always more than his poetry so too it is impossible for human consciousness, struggling with ignorance and using mental yardsticks, to measure someone who wrote:
I have wrapped the wide world in my wider self
And Time and Space my spirit’s seeing are.
I am the god and demon, ghost and elf,
I am the wind’s speed and the blazing star.
All Nature is the nursling of my care,
I am the struggle and the eternal rest;
The world’s joy thrilling runs through me, I bear
The sorrow of millions in my lonely breast.
I have learned a close identity with all,
Yet am by nothing bound that I become;
Carrying in me the universe’s call
I mount to my imperishable home.
I pass beyond Time and life on measureless wings,
Yet still am one with born and unborn things.
Sri Aurobindo is known in the field of literature and experimental poetry as the author of many beautiful poems including the crowning jewel Savitri, an epic-poem in English comprising of nearly 24000 lines. Savitri belongs to the rare genre of what is called in India as ‘mantric poetry’. Its’ theme is universal and its’ subject is nothing less than the Creator and His creation itself. As a poem it is the outpouring of revelations after revelations that help the readers to behold truths sublime and give hope and Light to our present humanity. Though Savitri has been the subject of much discussion, doctorate thesis and scholarly studies, it remains a mystery. Its words point to the eternal Source of all things and carry the reader on wings of beauty and delight to regions where knowledge sleeps in blissful silence in the very bosom of Love.
His prose writings however are numerous and include essays and articles, journals and letters, some of which have appeared in a book form. The subject of these writings cover almost every aspect of human existence as seen from the eye that scans the heights and depths of creation, shedding its light upon all things of this world and the worlds invisible even as the sun illumines all things around it. In fact when studied carefully, these writings throw invaluable insights on human nature. In dealing with the complex subject of creation and evolution, these writings lay down the broad foundation of a Future Science of Consciousness, even as it views the puzzle of human existence and the problem of human Unity in the light of Integral Yoga. His writings range from recovering the lost secret of the Vedas to the vision of a glorious future that humanity is destined to witness, after having crossed the perilous bridge of Time in the present moment. The width and scope of these writings, their style and substance has drawn admiration from leading thinkers and philosophers from the East and West including Raymond Piper, Romain Rolland, Rabindranath Tagore to mention just a few.
It is these writings that have earned for Sri Aurobindo the title of a philosopher, especially after one of his monumental works, ‘The Life Divine’ was nominated for the Nobel Prize in late forties. However Sri Aurobindo himself did not much like the honorific, since in 1907, much before he came to Pondicherry and even while he was actively engaged in revolutionary politics of that time, he had achieved the rare experience of Nirvanic Silence. Whatever he wrote henceforth was written from that state of Silence, a transmission and expression of truths that lie hidden in the realms beyond the mind. Not only Nirvana but many rare spiritual experiences came crowding into his consciousness seeking shelter in his vast, still heart. These include the vision of Divine everywhere, the vacant Infinite, the vision of the World-Mother, the entry into the Parabrahman state, the descent of Krishna’s personality into his physical body prepared through years of silent tapasya, among others. The Vedanta and the Tantra were synthesised within his being that had realised identity with not only the still Self of the Supreme but also with the dynamic Power, the Shakti that weaves the dance of creation.
Sri Aurobindo had a natural mastery of English as well as many other languages, including French, Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. At the same time, practice of yoga gave him a natural mastery and an in-depth understanding of human nature. No wonder Sri Aurobindo is also known as being one of the greatest teachers of all times. His principles of education laid the foundations of a national education for India. However it has taken almost a century for his thoughts on Education to be accepted more generally, though an International Education Centre in his name exists in Pondicherry since more than sixty years. More remarkable however is Sri Aurobindo’s role as a teacher of the Integral Yoga. It is a study in its own right to see how Sri Aurobindo dealt with the issues, problems and various difficulties of a diverse humanity with unique solutions suited to each personality and taking into account human variations, rather than standardised and stock replies like patent medicines. At the same time one witnesses in these answers, on the one hand a total commitment to truth and, at the same time, respect for the individuality of each person and their uniqueness. A teacher who could impart the greatest truth while leaving each one free to follow his way is a rarity and wonder.
No wonder this is one of the many unique features of his Ashram at Pondicherry, India, where seekers come from diverse backgrounds and nationalities to practice the path of Integral Yoga. There are no rigid, fixed practices or narrow sectarian formulas, but a wide movement of our entire being towards the Divine. The seeking for the Divine is not for personal liberation but for the transformation of earth-nature, wherein each sadhaka becomes a representative of a cosmic possibility and difficulty. By opening himself to the Divine and the process of transformation he becomes a little laboratory for the divine alchemy. What he gains can then be easily replicated by universal nature in humanity at large. Thus, like Sri Aurobindo’s personality and in keeping with his central teaching that seeks for the good of all and not an isolated achievement, his yoga too assumes a universal character.
Many are the gifts of Sri Aurobindo for Earth and mankind, some visible and known, others, like his participation in the war in favour of the allies at an occult level or his work of bringing the Supermind down to earth, not easily understood or revealed only to the initiate into the mystery of Divine Birth and Divine Works. In fact even in his death, or the death of his outer body on the 5th Dec 1950, he left the stamp of divinity. His so-called ‘mortal body’ remained lit by an immortal pinkish-golden glow defying the laws of decay and death for nearly 111 hours. It was hard to say whether it was death of the body or the defeat and defiance of death that one witnessed in this event, that inspired spontaneous outpourings from many world-leaders as well as commoners alike. Of course Sri Aurobindo is not just a physical frame, a body perishable by the hours, but an immortal flame of Truth that burns in our silent depths. Sri Aurobindo’s inner being, his divine personality continues to command the forces of transformation and is ever engaged with hastening of earth’s glorious future which he has foreseen and for which he worked and struggled and suffered and strove.
However, as we have noted earlier, there is something about Sri Aurobindo that transcends all these works through which he is more commonly known. His complex and many-sided inner spiritual life, rich with experiences of the highest order is documented in his personal diary, now available as ‘Records of Yoga.’ One discovers there the rare combination of a scientific temperament with care for accuracy of details and rectitude in observation along with a profound mysticism that is to become a bridge between the world of material reality and the verities of the Spiritual realms. The scientist and the mystic were beautifully synthesised in his personality, even as the human and the superhuman paced close to each other.
Those who have come closer to him either physically or else inwardly, discover in his personality the magical fount of creation, the honeyed streams of life-giving delight, the Peace and the Certitude that come from contact with the centre and core of creation, the stability that even the flow and flux of Time cannot move, the Truth that transcends all formulas yet throws Itself into various moulds, the personality of a Godhead who plays with death and uses Time and Circumstance as his means and instruments. In discovering him we discover our own highest and deepest possibilities as if what we have always longed for, what the earth has aspired for since the earliest dawns of humanity had found a perfect expression and a divine fulfilment. In drawing closer to Sri Aurobindo we draw closer to the divinity that is hidden within us and within the secret heart of creation.
Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta, on 15th August 1872. His father, a thoroughly Anglicised Indian doctor in British Government service, wanted his sons to have a solid, British education, and when Aurobindo was seven, he sent him, together with his two brothers, to England with the specific instruction that the three brothers should be kept free from Indian influence. The young Aurobindo was a brilliant student who was consistently amongst the top of his class in English, and for much of this time, he and his two brothers were supported by his scholarships. He attended what was at the time one of the best public schools in London (St. Paul’s) and later studied in Cambridge where he obtained the highest score ever awarded in Greek. When he returned to India in 1893, he had an excellent command of English, Greek, Latin and French, and knew enough German and Italian to enjoy Goethe and Dante in the original, but … he knew rather little about India. While still in England, he obtained a job with one of the Indian princes, the Gaekwor of Baroda, and after his return, he worked in Baroda for twelve years, as teacher, as private secretary to the Gaekwor, and finally as Vice-principal of the Baroda College. During this period he immersed himself deeply in Indian culture and learned Sanskrit as well as several modern Indian languages. Though he became fairly fluent in what should have been his mother tongue, Bengali, he remained more at home in English, and it is in this language that he wrote all his major works.
As he became more familiar with the Indian tradition, his admiration for the Indian tradition grew, and it became increasingly clear to him that the Indian civilization could not regain its full stature as long as India was under foreign occupation. Interestingly, at that time, this was not at all a common view: the Indian elite of those days had widely accepted the superiority of the English culture, and Aurobindo would become the first Indian intellectual who dared proclaim publicly that complete independence from Britain should be the primary aim of Indian political life. As his increasing political involvement embarrassed his employer, whose position was entirely dependent on British approval, he left Baroda service in 1906 and moved to Calcutta where he soon became one of the most outspoken leaders of the political movement for Indian independence. His writings brought him in frequent conflict with the British authorities but he carefully chose his language and repeatedly managed to escape conviction.
During a visit to Baroda in 1907, Aurobindo took some private lessons from a Maharashtrian yogi, Bhaskar Lele. Aurobindo had no interest in personal liberation, but he knew from experience that prāṇāyāma could increase one’s mental energy and clarity, and he hoped that yoga could develop other psychological powers, which he intended to use for his political work. Within three days he managed under Lele’s guidance to completely, and permanently, silence his mind. Soon after, he had the realisation of the silent, impersonal Brahman in which the whole world assumed the appearance of “empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance”—
There was no ego, no real world—only when one looked through the immobile senses, something perceived or bore upon its sheer silence a world of empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance. There was no One or many even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation nor something glimpsed somewhere above,—no abstraction,—it was positive, the only positive reality,—although not a spatial physical world, pervading, occupying or rather flooding and drowning this semblance of a physical world, leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or substantial. I cannot say there was anything exhilarating or rapturous in the experience . . . but what it brought was an inexpressible Peace, a stupendous silence, an infinity of release and freedom. (Aurobindo, 1972b, p. 101)
There are two things noteworthy about this experience. The first is that it was not a fleeting experience but a true realisation in the sense that the peace and inner silence never diminished. The other is that the experience of the silent Brahman and the māyāvādin sense of the unreality of the world were not at all what Aurobindo had expected or wanted from yoga, and they did not fit either within the mental framework of his instructor, Lele, whose own experiences were with the personal Divine. During the following weeks Lele still taught Aurobindo how to rely both for his outer work and for the rest of his inner development on an inner guidance, but after that, they parted ways. The presence of the silent Brahman never left Aurobindo, though it subsequently merged with other realisations of the Divine. Interestingly, all this happened during one of the busiest periods of his life while he was at the peak of his political influence, and he managed, in his own words, to organise political work, deliver speeches, edit his newspaper and write articles, all from an entirely silent mind.
In the mean time, his younger brother Barin got involved in daring but largely ineffective exploits of violent revolt. After a bomb-blast in May 1908 in which two British ladies died who happened to occupy the coach in which Barin expected some hated official to travel, Aurobindo was arrested by the police under suspicion that he was the brain behind the increasing violence. He was put on trial for “waging war against the King”, a charge that could have sent him to the gallows if convicted. Lack of evidence of direct, active involvement in violent action lead, however, to his acquittal, much to the discomfort of the British Viceroy, who by that time had come to the conclusion that Aurobindo was “the most dangerous man in the British Empire.” His incarceration had one major effect, which the British police could not have foreseen, or, for that matter, understood. Aurobindo took his arrest and yearlong incarceration as a God-imposed opportunity to concentrate fully on his inner, spiritual development, or sādhanā. While in jail, he showed remarkably little concern about the court-case, but made an in depth study of the Bhagavad Gītā and realised the presence of the personal Divine in everything and everybody around him. In his own words:
[I]t was while I was walking that His strength again entered into me. 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(2) 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 Srikrishna 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.
... [and later, in court:]
I looked at the Prosecuting Counsel and it was not the Counsel for the prosecution that I saw; it was Srikrishna who sat there, it was my Lover and Friend who sat there and smiled. (Aurobindo, 1997, p. 6-7)
After his release from jail, he remained for another two years in Calcutta, where he started another journal that focused more on culture and yoga, less on politics.(3) He was by now convinced that the political independence of India was only a matter of time, and that he had to concentrate on another, inner work. In 1910, he decided to relocate to Pondicherry, which was at the time a French enclave in India, where he would be more safe from harassment by the British police. Though he expected initially to stay in Pondicherry only for a few years of intense inner work after which he intended to re-enter the active, political life he had been used to, he was to stay in Pondicherry till the end of his life in 1950.
Shortly after his birthday on August 15, 1912 he described in a letter to an old friend another major turning point in his yoga:
My subjective Sadhana may be said to have received its final seal and something like its consummation by a prolonged realisation and dwelling in Parabrahman(4) for many hours. Since then, egoism is dead for all in me except the Annamaya Atma,—the physical self which awaits one farther realisation before it is entirely liberated from occasional visitings or external touches of the old separated existence. (Aurobindo, 1972, 433–35)
In spite of his political involvement, Sri Aurobindo had a rather private disposition and rarely spoke or wrote directly about his own experiences, so most of what we know about them is derived somewhat indirectly from his other writings. A notable exception is, however, the detailed record he maintained during some of the early years of his stay in Pondicherry. ThisRecord of Yoga came to light more than 25 years after his death, and its 1500 pages shed a fascinating light on his inner development and on the way his personal experiences related to his public writings of the same period. Though the Record is written in the manner of laboratory notes -- in telegram style and with extensive use of technical terms and abbreviations which are often difficult to follow -- they leave one with the definite impression that he hardly ever, if at all, made any general statement about the possibilities of yoga which he had not first extensively verified in his own experience.
In 1914, a French couple, Paul Richard and his wife, Mirra Alfassa, visited Pondicherry and soon became acquainted with Aurobindo. Paul Richard invited Aurobindo to join him in bringing out a new journal. The intention of the journal was, in Aurobindo’s words, “to feel out for the thought of the future, to help in shaping its foundations and to link it to the best and most vital thought of the past” (1915/1998, p.103). By the time its first issue came out, the first World War had started and soon after, the Richards had to return to France. This left the task of filling the 64 pages of the monthly journal to Aurobindo, and he faithfully fulfilled this task for the next 6 years, by serialising, in parallel, several books. By the time he closed down the journal, he had completed almost all his major works, The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Secret of the Veda, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Essays on the Gita, Foundations of Indian Culture, translations and commentaries on several major Upaniṣads, a trilogy on social psychology and politics, etc. Only a few of these texts, Essays on the Gita, The Life Divine and the first part of The Synthesis of Yoga, he revised and brought out in book form during his lifetime. Others were published as books only posthumously.
Paul Richard and Mirra Alfassa returned to Pondicherry in 1920. Paul Richard found it difficult to accept the by now obvious spiritual and intellectual superiority of Aurobindo and left soon after, but Mirra Alfassa stayed, and gradually took up an increasingly important role in the small community that began to form around Aurobindo. Initially she was simply the most gifted of Aurobindo’s disciples, but over time, Sri Aurobindo, as he now came to be known, began to address her as “the Mother”, in honour of her complete identification with the śakti, the Power which mediates between the Divine and the manifestation. In letters to his disciples, he often stressed that their consciousness and realisation were essentially one, and that they differed only in their most outer roles and forms of manifestation.
In 1926 Sri Aurobindo had another major breakthrough in his own sādhanā, which he later described as the embodiment of Krishna’s Overmental consciousness. One should take this event in the context of what future generations may well consider Sri Aurobindo’s greatest contribution to our human understanding of the world and our role in it: the distinction he made between what he called the Overmental and the Supramental planes of consciousness.
After 1926 Sri Aurobindo retired entirely to a small, first floor apartment in order to concentrate fully on his inner work. From this time onwards, he left the daily care for the small community that had begun to develop around him, to the Mother, and this became the formal beginning of the “Sri Aurobindo Ashram”. We know relatively little about what Sri Aurobindo did during the 24 years after his retirement to his rooms. He spoke hardly to anybody, except for a short period just before the Second World War when he needed physical assistance after breaking his leg, and he saw his disciples only 3-4 times a year in a silent “darshan”. What we know of his inner life during this period is largely from his letters, from his poetry, and from the changes he introduced in some of his earlier writings. During the 1930s Sri Aurobindo answered a staggering number of letters to his disciples, of which over 5000 have been published. Most of them deal withsādhanā, quite a few with literature, and a smaller number with other issues. Roughly during the same time he also took up the revision of a few of his major works like his Essays on the Gita, the first two parts of The Synthesis of Yoga, and The Life Divine. His poetic writings include besides sonnets, other short poems and metrical experiments, also his most important written work, the epic poem Savitri. With its over 24000 lines and 724 pages Savitriis in a class of its own. Its richness of imagery, beauty of expression, and sheer number of memorable lines could remind one of Shakespeare, but in terms of depth and width of spiritual experience it simply has no equal in the English language. It would not be surprising if posterity would count Savitriamongst the most valuable texts ever composed.
It may be noted that in spite of his official retirement from politics, Sri Aurobindo was one of the very few major public figures in India who recognised how serious the consequences of a victory of Nazi Germany and Japan would have been for the future development of human civilization, and during the Second World War he gave his full support to the Allied war-effort.
After the war, in a radio message, which he gave on the occasion of India’s Independence (15-8-1947), which coincided with his 75th birthday, Sri Aurobindo described the main areas of his life’s work as five world-movements which he wished for as a young man, and which he worked for during the different phases of his life. They all looked, in his own words, like impractical dreams when he was young, but he saw all of them fully or partially fulfilled during his lifetime:
a free and united India;
the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia and her return to her great role in the progress of human civilization;
a world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind;
the [spread of the] spiritual gift of India to the world;
a step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society.
All these “world-movements” have begun, though none of them has been perfectly accomplished in the direction Sri Aurobindo envisaged. In the long run, it seems likely that Sri Aurobindo will be remembered mainly for his role in the fifth movement, on which he worked incessantly during the last 40 years of his life. Just before his death in 1950, he still wrote a few essays for a newly started Ashram Journal on the transitional period between our present state and the supramental stage he envisaged for the future. He also completed the revision of the first part of The Synthesis of Yoga and the whole of Savitri. The Mother continued his work till her own passing in 1973 at the age of 95. The Ashram and the international township, Auroville, which she started in 1968 (at the age of 90), still exist and continue to develop as creative spiritual communities.
For original (auto)biographical material, one can consult volume 35 and 36 of The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Himself and the Ashram(still to be published) and Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest (2009). Both published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Puducherry, INDIA.
Three entirely different biographies are:
A.B. Purani. (1978). The Life of Sri Aurobindo. Puducherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Satprem (1970). Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness. (Translated from the French. Original title: Sri Aurobindo ou l'Aventure de la conscience.) The English edition, successively brought out by several publishers, is presently out of print.
Peter Heehs (2008) The lives of Sri Aurobindo. New York: Columbia University Press.
(1) For many details in this biographical note, I have made use of Peter Heehs (2008).
(2) Vasudeva and Narayana are different names for Krishna.
(3) His previous Journal, the Bande Mataram, had been closed down by the British Government.
(4) The parabrahman is, in Aurobindo’s words, “the supreme Reality with the static and dynamic Brahman as its two aspects.”