A casual glance at Sri Aurobindo's life would make you believe that in order to avoid the vagaries of life he chose the spiritual path, in reality, it was anything but.
“…the mind is incapable of judging spiritual things.”
Sri Aurobindo was sent to England at age seven for ‘further studies’, and returned to India in 1893 at age twenty one. His full-time engagement with the struggle for India’s freedom was restricted to a short period (1906-1910), of which one year (1908-1909) was spent in prison. In April 1910 he went away to Pondicherry, after which he dedicated himself exclusively to spiritual pursuits. From a superficial examination of these facts it is easy to conclude that he found in the safe havens of spirituality an escape from the rough and tumble of the freedom struggle. In his famous Uttarpara Speech, delivered soon after his acquittal in 1909, Sri Aurobindo gave hints of the radical departure in the focus of his life, and attributed it to the ‘dialogue’ he had with the Divine, whom he saw as Krishna. “Give me Thy Adesh. I do not know what work to do or how to do it. … …”, asked Sri Aurobindo, exactly as Arjuna had asked. The answer that he got had in it “two messages”. The first message was, “I have given you a work and it is to help to uplift this nation… …”, and the second message was, “… speak to your nation always this word… I am giving them [Indians] freedom for the service of the world…”. In short, Sri Aurobindo was told that the freedom of the country was sure to come, that he was not indispensable for it, and that his work was to speak to the nation the “word”, which would help the world. Why did the Divine have to intervene to pull him out of the freedom struggle, and what was the word that he was uniquely equipped to speak to the world? Strictly speaking, only the Divine can answer this question. But even to attempt a human answer a few additional facts are necessary.
Fourteen years in England (1879-1893)
During the fourteen years that he spent in England, he mastered the English language and learnt several other European languages; he had stood first in Greek while at Cambridge. He also understood and examined critically the Western history and culture. He had a sharp intellect: in England, he won many prizes and scholarships; at age 17 he participated in debates on topics such as the ‘inconsistency of Swift’s political views’ and turned a piece from Greek into English verse. One of his Professors at King’s College told Sri Aurobindo, “I have examined papers at thirteen examinations and I have never during that time [seen] such excellent papers as yours.”
Fourteen years in Baroda (1893-1907)
Although Sri Aurobindo’s participation in the freedom struggle became more visible after the partition of Bengal in 1905, and he resigned from the Baroda service in 1906, he maintained some links with Baroda till 1907. While Sri Aurobindo returned from England as a scholar in European languages and culture, he was very conscious of his profound ignorance about India. He used his stay in Baroda to make up for this by teaching himself Sanskrit, and going into the ancient Indian literature in its original. As a result, he became a unique synthesis of the East and the West. In 1907, with a few instructions from a yogi, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, it was in Baroda that Sri Aurobindo experienced within three days his mind becoming full of eternal silence, an experience that only a rare few might get after years of yogic discipline.
One year in prison (1908-1909)
After the experience of the eternal silence in 1907, it was in prison that Sri Aurobindo had some more very significant spiritual experiences. During the year in prison, the first question Sri Aurobindo asked was why God had brought him there. After all, he was engaged in the important and noble task of working for the freedom of the country. The answer that he got was that he was not indispensable for the freedom struggle, and that God had broken for him the bonds (i.e. attachment to the work connected with the freedom struggle) that he himself could not break. Then he saw Vasudeva (Krishna) in everything – the walls of the prison, the trees, the bed; and in everybody – the jailors, other inmates, the prosecution counsel, the defense counsel, and the judge. He could now have a dialogue with Krishna, and receive directions from Him. Over the period of one year in prison, through his experiences and these interactions with the Divine, he reached the conclusion that there were so many persons of great heroic courage and remarkable moral strength in the country that the freedom of the country was a foregone conclusion; that he was not needed for the freedom struggle; and that his mission was to give to the world the word that it was going to need very soon.
The Divine intervened, it seems, not only by sending Sri Aurobindo to prison and by giving these experiences and directions to him, but also by ensuring his acquittal. Of all the forty-odd persons arrested in 1908, Sri Aurobindo was the most prominent, and the one whom the British Government feared the most. Therefore, it was he whom the Government was most interested in getting convicted. In spite of that, he was acquitted because The Divine seems to have made sure that the officials concerned make at least two foolish mistakes. First, they allowed midway through the trial the defense counsel to be changed. The defense counsel whose appointment they allowed was none other than Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, himself a great patriot, and a great friend of Sri Aurobindo. Even more foolish was to appoint as the judge for the case Mr. C.P. Beachcroft, who was Sri Aurobindo’s classmate in England. This was not secret information; there was no scarcity of judges; and anybody could have visualized that the judge might have a soft corner for Sri Aurobindo. When a judge sifts through hundreds of pages, his conclusion may depend considerably on his subjective interpretation of the evidence. After going through all the material, Mr. Beachcroft concluded that the evidence was not enough to convict Sri Aurobindo; hence, he was acquitted.
The voyage to Pondicherry
Sri Aurobindo now knew the mission of his life, but staying in India would have meant being continuously hounded by the Government, whereas what he needed for his spiritual pursuits was peace. Some of his companions suggested that he go away to France. But then came the divine command that he should go to Pondicherry, which was a French colony, and therefore the British could not easily persecute him there. With the help of his companions, a plan was made for his secret departure, because if the British Government came to know about his leaving the country, he was sure to be intercepted. Although the plan failed due to some human errors, he succeeded in reaching Pondicherry with a few of his companions on 4 April 1910. Or, one might say, the human plan (Plan A) failed; what took him safely to Pondicherry was Plan B prepared by the Divine, because that was the only plan that could take him there undetected by the British Intelligence.
Does the divine intervention make sense?
The Divine intervened by interrupting Sri Aurobindo’s involvement in the freedom struggle by landing him in jail. The Divine intervened by becoming visible and audible to Sri Aurobindo so that he could discover the true mission of his life. The Divine intervened by keeping him in prison as long as it was necessary for him to discover the mission of his life; not a day more, not a day less. The Divine intervened to ensure his acquittal when the purpose for which he had been sent to jail had been accomplished. The Divine intervened to tell him where to go to get the necessary peace for spiritual pursuits. The Divine intervened to work out for him a foolproof plan for sailing to Pondicherry, undetected by the very vigilant British Government. Is there something to justify this rather unusual scale of divine intervention? The justification is that Sri Aurobindo was a unique being who was here on earth with a unique mission for which his surface life had equipped him. He spent fourteen years in the West, and fourteen years in the East, both periods spent, with his razor sharp intellect, on seriously studying, understanding and evaluating both these cultures, and placing them in a historical context and visualizing their roles in the future of the world. Added to this intellectual feat was phenomenal spiritual capacity. This combination is unprecedented in human history, and is unlikely to be repeated in the near future. Such a combination was not created to be battered and bruised by the batons and bullets of the British Police, to languish in jails, and to get incarcerated at the Andaman Islands. Such a combination had come to earth to meet the spiritual hunger of the world.
Was the mission accomplished?
Sri Aurobindo has given to the world spiritual literature, based on the ancient Indian tradition but couched in terms of today’s world, the original of which was written in the English language. In this category of literature, his works remain unsurpassed to this day in both quantity and quality. What he has written, very few can read in a lifetime. His language is not only flawless but also elegant; even his prose reads like poetry. His literature includes translations and extensive brilliant commentaries on the Gita, several Upanishads, and sections from the Vedas; in-depth works on yoga and spiritual philosophy; and Savitri, which may be considered an Upanishad in the English language. He has made a very powerful case for life-affirming spirituality, which can transform human life. Apart from this, he has touched just about every subject under the sun – culture, education, art, history, sociology, psychology, health, science and politics – and he has given every subject that he has touched an inimitable timeless spiritual orientation. Just the literature that he has created would earn him a very special place in the spiritual history of the world. But even more important, although difficult to see, is the work that he did for raising the collective human consciousness so that the world would be a better place to live in.
Why was Sri Aurobindo’s mission important?
It is easier to see today the significance and timing of Sri Aurobindo’s mission than it was a hundred years ago. India is free and, because of the political freedom coupled with the economic progress we have made since independence, today India counts. On the other hand, the West, having achieved phenomenal success in science and technology, and having tried different systems of government and ethical codes such as humanism, has realized that none of these has been able to wipe out evil, injustice, misery and suffering from the world. Having exhausted the possibilities of rationality, the West is now looking for supra-rational spiritual wisdom. Both because India today counts, and because the West needs what India has, the West today has a very high degree of receptivity for ancient Indian spiritual wisdom. And, Sri Aurobindo’s literature offers the best of what the West today needs. Sri Aurobindo had foreseen the limitations of the Western civilization, and the role India was destined to play as the vishwa guru (guru to the world). He has written the best text books on topics that the world wants to learn from India. Sri Aurobindo’s work is no less important for India. For at least about a thousand years, the Indian psyche has been dominated by the idea that spiritual life and worldly life are incompatible with each other. Sri Aurobindo tried hard to drive home the idea that worldly life can be enriched and ennobled by spirituality. Further, in his Ashram at Pondicherry, the Mother demonstrated that transforming worldly life through spirituality is not mere philosophy; it can be given a practical shape.
Sri Aurobindo was an unprecedented combination in history – a perfect synthesis of the East and the West, and had on top of that a remarkable intellect and phenomenal spiritual capacity. He was given these gifts and circumstances by the Divine for a mission which only he could accomplish. Hence, when there was a possibility of his mission getting blocked by his involvement in the freedom struggle, the Divine created the circumstances that would make him discover his true mission, and also the circumstances that would enable him to fulfill it. As the Mother has said, “No human will can finally prevail against the Divine’s Will”.
References / Footnotes
• Sri Aurobindo: Uttarpara Speech. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Ninth Edition, 2006.
• K.R. Srinivasa Iyenger: Sri Aurobindo – A biography and a history. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Fifth Edition, 2006.