Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry 3

As he mounts from peak to peak… Indra brings consciousness of That as the goal.

Rig Veda, 1.10.2

For the first few years of Sri Aurobindo’s stay at Pondicherry, life was rather hard on account of a chronic paucity of funds. Food was scanty and inadequately nutritious. Except Sri Aurobindo all slept on the floor on mats. There was no servant, and since they moved to the rented house in Rue Suffren[1] cooking had to be done by the four young men. The furniture of the house consisted of one table and two chairs only. One towel served them all with exemplary faithfulness. But these hardships failed to affect Sri Aurobindo in the least. Ascetic austerity for its own sake was always repugnant to Sri Aurobindo, but he encountered life’s problems and trials as well as the difficulties and hazards of his spiritual adventure with his characteristic firmness and equanimity.

Motilal Roy of Chandernagore came to Pondicherry in 1911 and noticed the financial difficulty in which Sri Aurobindo was living. He has referred to it in his Bengali book, Amar Jivan Sangini (My Life’s Partner). He also quotes from a letter written to him by Sri Aurobindo: “The situation just now is that we have four annas or so in hand.” He quotes from another letter: “…I am not quite sure about the cash and still less sure about the sufficiency of the amount. No doubt God will provide, but He has contracted a bad habit of waiting till the last moment. I only hope He does not wish us to learn how to live on a minus quantity like B….”[2]

In April 1911 Sri Aurobindo moved with his associates from Rue Suffren to a house in Rue St. Louis and lived there till April, 1913. This house is now called Raghavan House.

Before we proceed with our narrative it would be useful to have a clear idea of the civic life of Pondicherry at the time when Sri Aurobindo settled in it and the dangers and hardships to which he was exposed. There cannot be a more authentic record than the Reminiscences of Nolini Kanta Gupta who was all along with Sri Aurobindo from November, 1910, onwards except for two or three short spells of absence, and we reproduce long extracts from it.

“Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry and took shelter here. We might say of course from another point of view that it was he who gave shelter to Pondicherry within his own consciousness. But why this city in particular? There is indeed the usual view that he retired into French territory to escape the wrath of the British bureaucracy. But actually, all he wanted was to find a quiet spot where he might give himself to his own work undisturbed.

“The place was so quiet that we can hardly imagine now what it was really like. It was not quiet, it was actually dead; they used to call it a dead city. There was hardly any traffic, particularly in the area where we lived, and after dusk there was not a soul stirring. It is no wonder they should say, “Sri Aurobindo has fixed upon a cemetery for his sadhana.”

“It was a cemetery indeed. Whilst the Indian nationalist movement had been flooding the whole country, nothing of that regenerating flood could find an entry here, except for one or two individuals who had felt a touch. It was like a backwater of the sea, a stagnant pool by the shore. There was here no such thing as public life or youth movement or any kind of collective effort, or an experiment in educational reform, — there was no sign whatsoever of an awakening to life.

“A cemetery it was no doubt, but one with its full complement of ghouls.

“In the first rank of these ghouls were the ruffian bands. Such creatures can appear only in a highly tamasic environment. For, the greater the depth of inertia the more is the need for keen rajasic excitement followed immediately by the silence of sleep. Pondicherry of those days had a still more notorious reputation for its cheap wine-shops and its rowdy tipsies. Of this type of ghouls there was a regular invasion from outside every week-end.

“The ruffian bands — known locally as “bandes” in French — were a peculiar institution now almost broken up. The French regime in Pondicherry was supposed to be in theory a reign of liberty, equality and fraternity. But in actual fact, it was the feudalism of pre-Revolution France that held sway here. Or perhaps it was something worse, namely, the arbitrary rule of three or four high officials and rich men of ill-gotten means. The “bandes” were in their pay and they were there to do their bidding; the police had neither the will nor the power to intervene. On certain occasions, during the campaigns for political elections, complete anarchy seemed to reign in Pondicherry, while rioting and murder continued for days on end and blood flowed freely. People would not dare stir out of their houses, especially after dark. We were not openly involved in politics, but some of our friends were. And Sri Aurobindo would sometimes send out some of us to meet them, even after nightfall and on purpose. The local people marvelled at our dauntless courage.

“These ruffian bands — these ghouls I was going to say — turned against us too on more than one occasion. Let me explain in a little more detail.

“Soon after Sri Aurobindo came, he realised that a firm seat must be established here, an unshakable foundation for his sadhana and siddhi, for the path and the goal. He was to build up on the ever-shifting sands of the shore a firm and strong edifice, a Temple of God. Have we not read in the Puranas and other scriptures that whenever and wherever a sage or a Rishi sat down to his meditation and sadhana, there rushed upon him at once a host of evil spirits to break up his work? They seemed to have a special liking for the flesh of the Rishis.

“Those who tried most to stop Sri Aurobindo from settling down and were ever on the alert to move him from his seat were the British authorities. The British Government in India could never accept that Sri Aurobindo had come away to French territory for carrying on his Yoga. Religion and spirituality, these to them were a mere subterfuge. They thought they knew what Sri Aurobindo was — the one most dangerous man in all India, the source of all the trouble. Pondicherry was the place from where were supplied the necessary instructions and advice and perhaps even the pistols and other weapons. Here was the brain-centre of the Indian independence movement. That Sri Aurobindo had been the main-spring of Indian independence they had been told by their life-instinct, although the superficial sense in which they understood it was not, obviously, the whole truth.”

“…force having failed they now tried fraud. An attempt was made to frame a trumped-up charge at law. Some of the local “ghouls” were made to help forge the documents — some photographs and maps and charts along with a few letters — which were to prove that we had been engaged in a conspiracy for dacoity and murder. The papers were left in a well in the compound of one of our men, then they were “discovered” after a search by the police. The French police had even entered Sri Aurobindo’s residence for a search. But when their Chief found there were Latin and Greek books lying about on his desk, he was so taken aback that he could only blurt out, “II sait du latin, il sait du grec!” — “He knows Latin, he knows Greek!” — and then he left with all his men.[3] How could a man who knew Latin and Greek ever commit any mischief?

“In fact, the French Government had not been against us, indeed they helped us as far as they could. We were looked upon as their guests; and as political refugees, it was a matter of honour for them to give us their protection. And where it is a question of honour, the French as a race are willing to risk anything: they still fight duels in France on a point of honour. But at the same time, they had their friendship, the entente cordiale, with Britain to maintain, and it is this that got them into a dilemma.”

*

“In addition to force and fraud, the British Government did not hesitate to make use of temptation as well. They sent word to Sri Aurobindo which they followed up by a messenger, to say that if he were to return to British India, they would not mind. They would indeed be happy to provide him with a nice bungalow in the quiet surroundings of a hill station, Darjeeling,[4] where he could live in complete freedom and devote himself to his spiritual practices without let or hindrance. Needless to add, this was an ointment spread out to catch a fly and Sri Aurobindo refused the invitation with a “No, thank you.”

“Afterwards came a more serious attack, perhaps the one most fraught with danger. The First World War was on. India had been seething with discontent and things were not going too well abroad on the European front. The British Government now brought pressure on the French: they must do something drastic about their political refugees. Either they should hand them over to the British, or else let them be deported out of India.[5] The French Government accordingly proposed that they would find room for us in Algeria. There we could live in peace; they would see to our passage so that we need have no worry on that score. If on the other hand we were to refuse this offer, there might be danger: the British authorities might be allowed to seize us forcibly.

“I can recall very well that scene. Sri Aurobindo was seated in his room in what was later called “Guest House”, Rue François Martin. We too had come. Two or three of the Tamil nationalist leaders who had sought refuge in Pondicherry came in and told Sri Aurobindo about the Algeria offer and also gave a hint that they were agreeable. Sri Aurobindo paused a little and then he said, in a quiet clear tone, “I do not budge from here.” To them this came as a bolt from the blue; they had never expected anything like this. In Algeria there would be freedom and peace, whereas here we lived in constant danger and uncertainty. But now they were helpless. Sri Aurobindo had spoken and they could hardly act otherwise. They had no alternative but to accept the decision, though with a heavy heart.”

*

“In those days there was in the College de France in Pondicherry a French professor named Jouveau Dubreuil — later on he became quite a well-known name — who had been engaged in research in ancient history and archaeology. We knew him quite well. He was at that time working on the early history of Pondicherry. From a study of the ancient documents and inscriptions he discovered that the city of Pondicherry, which I have called the city of the dead, had at one time been known as a city of the Veda, Veda-puri. That is to say, it was a centre of Vedic learning. And this Vedic college, our professor found from ancient maps and other clues, was located exactly on the spot where the main building of our Ashram now stands.

“According to ancient tradition, the Rishi Agastya came to the South to spread the Vedic lore and the Aryan discipline. His seems to have been the first project for the infusion of Aryan culture into the Dravidian civilisation.”

*

“I have said that this cemetery that was Pondicherry had been infested by ghouls and goblins. These had a special category known ordinarily as spies…. These (British) government spies tried to collect information as to who came to our houses, who were the people who met us, what places we frequented and how our guests spent their time. That was why Motilal (Motilal Roy of the Pravartak group in Chandernagor) when he first came to Pondicherry had to come dressed as an Anglo-Indian, and he never entered our house, the Raghavan house of today, except by the back door and under cover of darkness after nightfall.”

*

“The British Indian police set up a regular station here, with a rented house and several permanent men. They were of course plain-clothes men, for they had no right to wear uniform within French territory. They kept watch, as I have said, both on our visitors as well as ourselves. Soon they got into the habit of sitting on the pavement round the corner next to our house in groups of three or four. They chatted away the whole day and only now and again took down something in their notebooks. What kind of notes they took we found out later on when, after India had become independent and the French had left, some of these notes could be secured from the Police files and the confidential records of Government. Strange records these: the police gave reports all based on pure fancy, they made up all sorts of stories at their sweet will. As they found it difficult to gather correct and precise information, they would just fabricate the news.”[6]

In the Raghavan house in St. Louis Street, Sri Aurobindo’s birthday was celebrated on the 15th August. “Some local people, Sada, Pitrus, David and four others, besides the members of the house, took part in the celebration. Sri Aurobindo sat in a chair in the outer verandah of the new house and all those who had come passed one by one in front of him. Some sweets were distributed.”[7]

Immune against all hostile force, fraud and blandishment and led by the Divine Light, Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga rushed on like a torrential stream bounding over rocks that threatened to impede its course.

We have seen that Sri Aurobindo was in a state of total surrender to the Mother when he was staying at Chandernagore. On being asked by Motilal Roy, he explained and even demonstrated to him what his surrender meant. This surrender led to an identification with the Mother, which is evidenced by his signing his letters to Motilal Roy from Pondicherry as Kali. It was, in fact, a development of the Krishna-Kali experience he had in Alipore jail.


[1] Then called Rue du Pavillon.
[2] Life of Sri Aurobindo by A.B. Purani.
[3] M. Nandot, the investigating magistrate, invited Sri Aurobindo to meet him in his chambers and he complied.
[4] “Lord Carmichael sent somebody to persuade me to return and settle somewhere in Darjeeling and discuss philosophy with him. I refused the offer.” — Talks with Sri Aurobindo by Nirodbaran.
[5] “Lord Minto said that he could not rest his head on his pillow until he had crushed Aurobindo Ghose. He feared that I would start the Revolutionary Movement again, and assassinations were going on at that time.” — Talks with Sri Aurobindo by Nirodbaran.
[6] Published in Mother India, December 1961 and April 1962.
[7] Life of Sri Aurobindo by A.B. Purani.

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