Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry 9

In 1917, B. Shiva Rao, a co-worker of Annie Besant, visited Sri Aurobindo. A report of his interview was published in the Hindu of Sunday, May 10, 1959, which we reproduce below:

“The Home-Rule movement was at that time quickly gathering support and vitality mainly as a result of the internments. Some of us who were on the staff of New India went out on trips to build up a campaign of organisation. One of these trips took me to Pondicherry where Sri Aurobindo had made his home after leaving Bengal in 1910. Even in those early days there was an atmosphere of great peace and serenity about him which left on me a deep, enduring impression. He spoke softly, almost in whispers. He thought Mrs. Besant was absolutely right in preaching Home Rule for India, as well as in her unqualified support of the Allies in the first World War against Germany. It was a brief meeting of some minutes’ duration. I believe I saw him again some months later. For twenty-five years I had no sort of contact with him but he was gracious enough to remember me, during Sir Stafford Cripps’ wartime mission to India in 1942. I was surprised one morning when the negotiations were threatening to reach a deadlock (on the transitional arrangements in regard to defence) to receive a message from him for Gandhiji and Sri Nehru: the Cripps’ offer, it was his deliberate view, should be accepted unconditionally by the Congress leaders. It is futile to speculate now what India’s subsequent fate might have been, if the advice of the sage at Pondicherry had been accepted.”

Chandrasekhar, a young scholar of Andhra, first came to Pondicherry probably in 1919. He came again in 1920 and stayed for some time. In 1923 and 1926 he stayed much longer and came into close contact with Sri Aurobindo. Speaking about him, Amrita says in Old Long Since, “Once on my way to Pondicherry I met an Andhra young man, Chandrasekhar Ayya by name. He enquired of me, ‘How can I meet Sri Aurobindo?’ I told him, ‘You may come with me and take your chance.’

“…His first interview with Sri Aurobindo for only five minutes laid the foundation of the priceless things he gleaned in future from Sri Aurobindo.
“A man of intellectual attainments, he was a scholar in Sanskrit and knew English very well… Sri Aurobindo kindled the fire in him.
“…He gave himself entirely to Sri Aurobindo. There grew up steadily an intimacy between them.
“Subramania Bharati learnt the Rig Veda from Sri Aurobindo. Chandrasekhar also studied the Rig Veda with Sri Aurobindo methodically at a particular hour. He studied in this way for two or three years, not by the old traditional commentaries, not in the old style, but in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s own revealing interpretation. I listened to the interpretation with great delight, whenever I could be present.”

Nolini Kanta, Subramania Bharati and Chandrasekhar attended the reading of the Rig Veda regularly. Chandrasekhar’s younger brother, V. Chidanandan, who was then a student of English literature, saw Sri Aurobindo once or twice and sought his advice on his literary studies. He also recorded some of the talks from day to day.

A.B. Purani, who had been reading the Arya and feeling greatly attracted towards Sri Aurobindo, saw him for the first time in December, 1918. We quote a part of Purani’s report of the interview which shows that even in 1918 Sri Aurobindo knew and assured him that the freedom of India would be won by other means than revolutionary activities.

“…he put me questions about my sadhana, spiritual practice. I described my efforts and added: ‘Sadhana is all right, but it is difficult to concentrate on it so long as India is not free’.
“‘Perhaps it may not be necessary to resort to revolutionary activity[1] to free India’, he said.
“‘But without that how is the British Government to go from India?’ I asked him.
“‘That is another question; but if India can be free without revolutionary activity, why should you execute the plan? It is better to concentrate on the Yoga — spiritual development’, he replied.”
“‘But the concentration of my whole being turns towards India’s freedom. It is difficult for me to sleep till that is secured.’
“Sri Aurobindo remained silent for two or three minutes. It was a long pause. Then he said, ‘Suppose an assurance is given to you that India will be free?’
“‘Who can give such an assurance?’ I could feel the echo of doubt and challenge in my own question.
“Again he remained silent for three or four minutes. Then he looked at me and added, ‘Suppose I give you the assurance?’
“I paused for half a minute — considered the question within myself and said, ‘If you give the assurance, I can accept it’.
“‘Then I give you the assurance that India will be free’, he said in a serious tone.
“The question of India’s freedom again arose in my mind, and at the time of taking leave, after I had got up to go, I could not repress the question, — it was a question of life for me — ‘Are you quite sure that India will be free?’
“Sri Aurobindo became very serious. His gaze was fixed at the sky that appeared beyond the window. Then he looked at me and putting his fist on the table, he said:
“‘You can take it from me, it is as certain as the rising of the sun tomorrow. The decree has already gone forth, it may not be long in coming.’
“I bowed down to him. That day in the train after nearly two years I was able at last to sleep soundly. In my mind was fixed for ever the picture of that scene: the two of us standing near the small table, my earnest question, that upward gaze, and that quiet and firm voice with the power in it to shake

the world, that firm fist planted on the table, — the symbol of self-confidence of the divine Truth. There may be rank kali yuga, the Iron Age, in the whole world but it is the great fortune of India that she has sons who know that Truth and have an unshakable faith in it, and can risk their lives for it. In this significant fact is contained the divine destiny of India and of the world.”

Amrita came in 1919 and was permitted to stay with Sri Aurobindo. In 1918 the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms were announced by the British Government. Mrs. Annie Besant wrote to Sri Aurobindo pressing him to express his opinion of the Reforms. In reply Sri Aurobindo sent an article signed “An Indian Nationalist” in which he characterised the Reforms as a “Chinese puzzle” and “a great shadow”.

In 1919 the artist Mukul Chandra De, who later became the Principal of the Calcutta School of Art, came to Pondicherry and drew a portrait of Sri Aurobindo, but it was not successful.

Let us quote a short letter written by Rabindranath Tagore in connection with a review of his novel, The Home and the World, in the November, 1919, issue of The Modern Review. The letter has been recently acquired by us and we quote it only because it throws further light on Rabindranath’s attitude towards Sri Aurobindo.

Shantiniketan
Nov. 30, 1919

Dear Sir,
I have not yet read Jadu Babu’s review of my book, but I feel sure that he could never mean to say that Sri Aurobindo Ghose belongs to the same type of humanity as Sandip of my story. My acquaintance with the literature of our contemporary politics being casual and desultory, I do not, even to this day, definitely know what is the political standpoint of Aurobindo Ghose. But this I positively know that he is a great man, one of the greatest we have and therefore liable to be misunderstood even by his friends. What I myself feel for him is not mere admiration but reverence for his depth of spirituality, his largeness of vision and his literary gifts, extraordinary in imaginative insight and expression. He is a true Rishi and a poet combined, and I still repeat my Namaskar which I offered to him when he was first assailed by the trouble which ultimately made him an exile from the soil of Bengal.

Yous sincerely,
Rabindranath Tagore

In 1920 Joseph Baptista, a barrister of Bombay, wrote to Sri Aurobindo at the instance of Tilak, requesting him to accept the editorship of a paper they wanted to bring out as a mouthpiece of the Nationalist Party which had gained considerable strength under the leadership of Tilak. Sri Aurobindo sent the following reply explaining in detail the nature of the spiritual work he was engaged in and regretting his inability to accede to his request.

Pondicherry, January 5, 1920

Dear Baptista,

Your offer is a tempting one, but I regret that I cannot answer it in the affirmative. It is due to you that I should state explicitly my reasons. In the first place I am not prepared at present to return to British India. This is quite apart from any political obstacle. I understand that up to last September the Government of Bengal (and probably the Government of Madras also) were opposed to my return to British India and that practically this opposition meant that if I went back I should be interned or imprisoned under one or other of the beneficent Acts which are apparently still to subsist as helps in ushering in the new era of trust and co-operation. I do not suppose other Governments would any more be delighted by my appearance in their respective provinces. Perhaps the King’s Proclamation may make a difference, but that is not certain, since, as I read it, it also does not mean an amnesty, but an act of gracious concession and benevolence limited by the discretion of the Viceroy. Now I have too much work on my hands to waste my time in the leisured ease of an involuntary Government guest. But even if I were assured of an entirely free action and movement, I should yet not go just now. I came to Pondicherry in order to have freedom and tranquillity for a fixed object having nothing to do with present politics — in which I have taken no direct part since my coming here, though what I could do for the country in my own way I have constantly done, — and until it is accomplished, it is not possible for me to resume any kind of public activity. But if I were in British India, I should be obliged to plunge at once into action of different kinds. Pondicherry is my place of retreat, my cave of tapasya, not of the ascetic kind, but of a brand of my own invention. I must finish that, I must be internally armed and equipped for my work before I leave it.

Next, in the matter of the work itself, I do not at all look down on politics or political action or consider I have got above them. I have always laid a dominant stress and I now lay an entire stress on the spiritual life, but my idea of spirituality has nothing to do with ascetic withdrawal or contempt or disgust of secular things. There is to me nothing secular, all human activity is for me a thing to be included in a complete spiritual life, and the importance of politics at the present time is very great. But my line and intention of political activity would differ considerably from anything now current in the field. I entered into political action and continued it from 1903 to 1910 with one aim and one alone, to get into the mind of the people a settled will for freedom and the necessity of a struggle to achieve it in place of the futile ambling Congress methods till then in vogue. That is now done and the Amritsar Congress is the seal upon it. The will is not as practical and compact nor by any means as organised and sustained in action as it should be, but there is the will and plenty of strong and able leaders to guide it. I consider that in spite of the inadequacy of the Reforms the will to self-determination, if the country keeps its present temper, as I have no doubt it will, is bound to prevail before long. What preoccupies me now is the question what it is going to do with its self-determination, how will it use its freedom, on what lines is it going to determine its future?

You may ask why not come out and help, myself, so far as I can, in giving a lead? But my mind has a habit of running inconveniently ahead of the times, — some might say, out of time altogether into the world of the ideal. Your party, you say, is going to be a social democratic party. Now I believe in something which might be called social democracy, but not in any of the forms now current, and I am not altogether in love with the European kind, however great an improvement it may be on the past. I hold that India having a spirit of her own and a governing temperament proper to her own civilisation, should in politics as in everything else strike out her own original path and not stumble in the wake of Europe. But this is precisely what she will be obliged to do, if she has to start on the road in her present chaotic and unprepared condition of mind. No doubt people talk of India developing on her own lines, but nobody seems to have very clear or sufficient ideas as to what those lines are to be. In this matter I have formed ideals and certain definite ideas of my own, in which at present very few are likely to follow me; since they are governed by an uncompromising spiritual idealism of an unconventional kind and would be unintelligible to many and an offence and stumbling-block to a great number. But I have not as yet any clear and full idea of the practical lines; I have no formed programme. In a word, I am feeling my way in my mind and am not ready for either propaganda or action. Even if I were, it would mean for some time ploughing my lonely furrow or at least freedom to take my own way. As the editor of your paper, I shall be bound to voice the opinion of others and reserve my own, and while I have full sympathy with the general ideas of the advanced parties so far as concerns the action of the present moment and, if I were in the field would do all I could to help them, I am almost incapable by nature of limiting myself in that way, at least to the extent that would be requisite.

Excuse the length of this screed. I thought it necessary to explain fully so as to avoid giving you the impression that I declined your request from any affectation or reality of spiritual aloofness or wish to shirk the call of the country or want of sympathy with the work you and others are so admirably doing. I repeat my regret that I am compelled to disappoint you.

Yours sincerely,
Aurobindo Ghose

The Mother came again on April 24, 1920 and settled in India. She knew that her work was the same as Sri Aurobindo’s and that their collaboration was the secret of its success. At first she stayed at Magrie’s Hotel, then at Subbu’s Hotel in Rue St. Louis, and from there she moved to 1, Rue St. Martin. While she was staying at this house, one day there was a great storm and heavy rain and the old house was considered unsafe to live in. Sri Aurobindo advised her to move to his own house, 41, Rue François Martin where she remained till October, 1922, when they all moved finally to the building in 9, Rue de la Marine which is the present Ashram building.

A few memorable interviews that took place in 1920 are noted below:

W.W. Pearson came from Shantiniketan and met the Mother.
James H. Cousins came and met Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Dr. Munje came and stayed with Sri Aurobindo. He had long talks with the Master on political subjects.
Sarala Devi Choudhurani came sometime in 1920 or later and had an interview with Sri Aurobindo.
Colonel Joshua Wedgewood, an English M.P., visited Sri Aurobindo.


[1] Purani had told Sri Aurobindo that they were prepared to start executing their plan of the revolutionary work.

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