Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 14 “Life in Alipore Jail”

“The Indians, as the discerning Mahratta leader (Tilak) rightly observes, possess many good and amiable traits of character but the manly side of it has of late been not much in evidence. It is no doubt a little curious how contrary to all our traditions we have been carrying into practice the doctrine of turning the left cheek while smitten on the right, while those who are to accept it as the only one rule of their conduct have become most pushing, aggressive and militant. It is an irony of fate that we have been violating the teachings of our own sacred books and going contrary to the dictates of our sages while other races seem to have fully realised their importance and made them their guiding principle in life. The most practical teaching of the Gita and one for which it is of abiding interest and value to the men of the world with whom life is a series of struggles is not to give way to any morbid sentimentality when duty demands sternness and boldness to face terrible things. …In asking our people to cultivate national virtues, Tilak only wants them to be animated by a strong and overmastering feeling for their own flesh and blood, kith and kin who are fast deteriorating and will soon be extinct as a nation if the present selfish and peace-at-any-price tendencies are not at once stopped.”

Bande Mataram — 29-9-1907[1]

“On the 1st May, 1908, while I was sitting in the office of the Bande Mataram, Sj. Shyamsundar Chakravarty handed me a wire from Muzaffarpore. I read in it that a bomb had exploded at Muzaffarpore and two European ladies had been killed. On that very day, I read further in the Empire that the Police Commissioner had said that we knew who were in this murder plot and that they would soon be arrested. I did not know then that I was the main target of their suspicion, I the arch-murderer, according to the police, and the guide and secret leader of the young revolutionary nationalists. I did not know that that day was the last page of a chapter of my life, that there lay before me the prospect of a year’s imprisonment, that for that period all my connection with the world would be cut off, and that I had to live like a caged beast for one whole year outside the pale of human society. When I should return to my field of work, it would not be the same old, familiar Aurobindo Ghose, but a new man, coming out of the Alipore Ashram, with a new character, a new intellect, a new heart, and a new mind, and with the burden of a new work upon him. I have said, it was a year-long imprisonment, I should have said, it was a year-long life in a forest, a year-long life in an Ashram. I had endeavoured hard and long for a direct vision and realisation of Narayana, who dwells in my heart, and cherished an intense hope of winning Purushottama, the Creator of the universe, as my Friend and Master. But I could not succeed on account of the pull of a thousand worldly desires, attachments to various activities, and the dense obscurity of ignorance. At last Sri Hari, who is infinitely kind and gracious, slew those enemies at a stroke and cleared my path, pointed to an abode of Yoga, and Himself stayed there with me as my Guru (spiritual Guide) and intimate Comrade. That Ashram or hermitage was a British prison…. The only fruit of the scowl of the British Government was that I realised God…

“On Friday night I was sleeping a reposeful sleep when at about five in the morning, my sister rushed into my room in a terror and called me up by my name. I awoke. In a moment the small room was filled with armed policemen. It was a motley crowd including Superintendent Craegan, Mr. Clark of the Twenty-four Parganas, the graceful and delightful figure of the well-known Sri Binode Kumar Gupta, some Inspectors, and a number of policemen, detectives and witnesses to the search. Pistols in hand, they dashed forward in a gesture of heroic challenge, as if they had come to storm a well-guarded fortress. I sat up, still half asleep, when Mr. Craegan asked me: ‘Where is Aravinda Ghose, is it you?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I am Aravinda Ghose.’ At once he ordered a policeman to arrest me. Then a very uncivil expression used by Mr. Craegan led to a short passage-at-arms between us. I asked him to produce the search warrant, which I read and signed. I understood from the mention of bombs in the warrant that the appearance of the police army was in connection with the Muzaffarpore murder…. Immediately, at Craegan’s order I was handcuffed and a cord of rope was tied round my waist, and a Hindu constable stood behind me holding the rope…. Craegan asked me: ‘You are a graduate, aren’t you? Isn’t it shameful for an educated man like you to sleep on the floor of such a bare room in such a poky house?’ ‘I am poor, and I live like a poor man’, I answered. Sharp banged the riposte of the Englishman: ‘Was it then for becoming rich that you have staged this ghastly tragedy?’ Thinking that it was hardly possible to make this thick-headed Englishman understand the greatness of patriotism, self-sacrifice, or the discipline of self-inflicted poverty, I desisted from the effort.

“It (the search) began at five in the morning and ended at about eleven-thirty…. At about eleven-thirty we set out from home…. Benode Babu was commissioned to take us to the police station…. Taking our bath and meal, we started for Lalbazar. After making us wait there for several hours, they took us to Royd Street, and we passed the time at that auspicious place till the evening. At Royd Street I first came to know and strike up a friendship with the reputed detective, Moulvi Shams-Ul-Alam. The reverend Moulvi treated me to a very delicious lecture on religion. ‘Hinduism and Islam have the same cardinal doctrines, the three letters, A U M of the Hindus (Aum), and the first three letters of the Koran, A La Am are the same, for, according to philological rules, U is used instead of La. So, Hinduism and Islam have the same basic creed…. To be truthful in speech is also a principal part of religion. It is a matter of great sorrow and shame for India that English officials allege that Aravinda Ghose is the leader of a gang of murderers. But if one can stick to truth, the situation can yet be saved.’ The Moulvi confessed to his conviction that high-minded men like Bepin Pal and Aravinda Ghose were sure to make a clean breast of whatever they have done…. I was amazed and pleased at his erudition, intelligence and keen religious sense. Thinking that it would be sheer presumption on my part to talk much, I docilely listened to his invaluable precept and stamped it carefully upon my heart…. But drunk with such a strong religious fervour as he was, he never gave up his post of a detective….

“We (Sailen and I) were kept together in a first floor big room at Lalbazar police station. A slight refection did duty for a meal. Presently two Englishmen entered the room, one of whom, as I learnt later, was the Police Commissioner, Mr. Haliday himself. On seeing us both together, Mr. Haliday flew out at the Sergeant and, referring to me, warned him that nobody should be allowed to stay or speak with me. Instantly, Sailen was whisked away into another room and shut in. And when all had left, Mr. Haliday asked me: ‘Don’t you feel ashamed to have been involved in this dastardly misdeed?’ ‘What right have you to assume that I was involved?’ Haliday replied: ‘I did not assume, I know everything.’ ‘You know best what you know or don’t know. I totally deny having had anything to do with this murder’, I said. Haliday held his peace.

“From Mr. Thornhill’s Court, we were driven to Alipore…. We had to wait there in the Magistrate’s Court, but we were not produced before the Magistrate, only his written order was brought from inside the Court…. We were then removed from the Court and handed over to the officers of the jail. We were given a bath before we entered the jail and dressed in jail uniforms, and our underwears, shirts and dhutis[2] were taken away for a wash. To have a bath after four days was, indeed, a heavenly delight. The bath over, they escorted everybody to the room assigned to him, and I, too, entered my lonely cell. The grating of the cell closed. My prison-life began on 5th May. I was released the next year on 6th May….

“My solitary cell was nine feet by five. It had no windows, only there was a big iron grating in front. This was the cage assigned to me.

“Having favoured us with such lodgings, our kind-hearted authorities, in their solicitude for the entertainment of their guests, left nothing to be desired in the matter of its furniture. The courtyard was adorned with a dish and a bowl. If polished well, this dish and this bowl, my sole possession, would put on such a silvery sheen that my heart felt gladdened and refreshed. But the only trouble was that the very sight of my joy would send the dish into such transports of rapture that at a slight pressure of my finger, it would start pirouetting like the whirling Dervish of Arabia. I had, then, no go but to hold the dish with one hand and eat with the other. Otherwise, in its giddy whirligig, it would scuttle with the handful of incomparable food supplied in the jail. The bowl was even dearer and more useful than the dish. It was, as it were, a Civilian among the material objects. As the Civilian has a natural aptitude and skill for all jobs — he has only to be asked and he can at once become a judge, an administrator, a policeman, the head of the Revenue department, the mayor of a municipality, a teacher, a religious preceptor, and what not — and as it is very easy for him to combine in himself in a friendly alliance in a single body and at the same time the roles of an investigator, complainant, police judge, and even sometimes a barrister for the plaintiff, so was it for my bowl. It had no caste, no scruples. I performed my ablutions, washed my mouth and took my bath from it, and afterwards, at meal-time, soup of pulses and curry were served in it. I drank water and rinsed my mouth and washed my hands from it. It was possible only in a British jail to have such a precious factotum of an article. Besides ministering to my worldly needs, the bowl came to be a means of my Yoga or spiritual discipline. Where could I have found such a helper and instructor in my efforts to get rid of hatred?… I know that in some parts of Europe it is considered a component of civilised custom to have the water-closet adjacent to one’s bedroom, but to have in a small cell, bedroom, dining room and water-closet all together — well, this is called too much of a good thing. We, superstitious Indians, find it very difficult to attain to such a high level of civilisation.

“…As a result of my long and desperate struggles with thirst, I succeeded in achieving freedom from it. In this furnace of a cell, I had two jail-made coarse rugs as an apology for a bedding…. When heat would be unbearable, I would roll on the ground to cool my body, and felt relieved. I realised, then, how very pleasant is the touch of the mother earth. But in a jail even this touch was not very soft…. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, my cage would be flooded after the bacchanal of high winds laden with swirling dirt, dry leaves and straw. I could not, then, help escaping into a corner with my damp rugs and take shelter there for the night….

“…It is true that the causes of hardship, which I have pointed out, were there, but thanks to the kindly grace of the Divine, it was not for long that I suffered from them…. For, after a short while, I got beyond the sense of hardship and discomfort and became immune to suffering. That is why when the memory of my jail-life recurs to my mind, it occasions a smile rather than anger or grief….

“…I learnt the remarkable lesson of love in my solitary imprisonment at Alipore. Before I had gone there, my personal love even for men was confined within a very narrow circle, and the dammed up tide of my love for birds and beasts had hardly ever had a chance to flow out freely. I remember that in a poem written by Rabindranath the profound love of a village boy for buffalo is very beautifully depicted. At the first reading, I could not at all appreciate it; I found in it faults of exaggeration and unnaturalness in the portrayal of the feeling. If I read it again now, I should regard it with different eyes. At Alipore I realised what a deep love for all creatures might dwell in a human heart and how, at the sight of cows, birds, and even ants, it might thrill with a sudden burst of keen delight!…

“…For some days in this solitary imprisonment I had to go without books or such other things which are the usual means of beguiling one’s time. Afterwards, Mr. Emerson came and gave me permission to obtain my clothes and books from home…. I requested my respected maternal uncle, the famous editor of the Sanjivani, to send my clothes and some books including the Gita and’ the Upanishad. I received the two books (the Gita and the Upanishad) in three or four days. Meanwhile I had ample opportunity to realise the crucial significance of solitary confinement. I realised why even a sound and well-poised intelligence soon goes to pieces and tumbles into lunacy in such an imprisonment, and I realised, too, how, in this very condition one finds a rare opportunity for experiencing God’s infinite grace and attaining union with Him…. God, who is All-Good, turns even evil into supreme good. The third purpose[3] (for which he took me to Alipore jail) was to teach me that my personal efforts would avail nothing in my Yoga, that faith and total self-surrender alone were the means of attaining spiritual perfection, and that the only object of my aspiration for union (Yoga) was to use for His work whatever power, perfection or divine bliss (Ananda) He would vouchsafe to me in His grace. From that day onward the thick darkness of ignorance began to thin, and from that day on I have been realising the infinite goodness of the All-Good God in all my observation of the happenings of the world. Nothing happens — whether it is something momentous or the most insignificant — but contributes to some good. Often He serves several purposes through a single act. Many a time we see the play of a blind force in the world and, denying God’s omniscience, find fault with His divine Intelligence on the assumption that waste is the rule of Nature. But that is a groundless complaint. The Divine Force never works blindly, and there cannot be one jot or tittle of waste in Her dispensation; rather, it passes human understanding with what supreme control and little expenditure She produces plentiful results….”[4]


[1] “This non-violence, therefore, seems to me to be due mainly to our helplessness. It almost appears as if we are nursing in our bosoms the desire to take revenge the first time we get the opportunity. Can true, voluntary non-violence come out of this seeming, forced non-violence of the weak? Is it not a futile experiment I am conducting? What if, when the fury burst, not a man, woman or child is safe and every man’s hand is raised against his neighbour?” — Mahatma Gandhi (quoted in “A Bend in the Ganges” by Manohar Malgonkar)

[2] A long piece of cloth worn round the loins by males.

[3] He has also written about the first two purposes; but we omit them for want of space.

[4] A free English rendering of some sentences culled almost at random from Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali book, Kara Kahini (The Story of My Prison-Life), which has long been out of print.

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