Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 15

“Her (India’s) mission is to point back humanity to the true source of human liberty, human equality, human brotherhood. When man is free in spirit, all other freedom is at his command; for the Free is the Lord who cannot be bound. When he is liberated from delusion, he perceives the divine equality of the world which fulfils itself through love and justice, and this perception transfuses itself into the law of government and society. When he has perceived this divine equality, he is brother to the whole world, and in whatever position he is placed he serves all men as his brothers by the law of love, by the law of justice. When this perception becomes the basis of religion, of philosophy, of social speculation and political aspiration, then will liberty, equality and fraternity take their place in the structure of society and the Satya Yuga return. This is the Asiatic reading of democracy which India must rediscover for herself before she can give it to the world…. It has been said that Democracy is based on the rights of man; it has been replied that it should rather take its stand on the duties of man; but both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of Democracy which Asia must recognise, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe. Through Dharma the Asiatic evolution fulfils itself; this is her secret.

Bande Mataram — 22-3-1908.

“…During my solitary imprisonment, Dr. Dally and the Deputy Superintendent, who was also an Englishman, used to visit me almost daily and spend sometime in a friendly chat. I do not know why, from the very beginning, I was able to get their favour and sympathy. I hardly ever spoke much with them, I only replied to their questions. Either I listened silently to the topic raised by them or stopped after saying a word or two. Yet they never ceased visiting me. One day Dr. Dally told me: ‘I have succeeded in securing the consent of the Superintendent through the Deputy Superintendent, so that you can walk every morning and afternoon in front of the Degree. I don’t like that you should remain cooped up in a small room throughout the day; it is unhealthy both for the mind and the body.’ From that day I used to walk morning and evening in the open space in front of the Degree…. I had a good time then. On one side there was the jail factory, and, on the other, the cowshed — these were the two boundaries of my free territory. While strolling from the factory to the cowshed and from the cowshed to the factory, I would either recite the profoundly evocative mantras of the Upanishads, which fill one with inexhaustible strength, or, observing the movements and the goings and comings of the prisoners, try to realise the fundamental truth that Narayana is in the heart of every creature and thing. Mentally repeating the mantra that all this (universal existence) — trees, houses, walls, men, animals, birds, metals, earth etc. — is verily the Brahman, I would project that realisation upon every thing and creature. This would induce such a state that the prison ceased to be a prison. The high enclosure, the iron grating, the white walls, the sunlit tree decked in green leaves, the common material things no more appeared as inanimate; I felt as if they had become alive with an all-pervading consciousness, as if they loved me and were eager to enfold me in their embrace. Men, cows, ants, birds were moving about, flying, singing, talking, but they all appeared to be a play of Nature, and within me a great, pure, detached Self was felt as immersed in a peaceful bliss. Sometimes I felt that God Himself stood at the foot of that tree for playing a mellifluous tune on His flute and drawing my heart out by that sweet music. Always I felt as if someone was embracing me, someone was cradling me on his lap. I cannot describe what transcendent peace possessed my mind and heart at the development of this inner state. The hard crust of my heart burst open and a love for all creatures flowed forth in a steady stream. Along with love, sattwic feelings like kindness, compassion, non-injury (ahimsa) etc. overpowered my rajas-ridden (active and impassioned) nature and began to grow apace. And the more they developed, the more increased my inner joy and deeper became the sense of a pure tranquillity. Worries about the police case had already disappeared, and a contrary feeling came to settle in my mind. I became firmly convinced that God being All-Good, he had brought me to the prison for nothing but my good, and that my release and acquittal were certain. After this for many a long day I did not feel the hardships of the prison-life — I had become immune to them…

“…Let me say something about the adolescent accused who were my companions in that adversity. By observing their conduct in the Court, I came to realise that a new age had dawned on Bengal and a new generation of children had begun to live on the Mother’s (motherland’s) lap…. The Bengalees had intelligence and talent, but lacked in strength and manlinesss. But at the very sight of these boys I felt that the large-hearted, powerful, spirited men of some other ages, educated in other ways, had come back to India. That fearless, candid look, that virile manner of speech, that carefree, joyous laughter, and, even in that dire misfortune, that undimmed spiritedness, that serenity of the mind, that absence of depression, anxiety or grief were foreign to the nature of the spiritless, spineless Indians of that generation — they signalised the advent of a new race and a new current of energetic action. If they were murderers, it must be said that the bloody shadow of murder had not fallen upon their nature; they did not know what were cruelty, rabid wildness or bestiality. Without feeling the least anxiety for the future or the result of the case, they spent their time in the jail in boyish merrymaking and laughter and play, or in reading and discussions. They had very soon made friends with the officers of the jail, sepoys, prisoners, the European sergeant, the detectives, and the officers of the Court, and indulged in amusements, chitchat and pleasantry with all of them without making any distinction between friends and foes, high and low. The session-time of the Court was very unpleasant to them, for; in the farce of the case they had very little interest…. What struck one as rather strange and astonishing was that, even during the trial in which the fate and future of thirty or forty persons hung in the balance, and the outcome of which might be the scaffold or transportation for life, the accused were perfectly unconcerned, some of them absorbed in reading Bankim Chandra’s novels, some Raja Yoga, or the Science of Religion by Vivekananda, and some the Gita, the Puranas and Western Philosophy….”

“Prison and Freedom”

“Man is a slave to outer circumstances, bound to his experiences of the physical world. All his mental operations proceed on the basis of those outer experiences, and even his intelligence cannot get beyond the narrow limits of the gross. His feelings of pleasure and pain are but the echoes of outer happenings. This slavery is due to the overmastering sway of the body…. However much we may accuse the West of materialism, in point of fact, all men are materialists. The body is only a means of fulfilling the inherent, spiritual law of our nature, our chariot drawn by many horses, the chariot we ride in order to drive through the world. But we submit to the illegitimate dominance of the body and give so much indulgence to our sense of the body being our soul that we become prisoners of the outer act and its apparent good and evil. The fruit of this ignorance is lifelong slavery…. The body is the prison….

“This captivity is the perpetual state of the human race. On the other hand, we see on every page of literature and history evidences of the irrepressible ardour and endeavour of humanity to regain its freedom. As in the sphere of politics or society, so in individual life, this effort continues from age to age. Self-control, self-repression, renunciation of pleasure and pain, Stoicism, Epicureanism, asceticism, Vedanta, Buddhism, Monism, Mayavada, Rajayoga, Hatha-yoga, the Gita, the paths of knowledge, devotion and work — these are different ways to the same goal. The aim is the conquest of the body, the shaking off of the dominance of the gross, the freedom of the inner life…. The real difference between an animal and a man is this, that the animal state is a complete submission to the slavery of the body, and the evolution of manhood consists in the endeavour to conquer the body and regain freedom. This freedom is the principal object of religion, it is this that is called mukti or liberation….

“In the modern age we stand at the crossing of the old and the new. Man is ever advancing towards his goal. Sometimes he has to leave the plains and climb to the heights, and during these times of ascent, revolutions in politics, society, religion, and knowledge take place. In the present time, there is a great effort to climb from the gross to the subtle. Thanks to the minute investigation of the material world and the determination of its laws by the Western scientists, the plains surrounding the path of the ascent have been cleared. The savants of the West are taking the first step into the immense kingdom of the subtle world, and many of them are allured by the hope of the conquest of that kingdom. Besides, there are other signs discernible like the spread of theosophy within a short space of time, the appreciation of the Vedanta in America, the indirect and incipient dominance of India on the philosophy and thought of the West etc. But the supreme sign is the sudden resurgence of India, which has surpassed all expectation. Indians are rising to conquer their place of the Guru of the world and inaugurate a new age….

“How true is all this I realised first in the Alipore jail…. I, too, (like Bepin Chandra Pal) understood in the Alipore jail this essential truth of Hinduism, and for the first time realised Narayana, the Supreme Divine, in the human bodies of thieves, robbers and murderers….”[1]

Upendranath Bandyopadhyaya, a co-accused in the Alipore Bomb Case, has given a graphic pen-picture in his Bengali book, Nirvasiter Atmakatha[2] of how Sri Aurobindo lived in the Alipore Jail. We give below a free English rendering of some lines from it.

“…In the midst of this noise and wrangles, Aurobindo Babu sat absolutely silent and immobile…. We were not supplied with hair oil, but we noticed that Aurobindo Babu’s hair looked glossy. One day I made bold to ask him: ‘Do you use hair oil in your bath?’ It took my breath away when he told me that he did not take his bath. ‘Then how does your hair shine so much?’, I enquired. ‘Along with my progress in sadhana (yogic practice), certain changes are taking place in my body. My hair draws fat from my body.’… Sitting in the dock, I observed that Aurobindo Babu’s eyes had a fixed stare, as if they were eyes of glass. They were unwinking, unmoving. I had read somewhere that this was a sign of a stilled mind. I pointed it out to one or two persons, but none dared ask Aurobindo Babu about it. At last, Sachin went slowly up to him and asked: ‘What have you obtained by sadhana?’ Aurobindo Babu laid his hand on the boy’s head and said with a smile: ‘I have found what I have been seeking for.’

“This made us bolder, and we surrounded him. I cannot say that we understood all that he said about the wonderful happenings in the inner world, but we were quite convinced of one thing, that a new chapter had opened in the life of this extraordinary man. We heard something of the Tantric Yoga he practised in the jail after the Vedantic Yoga. We had never heard him discuss the Tantric Yoga either outside the jail or in it before. On our enquiring as to where he had learnt these secret Yogic practices, he said that a Maha-purusha (a great spiritual personality) had visited him in his subtle body and taught him those things. When we asked him about the result of the police case against him, he said: ‘I shall be acquitted.’”

Sri Aurobindo himself has given us a brief but illuminating description of his spiritual experiences in the jail. “When I was arrested and hurried to the Lai Bazar hajat (prison), I was shaken in my faith for a while, for I could not look into the heart of His intention. Therefore, I faltered for a moment and cried out in my heart to him: ‘What is this that has happened to me? I believed that I had a mission to work for the people of my country and until that work was done, I should have Thy protection. Why then am I here and on such a charge?’ A day passed and a second day and a third, when a voice came to me from within, ‘Wait and see.’ Then I grew calm and waited. I was taken from Lai Bazar to Alipore and was placed for one month in a solitary cell apart from men. There I waited day and night for the voice of God within me, to know what He had to say to me, to learn what I had to do. In this seclusion the earliest realisation, the first lesson, came to me. I remembered then that a month or more before my arrest, a call had come to me to put aside all activity, to go into seclusion and to look into myself, so that I might enter into a closer union with Him. I was weak and could not accept the call. My work was very dear to me and in the pride of my heart I thought that unless I was there, it would suffer or even fail and cease; therefore I would not leave it…. He spoke to me again and said, ‘the bonds you had not the strength to break, I have broken for you, because it is not my will nor was it ever my intention that that should continue. I have had another thing for you to do and it is for that I have brought you here, to teach you what you could not learn for you self and to train you for my work.’… His strength entered again 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 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 Krishna 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. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover. This was the first use of the deeper vision He gave me. I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and as I looked at them I saw Vasudeva, it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies….”[3]

It was in this mysterious way that Sri Aurobindo was led by God to His Kingdom of Truth and eternal Beatitude. He had gripped his heart and soul at first at Baroda long before the Swadeshi movement began, and led him from experience to experience in order to prepare him for the great mission he had to accomplish. But it was in the Alipore jail that He initiated him into the secrets of a long-lost Yoga and lighted the virgin way for his advance towards the supreme realisation of the dynamic, integral Union with Him, which is the eventual destiny of earthly evolution, and of which He had destined Sri Aurobindo to be the prophet and pioneer.


[1] A free rendering from Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali book, Kara Kahini — The Story of My Prison-Life.

[2] Autobiography of an Exile.

[3] Uttarpara Speech by Sri Aurobindo.

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