Turning Adversity into an Opportunity (HH 176)

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A Page and a Lesson from Sri Aurobindo’s Life

Sri Aurobindo’s life is a wonderful example of how yoga can be practiced even in the most hostile environment. We find this most strikingly in ‘Tales of Prison Life’, penned down by Him regarding the trial period. Sri Aurobindo was taken to Alipore prison on the 5th May 1908 and released exactly an year after on the 6th May 1909. But far from recounting it as a tale of woes and misery (even though it was abject misery given the pathetic conditions), instead of showing any hatred and bitterness towards the British, Sri Aurobindo turned the prison house into God’s trysting ground. Today we share, recount and reflect upon a passage or two from this classical piece in prison writings.

Words of Sri Aurobindo

After the jailor had seen to the blankets and the plates and bowl and left, I began to watch, sitting on the blanket, the scene before me. This solitary confinement seemed to me much better than the lock-up at Lal Bazar. There the silence of the commodious hall with an opportunity to extend its huge body, seems to deepen the silence. Here the walls of the room seemed to come closer, eager to embrace one, like the all-pervading Brahman. There one cannot even look at the sky through the high windows of the second storey room, it becomes hard to imagine that there are in this world trees and plants, men, animals, birds and houses. Here, since the door to the courtyard remains open, by sitting near the bars one could see the open spaces and the movement of the prisoners. Alongside the courtyard wall stood a tree, its green foliage a sight for sore eyes. The sentry that used to parade before the six ‘six decree’ rooms, his face and footsteps often appeared dear like the welcome steps of a friend. The prisoners in the neighbouring cowshed would take out in front of the room the cows for grazing. Both cow and cowherd were daily and delightful sights. The solitary confinement at Alipore was a unique lesson in love. Before coming here even in society my affections were confined to a rather narrow circle, and the closed emotions would rarely include birds and animals. I remember a poem by Rabibabu in which is described, beautifully, a village boy’s deep love for a buffalo. I did not at all understand it when I read it first, I had felt a note of exaggeration and artificiality in that description. Had I read that poem now, I would have seen it with other eyes. At Alipore I could feel how deep could be the love of man for all created things, how thrilled a man could be on seeing a cow, a bird, even an ant.

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During the period of my solitary confinement Dr. Daly and the Assistant Superintendent would come to my room almost every day and have a little chat. From the beginning, I do not know why, I had been able to draw their special favour and sympathy. I did not speak much with them, but just answered only when they asked something. If they raised any issues I either listened quietly or would stop after speaking a few words. Yet they did not give up visiting me. One day Mr. Daly spoke to me, “I have been able, through my Assistant Superintendent, to get the big boss to agree that every day, in the morning and evening, you will be allowed to take a walk in front of the decree. I do not like that you should be confined throughout the day in a small cell, it’s bad for both body and mind.” From that day on I would take a stroll everyday in the morning and evening in the open space before decree. In the afternoons it would be for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, in the morning for an hour; at times I would stay out for two hours, there was no time limit about it. I enjoyed this very much. On one side were the jail industries, on the other, the cowshed — my independent kingdom was flanked by these two. From the industrial section to the cowshed, from the cowshed to the industrial section, travelling to and fro I would recite the deeply moving, immortal, powerful mantras of the Upanishads, or watching the movements and activities of the prisoners I tried to realise the basic truths of the immanent Godhead, God in every form. In the trees, the houses, the walls, in men, animals, birds, metals, the earth, with the help of the mantra: All this is the Brahman, (sarvam khalvidam Brahma), I would try to fix or impose that realisation on all of these. As I went on doing like this sometimes the prison ceased to appear to be a prison at all. The high wall, those iron bars, the white wall, the green-leaved tree shining in sunlight, it seemed as if these common-place objects were not unconscious at all, but that they were vibrating with a universal consciousness, they love me and wish to embrace me, or so I felt. Men, cows, ants, birds are moving, flying, singing, speaking, yet all is Nature’s game; behind all this is a great pure detached spirit rapt in a serene delight. Once in a while it seemed as if God Himself was standing under the tree, to play upon his Flute of Delight; and with its sheer charm to draw my very soul out. Always it seemed as if someone was embracing me, holding me on one’s lap. The manifestation of these emotions overpowered my whole body and mind, a pure and wide peace reigned everywhere, it is impossible to describe that. The hard cover of my life opened up and a spring of love for all creatures gushed from within. Along with this love such sāttvik emotions as charity, kindness, ahimsā, etc., overpowered my dominantly rājasik nature and found an abundant release. And the more these qualities developed, the greater the delight and the deeper the sense of unclouded peace. The anxiety over the case had vanished from the beginning, now it was a contrary emotion that found room in my mind. God is All-Good, He had brought me into the prison-house for my good, my release and the quashing of charges was certain, I grew firm in this faith. After this for many days I did not have to suffer any troubles in the jail.

It took some days for these emotions to settle and deepen. It was while this was going on that the case opened in the magistrate’s court. At first the mind was greatly perturbed, by being dragged from the silence of solitary imprisonment to the noise of the world outside. The patience of inner discipline was lost and the mind did not at all consent to listen for five hours on end to the dull and bothersome arguments by the prosecution. At first I tried to continue the inner life while sitting in the court-room, but the unaccustomed mind would be attracted to every sound and sight, and the attempt would not succeed, in the midst of the noise going on all round. Later the feelings changed and I acquired the power to reject from the mind the immediate sounds and sights, and draw the mind inwards. But this did not take place in the early stages, the true power of concentration had not developed then. For that reason, giving up the futile attempt, I would be content with seeing, now and then, God in all creatures, for the rest I would observe the words and behaviour of my companions in adversity, else think of other things, or sometimes listened to Mr. Norton’s valuable remarks or even the evidence of witnesses. I found that while spending one’s time in solitary imprisonment had grown easy and pleasant, it was not that easy in the midst of the crowd and in the life-and-death game of a serious case. I greatly enjoyed the laughter, the jollities and the pleasantries of the accused lads, else the time spent at the court appeared wholly annoying. At four-thirty I would happily get into the police van and return to the prison…..

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For one who seeks the yogic state crowd and solitude should mean the same. Indeed, the weakness dropped off within a very few days, and now it seems that the mental poise would not be disturbed even by twenty years of solitude. In the dispensation of the All-Good (mangalamaya) even out of evil cometh good. The third purpose was to give me this lesson that my yoga practices would not be done by my personal effort, but that a spirit of reverence (SraddhÀ) and complete self-surrender (Àtma-samarpana) were the road to attain perfection in yoga, and whatever power or realisation the Lord would give out of His benignity, to accept and utilise these should be the only aim of my yogic endeavour. The day from which the deep darkness of Ignorance began to lessen, I started to see the true nature of the All-Good Lord’s amazing infinite goodness as I watched the different events in the ward. There is no event — great or small or even the smallest — from which some good has not accrued. He often fulfils three or four aims through a single event. We frequently see the working of a blind force in the world, accepting waste as part of nature’s method we ignore God’s omniscience and find fault with the divine Intelligence. The charge is unfounded. The divine Intelligence never works blindly, there cannot be the slightest waste of His power, rather the restrained manner in which, through the minimum of means, He achieves a variety of results is beyond the human intelligence.

Troubled by mental listlessness I spent a few days in agony in this manner. One afternoon as I was thinking streams of thought began to flow endlessly and then suddenly these grew so uncontrolled and incoherent that I could feel that the mind’s regulating power was about to cease. Afterwards when I came back to myself, I could recollect that though the power of mental control had ceased, the intelligence was not self-lost or did not deviate for a moment, but it was as if watching quietly this marvellous phenomenon. But at the time, shaking with the terror of being overcome by insanity, I had not been able to notice that. I called upon God with eagerness and intensity and prayed to him to prevent my loss of intelligence. That very moment there spread over my being such a gentle and cooling breeze, the heated brain became relaxed, easy and supremely blissful such as in all my life I had never known before. Just as a child sleeps, secure and fearless, on the lap of his mother, so I remained on the lap of the World-Mother. From that day all my troubles of prison life were over. Afterwards on many occasions, during the period of detention, inquietude, solitary imprisonment, and mental unease because of lack of activity, bodily trouble or disease, in the lean periods of yogic life, these have come, but that day in a single moment God had given my inner being such a strength that these sorrows as they came and went did not leave any trace or touch on the mind, relishing strength and delight in the sorrow itself the mind was able to reject these subjective sufferings. The sufferings seemed as fragile as water drops on a lily leaf. Then when the books came, their need had considerably lessened. I could have stayed on even if the books were not there. Though it is not the purpose of these articles to write a history of my inner life, still I could not but mention this fact. From this one incident it will be clear how it was possible to live happily during long solitary confinement. It was for this reason that God had brought about this situation or experience. Without turning me mad he had enacted in my mind the gradual process towards insanity that takes place in solitary confinement, keeping my intelligence as the unmoved spectator of the entire drama. Out of this came strength, and I had an excess of kindness and sympathy for the victims of human cruelty and torture. I also realized the extraordinary power and efficacy of prayer.

Sri Aurobindo: Tales of Prison Life: Bengali Writings

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