Year 2018 marks the confluence of three important anniversaries with regard to Sri Aurobindo and His work. The first of these is the 125th Anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s return to India (6th Feb 1893). It marks the beginning of a new era for India and the preparatory phase of Sri Aurobindo’s tapasya which He will engage with in Pondicherry. This tapasya is going to have wide and far reaching consequences for earth and humanity. The other anniversary is the 75th anniversary of the Ashram School (also known now as the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education) which is an experiment in Education that would eventually lay the foundations for building the New Humanity. The third is the 50th anniversary of Auroville, a grand experiment in human collective living centered around the Divine which is meant to hasten the reign of unity and Harmony upon Earth.
Today we share some glimpses of Sri Aurobindo’s life in Baroda where He lived from Feb 1983 (soon after landing at Apollo Bunder, Mumbai) until 1906 whence He left for Bengal to sow the seeds of Poorna Swaraj (complete Independence) in the mind and heart of India. We also share some passages from Sri Aurobindo written as epistles that compare India with Europe of those times. These passages will prove prophetic of the tremendous tsunami of destruction that was going to soon engulf Europe and the world in the beginning of the previous century. They are also prophetic of the New Creation that will eventually mark India once again as the center of a New Life. These and similar thoughts have been expressed by Sri Aurobindo (as also by Swami Vivekananda who travelled to the West the same year in 1893) in other works as well. More importantly however, as soon as Sri Aurobindo set His foot upon the Indian soil, a new yoga had begun for Earth and man as a promise of the Future.
The selections below are taken primarily from Shri Rishabhchand’s deeply engaging biography ‘Sri Aurobindo, His Life Unique’ . Sri Aurobindo’s words shown in italics in dark blue.
Sri Aurobindo in Baroda
“These are they who are conscious of the much falsehood in the world; they grow in the house of Truth, they are strong and invincible sons of Infinity.”
1893 – a memorable year! It was in 1893 that Sri Aurobindo came back from England to fight for the freedom of India and release her imprisoned godhead, and Vivekananda sailed for America carrying with him the light of the Vedanta to the benighted humanity of the West. What was Sri Aurobindo thinking, what were his feelings as he came in sight of his beloved motherland? When he had left India, he was a mere child of seven, perhaps unaware of the heavenly fire smouldering beneath his sweet, angelic exterior. And when he returned, he was a young man of twenty-one, burning to realise his dreams and visions. These fourteen years, the most impressionable and formative part of his life, were spent in the West in the heyday of its scientific civilisation. We have already seen that Sri Aurobindo’s mind was nourished and developed by the classical spirit in Western culture, and his poetic sensibilities were set aglow by the superb creations of the Western Muse. But his soul remained untouched, his heart’s love flowed towards India, and his will flamed to fight and suffer for her freedom.¹ He did not then know much about India, but he felt a mysterious pull towards her, an irresistible attraction which his mind could hardly explain. “It was a natural attraction”, he said later, “to Indian culture and ways of life, and a temperamental feeling and preference for all that was Indian.” So, his thoughts and feelings converging on India, approached the destination of his return voyage.
And how did India receive her beloved child? What gifts, what presents had she kept ready for him? She bestowed upon him, as an unsolicited grace, one of the brightest gems of her immemorial heritage – a high spiritual experience! In the midst of the confused hum and bustle of the strangers swarming up and down the gangways, “a vast calm descended upon him… this calm surrounded him and remained for long months afterwards”. In this connection, he once wrote to a disciple:
‘One thing I feel I must say in connection with your remark about the soul of India and X’s observation about “this stress on this-worldliness to the exclusion of other-worldliness”. I do not quite understand in what connection his remark was made or what he meant by this-worldliness, but I feel it necessary to state my own position in the matter. My own life and my Yoga have always been, since my coming to India, both this-worldly and other-worldly without any exclusiveness on either side. All human interests are, I suppose, this-worldly and most of them have entered into my mental field and some, like politics, into my life, but at the same time, since I set foot on Indian soil on the Apollo Bunder in Bombay, I began to have spiritual experiences, but these were not divorced from this world but had an inner and intimate bearing on it, such as a feeling of the Infinite pervading material space and the Immanent inhabiting material objects and bodies. At the same time I found myself entering supraphysical worlds and planes with influences and an effect from them upon the material plane, so I could make no sharp divorce or irreconcilable opposition between what I have called the two ends of existence and all that lies between them. For me all is the Brahman and I find the Divine everywhere. Everyone has the right to throw away this-worldliness and choose other-worldliness only and if he finds peace by that choice he is greatly blessed. I, personally, have not found it necessary to do this in order to have peace. In my Yoga also I found myself moved to include both worlds in my purview, the spiritual and the material, and to try to establish the divine Consciousness and the divine Power in men’s hearts and in earthly life, not for personal salvation only but for a life divine here. This seems to me as spiritual an aim as any and the fact of this life taking up earthly pursuits and earthly things into its scope cannot, I believe, tarnish its spirituality or alter its Indian character. This at least has always been my view and experience of the reality and nature of the world and things and the Divine: it seemed to me as nearly as possible the integral truth about them and I have therefore spoken of the pursuit of it as the integral Yoga. Everyone is, of course, free to reject and disbelieve in this kind of integrality or to believe in the spiritual necessity of an entire other-worldliness excluding any kind of this-worldliness altogether, but that would make the exercise of my Yoga impossible. My Yoga can include indeed a full experience of the other worlds, the plane of the supreme Spirit and the other planes in between and their possible effects upon our life and material world; but it will be quite possible to insist only on the realisation of the supreme Being or Ishwara even in one aspect, Shiva, Krishna as Lord of the world and Master of ourselves and our works or else the universal Sachchidananda, and attain to the essential results of this Yoga and afterwards to proceed from them to the integral results if one accepted the ideal of the divine life and this material world conquered by the Spirit.
It is this view and experience of things and of the truth of existence that enabled me to write The Life Divine and Savitri. The realisation of the Supreme, the Ishwara, is certainly the essential thing; but to approach him with love and devotion and bhakti, to serve him with one’s works and to know him, not necessarily by the intellectual cognition, but in a spiritual experience, is also essential in the path of the integral Yoga.’
That was the characteristic way in which India greeted her son when he returned to her bosom after a long sojourn in a foreign land. This greeting was at once a symbol and a prophecy. It was an index to the glory of his life’s mission…..
In Sri Aurobindo’s case, as has been said above, the experience was even more unexpected, for he had no knowledge of the Hindu Shastras. He had neither any desire for yogic experiences nor any knowledge of them. “I had many doubts before. I was brought up in England amongst foreign ideas and an atmosphere entirely foreign… .The agnostic was in me, the atheist was in me, the sceptic was in me, and I was not absolutely sure that there was a God at all….” Once, in a letter to a disciple, he referred to a pre-yogic experience in London, but he did not describe its nature. The experience he had at the Apollo Bunder can, therefore, be taken as the first authentic yogic experience that came his way – unbidden but decisive – as a gift of Grace, a bounty of Mother India…..
At Baroda Sri Aurobindo “was put first in the Settlement Department, not as an officer, but to learn the work, then in the Stamps and Revenue Departments; he was for some time put to work in the Secretariat for drawing up dispatches etc. Afterwards without joining the College and while doing other work, he was lecturer in French at the College, and finally at his request was appointed there as Professor of English. All through, the Maharaja used to call him when- ever something had to be written which needed careful wording; he also employed him to prepare some of his public speeches and in other work of a literary or educational character.” Afterwards Sri Aurobindo became Vice-Principal of the College and was for some time its acting Principal. “Most of the personal work for the Maharaja was done in an unofficial capacity…. There was no appointment as Private Secretary. He was usually invited to breakfast with the Maharaja at the Palace and stayed on to do this work.”
Sri Aurobindo was loved and highly revered by his students at Baroda College, not only for his profound knowledge of English literature and his brilliant and often original interpretations of English poetry, but for his saintly character and gentle and gracious manners. There was a magnetism in his personality, and an impalpable aura of a lofty ideal and a mighty purpose about him, which left a deep impression upon all who came in contact with him, particularly upon young hearts and unsophisticated minds. Calm and reserved, benign and benevolent, he easily became the centre of respectful attention wherever he happened to be. To be close to him was to be quieted and quickened; to listen to him was to be fired and inspired. Indeed, his presence radiated something which was at once enlivening and exalting. His power sprang from his unshakable peace, and the secret of his hold on men lay in his utter self-effacement. His greatness was like the gentle breath of spring – invisible but irresistible, it touched all that was bare and bleak around him to a splendour of renewed life and creative energy.
In regard to his work at the Baroda College, he once remarked to some of his disciples: “He (Manmohan) was very painstaking. Most of the professors don’t work so hard. I was not so conscientious as a professor. I never used to look at the notes, and sometimes my explanations did not agree with them at all…. What was surprising to me was that the students used to take down everything verbatim and mug it up. Such a thing would never have happened in England…. Once I was giving a lecture on Southey’s Life of Nelson. My lecture was not in agreement with the notes. So the students remarked that it was not at all like what was found in the notes. I replied: ‘I have not read the notes in any case they are all rubbish!’ I could never go to the minute details. I read and left my mind to do what it could. That is why I could never become a scholar.”
The testimony of one of his students, named R.N. Patkar, will be found very interesting inasmuch as it throws some authentic light upon the way he lived at Baroda and did his teaching at the College:
“Sri Aurobindo was very simple in his mode of living. He was not at all fastidious in his tastes. He did not care much for food or dress, because he never attached any importance to them. He never visited the market for his clothes. At home, he dressed in plain white chaddar and dhoti, and outside invariably in white drill suits. He never slept on a soft cotton bed, as most of us do, but on a bed of coir- coconut fibres – on which was spread a Malabar grass mat which served as a bed sheet.
“Once I asked him why he used such a coarse and hard bed, to which he replied with his characteristic smile: ‘Don’t you know, my boy, that I am a Brahmachari? Our shastras enjoin that a Brahmachari should not use a soft bed.’
“Another thing I observed about him was the total absence of love of money. He used to get the lump sum of three months’ pay in a bag which he emptied in a tray lying on his table. He never bothered to keep money in a safe box under lock and key. He did not keep an account of what he spent. One day I casually asked him why he was keeping his money like that. He laughed and then replied: ‘Well, it is a proof that we are living in the midst of honest and good people.’ ‘But you never keep an account which may testify to the honesty of the people around you?’, I asked him. Then with a serene face he said: ‘It is God who keeps account for me. He gives me as much as I want and keeps the rest to Himself. At any rate, He does not keep me in want, then why should I worry?’
“He used to be absorbed in reading to the extent that he was at times oblivious of the things around him. One evening the servant brought his meal and put the dishes on the table and informed him, ‘Sab, khana rakha hai’ – ‘Master, the meal is served’. He simply said, ‘Achchha’ – ‘All right’, without even moving his head. After half an hour the servant returned to remove the dishes and found to his surprise the dishes untouched on the table! He dared not disturb his master, and so quietly came to me and told me about it. I had to go to his room and remind him of the waiting meal. He gave me a smile, went to the table and finished his meal in a short time and resumed his reading.
“I had the good fortune to be his student in the Intermediate class. His method of teaching was a novel one. In the beginning, he used to give a series of introductory lectures in order to initiate the students into the subject matter of the text. After that he used to read the text, stopping where necessary to explain the meaning of difficult words and sentences. He ended by giving general lectures bearing on the various aspects of the subject matter of the text.
“But more than his college lectures, it was a treat to hear him on the platform. He used to preside occasionally over the meetings of the College Debating Society. The large central hall of the College used to be full when he was to speak. He was not an orator but was a speaker of a very high order, and was listened to with rapt attention. Without any gesture or movements of the limbs he stood, and language flowed like a stream from his lips with natural ease and melody that kept the audience spell-bound…. Though it is more than fifty years since I heard him, I still remember his figure and the metallic ring of his melodious voice.”
At Baroda, Sri Aurobindo stayed at first in a camp near the Bazar, and from there he moved to Khasirao Jadav’s house. Khasirao, who was working as a magistrate under the Baroda State, was at that time living elsewhere with his family. His house was a beautiful, two-storeyed building, situated on a main road of the town. When Khasirao was transferred back to Baroda, Sri Aurobindo had to move to a house in another locality. After some time, when plague broke out there, he had to move again to another house, which was an old bungalow with a tiled roof. It was so old and in such bad repair that it used to be unbearably hot in summer, and, during the months of the monsoon, rain water leaked through its broken tiles. But, as Dinendra Kumar Roy records in his Bengali book, Aurobindo Prasanga, it made no difference to Sri Aurobindo whether he lived in a palace or a hovel. Where he really dwelt, no tiles ever burned, nor did rain water leak. He was, to use an expression of the Gita, aniketah, one who had no separate dwelling of his own in the whole world. But it was different with Dinendra Kumar. What with swarms of fleas by day and pitiless mosquitoes at night, burning tiles in summer and leaking roofs during the rains, the poor man was so disgusted that he damned the poky, ramshackle domicile as being worse than a rich man’s stable.
Sri Aurobindo learnt both Marathi and Gujarati at Baroda. He also learnt a dialect of Marathi called Mori from a pundit. He had an aptitude for picking up languages with an amazing ease and rapidity. He learnt Bengali himself, and learnt it so well as to be able to read the poetry of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and the novels of Bankim Chandra Chatter ji; and both of these authors are anything but easy. “Bengali was not a subject for the competitive examination for the I.C.S. It was after he had passed the competitive examination that Sri Aurobindo as a probationer who had chosen Bengal as his province began to learn Bengali. The course of study provided was a very poor one; his teacher, a retired English Judge from Bengal, was not very competent….” It is rather amusing to note that one day when Sri Aurobindo asked his teacher to explain to him a passage from Bankim Chandra Chatterji, he looked at the passage and remarked with the comic cocksureness of shallow knowledge: “But this is not Bengali!” Sri Aurobindo learnt Sanskrit himself without any help from anybody. He did not learn Sanskrit through Bengali, but direct in Sanskrit or through English. But the marvel is that he mastered it as thoroughly and entered as deeply into its spirit and genius as he had done in the case of Greek and Latin. He “never studied Hindi, but his acquaintance with Sanskrit and other Indian languages made it easy for him to pick up Hindi without any regular study and to understand it when he read Hindi books or news-papers.”
An exceptional mastery of Sanskrit at once opened to him the immense treasure-house of the Indian heritage. He read the Upanishads, the Gita, the Puranas, the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the poems of Bhartrihari, the dramas of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti etc.,
Sri Aurobindo translated some portions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, some dramas of Kalidasa, the Nitishataka of Bhartrihari, some poems of Vidyapati and Chandidas etc. into English. Once, when R. C. Dutt, the well-known civilian, came to Baroda at the invitation of the Maharaja, he somehow came to know about Sri Aurobindo’s translations and expressed his desire to see them. Sri Aurobindo showed them to him (though not without reluctance, for he was by nature shy and reticent about himself), and Dutt was so much struck by their high quality that he said to Sri Aurobindo: “If I had seen your translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata before, I would not have published mine. I can now very well see that, by the side of your magnificent translations, mine appear as mere child’s play.”
Sri Aurobindo wrote many English poems during his stay at Baroda, and also began some which he finished later. The earliest draft of his great epic, Savitri, was begun there. His first book of poems, Songs to Myrtilla and Other Poems, was published there for private circulation.
* * *
When I was practising Pranayama at Baroda, I used to do it for about five hours in the day, – three hours in the morning and two in the evening. I found that the mind began to work with great illumination and power. I used to write poetry in those days. Before the Pranayama practice, usually I wrote five to eight lines per day; and about two hundred lines in a month. After the practice I could write 200 lines within half an hour. That was not the only result. Formerly my memory was dull. But after this practice I found that when the inspiration came I could remember all the lines in their order and write them down correctly at any time. Along with these enhanced functionings I could see an electrical activity all round the brain, and I could feel that it was made up of a subtle substance. I could feel everything as the working of that substance.
* * *
It is not with impunity that men decide to believe that they are animals and God does not exist. For what we believe, that we become. The animal lives by a routine arranged for him by Nature; his life is devoted to the satisfaction of his instincts bodily, vital and emotional, and he satisfies himself mechanically by a regular response to the working of those instincts. Nature has regularised everything for him and provided the machinery. Man in Europe arranges his own routine, invents his own machinery, and adds to the needs of which he is a slave, the intellectual. But there will soon be no other difference. System, organisation, machinery have attained their perfection. Bondage has been carried to its highest expression, and from a passion for organising external liberty Europe is slaying her spiritual freedom. When the inner freedom is gone, the external liberty will follow it, and a social tyranny more terrible, inquisitorial and relentless than any that caste ever organised in India, will take its place. The process has already begun. The shell of external liberty remains, the core is already being eaten away. Because he is still free to gratify his senses and enjoy himself, the European thinks himself free. He does not know what teeth are gnawing into the heart of his liberty.
* * *
Friend and brother,
I am as yet among the unregenerate. Instead of my eccentric notions of life changing under the pressure of victorious European enlightenment, they seem to harden and fix their hold. Here I am in Paris, the centre of civilisation, and I am still the same dark skinned barbarian you knew. Neither the complexion of my face nor the complexion of my thoughts has improved. I still believe in God and Vedanta, in India and impossibilities. Man is still to my eyes divine and not an animal. I believe in the soul and am afflicted with the imagination that it has a past and a future, that it neither came ready made into the world out of the mother’s womb nor will disintegrate at the end whether on the pyre or in the coffin. That our first stage is an embryo and our last worms or ashes, is a creed I hold to be still unproved and unprovable. I believe that nothing in this world is made, but everything grows; that body cannot create soul and that a mass of cells is not Buddha or Napoleon. And if you ask for my ground of belief, I shall still refuse to base it on the logical reason, which can only argue and cannot see, and I shall give the answer of the visionary, the victim of hallucinations, that I have seen my soul and talked face to face with my Creator.
* * *
I have brought India with me, that which is eternal in India. Danton, when pressed to escape from the coming doom to Switzerland, answered, “One does not carry one’s country away with one on the sole of one’s shoes.” That is the materialist’s answer, to whom the body is all. No, one cannot carry it on the shoe-soles, but one can carry it in one’s heart and one can carry it in one’s soul. When I listen to the nightingale singing on English riverbank or garden-reaches or see the Seine flowing through the modern gaiety of Paris, I can hear again the manifold noise of the birds on an Indian morning and see rather Ganges flowing grandiose and leonine to her Eastern seas. The body is bound to its surroundings, but the heart exceeds them, and I carry the love of India with me even to the coldest climes. The soul is yet more free. It will be well when every Indian, instead of taking a waxlike stamp from his foreign surroundings, is able to carry India with him wherever he goes. For that will mean that India is destined to conquer and place her stamp upon the whole world.
* * *
There are two Hinduisms; one which takes its stand on the kitchen and seeks its Paradise by cleaning the body; another which seeks God, not through the cooking pot and the social convention, but in the soul. The latter is also Hinduism and it is a good deal older and more enduring than the other; it is the Hinduism of Bhishma and Srikrishna, of Shankara and Chaitanya, the Hinduism which exceeds Hindusthan, was from of old and will be for ever, because it grows eternally through the aeons. Its watchword is not kriya, but karma; not shastra, but jnanam; not achar, but bhakti. Yet it accepts kriya, shastra and achar, not as ends to be followed for their own sake, but as means to perfect karma, jnanam and bhakti. Kriya in the dictionary means every practice which helps the gaining of higher knowledge such as the mastering of the breath, the repetition of the mantra, the habitual use of the Name, the daily meditation on the idea. By shastra it means the knowledge which regulates karma, which fixes the kartavyam and the akartavyam, that which should be done and that which should not, and it recognises two sources of that knowledge,—the eternal wisdom, as distinct from the temporary injunctions, in our ancient books and the book that is written by God in the human heart, the eternal and apaurusheya Veda. By achar it understands all moral discipline by which the heart is purified and made a fit vessel for divine love. There are certain kriyas, certain rules of shastra, certain details of achar, which are for all time and of perpetual application; there are others which are temporary, changing with the variation of desh, kal and patra, time, place and the needs of humanity. Among the temporary laws the cooking pot and the lustration had their place, but they are not for all, nor for ever. It was in a time of calamity, of contraction under external pressure that Hinduism fled from the inner temple and hid itself in the kitchen…..
The destruction of bondage, the realisation of freedom, the trampling upon our fetters, that is the first need of the future. It was to give mukti that Ramakrishna came, not to impose a new bondage. Therefore was Vivekananda His Apostle to the Gentiles, a man who in all things asserted freedom. The soul of Hinduism languishes in an unfit body. Break the mould that the soul may live. Is it not the first teaching of Yoga to destroy the dehatmak buddhi, the blindness that identifies the soul with its temporary body? If the body were young, adaptable, fit, the liberated soul might use it, but it is decrepit, full of ill health and impurity. It must be changed, not by the spirit of Western iconoclasm which destroys the soul with the body, but by national Yoga.
* * *
The idea that the Europeans have organised enjoyment just as the Hindus have organised asceticism, is a very common superstition which I am not bound to endorse merely because it is common. Say rather that the Europeans have systematized feverishness and the Hindus universalised inertia and mendicancy. The appearances of things are not the things themselves, nor is a shadow always the proof of a substance… I admit that the Europeans have tried hard to organise enjoyment. Power, pleasure, riches, amusement are their gods and the whirl of a splendid & active life their heaven. But have they succeeded? I think that nowhere is life less truly enjoyable than in brilliant and arrogant Europe. The naked African seems to me to be happier and more genuinely luxurious than the cultured son of Japhet.1 It is this very trying hard that spoils the endeavour. What a grotesque conception indeed is this of trying hard to be joyous! Delight, joyousness, ananda either are by nature or they do not exist; to be natural, to be in harmony with the truth of things is the very secret of bliss. The garden of Eden is man’s natural abode and it is only because he wilfully chose to know evil that he was driven out of his paradise.
* * *
These hollow worm eaten outsides of Hinduism crumbling so sluggishly, so fatally to some sudden and astonishing dissolution, do not frighten me. Within them I find the soul of a civilisation alive, though sleeping. I see upon it the consoling sentence of God, “Because thou hast believed in me, therefore thou shalt live and not perish.” Also, I look through the garnished outsides, gaudy, not beautiful, pretentious, not great, boastful, not secure, of this vaunting, aggressive, dominant Europe and I have seen written on the heart of its civilisation a sentence of death and mounting already from the heart to the brain an image of annihilation.