Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 12

“The long ages of discipline which India underwent are now drawing to an end. A great light is dawning on the East, a light whose first heralding glimpses are already seen on the horizon; a new day is about to break, so glorious that even the last of the Avatars cannot be sufficient to explain it, although without him it would not have come. The perfect expression of Hindu spirituality was the signal for the resurgence of the East. Mankind has long been experimenting with various kinds of thought, different principles of ethics, strange dreams of a perfection to be gained by material means, impossible millenniums and humanitarian hopes. Nowhere has it succeeded in realising the ultimate secret of life. Nowhere has it found satisfaction. No scheme of society or politics has helped it to escape from the necessity of sorrow, poverty, strife, dissatisfaction, from which it strives for an outlet; for whoever is trying to find one by material means must inevitably fail. The East alone has some knowledge of the truth, the East alone can teach the West, the East alone can save mankind. Through all these ages Asia has been seeking for a light within, and whenever she has been blessed with a glimpse of what she seeks, a great religion has been born, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Mahomedanism, with all their countless sects. But the grand workshop of spiritual experiment, the laboratory of the soul has been India, where thousands of great spirits have been born in every generation, who were content to work quietly in their own souls, perfect their knowledge, hand down the results of the experiments to a few disciples and leave the rest to others to complete. They did not hasten to proselytise, were in no way eager to proclaim themselves, but merely added their quota of experiencee and returned to the source from which they had come. The immense reservoir of spiritual energy stored up by their self-repression was the condition of the birth of Avatars, of men so full of God that they could not be satisfied with their silent bliss, but poured it out on the world,… because they wished to communicate their own ecstasy of realisation to others who were fit to receive it either by previous tapasya or by the purity of their desires. What Christianity failed to do, what Mahomedanism strove to accomplish for a brief period and among a limited number of men, Hinduism as summed up in the life of Sri Ramakrishna has to attempt for all the world. This is the reason of India’s resurgence, this is why God has breathed life into her once more, why great souls are at work to bring about her salvation, why a sudden change is coming over the hearts of her sons. The movement of which the first outbreak was political will end in a spiritual consummation.”

Spirituality and Nationalism — Bande Mataram,
28.3.1908

If we read the speeches and writings of the post-Surat period of Sri Aurobindo’s life between the lines, we cannot fail to notice in them a more emphatic, a more insistent and prophetic expression of the spiritual destiny of India and the real work to be done not only for her political emancipation, but for the fulfilment of that destiny. Not that this note was absent from his previous utterances, but it now acquired a greater volume, a greater momentum, and a more piquant urgency. The seed he wanted to sow had been sown, the spirit he wanted to kindle in the nation had been kindled, and though brutal repression strove to snuff it out, it succeeded only in driving it under the ashes for a while. The Moderates, as we have already said, remained in apparent possession of the National Congress, but their lily-white loyalty to the Government was constantly under severe strain, for the gilt had gone off the ginger-bread of British justice.

After Sri Aurobindo’s return to Bengal, Barin wrote to Lele, inviting him to come to Calcutta. Lele came, probably in the first week of February, and was put up for some time at Seal’s Lodge.[1] Barin’s idea in inviting Lele was that he might prove the right person to give some spiritual instructions and spiritual force to the youth of the revolutionary party. For, it was thought that spiritual instruction and force imparted by a Yogi would create in them a spirit of self-sacrifice for a noble cause and defiance of suffering and death. It had, indeed, been an almost invariable practice with the ardent nationalists of Bengal to derive inspiration for their work from the scriptures. The Gita, as we have already seen, was the most favourite of their books. Its popularity was to a great extent due to the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. It played a great part in firing the soul of modern India and rousing the nation to a renewed sense of the greatness of active life. Its gospel of selfless, disinterested work, done as an offering to the Divine without any desire for its fruit, can be said to be the most powerful factor in the renaissance of the nation and in the shaping of the progressive mind in modern India. And it is the one gospel that has linked India to the West, and inaugurated a new age of dynamic spirituality, pregnant with incalculable possibilities.

When Lele saw the nature of the work the young men of the revolutionary party were engaged in — making of bombs and preparing for terroristic activity and armed revolt, — he tried his best to dissuade them from it. He said that those dangerous activities would land them in great danger, and not lead to the liberation of the country. Liberation, he prophesied, would come in a different way, in a way not conceived by them. But they were in no mood to listen to his sage advice. High ran their enthusiasm, and their thirst for freedom was driving them to desperate action.

Lele met Sri Aurobindo at his residence at 23, Scott’s Lane by appointment. He asked Sri Aurobindo whether he was doing meditation regularly every morning and evening, but when he was told that it was not done in that routine way, “he was alarmed, tried to undo what he had done and told me that it was not the Divine but the devil that had got hold of me.”[2] Sri Aurobindo had, indeed, gone beyond Lele’s depth. It was the direct and constant guidance of the Divine to which he was fully surrendered, and his meditation or concentration continued automatically night and day. “I had received the command from within that a human Guru was not necessary for me.”[3] However, Sri Aurobindo always cherished a respectful sense of gratitude for Lele, but their spiritual relation was now broken. Lele went back.

On the 23rd February, 1908, Sri Aurobindo wrote in the Bande Mataram: “Swaraj is the direct revelation of God to this people — not mere political freedom but a freedom vast and entire, freedom of the individual, freedom of the community, freedom of the nation, spiritual freedom, social freedom, political freedom. Spiritual freedom the ancient Rishis had already declared to us; social freedom was part of the message of Buddha, Chaitanya, Nanak and Kabir and the saints of Maharashtra; political freedom is the last word of the triune gospel. Without political freedom the soul of man is crippled. Only a few mighty spirits can rise above their surroundings, but the ordinary man is a slave of his surroundings, and if these be mean, servile and degraded, he himself will be mean, servile and degraded. Social freedom can only be born where the soul of man is large, free and generous, not enslaved to petty aims and thoughts. Social freedom is not the result of social machinery but of the freedom of the human intellect and the nobility of the human soul…. So too spiritual freedom can never be the lot of many in a land of slaves. A few may follow the path of the Yogin and rise above their surroundings, but the mass of men cannot even take the first step towards spiritual salvation. We do not believe that the path of salvation lies in selfishness. If the mass of men around us is miserable, fallen, degraded, how can the seeker after God be indifferent to the condition of his brothers? Compassion to all creatures is the condition of sainthood, and the perfect Yogin is he who is sarvabhūtahite rataḥ, whose mind is full of the will to do good to all creatures…. God is not only in Himself but in all these millions…. God has set apart India as the eternal fountain-head of holy spirituality, and He will never suffer that fountain to run dry. Therefore Swaraj has been revealed to us. By our political freedom we shall once more recover our spiritual freedom. Once more in the land of the saints and sages will burn up the fire of the ancient Yoga and the hearts of her people will be lifted up into the neighbourhood of the Eternal.”

Nothing reflects so well the inmost thoughts of Sri Aurobindo as the words like these quoted above. They were written just after his return from Surat. They presage the great change that was coming upon him, necessitating a corresponding change in his life and work. The horizons were already flushing with the dawning glory of a greater fight and a vaster, mightier conquest. We learn from these words that Sri Aurobindo disparaged the goal of personal salvation, just as Sri Ramakrishna had done before him. He held to the ancient ideal of realising God in His immanence as well as in His transcendence, in the Many as well as in the One. To experience God and be united with Him in all beings and becomings in the universe as well as in His inconceivable Absoluteness has always been the great goal he pursued in his whole life. We learn also from the above words that by freedom Sri Aurobindo meant not only political and economic freedom, not only social freedom, but the integral freedom — spiritual, social, political and economic — and, not only the freedom of the nation, but of each community comprising the nation, and each individual in each community. It was to this ideal of integral freedom — and freedom not only of one nation but of all nations, integral freedom of all humanity — that he had dedicated his life. That was God’s intention in him and his soul’s mission. But how could this integral freedom of all humanity be won if he stuck on to the political field and refused God’s call upon him? He had now to work on other planes of existence and channel their light and power into the earth atmosphere. He had to prepare a rainbow bridge between earth and Heaven.

A question is likely to occur in the reader’s mind at this stage, and we had better dispose of it before we proceed farther. If Lele’s prediction of India’s regaining independence by peaceful means and not by revolutionary methods was true, as subsequent history has demonstrated, why did Sri Aurobindo work on for some time more in the same political sphere, pursuing the same militant policies? As a Yogi, did he not foresee that the revolutionary methods would avail nothing and that much of what he was doing would not only lead him into unmerited suffering, but itself be broken up and almost wiped out by the repressive measures of the Government and the unorganised, sporadic activities of the valiant but reckless youth? Why did he not retire to the spiritual field of his work earlier than he did? And, above all, how to account for his continuing in politics even after his release from a year’s detention in the Alipore jail where he had undergone a great transformation of consciousness in consequence of the flooding spiritual experiences he had there?

Sri Aurobindo was a Yogi-politician, as we have already said, and not a retired Yogi like Lele. He not only foresaw the future, but had to work in the present in order to prepare the future. He could not sit back and hold his hand, lapsing into the attitude of an indifferent onlooker. He could not let the present slither and reel into a shipwreck of its possibilities of progress. Nor could he retire to his spiritual work before he received God’s direction towards it. The Yogi knows that in a divinely directed course failures carry the seed of success, and even a huge destruction, if it is inevitable in the inscrutable dispensation of Providence, prepares the world for a great new creation. Sri Krishna had to play on his central but veiled part in the battle of Kurukshetra, though its disastrous end was not hidden from his knowledge and vision. The greatest leaders of mankind combine in themselves the knowledge of the Brahmin and the Power of the Kshatriya in order that chaos may be converted into order and harmony and darkness be laundered into light. The evolutionary march of man cannot stop short of its destined goal. Humanity has to be led forward, though often it may stumble and fall. Sri Aurobindo left the political field only when he was called, being assured from within that the freedom’s struggle, which he had worked for with so much devotion and sacrifice, would continue, with whatever ups and downs, till India became free. And we know that his retirement was not into the cell of a recluse, but into the boundless domains of spiritual new-creation.


[1] The Life of Sri Aurobindo by A. В. Purani.

[2] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother.

[3] Evening Talks Part II — by A.B. Purani.

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