1. Shifting the battle scene
The sudden and unexpected departure of Sri Aurobindo from Bengal for Pondicherry via Chandernagore is seen by many as an enigmatic turn of events in his life. Sri Aurobindo has himself clarified it in a number of letters that the departure though sudden and unexpected was not because he wanted to escape either from the political field or from the clutch of the British Empire. It was as simple as the obedience to the divine command which he had come to rely upon since his mind and inner consciousness had arrived at the stillness of nirvana in January 1908. Still too many it remains an enigma since the work of India’s independence taken up by Sri Aurobindo had not yet arrived at any fruition or even near fruition. If anything, it seemed as if it has been once again broken by the extraordinary cunning and might of the British Empire. Yet this retreat was a strategic divine retreat for a still greater success. It was like the lion taking a few steps backwards so as to leap with all its strength and concentration on the object of its chase. Sri Aurobindo too retreated only to gain more strength and power and knowledge to fight not just the British Empire but the still greater and seemingly invincible empire of Ignorance that had besieged mankind. A much greater enemy had possessed earth and mankind whose name was ignorance and falsehood and unconsciousness and the darkness of tamas. It was there that the last battle had to be waged. The revolutionary movement was more like a preparation, a practice match on relatively better known though hostile grounds. But the real battle was yet to begin. It is to wage this ultimate battle from the silence of his room that he retreated to Pondicherry. It was not enough that the ramparts of one empire are pulled down. Other empires, even worse often took the place as its successors. This time it was the very roots of evil that he had decided to annihilate and not just cut off or trim the shoots. He beautifully summarized his life and its aspect of the battle in a letter:
Good God! my whole life has been a struggle with hard realities, from hardship and semi-starvation in England through the fierce difficulties and perils of revolutionary leadership and organisation and activity in India to the far greater difficulties continually cropping up here in Pondicherry, internal and external. My life has been a battle from its early years and is still a battle,—the fact that I wage it now from a room upstairs and by spiritual means as well as others that are external makes no difference to its character. But of course as we have not been shouting about these things, it is natural, I suppose, for the sadhaks to think I am living in an august, glamorous, lotus-eating dreamland where no hard facts of life or nature present themselves. But what an illusion, all the same!
[CWSA 35: 44]
The sudden departure of Sri Aurobindo from the political firmament of India and choosing Pondicherry as the seat of his future tapasya is an event whose full impact is impossible to gauge. It represents a sudden breaking away from the past and taking a plunge into the future. We see this sudden breaking away from the past in the lives of quite a few spiritual beings such as the Buddha, Jesus and Sri Krishna. Each of these departures represented the possibility of manifesting something new. Buddha’s departure from Lumbini to Gaya laid the foundations of the eightfold path; Christ’s departure from Nazareth to Jerusalem became instrumental in the birth of the cross; Sri Krishna left Vrindavan for Dwarka to establish a kingdom based on Dharma amidst the constant danger of siege by the Asuric forces of that time. In a similar vein we may say that Sri Aurobindo departed from his Karmabhoomi in Bengal to his Yogabhoomi in Pondicherry. To this list of departures we may add the most important departure of the Mother from France to come and chose Pondicherry as her field of divine work to sow the seeds of a New Creation. In each of these departures and more so of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother we see the capacity of a complete breaking away from the past so as to soar towards the future. This breaking away from the past was not only a change of place but much more importantly a radical shift in consciousness. We may even say that the shift and the inner change came earlier, the change of outer place and circumstances followed. Both had reached a peak in their yoga and had the highest realisations that one can have following the traditional lines. They had come to go further towards yet unknown and uncharted territories. The physical departure only completed the process of leap towards the future. Sri Aurobindo recounts in his Uttarpara speech soon after his release from the Alipore jail:
I was taken from Lal 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 closer communion 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. It seemed to me that He spoke to me again and said, “The bonds you had not 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 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 yourself and to train you for my work.”
[CWSA 8: 5]
Coming to Sri Aurobindo we see a number of articles and writings discussing his departure. Most of them are a superficial analysis of outer events based on a certain historical narrative which are worth nothing. At best they are conjectures since history can never record all that happens within a man. It documents the outer events and leaves the inner gaps to be filled in with man’s fertile imagination.
These are the facts of that departure. I was in the Karmayogin office when I received word, on information given by a high-placed police official, that the office would be searched the next day and myself arrested. (The office was in fact searched but no warrant was produced against me; I heard nothing more of it till the case was started against the paper later on, but by then I had already left Chandernagore for Pondicherry.) While I was listening to animated comments from those around on the approaching event, I suddenly received a command from above in a Voice well known to me, in the three words; “Go to Chandernagore.” In ten minutes or so I was in the boat for Chandernagore. Ramchandra Majumdar guided me to the Ghat and hailed a boat and I entered into it at once along with my relative Biren Ghosh and Mani (Suresh Chandra Chakrabarti) who accompanied me to Chandernagore, not turning aside to Bagbazar or anywhere else. We reached our destination while it was still dark and they returned in the morning to Calcutta. I remained in secret entirely engaged in Sadhana and my active connection with the two newspapers ceased from that time. Afterwards, under the same “sailing orders”, I left Chandernagore and reached Pondicherry on April 4th 1910.
[CWSA 36: 89 – 90]
2. An example of perfect detachment
But here too we miss the point, the point of great learning, the example that we can draw form Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s life. It is the example of a perfect detachment and renunciation so that our being is left free to surge towards the future. Ordinarily we understand renunciation only as something outward but in the departure of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo we see its real intrinsic nature. In 1920 Joseph Baptista requested Sri Aurobindo to return and take charge of the Home Rile movement as its President. Sri Aurobindo politely turned down the request and the offer stating the reasons as follows:
I came to Pondicherry in order to have freedom and tranquillity for a fixed object having nothing to do with present politics—in which I have taken no direct part since my coming here, though what I could do for the country in my own way I have constantly done,—and until it is accomplished, it is not possible for me to resume any kind of public activity. But if I were in British India, I should be obliged to plunge at once into action of different kinds. Pondicherry is my place of retreat, my cave of tapasya,—not of the ascetic kind, but of a brand of my own invention. I must finish that, I must be internally armed and equipped for my work before I leave it.
[CWSA 36: 255]
Or as he writes to Shri BS Moonje who gave him a similar offer:
The central reason however is this that I am no longer first and foremost a politician, but have definitely commenced another kind of work with a spiritual basis, a work of spiritual, social, cultural and economic reconstruction of an almost revolutionary kind, and am even making or at least supervising a sort of practical or laboratory experiment in that sense which needs all the attention and energy that I can have to spare. It is impossible for me to combine political work of the current kind and this at the beginning. I should practically have to leave it aside, and this I cannot do, as I have taken it up as my mission for the rest of my life. This is the true reason of my inability to respond to your call.
[CWSA 36: 257]
On the other hand, we see in the Mother too this capacity of a complete renunciation that is so very inspiring to all who undertake the journey of yoga towards the future. Her renunciation is integral and complete without a second thought:
I feel we have entered the very heart of Thy sanctuary and grown aware of Thy very will. A great joy, a deep peace reign in me, and yet all my inner constructions have vanished like a vain dream and I find myself now, before Thy immensity, without a frame or system, like a being not yet individualised. All the past in its external form seems ridiculously arbitrary to me, and yet I know it was useful in its own time.
But now all is changed: a new stage has begun.
[CWM 1: 114]
3. The Last Will and Testament
Still the question can be raised if Sri Aurobindo left the work undertaken by him half way. That cannot be since that is not how the Divine works. What is true however is that he renounced immediate success for a more complete possibility. Perhaps more time was needed for India and Indians to prepare themselves for the freedom that was coming their way. India was indeed not ready. Some more fire of suffering was needed to purify the heart and mind. After all India is not just another country to be liberated from British dominion. It is the spear of God, the discuss of light that has to illumine the world. This mighty weapon of God cannot be handed over in the hands of the unprepared. Therefore, Sri Aurobindo withdrew without the least care for name and fame. Had he followed the curve of the revolutionary movement he would have been perhaps better known. It is in fact a strange irony of sorts that people in India know very little of Sri Aurobindo, the yogi. Whatever little they know of him is as an early revolutionary of the Indian freedom movement. Here too they see him more as a precursor to Gandhi ji. The only truth in this statement is that Gandhi ji followed some of the lines that Sri Aurobindo had laid down for gaining India’s freedom. Of course, he also added things of his own such as the Charkha and certain rigid ideas about non-violence. It is rather a little-known fact that Sri Aurobindo had already spoken and written extensively about the Boycott, Swadeshi and Non-cooperation and other ideas which eventually led India to freedom. In his ‘Last will and testament’ written as an open letter to his countrymen, Sri Aurobindo closes by expressing the lines along which freedom could be won as follows:
The men who have led hitherto have been strong men of high gifts and commanding genius, great enough to be the protagonists of any other movement, but even they were not sufficient to fulfil one which is the chief current of a worldwide revolution. Therefore the Nationalist party, custodians of the future, must wait for the man who is to come, calm in the midst of calamity, hopeful under defeat, sure of eventual emergence and triumph and always mindful of the responsibility which they owe not only to their Indian posterity but to the world.
The strength of our position is moral, not material. The whole of the physical strength in the country belongs to the established authority which our success would, so far as its present form is concerned, abolish by transforming it out of all possibility of recognition. It is natural that it should use all its physical strength to prevent, so long as it can, that transformation. The whole of the moral strength of the country is with us. Justice is with us, nature is with us, the law of God which is higher than any human justifies our action, youth is for us, the future is ours. On that moral strength we must rely for our survival and eventual success. We must not be tempted by any rash impatience into abandoning the ground on which we are strong and venturing on the ground on which we are weak. Our ideal is an ideal which no law can condemn; our chosen methods are such that no modern Government can expressly declare them illegal without forfeiting its claim to be considered a civilised administration. To that ideal and to those methods we must firmly adhere and rely on them alone for our eventual success. A respect for the law is a necessary quality for endurance as a nation and it has always been a marked characteristic of the Indian people….
Our ideal is that of Swaraj or absolute autonomy free from foreign control. We claim the right of every nation to live its own life by its own energies according to its own nature and ideals. We reject the claim of aliens to force upon us a civilization inferior to our own or to keep us out of our inheritance on the untenable ground of a superior fitness. While admitting the stains and defects which long subjection has induced upon our native capacity and energy, we are conscious of that capacity and energy reviving in us. We point to the unexampled national vigour which has preserved the people of this country through centuries of calamity and defeat, to the great actions of our forefathers continued even to the other day, to the many men of intellect and character such as no other nation in a subject condition has been able to produce, and we say that a people capable of such unheard-of vitality is not one which can be put down as a nation of children and incapables. We are in no way inferior to our forefathers. We have brains, we have courage, we have an infinite and various national capacity. All we need is a field and an opportunity. That field and opportunity can only be provided by a national government, a free society and a great Indian culture. So long as these are not conceded to us, we can have no other use for our brains, courage and capacity than to struggle unceasingly to achieve them.
This then is the situation as it presents itself to me. The policy I suggest to the Nationalist party may briefly be summed up as follows:—
- Persistence with a strict regard to law in a peaceful policy of self-help and passive resistance.
- The regulation of our attitude towards the Government by the principle of “No control, no co-operation.”
- A rapprochement with the Moderate party wherever possible and the reconstitution of a united Congress.
- The regulation of the Boycott movement so as to make both the political and the economic boycott effective.
- The organisation of the Provinces if not of the whole country according to our original programme.
- A system of co-operation which will not contravene the law and will yet enable workers to proceed with the work of self help and national efficiency, if not quite so effectively as before, yet with energy and success.
[CWSA 8: 150 – 160]
As we can see Sri Aurobindo had prepared the larger lines along which India’s independence would come. He foresaw it, as he later disclosed to Shri A.B. Purani and others that not only the independence of India but its rise as the leader of humanity, as the guru of the world in inevitable, as sure as the rising of tomorrow’s sun. The instruments were chosen and the dice of destiny was cast. It was just a question of time and the play of forces to execute it. He had already prepared the field, sown the seed, even watered it with his love and sunshine of luminous words. Then he withdrew to a still greater and mightier work that awaited him. But once he had turned in that direction, towards the future he did not look back. This does not mean that he had stopped caring for India. How could he since his love for India was not the usual sentimental attachment that men have for the country of their origin. Sri Aurobindo was well past that stage of human evolution when we need to tie ourselves to outer frames just because they cradled our early years of birth. His love and work for India was related to the fact that India had a great role to play in the future. Given her vast repertoire of inner knowledge and accumulated spiritual energies from the past the awakening and rise of India as the world-leader was inevitable for the good of the world. However once assured of that he moved on to other fields that were to be prepared and conquered for the Divine.
The Divine Worker
Even here we see his utter detachment. He cared only for the fulfillment of the Divine Purpose. It did not matter the least whether it was given to him to be recognized as the leader of the human march during an epoch of time when humanity most needed one. Indeed if we look at the first half of the previous century we shall see how Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts and ideas were pouring in like luminous forces and divine energies upon the world. Not many may be reading his wonderful books but the silent occult influence of the tremendous spiritual energy released into the earth atmosphere through the power of the Word continues to influence mankind in more ways than we can reckon. After all the fact is that the world is slowly but palpably moving along the lines and in the direction shown by Sri Aurobindo. As he clearly mentions in his last will and testament before withdrawing from the political field and again on his well-known message when India regained her freedom.
I may also say that I did not leave politics because I felt I could do nothing more there; such an idea was very far from me. I came away because I did not want anything to interfere with my Yoga and because I got a very distinct adesh in the matter. I have cut connection entirely with politics, but before I did so I knew from within that the work I had begun there was destined to be carried forward, on lines I had foreseen, by others, and that the ultimate triumph of the movement I had initiated was sure without my personal action or presence. There was not the least motive of despair or sense of futility behind my withdrawal. For the rest, I have never known any will of mine for any major event in the conduct of the world affairs to fail in the end, although it may take a long time for the world-forces to fulfil it….
[CWSA 35: 26]
Here we can also glimpse Sri Aurobindo’s way of working. He preferred working from behind, pushing forces and people and instruments of the grand divine design while himself remaining in the background. As he once said in half a jest that he had come for the work and not to see its fulfilment, for the sadhana and not the siddhi. The siddhi too that he referred to was not something personal, for that he already had but the supramental manifestation upon earth. This came nearly six years after his withdrawal from the earthly scene. But has he really withdrawn and where? Going by his way of working his withdrawal also would be a strategy to hasten the work and only when in some way he was assured of its fulfillment. He would then move on to prepare other fields and forces to hasten further the divine manifestation.
I have no intention of achieving the supramental for myself only —I am not doing anything for myself, as I have no personal need of anything, neither of salvation (Moksha) nor supramentalisation. If I am seeking after supramentalisation, it is because it is a thing that has to be done for the earth consciousness and if it is not done in myself, it cannot be done in others. My supramentalisation is only a key for opening the gates of the supramental to the earth consciousness; done for its own sake, it would be perfectly futile.
[CWSA 35: 283 – 284]
Neither nationalism nor spiritualism and spiritual realisations were for Sri Aurobindo an achievement for himself. They were simply part of his service, his work for earth and man, simply because this was the work he had come to do. Just as a flower gives its fragrance equally to all, just as a river quenches the thirst of all creatures, just as a mighty tree shelters all beings who come to it, just as the earth holds all creatures in its embrace, just as the deep blue sky watches over all creation because this is what they are meant do so too we see in the lives of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother this divine spontaneity which is the share of those who are attached to nothing, not even to their idea of service. They care not for recognition or for fame and name. For them the adulation of the crowds and the plaudits of the pundits are as meaningless as the criticism and hostility of those who consider them to be a foe. This ultimate renunciation, even a renunciation of one’s spiritual achievements for the larger good of all is what we see strikingly in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s life. Sri Aurobindo’s departure from Bengal to Pondicherry and equally the Mother’s departure from France to Pondicherry are a powerful example of how we should be in Their service. They are the living example of what true renunciation is, a renunciation of the old self for the new and greater self, a renunciation of the past, however glorious and illustrious it be for the future unfolding, a renunciation of what we are for what we yet could be. This attitude is well summarized in these beautiful words of the Mother:
We must know at each moment how to lose everything that we may gain everything; we must be able to shed the past like a dead body that we may be reborn into a greater plenitude . . .
December 12, 1914