SRI AUROBINDO (1872–1950)
An explorer and adventurer in consciousness (Das, 1977, 1999; Joshi 1998a), a visionary of evolution (Satprem, 1984), Sri Aurobindo(1972a, p. 49), had disclosed ‘No one can write about my life because it has not been on the surface for man to see’ finds echo in Rabindranath Tagore (see Raina, 1997), the fellow Bengali poet-artist and a Nobel laureate with whom Aurobindo felt a deep mutuality, who too had warned that one should not look for the poet in his biography.
In fact, McDermott (1972) felt that ‘interpreting the life of a great
spiritual personality is always a treacherous enterprise, and the life of Sri Aurobindo is
peculiarly inscrutable’ (p. 15).
Born in Calcutta, then the capital of British India on 15 August 1872, Aurobindo Ackroyd
Ghose—the Western middle name was given to by his father at birth—was the third son of
his parents—Dr.Krishnadhan Ghose and Swarnalata Devi. The honorific ‘Sri’ was
traditionally used as a mark of respect or worship forming an integral part of his name. In
Sanskrit, the word Aurobindo means lotus. Aurobindo’s father chose this name for him,
thinking that it was unique, but he little suspected that, in the language of occultism,the lotus
is the symbol of divine consciousness.
Aurobindo received his early education in a convent school intended for European
children and in 1879 was taken by his father to England for schooling in Manchester and later
at St. Paul’s School, London. A scholarship from St. Paul’s enabled Aurobindo to go to
King’s College, Cambridge, in 1889. He practically won all the prizes in Greek and Latin. He
passed the first part of the classical Tripos in the first class in 1892. The same year he
successfully passed his Indian Civil Service Examination. But he did not report for the riding
test and thereby was disqualified for the civil service.
Sri Aurobindo, who had started writing at an early age, even during his study at
Manchester (1879–84), had continued with his creativity through all the turbulent phases of
his life, even during his incarcertation. His first book, a collection of poems, entitled Songs to
Myrtilla, was published in 1895. Between that and the last work to be published during his
lifetime, Savitri (1950), he had written extensively on Yoga, culture, sociology, in addition to
his poetry and plays—contributions of far-reaching and multi-faceted importance to human
thought and in action. He has given a new cosmology and a new metaphysics in his Lifedivine ‘considered as the philosophical masterpiece of the century’ (Vrekhem 1999, p. 44)
which has revolutionized our very conception of psychology and gave it a new basis in Life
divine and in his letters. He formulated a profoundly new approach to sociology in his The
human cycle and showed through a searching analysis of past and current systems of social
and political thought how a truly spiritual attitude is essential as a foundation of a new and
lasting social order. He extended the application of this very approach to the sphere of
international politics in his The ideal of human unity. In his writings on education, he
formulated a theory that could, with some variations, be adapted to all the nations of theworld, fostering the growth of the integral consciousness in every pupil and bringing back to
legitimate authority of the Sprit over a matter fully developed and utilised. He showed in his
The synthesis of Yoga how all the systems of Yoga combine and converge on the path to
Supermind. In his The secret of the Vedas, The essays on the Gita and writings on
Upanishads, he opened up new and epoch-making ways of studying the ancient Indian texts,
throwing new light on philosophy and reducing both anthropology and anthropomorphology
to their proper place in a balanced scheme of knowledge. He offered an illuminating
interpretation of Indian culture down the centuries in his The foundations of Indian culture.
Sri Aurobindo’s elaborated epic, Savitri reveals the consummation of the many poetic styles
that he attempted in all his works. Written in nearly 24,000 lines in blank verse, Sri
Aurobindo’s Savitri has been estimated to be the largest poem in the English language. In The
future poetry, Sri Aurobindo worked out a literary theory (Heehs, 1989, 1998) considered as
an original contribution to aesthetics in its concept of poetry (Gokak, 1973). All this and his
translations, letters and minor works were compiled and published in a systematic manner
after his passing away on the 5 December 1950. A new edition of them, in thirty volumes,
was brought out on the occasion of the centenary of his birth in 1972. The Swedish Academy
considered him for the nomination for the Nobel Prize of 1950, the last year of SriAurobindo’s life (Heehs, 1989).
There are many ways of approaching Sri Aurobindo, but the light that one can gain
from him, as Joshi (1998b) noted, will depend upon the height and breadth of one’s own
quest. It is in raising most comprehensive questions in their profundity relating to the world
and its future possibilities and the role that we are required to play as also how we should
prepare ourselves to fulfil that role that we shall find the real relevance of Sri Aurobindo and
find ourselves truly equipped to study him and the supra-mental consciousness that he has
discovered and brought down on the earth.
Three fundamental problems which gave direction to the spiritual quest and
philosophical thinking and helped to fashion Sri Aurobindo’s major theories, relate to the
paradox of the national life of India, the supposed conflict between spirituality and action,
and the evolution of man. The search for solutions to these problems relates to the unique and
creative tension in his own experience between spirituality and politics, both during his years
of political activity and during his four decades of sadhana (spiritual discipline) at
Pondicherry (Chaudhuri, 1972; McDermott, 1972). Aurobindo’s writings provide the needed
force for action, realization and transformation which is reflected in his philosophy arrived at
through inner experience. He wrote (in Heehs, 1989, p. 110) ‘in fact I was never satisfied till
experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy’. His integral philosophy (see Sorokin, 1960) grew out of his Yoga—not the other way round.
Two phrases that surge out of Sri Aurobindo’s writings that sum up his message are:
‘Integral perfection’ and ‘Spiritual religion of humanity’. His call for integrality and synthesis
is most distinctively reflected in his statements: ‘We of the coming day stand at the head of a
new age of development which must lead to such a new and larger synthesis. [...] We do not
belong to the past dawns, but to the noons of the future’ (in Joshi, 1998b, p .3). To attain
integral perfection, Sri Aurobindo has found education to be critical.