An excerpt from Roshen Dalal’s new biography of the great freedom fighter-turned-seer – on his 151st birth anniversary
GN Bureau | August 15, 2023
Sri Aurobindo: The Life and Teachings of a Revolutionary Philosopher
By Roshen Dalal
Macmillan, 328 pages, Rs 699
August 15 is also the birth anniversary of the great freedom fighter-turned-seer, Sri Aurobindo. Coinciding with his 151st birth anniversary this year, a new biography by historian Roshen Dalal is being published.
From Aurobindo's early years and education in England to his consequential return to India during its embryonic freedom movement, his arrest in the infamous Alipore Bomb Case, and subsequent spiritual awakening and ascetic life at his ashram in Pondicherry, Dalal unravels the intricate events and relationships that shaped his thinking – particularly his collaborations with his spiritual partner, the Mother. Drawing from over three decades of research, she presents here the most accessible, lucid, and insightful portrait of Sri Aurobindo to date.
Specializing in Indian history, Dalal also deciphers Sri Aurobindo’s writings on Hindu sacred texts, and his philosophical writings, ‘The Life Divine’, ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’, and his 24,000-line epic poem, ‘Savitri’. The book aims to offer an understanding of his core principles, underlying his universal ideas, and making them better known and accessible.
The book provides a brief overview of Aurobindo's external life for which his own autobiographical notes have been referenced. The Mother, given her pivotal role during his lifetime, holds a prominent place in the book. It delves into Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy as revealed through his writings to serve as an essential guide to understanding his philosophical concepts and his vision of the future.
Here is an excerpt from the new biography:
… with the fall of the Conservative government in Britain and the election of a Labour government, India finally gained independence on 15 August 1947. The day marked Sri Aurobindo’s seventy-fifth birthday, and a message from him was requested by the Trichinopoly station of All India Radio and read out on 14 August. He had predicted long ago that independence was inevitable, but along with independence came the unforeseen partition into two countries, India and Pakistan, accompanied by murder and mayhem. Around one million people were killed, and around ten million migrated across the newly created borders. Though Sri Aurobindo had been against the Partition, he was unable to stop the tide of events. He found it significant that independence was proclaimed on his own birthday.
In his independence message, Sri Aurobindo put forward his five dreams for the world and India: the freedom and unity of India, of which only the first was attained; the rise of Asia; a world union to maintain peace; the spiritual gift of India to the world; and the rise of humans to a higher consciousness. But he was not happy with the division into India and Pakistan; he hoped they would be reunited. If it lasts, he said, India would be seriously weakened, with a constant possibility of civil strife. Even internal development and prosperity would be affected. He emphasized, ‘The partition must go,’ though the manner in which this happened was not important. Perhaps it would be through ‘an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action’. Unity was necessary for India’s future greatness; therefore, it must be achieved.
After independence, the Mother drew a map of what she believed was the true India, including West and East Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon. However, on that very day, some hooligans also attacked the ashram and one ashramite, Mulshankar Jain, was killed. Mulshankar had been a close attendant of Sri Aurobindo. This happened a day after a successful Darshan earlier that day. Even after India gained independence from Britain, Pondicherry remained under French control. He wanted the French territories to merge with India while retaining some autonomy. In September 1947, he came out of isolation to meet the governor of French territories in India, François Baron von Trott, as well as a representative of a French cultural delegation. However, the transfer of French territories to India occurred well after Aurobindo’s death. There was considerable confusion at the time regarding the conditions in Pondicherry with the new Indian government. There was even a temporary blockade against goods entering French territories.
In the aftermath of independence and partition, a further tragedy took place when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke over the radio, ‘The light has gone out of our lives’. Sri Aurobindo was asked for a message and, in his message too, he said, ‘… the light that led us to freedom, though not yet to unity, still burns and will burn till it conquers …’ Once again, Aurobindo was requested to rejoin political activity, and he refused. But he would comment on politics in Mother India, a newspaper started by his disciple K. D. Sethna.
Sri Aurobindo continued his work, delving deep into other worlds through ‘Savitri’. He dictated passages of the book to Nirodbaran, who would read them back to him the next day, after which he made revisions and additions. Once it was typed out, further amendments were made. In 1950, the first part of ‘Savitri’ was published.
Sri Aurobindo had not left the ashram for many years. Yet, he was known and widely respected, not only in India but also in the West. Scholars such as the Russian-born American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889–1968), as well as other American, English, and French academics, who were impressed with Aurobindo’s work, recognized his colossal intellect and spiritual depths. Aldous Huxley, Madam Montessori, Albert Schweitzer, W. Somerset Maugham, Paul Brunton, Mircea Eliade were among others who found his work important. In 1945, he was again nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, though it was eventually awarded to Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.
After 1947, a few people were allowed to visit him, including the photographer Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs provide an important record of this late stage of his life. S. Radhakrishnan asked him for an essay on philosophy through one of his disciples, but he refused. At no time did Sri Aurobindo want publicity or fame, or to create a sect or school, or a movement. ‘It means that hundreds or thousands of useless people join in and corrupt the work or reduce it to a pompous farce from which the Truth that was coming down recedes into secrecy and silence. It is what has happened to the “religions” and it is the reason for their failure.’
And yet, without any effort, he became known to prominent people in the western world.
[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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