Sri Aurobindo Institute of Indian Culture. (SAIIC) Shillong workshop, 26,Oct -7 Nov, 2006 - 4. Life of Sri Aurobindo—Summary of the History of Evolution

As I see the life of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, in the first place it is a summary of the history of evolution. That’s true of both. And after summarising all that one can learn from the history of the world, evolution in particular, both reached a point where they could lead the evolution together. Sri Aurobindo lived in the early days in a school in Darjeeling. So you might say he lived in the valley of the Himalayas, once you see what great tapasya has been done in the Himalayas in India.

At the age of seven, he was sent away to England and started with Greek and Latin, so he learned these two languages, along with English, even before he learned Bengali, his mother tongue. Through Greek and Latin, he could assimilate the entire European history and his works indicate from what depth he must have assimilated the entire European history. He was not only a good student, but a brilliant student. During his school days, he was mainly taught at home by Drewetts, a couple who were friends of his father, and who were instructed to ensure that the boy receives only the western influence and nothing of india.

This is one of the ironies of history: one who was not supposed to know anything about India, after 14 years at the age 21 when he returned from England, the only burning passion in his life at that time was to see that India was freed from the British. All this big transformation took place in England itself. It is one of the most interesting chapters of history. What did he study, how he studied and how he came to understand something of India, because surely he would not yet learn his mother tongue because he learned only when he came back to Baroda. He did not know any Indian language worth its name, so what he built in England, we can glimpse only from a few remarks that he has made. One was that his father, who was so much influenced by the British and he was a great lover of British civilization and later on he himself realised that he was mistaken, and he therefore began to send to his son some clippings of the wrong things being done to the people in india.

Secondly, since he had mastered Greek and Latin, he had learnt particularly the history of revolutions, French revolution particularly. He wrote later on what is called Historical Impressions, it's a short article, in which his views in depth on the French revolution as a whole and the role played by Mirabeau and Napoleon in which he made these four characterizations. We know the depth at which he could bring out the truth of the entire revolution and the meaning of the revolution for the world. In fact, it is impossible to understand the modern world without understanding, first of all, Plato, the great Greek philosopher and without understanding the French revolution. These two things stand out and when you read Sri Aurobindo you find these two powerful impressions running throughout. Like Plato he himself wrote a kind of Symposium. Plato is very famous for his dialogues and he said that after he read the Symposium of Plato, he was inspired to write himself a dialogue. It is available to all of us, it is called Harmony of Virtues. The very subject he chose—the harmony of virtues—shows a great blending of the Greek and the Indian. So he must have read about Indian culture and compared the two cultures quite in depth even at that stage, when he was only around 19 years old. Not only did he learn English, Greek and Latin, but he achieved mastery over French. and it is this mastery of French which was responsible for his being appointed as a professor of French at the Baroda College. This is a fact which is not very well known, that Sri Aurobindo was professor of French and thereafter he was appointed professor of History and of course of English.

His school life as I said was at the home of the Drewetts who were Christians and they wanted to make Sri Aurobindo a Christians. There was also a ceremony in which it was declared that he was now a Christians and was given a name, Ackroyd. So in his registers his name was Ackroyd Aurobindo Ghose. Soon afterwards, when he entered the St. Paul school, when he received a scholarship in Greek and Latin, his economical life was extremely difficult. Some of the remarks that Sri Aurobindo made about his economic condition in England, we realise under what strenuous situation he lived. His father was, of course, a rich man in the sense that he was in the medical service of India, but in due course of time, because there was growing tension between Britishers and him, so due to all that he did not rise as much as he ought to have. He sent enough remittances from his side to his sons, because Sri Aurobindo was there also with two other brothers, Mohan Ghose and Binoy Ghose. So these three brothers were living together, not in the same place but living in England together. Sri Aurobindo said that at times he only lived on one cup of tea a day and a few toasts and in the winter of England he had only one coat to wear. So it must have been a very hard time to live in England in those conditions. At the time his two other brothers also depended upon the scholarship that he was receiving because of his brilliance, and he were to share his scholarship money with the other brothers. These were his hardships. The fact that this did not affect his psychology in any way shows that his basic interest in life was pursuit of knowledge.

And because of his brilliance the friends of Sri Aurobindo’s father tried to prevail upon Sri Aurobindo to take the ICS examination. Since he's a brilliant young man, if he took the ICS examination and then passed it, he would be a very great man in India. In fact he passed the ICS examination, and then he spent one year in probation and even in ICS examination he got record marks in Greek and Latin particularly. Then Sri Aurobindo during that one year, felt no call at all for the ICS. So we wanted to find some way by which he could come out of the clutches of the ICS. But already he had passed the examination and he wanted to tell his father that he doesn't want to join the ICS and he knew his father would be greatly disappointed. So, ultimately, he would remain absent from the riding test, and thus he got himself, by his own will disqualified, for the ICS. He was given three four chances to appear again for the riding test but he just did not appear for the riding test. It was the first time that Gaekwad Siajirao of Baroda was in England and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo, and he was so impressed by the learning of Sri Aurobindo that he offered him to be his secretary, which he accepted, and this is the reason how he joined Baroda service instead of ICS. And when he returned, he did not return to Bengal, he went straight to Bombay. In Bombay as he set his foot on the soil of India at the Apollo Bundar he had his first spiritual experience, a calm descended upon him. It was as if Mother India received him and imparted the gift of ancient tapasya to Sri Aurobindo.

From there he went to Baroda and joined the Baroda College where he served for 13 years, from 1893 to 1905. Now these years can be regarded as assimilation of India, just as 14 years in England, he had assimilated the whole of European civilization. Now these 13 years he assimilated the Indian civilization, Indian culture and where he mastered Sanskrit language, Bengali, Hindustani, Gujarati and later on of course he mastered Tamil. So this was one of the ways of learning Indian culture at its roots.

Soon after he came to India in 1893 itself, people were struck by the writings that he started that very year, it was called New Lamps for the Old, series of articles he wrote through the journal called Indu Prakash. And through that journal he gave a series of articles. Reading through those articles was amazing for three reasons: depth at which he understood the hollowness of the leadership of Congress at that time. It was the sharpest criticism that could be made regarding the leadership penned by this young man of 21. Secondly, these articles show that even before he understood india in the way in which he understood india later on, he had enough grasp of what india should be doing and right from that time he had felt that India was too weak at present. What India needs is power. It should be a powerful nation, and India should develop a power, should become brave not weak and India must recover herself.

The third thing that was visible in these articles was the sharpness of his understanding of history itself. It was said earlier, you have studied European history with a mastery, uncommon mastery. This mastery of understanding of history is partly present in these articles that he wrote and these articles made a great impact. It’s also remarkable a young man coming from England at the age of 21 writing articles and stirring up the people of India to such an extent that Justice MG Ranade, one of the great leaders of Indian freedom movement, it was not freedom movement but freedom struggle you might say, went to the editor of Indu Prakash and said, please tell this man not to write, our whole politicality is being washed out by this young man. The editor, of course, was very friendly with Sri Aurobindo and, of course the articles were not stopped, but then, of course Sri Aurobindo if you read these articles you find them milder than the previous articles and ultimately stopped writing altogether.

Now, during the fourteen years that he lived in Baroda, apart from his learning of languages, he was teaching. So he got the best experience of education in India. Of course he was a very much loved professor of students and students used to go to his house and learn from him personally and Sri Aurobindo used to help the students even financially.

Secondly, he translated some of the dramas of Kalidasa from Sanskrit into english. This is one of the important works which is not sufficiently known to people. He started translating for the sake of mastery of the language. One of the first things he did was to learn the Mahabharata in the original, and the story of Nala and Damayanti particularly. He also translated some of the passages from Mahabharata, we also have some passages from Ramayana as he translated at that time. And then he translated Vikramorvasiyam of Kalidasa and Malavikagnimitram. These two dramas are even now available to us in English translation. They are masterpieces because these dramas are also written in poetic form although these dramas are themselves not poetic. They have dialogues, prose and some of the verses are intermixed but Sri Aurobindo’s translations are in poetic form. He also translated Meghadutam of Kalidasa, but for Meghadutam the manuscripts have been lost. You know, in later period when he was in a political struggle, there were searches in his house and all the documents were seized by the Britishers and therefore many of the documents were taken away by the police. Among them one great loss is his translation of Meghadutam.

It seems that he used to read enormously. From some of the accounts that we find, he used to have trunks of books coming to him and he used to read at a tremendous speed, his power of concentration was such. Within a few hours he could read the whole book, some say that he used to read very very fast. A friend, somebody who tested Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo was just turning pages and when he put down the book after reading it. When that friend picked up that book and asked, now tell me what you have read. And Sri Aurobindo could reproduce everything that was in the book. This is from an eyewitness who wrote me an account of the power of concentration of Sri Aurobindo and his grasp.

At the same time, he came to realise his main work. So while he was teaching and he was working as a professor, he was planning for India. By 1900, by the end of the century, he was inwardly drawn to revolution in india. He felt that without an armed revolution, India cannot be free. The chattels of the British government were so strong to rule India that only an armed struggle would ultimately succeed and therefore he had begun to collect around a small circle of young people who could be willing for the training in weapons. Apart from this, most important question that he felt all through was need of power in India. And he was asking how to make India fully powerful. It is at that time that he happened to hear about yoga, it's very interesting but the one whose life was to be the supreme yogi, it is only when he turned about 28-29 years old that he merely came to understand something about yoga, one who said he had no turn for yoga, who was a poet but there was no turning for yoga. But when he found that there's one thing yoga can promise is power. Yoga is not only knowledge but also power. That is what led Sri Aurobindo to understand this great gift of India and he started with the practice of pranayama. As usual whatever Sri Aurobindo did he did thoroughly. Right at the beginning he began to do pranayama for four to five hours every day. In the beginning of course he says there were no spiritual results. Results were increased poetic flow, increased strength of the body but he had sufficient proof that there is a source in yoga by the help of which India can be free.

Sri Aurobindo himself as he said he had no turn to yoga, even then he had two experiences in the beginning in the Baroda period itself which were very remarkable. One was an experience which Sri Aurobindo had in 1893 itself when he came to Baroda. He was in a horse carriage and there seemed to be a possibility of an accident and suddenly he had an experience and through grace no accident took place, I mean intervention took place and accident didn’t occur. Later on he wrote a poem on this subject. I would like to read this poem to you.