Aurobindo: Thinker, Philosopher, poet of India

Review of the Contributions of a Major Thinker
This issue of Samyukta highlights the contributions of Sri.Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose 1872-1950) was a revolutionary freedom fighter of India, turned philosopher and spiritual leader. He was one of the few spiritual leaders of India who thought in terms of the universal upliftment of man rather than a personal moksha. He lived and worked at a time of political upheaval in India and very early was convinced that his forte was spirituality. Aurobindo spent his formative fourteen years (1879-1892) in England. He was initially under the care of Mr. Drewett, a clergyman. Aurobindo the third son of Dr. Ghose had been taken to England and left there with his two brothers when the doctor returned to India. He had a typically English education and learnt the Bible, Latin and Greek like English boys. At this point of time Aurobindo had no contact with the Indian community. It was only after he joined Cambridge University and moved out to a new place of stay that he met students and other Indians in England. Then he learnt of the strife in India and the struggle for independence. By that time, a brilliant scholar, linguist, poet and writer, Aurobindo was preparing for the ICS to join Government service in India. But his new friends opened his eyes to a lot of British injustice in India. It was then that he decided to deliberately fail the riding test, a must for every ICS candidate. Dr. Ghose too had inadvertently endorsed this decision by sending his sons, news about British atrocity in India. Dr. Ghose however, did not live to see Aurobindo when he returned to India.

Back in India Aurobindo worked as a secretary to the maharaja of Baroda. He was able to make use of the maharaja’s extensive library during his stay there. At this time he taught himself Sanskrit, Marathi, Bengali and a number of other Indian languages. During this period he had access to the original Sanskrit versions of the Upanishads, the Vedas and the works of classics of Bhasa and Kalidasa. He left the maharaja’s service to become a teacher at Baroda College and later became principal in charge. From here on he started taking a revolutionary stand, publishing a number of anti British articles for various Indian journals in English and Bengali. Later in February 1910 he left for Chandranagore fearing arrest because of an editorial than he had penned. Soon he moved on to Pondicherry where he remained till his samadhi.

Unlike most philosophers of India, Aurobindo has not placed any dos and don’ts for individuals and society. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that this Bengali who came from the land of Vivekananda had no rules and regulations for women in particular. Humanity has always been viewed as a whole where man and woman had equal roles to play. The Aurobindo ashram at Pondicherry where the Mother played an important role emphasizes the fact that sex, race or nationality have no place in the process of spiritual evolution. As the Mother at Pondicherry has said:

The ancient traditions were right when they said: we and the source of our being, we and our God are one. And this unity should not be understood as only a relation of union more or less close and intimate but as a true identity. (The Mother: The Supreme Discovery. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1944).

In the year 1915-16 Aurobindo and the Mother corresponded frequently and their letters described the common mission, their spiritual experiences and the trials they were facing in their work for humanity. They spoke of their unshakable faith in the ultimate victory. The Mother returned to Pondicherry on April 24th , 1920 to stay permanently. Aurobindo declared that “…the sadhana and work were waiting for the Mother’s coming.” With her return the ashram grew and a community of sadhaks was formed. It was she who taught the sadhaks that “…the Divinity within never imposes herself, never makes any claim, never menaces: she offers herself, gives herself, hides and forgets herself in the heart of all beings and all things; she blames none, neither judges nor curses nor condemns, but is at work incessantly in order to perfect without constraint, to repair without reproaches, to encourage without impatience, to enrich everyone with the treasures which he is capable of receiving. She is the mother who loves, bears and nourishes, guards and protects, counsels and consoles; because she understands all, she supports all, excuses and pardons all, hopes for and prepares all; carrying all in herself, She has nothing which does not belong to all; because she reigns over all: she is the servant of all: and that is why all, small or great who wish to be kings with her and Gods in her, become, like her; not despots but servants among their brethren.” (The Mother: The Supreme Discovery. Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1944)

This too was Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the Divine, and it is interesting to note that the Divine, as he sees it, is ‘SHE’. This supreme or ultimate conception of the Feminine Divine may also be attributed to the socio-religious attitudes in contemporary Bengal. It was the period of Bhakti Cults and Shakti Poojas when Durga was conceived of as being the absolute or divine strength. It is obvious, however, that this idea of divinity was impersonal and above the concept of the sexes as man knows it in everyday life. The body with its biological differences of man and woman had nothing to do with the evolution that Sri Aurobindo envisaged. There was evidently no special status or duty attributed to man or woman. The yoga that he advocated was for all humanity. As a sadhak, Pavitra put it : “the personal effort required is a triple labour of aspiration, rejection and surrender, – and aspiration vigilant, constant, unceasing – the mind’s will, the heart’s seeking, the assent of the vital being, the will to open and make plastic the physical consciousness and nature; rejection of the movements of the lower nature – rejection of the mind’s ideas, opinions, preferences, habits, constructions, so that the true knowledge may find free room in a silent mind, – rejection of the vital nature’s desires, demands, cravings, passions, selfishness, pride, arrogance, lust, greed, jealousy, envy, hostility to Truth, so that the true power and joy may pour from above into the calm large strong and consecrated vital being … surrender of oneself and all one is and has and every plane of consciousness and every movement to the Divine and the Sakti.” ( On Meditation and Discipline. Pavitra, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1971)

This idea is reflected again in the advice on advancing meditation. It states:

a) During your meditation you experience that your mental self can stand aloof from the mental nature in you and is therefore separate – on one side: you, yourself; on the other: your thoughts, ideas, opinions (are they really yours?)

b) You can now extend this disassociation to the realm of emotion and feelings. This is better done in the daily life itself. When you feel an emotion – disgust, anger, greed or passion – rising in you, stand aloof and observe. You will at once notice that emotion loses its grip on you or even vanishes. This realization brings you the means of controlling your …feelings, emotions and cravings – the vital nature in you.

c) Then comes the third realization, the distinction between you and your physical body – the most difficult of the three. Stand aside from your sensations and observe…the control over the physical nature in you, its obscurity and dullness, its instability and fragility. So long as this disjunction is not there, you are the slave of your body; once achieved, you are its master…there is no uniform rule for all; each man or woman has to discover his or her own rule. (The Mother II, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1971)

We see that Aurobindo’s vision did not keep woman aside, did not deify and thus imprison into this earthly life the creation – woman. She is of this universe, a being evolving like her counter part, man. Our world, Aurobindo teaches, is the scene of an ascending evolution, which grows from the stone to the plant, from the plant to the animal, from the animal to man. Apparently man is at the summit, but that is a mistaken notion, for in his physical nature, he is still almost wholly an animal. The next step of the evolutionary process is for ‘animal man’ to become ‘Divine man’. For this a higher spiritual consciousness or the super-mind or the supramental must come into being.

Most of this idea of evolution is reflected in Aurobindo’s poetical works, the finest output of which belonged to the Pondicherry phase of his life. He had been writing even as a young student in Cambridge. Always the recurring theme of love’s conquest of Death seemed to predominate his writings. And again the divine strength which ultimately overcomes all darkness is usually presented in the feminine form. The crown of all his works “Savitri” embodies his vision of Truth, his spiritual vision of the universe and of Life, his vision of the future when the world would manifest the unveiled Divine. “Savitri” is a legend and a symbol. The story based upon the Mahabharatha legend tells of Savitri “the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down to save Satyavan the soul descended into the grip of death and ignorance.” It is thus that Savitri the incarnation of the Divine Mother in Sri Aurobindo’s poem asks of God this final boon :

Thy embrace which rends the living naught of pain,
Thy joy O Lord, in which all creatures breathe
Thy magic flowing waters of deep love,
Thy sweetness give to me for earth and men”

And she is promised that when all her work is done, a new power will awake in man:

The External’s truth shall mould his thoughts and acts, the External’s truth shall be his light and guide.

All then shall change, a magic order come…
A divine harmony shall be earth’s law,
Beauty and Joy mould her way to live…
Nature shall live to manifest Secret God…

This earthly life become the life Divine (Savitri. Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1973)

As Savitri of the story wanders through the forest, she meets Satyavan who “roams on his charmed sleep amid thoughts and things and he hungers for a sign that he can know.” When the sign appears the mind only thinks:

Behold the one
For whom my life has waited long unfilled
Behold the sudden sovereign of my days.
Heart cries for heart, limb cries for answering limb,
All strives to enforce the unity all is. (Savitri, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1973)

Long before Savitri took its final shape the feminine incarnation of strength found its way into Aurobindo’s writing. In his plays, for example, the heroines stood out as superior beings. They may not have reached divine heights of evolution but with all human failing they were above their human counter parts in the story.

In the play Vasavadatta the story of which was taken from Somadeva’s Kathasarithsagara we find a picture of womanhood very different from that of Aurobindo’s contemporary society. Ungaria, Vasavadatta’s mother wisely declares, looking at her irate husband “if we give his rage its hour, itwill sink.” She is no shrinking woman before the angry king or husband. When Mahasegn tells her that she is not his counselor she replies :

Man is a creature, blinded by the sun,
Who errs by vision; but the world to you
That’s darkness, they who walk there, they have sight

Such am I; for the shades have reared my soul. (Vasavadatta, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1971)

The arrogant king Vuthsa of Cowsambie is introduced as Vasavadatta’s slave and servant. Later as her bridegroom he says to her:

…Thou beside me Fate
And Fortune, peace and battle must obey
The vagrant lightest winged of my desires (Vasavadatta)

Vasavadatta is presented as a free and royal woman with a will of her own. Her mother urges this independence as much as her father decries it. But ultimately it is the victory of the woman, and so of Prince Vuthsa that prevails.

In Perseus The Deliverer princess Andromeda is the source of strength first to her father, King Cepheus and later to the nation as a whole. It is she who works with Perseus to let –

…a calm and mighty Will prevail
And broader minds and kindlier manners reign
And men grow human, mild and merciful. (Perseus the Deliverer, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971)

Looking at the prisoners whom she fried, Andromeda shows divine and universal compassion. She declares:

Why we have so many sins to answer
It would hard to have cold justice dealt us
We should be kindly to each other’s faults
Remembering our own. (Ibid)

The slave women in Aurobindo’s concept shared the same free spirit and boldness as the queens. In “Vizierous of Bassora” we see the slave girl Anice Aljalice talking to the Caliph himself without the fear associated with her status. She demands that her husband be returned to her unhurt or else she would–

…rise upon the judgment day
Against thee, Caliph Harun Al Rasheed,
Demanding him at that eternal throne
Where names are not received, nor earthly pomps
Considered. Then my frail and woman’s voice
Shall ring more dreadful in thy mighty hearing
Than doom’s own trumpet. Answer my demand.

It is obvious that as a poet and as a spiritualist Aurobindo saw no difference of the capabilities and aspirations between men and women. They were merely a part of the universe and a reflection of the divine, neither having a greater or lesser status. He was more concerned with the darkness in humanity which hid the Divine. As he said

Of moksha we have no personal need; for the soul is nitya mukta and bondage is an illusion. We play at being bound, we are not really bound. We can be free when God wills; for he our supreme Self, is the master of the game and without his grace and permission no soul can leave the game. It is often God’s will in us to take through the mind the ‘Bhoga’ of ignorance, of the dualities of joy and grief, of pleasure and pain, of virtue and sin, of enjoyment and renunciation: for long ages in many countries he never even thinks of the yoga but plays out this play, century after century without wearying of it. There is nothing evil in this, nothing which we need condemn or nothing from which we need to shrink – it is God’s play. (The yoga and its Objects, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1934)

Aurobindo’s philosophy did not advocate condemnation of anything as all is the creation of the Divine. To each would come the realization of the inner divine when the unnecessary element would be voluntarily left and this was the process of Divine evolution. Judgments according to Aurobindo were totally unreliable. He says that there are only two judges whose joint verdict cannot be disputed, the World and Time. But the World’s verdict is secure only when it is confirmed by Time. For it is not the opinion of the general mass that decides. The decision is really imposed by the judgment of a minority and elite which is finally accepted and settles down to a verdict of posterity. Our inner vision and Divine sight comes to the forefront to guide true judgment when we have strived for it. To be able to achieve this divine power, there are three necessary conditions:

1) Quietude, equality – not to be disturbed by anything that happens, to keep the mind still and firm, seeing the play of forces, but itself tranquil.

2) Absolute faith – faith that what is for the best will happen, but also that if one can make oneself a true instrument, the fruit will be that which one’s will, guided by the divine light sees as the thing to be done – Kartavyam Karma.

3) Receptivity – the power to receive the Divine force and to feel its presence and the presence of the Mother (Sakti) in it and allow it to work, guiding one’s sight and will and action. If this power and presence can be felt and this plasticity made the habit of consciousness in action – but plasticity to the Divine force alone without bringing in any foreign element – the eventual result is sure.(Basis of Yoga. Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1981)

Aurobindo insists that equality is very important for our spiritual advancement. The mind must be balanced to keep a balanced outlook on life and society. But equality does not include inert acceptance. When there is a ‘failure’ it is necessary to find out the reason and meaning of the failure in order to gain victory. Whatever the unpleasantness of the circumstances and however disturbing the conduct of others may be, you must learn to receive them with perfect calm and without negative reaction. These thoughts from one who began as a political revolutionary, and silently advocated violence to free the nation, display the total change that came over Aurobindo once he turned to spiritual philosophy. There were greater Truths and Light that beckoned him. The pettiness, differences and aspirations of mortal man were suddenly clear to him. He had learned that it was important not to impose one’s mind and vital will on the Divine but to receive the Divine’s will and follow it. Unlike many philosophers and ascetics, he advocated that to be always observing faults and wrong movements brings depression and discourages faith. It is important to turn one’s eyes to the coming light rather than to any immediate darkness. Faith, cheerfulness and confidence in the ultimate victory are the things that help – they make the progress easier and swifter. All Aurobindo’s heroes and heroines display this quality of cheerfulness and faith, making them possible examples of success among the ordinary conditions of man.

In this material world we have to first realize the difference between the suppression and an inward essential rejection – it is the difference between mental or moral control and a spiritual purification. The first condition for getting rid of a weakness such as desire is, to become conscious with a true consciousness, for then it is much easier to dismiss it than when one perceives it as a constituent part of oneself to be thrown out from the being. It is easier to throw off an accretion than to excise what is part of our self. This is increasingly easy when our physic being is in the forefront, as this brings out the true consciousness and sets right almost automatically the movements of nature.

Speaking of the human mind and its working, Aurobindo says:

The mind proper is divided into three parts –thinking mind dynamic mind, externalizing mind – the former concerned with ideas and knowledge in their own right, the second with putting out of mental forces or realization of the idea, the third with the expression of them in life, not only by speech but any form it can give. (More Lights on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondycherry,1983)

The soul of man is a power apart from life. It is the part of the Divine spirit which supports the individual nature. Mind, life and body are the instruments for the manifestation of the nature. In most human beings the soul is hidden and covered by the action of external nature. People often mistake the vital being for the soul, because it is the vital which animates and moves the body. This vital being is made up of desires, forces good and bad:

it is when the true soul (psyche) comes forward and begins first
to influence and then govern the actions of the instrumental nature that man begins to overcome vital desire and grows towards
a Divine nature.” (More Light on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo,
Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1983)

The world abounds in the abnormal but it is worthwhile to remember that the supernatural is also there. Any truly rational being with a free mind must suspend judgement until he has the necessary experience and knowledge. To deny ignorance is no better than to affirm ignorance. It is the ego in man that makes a hasty judgement and then refuses to retract. On the other hand human society, human friendship, love, affection, fellow feeling are mostly and usually founded on a vital basis and are ego held at their center. This ego is merged with emotion. Emotional desire maybe the cause of perturbation and an obstacle to progress. It must not be killed but turned towards the Divine. Then it becomes pure, founded upon Spiritual peace and joy and is capable of being transplanted into Ananda. Thus it would be the body that turns out to become a Heavenly Instrument. As the lines in Savitri reveal:

World were there of a child like mirth and joy;
A carefree youthfulness of mind and heart
Found in the body a heavenly instrument.

The poet feels that there is here in this world a spontaneous joy unbridled by care or fear. Ignorance in materiality cannot weigh down the mind forever. The same body which acts as a drag turns in the subtler plains into a ready and joyous instrument.

Sri Aurobindo’s teachings state that the One Being and Consciousness is involved here in Matter. Evolution is the process by which it liberates itself; consciousness appears in what seems to be inconscient and once having appeared is self impelled to grow higher and at the same time to enlarge and develop towards a greater perfection. Life is the first step of the release of this consciousness: mind is the second; but the evolution does not finish with mind, it waits a release into something greater, a consciousness which is spiritual and supramental.The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of Supermind and Spirit as the dominant power in conscious being. For, only then will the Divinity in all things release itself completely and make it possible for life to attain perfection.

 Teaches English at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Has done commendable work as co-ordinator of the college N.S.S. unit. Has also made her mark as a critic and translator.

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 Teaches English at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Has done commendable work as co-ordinator of the college N.S.S. unit. Has also made her mark as a critic and translator.

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