Sage for the age: Remembering Sri Aurobindo on his 150th birth anniversary

Given the depths and heights Sri Aurobindo touched with experiential and realised knowledge, his teachings continue to be relevant in the 21st century, guiding individuals, collectives, nations.
Revolutionary turned mystic supramental sage, Sri Aurobindo.
Revolutionary turned mystic supramental sage, Sri Aurobindo.

As we celebrate 75 years of India’s independence, another exceptional event calls our attention—the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, the revolutionary turned mystic, the supramental sage. Addressing this coincidence, in a message to All India Radio broadcast on August 15, 1947, he wrote, “I take this coincidence, not as a fortuitous accident, but as the sanction and seal of the Divine Force that guides my steps on the work with which I began life, the beginning of its full fruition.” This unshakeable faith in his destiny and in his life’s mission was a hallmark of Sri Aurobindo, whether in his striving towards India’s independence or in his development of Integral Yoga, which aims at a total transformation of individual and collective life.

Born in 1872 in Calcutta, he was sent off at a young age to England by his father, who wanted
a British upbringing for his children. Reaching the summits of the British education system at Cambridge University, his path to the British Indian Civil Service was all but certain. But the young Sri Aurobindo chose instead to join the service of the Maharaja of Baroda, preferring to serve under an Indian ruler (at much lower pay) rather than the British government. Over the next 13 years, even as he rose rapidly through the ranks of the local administration, he would plunge into a deep study of Sanskrit and Bengali, study and translate ancient texts such as the Upanishads, make contact with secret revolutionary societies, and take up the practice of yoga, initially as a means to give him greater inner strength in his fight against the British.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 created the right conditions for a more dynamic and direct revolutionary action and, within a few months, Sri Aurobindo shifted to Calcutta and plunged into open political work—writing articles, giving speeches, driving the split in the Congress between the moderates and nationalists, and guiding the actions of a group of radical revolutionaries who did not shy away from the use of violence to demand purna swaraj (complete independence) from the British rule.

In 1908, Sri Aurobindo was arrested in the Alipore Bomb case, which would be a decisive moment. Spending a year in the Alipore jail as an undertrial, much of it in solitary confinement, Sri Aurobindo would undergo a series of spiritual experiences. Later, in his famous Uttarpara speech, he would speak, for the first and only time in his life, about spiritual experiences before the general public of the realisation of the cosmic Divine, and the direct contact with Sri Krishna. Thereafter, his life would be set on the trajectory of transformation.

Acquitted in 1909 due to lack of evidence, Sri Aurobindo would return to revolutionary activities fearlessly, continuing to publish in the Karmayogin and Dharma magazines, and giving speeches across Bengal. With the British, however, clamping down ruthlessly on leaders of the revolution, his further action was limited.

Sri Aurobindo giving a speech in Beadon Square, Calcutta, on Partition Day, October 16, 1909
Sri Aurobindo giving a speech in Beadon Square, Calcutta, on Partition Day, October 16, 1909

He was compelled to recognise that the nation was not yet ready to carry out the programmes he had envisioned and that he was not the destined leader of future movements. Moreover, after 12 months of intense sadhana in jail, his spiritual life was pressing upon him for an exclusive concentration. And so, in 1910, upon receiving an adesh, an inner command, to withdraw, Sri Aurobindo moved discreetly to Chandernagore, and then eventually to Pondicherry.

While he was initially uncertain how long he would remain in Pondicherry, it became clear with the passage of time that the small town was destined to be his “cave of tapasya”. After four years of intense and silent inner work, in 1914, he began publishing the Arya, where, over the next seven years, he elaborated on his new and unique approach to spiritual life applied to various aspects of individual and collective existence. His major works, such as The Life Divine, The Human Cycle, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Secret of the Veda, and Essays on the Gita, among others, all came out serially in the Arya before they were edited and published as complete books subsequently.

Another exceptional event in 1914 was the meeting of Sri Aurobindo with Mirra Alfassa, his spiritual collaborator, who would later be known as ‘the Mother’. Born in France, with an active inner life since her childhood, she recognised in Sri Aurobindo the person who had been guiding her spiritual life for many years. The Mother would return for good to Pondicherry in 1920. Her role in the development of Sri Aurobindo’s work is crucial. In fact, it would be proper to say that without her, Sri Aurobindo’s vision would have remained unmanifested. The Mother organised the growing community of disciples that were gathering around him, which would eventually become the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. On his part, Sri Aurobindo placed in her hands the full spiritual and material responsibility of the sadhaks.

On November 24, 1926, Sri Aurobindo achieved a significant milestone in his sadhana, a realisation he would describe as the descent of Sri Krishna into the physical consciousness. Thereafter, he withdrew from all active interaction with sadhaks and visitors, and the Mother came forward to play a central role. While he appeared to be in ‘retirement’, he was in fact extremely busy, replying to an avalanche of letters from disciples every night over many hours, and concentrating all his energies on an intense work of transformation that had ramifications not only for himself and the growing community around him, but for India and the world beyond as well.

In the meantime, the Ashram expanded in scope and size. In 1943, the Mother started the Ashram school as a field for the practice of integral education, which would later evolve into the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE), a global pioneer in alternative education.

Through the 1940s, even as the world descended into chaos, war and fascisms of many hues, Sri Aurobindo remained firmly optimistic that these dark movements were only a necessary passage, and that a fundamental change of consciousness could and must lead humanity towards a better future. Towards this end, he did everything in his capacity, for himself and for others, until his passing on December 5, 1950. His body remained in a luminous state for four days, with no visible sign of decay. On the fourth day, as the first signs of discolouration appeared, his body was placed in the Samadhi, in the courtyard of the Ashram main building.

The Mother continued his work, guiding devotees, expanding and firmly establishing the Ashram, organising its workings meticulously, developing the school, and eventually founding the universal township of Auroville in 1968, when she was already well into her 90s. On November 17, 1973, she left her body as well.

The legacy of their work continues unabated. The communities that grew around them have spread out into the world. Apart from the Ashram, numerous independent centres aspire to be living nodes of practice. SAICE continues to thrive as a model of integral education, with echoes of its successes mirrored in the New Education Policy 2020.

Auroville remains a fascinating model, unique in the world, a space that attracts persons from around India and the world, a living experiment of human unity, and a symbolic crucible of the world’s problems demanding urgent resolution.

From individuals and collectives to nations and humanity, Sri Aurobindo has carved out the path to our spiritual destiny. Ever since the news about our new book Reading Sri Aurobindo (Penguin Random House, 2022) was announced, we have been asked this question several times: what is the relevance of Sri Aurobindo in 21st-century India?

The 21st century is a turning point in world affairs. Technology is changing the way we converse as societies, organise and deliver governance, and engage as sovereigns. Despite the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the India-China stalemate, there is, in fact, more peace on the planet today than ever before. And mostly, people are living longer and healthier. India is expected to become the world’s third-largest economy within this decade. Politics is changing to make a place for prosperity. Extreme poverty has almost ended—it stood at 0.8 per cent in 2019, according to a recent International Monetary Fund working paper. Pakistan has been effectively neutralised. And India is showing a new model of strategic autonomy.

What do foreign affairs, economics and wars have to do with Sri Aurobindo though? It is only when you read the 36 volumes of his writings that hold more than 21,000 pages and add up to almost six million words that you can grapple with the expanse of his writings—the philosophical heights and spiritual depths are a constant. There is an integral approach he brings—within and outside; body and soul; mind and matter. He reveals a lofty, destined future—man as a transitional being, divinisation of the body, and the Supramental Consciousness. Even when he writes on issues that dominate the minds of individuals or nations, he does so with spiritual undertones.

“So long as war does not become psychologically impossible, it will remain or, if banished for a while, return,” he wrote in an April 1916 essay titled, The Passing of War, two years into the First World War, illustrating that the need for war lies within; tanks and guns are mere puppets in the hands of more powerful generals driving armies within us. “War is no longer, perhaps, a biological necessity, but it is still a psychological necessity; what is within us, must manifest itself outside.”

According to him, war as a tool to deliver peace is an illusion. “The war that was fought to end the war has been only the parent of fresh armed conflict and civil discord, and it is the exhaustion that followed it which alone prevents yet another vast and sanguinary struggle,” he wrote in an August 1920 essay, After the War, critiquing the League of Nations (1919-1946), the precursor of the United Nations. “The new fair and peaceful world order that was promised us has gone far away into the land of chimeras.”

With a rising hegemon, China, fighting an existing hegemon, the US, and a rebalance of power shifting to the East, including Russia and India, all nuclear powers, a new equilibrium is needed where the idea of war is sublimated into peace from within. Until then, warfare of every kind—physical, economic, energy, technology, psychological or trade—will continue. The new equilibrium lies within individual beings that together become a collective equilibrium of nations. Reading Sri Aurobindo’s The Synthesis of Yoga or The Life Divine brings us closer to that equilibrium.

Or, take economic policy. A speech he wrote for the Maharaja of Baroda, titled ‘The Revival of Industry in India’ (Early Cultural Writings), has lessons that Indian policymakers and policy-thinkers would do well to heed. From agriculture and famines to irrigation and industry, Sri Aurobindo examines surface problems from deeper perspectives that bind tools, methods and education. He was not in favour of state enterprises, understood incentives, and urged entrepreneurs to move forward with self-confidence.

From economics to education. To Sri Aurobindo, education was more than a mental engagement to get a job. “The true basis of education is the study of the human mind, infant, adolescent and adult,” he wrote in a 1910 essay (Early Cultural Writings). “Any system of education founded on theories of academical perfection, which ignores the instrument of study, is more likely to hamper and impair intellectual growth than to produce a perfect and perfectly equipped mind.”

Or, take the core of his work—to accelerate what nature is already doing at its slow pace, that is, to divinise the body. Not for Sri Aurobindo the dissolution of Self into the Infinite; transformation of the being is the goal of his Integral Yoga: “Our whole being—soul, mind, sense, heart, will, life, body—must consecrate all its energies so entirely and in such a way that it shall become a fit vehicle for the Divine.” The profundity of this statement in The Synthesis of Yoga is as universal as it is eternal.

Reading Sri Aurobindo is simultaneously an inspiring and humbling experience. Those who think humanity stands at the pinnacle of evolution, perfected over millions of years, a mentally strong entity driving the knowledge society today, need to broaden their horizons within a time-space and universal-eternal paradigm. “If a spiritual unfolding on earth is the hidden truth of our birth into Matter, if it is fundamentally an evolution of consciousness that has been taking place in Nature, then man, as he is, cannot be the last term of that evolution: he is too imperfect an expression of the spirit, mind itself a too limited form and instrumentation; the mind is only a middle term of consciousness, the mental being can only be a transitional being,” he writes in The Life Divine.

Given the breadths, depths and heights Sri Aurobindo has touched with experiential and realised knowledge, every topic he takes up, from poetry and patriotism to psychology and spirituality, is loaded with insights that have been, are and will continue to remain relevant and guide us. Mastering the inner, perfecting the outer, and integrating the two into an evolutionary harmony of Spirit and Matter, is the path Sri Aurobindo has chiselled for humanity.

These powerful words in his epic poem ‘Savitri’ point to a glorious destined future:

For in the march of all-fulfilling Time

The hour must come of the Transcendent’s will:

All turns and winds towards his predestined ends

In Nature’s fixed inevitable course

Decreed since the beginning of the worlds

In the deep essence of created things:

Even there shall come as a high crown of all

The end of Death, the death of Ignorance.

  • Chikermane is Vice-President, Observer Research Foundation, and
    Ganguli is Faculty, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
The Mother taking a class in the ashram playground, in front
of the Spiritual Map of India

Cardinal Principles Of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga

What is the basic principle underlying Sri Aurobindo’s teaching?
Sri Aurobindo’s teaching states that there is one Being and Consciousness involved here in Matter, which is impelled to enlarge and develop towards greater and greater perfection. Life and Mind are only the first two steps of this evolution. The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of a greater spiritual and supramental Consciousness, which will release the involved Divinity in things after which it will become possible for life to manifest perfection.

What are the main lines of the practice of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga?
In Sri Aurobindo’s view, Man, at present, lives mostly in his surface mind, life and body. There is an inner being within which pushes him to a constant pursuit of greater beauty, harmony, power and knowledge. He has to awaken to the greater possibilities of this inner being and purify and orient by its drive towards the Truth and the rest of nature. There can follow afterwards an opening upward to the several ranges of consciousness between the ordinary human mind and the Supramental Truth-Consciousness, and their power brought down into the mind, life and body. This will enable the full power of the Truth-Consciousness to work in nature.

Is this not a very difficult spiritual discipline?
The opening of all parts of the Being to conversion through descent and working of the higher Consciousness cannot be done at once or in a short time or by any rapid or miraculous transformation. Many steps have to be taken by the seeker before this is possible. The process of this discipline is, therefore, long and difficult, but the sustained effort in this direction brings the seeker ever closer to the goal of this Yoga.

How is Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga related to earlier systems of yoga?
There are many things belonging to the earlier systems that are necessary on this path—an opening of the mind to a greater wideness and to a sense of the Self and the Infinite, an emergence into the cosmic consciousness, mastery over the desires and passions. An outward asceticism is not essential, but the conquest of desire and attachment and control over the body and its needs and instincts is indispensable. There is a combination of the way of knowledge through the Mind’s discernment between Reality and appearance, the heart's way of devotion, love and surrender, and the way of work turning the will away from motives of self-interest to the Truth and the service of a greater reality than the ego. The whole being has to be trained so that it can respond and be transformed when it will be possible for a greater Light and Force to work on nature.

Does Sri Aurobindo seek to establish a new religion?
It is not his object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion, for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his Yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can, in time, discover the one Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental—a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.

(Answers extracted from his own writing - “Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching”, Volume 36, Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Pages 547-550, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry)

The Life and Times of Sri Aurobindo: A Chronology

August 15, 1872

Sri Aurobindo is born in Calcutta

February 21, 1878
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (later to be known as the Mother), is born in Paris

He is taken to study in England

Admitted to King’s College, Cambridge. Joins the Indian Majlis, a student group; makes speeches advocating Indian freedom. Passes the examination for the Indian Civil Service, but disqualifies himself since he does not intend to join.

Returns to India. At Apollo Bunder, a “vast calm” descends upon him as he sets foot on Indian soil. Joins the service of the Maharaja of Baroda, where he would remain for the next 13 years.

Starts publishing his first articles in the magazine Indu Prakash. Begins a deep study of Indian languages and ancient texts.

Begins his political action from behind the scenes

Begins the practice of yoga

Partition of Bengal takes place, igniting protests

Sri Aurobindo leaves Baroda and moves to Calcutta. Assumes charge as Principal of Bengal National College. Starts a journal Bande Mataram; during its brief but momentous existence, it would change the political discourse in India.

Arrested on charges of sedition for writings in Bande Mataram; released on bail and later acquitted. Comes forward as the leader of the Nationalist Party and gives the order leading to
the split of the Congress. His fiery writings and speeches continue.

Meets Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, a Maharashtrian yogi. Attains the experience of the silent Brahman. Arrested in the Alipore Bomb Case. Has the realisation in prison of the Cosmic Consciousness and of the Divine (Sri Krishna) as manifest in all beings and in everything that exists.

Acquitted in the Alipore Bomb Case. Delivers the famous Uttarpara speech. Starts writing in Karmayogin and Dharma.

Receives the “adesh” (inner command) to leave Calcutta for Chandernagore. Eventually proceeds to Pondicherry and settles there.

The first meeting of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. The first issue of Arya, in which most of his major works will be published over the next seven years.

April 24, 1920
The Mother returns to Pondicherry for good and gradually takes charge of the community of spiritual seekers that was growing around him.

November 24, 1926
Siddhi Day (Victory Day): Sri Aurobindo experiences the descent of Krishna in the physical. Thereafter, all direct daily general contact with Sri Aurobindo is discontinued as he retires into concentrated sadhana. Keeps in touch with disciples only through extensive correspondence and a few “darshan” days in the year. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram begins to take shape more formally.

December 2, 1943
The Ashram school is started, which would later evolve into the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education

August 15, 1947
Liberation of India on Sri Aurobindo’s 75th birthday. His message is broadcast on All India Radio

February 29, 1956
The Mother has the concrete experience of the descent of the Supramental Consciousness

February 28, 1968
The international township of Auroville is founded by the Mother

November 17, 1973
The Mother leaves her body

August 15, 2022
The 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo will be celebrated.

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