Sri Aurobindo, the venerable sage of French Pondicherry, turned 75 on the very day that British India – which he left after fighting its first revolutionary war of liberation – gained independence. Pure coincidence was not lost then, although it is almost completely forgotten today, on the 150e anniversary of his birth.
After all, the one party and one parivar regime that had steered clear of the freedom struggle and harshly castigated the choice of the tricolor as the Indian flag is in overdrive to use the 75e India’s birthday to appropriate this same flag and destroy its own shameful role in the national movement.
“August 15 is my own birthday,” Aurobindo had said from distant Pondicherry, “and I am naturally gratified that it has taken on such vast significance. I take this coincidence, not as a fortuitous accident, but as the sanction and the seal of the divine Force which guides my steps in the work by which I began life, the beginning of its full realization.
He had no premonition that his 150e birthday would hardly be observed – not that he cared much about such gestures – and that the current dispensation would limit his observance to a few token gestures. These would surely focus on his “Hindu spiritualism”, not his pioneering role as a revolutionary in the “extremist section” of Congress. After all, this government has brought in its usual suspects – friendly spiritualists like Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi – to lead the way. These “spiritual” leaders are, of course, more than successful in material prosperity as well.
Everything about Aurobindo Ghose was unusual, starting with the spelling of his name – Arvind, for the rest of India and Arobindo for Bengalis – where the ‘u’ enters without warning, as if to emphasize an aura.
The third son of an Edinburgh-trained Anglophile civilian surgeon in the service of the British Empire in India, he learned to be imbued with English and to converse with subordinates not in his native Bengali but in Hindustani, as did the ‘White man. Embarked in England at the age of seven and brought up by a very Christian English family, he developed an adolescent antipathy towards religion. Aurobindo learned Greek and Latin, as well as French, while he could also read and write in German and Italian.
The thin young man was sent to the best university in Cambridge, King’s and qualified relatively easily for the Indian civil service. But by then, after 14 years in England, he had just had enough of the British and their ‘heartless rule’ and was determined not to go to ICS – a path his father had decided for him. . The dilemma was similar to what Subhas Chandra Bose would go through, at the same university for the same ICS, some 27 years later. Aurobindo managed to avoid the coveted ICS by failing the compulsory riding test, and at 21 was freed from his father’s dream of having to serve the British in India, as part of his elite corps.
He soon found employment under the Gaekwad of Baroda in 1893 and then began his “true discovery of India”. He taught Sanskrit on his own and gave frequent advice to Bengal to master the language and soak up its culture – to make up for lost years. At Baroda, he took an active interest in academics in addition to his administrative duties and began teaching at Baroda College (now Maharaja Sayajirao University), where he became deputy principal.
Since civil service rules, even in princely states, prohibited active involvement in politics, he mastered the art of living two lives – one as a civilian and an academic with his masterful English and French and his informed conversations in Indian languages like Hindustani, Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati, and the other as a staunch nationalist. The latter emerges clearly from his writings in Indu Prakash the radical Anglo-Maratha newspaper.
His travels to Bengal convinced him that brutal British rule could not be overthrown by the moderate three-piece suit leaders of Congress, but by secret societies armed with young men determined to lay down their lives.
Aurobindo helped organize secret societies in Bengal like Anushilan and Jugantar but the revolutionaries did not seek popular support – lest their noble cause be compromised or the members betrayed. This phase of the Swadeshi movement was led by the ‘upper’ caste, the upper class Bengalis – partly to live with the constant taunt of being weak and an unmartial race. The Hindu idiom and tradition were thus inextricably linked to the nascent nationalism.
British rule was then at the height of its pomp and power and life was, indeed, very dangerous for Aurobindo when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. He received tremendous encouragement from both the indomitable Bal Ganghadhar Tilak and the irrepressible Sister Nivedita. But his adherence to violence could never be accepted by Rabindranath Tagore.
In the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, Aurobindo moved to Calcutta and took full advantage of Curzon’s “Partition of Bengal” – a measure as shrewd as it was haughty – to popularize the national movement (and terrorism in Bengal) . ) to the tens of thousands who publicly expressed their anger at British rule. Even Tagore joined this mass wave and composed the moving Amar Sonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) then, which would be adopted by Bangladesh as its national anthem.
The rest of India, however, was not entirely convinced and unprepared to accept the idea of a violent war against the British. As attacks on the establishment increased in Bengal, so did the surveillance and brutality of retaliation.
In 1906 Aurobindo joined the Nationalists’ brand new dream college, the National Board of Education, whose curriculum was totally free from the biased and racist British history, upbringing and culture. It was sponsored by Raja Subodh Mallik and the nationalist segment of the Bengal nobility and would later flourish in the University of Jadavpur.
Aurobindo became the first headmaster of the institution and among the teachers were such luminaries as Tagore, Sir Gurudas Banerjee, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Surendra Nath Banerjee, Ramendra Sundar Trivedi, Radha Kumud Mukherjee, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Sakharam Ganesh Deoskar and others.
Like other congressional leaders, his avowed public stance was one of passive resistance and nonviolence, but Ghose contributed quite frequently to radical journals like karmayogin and Mataram band.
This it was when he dealt with weapons and explosives and planned “operations” against Imperial targets. He was the first senior congressional leader to do so, but it was his younger brother Barin who carried out the actual operations.
British police quickly realized Aurobindo Ghose’s double life and began charging him with heinous crimes and terrorist attacks. When radicals planted explosives to derail the train carrying Lieutenant Governor Sir Andrew Fraser in December 1907 and Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki attempted to assassinate the tyrannical Presidential Magistrate Douglas Kingsford in Muzaffarpur (killing British citizens instead) in April 1908, Aurobindo was accused of being the mastermind – at the time Emperor versus Aurobindo Ghosh and others.
The legendary case was also known as the Alipore Bomb Case, the Muraripukur Plot or the Manicktola Bomb Plot and its highly publicized trial took place at the Alipore Sessions Court, Calcutta between May 1908 and May 1909.
The public temperature was so charged and the Congress was so dear to the people that two radicals on trial murdered the first approver and witness to the crown in the presidency jail, Kolkata and paid the price . Chittaranjan Das made a landmark defense in favor of Aurobindo and without a living witness the case fell apart during the trial. His brother Barin and a number of others were found guilty and faced various prison terms, including life imprisonment.
It was in prison that Aurobindo went through an intense process of inner churning, which led to a major turning point in his life.
He gave a speech in Uttarpara after his release from prison on May 30, 1909, where he revealed the magical power of this turning point. The daredevil Aurobindo was no longer the same and he claimed that during his seclusion he had been in constant company of Vasudeva and Sri Krishna who beckoned him.
Aurobindo who had shone like a fiery comet on the horizon for five years, inspiring thousands to rise up against the undefeated British colossus, was now a man of God. His scientist father had been a passionate proponent of evolution and now his son has moved from the political to the spiritual. Aurobindo seemed to be following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the iconic writer and teacher Rajnarain Basu, who had abandoned the glamor of Calcutta to teach in a mufassil college in Midnapore – contributing considerably from there – before leaving prematurely for the rustic setting of Deoghar. He was honored with the title rishi, meaning ‘sage’.
Aurobindo, too, deserted Bengal to settle as rishi, Sri Aurobindo, in Pondicherry – where the British police were never able to repair it again. The ashram he established gained worldwide fame and followers flocked to hear his discourses on the Self, the Gita and Savitri and many other spiritual topics. He kept no contact with the revolutionaries he had inspired or with the mainstream of India during the difficult decades towards independence.
While thousands have deified Rishi Aurobindo, countless others have never forgiven him.
Subhas Chandra Bose called his mysticism “escapism”. Aurobindo retaliated through his disciple Dilip Kumar Roy. In his letter of August 20, 1935 to Roy [PDF]Aurobindo said, “As for the desperate Subhas, why the hell does he want everyone to agree with him and follow his belief?”
He continued sardonically that gurus like him and even gods had less ambitions than Subhas. Aurobindo criticized all politicians and said that Subhas was “a politician and that the rationality of politicians must necessarily evolve within limits. If they allowed themselves to be as clear-headed as that, then their profession would no longer exist”. Subhas was more respectful but didn’t hesitate to believe that gurus are pranksters. To which Aurobindo replies through Dilip Roy: “What good is it to exhaust faith which, after all, gives something to cling to among the contradictions of an enigmatic existence… Logic is but a measured dance of mind, nothing else. ”
Great but complex personalities continue to remain adamant about what they believe to be right, and Aurobindo will surely need more than just a superficial assessment to be fully understood.
Jawhar Sircar is a Trinamool Congressman (TMC).