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A Notable Biography of Sri Aurobindo

We present here a translation of an article by Pushraj Jain, which appeared in Pratham Pravakta [December 1–15, 2012, pp. 58–59], a Hindi fortnightly magazine published from New Delhi. A scanned copy of the original article is available here.

Peter Heehs is a well-known writer. In 1970 he came to India from Chicago to understand spiritual thought.  In 1971 he arrived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, where he settled for good. He has spent the best part of his last 40 years in endeavouring to understand the different facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life and in working on his manuscripts at the Archives of the Ashram.  So far he has written a number of books on Sri Aurobindo’s life. In 1989 he also published a Brief Biography. Besides, he has done commendable research on the early revolutionary period of the freedom struggle. His latest book, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, is a continuation of that research work. This 500-page book in English was published by Columbia University Press. There was a plan to publish an Indian edition which was aborted because of the opposition of a small group of people. They politicised their campaign against the book and sent a notice to the trustees signed by 68 MPs, most of whom, it would appear, had neither read nor even seen the book before affixing their signatures.

There is nothing in this book that is objectionable. All the facts described in the book have already appeared in print or are supported by evidence [given in the footnotes]. The writer’s comments are reasonable and are presented in an intelligent and respectful way. This book is an absolute treasure that  throws light on the life of Sri Aurobindo, and even readers who know little about Sri Aurobindo will be touched by it.  The portions that the opponents of the book have presented as objectionable have been distorted out of context, and, in fact, contain nothing that could be labelled objectionable.

Sri Aurobindo was one of those four great spiritual beings who, at the time of the freedom struggle, nurtured and strengthened the life-force of Indian society. Mahatma Gandhi was obviously the leader of the freedom struggle. Apart from him, Ramana Maharshi and the Kanchi  Paramacharya also played a significant role. It was not easy to write the biography of Sri Aurobindo. In order to do that, the writer had to understand not only the political and social circumstances in which Sri Aurobindo lived over a hundred years ago, but, in addition, also understand and evaluate his eventful and many-facetted life before presenting it in a readable way.

Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta in 1872. His grandfather, Rajnarayan Bose, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, was a proponent of Indian culture. In contrast, his father, Dr. Krishnakant  Ghose, did not want any influence of Indian life and culture on his sons. When Aurobindo was seven, he was sent along with his two brothers to Manchester for his education. The father wanted his sons to return as ICS officers and become glorious partners of the British Raj, which he considered to be the best in the world. To help Sri Aurobindo finish his education, his father had to go through tremendous financial hardship. Aware of that, Aurobindo passed the written ICS test, but deliberately absented himself from the final horseriding test, and as a result opted out of the ICS race. While already in England, he was charged with patriotic feelings. On account of his hatred for British rule, he became a partisan of revolutionary methods for overthrowing it.

While in England, at a very early age, Aurobindo mastered Greek and Latin, and immersed himself in the literature of those languages and of English. At a very early age he began to write poetry and plays based on ancient literature. In 1893 he returned to India and joined the administrative service of the Maharaja of Baroda. He remained primarily in Baroda until 1906, sometimes in the administrative service, sometimes as a lecturer in French and English literature in the State’s college. But in 1901, during a trip to Calcutta, he contacted some revolutionary groups. In 1902 he helped establish the Anushilan Samiti, a revolutionary organization. In 1906, during the movement against the Partition  of Bengal, he gave up his job in Baroda and shifted to Calcutta. This was the time of Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpatrai, and Bipin Chandra Pal on the country’s political scene. But soon Sri Aurobindo, thanks to his inspirational writing,  reached the peak of political influence. Along with Bipin Chandra Pal, he started publishing Bande Mataram. In 1908 he was often jailed because of his writings, but his guilt was not established. In 1910  he was arrested in connection with the Alipore Bomb Case, but here too, he was  eventually acquitted.

At this time, he was making progress in his sadhana. During his stay in Baroda, his spiritual tendencies came to the fore. He used to practise six hours of pranayama and sadhana every day. In Calcutta, the intensity increased. Around this time he realized that modern weapons had made the state so powerful that the petty violence of a bunch of  revolutionaries could never root it out. He was already under pressure from the British Raj that wanted to send him to jail. That is why, distancing himself from active politics, he decided to devote all his time to his sadhana. First he went to Chandannagar, then to Pondicherry, both of which were under French rule. He remained in Pondicherry from 1910 until the end of his life in 1950.

Peter Heehs has made a powerful portrayal of the three facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life: his literary genius, his political leadership, and his yoga sadhana. Sri Aurobindo’s literary genius is matchless. In 1943, his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature was accepted by the Swedish Academy but that year no prize was given for literature. Sri Aurobindo chose for his poetry and drama themes and ideas from Greek, Arabic and Sanskrit literature. His literary genius found its best expression in poetry composed around themes taken from Sanskrit sources. His immortal work Savitri is a good example. He won international fame for his philosophical writings as well. His book The Life Divine has had an influence even on European thinkers. In 1950, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sri Aurobindo has given a new interpretation of the Veda, Upanishads, the Gita and other ancient narratives. Between 1914 and 1920, his writings were published in an English journal called Arya, which runs to around 4600 printed pages. Then he got so engrossed in his sadhana that between 1921 to 1926 he wrote nothing except a few letters. In 1926, he went into seclusion and stopped meeting people with the exception of the Mother.

Sri Aurobindo’s yoga sadhana was also exceptional. He continued to advance in his practice to reach that level of consciousness where the divine life could manifest. He did not keep his sadhana a secret. He regularly recorded and described his sadhana in great detail in a diary. While in seclusion, he offered detailed explanations on various aspects of yoga sadhana while answering letters from the sadhaks of the ashram. Between 1929 and 1939, he spent most of his time answering these letters; in 1933 he was engaged for at least twelve hours a day, replying to letters. In that year alone, he wrote 1350 letters on different questions of yoga sadhana.  For every letter on an important topic that he wrote, there were ten on very ordinary issues, which have remained unpublished. The important letters have been published in three parts. These volumes are real treasures in the literature of yoga sadhana. From 1934 onwards, he reduced his correspondence, but instead focused on revising and completing his unfinished writings. The country achieved freedom on his 75th birthday.

It has not been easy to narrate the very eventful 78-year-long life of Sri Aurobindo. However, Peter Heehs, while describing his sojourn in England between 1879 to 1893, has also thrown light on the life of those times in England. In the same way, he has described the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Maharaja of Baroda, between Sri Aurobindo and his friends, between his family and the revolutionaries, between himself and his wife Mrinalini, as well as his lifestyle in Pondicherry and the relationship between him and the Mother – all with great authenticity and measure. This book is well-researched and scholarly. It was written after deep reflection. To write such a book after mastering the subtleties and nuances of Sri Aurobindo’s literary genius, philosophy and sadhana was a laborious task, no doubt, but one he has fulfilled with marvellous skill.

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