The dreams that tie India and Sri Aurobindo
Makarand R Paranjape | 20 Aug, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
REMARKABLE COINCIDENCE AND COMMUNIQUE
India’s 75th birthday was also the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s birth. What is the significance of this extraordinary coincidence? Aurobindo himself, it needs to be noted, did not in fact think of it as a matter of lucky chance. In his Independence-eve message to the nation, broadcast on August 14th, 1947 on All India Radio, Tiruchirapalli, he observed:
August 15th is my own birthday and it is naturally gratifying to me that it should have assumed this vast significance. 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 (quotations that follow are also from this source).
This remarkable address exists in two versions. The longer one had to be edited to fit the time slot allotted for the broadcast. Given how extraordinary, unprecedented and never to be repeated this conjunction is when India’s age is exactly half of Aurobindo’s, we need especially to pay renewed attention to this almost prophetic pronouncement.
WHO WAS SRI AUROBINDO?
Before we go into the text of the message in greater detail, let us bring to our mind its author. Aurobindo Ghose was born into an affluent, progressive Bengali upper-middleclass family in 1872. His father, KrishnaDhun (Krishnadhan) Ghose, educated at Edinburgh, was assistant surgeon at Rangpur. His mother, Swarnalata Devi, was the daughter of Rajnarayan Bose, a leading light of the Brahmo Samaj and the Bengal renaissance.
For some reason, his father developed an inveterate aversion to Indian culture, in fact to all things Indian. When Aurobindo was five he was sent, along with his two elder brothers, Benoybhusan and Manmohan, to Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. Two years later in 1879, the whole family moved to England. After three boys, Swarnalata had a daughter, who was called Sarojini. Now, once again, Swarnalata was pregnant and considered in delicate mental state.
The three brothers were packed off to Manchester to be home-tutored by Reverend WH Drewett, a minister in the neo-Calvinist Congregational Church, while the father returned home to carry on with his practice. The Ghose boys grew up English and almost Christian for all practical purposes. Indeed, the fourth son, Barindrakumar, born in England in 1880, was christened Emmanuel Matthew. Even Aurobindo’s middle name was Acroyd.
Aurobindo went to St Paul’s School in London, then to Cambridge University where he scored a first in the Classical Tripos, a feat never accomplished by any Indian before or probably since. His father wanted him to be an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer. He qualified for the coveted service by clearing the written exams but failed to appear for the mandatory horse-riding test within the stipulated two years. His father had stopped sending the money required for lessons.
Aurobindo failed to enter the ICS and also to get his Cambridge BA, but was introduced to Sayajirao Gaekwad, the native ruler of Baroda State in 1892. Finding a place in the Baroda Service, Aurobindo returned to India on February 6th, 1893. A “vast calm” descended on him when he alighted at the Apollo Bunder touching Indian soil again after 14 years.
He had already embarked on an ambitious literary career while in England, as well as evinced a keen interest in Indian politics, particularly India’s struggle for freedom from British imperialism. In Baroda, where he served in various capacities till 1906, Aurobindo continued both his literary and, albeit under the radar, political interests. He also embarked on a journey of self-transformation through the practice of yoga. This became a lifelong undertaking, totally overtaking all his other endeavours.
From 1906 to 1910, Aurobindo moved to Bengal, as the principal of the newly founded National College, later to become Jadavpur University. He was also the moving spirit behind a revolutionary movement, which landed him in jail from May 5th, 1908 to May 6th, 1909 and got his younger brother, Baridra, transported for life to the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. During his year in Alipur Jail, Aurobindo had major spiritual experiences, including the visvaroopa darshan, the experience of the Divine in everything and everyone.
Aurobindo was an advocate of Purna Swaraj or complete independence from imperial rule. He, along with Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, were considered the leading lights of the so-called “garam dal” or the extremist faction of the Indian National Congress. In the Surat session of 1907, Aurobindo was instrumental in splitting Congress along ideological lines. The bulk of the members, however, went with the constitutional and conciliatory faction, not the radical side.
In February 1910, Aurobindo, still hounded by British colonial authorities, suddenly decided to depart to Chandranagore, then a French territory. From thence, he secretly left for Pondicherry. Living incognito for a while and still under surveillance of the British colonial authorities, Aurobindo gradually settled into a new role as yogi and guru.
Aurobindo set great store by India’s independence and liberation from foreign yoke. Yet, at the end of his independence-eve address, he left the future somewhat open-ended: ‘Whether or how far this hope will be justified depends upon the new and free India’
In 1914 Mirra Alfassa visited Pondicherry with her husband, Paul Richard. In partnership with the Richards, Aurobindo founded Arya, whose first issue appeared on August 15th. Most of Aurobindo’s prodigious literary, philosophical, political and spiritual writings first appeared in instalments in this journal.
After the Great War, Mirra Alfassa came back to Pondicherry on April 24th. Settling permanently in Pondicherry as Aurobindo’s spiritual associate, she co-founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1922. Both Aurobindo and the Mother, as Alfassa came to be called, lived in Pondicherry till the end of their days, leading a vibrant and expanding community of disciples and devotees. Today, the Aurobindo movement is worldwide, with others centres of Sri Aurobindo Society and Auroville, in addition to the Ashram.
THE MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM
Going back to his message of August 14th, 1947, Aurobindo declared that almost “all the world-movements which I hoped to see fulfilled in my lifetime” were coming true before his eyes “though then they looked like impracticable dreams.” He was also convinced that “free India may well play a large part and take a leading position” in the new world.
“The first of these dreams,” he asserted, “was a revolutionary movement which would create a free and united India.” It should be noted Aurobindo does not give credit to the non-violent Congress-led freedom struggle as much as to “a revolutionary movement”. Perhaps, he believed that only a full and proper overthrow of a colonial regime would result in complete decolonisation rather than merely a transfer of power.
Aurobindo admitted that “India today is free but she has not achieved unity.” He was happy that India was a substantial, even powerful union, but he warned that if division of Hindus and Muslims and the partition of India were not reversed in whatever shape or form, the future of India would be imperilled. “But by whatever means, in whatever way, the division must go; unity must and will be achieved, for it is necessary for the greatness of India’s future,” he stressed. Without unity, “India may be seriously weakened, even crippled: civil strife may remain always possible, possible even a new invasion and foreign conquest.”
Aurobindo also dreamed of “the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia and her return to her great role in the progress of human civilisation.” This has certainly come about, although the Chinese dragon is now breathing fire on friends and foes, neighbours and distant nations, having turned itself into a new hegemon. India, he foresaw, had an important part to play, as is now evident in its assumption of the presidentship of the UN Security Council.
What about the third dream? It was of “a world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind.” The League of Nations had already failed and, after World War II, was replaced by the UN. But, as he argued in The Ideal of Human Unity, Aurobindo’s idea of world government was not confined to an organisation such as the UN. Perhaps, the European Union, despite all its drawbacks and difficulties, including Brexit, is closer to his idea. For Aurobindo, unification was “a necessity of Nature, an inevitable movement.”
He believed that “here too India has begun to play a prominent part and… her presence may make all the difference between a slow and timid and a bold and swift development.” India could live up to that larger role only if she developed greater statesmanship to lead the world beyond its present obsession with nationalism:
But an outward basis is not enough; there must grow up an international spirit and outlook, international forms and institutions must appear, perhaps such developments as dual or multilateral citizenship, willed interchange or voluntary fusion of cultures. Nationalism will have fulfilled itself and lost its militancy and would no longer find these things incompatible with self- preservation and the integrality of its outlook. A new spirit of oneness will take hold of the human race.
We can see how perspicacious he was. Many countries have already adopted and accepted dual citizenship—India too, with its Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) scheme.
Aurobindo’s fourth dream was “the spiritual gift of India to the world”. What with the multi-national acceptance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of International Yoga Day, not to mention Ayurveda, Buddhism, various meditation and wellness practices, we have certainly seen an inundation of Indian spirituality the world over. In science too, consciousness is the final frontier and advances in artificial intelligence have only highlighted the “hard problem” of whether consciousness is prior to the brain or the other way round, a question on which India has almost unanimously held the former view.
Finally, Aurobindo believed that humankind was on the cusp of an evolutionary leap, a consciousness revolution no less. He called it the descent of the Supermind, of higher consciousness that would help tackle the problems of world which at present seem to have no solution. “The final dream was a step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness,” he said. This, if successfully effected, would lead towards the realisation of “individual perfection and a perfect society”, what he called “the Life Divine” in his eponymous magnum opus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that India’s age of immortality has just begun. Will his government, which is now half-way through its second term, live up to its promises, not to speak of potential?
Aurobindo held that human beings had reached the stage when they could consciously participate in the evolutionary process as Nature’s partners rather than blindly driven subjects. True, “The difficulties in the way are more formidable than in any other field of endeavour, but difficulties were made to be overcome and if the Supreme Will is there, they will be overcome.” Again, he felt that the initiative for the “growth of the spirit and the inner consciousness” could come from India.
DREAMS AND REALITIES
As we can see, all of Aurobindo’s five dreams are inter-related. The third, fourth and fifth dreams are especially connected. Their foundation is the spiritual transformation of all of humankind that will necessitate a radical shift in how we think, feel, act and live. Clearly, the human mentality as we know it today will not suffice if we have to survive as a race, let alone leave a better planet for our forthcoming generations.
A modern rishi, poet, philosopher, revolutionary, yogi, guru and much more, Aurobindo is regarded by his followers as the Avatar of the Future. But even if he is approached as an extraordinary visionary human being, which he so clearly was, his words and ideas yield so many benefits. As is seen from his Independence-eve broadcast, Aurobindo set great store by India’s independence and liberation from foreign yoke. Yet, at the end of his address, he left the future somewhat open-ended: “whether or how far this hope will be justified depends upon the new and free India.”
How well have we done? Perhaps, not nearly as well as we could or might have. But given the weight of the odds against us, so enormous from the very birth pangs of our nation, that we should be where we are today is a stupendous achievement. Now a brighter future beckons us, inviting us with all its encouraging and unprecedented possibilities. Shall we fail it or ourselves?
Modi has said that India’s age of immortality (amrit kaal) has just begun. Will his Government, which is now half-way through its second term, live up to its promises, not to speak of potential? What is more, will we, the people of India that is Bharat rise to the occasion to grasp what the time spirit so eagerly seems to be proffering to us?
It would be our supreme misfortune if we do not. As Aurobindo said in another celebrated essay of his, ‘The Hour of God’:
There are moments when the Spirit moves among men and the breath of the Lord is abroad upon the waters of our being; there are others when it retires and men are left to act in the strength or the weakness of their own egoism. … Unhappy is the man or the nation which, when the divine moment arrives, is found sleeping or unprepared to use it, because the lamp has not been kept trimmed for the welcome and the ears are sealed to the call. But thrice woe to them who are strong and ready, yet waste the force or misuse the moment; for them is irreparable loss or a great destruction .
What is our yugadharma? What do the times demand of us whether as individuals or as a nation?
Again in Aurobindo’s words:
In the hour of God cleanse thy soul of all self-deceit and hypocrisy and vain self-flattering that thou mayst look straight into thy spirit and hear that which summons it. … But being pure cast aside all fear; for the hour is often terrible, a fire and a whirlwind and a tempest, a treading of the winepress of the wrath of God; but he who can stand up in it on the truth of his purpose is he who shall stand; even though he fall, he shall rise again, even though he seem to pass on the wings of the wind, he shall return (ibid).
If we succeed, “Then shall a fire march before thee in the night and the storm be thy helper and thy flag shall wave on the highest height of the greatness that was to be conquered.”
Can there be a better way to inspire ourselves on the auspicious occasion, which was also the juncture of India’s 75th and Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birthday?
(The series on Indian aesthetics and politics will resume with the next instalment of this column)
Makarand R Paranjape