Sri Aurobindo was one of the greatest philosophers, mystics and visionaries of modern history. He was a major leader in India’s freedom movement. Later in life he became a sage and scholar. His teachings have attracted many people from all around the world. The ashram that he founded is still thriving today, and centres bearing his name can be found in many countries – including here in the UK.
Born in Calcutta, Sri Aurobindo was sent to England for his studies at the tender age of six. After his schooling he went on to study at Cambridge University in 1890.
Sri Aurobindo’s father had been very eager to send his son to England for his studies. Like many other Indians at the time he thought that the only way to save and uplift the country was by a full-scale imitation of European habits and customs. He even made sure that Aurobindo as a child didn’t learn his mother tongue! This attempt at imitation is a typical psychological phenomenon that affects the people of any colonised country.
While in England, Aurobindo had observed the society first hand, and learnt its strengths and weaknesses. He figured that it wouldn’t be in anybody’s interest to blindly imitate European ideas without understanding the basis of one’s own culture and civilisation. From what he had so far seen it would serve humanity better if India could recapture her own Hindu essence and project it into a reinvigorated vision for the future.
It was in 1893 that Sri Aurobindo returned to India. At that time the struggle for India’s freedom was in its early stages. Straightaway he became involved in the movement. He began by writing a series of fiery articles in a daily newspaper, while he was aged just 21. The column had to be stopped following pressure on the newspaper’s editor, due to sharp criticism of the British colonial government and the slavish Indian leaders of the time.
After this, he became a teacher, and eventually the principle of Baroda College. He gradually became enraged at the education system at colleges and schools, which was being used as a tool by the British for creating a deep inferiority complex and cultural alienation amongst the people.
Sri Aurobindo soon left his job and devoted all his energy towards India’s renaissance. His work was many sided. It included spreading awareness and knowledge through his role as editor of newspapers and magazines, creating authentic Hindu education in schools and colleges, encouraging social work to alleviate sickness and poverty, and even initiating armed rebellion. Lord Minto who was then Viceroy of India wrote the following about him:
“He is the most dangerous man we have to deal with at present. I attribute the spread of seditious doctrines to him personally in a greater degree than to any other single individual…”
In 1908 the British authorities arrested and jailed Sri Aurobindo following an assassination attempt on a judge, in which he was implicated. A legal campaign by one of his followers, Chittaranjan Dass, enabled his release after one year. In jail Sri Aurobindo’s life took a decisive turn. Before jail Aurobindo had practiced spiritual disciplines, but he had always wished to do so more intensely. In jail he devoted himself to spirituality and had a series of direct experiences and realisations. When he was released from jail he gave a famous speech in which he described what had been revealed to him, known as the ‘Uttarpara Speech’ (click here to access the full text of the speech).
Soon after his release, the British administration was out to silence him once more, demanding his arrest for inflammatory writing. Sri Aurobindo entered Pondicherry, which was a French colony in India. The British had no power there. He set up a residence, which soon flourished into an ashram where friends, disciples and seekers gathered around him.
Sri Aurobindo continued writing for the public through a monthly magazine called the Arya. He gradually withdrew into increasingly intense spiritual practice, leaving the material responsibility of the disciples and the growing ashram to a lady named Mira, who is affectionately called “The Mother”. In these years of deep meditation he delved deep into the depths of the spirit. His aim was to fully discover and map out the path to a divine future for the world. The discoveries he made were through direct realisation of many divine mysteries, in the same way as the Vedic Rishis.
Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively and has left behind a breath-taking legacy of works, most of which are in English. He wrote works on the Vedas and Mahabharata, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. He also wrote plays, poetry and stories. He presented a Hindu view on international issues such as war, self-determination, the possibility of international unity, as well as the shortcomings and potentials arising from the League of Nations which had been set up following the First World War. He wrote important books presenting what he called an “aggressive defence of Hindu culture” because he felt that it was necessary to reverse the process of Hindus getting affected and alienated by constant negative propaganda. He even wrote commentaries on those non-Indian non-Hindu philosophers for whom he had respect, such as Plato. His most famous works are the descriptions of his own spiritual life and thought.
In all these years, Sri Aurobindo never lost track of happenings in the outside world. He continued to keep in touch with many disciples through letters and he read newspapers regularly to stay aware of important happenings. He issued public statements from time to time. When India’s Independence Day came, it fell on the same day as Aurobindo’s birthday. It was a fitting tribute that this should be so.