by Balvinder Banga


An icon of the Indian independence movement, a poet, philosopher and sage, Aurobindo Ghose was a legend in his own lifetime. Myths would follow, that he could speak 28 languages, that he never slept, nor walked on the ground. These would coalesce with the verifiable truths of how men would have followed him to the gallows or changed the trajectory of their lives to be at his side, questing to bring down a higher spiritual consciousness, a consciousness he called Supermind. Few truly understood what that meant: Rabindranath Tagore would say his greatness “made him liable to be misunderstood even by his friends.”  When he left his body, on 5 December 1950, his iconic status was such that tributes poured into the Ashram that took his name from, amongst others, India’s president, Rajendra Prasad, and its prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Newspapers around the world reported his passing. And this for a man who, with the exception of a handful of annual darshans  in which his disciples had the opportunity to see him briefly, was rarely visible to all but the few who attended on him. And regarding those few, they too would become celebrated, esteemed, revered even for the grace that had brought them close the spiritual master that Aurobindo undoubtedly was in the eyes of his disciples. Such intense devotion did Aurobindo inspire. How did it come to that? Aurobindo once commented “if people were to know all the facts about my life they would never believe that such a man could come to anything.[1]” Certainly his early years gave little clue to what destiny held for him.

1872-1879: The early years

On 15 August 1872 Aurobindo was born in Rangpur, Bengal, the third of five siblings; there were four brothers and a sister. His father, Krishna Dhan Ghose was a doctor and an avowed atheist with little taste for Indian culture. This could not have been further from the environment his mother, Swarnalata had been raised in.[2] She, however, suffered from mental illness preventing her from being a central figure in her children’s lives. Manmohan, Aurobindo’s elder brother, would later lament, with all the melodrama befitting the confidante of Oscar Wilde he was to become, “I had no mother.” But still, the emotional scars were genuine.  An incident comes to mind. Aurobindo would have been no older than six when he witnessed his mother screaming and beating Manmohan without mercy.  The fearful Aurobindo feigned thirst and left the room. Perhaps because of his mother’s state of mind, from 1877 – 1879, Aurobindo, Manmohan and his eldest brother, Benoybhushan, were sent to a quintessentially English boarding school in Darjeeling, far from his mother and his father. Little is known of what the five your Aurobindo must have felt at being separated from his parents at such a young age but perhaps something can be gauged from an experience of that time that would he would later relate. He would say that from that time he felt a “great darkness always hanging on” to him. It was to be a darkness that would stay with him in Darjeeling and past his departure in 1879 when his family congregated briefly to go as one to England. The darkness never left him until 1893 when he returned to India as a cultured young man, but not as the Indian Civil Servant his father had longed for him to be.

1879 – 1893: The England years

The family reunion in England was short lived. After several months the three eldest brothers were alone again, their parents having returned to India with their younger sister, Sarojni, and Barin, the brother that was to have been born during their brief English stay. This was the last experience the seven year old Aurobindo had of family life. When he was to next see his mother, in 1894, she was oblivious to who he was, her mind having deteriorated in his absence[3]. His father, he never saw again. Remittances from him for the upkeep of the brothers in England were irregular and scant: Aurobindo would comment on the spartan existence; the meagre food, the absence of overcoats in winter[4].  Notwithstanding, in due course his father had no hesitation in declaring, “I have made giants of them[5].”

These were hard years. Aurobindo summarised them in a letter of 1892:

“I was sent over to England when seven years of age with my two elder brothers and for the last eight years we have been thrown on our own resources without any English friends to help or advise us. Our father, Dr K.D Ghose of Kulna has been unable to provide [for] the three of us… and we have long been in an embarrassed position.[6]”  

Little is known of Aurobindo’s time in England. There was an initial five years in Manchester with the family of William Drewitt, a church minister. It was the perfect fortress for him and his brothers from the Indian influence his father wanted eschewed. For Aurobindo, the fortressing must have been nigh on total as whilst his brothers at least had the stimulation of company at Manchester Grammar School, he was to be home educated by the minister’s wife. Following Manchester, from 1884, was a further six years in London where Sri Aurobindo attended St Paul’s, an exclusive public school with a reputation for academic excellence. It is to there that the legend of Aurobindo’s erudition can be traced with his form master once remarking that he was a “very promising boy, one of the best in history.[7]”In 1890, a scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge duly followed. He read classics with the option of completing additional papers for admission to the Indian Civil Service (ICS) after two years. If Classics was his love, the ICS was definitively his father’s. Aurobindo would later say “I had no interest in administrative work.[8]”To escape the future his father willed for him required delicate handling, particularly as an additional burden of expectation rested on  his shoulders further to his elder brothers’ inability or unwillingness to secure an ICS position. Aurobindo’s answer was to sit and pass the ICS examinations but fail to appear for the riding test that the ICS insisted its recruits take. The culmination of this episode was that after two years at Cambridge he had no future in the ICS and no money to support himself. Despite taking a first in his second year Tripos exams and being lauded by his tutor for his “unusual industry and capacity” the option of staying to complete his degree was curtailed. James Cotton, a well-wisher of Aurobindo’s, would remark on the “pitiable straits” of the three brothers and the absence of any Englishman to whom they could turn for help. Aurobindo was poor and isolated.[9] Thus it was that at the end of his second year exams he spent several months in London before securing a position with the Maharaja of Baroda who was passing through the city. The meeting was fortuitous – for the Maharaja. He knew he had secured a brilliant young man’s services at a bargain price.   Did Aurobindo know that? He would later remark, “I knew nothing about life at that time.[10]

As Aurobindo sailed from English shores, what did he know of Indian politics? His political awakening was not, it is clear, an epiphany striking the second he stepped off the SS Carthage in Bombay’s Apollo Bunder on 6 February 1893. As a Cambridge undergraduate, he was secretary of the Indian Majlis, a club for students of the subcontinent. Revolutionary speeches he made there were followed in the months preceding his departure for India with membership of the still-born Lotus and Dagger, a secret society intent on working for the liberation of India. It is no wonder that part of his refusal to sit his riding exam for the ICS was on account, he would say, of his interest in “patriotic action[11].” The young man that India welcomed back had clear ideas on the destiny he wished for her.

1893- 1910: Baroda and Calcutta

“A great calm and quiet descended[12]” in to Aurobindo as he arrived in Bombay as a 21 year old about to spend the next 13 years of his life in the service of the Maharaja of Baroda. Many other experiences would eventually follow but it was not until 1905 when he took up pranyama, that he developed an active interest in yoga[13]. Until then, one can only assume that the irony of his disgust at the administrative work the ICS would have demanded was not lost on him as he commenced work in the Survey and then the Revenue department, all for a humble 200 rupees a month. The tedium was protracted, punctuated only with occasional summonses from the Maharaja to assist with his personal correspondence and administration. “My interest” he would say, ‘lay outside in Sanskrit, literature, and in the national movement.[14]” Fortunately for Aurobindo, Baroda College also lay within the Maharaja’s sphere of influence and commencing in 1897 with a few irregular hours to teach French the opportunity came, in 1898, for his appointment as the College’s Professor of English Literature. He was to teach at the College until 1901 and then for a further year from 1905. The intervening periods were also spent in the Maharaja’s service[15].

Aurobindo’s personal life in this period was marked by several key facets. Firstly, there was a prodigious level of learning that saw regular supplies of “enormous packing cases” of books in several European languages, studies of Sanskrit literature, the writing of poetry, and an increasing familiarisation with local languages, most notably Bengali. Secondly, his interest in the Indian Independence movement became active. Within months of arriving in India, at the behest of his friend, KG Deshpande, he penned a series of fiery articles for the Induprakash called New Lamps for Old. These were critical of the Indian Congress (a theme he explored further in his future journalistic endeavours for Bande Mataram and Karmayogin). Over time, this was followed by meetings with significant figures such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sister Nivedita, and increasing participation in anti-colonial activities. Thirdly, in 1901, he got married. His wife, Mrinalini Devi, was a fourteen year old girl. Aurobindo never permanently resided with her. Nor did he have the resources to maintain her. But he trusted her with the most extraordinary revelations of his inner life that we have of that time. On 30 August 1905, he wrote to her, revealing his veneration of India as a Goddess and his total dedication to securing her independence. In stark prose he would say, “I know I have the strength to uplift this fallen race.” “God sent me to earth to accomplish this great mission.”

It was inevitable that as his involvement in the “great mission” deepened so would the interest of the public – and that of the authorities. He left the Maharaja’s service in 1906, gravitating towards Calcutta where he would accept a position at the Bengal National College and deepen his involvement in the emancipation struggle. By January 1908 Aurobindo was a national figure. It was then that he met Vishnu Bhasker Lele, a Maharashtrian yogi “of limited mind but with some experience…”. With his advice, over a course of three days, Aurobindo had the experience of Nirvana “and the impersonal universality of the Absolute Brahman.” God’s seal on him continuing his “great mission” must never have felt so secure. It was not. Within five months of his meeting Lele, a bomb was to explode that took the lives of two ladies. It had been intended for the District Magistrate of Muzaffarpur. Aurobindo was implicated. His home was raided by the police and he was imprisoned for almost exactly one year. In that time he was tried for conspiring “to wage war against the king.” The case, of which he was acquitted in May 1909, became known as the Alipore Bomb Trial.

In a speech given within weeks of his release he would recall how a month or so before his arrest he had an inner call to put aside all activity but failed to heed it. He was told he had another work to do. The period of his confinement was to enable him to do it[16].

The period of Aurobindo’s imprisonment would thus take on significance not only for those interested in the Indian independence struggle but also for those who sought an appreciation of Aurobindo’s inner life. His spiritual practice in jail was, he later told one of his disciples, “very fast, it was extravagant and exhilarating”.[17] Over the years he would relate fragments of the experiences and experiments he engaged in during that time. Taken in the singular or in totality, they are remarkable. They included revelations regarding spiritual texts, truths and planes of consciousness, visions, experiments with fasting (he went ten days), not sleeping (for three days at a time), and levitation. The most striking, perhaps, was his continuous vision and experience of Krishna. He saw and felt him everywhere; in the courtroom, in counsel, in a tree, in a course blanket. Krishna. The name would become synonymous with Aurobindo’s in the minds of his disciples.

Within a year of his release, Aurobindo again heard an inner call. It told him to go to Pondicherry. This time, there was no question of ignoring it: “It was Sri Krishna’s adesh. I had to obey. Later on I found it was for the Ashram and for the Work.[18]

1910 – 1950: the Pondicherry years.

On 4 April 1910, Aurobindo arrived in Pondicherry. He would never leave.

On 7 November 1910, Aurobindo wrote to The Hindu to confirm his retirement “from political activity of any kind.” He was a “religious recluse” seeking only to pursue his “yogic sadhana undisturbed…”. This he did with increasing numbers of people seeking him out for spiritual knowledge, guidance and refuge.

1914 was significant. Then, two key events happened. Firstly, on 29 March 2014, he would meet Mirra Richard, a French lady. In 1920 Mirra Richard would return to Pondicherry for good as Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator. She would become known as the Mother. The significance that the initial meeting held for the Mother can be gleaned from her diary. Following her initial meeting with Aurobindo, she would record that “his presence was enough to prove that a day will come when darkness shall be transformed into light and Thy reign shall be indeed established upon earth.” The reference to the reign (whose?) upon the earth is worth noting: a key tenet of Aurobindo’s (integral) yoga was the affirmation of the possibility, and future realisation, of a divine life on earth. What did that mean? This leads to the second key event of 1914. Aurobindo agreed to contribute to a new journal called the Arya. He would describe it as the intellectual side of his work and would fill its pages uninterrupted from August 1914 to January 1921, throughout the darkness of the First World War when his assurances about the future of humanity must have seemed optimistic to many. The output was profound: he would later be nominated for the Nobel Prize for it. It was also prodigious, running to several thousand pages. The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita and several other key texts were first serialised in the Arya. These, along with his poetical masterpiece, Savitri, would come to form the Aurobindo literary cannon, providing, for those who could master the dense prose, Aurobindo’s answer to the question, “what did that mean?” If the Arya was the intellectual side to Aurobindo’s work, the practical side included the establishment of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and, much later in 1968, a fledgling city called Auroville. Both were steeped in the vision of the Arya and nurtured to strength by the Mother.

Over time, as Aurobindo’s spiritual work intensified he deemed it necessary to withdraw further from public view. By the end of 1926 the Mother was the day to day head of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram leaving disciples who wished to communicate with him the only option of writing with their troubles. And this they freely did until the burden of responding – of answering their questions, soothing  their fears,  assuring them of help – usually until the early hours of the mornings, seemed in excess of that demanded in the days of the Arya. “It is only divine Love which can bear the burden I have to bear…” he would say.

On 15 August 1947, coinciding with his 75th birthday, India achieved independence. This he took “as the sanction and seal of the Divine Force” that guided his life. Almost all the world movements he wished to see fulfilled in his lifetime, including victory for the allied forces in World War Two, had come to pass or were on their way to doing so. It was a moment of vindication in a life he had previously described as one of constant struggle, of battle waged by external or spiritual means. He would battle until the end.

In his final weeks, Aurobindo, the epitome of calm, seemed pressed for time, keen to conclude the redrafting of Savitri that he was engaged in. Close disciples, looking back, would fathom his glance, his touch, his utterance, however innocent, as final acts of grace. He was near blind, probably with cataract.  His body was frail; blood analysis showed signs of imminent kidney failure. At 1.26am on 5 December 1950 Aurobindo left his body.

[1] Evening talks, 4th Ed, page 393.

[2] Purani in the Life of Sri Aurobindo, page 5 describes her father, Rajnarayan Bose as “a great exponent of Indian culture”. 

[3] Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo, page  41.

[4] Evening Talks, page 624.

[5] Purani, page 25

[6] Letter to the Earl of Kimberley of 21 Nov  1892, given in full in Purani, page 376-377.

[7] Heehs, page 16

[8] Evening Talks, page 568

[9] Cotton letter of 19/11/1892 to Sir AG Macpherson.

[10] Evening Talks, page 636.

[11] Evening Talks, page 568.

[12] Evening  Talks, page 612.

[13] Evening Talks, page 612

[14] Purani, page 49.

[15] Heehs, pages 44-97.

[16] The Uttapara speech of 30 May 1909.

[17] Evening Talks, page 614.

[18] Evening Talks, page 571.