Sri Aurobindo Ghose Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sri Aurobindo 1872-1950

(Full name Sri Aurobindo Ghose; also transliterated as Arabinda; also Ghosh) Indian philosopher, poet, essayist, critic, historian, translator, journalist, playwright, short story writer, and autobiographer.

One of India's great modern philosophers, Aurobindo was a prolific author who expressed his views on humankind, nature, God, and the cosmos in numerous works of poetry and prose. He believed in the unity of all things material, intellectual, and spiritual, and a central theme that runs throughout all his writings is the divinization of life on earth. As he says in his poetic masterpiece, Savitri: "Nature shall live to manifest secret God, / The Spirit shall take up the human play, / The earthly life become the life divine."

Biographical Information

The third of six children, Aurobindo was born in Calcutta into a family with high-caste standing. His father, an eminent physician employed by the civil service, thoroughly embraced the Western way of life, and he attempted to shield Aurobindo from Indian influences from the time he was a baby. Aurobindo had an English nanny, his first formal education took place at a convent school in Darjeeling where all of his classmates were English children, and when he was seven years old he was sent with his two older brothers to study in England. Aurobindo attended St. Paul's School in London and King's College, Cambridge, excelling in English literature, the classics, and languages, including Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. Given his upbringing and education, it is not surprising that Aurobindo wrote almost exclusively in English, rather than in Bengali, his native language.

Biographers and critics generally divide Aurobindo's career into two periods, the first dating from 1893, when he returned to India from England, until 1910, when he established an ashram, or spiritual retreat, in Pondicherry, a French settlement in India. During this period Aurobindo worked for the civil service of the state of Baroda for nearly thirteen years, serving first as a professor of English and then as vice-principal at Baroda College. He also embarked on an intensive program of self-directed research into his Indian heritage, learning Sanskrit and Bengali, immersing himself in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other works of ancient Hindu philosophy, and familiarizing himself with various systems of yoga. While Aurobindo wrote and translated poetry during these years and also published articles on literary topics, this phase of his career is most notable for his active involvement in the struggle for Indian independence. Not only did he associate with radical Indian nationalists, he became the leader of the revolutionary movement and edited a newspaper entitled Bande Mataram, the organ of the so-called extremists of Indian nationalism. Aurobindo had become interested in Indian nationalism while a student at Cambridge, and his later Hindu studies had added a spiritual dimension to his political ideals, so that he imparted divinity upon his country, "Mother India." Although he did not promote terrorist activities, he justified violence as a last resort to achieving independence on the basis of his belief that the struggle was spiritual as well as political. In 1908, after a series of bombings, Aurobindo was arrested with other suspects on charges of sedition and terrorism. Eventually acquitted, he was imprisoned for nearly a year while awaiting trial. He later reported that while he was in jail he had a deeply moving mystical experience that changed his political and spiritual outlook, causing him to broaden his idea of independence and to attribute the divinity he once vested in the state to humankind in general. Upon his release from prison, Aurobindo founded two weekly papers, one written in Bengali, the Dharma, and the other written in English, the Karmayogin. Both papers were short-lived, but Aurobindo published several significant series of essays on Indian history and culture in the Karmayogin that later appeared in book form, including The Ideal of the Karmayogin, A System of National Education, and The National Value of Art. In the early months of 1910, Aurobindo retired from active politics and settled with his wife and some of his disciples at Pondicherry to concentrate on developing his spiritual ideas through meditation.

Aurobindo's move to Pondicherry marks the beginning of the second phase of his career. He remained there until his death, acting as guru to an enormous number of devoted followers, writing prolifically on philosophical and religious topics, and translating ancient Hindu scriptures. From 1914 until 1921 he published a monthly journal, the Arya, to disseminate his ideas. With the exception of Savitri, which he began writing in the 1890s and continually revised until his death, all of Aurobindo's most important works-The Ideal of Human Unity, The Life Divine, The Human Cycle, Essays on the Gita, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Future Poetry, On Yoga I, and On the Veda-originally appeared serially in the Arya. Many of his other writings were not published until after his death. In 1926 Aurobindo had another profound mystical experience-he claimed to have had a vision of the god Krishna-and he went into isolation for over a decade. However, he kept in close contact with his disciples through letters, many of which were later collected and published as guides to his system of yoga. Aurobindo died in 1950.

Major Works

Aurobindo's philosophical beliefs derived from and promoted spiritual experience. The central theme of all his writings-the spiritualization of earthly life-rests on his belief that God exists in all of Nature and that spiritual intuition makes it possible for every individual to become conscious of his own divinity. Because of his emphasis on the unity of existence, Aurobindo's philosophy has been labeled "integralism." Aurobindo's most systematic account of humankind's eventual ascent to a higher level of consciousness is contained in The Life Divine, a one-thousand-page treatise in which he develops an evolutionary continuum to explain human and cosmic progress. Aurobindo proposes that the Brahman, the eternal spiritual Being, exists in nature in a seven-phase hierarchical structure that consists of three higher orders of being-Infinite Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss-and three lower orders of being-Matter, Life, and Mind. Mediating between the higher and lower orders of existence is the fourth level of being, Supermind, which is humankind's evolutionary goal. According to Aurobindo, humankind currently languishes at the third level of existence, Mind. Worldwide attainment of the level of the Supermind, Aurobindo believed, will usher in a new world order of peace and harmony. The metaphysical ideas expressed in The Life Divine take practical shape in Essays on the Gita and On Yoga I, in which Aurobindo explains his system of yoga and its role in preparing the soul to accept the Spirit. Savitri is Aurobindo's poetic expression of this process of transformation. In this epic poem, which is roughly twenty-four-thousand lines in length, two characters, one human and one divine, dramatize the ascent to divine perfection on earth as it corresponds to Aurobindo's own spiritual progress. The Human Cycle explains Aurobindo's philosophy from yet another perspective. In this work he develops his evolutionary theory in historical and psychological terms and states the necessary conditions for the arrival of the next evolutionary stage, the "Age of Spirit": first, there must exist certain individuals capable of absorbing the message of the Spirit and communicating it to the masses (Aurobindo cites Mohandes Gandhi as an example), and second, the masses must be prepared to implement the message of these mystics.

Critical Reception

A turning point in the critical history of Aurobindo's writings occurred with the 1970-72 publication of the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Brought out by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, this thirty-volume collected edition of Aurobindo's works made his writings much more accessible to readers, particularly Westerners, which served to intensify the critical attention prompted by the centenary of Aurobindo's birth in 1972. Prior to this, most of the literature on Aurobindo had been written by his disciples, and while many of these books and articles provided useful summaries of Aurobindo's life and teachings, they were invariably laudatory in tone and rarely approached their subject from a critical perspective. Although Aurobindo studies continue to be dominated by the appreciative commentary of his followers, since the 1970s he has received increasing attention from scholars in the field of Indian and comparative religious thought. Some of Aurobindo's disciples have argued that analyses of Aurobindo's works emerging from the academic community lack the spiritual insight necessary for a sound interpretation of Aurobindo's philosophy. On the other hand, academic critics have charged that Aurobindo's devotees are too personally involved with their subject and his teachings to be objective; for example, they refuse to accept spiritual intuition of the divine as decisive evidence that a new spiritual age is approaching, seeking instead to investigate whether Aurobindo's evolutionary theory can be verified by experience. Similarly, estimations of Aurobindo's status as a literary artist vary. While some critics liken him to John Milton and Dante on the basis of Savitri, others contend that such comparisons are evidence of the indiscriminate praise lavished upon Aurobindo by his devotees. Such controversy notwithstanding, critics agree that Aurobindo has had a significant influence on modern Indian history and religious thought in his roles as political revolutionary and philosopher-yogi. He is universally admired for the comprehensiveness of his vision of life and the cosmos and for his devotion to the cause of guiding humankind into a new, more peaceful and productive age.