Sri Aurobindo Ghose

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Sri Aurobindo

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Article abstract: Aurobindo was one of the leading politicians and great religious thinkers in twentieth century India. He was a leader of the first national political party with a platform demanding the independence of India from British rule. His writings and actions helped to revitalize India politically and spiritually.

Early Life

Sri Aurobindo Ghose was born in Calcutta, India, on August 15, 1872. His father, Krishna Dhan Ghose, was a respected physician who, after his preliminary degree, went to England for further study. Ghose returned the year before Aurobindo was born with not only a secondary degree but also a love of England and an atheistic bent. In 1879, Aurobindo was taken with his two elder brothers to be educated in England. Ghose arranged for them to board with the Drewetts, cousins of an English friend. He asked that the boys be given an English education without any contact with Indian or Eastern culture. Mrs. Drewett, a devout Christian, went a step further and did her best to convert them. Aurobindo remained in England for fourteen years, supported at first by Ghose, then through scholarships.

Aurobindo was first taught by the Drewetts. In 1884, he was able to be enrolled in St. Paul’s School in London. A prize student, Aurobindo in 1890 went to King’s College at the University of Cambridge with a senior classical scholarship. In the same year, he passed the open competition for preparation for the Indian Civil Service. He scored record marks in Greek and Latin. Praised for his scholarship in those languages, Aurobindo was also fluent in French. In addition, he taught himself enough German and Italian that he could study Goethe and Dante in their native tongues. He also wrote poetry, an avocation that would lead to some published work. Other than poetry, Aurobindo’s only extracurricular activities were general reading and membership in the Indian Majlis, an association of Indian students at Cambridge. It was in this association that Aurobindo first expressed his desire for Indian independence.

In 1892, Aurobindo passed the classical tripos examination in the first division. He did not, though, apply for his B.A. degree. He also completed the required studies for the Indian Civil Service but failed to pass the riding exam. It was suggested that his failure was the result of his inability to stay on the horse, but Aurobindo claimed to have failed expressly by not presenting himself at the test. His reason for doing so was his distaste for an administrative career. It happened that a representative of the Maharaja of Baroda was visiting London. He was petitioned by friends of Aurobindo, and Aurobindo was offered an appointment in the Baroda service. He left for India in 1893.

Aurobindo began with secretariat work for the maharaja, moved on to a professorship in English, and culminated his career in the service as vice principal of the Baroda College. By the time he had left Baroda, Aurobindo had learned Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages, and he had begun to practice yoga.

Life’s Work

At the time of Aurobindo’s return to India, the Indian Congress, presided over by moderates, was satisfied with the current state of affairs. At best they would petition the colonial government with suggestions. Dissatisfied with the effect they were having on conditions in India, Aurobindo began political activities in 1902. Prevented from public activity while in the Baroda service, he established contacts during his leaves. His original intent was to establish an armed revolutionary movement that would, if necessary, oust the English. Toward this end he helped organize groups of young men who would acquire...

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military training.

In 1905, with the unrest caused by the Bengal Partition, Aurobindo participated openly in the political scene. He took a year’s leave without pay and then, at the end of the year, resigned from the Baroda service. In his political work he met other Indians desiring Indian independence. Most notable among these was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Eventually, with Tilak and others, Aurobindo formed the Nationalist Party. With Tilak as their leader, they overtook the congress with their demand for swadeshi, or India’s liberty. Content to remain behind the scenes, Aurobindo concentrated on propaganda. He helped edit the revolutionary paper Bande Matarum, which called for a general boycott of English products, an educational system by and for Indians, noncooperation with the English government, and establishment of a parallel Indian government.

Aurobindo eventually moved into the limelight, which resulted in several arrests. Finally, in 1908, he was imprisoned for a year while on trial for sedition. Though acquitted, his and the other leaders’ arrests effectively disrupted their movement. Upon his release, Aurobindo found the party organization in disarray. He tried to reorganize but had limited success. In 1910, responding to a spiritual call, Aurobindo retired from political life and went to the French Indian enclave, Pondicherry.

Aurobindo’s spiritual life had a gradual growth that was marked by a few specific events. Contrary to the usual method of following a guru, Aurobindo practiced by himself, calling on masters only when he believed that he needed help. He began his practice in 1904. In 1908, feeling stifled, he consulted the guru Vishnu Lele. Following Lele’s instructions, after three days of meditation Aurobindo achieved complete silence of the mind, or Nirvana.

The next event that marked Aurobindo’s development occurred when he was incarcerated. He spent most of his time reading the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and meditating. The realization came to him of spiritual planes above the conscious mind and of the divinity in all levels of existence. It was at this time that the germ for the work that would consume the rest of his life took seed. It was not until 1910 that Aurobindo was told by an inner voice that he was to go to Pondicherry. In Pondicherry, Aurobindo began his work in earnest. His purpose was to cause the manifestation of the divine, via the supermind, into the lower levels of existence, and thus move mankind toward its ultimate evolutionary goal. Aurobindo did not, though, remove himself from the world. He received visitors, continued his reading, and corresponded with disciples and friends.

In 1914, Aurobindo met Paul and Mira Richard. Paul persuaded Aurobindo to write a monthly periodical that would put forth his thinking. This became the Arya (1916-1921). In it, some of Aurobindo’s major works, The Life Divine (1914-1919), The Synthesis of Yoga (1915), and The Human Cycle (1916-1918), appeared serially. They were later published in book form. Mira Richard came to be Aurobindo’s main disciple, then his spiritual partner. She left Pondicherry with Paul in 1915 but returned to stay in 1920. When Aurobindo and Mira met, Mira found the spiritual leader to whom she had been introduced psychically as a youth. She came to be known as the “Mother” and eventually took over the management of Aurobindo’s household.

With more time to concentrate on his spiritual task, Aurobindo succeeded in penetrating the veil between the upper and lower planes of consciousness. On November 24, 1926, he accomplished the descent of what he termed the “Overmind.” All that remained was for him to bring the final plane via the “Supermind” into the physical, and thus divinize, or transform, life on this plane. That India’s independence came on his birthday was significant to Aurobindo: He saw it as an affirmation of his efforts.

Aurobindo, with his task not yet complete, died on December 5, 1950, in Pondicherry. His passing, though, was not like that of the average man; witnessed by outside observers, among whom were doctors, his body remained without decomposition for five days. The Mother announced that Aurobindo had come to her and explained his mahasamadhi, or the leaving of his body. Humanity was not ready for the descent of the Supermind because Aurobindo had found too much resistance on this plane. He explained that he would return by manifesting himself in the first person who achieved the Supermind in the physical.

Summary

Sri Aurobindo was a spiritual man driven to serve others. His success in education was largely for the satisfaction of his father. Involvement in politics was his attempt to serve his fellow Indian. He saw that for India to thrive spiritually and physically, Indians would have to throw off the yoke of the English. Aurobindo’s retirement was in part the effect of a shift of focus. He no longer saw life in national terms, but universal. The development of what he saw was needed by India for true change was needed by all mankind.

Aurobindo helped organize a movement that ignited a fire in Indians and that led eventually to their independence. His spiritualism has been the subject of many religious and philosophical writings and a few international symposiums. His ashram, or commune, continued to grow after his death, and in 1968 Auroville was founded.

Bibliography

Bolle, Kees W. The Persistence of Religion. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1965. A study of Tantrism as a vehicle to examine India’s religious history, with a chapter of its manifestation in Aurobindo’s philosophy. It offers a different perspective of Aurobindo’s work in an objective style.

Bruteau, Beatrice. Worthy Is the World: The Hindu Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. A good introduction to Aurobindo’s philosophy. It contains an interesting biography of Aurobindo’s spiritual life and a good bibliography.

Ghose, Sri Aurobindo. The Future Evolution of Man. Compiled by P. B. Saint-Hilaire. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974. A compilation of quotations from Aurobindo’s three major works, The Life Divine, The Human Cycle, and The Synthesis of Yoga. A good introduction to Aurobindo’s works, it contains a summary of the works, a bibliography of other Aurobindo works, and explanatory notes.

Ghose, Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo: A Life Sketch. Calcutta: Arya, 1937. Aurobindo’s biography told in his own words in the third person. A brief overview of his life up to his days in Pondicherry.

Purani, A. B. The Life of Sri Aurobindo. 3d ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1964. Despite its complicated organization and a devoted view, this work is perhaps the most authoritative biography of Aurobindo. It has excellent documentation of Aurobindo’s early life and is filled with quotations from Aurobindo.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles Moore, eds. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. A good introduction to Indian philosophy, including Aurobindo’s contemporaries. It offers insight into Aurobindo’s philosophy by way of contrast.

Sethna, K. D. The Vision and Work of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1968. The first three chapters, in which Sethna debates with a Western philosopher via correspondence, offer a good, clear explication of Aurobindo’s philosophy. In later chapters there is a tendency toward proselytism.

Zaehner, R. C. Evolution in Religion. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. An interesting study comparing Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit monk. Both of the twentieth century, although they did not know of each other and had little respect for each other’s religion, they are nevertheless interestingly compared. Offers a different perspective on Aurobindo’s philosophy.

Sri Aurobindo Ghose

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Article abstract: Aurobindo was a political leader who worked for the independence of India from British rule before he devoted himself to spirituality. His writings in praise of traditional Indian culture helped revitalize the culture and protect it form the onslaughts of British culture.

Early Life

Sri Aurobindo Ghose was born in Calcutta, India, on August 15, 1872. His father, Krishna Dhan Ghose, was a respected physician who, after receiving his preliminary degree, went to England for further study. His father returned the year before Aurobindo was born with not only a secondary degree but also a love of England and an atheistic bent. In 1879, Aurobindo was taken with his two elder brothers to be educated in England. Ghose arranged for them to board with the Drewetts, cousins of an English friend. He asked that the boys be given an English education without any contact with Indian or Eastern culture. Mrs. Drewett, a devout Christian, went a step further and did her best to convert them. Aurobindo remained in England for fourteen years, supported at first by his father, then through scholarships.

Aurobindo was first taught by the Drewetts. In 1884, he enrolled in St. Paul’s School in London. A prize student, Aurobindo in 1890 went to King’s College at the University of Cambridge with a senior classical scholarship. In the same year, he passed the open competition for preparation for the Indian Civil Service. He scored record marks in Greek and Latin. Aurobindo was also fluent in French and taught himself enough German and Italian that he could read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Dante in their native tongues. He also wrote poetry, an avocation that would lead to some published work. Other than poetry, Aurobindo’s only extracurricular activities were general reading and membership in the Indian Majlis, an association of Indian students at Cambridge. It was in this association that Aurobindo first expressed his desire for Indian independence.

In 1892, Aurobindo passed the classical tripos examination in the first division. He did not, though, apply for his B.A. degree. He also completed the required studies for the Indian Civil Service but failed to pass the riding exam. It was suggested that his failure was the result of his inability to stay on the horse, but Aurobindo claimed to have failed expressly by not presenting himself at the test. His reason for doing so was his distaste for an administrative career. It happened that a representative of the Maharaja of Baroda was visiting London. He was petitioned by friends of Aurobindo, and Aurobindo was offered an appointment in the Baroda service. He left for India in 1893.

Aurobindo began with secretariat work for the maharaja, moved on to a professorship in English, and culminated his career in the service as vice principal of Baroda College. By the time he had left Baroda, Aurobindo had learned Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages, and he had begun to practice yoga.

Life’s Work

At the time of Aurobindo’s return to India, the Indian Congress, presided over by moderates, was satisfied with the current state of affairs. At best they would petition the colonial government with suggestions. Dissatisfied with the effect they were having on conditions in India, Aurobindo began political activities in 1902. Prevented from public activity while in the Baroda service, he established contacts during his leaves. His original intent was to establish an armed revolutionary movement that would, if necessary, oust the English. Toward this end, he helped organize groups of young men who would acquire military training.

In 1905, with the unrest caused by the Bengal Partition, Aurobindo participated openly in the political scene. He took a year’s leave without pay and then, at the end of the year, resigned from the Baroda service. In his political work, he met other Indians desiring Indian independence. Most notable among these was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Eventually, with Tilak and others, Aurobindo formed the Nationalist Party. With Tilak as their leader, they overtook the congress with their demand for swadeshi, or India’s liberty. Content to remain behind the scenes, Aurobindo concentrated on propaganda. He helped edit the revolutionary paper Bande Matarum, which called for a general boycott of English products, an educational system by and for Indians, noncooperation with the English government, and establishment of a parallel Indian government.

Aurobindo eventually moved into the limelight, which resulted in several arrests. Finally, in 1908, he was imprisoned for a year while on trial for sedition. Though acquitted, his and the other leaders’ arrests effectively disrupted their movement. Upon his release, Aurobindo found the party organization in disarray. He tried to reorganize but had limited success. In 1910, responding to a spiritual call, Aurobindo retired from political life and went to the French Indian enclave, Pondicherry.

Aurobindo’s spiritual life had a gradual growth that was marked by a few specific events. Contrary to the usual method of following a guru, Aurobindo practiced by himself, calling on masters only when he believed that he needed help. He began his practice in 1904. In 1908, feeling stifled, he consulted the guru Vishnu Lele. Following Lele’s instructions, after three days of meditation, Aurobindo achieved complete silence of the mind, or Nirvana.

The next event that marked Aurobindo’s development occurred when he was incarcerated. He spent most of his time meditating and reading the Bhagavad Gītā and the Upanishads. The realization came to him of spiritual planes above the conscious mind and of the divinity in all levels of existence. It was at this time that the seed for the work that would consume the rest of his life took root. It was not until 1910 that Aurobindo was told by an inner voice that he was to go to Pondicherry. In Pondicherry, Aurobindo began his work in earnest. His purpose was to cause the manifestation of the divine, via the supermind, into the lower levels of existence, and thus move humankind toward its ultimate evolutionary goal. Aurobindo did not, though, remove himself from the world. He received visitors, continued his reading, and corresponded with disciples and friends.

In 1914, Aurobindo met Paul and Mira Richard. Paul persuaded Aurobindo to write a monthly periodical to put forth his thinking. This became the Arya, which was published until 1921. Some of Aurobindo’s major works, including The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, and The Human Cycle, appeared as serials in this publication and were later published in book form. Mira Richard came to be Aurobindo’s main disciple, then his spiritual partner. She left Pondicherry with Paul in 1915 but returned to stay in 1920. When Aurobindo and Mira met, Mira found the spiritual leader to whom she had been introduced psychically as a youth. She came to be known as the “Mother” and eventually took over the management of Aurobindo’s household.

With more time to concentrate on his spiritual task, Aurobindo succeeded in penetrating the veil between the upper and lower planes of consciousness. On November 24, 1926, he accomplished the descent of what he termed the “Overmind.” All that remained was for him to bring the final plane via the “Supermind” into the physical, and thus divinize, or transform, life on this plane. That India’s independence came on his birthday was significant to Aurobindo: He saw it as an affirmation of his efforts.

Aurobindo, with his task not yet complete, died on December 5, 1950, in Pondicherry. His passing, though, was not like that of the average man; witnessed by outside observers, among whom were doctors, his body did not decompose for five days. The Mother announced that Aurobindo had come to her and explained his mahasamadhi, or the leaving of his body. Humanity was not ready for the descent of the Supermind because Aurobindo had found too much resistance on this plane. He explained that he would return by manifesting himself in the first person who achieved the Supermind in the physical.

Influence

Aurobindo was a spiritual man driven to serve others. His success in education was largely for the satisfaction of his father. Involvement in politics was his attempt to serve his fellow Indian. He saw that for India to thrive spiritually and physically, Indians would have to throw off the yoke of the English. Aurobindo’s retirement was in part the effect of a shift of focus. He saw life in universal rather than national terms. The development of what he saw was needed by India for true change was needed by all humankind.

Aurobindo helped organize a movement that ignited a fire in Indians and that led eventually to their independence. His spiritualism has been the subject of many religious and philosophical writings and a few international symposiums. His ashram, or commune, continued to grow after his death, and in 1968, Auroville was founded.

Additional Reading

Bolle, Kees W. The Persistence of Religion. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1965. A study of Tantrism as a vehicle to examine India’s religious history, with a chapter on its manifestation in Aurobindo’s philosophy. It offers a different perspective of Aurobindo’s work.

Bruteau, Beatrice. Worthy Is the World: The Hindu Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. A good introduction to Aurobindo’s philosophy. It contains an interesting biography of Aurobindo’s spiritual life and a good bibliography.

Cenkner, William. The Hindu Personality in Education: Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo. Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1976. Surveys Aurobindo’s life and thought, with a focus on his writings on the problem of national education. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.

Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A concise account that attempts to give equal attention to all aspects of Aurobindo’s life: domestic, scholastic, literary, political, revolutionary, philosophical, and spiritual.

Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and a History. 4th rev. ed. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1985. A voluminous and influential—and frankly reverential—account of Aurobindo’s life and writings.

Mathur, O. P., ed. Sri Aurobindo Critical Considerations. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1997. This book provides criticism and interpretation of Aurobindo’s work. Includes examination of Aurobindo’s poetry.

Mukherjee, Jugal Kishore. Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Its Role, Responsibility, and Future Destiny, an Insider’s Personal View. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1997.

Pandit, Madhav P. Sri Aurobindo. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998. A readable account of Aurobindo’s life. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Purani, A. B. The Life of Sri Aurobindo. 3d ed. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1964. Despite its complicated organization and a devoted view, this work is perhaps the most authoritative biography of Aurobindo. It has excellent documentation of Aurobindo’s early life and is filled with quotations from Aurobindo.

Sethna, K. D. The Vision and Work of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1968. The first three chapters, in which Sethna debates with a Western philosopher via correspondence, offer a good, clear explication of Aurobindo’s philosophy. In later chapters, there is a tendency toward proselytism.

Van Vrekhem, Georges. Beyond the Human Species: The Life and Work Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 1998. An informative and interesting biography of Sri Aurobindo.

Bibliography by William Nelles

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