The great Indian philosopher’s message and work offer unique vision for global well-being.
It is the fortunate coincidence that India’s 75th anniversary as a free country also concurs with Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birthday. Aurobindo (1872-1950) was a poet, revolutionary, philosopher, mystic, and yogi par excellence.
Sri Aurobindo was never interested in huge statues, grandiose projects, or big institutions in his name; he just wanted a better new world to emerge from the present chaos.
As mentioned by the prime minister, historically, he was first a revolutionary leader, “The Prophet of Indian Nationalism”, in Karan Singh’s words.
With his spiritual companion Mira Alfassa (1878-1973), Sri Aurobindo went on to establish the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Along with its off shoots, Sri Aurobindo Society and Auroville, the Ashram and the disciples of Aurobindo have spread his life affirming message worldwide.
Founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa – known as ‘The Mother’ – Auroville currently has a population of 3200 people, with the Auroville Foundation owning 3,300 acres of land. A plan, known as the Galaxy Plan, envisages a city of 50,000 residents.
The essence of Aurobindo’s philosophy is that a conscious, spiritual evolution on part of the human race is the only way to solve some the problems that face humankind.
These intractable challenges included violence and war, social and political inequality and instability, and the man-made ecological threat to our habitat, which puts the very survival of the species at risk.
Aurobindo’s father, Krishnadhan Ghose, was a surgeon and an Anglophile. The family moved to England when Aurobindo was seven. Aurobindo matriculated from St Paul’s School, London, then got a first class in the Classical Tripos at Cambridge, a rare feat for a non-European. His father wanted him to be an Indian Civil Service officer.
Aurobindo passed the written exams but could not qualify because he failed to appear in the mandatory riding test. Instead, a meeting with Sayajirao Gaekwar, the ruler of Baroda in 1892 secured him service in the Baroda State. Aurobindo returned to India the following year when he was twenty.
Already a prodigy, Aurobindo rose to the forefront of the national movement, causing a split in the Congress Party in the Surat session of 1907. He belonged, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, to the so-called “garam dal” or extremist faction, who believed that freedom from colonial rule could not be secured just be “petition, prayer, and protest.”
In 1907 Aurobindo moved to Calcutta to become the principal of the newly established National College (now Jadavpur University). He was also the brains behind a revolutionary group. Arrested in the Alipur Bomb case, he spent a year in jail from 1909-1910.
A few months after his release, he suddenly decided to leave British India for French Pondicherry. He withdrew from politics to practice yoga.
From 1910 until his death in 1950, Aurobindo wrote a series of extraordinary books including The Human Cycle, The Idea of Human Unity, Essays on the Gita, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Secret of the Veda, and The Life Divine. He also wrote what is one of the longest poems in the English language, Savitri, over 24,000 lines.
One of Aurobindo’s works was published posthumously as The Foundations of Indian Culture. Originally a series of articles in his own journal, Arya, it was meant to be a vigorous critique of imperial attempts to belittle Indian civilisation.
Aurobindo begins by stating unequivocally how a culture or civilisation may be evaluated:
“A true happiness in this world is the right terrestrial aim of man, and true happiness lies in the finding and maintenance of a natural harmony of spirit, mind and body. A culture is to be valued to the extent to which it has discovered the right key of this harmony and organised its expressive motives and movements.”
Looking at his own times, Aurobindo admits that “An appearance of conflict must be admitted for a time, for as long as the attack of an opposite culture continues.” But later, this very conflict, will “culminate in the beginning of a concert on a higher plane.”
In the final stage, nations may even sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole of humanity, foregoing their selfishness and self-interests.
We are still far away from Aurobindo’s ideal of human unity. But more than ever we need to work towards it to ensure global peace and prosperity.
As we are celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo this year, a high-level committee was constituted by the government to commemorate the event. The committee comprises 53 members from various walks of life, including former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and H D Deve Gowda, eight cabinet ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors, artists and spiritual leaders.
Speaking during the inaugural meeting, the prime minister spoke of the two aspects of Sri Aurobindo: ‘Revolution’ and ‘Evolution’. While the first is relatively well-known, the second is practically unknown, even in India.
During his speech, the prime minister fondly recalled his discussions as Gujarat chief minister with Kireet Joshi, an eminent disciple of Sri Aurobindo. Joshi, who had served as chairman of Auroville Foundation, pointed out to him that it was India’s responsibility to offer spirituality to nations across the globe.
UK based, Sri Aurobindo Trust objectives are to harness activities and initiatives to further the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Founder Trustee Koolesh Shah is a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and is Chairman of the trust. Thanks to the generous support of the Trust, SOAS University of London has offered modules on ‘Modern Indian Philosophy’ for the last four years, with a specific focus on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.