As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of its independence, today also happens to be the 150th birthday of Sri Aurobindo, once a renowned revolutionary who later became a spiritual teacher. His life and teachings remain relevant to our turbulent times, and there is much to learn from the vast philosophical and political writings he left behind.
Aurobindo was born in 1872. He was only seven years old when his Anglophile father sent his three sons to England for their education – Aurobindo studied Classics Tripos at Cambridge. After ticking all the boxes to join the ranks of the ICS, Aurobindo either failed or failed to show up for the riding tests, recanting the career of a British Raj bureaucrat. In the UK, Aurobindo’s only tenuous connection to India was through newspaper clippings sent by his father; remarkably, although he spent his entire teenage years in the UK, Aurobindo was a Francophile. In 1893, after a 14-year exile, Aurobindo returned to India and joined Baroda State, first as a bureaucrat and then as a French teacher at Baroda College. However, he spent a lot of time and energy mastering Indian languages, philosophy and scriptures.
As an indomitable intellectual and ardent nationalist, he published articles in the Bombay-based journal Indu Prakash attacking the extractive Britons and indolent members of Congress. Aurobindo’s pragmatic strategies to shake off British rule marked him as “the prophet of Indian nationalism”. In 1893, a good 22 years before Gandhi, he had asked the elite members of Congress to hand over the leadership of the struggle for independence to the proletariat. Aurobindo publicly hailed the bloody approach of the French Revolution against the chilling process of British parliamentary dialogue. Unsurprisingly, his tone upset the powers that be, so Aurobindo was asked to change the subject – he wrote a series on Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram, attributing divine nationality to “Mother India” and describing the struggle for independence as the sacred cause of liberty.
In the context of today’s political discourses, it is important to remember that Aurobindo adopted spiritual nationalism as his political creed, not parochial or chauvinistic, but which enabled India to “realize its destiny spiritual guide to humanity as a whole” – making Aurobindo one of the earliest proponents of the notion of “India as Vishwa Guru”. Adding to the gendered discourse of India’s subjugation, Aurobindo argued, as did Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, that the Pax Britannica had led to a loss of manhood and that punitive violence was mandatory to justify one’s manhood.
The partition of Bengal in 1905 prompted Aurobindo to quit his job in Baroda and plunge into the nationalist movement. He started the patriotic newspaper Bande Mataram to spread radical methods and revolutionary tactics instead of supplication. Aurobindo’s challenge resulted in retaliation; he was arrested three times by the British – twice for sedition and once for conspiracy to “make war”. Oddly, one can find many of these “delinquents” in contemporary India. While incarcerated, Aurobindo was placed in solitary confinement for six months when he began practicing yoga. Although acquitted, Aurobindo faced a constant threat of prison or exile among the Andamans, forcing him to take refuge in Pondicherry, a French enclave.
In Pondicherry, Aurobindo avoided overt political activities and embraced spiritual pursuits, soon becoming one of the most original thinkers, philosophers and spiritual teachers. He met Mirra Alfassa in Pondicherry, and their spiritual collaboration resulted in “Integral Yoga”. Aurobindo retreated into virtual isolation, anointing Alfassa as “the Mother” to lead the organization. As a French citizen, Alfassa guided the unprecedented expansion of the Aurobindo Ashram, sometimes playing to her advantage over the rivalry between the British and the French.
Many Indians saw World War II as an opportune time to shake off colonial occupation; Aurobindo, an unfailing internationalist, asks his compatriots to support the Allies and ensure Hitler’s defeat. Aurobindo was blessed to witness India’s independence and, in a rare public appearance, took to the radio to present his vision for India. He was a prolific writer, producing several insightful treatises on Indian religious, spiritual, and cultural knowledge. In 1943, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and in 1950 for the Nobel Peace Prize.
India’s anti-colonial political movement invoked the notion of cultural and civilizational superiority over the material strength of Western civilization. Such a narrative attracted several Europeans to India; Sister Nivedita pursued Swami Vivekananda, while Mirabehn followed Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike the other two luminaries, Aurobindo placed Alfassa on a high pedestal as the embodiment of the Divine Mother and also of her Shakti (power). Thus, unlike the other two European women who struggled after the death of their mentors, Alfassa continued to thrive even after Aurobindo’s death in 1950. In independent India, she successfully negotiated with the postcolonial state for establish Auroville, one of the most outstanding cantons, embodying internationalism, cosmopolitanism and universal values.
Aurobindo’s life, teachings and legacy contributed to the idea of India which embodies a revolutionary zeal deeply rooted in its cultural values and complex histories. For any meaningful and informed dialogue about India’s civilizational past, engagement with icons like Aurobindo and Alfassa is mandatory. Religion for Aurobindo is “the continuation of the spiritual impulse in its fullness” and spirituality “as the attempt to know and live in the highest self, the divine, the all-embracing unity and to elevate the life in all its parts on the most divine level possible”. values”. He was one of the first original thinkers to pave the way for India’s mandate as the “spiritual guide of mankind” or the “Vishwaguru”, and this mandate was based on anchoring spiritual, inclusiveness and shared humanity.
The author is a researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden