Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta, on August 15, 1872, at 5:00 am, the hour of dawn. The date is doubly important. Seventy-five years later, on August 15, 1947, India attained her freedom. In a message, Sri Aurobindo, who had played a leading role in the freedom struggle, said:
“I take this coincidence, not as a fortuitous accident, but as the sanction and seal of the Divine Force that guides my steps on the work with which I began life, the beginning of its full fruition.”
The date has an even greater and deeper significance. On being queried about if there was connection between the Feast of the Assumption in the Catholic Church and the date of Sri Aurobindo’s birth (i.e. 15 August), the Mother explains:
“Yes. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is the divinisation of Matter. And this is the aim of the last Avatar.”
And this was in a way the goal of Sri Aurobindo's life. To divinize the earth, to make matter Spirit's willing bride.
The name given to Sri Aurobindo at birth was quaintly Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose! His father Dr K. D. Ghose had returned from England with a completely Western outlook. He was enamoured of everything Western and, because Miss Annette Ackroyd, a British lady, happened to be present at the time of his birth, her name was also added to Aurobindo's name. Later, Sri Aurobindo was to say in a humorous tone about his father:
"Everyone makes the forefathers of a great man very religious-minded, pious, etc. It is not true in my case at any rate. My father was a tremendous atheist."
But Dr Ghose was also 'generous to a fault'. Nobody went empty-handed from his door. And Sri Aurobindo’s mother, Swarnalata Devi, was so beautiful and gracious that she was known as the ‘Rose of Rangpur’. Sri Aurobindo was the third among five children. The two elder brothers were Benoy Bhushan and Manmohan, younger sister was Sarojini followed by the youngest brother Barindranath.
When Sri Aurobindo was five years old, he was sent to Loretto Convent School in Darjeeling. Two years later, in 1879, Dr Ghose sent his sons, including Aurobindo who was then only seven, to England. He gave strict instructions that young Aurobindo should have a completely Western education and should not come into the slightest contact with anything Indian. A new chapter in his life had begun.
Sri Aurobindo lived in Manchester with the Reverend and Mrs Drewett. While his brothers studied at school, he was taught at home by the Reverend Drewett. He very early at that stage developed a love for poetry, which was to last him throughout his life. Even at that young age of eleven he contributed a few poems to the local ‘Fox Family Magazine’.
In 1884, Sri Aurobindo shifted to London for his schooling and was admitted to St. Paul's. The headmaster was so pleased with his mastery of Latin that he took it upon himself to teach him Greek. It is here that Sri Aurobindo plunged into the literature of the Western world and studied several languages—French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin, and absorbed the best that Western culture had to offer him.
These were also difficult times. The generosity of his father, Dr Ghose, had brought succour in the past to many an unknown person in need in Khulna, where he was posted, but it had also made the stipend he sent to his own sons very irregular. Sri Aurobindo was then in his early teens. He describes how he spent several years in the bitter cold of London:
"During a whole year a slice or two of sandwich, bread and butter and a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening a penny saveloy [a kind of sausage] formed the only food ."
For nearly two years he had to go practically without dinner at that young age. He had no overcoat to protect him from the rigours of the London winter and there was no heating arrangement in the office where he slept, nor had he a proper bedroom.
But Sri Aurobindo was immersed in his books and was feasting on the thoughts of the great. He received the Butterworth Prize for literature, the Bedford Prize for history, as well as a scholarship to Cambridge.
In 1890, at the age of eighteen, Sri Aurobindo got admission at Cambridge. He studied the classics, doing brilliantly and passed with high grades in the first part of the Tripos. The famous Oscar Browning happened to correct his papers and told Sri Aurobindo:
"I suppose you know you passed an extraordinarily high examination. I have examined papers at thirteen examinations and I have never during that time seen such excellent papers as yours (meaning my Classical papers at the scholarship examination). As for your essay, it was wonderful."
It was thus that Sri Aurobindo grew, away from his family, away from his motherland, away from his roots and his culture. He knew seven foreign languages, but could not speak his own mother tongue, Bengali.
He would not have been able to speak fluently with his own mother.
To comply with the wish of his father, Sri Aurobindo also applied for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) while at Cambridge. Here too he did brilliantly. But Sri Aurobindo knew he was not meant to be an ICS officer, serving Her Majesty's Government as one more cog in a giant bureaucratic machine.
Dr K. D. Ghose had by now become aware of the atrocities being committed by the British on Indians and began to send paper clippings of these to Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo also felt that a period of great upheaval for his motherland was coming in which he was destined to play an important role. He began to learn Bengali and joined a secret society, romantically named 'Lotus and Dagger', where the members took an oath to work for India's freedom.
Sri Aurobindo now looked for a way to disqualify himself from the ICS. He found his opportunity soon and did not appear for the horse-riding test. In normal circumstances this would have been a very minor lapse, but the British Government had become aware of his political views and activities, and found this a good opportunity to reject him. Lord Kimberly, the Secretary of State for India, wrote on his file:
"I should much doubt whether Mr. Ghose would be a desirable addition to the Service."
Although he had done brilliantly in the ICS—a most sought-after vocation—Sri Aurobindo now, because of his own choice, found himself in London without a job. But destiny intervened. The Gaekwad of Baroda happened to be in London and offered him a place in his service. For long after, the Gaekwad boasted to his friends that he had got an ICS man for Rs. 200 per month.