1893 – 1906 England to Baroda

1893 – 1906 England to Baroda

Thus Sri Aurobindo sailed back to his country in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, having spent the most important and formative fourteen years of his life in a foreign land. He had grown up in England, but did not feel any attachment to it. India was beckoning. He wrote in his poem called ‘Envoi’:

“Me from her lotus heaven Saraswati
Has called to regions of eternal snow
And Ganges pacing to the southern sea,
Ganges upon whose shores the flowers of Eden blow.”

And how did Mother India receive her son after fourteen years of exile? With her unique and priceless gift—a spiritual experience. The moment Sri Aurobindo put his foot down on Indian soil, at Apollo Bunder in Bombay, a vast peace and calm descended upon him, never to leave him. Unknowingly and unasked the spiritual life had also begun, which was later to become his sole preoccupation.

But for the moment he was occupied with service at the Baroda State. He started by working in the survey and settlement department, then in the department of revenue and finally in the Secretariat. He also drafted the speeches of the Maharaja of the state, the Gaekwad, who once remarked to Sri Aurobindo that nobody would believe that the Gaekwad could have written such speeches. But his interests lay elsewhere. The Gaekwad, in a report, praised his ability and intelligence but also commented on his lack of punctuality and regularity. After some time Sri Aurobindo was, therefore, transferred to the Baroda College, first as a teacher of French, and then as vice-principal, where he was very popular with the students for his unconventional way of teaching.

In 1894, when Sri Aurobindo was 22 years old, he noted humorously in a letter to his sister Sarojini in Bengal:

“I am quite well. I have brought a fund of health with me from Bengal, which, I hope it will take me some time to exhaust; but I have just passed my twenty-second milestone, August 15 last, since my birthday and am beginning to get dreadfully old.”

Sarojini describes him as having “…a very delicate face, long hair cut in English fashion; Sejda [older brother] was a very shy person.”

In Baroda, Sri Aurobindo plunged himself into the study of Indian culture, as if to make up for all the years he had lost. He learnt Hindustani, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Sanskrit. He was a voracious reader, and two bookshops in Bombay kept him regularly supplied with books sent in crates. Sitting by a kerosene lamp he would read late into the night, unmindful of the swarming mosquitoes and often quite unaware of the waiting food beside him. His cousin Basanti Devi wrote about him in a letter:

“Auro Dada used to arrive with two or three trunks and we always thought it would contain costly suits and other luxury items like scents, etc. When he opened them I used to look at them and wonder. What is this? A few ordinary clothes and all the rest books and nothing but books! ... We all want to chat and enjoy ourselves in vacations. Does he want to spend even this time in reading these books?

But … it did not mean that he did not join us in our talks and chats and our merry-making. His talk used to be full of wit and humour.”

Sri Aurobindo read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bankim as well as Homer, Dante, Horace and many others. He also wrote a lot of poetry and his first collection of poems was published from Baroda.

But another future was preparing itself for Sri Aurobindo at the same time. It began in a most unobtrusive way soon after he came to Baroda. K. G. Deshpande, a friend from his Cambridge days, was in charge of a weekly published from Bombay called Induprakash. He requested Sri Aurobindo to write something on the current political situation of India. Sri Aurobindo began writing a series of fiery articles titled ‘New Lamps for Old’, strongly criticizing the Congress, then the main political party in India, for its moderate policy. Sri Aurobindo wrote:

“Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.”

And he added,

“I say, of the Congress, then, this,—that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it proceeds towards their accomplishment is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness, and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and the leaders in whom it trusts, not the right sort of men to be leaders;—in brief, that we are at present the blind led, if not by the blind, at any rate by the one-eyed.”

It would be interesting to remember that when Sri Aurobindo wrote these scathingly insightful words, he was merely 21 years old. The editors were frightened and requested Sri Aurobindo to write on cultural rather than political themes. Sri Aurobindo lost interest and the series stopped.

In 1901, Sri Aurobindo married Mrinalini Devi. Mrinalini had to go through all the joys and sorrows which are the lot of one who marries a genius and someone so out of the ordinary as Sri Aurobindo.

The period of stay in Baroda, from 1894 to 1901, was significant in several ways for Sri Aurobindo. It was here that he started working for India's freedom, behind the scenes. He perceived the need to broaden the base of the movement and to create a mass awakening. He went to Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, contacted the secret groups working for freedom and became a link between many of them. He established close contact with Lokmanya Tilak and Sister Nivedita. He arranged for the military training of Jatin Banerjee in the Baroda army and then sent him to organize the revolutionary work in Bengal.

At the same time, the Divine too continued to work unseen, within, revealing himself only on certain occasions. In his very first year at Baroda, when Sri Aurobindo was going in a horse-driven carriage, there was the possibility of a major accident. Suddenly he felt a Being of Light emerge from him and avert the accident. He described it in a sonnet written later:

“Above my head a mighty head was seen,
A face with the calm of immortality
And an omnipotent gaze that held the scene
In the vast circle of its sovereignty.

His hair was mingled with the sun and breeze;
The world was in His heart and He was I:
I housed in me the Everlasting's peace,
The strength of One whose substance cannot die.”

In 1903, Sri Aurobindo went to Kashmir with the Maharaja. There on the Hills of Shankaracharya he had a beautiful spiritual experience.

“One stands upon a mountain ridge and glimpses or mentally feels a wideness, a pervasiveness, a nameless Vast in Nature; then suddenly there comes the touch, a revelation, a flooding, the mental loses itself in the spiritual, one bears the first invasion of the Infinite.”

Once Sri Aurobindo visited a Kali Temple on the bank of the Narmada. He said:

“With my Europeanised mind I had no faith in image-worship and I hardly believed in the presence of God.”
But he was compelled to do so when he looked at the image and saw a living Divine presence. As he wrote afterwards:

“[Y]ou stand before a temple of Kali beside a sacred river and see what?—a sculpture, a gracious piece of architecture, but in a moment mysteriously, unexpectedly there is instead a Presence, a Power, a Face that looks into yours, an inner sight in you has regarded the World-Mother.”

The fourth experience has an interesting background. His younger brother Barin fell seriously ill with mountain fever. When the doctors were helpless, a Naga sannyasi happened to be passing by. He took a cup of water, making a cross with a knife as if cutting the water into four, while chanting a mantra and asked Barin to drink it. The next day Barin was completely cured. Sri Aurobindo was greatly impressed and this also proved to be his conscious entry into the field of Yoga.

“I thought that a yoga which requires me to give up the world was not for me. I had to liberate my country. I took it up seriously when I learnt that the same Tapasya which one does to get away from the world can be turned to action. I learnt that Yoga gives power and I thought why should I not get the power and use it to liberate my country?”

Sri Aurobindo said humorously that he had a side-door entry into yoga. He took up the practice of pranayama. Soon he observed some startling results. His mind and memory worked with a greater illumination and power. His skin became smooth and fair. But it ended with those results, and when Sri Aurobindo fell seriously ill he stopped, and began to look for another way. This new way opened up much later, but for the moment his scene shifted from Baroda to Calcutta.

We may perhaps end the Baroda period with a comment of A. B. Clark, the principal of Baroda College:

“So you met Aurobindo Ghosh. Did you notice his eyes? There is a mystic fire and light in them. They penetrate into the beyond.”And he added, “If Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices, Aurobindo probably sees heavenly visions.”

1906 – 1910 Bengal

The freedom movement was given a huge impetus by the decision of Lord Curzon to partition Bengal. Protest meetings were held all over the country and a mass agitation was launched in Bengal. In June 1906, Sri Aurobindo took one year's leave without pay and went to Bengal to participate in the movement. In 1907, Sri Aurobindo left Baroda College and joined the newly established Bengal National College, as its principal. His salary of Rs.150 per month was only one-fifth of what he was receiving in Baroda.

He had already been contributing articles to the Bengali weekly Yugantar. In 1906, the nationalist leader, Bipin Chandra Pal, started the daily Bande Mataram and Sri Aurobindo soon became its chief editor, though his name was not printed, to avoid prosecution. Overnight, the paper became the organ of the Nationalist Movement and a mighty force in Indian politics.

The London Times complained that its articles reeked of sedition, but were so cleverly worded that no action could be taken. Mr Radcliff, editor of The Statesman, said about the Bande Mataram:

“It had a full-size sheet, was clearly printed on green paper, and was full of leading and special articles written in English with a brilliance and pungency not hitherto attained in the Indian Press. It was the most effective voice of what we then called nationalist extremism.”

Bipin Chandra Pal described the role of Sri Aurobindo in the Bande Mataram:

“Morning after morning, not only Calcutta but the educated community almost in every part of the country eagerly awaited its vigorous pronouncements on the stirring questions of the day. ... It was a force in the country which none dared to ignore, however much they might fear or hate it, and Aravinda was the leading spirit, the central figure, in the new journal!”

An attempt was made to prosecute Sri Aurobindo for sedition in July 1907, but the charges could not be proved, and he was acquitted. In the meantime, differences of policy and approach were building up between the moderates and the nationalists. A historic session of the Indian National Congress was held in Surat. The Congress split in two and the nationalists led by Sri Aurobindo and Tilak held a separate meeting. Henry Nevinson, a member of the British Parliament, who happened to be present, describes his impressions of Sri Aurobindo and the scene after the split:

“...a youngish man, I should think still under thirty. Intent dark eyes looked from his thin, clear-cut face with a gravity that seemed immovable. ... Grave with intensity, careless of fate or opinion, and one of the most silent men I have known, he was of the stuff that dreamers are made of, but dreamers who will act their dreams, indifferent to the means.”

“Grave and silent—I think without saying a single word—Mr. Aravinda Ghosh took the chair, and sat unmoved, with far-off eyes, as one who gazes at futurity. In clear, short sentences, without eloquence or passion, Mr. Tilak spoke till the stars shone out and someone kindled a lantern at his side.”

Sri Aurobindo, who always liked to work from behind the scene, had been pushed into the forefront of the freedom movement. He had become its acknowledged leader. The whole country rang with the cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ and a new spirit swept across the country. People had awakened to the need of Swaraj—complete independence—and were willing to give their lives to attain it.

In the midst of this turmoil, Sri Aurobindo met a Maharashtrian yogi named Vishnu Bhaskar Lele. Lele asked Sri Aurobindo to remain in seclusion for three days. Sri Aurobindo describes his experience:

“It was my great debt to Lele that he showed me this. ‘Sit in meditation,’ he said, ‘but do not think, look only at your mind; you will see thoughts coming into it; before they can enter throw them away from you till your mind is capable of entire silence.’ … I did not think of either questioning the truth or the possibility, I simply sat down and did it. In a moment my mind became silent as a windless air on a high mountain summit and then I saw a thought and then another thought coming in a concrete way from outside; I flung them away before they could enter and take hold of the brain and in three days I was free.”

In three days Sri Aurobindo had achieved the silent mind which deepened into an experience of the Silent Brahman Consciousness. He says:

“When I was in Bombay, from the balcony of a friend's house I saw the whole busy movement of Bombay as a picture in a cinema show, all unreal and shadowy.”

But there was a problem. Sri Aurobindo had to address a national meeting after three days. His mind had become calm and blank. How was he to give a speech? Lele told him that it did not matter. He had only to bow down to the audience as Narayana and everything would be all right. As usual Sri Aurobindo followed the directions without questioning and he found that something else spoke through him. And thus it was for the rest of his life. Everything, whether writing, speaking or even the most intense political activity, was done from the Silent Brahman Consciousness.

This was another turning point in Sri Aurobindo's spiritual life. He began listening to a Voice within and Lele told him to follow it, that he now had no need for any further instructions or an external Guru. For the next major spiritual experience of Sri Aurobindo, the Divine had a very different setting—the prison cell of Alipore Jail in Calcutta.

The atmosphere in Bengal was tense. The British Government had let loose repressive measures to crush all resistance. In this charged atmosphere, an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of Magistrate Kingsford, when two Bengali youths threw a bomb at his horse-drawn carriage. Immediately the police carried out raids at the Manicktolla Gardens, a family property of Sri Aurobindo, where many revolutionaries were undergoing training. Sri Aurobindo was also arrested from his house. He was imprisoned and, for a long time, kept in a small cell in solitary confinement.

Thus began one of the historic trials of the Indian freedom movement. There were 49 accused and 206 witnesses. 400 documents were filed and 5,000 exhibits were produced, consisting of bombs, revolvers, acid, etc. The judge, C. B. Beechcroft, had been a student with Sri Aurobindo at Cambridge. The chief prosecutor, Eardley Norton, kept a loaded revolver on his briefcase throughout the trial. The case for Sri Aurobindo was taken up by C. R. Das. The trial lasted for one full year. At the end, C. R. Das addressed the court in these ringing words:

“My appeal to you is this: that long after the controversy is hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, the agitation ceases, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands. Therefore I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court but before the bar of the High Court of History.”

Sri Aurobindo was found not guilty and acquitted. But this one year was a very important period in Sri Aurobindo's life, as it was a period of intense sadhana when he experienced Krishna as the Immanent Divine. This is how he described the experience in a political gathering in Uttarpara in Bengal:

“I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Srikrishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Srikrishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover.”

Sri Aurobindo saw the same smiling Krishna in the magistrate and even the prosecuting counsel. Where was there any place for fear? When Sri Aurobindo had entered the prison, he had said:
“The agnostic was in me, the atheist was in me, the sceptic was in me and I was not absolutely sure that there was a God at all.”

But now all was changed. As Sri Aurobindo said afterwards:

“I have spoken of a year's imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year's living in forest, in an ashram, hermitage. ... The only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God.”
After his release, Sri Aurobindo re-entered the political field with a new vision and purpose. India's freedom was necessary to rise to greatness. He declared:

“India is rising. She does not rise as other countries do, for self or when she is strong, to trample on the weak. She is rising to shed the eternal light entrusted to her over the world. India has always existed for humanity and not for herself and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be great.”

Sri Aurobindo also started two weeklies: the Karmayogin in English and the Dharma in Bengali. But the air was full of rumours of an impending arrest. The view of the British Government was clearly expressed in what Lord Minto wrote about Sri Aurobindo:

“I can only repeat ... that he is the most dangerous man we now have to reckon with.”

One day, when Sri Aurobindo was sitting in the Karmayogin office, news came that the Government intended to arrest him. Immediately, there was an agitated discussion all around. Sri Aurobindo sat calm and unmoving and heard a distinct voice tell him, “Go to Chandernagore.” Sri Aurobindo went straight to the Ganga and boarded a boat for Chandernagore which was then a French settlement. Soon he received another 'adesh' (Divine Command) to go to Pondicherry. Sri Aurobindo remarked later:

“I could not question. It was Sri Krishna's Adesh. I had to obey. Later I found it was for the Ashram, for the Yogic work.”

Sri Aurobindo's work in the political field had come to an end. The country had awakened to the call of the Mother, and India’s freedom was inevitable. He felt it was now more important to see what India would do with that freedom and what man would do with his future. It was for this work that Sri Aurobindo sailed for Pondicherry to start the most important chapter of his earthly life.