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.