Book: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo
Author: Peter Heehs

Aurobindo was active in the Indian public life from the years 1906 to 1910. Of that, he spent a year in Alipore jail, awaiting trail. He was the editor of the paper Bande Matram for two years. Along with Tilak, he was the face of the uncompromisingly nationalistic front of the Indian National Congress. The Aurobindo many Indians are most familiar with1 is the one from these four years, out of the seventy-five that was his. These few years changed the character of the Indian freedom movement. I find this remarkable, and consider it a testimony to the power of ideas and the press in mobilizing the masses. No one insisted on a policy of absolute independence till Aurobindo articulated it. Aurobindo and the so-called Extremist faction of the Congress would go on to inspire the actions of Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subash Chandra Bose and KM Munshi. And these were just four short years out of India’s sixty odd years of formal freedom struggle. Aurobindo spent the rest of his life focusing on his Yoga, which is what initially led to my interest in him. Why would someone like that, a self-professed man of action, retire from public life? This also puzzled everyone inspired by the early Aurobindo speaking from the pages of Bande Mataram. Bose would later go on to diss him2, and Nehru said “most of the people of my generation, who were immersed in political aspects of our struggle, did not understand why he did so [retire from politics].” In Aurobindo’s own mind, his efforts at Yoga were just as important to India and world as his writings and uncompromising push for the exit of the British crown from India. He assumed India’s freedom was a foregone conclusion - this in the early 1900s, when the British Empire was at its apogee. Congress would press for complete freedom only in 1930, and the British would leave only in 1947. He regarded his experiments in Yoga not as a selfish endeavor, but one tied closely to India’s emancipation.

What was his Yoga? This is a system of practices he discovered on his own. In some ways Aurobindo can be regarded as one in the line of the exegetists Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhava. Like traditional orthodox philosophers, he had his commentaries on the Gita and the principal Upanishads and the insights of the Vedic seers. Unlike them however, he entirely ignored rituals, didn’t care to write in Sanskrit and ignored existing social realities. He rejected the world denying Maya of Shankara, as popularly understood. “Whatever others may do,” Aurobindo wrote, “the Karmayogin must not remove himself from the field of action and give up work in the world.” The motto of his spiritual practice was “All life is Yoga.” Rejecting the ascetic life, he did yoga as a “householder.” While teaching students in Baroda in 1900, Aurobindo encouraged his students to think about what they read and to put their ideas down on paper. It’s apparent he followed the same dictum with his forays into the Vedas and the Gita. He was an insistently critical interpreter of these texts, and they had to pass through the filter of his experience before he would accept them3. Initially using terms from Greek and Sanskrit to describe various states he encountered in his meditation, he eventually invented his own words to do the same - the Overmind, Supermind and such. Never intending to have students or an Ashram, he found himself with both. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Raju from RK Narayanan’s Guide. Unlike Raju, Aurobindo was sincere about his sadhana. “In the end, …mystical experiences remain subjective” says Peter Heehs in the foreword. The author, to his credit, doesn’t ignore these experiences and tries to square them as much as possible with available evidence.

Peter Heehs is a sympathetic biographer, but not uncritical. Supported by a trove of footnotes and references, he leads us on a tour of Aurobindo’s life and the Indian freedom movement. The section about Aurobindo’s books can serve as an introduction to his philosophy, and a solid foundation for understanding his works. I very much enjoyed learning about the Bengal revolutionaries and the machinations of the Congress, especially about how rowdy political disagreements could get. In contrast to the sanitized history presented to us in school, the Moderates and Extremists were at each others throats. In the 1907 session of the Congress at Surat, a slipper is thrown at Surendranath Banerjea, and Tilak and associates get into a fist fight. Aurobindo is spat at. Clearly this is a period I need to spend more time investigating. I didn’t know Subramania Bharati and Sri Aurobindo were acquainted with each other and that it was Bharati who introduced Aurobindo to the hymns of the Tamil Alwars. Aurobindo in turn introduced Bharati to the Vedas. A favourite Bharati verse of mine from this unexpected crossover is “Intha janmathil jayamundu bayamillai manamey, Guhaney, paraman mahanay, guhayil valarum kanalay.”4 Yet another area to explore, and I could always do with more Bharati in my life.

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  1. I am making this claim based on what I knew of Aurobindo before I started reading him, and what others around me know about him. The first and usually the last exposure of Indians to Aurobindo is via public school texts. 

  2. Bose’s disillusionment is understandable. He resigned from the Indian Civil Service in 1921 following Aurobindo’s example. “It was widely believed about this time,” Bose wrote, that Aurobindo “would soon return to active political life.” 

  3. “A perfect yoga requires perfect balance. That was the thing that saved me—the perfect balance. First I believed that nothing was impossible and at the same time I could question everything.” One can view Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga as a self-critical journal of a practitioner. 

  4. “Victory in this life is certain O Mind, fear there is none, In the secret cave, O growing Flame, Son of the Supreme.” As recorded by Kapali Sastri