Sri Aurobindo (Sri Ôrobindo), (15 August 1872 – 5 December 1950), born Aurobindo Ghose, was an Indian nationalist, philosopher, yogi, guru, and poet. He joined the Indian movement for independence from British rule, for a while became one of its influential leaders and then became a spiritual reformer, introducing his visions on human progress and spiritual evolution.
Aurobindo studied for the Indian Civil Service at King’s College, Cambridge, England. After returning to India he took up various civil service works under the maharaja of the princely state of Baroda and began to involve himself in politics. He was imprisoned by the British for writing articles against British rule in India. He was released when no evidence was provided. During his stay in the jail he had mystical and spiritual experiences, after which he moved to Pondicherry, leaving politics for spiritual work.
During his stay in Pondicherry, Aurobindo developed a method of spiritual practice he called Integral Yoga. The central theme of his vision was the evolution of human life into a life divine. He believed in a spiritual realisation that not only liberated man but transformed his nature, enabling a divine life on earth. In 1926, with the help of his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (“The Mother”), he founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He died on 5 December 1950 in Pondicherry.
His main literary works are The Life Divine, which deals with theoretical aspects of Integral Yoga; Synthesis of Yoga, which deals with practical guidance to Integral Yoga; and Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, an epic poem which refers to a passage in the Mahabharata, where its characters actualise Integral Yoga in their lives. His works also include philosophy, poetry, translations and commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1943 and for the Nobel Prize in Peace in 1950.
Aurobindo Acroyd Ghose was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal Presidency, India on 15 August 1872. His father, Krishna Dhun Ghose, was then Assistant Surgeon of Rangapur in Bengal, and a former member of the Brahmo Samaj religious reform movement who had become enamoured with the then-new idea of evolution while pursuing medical studies in Britain. His mother was Swarnalotta Devi, whose father was Rajnarain Bose, a leading figure in the Samaj. She had been sent to the more salubrious surroundings of Calcutta for Aurobindo’s birth. Aurobindo had two elder siblings, Benoybhusan and Manmohan, and both a younger sister, Sarojini, and a younger brother, Barindrakumar (also referred to as Barin, born Emmanuel Matthew).
Young Aurobindo was brought up speaking English but used Hindustani to communicate with servants. Although his family were Bengali, his father believed British culture to be superior to that of his countrymen. He and his two elder siblings were sent to the English-speaking Loreto House boarding school in Darjeeling, in part to improve their language skills and in part to distance them from their mother, who had developed a mental illness soon after the birth of her first child. Darjeeling was a centre of British life in India and the school was run by Irish nuns, through which the boys would have been exposed to Christian religious teachings and symbolism.
Krishna Dhun Ghose wanted his sons to enter the Indian Civil Service (ICS), an elite organisation comprising around 1000 people. To achieve this it was necessary that they study in England and so it was there that the entire family moved in 1879. The three brothers were placed in the care of the Reverend W. H. Drewett in Manchester. Drewett was a minister of the Congregational Church whom Krishna Dhun Ghose knew through his British friends at Rangapur.
The boys were taught Latin by Drewett and his wife. This was a prerequisite for admission to good English schools and, after two years, in 1881, the elder two siblings were enrolled at Manchester Grammar School. Aurobindo was considered too young for enrolment and he continued his studies with the Drewetts, learning history, Latin, French, geography and arithmetic. Although the Drewetts were told not to teach religion, the boys inevitably were exposed to Christian teachings and events, which generally bored Aurobindo and sometimes repulsed him. There was little contact with his father, who wrote only a few letters to his sons while they were in England, but what communication there was indicated that he was becoming less endeared to the British in India than he had been, on one occasion describing the British Raj as a “heartless government”.
Basement of 49 St Stephen’s Avenue, London W12 with Sri Aurobindo Blue Plaque
Drewett emigrated to Australia in 1884, causing the boys to be uprooted as they went to live with Drewett’s mother in London. In September of that year, Aurobindo and Manmohan joined St Paul’s School there. He learned Greek and spent the last three years reading literature and English poetry. He also acquired some familiarity with the German and Italian languages and, exposed to the evangelical strictures of Drewett’s mother, a distaste for religion. He considered himself at one point to be an atheist but later determined that he was agnostic. A blue plaque unveiled in 2007 commemorates Aurobindo’s residence at 49 St Stephen’s Avenue in Shepherd’s Bush, London, from 1884 to 1887. The three brothers began living in spartan circumstances at the Liberal Club in South Kensington during 1887, their father having experienced some financial difficulties. The Club’s secretary was James Cotton, brother of their father’s friend in the Bengal ICS, Henry Cotton.
By 1889, Manmohan had determined to pursue a literary career and Benoybhusan had proved himself unequal to the standards necessary for ICS entrance. This meant that only Aurobindo might fulfil his father’s aspirations but to do so when his father lacked money required that he studied hard for a scholarship.To become an ICS official, students were required to pass the competitive examination, as well as to study at an English university for two years under probation. Aurobindo secured a scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, under recommendation of Oscar Browning. He passed the written ICS examination after a few months, being ranked 11th out of 250 competitors. He spent the next two years at King’s College. Sri Aurobindo had no interest in the ICS and came late to the horse-riding practical exam purposefully to get himself disqualified for the service.
At this time, the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, was travelling in England. Cotton secured for him a place in Baroda State Service and arranged for him to meet the prince. He left England for India, arriving there in February 1893. In India, Krishna Dhun Ghose, who was waiting to receive his son, was misinformed by his agents from Bombay (now Mumbai) that the ship on which Aurobindo had been travelling had sunk off the coast of Portugal. His father died upon hearing this news.
n Baroda, Aurobindo joined the state service in 1893, working first in the Survey and Settlements department, later moving to the Department of Revenue and then to the Secretariat, and much miscellaneous work like teaching grammar and assisting in writing speeches for the Maharaja of Gaekwad until 1897. In 1897 during his work in Baroda he started working as a part-time French teacher at Baroda College (now Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda), he was later promoted to the post of Vice-Principal. At Baroda, Sri Aurobindo self-studied Sanskrit and Bengali.
During his stay at Baroda he contributed to many articles to Indu Prakash and spoke as a chairman of the Baroda college board. He also started taking active interest in the politics of India’s independence struggle against British rule, working behind the scenes as his position in the Baroda state administration barred him from overt political activity. He linked up with resistance groups in Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, while travelling to these states. He established contact with Lokmanya Tilak and Sister Nivedita. He also arranged for the military training of Jatindra Nath Banerjee (Niralamba Swami) in the Baroda army and then dispatched him to organise the resistance groups in Bengal.
Aurobindo often travelled between Baroda and Bengal, at first in a bid to re-establish links with his parent’s families and other Bengali relatives, including his cousin Sarojini and brother Barin, and later increasingly to establish resistance groups across the Presidency. He formally moved to Calcutta only in 1906 after the announcement of the Partition of Bengal. Aged 28, he had married 14-year-old Mrinalini, daughter of Bhupal Chandra Bose, a senior official in government service, when he visited Calcutta in 1901. Mrinalini died in December 1918 during the influenza pandemic.
Aurobindo was influenced by studies on rebellion and revolutions against England in medieval France and the revolts in America and Italy. In his public activities he favoured non-co-operation and passive resistance but in private he took up secret revolutionary activity as a preparation for open revolt, in case that the passive revolt failed.
In Bengal, with Barin’s help, he established contacts with revolutionaries, inspiring radicals such as Bagha Jatin, Jatin Banerjee and Surendranath Tagore. He helped establish a series of youth clubs, including the Anushilan Samiti of Calcutta in 1902.
Aurobindo attended the 1906 Congress meeting headed by Dadabhai Naoroji and participated as a councillor in forming the fourfold objectives of “Swaraj, Swadesh, Boycott and national education”. In 1907 at the Surat session of Congress where moderates and extremists had a major showdown, he led with extremists along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The Congress split after this session.In 1907–1908 Aurobindo travelled extensively to Pune, Bombay and Baroda to firm-up support for the nationalist cause, giving speeches and meeting various groups. He was arrested again in May 1908 in connection with the Alipore Bomb Case. He was acquitted in the ensuing trial and released after a year of isolated incarceration. Once out of the prison he started two new publications, Karmayogin in English and Dharma in Bengali. He also delivered the Uttarpara Speech hinting at the transformation of his focus to spiritual matters. The British persecution continued because of his writings in his new journals and in April 1910 Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry, where Britain’s secret police monitored his activities.
In July 1905 then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, partitioned Bengal. This sparked an outburst of public anger against the British, leading to civil unrest and a nationalist campaign by groups of revolutionaries, who included Aurobindo. In 1908, Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki attempted to kill Magistrate Kingsford, a judge known for handing down particularly severe sentences against nationalists. However, the bomb thrown at his horse carriage missed its target and instead landed in another carriage and killed two British women, the wife and daughter of barrister Pringle Kennedy. Aurobindo was also arrested on charges of planning and overseeing the attack and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Alipore Jail. The trial of the Alipore Bomb Case lasted for a year, but eventually he was acquitted on 6.May.1909. His defence counsel was Chittaranjan Das.
During this period in the Jail, his view of life was radically changed due to spiritual experiences and realizations. Consequently, his aim went far beyond the service and liberation of the country.
Aurobindo said he was “visited” by Vivekananda in the Alipore Jail: “It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence.
In his autobiographical notes, Aurobindo said he felt a vast sense of calmness when he first came back to India. He could not explain this and continued to have various such experiences from time to time. He knew nothing of yoga at that time and started his practise of it without a teacher, except for some rules that he learned from Ganganath, a friend who was a disciple of Brahmananda. In 1907, Barin introduced Aurobindo to Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, a Maharashtrian yogi. Aurobindo was influenced by the guidance he got from the yogi, who had instructed Aurobindo to depend on an inner guide and any kind of external guru or guidance would not be required.
In 1910 Aurobindo withdrew himself from all political activities and went into hiding at Chandannagar while the British were trying to prosecute him for sedition on the basis of a signed article titled ‘To My Countrymen’, published in Karmayogin. As Aurobindo disappeared from view, the warrant was held back and the prosecution postponed. Aurobindo manoeuvred the police into open action and a warrant was issued on 4 April 1910, but the warrant could not be executed because on that date he had reached Pondicherry, then a French colony. The warrant against Aurobindo was withdrawn.
In Pondicherry, Aurobindo dedicated himself to his spiritual and philosophical pursuits. In 1914, after four years of secluded yoga, he started a monthly philosophical magazine called Arya. This ceased publication in 1921. Many years later, he revised some of these works before they were published in book form. Some of the book series derived out of this publication were The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on The Gita, The Secret of The Veda, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, The Upanishads, The Renaissance in India, War and Self-determination, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and The Future Poetry were published in this magazine.
At the beginning of his stay at Pondicherry, there were few followers, but with time their numbers grew, resulting in the formation of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926. From 1926 he started to sign himself as Sri Aurobindo, Sri (meaning holy in Sanskrit) being commonly used as an honorific.
Sri Aurobindo on his deathbed December 5, 1950
For some time afterwards, his main literary output was his voluminous correspondence with his disciples. His letters, most of which were written in the 1930s, numbered in the several thousands. Many were brief comments made in the margins of his disciple’s notebooks in answer to their questions and reports of their spiritual practice—others extended to several pages of carefully composed explanations of practical aspects of his teachings. These were later collected and published in book form in three volumes of Letters on Yoga. In the late 1930s, he resumed work on a poem he had started earlier—he continued to expand and revise this poem for the rest of his life. It became perhaps his greatest literary achievement, Savitri, an epic spiritual poem in blank verse of approximately 24,000 lines.
Aurobindo died on 5 December 1950. Around 60,000 people attended his funeral. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and President Rajendra Prasad praised him for his contribution to Yogic philosophy and the independence struggle. National and international newspapers commemorated his death.
Aurobindo’s close spiritual collaborator, Mirra Richard (b. Alfassa), came to be known as The Mother. She was a French national, born in Paris on 21 February 1878. In her 20s she studied occultism with Max Theon. Along with her husband, Paul Richard, she went to Pondicherry on 29 March 1914, and finally settled there in 1920. Aurobindo considered her his spiritual equal and collaborator. After 24 November 1926, when Aurobindo retired into seclusion, he left it to her to plan, build and run the ashram, the community of disciples which had gathered around them. Some time later, when families with children joined the ashram, she established and supervised the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education with its experiments in the field of education. When he died in 1950, she continued their spiritual work, directed the ashram, and guided their disciples.
Aurobindo’s concept of the Integral Yoga system is described in his books, The Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine. The Life Divine is a compilation of essays published serially in Arya.
Aurobindo argues that divine Brahman manifests as empirical reality through līlā, or divine play. Instead of positing that the world we experience is an illusion (māyā), Aurobindo argues that life itself is Divine.
Aurobindo believed that Darwinism merely describes a phenomenon of the evolution of matter into life, but does not explain the reason behind it, while he finds life to be already present in matter, because all of existence is a manifestation of Brahman. He argues that nature (which he interpreted as divine) has evolved life out of matter and then mind out of life. All of existence, he argues, is attempting to manifest to the level of the supermind – that evolution had a purpose. He stated that he found the task of understanding the nature of reality arduous and difficult to justify by immediate tangible results.
urobindo was an Indian nationalist but is best known for his philosophy on human evolution and Integral Yoga.
His influence has been wide-ranging. In India, S. K. Maitra, Anilbaran Roy and D. P. Chattopadhyaya commented on Aurobindo’s work. Writers on esotericism and traditional wisdom, such as Mircea Eliade, Paul Brunton, and Rene Guenon, all saw him as an authentic representative of the Indian spiritual tradition.
Haridas Chaudhuri and Frederic Spiegelberg were among those who were inspired by Aurobindo, who worked on the newly formed American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Soon after, Chaudhuri and his wife Bina established the Cultural Integration Fellowship, from which later emerged the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was heavily inspired by Satprem’s writings about Aurobindo during a week in May 1968, a time at which the composer was undergoing a personal crisis and had found Aurobindo’s philosophies were relevant to his feelings. After this experience, Stockhausen’s music took a completely different turn, focusing on mysticism, that was to continue until the end of his career.
William Irwin Thompson traveled to Auroville in 1972, where he met “The Mother”. Thompson has called Aurobindo’s teaching on spirituality a “radical anarchism” and a “post-religious approach” and regards their work as having “…reached back into the Goddess culture of prehistory, and, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, ‘culturally retrieved’ the archetypes of the shaman and la sage femme…” Thompson also writes that he experienced Shakti, or psychic power coming from The Mother on the night of her death in 1973.
Aurobindo’s ideas about the further evolution of human capabilities influenced the thinking of Michael Murphy – and indirectly, the human potential movement, through Murphy’s writings.
The American philosopher Ken Wilber has called Aurobindo “India’s greatest modern philosopher sage” and has integrated some of his ideas into his philosophical vision. Wilber’s interpretation of Aurobindo has been criticised by Rod Hemsell. New Age writer Andrew Harvey also looks to Aurobindo as a major inspiration.