Śri Aurobindo: The Revolutionary, The Yogi, The Visionary

By Tracy Sachs

The Introduction

Śri Aurobindo lived a colorful, multifaceted life. He was a scholar and a revolutionary; a poet and a politician; a yogi and a convicted traitor. Above all, he was a visionary propelled by possibilities of freedom – freedom for India, freedom for all the world’s people, and freedom for the human soul. Śri Aurobindo’s history is a complicated one. His legacy tends to be overlooked, but its presence lives on, and may prove to be a vital breath for the future of Yoga and its potential to serve as a vehicle for social change.

The Family and Childhood Years

In Calcutta on August 15, 1872, Aurobindo Ghose was given his namesake by his mother and father, Swarnalotta and Dr. K.D. Ghose.[1] He was born into a prominent family with complicated dynamics. Aurobindo was the third of three sons. His maternal great grandfather, Nanda Kishore Bose, was a member of the Hindu reform movement, Brahmo Samaj, and for sometime served as secretary for its leader, Ram Mohan Roy.[2] Nanda Kishore’s son, and Aurobindo’s grandfather, Rajnarain, became disillusioned with Hinduism after exposure to Western rationalism; however, after the tragic death of his wife and father, found solace in Vedanta.[3] After an encounter with Devendranath Tagore, Rajnarain joined the Bramo Samaj. His speeches and writings offered much influence and inspiration to Hindu revival movement.[4]

On the contrary, and to the anguish of his father-in-law, Aurobindo’s father, Dr. K.D. Ghose, rejected Hinduism and Indian culture in favor of Western rationalism and modernity. Dr. Ghose worked for the Civil Medical Officer, and was credited with mitigating rampant malaria in Rangpur.[5] Dr. Ghose and Swarnalotta were popular in both English and Bengali circles, but during Aurobindo’s early childhood years, Swarnalotta began showing signs of mental instability.[6] Her conditioned worsened to severe mental illness as years passed.

Dr. Ghose wished for his sons’ success and prestige, and specifically to find employment in the Covenated Civil Service of India (ICS), a position that very few natives were appointed to.[7] He knew that their only hope was to receive an English education. After a few years at the Loreto Covent School in Darjeeling, Ghose sent his three children to Manchester, England where they would continue their education. [8] In 1879, at seven years old, Aurobindo was completely removed from his native land and culture.[9]


The Education and Inspiration

From a young age, Aurobindo was a voracious reader, and his choice of reading material set the trajectory for the rest of his life. At ten years old, he read the King James Bible and English poets such as Shelly and Keats. [10] His revolutionary spirit was ignited through historical readings of “the revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation.”[11] By fourteen years old, his political impulses ‘“began to sprout’” and he was committed to towards the liberation of India.[12]

Aurobindo continued his education at King’s College, Cambridge University, where he studied Classics. It was at this time that he began questioning his father’s ambition for him to join the ICS.[13] He saw the type of men he would eventually be working with as ‘“unmannerly, uncultivated, unintelligent.’”  The ICS required an extensive examination process, and Aurobindo passed all the scholastic exams that would lead to a prestigious appointment. He knew rejecting an appointment would break his father’s heart, so he had only one option: he must be rejected by the ICS. For this reason, he sabotaged his final examination – horseback riding.[14] Ultimately, Aurobindo received an ICS rejection letter, and spent his final days in Cambridge studying Sanskrit and Indian philosophy.[15]

The Revolutionary

On February 6, 1893, Aurobindo returned to India, where he began teaching at Baroda College until 1906.[16] During this time, his interests in both politics and Yoga grew.[17] In 1902 he joined a secret society that believed that an armed revolution was the only chance for India’s emancipation.[18] By 1906, Gandhi’s passive resistance movement was in its nescient form, and Aurobindo believed this to be an inferior tactic to armed revolution.[19] He did not advocate needless violence, but felt that “The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint.”[20] Likewise, he said: “Let the authorities remember this, that when a Government breaks the Law, by their very act the people are absolved from the obligation of obeying the Law.”’[21]

Soon Aurobindo began collaborating with this brother, Barin, who led militant terrorist efforts against the colonial regime. In 1908, after Aurobindo expressed an interest in learning “yoga as a means to acquire power to liberate the nation” Barin introduced his brother to a yogī named, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, who taught him meditation.[22] This encounter led Aurobindo to his first mystical experience, and one that would set the groundwork for his spiritual life to come. This experience illuminated for Aurobindo the impermanent, unreal nature of the material world, and the presence of the permanent, primordial ground of being, which he would eventually call, “the passive Brahman.[23]

For a time, Aurobindo’s spiritual practice and revolutionary activities unfolded simultaneously. Barin established an “ashram of revolutionary sannyasis” that would be called ‘the Garden.’[24]  The Garden became the headquarters for revolutionary activities, and specifically for the assassination attempt gone awry that implicated Aurobindo. Aurobindo was charged with “waging war against the king,” was sentenced to imprisonment.[25]

The Imprisonment and Emancipation

The first month and a half of Aurobindo’s sentence was spent in solitary confinement, in a cell no bigger than nine feet by six feet.[26] He was given one small tin bowl for eating, drinking, and cleaning after defecation.[27] For the first few days, he remained in calm and at peace, but eventually, he began to breakdown. His biographer, Peter Heehs writes:

He tried to meditate, but after two or three hours ‘the mind rebelled and                         the body became too exhausted’ to continue. After suffering ‘intense                               mental agony’ he found relief in observing the world around him. Finally                           he realized that ‘God was playing a game’ with him, giving him a taste of                          the experience of prison and showing his mind its weakness so that he                           could ‘get rid of it forever.’ After a few days his mental disturbance                                ceased and he was able to spend the remainder of his imprisonment in                             concentrated sadhana.[28]

Aurobindo spent a total of one year and one day in prison. On May 6, 1909, he was acquitted and released.[29]

The Transformation

During his time in prison, Aurobindo was given a copy of the Bhagavad Gītā, which forever changed his perception of Yoga and Vedanata. He no longer saw the “passive Brahman” alone as the ultimate reality and the world as mere illusion. Instead, he saw perceived the world as a manifestation of God and saw Krishna “as all beings and all that there is.”[30] He now understood “what Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those who aspire to do His work…to renounce self-will and become a passive and faithful instrument in His hands.”[31] This shift would color all Aurobindo’s future work.

            Upon his acquittal and release from prison, Aurobindo moved to Calcutta where he began a weekly periodical called, Karmayogin. Each week he published three to eight large pages on topics such as Vedanta, politics, Kalidasa’s poetry, Indian painting, and translations of the Upaniṣads.[32] Karmayoga (the Yoga of action), and sanatana dharma (eternal religion), were Aurobindo’d focus.[33] He advocated a Hinduism that transcended traditional religion in favor of a nonsectarian definition of Hinduism. This religion embraced ‘“many scriptures, Veda, Vedanta, Gita, Upanishad, Darshana, Purana, Tantra, nor could it reject the Bible or the Koran; but its real, most authorative scripture is in the heart in which the Eternal has His dwelling.”’[34]

Experience not doctrine was fundamental to Aurobindo, and the mystical experience he spoke of could be attained through the practice of Yoga.[35] Aurobindo’s Yoga did not advocate renunciation and rejection of the world. Instead, it was “the application of Vedanta and Yoga to life.”[36] He said, “the spiritual life finds its most potent expression in the man who lives the ordinary life of men in the strength of the Yoga and under the law of the Vedanta” and likewise that ordinary life and politics were most successful when manifested through a spiritual connection.[37] Aurobindo wrote:

The task we set before ourselves is not mechanical but moral and spiritual.                      We aim not at the alteration of a form of government but at the building                           up of a nation. Of that task politics is a part, but only a part. We shall                                devote ourselves not to politics alone, nor to social questions alone, nor to                      theology or philosophy or literature or science by themselves, but we                              include all these in one entity which we believe to be all-important, the                  dharma, the national religion which we also believe to be universal…To                          understand the heart of this dharma, to experience it as a truth, to feel the                      high emotions to which it rises and to express and execute it in life is what                 we understand by Karmayoga. We believe that it is to make the yoga the                          ideal of human life that India rises today; by the yoga she will get the                                 strength to realize her freedom, unity and greatness, by the yoga, she will                       keep the strength to preserve it.[38]

In 1910, Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry, where he would spend the rest of his life. Upon his arrival, his sadhana deepened and he experienced a fundamental shift. Yoga was no longer a means to achieving power for political ends. Instead, his work became “a part and result” of his sadhana.[39] Furthermore, the scope of his work expanded from the liberation of India to the liberation of all humanity.[40]

Aurobindo’s sadhana continued to intensify in Pondicherry. Eventually his household transformed into a spiritual community that would be the prototype for the new society he envisioned.[41] A European woman, Mirra Richard, moved to Pondicherry and devoted herself to Aurobindo’s vision.[42] Aurobindo saw Mirra’s dynamic energy as a compliment to his own “purusha” quality, and eventually gave her the name, “Mother.” The Mother was essential in manifesting Aurobindo’s vision in the years to come.[43]

The Poet

Aurobindo was a prolific poet, writing in all poetic forms.[44] He used poetry as a vehicle to communicate ineffable truths that ordinary words could  not covey.[45] One of his most impressive works is a 24,000 line epic poem, called Savitri, and includes that following passage[46]:

A marvelous sun looked down from ecstasy’s skies

On world’s of dealthless bliss, perfection’s home,

Magical unfoldings of the Eternal’s smile

Capturing his secret heart-beats of delight.

God’s everlasting day surrounded her,

Domains appeared of sempiternal light

Invading all Nature with Absolute’s joy.

Her body quivered with eternity’s touch,

Her soul stood close to the founts of the infinite.

Infinity’s finite fronts she lived in, new

For ever to an everlasting sight…

There lightning-filled with glory and with flame,

Melting in waves of sympathy and sight,

Smitten like a lyre that throbs to other’s bliss,

Drawn by the cord of ecstasies unknown,

Her human nature faint with heaven’s delight,

She beheld the clasp to earth denied and bore

The imperishable eyes of veilless love. [47]

Integral Yoga

Śri Aurobindo has left a unique system of Yoga that he called Integral Yoga. Integral Yoga is not a system of prescriptions, but rather a quest for an integrated consciousness of wholeness that transcends the fractured discontinuity of the human condition.[48] This can be achieved through the integration of jñanayoga, karmayoga, and bhaktiyoga – wisdom, work, and love, respectively. [49]

For Aurobindo, “All life is Yoga.”[50] He describes in The Synthesis of the Systems, that every worldly experience, “however trifling or however disastrous, is used for the work, and every inner experience, even to the most repellent suffering or the most humiliating fall, becomes a step on the path to perfection.”[51] Unlike world renouncing, ascetic Yoga traditions that advocate the rejection of the world and our lower consciousness as the path to merge with God, Integral Yoga demands the synthesis of Nature and God, and transformation of lower consciousness into Higher consciousness. His Yoga teaches the sadhaka to embrace and transform the material word to achieve “the divine fulfillment of life.”[52]

The Final Years

During the late 1940s Aurobindo was diagnosed with prostatic enlargement that led to kidney infection and uraemia in the 1950s.[53] He declined treatment and fell into a coma. Aurobindo would periodically awaken from his coma with clear awareness, and on December 5, 1950 he awoke for the last time. He kissed his devoted companions before slipping back into a coma to never awaken. [54]

Śri Aurobindo’s legacy lives on through Auroville, the international spiritual community he envisioned and made manifest through the Mother. In 1968 the “international township” was inaugurated, and people from all over India and abroad settled there.[55] According to the official Auroville website, there is a growing population of 2,400 people living there today, coming from 49 nations, and approximately one-third of whom are Indian.[56] The town hosts “organic farms, dairies, orchards, forests, and wildlife areas” and is a successful example of “transformation of wasteland into a vibrant eco-system.”[57]

In an ailing world marked by personal and collective suffering, Śri Aurobindo’s message and teachings are more necessary than ever. The homepage of the Auroville website reads, “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”[58] Aurobindo’s vision lives on. May it flourish.

Works Cited


Banerji, Debashish. Seven Quartets of Becoming, A Transformative Yoga Psychology

            Based on the Dairies of Sri Aurobindo. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd., 2012. Print.

Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo, A Brief Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.           Print.

Heehs, Peter, editor. The Essential Wrottings of Sri Aurobindo. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1998. Print.

[1] Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo, A Brief Biography, 7

[2] Ibid., 4

[3] Ibid.,5

[4] Ibid.,6

[5] Ibid.,6-7

[6] Ibid.,7

[7] Ibid.,9

[8] Ibid.,9

[9] Ibid.,9

[10] Ibid.,10-11

[11] Ibid.,12

[12] Ibid.,12

[13] Ibid.,15

[14] Ibid.,16-17

[15] Ibid.,18

[16] Ibid.,20

[17] Ibid.,20

[18] Ibid.,31

[19] Ibid.,44

[20] Ibid.,52

[21] Ibid.,52

[22] Banerji, 2

[23] Ibid.,2

[24] Heehs, 54

[25] Ibid.,56

[26] Ibid.,58

[27] Ibid.,58

[28] Ibid.,59

[29] Ibid.,60

[30] Ibid.,94

[31] Ibid.,93-94

[32] Ibid.,62

[33] Ibid.,63

[34] Ibid.,63

[35] Ibid.,63

[36] Ibid.,63

[37] Ibid.,63-64

[38] Ibid.,62-63

[39] Ibid.,70

[40] Ibid.,70

[41] Heehs, 130

[42] Ibid.,133

[43] Ibid.,133

[44] Ibid.,118

[45] Ibid.,118

[46] Ibid.,228

[47] Ibid.,229

[48] Banerji, 9

[49] Ibid.,115

[50] Heehs, Essential Writings, 270

[51] Ibid., 277

[52] Ibid., 338

[53] Banerji.,146

[54] Ibid.,147

[55] Ibid.,150

[56] http://www.auroville.org

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

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