On Sri Aurobindo

Interview by Prof. P Raja
Of all the spiritual Masters, why did you choose Sri Aurobindo and decided to stay in the Ashram for the past 47 years? 

It is not that I chose Sri Aurobindo; it is he in his infinite Grace chose me, like so many others! But answering your question in a less mystifying way, I should say that I ‘evolved’ into Sri Aurobindo’s world. My quest for the meaning of life, for the destiny of man, led me to him. But had it not been for his Grace, I might be still beating in the bush – in the world of religions and philosophies, groping my way for the light.

But speaking logistically, how does one become a disciple of Sri Aurobindo? 

In the world of Sri Aurobindo the relationship between the Master and the disciple is not determined through any ritual, any external process of initiation as it happens in all the sects. Any one who understands Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and is drawn towards them becomes their disciple. You need not evencall yourself a disciple. There are tens of thousands all over the world who study the works of Sri Aurobindo and feel enlightened. They accept spontaneously their vision of human destiny – that man was not created to end up just as a half-animal or an intelligent animal. He is destined to cross his present limitations and grow into a perfect being.

So, that is the relevance of Sri Aurobindo today. Am I right? 

I should say – it is for today and tomorrow. Sri Aurobindo came at a time when mankind is groping in darkness, despite so much of religion, politics, science at his disposal but which seem to have reached their dead ends without bringing to man any sense of ‘liberation’, any sense of having arrived at! Sri Aurobindo was the only one to diagnose the impasse as an ‘evolutionary crisis’ that had engulfed humanity.

Once you believed in Marxian socialism, fought for it and were thrown into prison too. What attracted you to Sri Aurobindo? 

The very quest that had led me to Marxian socialism – the quest for a remedy for human suffering. Nothing is wrong with the ideals of socialism. In fact, the constitutions of all the civilised nations have incorporated the principles of socialism. But human suffering has not ended, because there is something terribly wrong with our consciousness.   I grew or evolved into Sri Aurobindo’s vision. I understood that human predicament is much more complex than as seen by any social or political or thinker. 

Sri Aurobindo has contributed to several fields outside spirituality. He is a poet, a dramatist, a critic, an essayist, a short story writer. What are your brief comments on these aspects of his genius?

As the poet of Savitri he is to me an ever-expanding ocean of wonder. As a dramatist sometimes he excels even the greatest of them. As a critic, his is the last word to me on topics on which he has pronounced his view. 

As an essayist, he has been my Master (apart from being the spiritual Master) in analyzing issues, in seeing them in their proper perspective and … for his sheer grace of prose.

He had attempted only a few short stories. But they open our sight into the oculot world. How much I wish he wrote more! But that was rather a playful creative exercise of his. I don’t think he was serious about it as he was about his essays and poetry.

Sri Aurobindo is a writer, a yogi and a Mystic. Which aspect of his tops in excellence?

His is a personality unique. He can be appreciated only in the totality of all that he has been.

In your selections from Sri Aurobindo (‘The Hour of God’) which you have edited for the Sahitya Akademi, which aspect of Sri Aurobindo have you highlighted? 

His vision of human destiny as he has presented it through a penetrative look into history, philosophy, social developments – and last but not the least, through his spiritual insight and experience. 

Did Sri Aurobindo influence your writing in any way? 

Certainly. His vision of the future of man sustains my zeal for writing. He has taught me to look at man from angles about which I was not conscious earlier. But such influences are subtle – and they should be so in one’s creative writing, I mean in one’s stories, novels or poetry.

If you are asked to choose the best three works by Sri Aurobindo which titles would you suggest and why? 

Savitri for the unending sublime adventure it can mean to a questing reader. The Life Divine, the greatest work ever written on man – his past, his present and his future, for throwing light on all the issues basic to humanity, such as fate and freewill, suffering, death and what is more, the future destiny of man. Next, The Synthesis of Yoga, for being the only spiritual work which does not contradict, does not dismiss any school of mysticism in favour of one, but which puts every stream in its proper place and presents an integral passage to the real meaning of Yoga – the union with the ultimate Reality.

What were the ideals cherished by Sri Aurobindo as a writer? 

‘Ideals’, as we understand the term, is not quite applicable to Sri Aurobindo. I think there were two factors behind his writing. First, he wrote under that mighty creative urge ingrained in the very phenomenon that is this universe and secondly to explain his yoga in relation to the tradition of mysticism, spirituality and the different schools of yoga and his vision of the destiny of man in relation to evolution. That was out of his compassion for the seekers of today and tomorrow. He could have continued in his pursuit of Yoga without giving us any hint about it.

How do you account for the growing popularity of Sri Aurobindo’s work? 

Is he growing popular in the traditional sense? I don’t know. But, no doubt, more and more people are attracted towards him. That is what is expected; his genius and his vision are more relevant for the days that are coming.

Modern critics of Indian poetry in English have complained about the obscurity in Sri Aurobindo’s poems. What is your comment?

Many of his smaller poems are as transparent as dew-drops. The more one reads them, the more one grows in ability to catch their truth. Not mentally, but with a bit of inner quietude, they grow in their profundity. Only a few poems (like ‘Thought the Paraclete’) appear difficult. Even Savitri cannot be called obscure. One can appreciate it better and better through concentration and silence. As one grows within, the hidden splendour of the epic begins to be unfolded in one’s consciousness, layer after layer. But it is never obscure, not even intriguing, at any plane or level of the reader’s progress in appreciating it.

‘Sri Aurobindo in the First Decade of the Century’ was the result of your research in England. What was the inspiration behind this research? 

Curiosity and a normal interest in a not-too-distant phase of our history. It happened like this. The doyen of Indian industry and a noble man, Shri G.D. Birla, happened to read some of my writings and asked me if he could be of any help to me. That was in 1971. The first Birth Centenary of Sri Aurobindo was knocking at the door. I read in the papers that the second sealed bag of the correspondence between Minto, the Governor-General of India and Morley, the Secretary of Stat for India, had just been found and opened. I presumed that their exchange must contain some reference to Sri Aurobindo. I asked Mr. Birla if his business office in London could photocopy some of the papers. Mr. Birla immediately offered to bear all my expenses should I visit London myself. I went and, apart from much that I got from the Morley-Minto correspondence, I hit a jackpot – records of the House of Commons debate on Sri Aurobindo. On the basis of a news in The Times of London that a warrant had been issued against Sri Aurobindo for a seditious article he wrote in The Karmayogin, Ramsay Macdonald, the first leader of the Labour Party and a future Prime Minister, demanded that the article be produced in the Parliament. He repeated the demand twice more. But as the Government failed to oblige him, he flashed the magazine himself and read out the article line by line and challenged the ruling side to point out where lay any element of sedition. The House heard him with surprise and silence. The only voice that tried to embarrass Macdonald wondered if the original article was not in Bengali. Replied Macdonald, “The article is in most excellent English and Mr. Aurobindo Ghose could no more write in Bengali than I could.”

This was the first-ever long debate on any Indian statesman in the House of Commons. It is surprising that no history of India’s struggle for freedom refers to it. By the way, the entire role of Sri Aurobindo in the freedom struggle - according to the Governor-General he was “the most dangerous man” in the country for the British rulers – has been ignored. It is rarely mentioned that the concepts of Swadeshi, boycott and non-cooperation were given by him.

Sri Aurobindo had a fine sense of humour, which is rare among yogis. What have you to say about this phenomenon?

If Ananda (Delight) is at the foundation of this Sristi (creation), how can the yogi, who is in union with that creatrix consciousness, be without that trait? What is true humour if not a manifestation of that trait? Sri Aurobindo’s humour is the most subtle, most intelligent I have ever known. 

Have you ever regretted that the genius of Sri Aurobindo was not taken note of by the Nobel Prize Committee?

Never! Sri Aurobindo should not be read by people because he received this award or that. One’s quest and quest alone should lead one to him. It is good that he is not bracketed with a galaxy of awards winners. He dazzles in his uniqueness. In fact he discouraged the move in that direction himself, of course may not for the reason I have stated.

If I can ask a question from another angle - why should one read Sri Aurobindo at all? 

Because, if the hour of God in one’s life had come, one cannot do otherwise.

Often people, overwhelmed by Sri Aurobindo's greatness, ask, "How could one achieve so much in a single life? He inspired India's struggle for freedom and was its most powerful leader for the brief period that he was in national politics. What made him wake up to his inner Divinity so that he suddenly broke away from the sort of life he led and came over to Pondicherry? What was the immediate occasion?"

To articulate an answer to this question is practically beyond me, even though it is no riddle for me. Sri Aurobindo for me, as much as for many others, is the Divine Sri Aurobindo; it is not possible to visualise a pre-Divine Sri Aurobindo. But this cannot be my answer to the seeker in those who put the question nor can I overlook the sincerity behind the query. After all, Sri Aurobindo himself had answered it at the so-called factual plane in his Tales of Prison Life as well as in the Uttarpara Speech.

Will you please state it in your own words?

I'll try. But even if one were to use his own words, it would still need a preface and this is how I would put it. Let us put aside the case of Sri Aurobindo for a moment. Even in the lives of average people like us no transition from the usual pattern of life into the life of a spiritual seeker need take place suddenly. A quest for Truth continues deep within us, even though we may not be aware of it. At a certain degree of its development, any external event or influence could inspire us to break away from the pattern of life we followed and that break may appear sudden.

But no such formula, of course, applies to the Avatar. Let me put the situation in a metaphorical way. You may decide to wake up at a certain hour of the night and set the alarm in your clock accordingly and go to sleep. Even when the alarm goes off and you wake up, it may take you a few seconds to recollect that it had been your own doing, a result of your own decision to go to sleep and then to wake up at a certain time. 

This is how I see the so-called transition in the life of Sri Aurobindo, for he had to, at least symbolically, plunge into the self-forgetfulness of humanity. He had to identify himself with humanity and experience all its limitations. His incarceration at the Alipore prison served as his own alarm. As is well-known, he was embraced by Sri Krishna in such a way that he saw none but the Lord in everything and all — in the walls that deprived him of his freedom, in the lawyers who pleaded for him as well as against him, and in the judge, the witnesses and so on.

He was different and great even before that. Surprising his guide Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, he achieved Yogic experiences of such great magnitude in a day or two that would have taken a long time for a normal Yogi to achieve.

But this difference was only the preface to the difference that was to emerge before long.

In the gloomy and suffocating solitary cell where, as he recollected in his Tales of Prison Life, "bound to the wheels of an iron law, subservient to the whim of others, one had to live Deprived of every other contact", he woke up to the fact that "God was playing a game" with him. In his famous Uttarpara Speech he made explicit the Providential purpose behind his travail: he had indescribable realisations in a few days, the total and intimate identification with the Divine — in other words he woke up to his own identity, his swarupa — that would ultimately lead him to give us a glimpse of the evolutionary future of man, the message of the Life Divine.

So, the break from the life as he led it was obvious!

Obvious, is it? But what is not obvious is that there was really no break! Do I sound enigmatic? It is like this. His struggle for liberation continued. The first phase of his life was devoted to the liberation of the motherland. India for him was not simply a stretch of inanimate earth, but a consciousness, a living heritage of human aspiration through the ages, towards liberation of human souls from their bondage to ignorance. At Pondicherry began the second phase of his struggle for liberation — the emancipation of man from that primeval bondage.

Right. But is there any difference between the liberation sought by great spiritual masters of the past and Sri Aurobindo?

A radical difference indeed. Great souls sought liberation for themselves. There was nothing wrong in that. No doubt, they inspired and guided hundreds or thousands of others to take to that path. But they sought liberation, realisation or Nirvana, not divinisation or integral transformation of man into divinity — a goal that Sri Aurobindo's Yoga aims at, a trans-cendence of mankind as a whole that would be made possible by the intervention of a new consciousness descending from the Supreme. He did his Yoga to bring down that force which he termed the Supermind. The Mother continued the process when he left his body on the 5th of December 1950. This new consciousness is at work in the atmosphere of the earth, probably waiting for its chance to manifest when there would be a sufficiently strong collective aspiration. 

"All earth shall be the Spirit's manifest home" as he said in his epic Savitri ?

That's right. He rejected the widely prevailing notion that the world and the worldly life were illusions — though he did not deny the fact that we remain blinded by a plethora of illusory values. But Providence did not create this world for it to be merely abandoned as false. It is intrinsically divine and so is our life. It is not renunciation of life, but the transformation of life, freedom from the octopus hold of unconsciousness — that is the evolutionary goal beckoning man

As I had stated earlier, there was no phase of Sri Aurobindo's life I could describe as pre-Divine, for his entire life was a preparation and then an offering, a Yajna, on behalf of the earth, for the realisation of the prospect concealed in our destiny, a liberated future.

That we cannot describe any phase of Sri Aurobindo's life as pre-Divine is corroborated by his life-long, lieutenant Nolini Kanta Gupta in these words:

... the Yogi, the Divine, the impersonal man in Sri Aurobindo was the real person always there from the very birth. Thus we see him starting life exactly with the thing where everyone ends. In his inner being he had not to pass through the gradations that lead an ordinary person gradually towards the widening ranges of consciousness and existence. In all the stations of his life, in every sphere and status Sri Aurobindo was doing his duties — that is, his work — kartavyam karma — selflessly, which means with no sense of self, or perhaps we should say with supreme selfhoodness; for such is the character, the very nature of the born Yogi, the God-man.

Prof Manoj Das for April Conference 2016

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.