Immersion in Indian Culture – I
Sri Aurobindo returned to India on 6th February 1893, after completing his education in England. During the last months of his stay in London he had met the Gaekwad of Baroda and had obtained an appointment in the royal service. Sri Aurobindo passed fourteen years, from 1893 to 1906, in the Baroda Service, first in the Revenue Department and in secretariat work for the Maharaja, afterwards as Professor of English and, finally, Vice-Principal in the Baroda College.
Sri Aurobindo narrates much later in his ‘Autobiographical Notes’ about this period:
“These were years of self-culture, of literary activity—for much of the poetry afterwards published from Pondicherry was written at this time—and of preparation for his future work. In England he had received, according to his father’s express instructions, an entirely occidental education without any contact with the culture of India and the East. At Baroda he made up the deficiency, learned Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages, assimilated the spirit of Indian civilisation and its forms past and present.”
Immersion in Indian Culture – II
Sri Aurobindo learnt many Indian languages like Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and Sanskrit while at Baroda. He had an aptitude for picking up languages with an amazing ease and rapidity. He learnt Bengali and Sanskrit himself. The marvel is that he mastered Sanskrit as thoroughly as he did with other foreign languages like Greek and Latin and entered as deeply into its spirit and genius. An exceptional mastery of Sanskrit at once opened to him the immense treasure-house of the Indian heritage. Sri Aurobindo translated some portions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, some dramas of Kalidasa, the Nitishataka of Bhartrihari, some poems of Vidyapati and Chandidas etc. into English from Sanskrit.
Once, when R. C. Dutt, the well-known civilian and historian, came to Baroda at the invitation of the Maharaja, he somehow came to know about Sri Aurobindo’s translations and expressed his desire to see them. Sri Aurobindo showed them to him (though not without reluctance, for he was by nature shy and reticent about himself), and Mr. Dutt was so much struck by their high quality that he said to Sri Aurobindo:
“If I had seen your translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata before, I would not have published mine. I can now very well see that, by the side of your magnificent translations, mine appear as mere child’s play.”
Entry into Politics
In 1893, after about six months in Baroda, Sri Aurobindo had acquired enough knowledge of his country’s political situation and its leaders. Around this time his Cambridge friend, K.G. Deshpande, invited him to contribute to his English journal ‘Indu Prakash’ and thus started the series ‘New Lamps for Old’, written anonymously as he was still in service with the Gaekwad of Baroda. These articles were so incisive in their political insight and revolutionary in their content that, after publication of just two articles, Deshpande was cautioned against such inciting articles, that he might be arrested. Sri Aurobindo explains what follows:
“… and Deshpande requested to continue in a modified tone to which I reluctantly consented. But I felt no further interest and the articles were published at long intervals and finally dropped of themselves altogether”.
He was then only 21 and already drawing attention for his fine intellect, comprehensive outlook, courage and burning patriotism. It was around this time too that he started spelling his name as Aurobindo, instead of Aravinda.
Rishabchand quotes in his book ‘Sri Aurobindo: His Life Unique’:
“To commence from within” was the central secret of the reconstruction of national character, which Sri Aurobindo taught as early as 1893, and continued to insist upon all through his life. To touch into life the well-springs of the national being, to make its latent or dormant forces stream forth in a steady current and flow through all its fibres, to raise it from the darkness and inertia of tamas into a whirl of creative energies, and thereby bring about a radical transmutation of its whole existence in accord with the essential urges of the present and the vision and prescience of its future destiny—this was the ideal and method Sri Aurobindo consistently followed so long as he was in politics, and, with a universal sweep and a more powerful dynamic and unfaltering drive, when he was in spiritual life.
An Extraordinary Professor
After 5 years of his working with the Baroda State Service, in 1898, Sri Aurobindo was formally appointed by the Gaekwad of Baroda as the acting Professor of English with the Baroda College although he had been informally teaching French from time to time. He was an extraordinary teacher and the students loved his original way of teaching and his gentle gracious manner. He hardly ever referred to any notes and once he started speaking, his knowledge and lively language kept students spell bound. There was a magnetism in his personality, and an impalpable aura of a lofty ideal and a mighty purpose about him, which left a deep impression upon all who came in contact with him, particularly upon the young hearts.
Sri K.M. Munshi, ex-governor of the Uttar Pradesh, who was one of the students of Sri Aurobindo at the Baroda College, recollects that once when he asked Sri Aurobindo in class ‘How can nationalism be developed?' Sri Aurobindo pointed to the wall-map of India and said:
"Look at that map. Learn to find in it the portrait of Bharatmata. The cities, mountains, rivers and forests are the materials which go to make up Her body. The people inhabiting the country are the cells which go to make up Her living tissues. Our literature is Her memory and speech. The spirit of Her culture is Her soul. The happiness and freedom of Her children is Her salvation. Behold Bharat as a living Mother, meditate upon Her and worship Her in the nine-fold way of Bhakti….”
In 1904 Sri Aurobindo was appointed as the Vice-Principal of the Baroda College, and in 1905 he officiated as its Principal. The colleagues and students of Sri Aurobindo loved and adored him for his extraordinary intellectual attainments, his burning love for India and Indian culture, his saintly character, and his gentle, unassuming manners.
In addition to his study and writing, Sri Aurobindo set about stirring up the spirit of freedom in his countrymen. In order that India may achieve complete independence, he was working towards preparing people for a passive and non-cooperation resistance, as well as active resistance when needed, that would bring the British government machinery to a standstill.
Sri Aurobindo’s youngest brother, Barin, a courageous young man of exceptional abilities, also joined him at Baroda later. Sri Aurobindo had inspired Barin with the spirit of patriotism, and the latter’s stay at Baroda served only to kindle it to a blaze. He later sent him to Bengal to help in the revolutionary work there. Some of the people Sri Aurobindo met during his revolutionary work like Hemachandra Das, Thakur Ram Singh, Surendranath Tagore, P. Mitter, Sister Nivedita and Balgangadhar Tilak, were to become famous later on as revolutionary leaders and political leaders of free India.
Amidst the intense political activities somehow the thought of marriage entered Sri Aurobindo’s mind and he married Mrinalini Devi in April 1901. She was beautiful, educated and belonged to an aristocratic family. But he sent her back to her family when he became actively involved in the independence struggle.
In a long letter to Mrinalini Devi, Sri Aurobindo explains his life’s work and how he was unable to be with her more:
“I think you have understood by now that the man with whose fate yours had been linked is a man of very unusual character. …Will you run along with him; try to be the mad wife of this madman, like the queen of the blind king [Dhritarashtra]…?”
However, Mrinalini passed away in 1918, at the age of only 30, after a brief illness just before she was to re-join him when he settled in Pondicherry.
Early Spiritual Experiences
In addition to his work and silent revolutionary activities Sri Aurobindo was also getting more and more into spirituality. In the second year of his stay at Baroda, i.e. in 1894, Sri Aurobindo had another spiritual experience, which came in the same unexpected way as the first one he had at Apollo Bunder. One day, while he was going in a horse carriage, he suddenly found himself in danger of an accident. Sri Aurobindo describes the experience:
“[I had] …the vision of the Godhead surging up from within when in danger of a carriage accident in Baroda...” In 1939 he wrote a sonnet named ‘The Godhead’ on this experience which left a lasting impression on him.
In Kashmir, Sri Aurobindo had another spiritual experience, where he had gone with the Maharaja of Baroda. There, in the temple of Shankaracharya located on the hills of Takht-i-Sulaiman, he had an unusual experience about which he has later expressed in a sonnet called ‘Adwaita’. He says about it: “… [There was] the realisation of the vacant Infinite while walking on the ridge of the Takht-i-[Sulaiman] in Kashmir…”.
A few years later when visiting a Kali temple in Chandod on the banks of the Narmada river, Sri Aurobindo had another spiritual experience, which he describes vividly:
“With my Europeanised mind I had no faith in image worship and I hardly believed in the presence of God. I went to Karnali [near Chandod] where there are many temples. There is one of Kali, and when I looked at the image I saw the living Presence there. For the first time I believed in the presence of God.”
We reproduce below the first stanza from the sonnet ‘A Stone Goddess’ which he wrote later on this experience:
In a town of gods, housed in a little shrine,
From sculptured limbs the Godhead looked at me, —
A living Presence deathless and divine,
A Form that harboured all infinity.
Entry into Yoga
In this significant year of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, it is interesting to look at some of the main stages in Sri Aurobindo’s life. In the series ‘Life in Baroda (1893-1906), we shall see some glimpses of Sri Aurobindo’s active literary, cultural and political pursuits during his stay at Baroda.
Sri Aurobindo once commented that he had a ‘back door entry’ into Yoga, when explaining how he turned to yoga more seriously. It was the result of a striking incident involving his brother, Barin. Barin had contracted ‘hill fever’ and was in an emaciated condition when a naga sannyasi arrived at their house in Baroda. When he heard of Barin’s illness the sannyasi asked for a glass of water and muttering some mantras over it, cut the water crosswise with a knife and asked Barin to drink it, predicting that the fever would be gone the next day. In the later years, in one of his evening talks with reference to the former incident.
Sri Aurobindo talks about his discovery of the power of yoga:
“I learnt that Yoga gives power and I thought: Why should I not get power and use it to liberate my country?”
But it was in 1904 that Sri Aurobindo took up the practice of yoga. As he himself explains much later, “But I thought that a yoga which requires me to give up the world was not for me. I had to liberate my country. I took it up seriously when I learnt that the same Tapasya which one does to get away from the world can be turned to action.”
Beginning of National Movement
The memorable meeting between Sri Aurobindo and Sister Nivedita (a foremost disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who was from Ireland and had dedicated her life to the welfare of India) took place in 1902 when she visited Baroda to give some lectures. She was one of the five members of the advisory body set up by Sri Aurobindo to manage revolutionary work in Bengal.
Sri Aurobindo had great admiration and respect for her. “She was a true revolutionary leader. It was her very soul that spoke. She was fire, if you like. She did India a tremendous service,” he said when speaking of her to his disciples later.
In late 1905 the partition of Bengal into separate Hindu-populated and Muslim-populated areas had taken place which created much turmoil amongst the people. Sri Aurobindo was in close touch with the situation and in early 1906, he took leave to go to Bengal and take part in the actions against the government. As a counter move against the partition, government schools and colleges were boycotted and a National College was founded in 1906 with Sri Aurobindo as its principal. Around the same time Sri Aurobindo joined the journal called Bande Mataram started by Bipin Chandra Pal, as an anonymous editor, where he freely expressed his views and spread
Sri Aurobindo’s first move, the first leader to do so in clear direct language, was to demand for the complete independence of India. To implement a 4- point programme demanding PURNA SWARAJ, which he coined with the help of Tilak, he initiated the forming of the Nationalist Party. A meeting in Barisal was Sri Aurobindo’s first public appearance in politics and he was soon busy touring the State to propagate the views of the Nationalist Party. Swaraj, Swadeshi, Boycott, and National Education became key parts of this 4-point programme.
The content of one of Sri Aurobindo’s fiery speeches:
“It is not talk of Swaraj that can bring Swaraj but it is the living of Swaraj by each man among us that will compel Swaraj to come. The kingdom of Heaven is within you; free India is no piece of wood or stone that can be carved into the likeness of a nation but lives in the hearts of those who desire her, and out of these she must be created.
How then can we live Swaraj? By abandonment of the idea of self and its replacement by the idea of the nation.”