Sri Aurobindo's life in England (1879-1893)
An Unusual Early Childhood - In India
Aravinda, son of Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose and Swarnalata, born on 15th August 1872 – to be an important day in the history of modern India – and grew up in an Anglicised environment. Dr Ghose was a great admirer of the British and had discarded the Indian customs and ways of life for he was critical of the inertia, blind orthodoxy and degradation prevailing in Indian society at that time.
As a result, Aravinda and his brothers, Benoybhushan and Manmohan, were sent off as boarders to a convent school in Darjeeling when he was only five years old. It was here that Aravinda had a strange dream experience where he saw a great darkness enveloping him and the whole universe, which left him only when he came back to India from England in 1893.
Early Years In England
In mid-1879, when young Aravinda – affectionately called “Ara” – was just seven years old, his father Dr Ghose took all his three sons to be in England for their studies. The three brothers lived with the Drewetts. Dr Ghose had left strict instructions that his sons were not to be exposed to anything Indian although he gave them the freedom to choose their own religious path.
Sri Aurobindo was to live in England for almost fourteen years from 1879 to 1893.
A Budding Poet
When Sri Aurobindo was around 10 years old, and he was staying with his brothers in Manchester, he started writing poetry. Young Aravinda was not going to school and studying at home gave him plenty of time to indulge in reading according to his own taste – literature, history and poetry. He read Keats and Shelly and had started reading the bible. His very first poems were published in the Fox Family Magazine.
Here is a stanza with profound lines, from a poem titled ‘Light’, which was published in the very first issue of the magazine, on 11 January 1883.
“Equal favour I show to the lofty and low,
On the just and the unjust I descend:
E’en the blind, whose vain spheres, roll in darkness and tears,
Feel my smile—the blest smile of a friend.
Nay, the flower of the waste by my love is embraced,
As the rose in the garden of kings:
At the chrysalis bier of the morn I appear,
And lo! the gay butterfly wings.”
Sri Aurobindo was a seer-poet, as he himself said much later that he was a poet first and everything else afterwards. He was a mystic seer and a melodious exponent of the Divine Will, Beauty and Joy.
A Brilliant Scholar
12-Year old Aravinda and his brother Manmohan were admitted as day-scholars to St Paul’s School in London, one of the best schools in England then, and its headmaster Dr F. W. Walker was one of the great educationists of that time. He spotted almost immediately young Aravinda’s exceptional abilities and gave his personal attention to the boy’s education, pushing him rapidly into higher classes. Aravinda was already well grounded in Latin and Greek too. Soon Aravinda began to blossom and took active part in school activities, particularly in the school’s Literary Society and was recognised as a good speaker.
Meanwhile, Aravinda had become more interested in reading things outside the school curriculum – poetry, novels, history, French literature and even learning a few more European languages like Italian, some German and a smattering of Spanish. In any case Aravinda found his lessons easy and continued to do well in exams and was even awarded prizes for literature and history in the final exam. Later, he got admission in the prestigious Kings college of Cambridge University after graduating from school.
Aravinda was just 12 years old, when he had another unusual experience around that time and he mentions later, “I was extremely selfish, then something came upon me and I felt that I ought to give up selfishness. I tried in my own way – of course imperfectly – to put it into practice. But that was a sort of turning point in my inner life.” Even at this early age, Aravinda received strong impressions of a period of general upheaval and great revolutionary changes coming in the world and that he was destined to play an important part in it.
These unusual visions for a boy of that age were an indication of his extraordinary future.
Financial Hardships in England
Life was not all roses for young Aravinda in London. His father, Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose who had been sending the brothers a regular amount yearly when they were in Manchester, enough to enable them to live in comfort, had fallen on hard times because of his generous nature. Thus, funds from home were irregular and insufficient. The situation was made worse by an unfortunate incident with Rev. Drewett’s mother, and she left the boys to manage on their own. The boys were in a real fix but were fortunately helped by James Cotton, brother of a friend of Dr Ghose who employed Benoybhusan, Aravinda’s elder brother. He was paid a small allowance and an arrangement was made for the brothers to stay in a room above the office.
This was the beginning of a time of great hardship. Imagine living in a city like London on such a small amount, in a small, unheated room, especially in winter and that too without a winter coat! In his own words, Sri Aurobindo reminisced later, “ During a whole year a slice or two of sandwich, bread and butter and a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening a penny saveloy formed the only food”
But things got a little better when a year later Manmohan, his middle brother, won a scholarship to Christ Church College in Oxford and Aravinda too later won a scholarship to Cambridge.
En route to Cambridge
Despite struggles, life was not without its joys for young Aravinda. He continued with his studies and extensive reading. He was also giving expression to the poet in him. And when he had money to spare, he would go with his brothers on walking tours around the country.
Towards the end of 1889, at the age of 17, Aravinda also sat for a scholarship exam for King’s College, Cambridge in which he did marvellously well. On his father’s insistence, in 1890, Aravinda also passed the very stiff ICS (Indian Civil Service, now known as IAS) entrance examination with record marks in Greek and Latin. Later that year, he joined King’s College, Cambridge.
Aravinda’s reputation as a scholar had already reached Cambridge even before he arrived he was invited to meet the famous Oscar Browning, a well-known scholar and intellectual. Says Aravinda of this meeting in a letter to his father, “He was extremely flattering…, he said to me, ‘I suppose you know you passed an extraordinarily high examination. I have examined papers at 13 examinations and I have never during that time seen such excellent papers as yours. As for your essay it was wonderful.’”
Young Aravinda spent two years in Cambridge, as a senior scholar, studying for the Classical Tripos, the BA degree in Latin and Greek as well as subjects for the ICS probation.
An Irishman who was a fellow undergraduate student acknowledged Aravinda’s brilliance and character, “I knew him in those days quite well, and have happy recollections of him as a brilliant young classical scholar, …of marked literacy and poetic taste, and as far as I ever saw a young man of high character and modest bearing, who was liked by all who knew him.”
Several years later, when Sri Aurobindo was a professor at Baroda College, in an address to a students gathering, reminisced about his own college days in Cambridge:
"I think there is no student of Oxford or Cambridge who does not look back in after days on the few years of his undergraduate life, as, of all the scenes he has moved in, that which calls up the happiest memories, and it is not surprising that this should be so, when we remember what that life must have meant to him. He goes up from the restricted life of his home and school and finds himself in surroundings which with astonishing rapidity expand his intellect, strengthen his character, develop his social faculties, force out all his abilities and turn him in three years from a boy into a man.”
During his Cambridge years, young Aravinda besides being a Classical scholar, was a probationary candidate for the Indian Civil Service, for which he had to study all the subjects which a future administrator of India had to master such as British and Indian Laws, history and geography of India, Political Economy, vernacular languages and classical languages.
He chose to learn Sanskrit, a classical Indian language. He did not have any tutor to teach him Sanskrit, so he learnt it all by himself.
He remarked later, “I learnt Sanskrit by reading the Nala- Damayanti episode in the Mahabharata …with minute care several times.”
Actually, so well did he master the Sanskrit language that one day he was to unveil the secret of the Veda, later after his coming to Pondicherry.
Call of the Motherland
However, Aravinda was not just a bookworm, he participated fully in all the University activities, not so much in games perhaps, in which he was not particularly interested. He was also writing poetry more frequently and some of these were later included in his first volume of poetry, Songs to Myrtilla, published after his return to India.
His interest in his motherland had begun stirring even before he came to Cambridge and now his mind turned more and more often to India, taking a keen interest in its political and social conditions. Paradoxically, it was the same father who desired his sons not to have anything Indian in their lives, who was responsible for this interest. In his letters Dr Ghose often narrated the many injustices to Indians by their British rulers that he personally came across and sometimes enclosed newspaper cuttings of such incidents as well.
Aravinda was greatly affected by these reports and this led to his taking part in the affairs of the Indian Majlis, an association of Indian students at Cambridge, of which he was member and secretary for a while. Although considered just a social club, it was actually more a union of politically minded students who resented British rule in their Motherland.
Later Sri Aurobindo said to a disciple, “My interest was in poetry and literature and the study of languages and patriotic action.”
Rejecting the ICS
In early 1892, Aravinda passed the first part of the Classical Tripos exams in first class, ensuring his promise as a classical scholar and earning him prizes. However, he never obtained his BA degree, for Aravinda left Cambridge after only two years when the rules required a student to put in at least three years of study to earn the degree. Later that year he sat for and passed the ICS course final exams except for the horse riding test which he refused to attend as he did not wish to join the ICS. His brothers and tutors were upset at his rejection of the ICS, tried to intercede on his behalf, but in the end it was Aravinda’s lack of interest that decided the outcome.
Later, Sri Aurobindo remarked about this: “I appeared for the ICS because my father wanted it and I was too young to understand. Later I found out that it meant working directly for the British in ruling India.” Aravinda realised that passing the ICS meant directly working for the British in India, which he did not want to. Thus, he deliberately absented himself from the riding test and got himself disqualified from the ICS. He was one of the first persons to have rejected such a coveted position.
A Revolutionary in the Making
At Cambridge, in 1891, Aravinda had become a member of the ‘Indian Majlis’ – an association of Indian students playing an important part in the social life of Indian students. After that, Aravinda left Cambridge and returned to London where he became a member of a secret society called ‘Lotus and Dagger’. Members of this society had to take a vow to work for the liberation of India and to not serve the alien British government. The society did not last long but Aravinda remained faithful to the vow and his desire to return to and serve his Motherland.
Mother India’s Welcome
Aravinda had secured a job with the Baroda State Service for a handsome amount of Rs. 200/- per month. He received the final payment of his ICS scholarship and used it to settle his debts and book a passage home. Although Aravinda had lived in England for 14 years, he had no regrets at leaving. Sri Aurobindo remarks much later, “There was an attachment to English and European thought and literature but not to England as a country…”
On 12 January, 1893, Aravinda left England on board the ship, S.S. Carthage. A strange coincidence here is that around the time that Sri Aurobindo was returning to his homeland, Swami Vivekananda was crossing the seas to spread the message of Sanatana Dharma to the West.
However, some of the joy of his return home was to be marred by a sad tragedy of miscommunication, due to which he lost his dear father, Dr Ghose, who had been eagerly awaiting the return of his son. 21-year-old Aravinda, unaware of this sad news, proceeded straight to Baroda two days after his arrival in Mumbai.
Young Aravinda, full of enthusiasm about his new life, was welcomed by his Motherland with a spiritual experience, as soon as his feet touched Indian soil.
Sri Aurobindo said later on himself, “…a vast calm which descended upon him [Aravinda] at the moment when he stepped first on Indian soil after his long absence, in fact with his first step on the Apollo Bunder in Bombay; (this calm surrounded him and remained for long months afterwards,)….”
This experience marked the beginning of Aravinda’s spiritual life – a journey towards Light. The darkness that had engulfed him in Darjeeling and had been with him all the time in England, suddenly left him.