Aurobindo Ghose was born on 15th August, 1872 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in Bengali kayastha family to Krishna Dhun Ghose and Swarnalata Devi. His father, Krishna Dhun Ghose, was then assistant surgeon of Rangpur in Bengal and later became civil surgeon of Khulna, and a former member of the Brahmo Samaj religious reform movement. Swarnalata Devi’s father Shri Rajnarayan Bose was a leading figure in the Brahmo Samaj. Aurobindo had two elder siblings, Benoybhusan and Manmohan, a younger sister, Sarojini, and a younger brother, Barindra Kumar.
Aurobindo’s father believed British culture to be superior. Hence, he sent Aurobindo and his two elder siblings to the English-speaking Loreto House boarding school in Darjeeling. Krishna Dhun Ghose wanted his sons to enter the Indian Civil Service (ICS), an elite organisation and sent them to England in 1879. During his stay in England Aurobindo learnt French, Latin, Greek, Italian, German, Spanish in addition to Bengali, English, Sanskrit, Gujarait, Marathi and Hindi. Aurobindo secured a scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge and passed the written ICS exams being ranked 11th out of 250 competitors. As Aurobindo had no interest in ICS he purposely got disqualified in horse-riding practical exam which was mandatory those days.
James Cotton, brother of Aurobindo’s father’s friend in the Bengal ICS, Henry Cotton managed to secure Aurobindo a place in Baroda State Service and Aurobindo left England and reached Bharat in February, 1893. Aurobindo’s father Krishna Dhun Ghose who was eagerly waiting to receive his son was misinformed by his travel agents from Bombay that the ship on which Aurobindo had been travelling had sunk off the coast of Portugal. Krishna Dhun Ghose died upon hearing this news.
In 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 also did 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) where he was later promoted to the post of vice-principal.
Aurobindo started taking an active interest in the politics of the Bharatiya independence movement against British colonial rule, working behind the scenes since his position in the Baroda state administration did not permit him to indulge in overt political activity. He networked with freedom struggle groups in Bengal and Madhya Pradesh and established contacts with Lokmanya Tilak and Sister Nivedita.
1901, on a visit to Calcutta, he married 14-year-old Mrinalini, the daughter of Bhupal Chandra Bose, a senior official in government service. Aurobindo was 28 at that time. Mrinalini died seventeen years later in December 1918 during the influenza pandemic (Spanish flu).
He formally moved to Calcutta in 1906 after the announcement of the Partition of Bengal. In 1906, Aurobindo was appointed the first principal of the National College in Calcutta, started to impart national education to Bharatiya youth and resigned in August, 1907 due to his political activities. The National College continues now as Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
In Bengal, with his younger brother Barin’s (Barindra Kumar) help, he established contacts and inspired revolutionaries such as Bagha Jatin (Jatin Mukherjee) and Surendranath Tagore. He helped establish a series of youth clubs to mobilise youth into the freedom movement.
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 favored Non cooperation and Passive resistance. However, in private he took up secret revolutionary activity as a preparation for open revolt, in case that the passive revolt failed.
Aurobindo attended the 1906 Congress meeting headed by Dadabhai Naoroji and participated as a councilor 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 the group of extremists along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and 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 with cross section of people. Sri K.M. Munshi was one of Aurobindo’s students. Aurobindo was revered and affectionately called as “Aru Da” by his students.
In 1907, Barin (younger brother of Aurobindo) 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.
Aurobindo was arrested in May 1908 in connection with the famous Alipore Bomb Case. 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, Aurobindo was acquitted on 6 May 1909. His defence counsel was Chittaranjan Das. He was acquitted in the trial, following the murder of chief prosecution witness Naren Goswami within jail premises, which subsequently led to the case against him dismissed.
During this period in the Jail, his view of life was radically changed due to spiritual experiences and realizations. Aurobindo said that he constantly heard the voice of Swami Vivekananda speaking to him very often in the jail and from there began a new journey towards spiritualism. Consequently, his aim went far beyond the service and liberation of the country covering spiritual outlook and philosophical approach. Aurobindo’s approach to philosophy is as an outcome that has both spirituality and materialism equally.
Moving to Pondicherry
Aurobindo edited the English daily Bande Mataram and wrote fearless and pointed editorials. Once out of the prison he started two new publications, Karmayogin in English and Dharma in Bengali. He strong message was, “Our ideal of Swaraj is absolute autonomy, absolute self-rule, free from foreign control”.
In those days, Aurobindo openly advocated the boycott of British goods, British courts and everything British. Repression from the British colonial government against him continued because of his writings in his new journals. The British colonial government was attempting to prosecute him for sedition on the basis of a signed article titled ‘To My Countrymen’, published in Karmayogin. And in April 1910 Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry (a French colony), where the British colonial secret police monitored his activities.
Philosophy and spirituality
In Pondicherry, Sri 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 that continued up to1921. Sri Aurobindo Ashram was established in Pondicherry in 1926.
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. This is based on the legend of Savitri and Satyavan in Mahabharat. It became perhaps his greatest literary achievement, Savitri, an epic spiritual poem in blank verse of approximately 24,000 lines.
On 15 August 1947 when Bharat got her independence, Sri Aurobindo strongly opposed the partition of Bharat.
Sri Aurobindo’s close spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (born 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. Sri Aurobindo considered her his spiritual equal and collaborator. After 24 November 1926, when Sri Aurobindo retired into seclusion, she shouldered the responsibility of running the Ashram. She established and supervised the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education with its experiments in the field of education.
Sri 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.
He argued that the end goal of spiritual practice could not merely be a liberation from the world into Samadhi but would also be that of descent of the Divine into the world in order to transform it into a Divine existence. Sri Aurobindo believed that Darwinism merely describes a phenomenon of the evolution of matter into life, but does not explain the reason behind it.
According to Aurobindo life is 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 the mind out of life. All of existence, according to Aurobindo, is attempting to manifest to the level of the supermind – that evolution had a purpose. Supermind is a bridge between Sachchidananda and the lower manifestation and it is only through the supramental that mind, life and body can be spiritually transformed as opposed to through Sachchidananda. Aurobindo’s concept of philosophy is a blend of both eastern spirituality and western materialism, which was considered as more rational and practical approach.
Sri Aurobindo influenced Subhash Chandra Bose to take an initiative towards full time Indian National Movement. Bose writes, “The illustrious example of Arabindo Ghosh looms large before my vision. I feel that I am ready to make the sacrifice which that example demands of me.”
Sri 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 that focus on the connection between human evolution, human potential, and spiritual growth.
Aurobindo’s voluminous literary output comprises philosophical thoughts, many treatises on yoga and integral yoga, poetry, plays, and other writings. His other major works include Essays on the Gita (1922), Collected Poems and Plays (1942), The Synthesis of Yoga (1948), The Human Cycle (1949), The Ideal of Human Unity (1949), Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol (1950), and On the Veda (1956).
Sri Aurobindo’s theory of Indian nationalism was based on Vedanta philosophy which saw unity and oneness in man and God. He said that the village should retain its autonomy and self-government but at the same time, ‘should seek to promote national cohesion. The ideal of national Swaraj must be modelled on the old village community which was self-sufficient, autonomous and self-governing.
Sri Rabindranath Tagore once visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and said to Aurobindo: “You have the word and we are waiting to accept it from you. Bharat will speak through your voice to the world”.
Sri Aurobindo was nominated twice for the Nobel prize without it being awarded, in 1943 for the Nobel award in Literature and in 1950 for the Nobel award in Peace. Sri Aurobindo died on 5 December 1950, of uremia. Around 60,000 people attended to see his body resting peacefully. In 1952 mother established Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, and in 1968 an international township, Auroville. The Mother left her body on 17 November 1973.
The Bharatiya government released a stamp in Aurobindo’s honour in the year 1964. The 1970 Indian Bengali-language biographical drama film Mahabiplabi Aurobindo, directed by Dipak Gupta, depicted Sri Aurobindo’s life on screen. On the 72nd Republic Day of Bharat (26, January, 2021), the Ministry of Culture presented a tableau on his life.