by Kuldip Dhiman

The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader edited by Makarand Paranjape. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 373. Rs 295.

Had Sri Aurobindo boarded the ill-fated steamer that sank on its way to India from England in 1893, Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose would have lost his dear son, and India a great revolutionary, poet, philosopher, yogi and saint. It is rather ironical that the opposite happened. Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose could not take the news of the supposed death of his son, and before he could be told that Sri Aurobindo was not on the steamer, he died of a heart attack. He was denied the pleasure of seeing his son flower into one of the great thinkers of modern India.

Most of us remember Sri Aurobindo from his latter photographs that portray him as a fragile, harmless, saintly figure. Many will be surprised to learn that the man who devoted most of his life to Vedanta in his Pondicherry ashram, was once a firebrand revolutionary intent on winning freedom for his motherland. “The Penguin Aurobindo Reader”, a collection of original essays, reflections and poems written over a period of five decades or so, offers the reader an opportunity to get an insight into the multifaceted personality of Sri Aurobindo.

Although the introduction by the editor, Makarand Paranjape, draws a vivid picture of the life and works of Sri Aurobindo quite well, it is the writings of the great man himself that bring out the real Aurobindo for us in flesh and blood.

When the Congress Moderates were trying to negotiate some sort of autonomy from the British, Sri Aurobindo believed in purna swaraj — total freedom and nothing less than that — because “to be content with the relations of master and dependant or superior and subordinate, would be a mean and pitiful aspiration unworthy of manhood; to strive for anything less than strong and glorious freedom would be to insult the greatness of our past and the magnificent possibilities of our future”.

And Sri Aurobindo did not disapprove of armed struggle if the situation demanded it. Aggression, in his view, is unjust only when unprovoked, and violence is unrighteous when used without thought or for unrighteous ends. It is foolish to apply the philosophy of ahimsa to all situations. Besides violence has its place in society, the “sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfilment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji.”

The British jailed Sri Aurobindo for revolutionary activities. They imprisoned his body, but unwittingly set his soul free, for it was during his year-long jail term that he had visvarupa darshan or the experience of the cosmic consciousness, and from then on he was a totally different man. He tells us how God protected him from the unscrupulous prison staff of the Alipore jail: “He [God] made me realise the central truth of the Hindu religion. He turned the hearts of my jailers to me and they spoke to the Englishman in charge of the jail. . . . I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell, but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade.” No doubt, Aurobindo cannot be taken lightly, but at times he does sound like a man suffering from delusions or megalomania.

Whether God really took over his life or not, Aurobindo’s commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Gita make interesting reading. His interpretation is insightful and original. But though he was seriously into Indian philosophy and tradition, he believed that in order to catch up with the rest of the world, we must not shy away from western ideas because it is a “psychological necessity of the situation. Not only when a lesser meets a greater culture, but when a culture which has fallen into a state of comparative inactivity, sleep, contraction, is faced with, still more when it receives the direct shock of, a waking .... it is impelled by the very instinct of life to take over these ideas and forms, to annex, to enrich itself, even to imitate and reproduce, and in one way or in another take large account and advantage of these new forces and opportunities.” But if this imitation is slavish and mechanical, then it amounts to subordination and servitude.

It is interesting to compare Sri Aurobindo’s commentaries with that of C. Rajagopalachari, Mahesh Yogi, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Chinmayananda et al. Aurobindo’s critique on Kapila and the Sankhya philosophy — the law of enumeration and generalisation — is thought provoking.

In another chapter he talks about self-realisation through yoga. The first realisation through yoga is nitya nityanam — the One Eternal in many transient. The second realisation is the one consciousness in many consciousnesses, and the third, “the most important of all to our race — that the transcendent self in individual man is as complete because identically the same as the transcendent self in the universe; for the transcendent is indivisible and the sense of separate individuality is only one of the fundamental seemings on which the manifestation of phenomenal existence perpetually depends.

In this way the Absolute which would otherwise be beyond knowledge, becomes knowable; and the man who knows his whole self knows the whole universe. This stupendous truth is enshrined to us in the two famous formulae of Vedanta, “so ham, He and I, and aham brahmosmi, I am Brahman, the Eternal.”

How does yoga make you one with the creator? First of all, anyone practising yoga has to make the sankalpa of atmasamarpana. That is, surrender yourself with all your heart and all your strength into God’s hands without making any conditions, without asking for anything, not even for siddhi in yoga. As a yogi you must ask for nothing at all except that in you and through you God’s will may be directly performed. The next stage is to stand aside and watch the working of the divine power in you. The final stage of yoga is to perceive all things as God.

For the ultimate realisation, a yogi could choose one of the two paths available to him. He could either withdraw from the universe, or he could take part in the creation and perfect it. By following the first method, the objective is achieved by asceticism, and by following the second the objective is achieved by tapasya. Hence “the first receives us when we lose God in existence, the second is attained when we fulfil existence in God. Let ours be the path of perfection, not of abandonment; let our aim be victory in the battle, not the escape from all conflict”.

Another interesting aspect of the Aurobindo thought is that man is not final but “a transitional being. Beyond him awaits formation [of] the diviner race, the superman”. As man progresses spiritually and becomes one with the creator, he becomes a superman. But unlike the familiar concept of superman in our minds, Aurobindo’s superman is not someone who has extraordinary strength, knowledge, power, intelligence, saintliness. According to him superman “is something beyond mental man and his limits, a greater consciousness than the highest consciousness proper to human nature....”

The evolution of man is not yet complete because out of the seven-fold scale of consciousness he has realised only three powers, mind, life, and matter. Because man is endowed with a brain that is supposed to be superior to all other known creatures, he believes that mind is the creator of the universe. This is a great fallacy because “even for knowledge mind is not the only or the greatest possible instrument, the one aspirant and discoverer. Mind is a clumsy interlude between nature’s vast and precise subconscient action and the vaster infallible superconscient action of the Godhead. . . . There is nothing mind can do that cannot be better done in the mind’s immobility and thought-free stillness”.

There might be a temptation to compare Aurobindo’s superman with that of Friedrich Nietzsche, but this would be totally out of context and unfair to Nietzsche because, thanks to his overzealous sister Elisabeth Forster and misguided scholars, he is a much misunderstood man.

Makarand Paranjape, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, and the publishers need to be lauded for their efforts. It is not easy to edit a book of this sort, but why have they forgotten to add an Index? The section “A New Global Agenda” should have been clustered with Aurobindo’s political writings; it looks out of place among his philosophical work. Top



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