An Indian nationalist, spiritual leader and philosopher, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh was born in Calcutta on August 15, 1872, to Krishna Dhan, a senior medical officer, and Swarnalata Devi, who came from a Brahmo family. When he was around five years old, Sri Aurobindo along with his two brothers was sent to Darjeeling’s Loreto Convent School.
In 1879, the three brothers were sent to England where they got a secular education under the care of an Anglican priest W.H. Drewett and his wife. Sri Aurobindo, who also studied Latin, French, Greek and English poetry, got admission at King’s College, Cambridge, and, following his father’s wishes, cleared the written test of the Indian Civil Service. But he was not interested in actually joining the service. He later sailed back to India to work with the Baroda State Service. Sri Aurobindo’s father received the false information that his son’s ship had sunk near Portugal. Unable to bear the shock, he died.
In Baroda, besides the regular work in the state service, Sri Aurobindo dabbled in several other teaching, artistic and intellectual pursuits, including teaching grammar and French, working as a vice-principal of Baroda collage, studying Sanskrit and Bengali, and writing articles and poetry.
Around this time, his interest in Indian nationalism started growing, and he got in touch with other nationalist leaders such as Lokmanya Tilak. Sri Aurobindo was particularly active in Bengal, which was then the epicentre of the nationalist movement, and supported groups resisting British rule. In 1901, he married Mrinalini, the daughter of a government official, who was only 14 years old at the time.
Along with leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, Sri Aurobindo came to be identified as a hardline nationalist. In 1906, Sri Aurobindo became the chief editor at Bande Mataram, a nationalist publication started by Bipin Chandra Pal. Speaking about Aurobindo’s role in the journal, Pal said: “Morning after morning, not only Calcutta but the educated community almost in every part of the country eagerly awaited its [Bande Mataram’s] vigorous pronouncements on the stirring questions of the day…It was a force in the country which none dared to ignore, however much they might fear or hate it, and Aravinda [Aurobindo] was the leading spirit, the central figure, in the new journal.”
In the 1907 session of the Indian Congress at Surat, the so-called extreme nationalists, including Sri Aurobindo, strongly criticised the policies of the moderates in the Congress, resulting in a split in the party.
He was later arrested for his involvement in the nationalist cause. After his release from prison he continued with his writings. But now he was more interested in spiritual and philosophical matters. Subsequently, in April 1910 he moved to Pondicherry. Later he would say about his time in jail: “I have spoken of a year’s imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year’s living in forest, in an ashram, hermitage...The only result of the wrath of the British government was that I found God.”
The initial years in Pondicherry were mainly devoted to solitary meditation.
In 1914, Sri Aurobindo started a journal called Arya, devoted to spiritual and philosophical matters. In the same year, Mirra Richard, a young French woman who was a seeker of spiritual truth, arrived in Pondicherry. In Sri Aurobindo, Mirra, who came to be known as the ‘Mother’, found the ideal spiritual companion and teacher.
With the number of followers of Sri Aurobindo growing, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram was set up in 1926 by the Mother. Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively, including thousands of letters to his disciples that were later collected and published in book form in several volumes. Between 1926 and 1950 he lived in near-total silence.
Sri Aurobindo’s writings cover a wide range of topics, practical, philosophical and spiritual.
On education and teaching, for instance, he wrote: “The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught. The teacher is not an instructor or task-master, he is a helper and a guide. His business is to suggest and not to impose. He does not actually train the pupil’s mind, he only shows him how to perfect his instruments of knowledge and helps and encourages him in the process.”
On the teaching of religion he wrote: “There is a strange idea prevalent that by merely teaching the dogmas of religion children can be made pious and moral… Religion has to be lived, not learned as a creed.”
When India attained independence, Sri Aurobindo’s message to the nation was: “August 15th, 1947 is the birthday of free India. It marks for her the end of an old era, the beginning of a new age. But we can also make it by our life and acts as a free nation an important date in a new age opening for the whole world, for the political, social, cultural and spiritual future of humanity.”
Sri Aurobindo died on December 5, 1950. The Mother, who gave shape to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and continued to take his teachings forward, died on November 17, 1973. She once remarked: “…my only aim in life is to give a concrete form to Sri Aurobindo’s great teaching and in his teaching he reveals that all the nations are essentially one and meant to express the divine unity upon earth through an organised and harmonious diversity.”
Also on this day:
1872 — Vir Singh, Punjabi poet, scholar and theologian, was born
1886 — Ardeshir Irani, director, producer, film distributor, was born
1905 — Sheikh Abdullah, leader of National Conference, was born
1941 — Amrita Sher-Gil, Indian painter, passed away
1951 — Abanindranath Tagore, founder of Bengal school of art, passed away
1959 —K.S. Duleepsinhji, legendary Indian cricketer, passed away
1965 — Manish Malhotra, fashion designer, was born
1966 — Dayanidhi Maran, DMK leader, was born
1985 — Shikhar Dhawan, Indian cricketer, was born