Sri Aurobindo – the Brahmarishi of Evolutionary Spirituality

aurobindo by Jane

Sri Aurobindo was the most prolific writer-guru (68 published volumes of densely brilliant erudition) that India ever produced – until Rajneesh. And yet, curiously he said and wrote what he had to communicate in just six and a half years  – between August 1914 and January 1921 – and then never wrote a word and almost never spoke for the rest of his very long life. This sort of contradiction was characteristic of the bizarre spiritual drama that was Aurobindo’s life.

To begin with, nobody was less likely to end up as a guru, far less the first Indian guru with a great western following. When he was born in 1872, his England educated physician father had totally swallowed the Raj notion that India was a degenerate nation while Britain was the pinnacle of human glory.

The good doctor then attempted a project that curdles the blood even today to think about. He decided he was going to deracinate his son – he would make his son English to the point of caricature. He began with the name, and it was seven year old Ackroyd Ghose who was sent off England for schooling. The lad had been kept in a weird bubble of induced Englishness, his only language being English and with no notion that he was living in India amongst Indians. He sailed with specific instructions from the doting parent that he was not to make the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence”. He further added, in what would become on of life’s celebrated ironies, that ‘his son learns nothing about any religion whatsoever.’

Dr. Ghose was obviously ignorant of history, for the last time this experiment was tried in India, Prince Siddhartha ended up by becoming the Buddha! In the minds of his followers that is what became of Ackroyd too, the heat and pressure exerted merely becoming a cosmic process to provide the glittering diamond that is Aurobindo.

For a while it seemed that the doctor’s project was succeeding. Ackroyd ended up one of the 20th century’s most overeducated young men. He was the supernova of Forsters’ King’s College at Cambridge pocketing any academic prize he condescended to contest for. He relaxed by composing poetry – in English, Latin and Ancient Greek. Dante and Goethe and Cervantes were read in their original languages as well as any French writer worth the name. This formidable erudition once saved him from arrest as a dangerous revolutionary later in life in India. The old-school tie investigating officer was flabbergasted that this man was reading Homer and Virgil in the original – and to his mind such people could not be conspiring against British rule.

Young Ackroyd went in for the Indian Civil Service exam, then the height of Indian aspiration. However he refused to show up for the mandatory horse-riding test, the customary perch from where the sahibs administered India. It caused unprecedented consternation, and in later years, was seen for what it was – the first rejection of the West by an Indian who was still alien to his people.

The experimental parent died of shock on hearing the mistaken news that his son’s returning ship had sunk. Ackroyd landed in India and, free of parental shackles, set about acquiring Indian ness with the same superb efficiency he displayed in England. Bengali – his mother’s tongue, though never his mother tongue – was first and then Marathi, Hindi, Gujarathi (the languages of courts he served in as royal secretaries) followed. Sanskrit gave him the key to all of India’s religious, cultural and spiritual treasures – and it forever changed his ideas too. He got a job at the court of Baroda which was not onerous; it gave him ample time for spiritual practices. Through in all ways he began to practice up to five hours of pranayama a day! This had significant effects in activating many artistic aspects of his personality, which till then was limited to literature. He began to develop the first of many siddhis also but he was clear that the breaths alone would not suffice in his spiritual goals.

At this stage he met a Maharashtrian Brahmin  named Lele who he recognized had access to a deeper level of consciousness though he was certainly less intelligent and knowledgeable than the student. The instruction was breathtakingly simple. “ As you sit in meditation you will see thoughts trying to enter your mind. Prevent them from doing so and cast them out.” Aurobindo had a deep capacity to obey, which was what made him such a gigantic leader, and he followed what he thought were quixotic instructions without wavering. Within three days he was in deep Samadhi and his attainments were becoming magnificent. He experienced deep Vedantic non-dual states which aroused anxiety in the devotional Lele who felt they were diabolical states of consciousness. Aurobindo refused to degrade his Truth in such a manner and they had a falling out. He was never satisfied with the classical realizations of Yoga and pushed the bounds of Yoga in a manner that had not been done for two millennia. He ended up rejuvenating and raising Yoga, consciously evolving it to meet the new circumstances of the Yuga. This will be unpleasant music to most schools and teachers , but Aurobindo went so far ahead on the yogic path that most of the universe is still playing catch up. But this was still in the future. He had a long row to hoe as yet.

Far from being on the bottom of the heap, India was the only hope for a world gone mad, precisely because India was not like the rest of the world. The British philosopher, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson would later write in his book On the Civilizations of the East that “The real antithesis is not between East and West, but between India and the rest of the world”. Ackroyd would accept that conclusion, but to him that was a mark of distinction, of honour. Meanwhile, the young Ackroyd had rechristened himself Aurobindo and began a political career that was characteristically brilliant and short-lived like all his other efforts.

Bande Mataram, Jugantar, his newspapers became colossal headaches for the Raj as his editorials were subversive to the point of genius, but sedition could never be proved. Incidentally these editorials served as a sort of blueprint for India’s freedom struggle. Social unity, the cause of the motherland, eradication of untouchability and discrimination against women, non-cooperation, the boycott of foreign goods, national schools to instill national values in education, democratic principles of government – they are all to be found there. His book ‘On Nationalism’, a collection of editorials also foreshadows the belief that social action without spiritual underpinnings is futile – an idea Gandhi used to great effect. Gandhi even offered Aurobindo the leadership of the Congress party and country if he forsook seclusion, but Aurobindo refused to meet Gandhi in a sensational snub that still embarrasses those who know and try to hush it up. Aurobindo’s mass popularity was such any time he so chose, he could have all India follow him in a freedom struggle. However he was on to bigger game.

India’s freedom was assured, or so his spiritual intuition told him. That thus became a side issue, albeit important. What of the freedom of all human souls? And was he, Aurobindo, going to turn away from this challenge for the easier task of freeing India?

The road to this staggering conclusion was paved by the British. Exasperated by this hornet, they shut him up in Alipur jail for a year to await trial. Aurobindo, always the demon of action, plunged wholesale into his Yoga practices and honing up on Indian scripture. In jail he ascended spiritual planes at a rapid clip – and was soon stuck. He had no data, no guides as to how to go forward. He stated that the spirit of  Swami Vivekananda came forward to help him, as there was nobody living who could guide him at his level of attainment. Aurobindo was refreshingly free of the display-humility so prized in India. He knew he was India’s genius, and that was that. (He did however highly esteem Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and never spoke disparagingly of anybody unless provoked) The Alipur jail experience confirmed him in his new vocation, as well as in his new opinion that he had made a grave error in fighting the West with its own tools, its own concepts and its own rules of engagement. In this new philosophy of evolutionary consciousness, even evolutionary Enlightenment that he named Integral Yoga, he discerned that India had a catalytic role to perform. From now on he would fight at a plane India was naturally preeminent – the spiritual.

He moved to the French territory of Pondicherry, like Plato unwilling to let the British sin a second time against philosophy. This was where the torrent of books was let loose, commentaries on every scripture possible, as well as the longest epic poem (and spiritual evolutionary handbook) in English, Savitri. He would begin comparing Valmiki and Vyasa – authors of the two great Indian epics, demonstrate some of the finest literary criticism possible and abruptly break off the project because it was all clear in his mind now and he did not need to put it in words. Incidentally Aurobindo broke the record of P.G. Wodehouse who had the largest writer’s vocabulary in the English language. The previous champion was Shakespeare. He also articulated what i consider to be the greatest sentence in the English language. “All life is Yoga.”
’nuff said.

419930_196670147131304_210116128_n Aurobindo was what was called an automatic writer in his day and what is called a channel today. He was in the grip of a higher force that relentlessly drove him on for up to 10 hours each day, and requiring no revisions at the end. He was demonstrating what it meant to be a seer once again, he saw rather than thought these things. Of his writings the only real way to comprehend their range and original brilliance is to go the texts themselves. They are masterful expositions of the life spiritual and the quality of English is dazzling in a euphemism loving, Net-contracted Esperanto world we live in. While in Pondicherry, he picked up the 4 major languages of South India – and the consequent access to the respective cultures, but this was all par for the course by then. In his writings he was seeking to synthesize all the spiritual ways before him; to be exact to find a ‘third position” synthesis between the thesis -antithesis of India-West.

The philosophy was primarily a Vedantic one, with generous dollops of Yogic practices and the byways of the Tantra, and hanging from a fundamental evolutionary theory which held that man as he now exists is but an ongoing process towards the attainment of the Superman with Super consciousness. He named this ‘Integral Yoga’.

This was dynamite even from an Indian perspective. For one, he openly proclaimed that India had erred in divorcing matter from spirit, and the body got good press for the first time in almost a thousand years. Then he formulated the concept of a supreme Personal-Impersonal God, above and beyond the non-sensory realization of the Absolute or Brahman. This Super God, if you will, was the Purushottamma and he brought in his erudition and the Bhagavad-Gita to validate this Purushottamma. His Essays on the Gita provide further light on this topic as well as his commentaries on the Upanishads.

Then he sprang a further surprise by providing the most brilliant and consistent explanation as to why the Vedas are the supreme scriptures of Hinduism, even if nobody reads them! Rejecting all notions of the Vedas being nature-worshipping hymns by migrating hordes, he laid out The Secret of the Veda in the book of the same name. For the first time in 2000 years an accomplished and practicing mystic was revealing the inner working of a complex spiritual path. Naturally nobody believed him. The shift of ideas required would be too disconcerting and anyway, Western scholars said they were nature hymns, and that, as we all know, should be conclusive. It seems a bit thick that a practicing Spiritual Master is told he is wrong about his own verifiable experiences with his own scripture while academics and scholars know better, but the world is not a very sane place to begin with. Taken all together, Aurobindo’s writings are nothing short of a revolution in India’s philosophy.

404107_10151171868262239_833656121_n But Aurobindo tired of this because he had a new idea to follow. In part he was now free to follow this, because he had a partner to shoulder the burden of spiritual needs for the inevitable community that had sprung round them. This person was Mirra Richard, better known as the Mother, and it is inconceivable today to realize what havoc Aurobindo caused in India when he declared this Frenchwoman a Master and his equal partner in spiritual work. For Indians have always assumed, and most them still do assume, that a Western human can only be a disciple. Mastership is India’s monopoly, the key as to why the land is ‘superior’ to the West, even if miserable in almost everything else. And now a white person was being set up above all the innately spiritual Indians. A few of them never recovered from this depressing comedown and mutterings against the Mother and her Western ways was a constant.

Aurobindo felt free now to take on an ‘experiment’ that was either galactic effrontery or unthinkable bravery. He proposed, as a realized being, to consciously bring about the next transition, or the next stage in human evolution. To direct evolution consciously, even Aurobindo was aware that nobody had ever dared such a thing before. Nevertheless that was his goal now and he pursued it with no distractions and almost no other thought from November 24, 1926 to his death in 1950. He lived in his rooms, rarely visible to the public, speaking almost as little. Fasts for almost a month, sleep deprivation, endless pacing and reportedly endless writings – though these seem to have merged back into the cosmos once they cleared up whatever points he was exploring.

His disciples say that he made possible the descent of the Super consciousness. What is beyond doubt is that he created a new template, a new pathway in the morph genetic fields of spirituality because even today there are spiritual masters in both the West as well as India who say their only work is bringing light-energy to the world. Aurobindo’s ashram also began new trends in conservative India. This little talk I gave in April 2013, on the anniversary of his reaching Pondicherry touches a few interesting points about his myriad contributions.

Women could join, then families and finally schools which imparted the best education. This template too is copied faithfully. The Mother would go on to create Auroville – an attempt to create Utopia based on practical considerations.

 Meanwhile Aurobindo, was being visited by Aldous Huxley and the South American poet Gabriela Mistral nominated him for a Nobel Prize. That last would have been a curious triumph for Ackroyd but it never came to pass.

Aurobindo himself died in 1950. He is revered as a Big Brain, and enough pedestals have been put up to honor him and ensure that reverence circumvents the need to examine his revolutionary thought. Aurobindo, for all that he even wrote the ‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’, is too universal for Indian tastes, too intellectual and active for a bhakti-passive nation. As always he seemed to be ahead of his time. Perhaps another couple of hundred years and some more descent of Consciousness will do the trick.


    samadhi of sri aurobindo and mother

I wrote this in 1999! A few additions have been made. The sketch of Aurobindo is by my friend Jane Adams, artist on The Sacred India Tarot. It has been used all over the Net without attribution! This is the joint samadhi of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

 Sarvam Shivamayam!

Rohit Arya is an Author, Yogi and Polymath, being a writer, a corporate trainer, a mythologist and a vibrant speaker.  He has written the first book on Vaastu to be published in the West, {translated into five European languages} the first book on Tarot to be published in India, co-authored a book on fire sacrifice, and is the creator of The Sacred India Tarot {82 card deck and book}. He was the Editor of The Leadership Review, and on the advisory panel of, the first spiritual portal in the country. Currently he is the Director of Pro-Factor, a leadership and change facilitation outfit. He has been an arts critic and socio-cultural commentator for over two decades. Rohit is also a Lineage Master in the Eight Spiritual Breaths system of Yoga. He leads the Ka Sangha meditation group, as well as The Integral Space meditation circle each week.


13 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo – the Brahmarishi of Evolutionary Spirituality

  1. The Aurobindo sketch was commissioned by Susunaga Weeraperuma for his book “Divine Messengers of our Time” (Sri Satguru Publications 1998, Delhi). For Susu’s book, I also drew portraits of Papa Ramdas, Gandhi, Yogananda, Peace Pilgrim, Sivananda and others.

    Amazing article – thanks, Rohit. I didn’t know his mountain range of writings was condensed into just four years! I used to read parts of Savitri. What a Vedic revolutionary – one of the original Seers or rivers from the mountain. Many great beings stand on his shoulders. I look forward to more.

    • He stopped writing as he thought it was a waste of time! in any case it was all automatic writing. he never wrote for its own sake. That pic of yours has become used all over the net and nobody knows who was the artist. it is all over Facebook and never acknowledged. I guess that it is out there is important. he was not only a vedic original he went very far ahead on the path, most yogis and Hindus dont get that even yet!

      • It is there in one of his published letters that Sri Krishna taught him a new nirukta by which to reinterpret the veda. This is the text:
        “Sri Krishna has shown me the true meaning of the Vedas, not only
        so but he has shown me a new Science of Philology showing the
        process&origins of human speech so that a new Nirukta can be
        formed & the new interpretation of the Veda based upon it. He
        has also shown me the meaning of all in the Upanishads that is
        not understood either by Indians or Europeans. I have therefore
        to reexplain the whole Vedanta&Veda in such a way that it will
        be seen how all religion arises out of it & is one everywhere. In
        this way it will be proved that India is the centre of the religious
        life of the world & its destined saviour through the Sanatana
        Page 178, Volume 36 Autobiographical Notes, Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo

  2. I can well see the automatic writing getting rubbed off in the silence of his integral yoga! My pic of him – well, it and a number of others are all over the net as images, I keep the originals at home for reproducing. They are thoughts. I gave this principle some thought. In this day and age, it feels more relevant for them to circulate and be used, than hidden away in drawers and sketchbooks. I don’t have the know-how or energy or contacts to arrange exhibits or income etc. Those things anyway are limiting.

    What is art for? Certainly not the mainstream market crap. We shift awkwardly but inevitably towards an age with less emphasis on the person as a form of commerce. Copyright framework had its day and online it dismantles somewhat. Images have their destiny, same as words … We twolegs still tag along behind them. On the whole, it is happier to give than to grab.

    In fact images and words have their history far anteceding the temporary channel who lets them through: the archetypal common land, previous births, whatever. And to come.

    • well Jane that Image certainly has a mutating destiny. There are so few image of him to begin with. just old photos so your drawing is a huge relief and also it just throbs with power and they all see that

    • Rohit Arya’s article is pre-eminently readable, but has a factual error. Sri Aurobindo’s major works (except Savitri) were written in a serial form in The Arya between Aug 1914 and Jan 1921 — about six and a half years, not four. Savitri was written and rewritten for about 25 years, the last revision went on till almost he left his body. Further, while in seclusion, he replied the questions from disciples in writing. That has given us three volumes of Letters on Yoga, a very precious resource.

      • I have fixed the time frame error, the source was obviously mistaken. I was using the word ‘writing’ in a technical sense, answering letters is not really writing, though as you say it gave us Letters on Yoga. Revising and amending a work is also not really writing

  3. Hi Rohit:

    Actually, he wrote a number of essays between 1921 and 1950, and in particular, wrote a collection of essays in the late 1940s which later became one of his most important works, “The Supramental Manifestation on Earth.”

    Also, in his letters, Sri Aurobindo very specficially referred to the idea that his method of writing in the Arya (The Life Divine, Synthesis of Yoga, etc) was NOT the same as channeling or automatic writing. it’s true, he said his ordinary mind was not involved, but he was (or at least, he described himself as) fully conscious, which is dramatically different from the state reported by most mediums.

    Interestingly, if you ask an academic like Stephen phillips who specializes in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, eh will speak (incorrectly – or at least, in direct opposition to what Sri Aurobindo said himself) of Sri Aurobindo “theorizing”

    Other than those small points, beautiful article. Thank you.

    • Thank you, your points are much appreciated.The essays between 1921 and 1950, most of them seem to be compilations of conversations and letters. I agree also about his mental state when writing – automatic writing and channeling would be the most analogous.

      • Yes, many of the writings between 1921 and 1950 are compilations. Others include:

        1. Savitri: the poem he worked on for over 40 years, the longest poem in the English language.
        2. Essays that were not from conversations or letters, ones that were simply written separately, as essays.
        3. Revisions of The Life Divine, including the last 6 chapters, which are completely new, written in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
        4. “The Supramental Manifestation on Earth”, which he wrote (altogether new, and not part of a conversation or letter) in 1949. This was a series of essays designed to give some idea of his understanding at the time of the method and process of supramental transformation, something which he said was altogether new and had not been done as part of any previous yogic or spiritual practice.

        Regarding automatic writing, I assume you made an unintentional grammatical error there – you meant, no doubt, to say that automatic writing and channeling were NOT in any way analogous. Sri Aurobindo considered these both (even during the brief period in the 1890s or early 1900s when he experimented with it) to be extremely dangerous and having nothing to do with spirituality. he was in what he considered to be exactly the opposite state of automatic writing or mediumship, a fully conscious state, awake in the Gnostic consciousness (what he referred to as Vijnana) rather than asleep in the subconscient (his term) as are most mediums such as Edgar Cayce.

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