Sri Aurobindo (formerly Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) was a British-educated Indian freedom fighter and nationalist (seen by some British colonialists as a terrorist) who morphed into a mystic philosopher and futurist.
Aurobindo apparently took the bellicose aspect of the Bhagavad Gita – that Arjuna must fight to fulfill his dharma (sacred duty) – to heart. Bombs were constructed in the family home at Calcutta while he headed a resistance movement against the British in India. After two British women (a mother and her daughter) were killed by a stray bomb, Aurobindo was held in jail for about a year before being acquitted.¹
While in jail, he began a difficult spiritual path, culminating in his unique views and the founding of an ashram at the French settlement of Pondicherry, India.
Sri Aurobindo said he was visited by Vivekananda [another prominent Hindu guru (ed.)] in the Alipore Jail. In his words, “It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence. The voice spoke only on a special and limited but very important field of spiritual experience and it ceased as soon as it had finished saying all that it had to say on that subject.”²
Aurobindo’s “integral yoga” is intended to infuse what he believes is the highest “supramental” reality into the lowest, physical and “subconcient” plane of physical existence.
According to the story, Aurobindo mystically foresaw his future spiritual partner, the French woman Mirra Alfassa, while she was residing in France, and well before she arrived in India. Moving to India and living with Aurobindo at his ashram, Alfassa took on the new appellation “The Mother.”
After establishing the ashram in Pondicherry, Aurobindo became increasingly in need of solitary meditation and eventually stopped appearing before gathered disciples (darshan). Although, so the story goes, the Mother still brought him a cup of hot chocolate at night.
Aurobindo translated and wrote extensively on Hindu scriptures, expounded his ideas in works like The Life Divine and original poetry like Savitri. Unlike Plato, Aurobindo believed that poetry is the best medium for communicating spiritual ideas.
In The Riddle of this World Aurobindo tried to answer central religious problems (such as the existence of evil) and wrote about different types of evil beings (asuras) whose sole intent apparently is to torment, confuse and hinder those on a spiritual quest toward the highest, supramental awareness.
Aurobindo says an intermediary state, a midpoint between worldly imperfect and sacred true knowledge, exists in which
one may go astray…follow false voices…that ends in spiritual disaster.
These voices arise from the imperfect guidance of
little Gods…[or from] the well-known danger of actually hostile beings whose sole purpose is to create confusion, falsehood, corruption…³
Today, of course, many would just say someone who follows false voices is mentally ill. The difference, however, is that Aurobindo attributes a spiritual source to the deception/delusion, instead of just writing it off as some kind of brain-based hallucination (which, of course, is also possible).
Aurobindo says he was divinely provided with funds for his spiritual mission but added that the Lord has a “maddening habit” of waiting until the last moment before coming through.
He also believed that he assisted the Allies in winning WW-II by virtue of his meditative intercession. So he clearly saw himself as no small player in the world of mysticism. His later writings talk of a future that includes an evolved humanity with flexible, shapeshifting bodies.
The ashram book publisher, Sabda, prints and binds Aurobindo’s writings. Some of his contemporary followers reside in Auroville, an experimental town lying just outside of Pondicherry. Lonely Planet’s TV host Justine Shapiro visited Auroville and seemed to imply that it was a haven for foreigners seeking enlightenment while exploiting local laborers.
On visiting the Sri Aurobindo ashram in the late 1980s I was asked to follow the Indian custom of removing one’s sandals at the entrance. On returning to the ashram entrance at the end of my visit, I found that my sandals had disappeared. The gatekeeper didn’t seem overly concerned, and she didn’t help to try and find them. Riding a bicycle barefoot back to my hotel made me realize the huge gulf between those who do and do not have shoes in India. As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
This, perhaps, was the most important lesson I learned that day.
³ Aurobindo Ghose, The Riddle of This World, Calcutta: Arya Publishing House, 1933, pp. 56-57.