Having lived such varied lives as a theoretician, a scholar of English and Sanskrit, a revolutionary political leader, a yogi, a philosopher, a tantric, and finally a guide to inner knowledge, Sri Aurobindo Ghose was one of the most enigmatic, yet highly-respected, figures in twentieth-century India. Given this complex diversity, penning his biography is challenging as most biographers tended to focus on him as a great yogi.
With this book, Peter Heehs has done the job of examining Aurobindo in his entirety with remarkable success, and has aptly titled his work The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. He has also reproduced the original picture of Sri Aurobindo which people had hitherto seen only in highly 'retouched' form. Heehs' volume is 500 pages long but highly readable, meticulous and comprehensive. This is because Heehs was an archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram; he thus had access to Aurobindo's unpublished letters and diaries.
Divided into four parts, the book consists of nine chapters. Chapter 1, 'Early Years in India', describes Bengal in the late 19th century and the Ghose family. Born on 15 August 1872, Aurobindo's father was the district civil surgeon at Rangpur, not far from Calcutta. His grandfather on the mother's side, Rajnarain Bose, was a leading member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist group. Although Heehs does not say so, exposure to the Brahmo Samaj must have influenced the young Aurobindo. He went to school at Darjeeling, away from home.
Chapter 2 discusses Aurobindo's schooling outside India. His father, Dr. Krishan Dhun Ghose, wanted his sons to be of a better breed and to make 'giants of them'. He wanted them to receive 'an entirely European upbringing' (p.13) and therefore sent them to England to board with a Christian minister (William Drewett) in Manchester. Dr. Ghose hoped that at least one of them would become an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer. There were strict instructions to the boys not to mix with any Indian. They therefore grew up without knowing India. St. Paul's school where they studied was for middle-class boys aspiring to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Sport was often a neglected area. Aurobindo was very keen on literature, particularly poetry. Interestingly, he wasn't a budding yogi, not even religious. His classmates thought that he and his brother were Christians (p.18). Aurobindo performed brilliantly at school. He sat exams for Cambridge and for the ICS. Having passed both, he arrived at Cambridge in 1890.There he was a member of King's College's elite which entitled him to a special gown, free tuition and £8 per year. Since his aim was to compete for the ICS, he did not complete an Arts degree. Instead, he passed the subjects necessary for the ICS examination. However, one of the criteria for successful completion was riding a horse which Aurobindo failed, leading to the non-completion of his ICS examination.
In Chapter 3, Heehs describes Aurobindo's return to India in 1893. With no options left, Aurobindo accepted a job in the princely state of Baroda as an 'attaché'. Initially, most of his duties consisted of attending to the correspondence of the Baroda prince, Maharaja Sayajirao. The maharaja liked the young man and in 1895 he was made a professor of English literature at Baroda College and later on became its principal. At Baroda he keenly studied English, Sanskrit, Hinduism, yoga and asceticism. He also took a strong interest in the struggle for independence from British rule, including armed revolution as a means to this end.
Chapter 4 deals with Aurobindo's move to Calcutta where he joined the Indian National Congress and participated in the anti-British protest. He also wrote hundreds of articles in an extremist newspaper provocatively named Bande Mataram (literally: 'I bow to my motherland'). He was the first to use the word 'independence' in the struggle for freedom from the British Empire (p.117). Chapter 5 delves into Aurobindo's role in the freedom struggle and his imprisonment by the British. His influence on the cause of independence was such that Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem in his praise. Aurobindo was an advocate of violence in the form of bombings carried out against the British by several Bengali youths, including his brother Barin. His role was mainly that of a strategist and organiser who preferred 'behind scene manoeuvres' (p.212), and he was careful not to become directly involved. Nevertheless the British suspected his involvement, calling him 'a highly dangerous character'.
Chapter 6 sketches Aurobindo's life as a yogi and a philosopher in Pondicherry in French India around 1910. He had moved there from British India after a warrant had been issued against him for the assassination of Mr. Ashe, the collector of the Madras Presidency. He remained in Pondicherry and was able to devote himself to yoga. The only annoyance was that he was besieged by devotees. In 1912, on his birthday, he wrote that the goals of his 'sadhana' (spiritual practice) had been achieved; his ego was dead. This realisation of 'parabrahman' had given him the essential knowledge or shakti (p.232). His yoga practice kept him busy for the rest of his life. He claimed that he saw visions, heard voices, went into trances, gained knowledge of the future and had a kind of supernatural strength. Around this time he wrote several books on philosophy, social science, cultural criticism and poetry.
Chapters 7 and 8 discuss Aurobindo's major writings between 1914 and 1920. He wrote profusely in the journal Arya which he started publishing in 1914. His essays include 'The Life Divine' and 'The Synthesis of Yoga'. Being a prolific writer, he published over 4600 pages of philosophy, commentary, translations, essays etc. in his journal (p.328). Chapter 8 also discusses at some length the arrival of Mirra Richard in Aurobindo's life. Mirra and her husband Paul Richard arrived in Pondicherry in 1920 and became close associates of Aurobindo. However, to Paul's dismay, Mirra eventually became a close companion of Aurobindo and in his words 'gave him the essential feminine power to complete his yogic sadhana' (p.320). She became his shakti and was able to help him turn his sadhana outward (p.329). Mirra eventually left Paul and she and her companion Dorothy Hodgson went to stay at Aurobindo's house. Her influence eventually led to Aurobindo stopping his consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Heehs comments that people in the Ashram were somewhat puzzled by the unexpected entry of a female into the otherwise male household. Aurobindo insisted that his relationship with Mirra was not sexual. What was important to him was Mirra's complete autonomy. Therefore at one stage he is quoted as saying to Paul: 'if Mirra ever asked for marriage (with Aurobindo), that is what she would have' (p.327). Heehs, perhaps wisely, has not delved into Aurobindo's relationship with Mirra.
In chapter 9, Heehs discusses Aurobindo's 'active retirement'. In the 1940s, Sri Aurobindo's life had taken on a regular pattern. Mirra, now called 'the Mother', took over the organisation of the house. While people came to his 'darshan' every day, every four years there was a special 'darshan' ceremony. Devotees flocked to take the 'darshan' of the 'Master' with the 'Mother' sitting on his right. By then he had become an international celebrity. Aldous Huxley regarded his book The Life Divine as a remarkable piece of philosophic and mystic literature. Gabriella Mistral and Pearl Buck, both Nobel laureates, proposed his name for the Nobel Prize for literature. Life and Holiday magazines carried illustrated stories on him. Visitors to the Ashram felt that he had such an aura that even a few moments in his presence was like being 'timeless in time'. They were also impressed with the charm and serene look of the 'Mother'. Heehs recounts the final moments of the great master at the end of the chapter. On Tuesday 5 December 1950, at the age of 78, Sri Aurobindo died (buried on 9 December), leaving a legacy of great literary and spiritual writing behind. Thousands came for his last 'darshan'. Tributes came the next day from the president, prime minister, governors, diplomats, and many others.
In the 'Epilogue' Heehs discusses the reasons for Aurobindo's greatness. He rightly says that a balanced evaluation of Aurobindo is difficult because some viewed him as an incarnation of god while others viewed him as a political reactionary. Aurobindo's true value, he says, lies in the historical and literary evidence he left behind. His writings, although dated in style, remain a source of inspiration for his devotees. He had a great impact on India's freedom struggle and was the first to speak openly about 'independence'. He was the fountainhead of a spiritual movement which still flourishes across the world. Heehs is hopeful that the movement Aurobindo started will keep transforming human society forever.
Heehs' book is laudable. However, he does not address some key questions. For example, what transformed Aurobindo from a Western-educated schoolboy in England to a revolutionary in India and subsequently from a radical revolutionary into a yogi? Finally, what was Mirra's exact role in Aurobindo's life? However Heehs' non-engagement with these questions by no means devalues the book's importance and I recommend it as an important reading for everyone interested in the remarkable life of Aurobindo who made a difference to humanity at large.
Monash Asia Institute
writing in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies
Quote this article as: Joydeep Guha, Bhaskar Chakrabarti, John C.B. Webster, Kamala Kanta Dash, Loveleen Kaur, Jayant Bapat & Francis Robinson (2010): Book Reviews, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33:3, 499-511.