Sri Aurobindo:
A journey into his life divine, Part 1

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue of Light of Consciousness magazine. It is reprinted with permission. This is the first half of Part 1. The second half is here. (Part 2 will appear in the next issue of Collaboration.)



by Vishnu Eschner

Nothing in my life had prepared me for India. I struggled to stuff it into the suitcases of familiar experience, but the luggage would not zip closed. The airport in Madras felt like Superbowl stadium at half-time when 20,000 people surge to the hot dog stands at once. I clung to my bags and was compressed into the mass of humanity inching onward towards the three distant customs gates.

Outside was no different, only now the arriving passengers were the Superbowl team running a frenzied gauntlet through the crowd. Everyone watched us with frank faces of gaping curiosity, as if wishing to turn us into an arriving aunt or cousin. The throng was held back by flimsy ropes, makeshift rails, and arm-linked soldiers in white gloves to whom this seemed an ordinary evening's duty. Our friends somehow saw us in the crush, signaled and guided us to their van through waiting fists of boys and men: the army of porters who tugged our bags relentlessly threatening to help us!

Soon we were lurching along a two-lane, carnival-lit blacktop strip of shops, cigarette stalls, huts, and billboards. It was after midnight, but there were more people milling about than on a Manhattan avenue at noon. Brightly painted wooden carts, bullocks, cars, and pedestrians all competed for the same piece of highway. Bells, horns, buzzers, and loudspeaker music blared and then receded into the night. A jovial atmosphere and excitement infused the evening crowds.

Tucked within it all was the shameless face of suffering: scrappy children at home in the brawling circus seemed to stare with flat-faced incomprehension at a fate that placed me warm and fed and sheltered and left them forlorn and friendless on the seething midnight streets. I had stumbled into the real world.

Something happens to those of us who make a place for the Divine in our lives. One day we come to realize that what we have been hungering for all our lives is something beyond all that we have seen and known, a longing for an intensity deep within us, an awakened experience of life in every activity, a fullness in each moment.

I began my quest in college, almost 20 years ago. Stalking bookstores. I needed something to do: an asana, a mantra, a mudra, a way to meditate or method to silence the mind. I discovered one method after another. I didn't know what I was seeking, only that I was marching towards something supremely beautiful, joyful, and true, the answer to life's eternal questions. In a book by Sri Aurobindo, I found:

The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation . . . is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality.

Most traditions, ancient or modern, can furnish us with rituals, chants, or practices to reach the chosen Goal. I found myself drawn more and more to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and began seeking the way of spiritual practice from his books. I came away baffled. I insisted on a clear-cut system, a place to begin, but no formula is delineated within the volumes--more than 16,000 pages--that Sri Aurobindo wrote.

When later I entered the ashram for Sri Aurobindo's yoga in America, I was still lugging along the methods and beliefs I had gleaned from other sources: the Upanishads, the Vedas, and Christian mysticism. Whatever worked, I kept. In the ashram, the path seemed to continue on that same course, though it widened eventually to the understanding that my own particular route might not be for someone else, or for anyone else. But no belief was abruptly uprooted, nothing was cast out to make room for another of "standard issue":

The spiritual aim will recognise that man as he grows in his being must have as much free space as possible for all its members to grow in their own strength, to find out themselves and their potentialities. In their freedom they will err, because experience comes through many errors, but each has in itself a divine principle and they will find it out, disengage its presence, significance and law as their experience of themselves deepens and increases.

On first reading Sri Aurobindo, one is swept up in the expansive breath of freedom that blows throughout his writings. There is no moralizing, no preaching. We are prodded towards an understanding, as if by polite suggestion. He seems to touch us by the logic of our innate common sense.

I felt I was ready to commit my life to the work he proposed. I was full of notions about life and unprepared but primed for the challenges Sri Aurobindo's teachings would bring. The biggest blow fell first--my belief that to know the Divine it is necessary to renounce the world:

The old yoga demanded a complete renunciation extending to the giving up of the worldly life itself. This yoga aims instead at a new and transformed life. But it insists as inexorably on a complete throwing away of desire and attachment in the mind, life and body. Its aim is to refound life in the truth of the spirit . . .

My archaic notions about the spiritual life--following in the timeworn footsteps of the saints of various traditions--remained strong within me. However, ideas such as "the world is illusion" soon began to tremble before the overwhelming persuasion of Sri Aurobindo's thought:

The Spirit has made itself Matter in order to place itself there as an instrument for the well-being and joy, yogaksema, of created beings, for a self-offering of universal physical utility and service.

Another assumption--"the aim of life is liberation"-- toppled:

There is none bound, none freed, none seeking to be free . . . That is a perfect freedom. It is so free that it is not even bound by its liberty. It can play at being bound without incurring a real bondage. Its chain is a self-imposed convention, its limitation in the ego a transitional device that it uses in order to repeat its transcendence and universality in the scheme of the individual Brahman.

I began to realize that all life is divine, to be transformed, not rejected or renounced out of hand. Matter, like everything in cosmos, is of the substance of the Divine. Matter and life can be infused with the Spirit by consecrating ourselves and our actions to Spirit. No longer able to bolster itself with the old ideas, my western mind began to plummet. I craved a ladder of beliefs, a clear-cut practice by which perfection is attained. How to progress in this sadhana (spiritual practice) of Sri Aurobindo's yoga?

. . . true spirituality will not lay a yoke upon science and philosophy or compel them to square their conclusions with any statement of dogmatic religious or even of assured spiritual truth, as some of the old religions attempted . . . Each part of man's being has its own dharma which it must follow and will follow in the end, put on it what fetters you please.

Three years after joining the American ashram, though I considered myself Sri Aurobindo's devotee, I understood little more. Many questions still jostled my thoughts as we rolled down the road on the way to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. As multicolored lights played across my face, I sat with my nose pressed against the window, my heart bubbling with a strange brew of nostalgia, mirth, and sadness.

I had long since stopped wondering when we'd get to the main highway between Madras and Pondicherry. We'd been on it all along. Most of the 200-kilometer trip still stretched into the night before us like a schoolboy's chore on a summer day. I thought about Sri Aurobindo's return to India after 14 years in England. He had last touched Indian soil when he was seven years old.

Sri Aurobindo was born Aurobindo Ghose in Calcutta on August 15, 1872. When he was seven, his father took him and his two older brothers to Manchester, England, and deposited them in the care of English friends. The father's love for his children manifested in the extraordinary desire that his sons grow up completely Anglicized and was reflected in the strict instruction to their English guardians that the boys have no contact with Indians living in England. They should learn nothing at all about the Indian way of life.

Young Aurobindo, whose name means "lotus," was tutored in Latin and French in the home of his English custodians, a minister and his elderly mother. He published poetry at the age of ten and wrote throughout the rest of his life, culminating in the masterpiece, Savitri--which, at more than 23,000 lines, is the longest epic poem ever written in English.

Aurobindo was admitted to St. Paul's school in London at the age of 12 and while studying there was awarded all significant academic prizes. In 1889 he went with a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where he captured every prize in Greek and Latin. In London he excelled in the exams for the prestigious Indian Civil Service--the highest government level attainable to native Indians in colonized India--but failed to gain admission by not appearing for the riding test. Instead, he joined the service of the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda.

So it was that in 1893, the year Vivekananda carried the torch of Indian spirituality to the West at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Sri Aurobindo returned to India. Suffused in the classical history of ancient, medieval, and modern Europe, having mastered Greek, Latin, English, French, German, and Italian, he bore the seeds of the western philosophical heritage. He arrived alone on February 7, and Mother India greeted her son with the first intimation of the great spiritual destiny to follow. A "great calm" descended upon him which he later recounted:

Since I set foot on the Indian soil on the Apollo Bunder in Bombay, I began to have spiritual experiences, but these were not divorced from this world but had an inner and infinite bearing on it, such as a feeling of the Infinite pervading material Space and the Immanent inhabiting material objects and bodies.

His education was by no means complete: he had yet to learn a single Indian language. In the following years, after learning Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages, Aurobindo immersed himself in the deep waters of India's spiritual legacy, retranslating and reinterpreting the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. The French author and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland observed of Sri Aurobindo that he represented "the completest synthesis that has been realized to this day of the genius of Asia and the genius of Europe."

Bringing the full force of western analysis to bear upon the most ancient documents of Indian spirituality, Sri Aurobindo founded a new way; one that accepts the reality, even the divinity of the ignorance and darkness which our senses constantly present to us. He proclaims that "life is yoga," and calls us to participate in its deep and integral transformation:

Our aim . . . is to live in the Divine, the Infinite, in God and not in any mere egoism and temporality, but at the same time not apart from Nature, from our fellow-beings, from earth and the mundane existence, any more than the Divine lives aloof from us and the world. He exists also in relation to the world and Nature and all these beings, but with an absolute and inalienable power, freedom and self-knowledge. Our liberation and perfection is to transcend ignorance, bondage and weakness and live in Him in relation to the world and Nature with the divine power, freedom and self-knowledge.

Part 1, conclusion

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