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At the Feet of The Mother

Yoga and Idealism: Subhash Chandra Bose and Sri Aurobindo (HH 167)

The secret files of Neta ji Subhash Chandra Bose (1897-unknown) were released by the Govt of India not so long ago. While they have never met, there was an indirect contact between Subash Chandra Bose and Sri Aurobindo, between a mental idealist and the Supramental Yogi. The subject of this talk explores this side of the idealist and patriot’s life.


Born on the 23rd Jan 1897, in Cuttack, Subhash Chandra Bose was an Indian revolutionary who rose to prominence during India’s struggle against the British rule.  A brilliant student who ranked fourth in the ICS, he was deeply disturbed at the Jallianwallah massacre and plunged headlong into the Freedom struggle. Through many ups and downs, in 1941, he escaped house arrest and traveled to Germany to seek Hitler’s help to raise an Indian army. It is here that he began to leave a troubled legacy. Though disillusioned by Hitler, he then went to Japan where he assumed command of an army of Indian POWs (Indian soldiers captured by Japan while fighting under the Allied flag in Asia).  At its height, the army called the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National army) comprised of 80,000 men and saw action against the British in Burma and the north-eastern provinces of India.  The circumstances of Subhas’s death, presumably in an air crash on the 18th Aug 1945 remain unclear.

In this account from his memoirs “An Indian pilgrim” written in 1937, Subhas Chandra Bose relates the influence that Sri Aurobindo, senior to him by twenty-five years, had on his early life:

‘In my undergraduate days Arabindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo) was easily the most popular leader in Bengal, despite his voluntary exile and absence since 1909. His was a name to conjure with. He had sacrificed a lucrative career in order to devote himself to politics. On the Congress platform he had stood up as a champion of left-wing thought and a fearless advocate of independence at a time when most of the leaders, with their tongues in their cheeks, would talk only of colonial self-government. He had undergone incarceration with perfect equanimity. His close association with Lokamanya B. G. Tilak had given him an All-India popularity, while rumour and official allegation had given him an added prestige in the eyes of the younger generation by connecting him with his younger brother, Barindra Kumar Ghose, admittedly the pioneer of the terrorist movement. Last but not least, a mixture of spirituality and politics had given him a halo of mysticism and made his personality more fascinating to those who were religiously inclined. When I came to Calcutta in 1913, Arabindo was already a legendary figure. Rarely have I seen people speak of a leader with such rapturous enthusiasm and many were the anecdotes of this great man, some of them probably true, which travelled from mouth to mouth. I heard, for instance, that Arabindo had been in the habit of indulging in something like automatic writing. In a state of semi-trance, pencil in hand, he would have a written dialogue with his own self, giving him the name of ‘Manik’. During his trial (in the Alipore bomb case), the police came across some of the papers in which the ‘conversations’ with ‘Manik’ were recorded, and one day the police prosecutor, who was excited over the discovery, stood up before the Court and gravely asked for a warrant against a new conspirator, ‘Manik’, to the hilarious amusement of the gentlemen in the dock.

In those days it was freely rumoured that Arabindo had retired to Pondicherry for twelve years’ meditation. At the end of that period he would return to active life as an “enlightened” man, like Gautama Buddha of old, to effect the political salvation of his country. Many people seriously believed this, especially those who felt that it was well nigh impossible to successfully contend with the British people on the physical plane without the aid of some supernatural force. It is highly interesting to observe how the human mind resorts to spiritual nostrums when it is confronted with physical difficulties of an insurmountable character. When the big agitation started after the Partition of Bengal in 1905, several mystic stories were in circulation. It was said, for instance, that on the final day of reckoning with the British there would be a “march of the blanketeers” into Fort William in Calcutta. Sannyasis or fakirs with blankets on their shoulders would enter the Fort. The British troops would stand stock-still, unable to move or fight, and power would pass into the hands of people. Wish is father to the thought and we loved to hear and to believe such stories in our boyhood.

As a college student it was not the mysticism surrounding Arabindo’s name which attracted me, but his writings and also his letters. Arabindo was then editing a monthly journal calledArya in which he expounded his philosophy. He used also to write to certain select people in Bengal. Such letters would pass rapidly from hand to hand, especially in circles interested in spirituality-cum-politics. In our circle usually somebody would read the letter aloud and the rest of us would enthuse over it. In one such letter Arabindo wrote, “We must be dynamos of the divine electricity so that when each of us stands up, thousands around may be full of the light – full of bliss and Ananda.” We felt convinced that spiritual enlightenment was necessary for effective national service.

But what made a lasting appeal to me was not such flashy utterances. I was impressed by his deeper philosophy. Shankara‘s Doctrine of Maya was like a thorn in my flesh. I could not accommodate my life to it nor could I easily get rid of it. I required another philosophy to take its place. The reconciliation between the One and the Many, between God and Creation, which Ramakrishna and Vivekananda had preached, had indeed impressed me but had not till then succeeded in liberating me from the cobwebs of Maya(the theory that the world is an Illusion). In this task of emancipation, Arabindo came as an additional help. He worked out a reconciliation between Spirit and Matter, between God and Creation, on the metaphysical side and supplemented it with a synthesis of the methods of attaining the truth – a synthesis of Yoga, as he called it. Thousands of years ago the Bhagavad Gita had spoken about the different Yogas -Jnana Yoga or the attainment of truth through knowledge; Bhakti Yoga or the attainment of truth through devotion and love; Karma Yoga or the attainment of truth through selfless action. To this, other schools of Yoga had been added later -Hatha Yoga aiming at  control over the body and Raja Yoga aiming at control over the mind through control of the  breathing apparatus. Vivekananda had no doubt spoken of the need of Jnana (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion and love) and Karma (selfless action) in developing an all-round character, but there was something original and unique in Arabindo’s conception of a synthesis of Yoga. He tried to show how by a proper use of the different Yogas one could rise step by step to the highest truth. It was so refreshing, so inspiring, to read Arabindo’s writings as a contrast to the denunciation of knowledge and action by the later-day Bengal Vaishnavas. All that was needed in my eyes to make Arabindo an ideal guru for mankind was his return to active life.’

A few years after writing this book, Subhas was to fight alongside the Japanese against the British occupation in India.  Sri Aurobindo was extremely displeased by his actions, because  he “saw” that if the Japanese succeeded, it could sink India into a new round of colonialism and hardship.  He had seen in an vision as early as 1910 that the British would one day leave India on their own.  The following passage regarding Subhas’s actions occurs in a letter dated 5th April, 1947 written by Sri Aurobindo to a disciple, Dilip Kumar Roy:

‘You will remember that both the Mother and I were very angry against Subhas for having brought the Japanese into India and reproached him with it as a treason and crime against the Motherland. For if they had got in, it would have been almost impossible to get them out. The Mother knows the Japanese nation well and was positive about that. Okawa, the leader of the Black Dragon (the one who shammed mad and got off at the Tokyo trial) told her that if India revolted against the British, Japan would send her Navy to help, but he said that he would not like the Japanese to land because if they once got hold of Indian soil they would never leave it, and it was true enough. If the Japanese had overrun India, and they would have done it if a powerful Divine intervention had not prevented it and turned the tables on them, they would have joined the Germans in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus and nothing could have saved Europe and Asia from being overrun. This would have meant the destruction of our work and a horrible fate for this country and for the world. You can understand therefore the bitterness of our feelings at that time against Subhas and his association with the Axis and the disaster to his country for which he would have been responsible. Incidentally, instead of being liberated in 1948, India would have had to spend a century or several centuries in a renewed servitude. When therefore the Mother heard that you were writing a book eulogising Subhas, she disapproved strongly of any such thing issuing out of the Ashram and she wanted that you should be asked not to publish it.’

. . . Subsequently she met one of the chief lieutenants of Subhas, a man from Hyderabad who had been his secretary and companion in the submarine by which he came from Germany to Japan, and he recounted his daily talks in the submarine and strongly defended his action. From what he said it was evident although we still regarded Subhas’s action as a reckless and dangerous folly, that the aspect of a crime against the country disappeared from it. Since then Mother modified her attitude towards Subhas; moreover, the war was receding into the past and there was no longer any room for the poignancy of the feeling it had raised and it was better that all that should be forgotten.

A letter from Subhas Chandra Bose to Dilip Kumar Roy appeared in the  “Pravartak” of Chandernagore. Subhash remarked in it that “though he had great respect for Vivekananda he considers Sri Aurobindo – “gambhir” deeper than the former. In the letter he accepts Sri Aurobindo as a genius and a great Dhyani, but he thinks that too long remaining away from what is called “active life” tends to one-sided development and may help some few to become Supermen, but for the generality of men he would prefer the path of service and work.

* * *

Words of Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo : For ordinary men work is, of course, necessary, but one who wants to do “divine work” must prepare himself. He must learn to be “an instrument” first. All these Europeans have to learn that the work they take up is only a preparation for the divine work. They must know that it is not any mentally constructed work to which they must obstinately stick, if they want to be the instruments of God.

For instance, all these tall ideas like Madame Y’s about regenerating India and taking up big schemes and being regarded as big workers and saviours have got a fascination. One who wants to do the divine work must learn to forget the difference between important and unimportant work, – small work and great work – till the work that is intended is found by him……


* * *

This post-card from Subhash I received last mail. He had written it before starting for Calcutta by aeroplane. Now he is practically a prisoner—a home-internee really —at his residence. I wonder what work he will be doing now. In Europe he had been actively going about and wrote a book on Indian struggle. No doubt all is part of the lila [play] as says Krishnaprem and I wish him God-speed de tout mon coeur [with all my heart]. Only I wonder why he thinks that “okhāne thakiyā kāj hoy nā” [no work can be done by staying there] ? I only trust a time will come when he will be able to see that true kaj hoy [work is done] only when the Divine is realised. I am sorry he is not changed in his outlook. It is strange that in prison he always thinks much more differently than when he comes out and is active. Now he is a full-fledged activist de nouveau [again] —going about in a rush, seeing people, writing books, attending Patel’s funeral, etc., etc.—instead of taking rest and curing himself of this malignant abdominal ulcer! He used once to meditate and see light and had a real bhakti —had turned a sannyasin even once. And now he says that seeking the Divine is useless inactive work!! Great snakes! (to quote your expletive) does he truly mean that all the people who are rushing about are doing great work?!! Some people may be doing something—may be even a thundering nincompoop does some good work sometimes in spite of himself, though after a lot of useless waste of precious energy—but to say sweepingly that “without personal contact no kaj hoy”—well—, it simply passes me. Qu’en dites-vous? I find, alas, there is a deeply disappointing element about my nationalist activist friend —much though I admire his strength of character and idealism, what?

‘I had never a very great confidence in Subhash’s Yoga-turn getting the better of his activism—he has two strong ties that prevent it—ambition and need to act and lead in the vital and in the mind a mental idealism—these two things are the great fosterers of illusion. The spiritual path needs a certain amount of realism—one has to. see the real value of the things that are—which is very little, except as steps in evolution. Then one can either follow the spiritual static path of rest and release or the spiritual dynamic path of a greater truth to be brought down into life.’

* * *

‘I do not know why you drag in humanitarianism, Subhash’s activism, philanthropical seva [service], etc. None of these are part of my Yoga or in harmony with my definition of works, so they don’t touch me. I never thought that Congress politics or feeding the poor or writing beautiful poems would lead straight to Vaikuntha or the Absolute. If it were so, Romesh Dutt on one side and Baudelaire on the other would be the first to attain the Highest and welcome us there. It is not the form of the work itself or mere activity but the consciousness and Godward will behind it that are the essence of Karmayoga; the work is only the necessary instrumentation for the union with the Master of works, the transit to the pure Will and power of Light from the will and power of the Ignorance.’

* * *

‘I have read your correspondence with Subhash Bose.1 Your main point is of course quite the right thing to answer; all this insistence upon action is absurd if one has not the light by which to act. “Yoga must include life and not exclude it” does not mean that we are bound to accept life as it is with all its stumbling ignorance and misery and the obscure confusion of human will and reason and impulse and instinct which it expresses. The advocates of action think that by human intellect and energy making an always new rush, everything can be put right; the present state of the world after a development of the intellect and a stupendous output of energy for which there is no historical parallel is a signal proof of the emptiness of the illusion under which they labour. Yoga takes the stand that it is only by a change of consciousness that (the true basis of life can be discovered; from within outward is indeed the rule. But within does not mean some quarter inch behind the surface. One must a deep and find the soul, the self, the Divine Reality within us and only then can life become a true expression of what we can be instead of a blind and always repeated confused blur of the inadequate and imperfect thing we were. The choice is between remaining in the old jumble and groping about in the hope of stumbling on some discovery or standing back and seeking the Light within till we discover and can build the Godhead within and without us.’

* * *

  1. Subhash Chandra Bose (23 January 1897 – 18 August 1945), the well-known Nationalist leader. Dilip knew him from their student days in England. He was an admirer of Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary action. Resigning from the I.C.S., Subhash Bose entered the freedom movement and joined the Congress soon after his return to India in 1921. He worked with Chittaranjan Das, was imprisoned many times, and tried to orient the Congress towards firm action. In 1939, he fell out with Gandhi and the Congress, escaped in 1941 from house arrest, fled to Europe and stayed for a while in Germany, trying to muster support for an attack on British India. In 1942, Subhash Bose, reached Japan, then Singapore, and developed the “Indian National Army,” which was to join Japan in its campaign against British India. In 1944, the I.N.A. launched its offensive from Burma, but could not proceed beyond Assam as the Japanese forces became increasingly engaged elsewhere. Subhash Bose disappeared in a plane accident in 1945.

* * *

‘Your meeting with Subhash [Bose] was not on the physical plane, nor was it with the physical Subhash. Although it was not a sleep in which we enter into other planes of being, it was in a concentrated state in which you had crossed or were crossing the border from the physical to a deeper consciousness. The Subhash you met there was some part of him of which the external physical Subhash is probably not himself aware and there it is quite possible that there is a Shivabhakta who could speak in praise of Gauri-vallabh; it may be even from there that come the velleities of sadhana when he is in prison and the surface kinetic man discouraged and inactive. Or it may be the Subhash met in the concentration was only a mask or an instrument for a Power that spoke the word through his voice.’

December 12, 1934

* * *

(Padmaja, daughter of Sarojini Naidu, bore a tale to Dilipda, which troubled him no end, as it concerned two of his great friends: Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.)

‘I would certainly not hang anybody on the testimony of Padmaja; she has too much of a delight in scandal-mongering of the worst kind; but I suppose she would not cite Jawaharlal as a witness if there were nothing in it. The question is : how much exaggeration ? I am afraid it is not at all impossible that Subhash should say one thing to Jawaharlal and quite another to somebody else. Politics is like that, a dirty and corrupting business full of “policy”, “strategy”, “tactics”, “diplomacy”, in other words, lying, tricking, manoeuvring of all kinds. A few escape the corruption but most don’t. It has after all always been a trade or art of Kautilya from the beginning, and to touch it and not be corrupted is far from easy. For it is a field in which people fix their eyes on the thing to be achieved and soon become careless about the character of the means, while ambition, ego and self-interest come Pouring in to aid the process. Human nature is prone enough to crookedness as it is, but here the ordinary restraints put upon it fail to be at all effective. That however is general—in a particular case one can’t pronounce without knowing the circumstances more at first hand or before having seen the documents cited.’

October 20,1936

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