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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo in Baroda, Part 8

“All make tranquil, all make free.
Let my heart-beats measure the footsteps of God
As He comes from His timeless infinity
To build in their rapture His burning abode.

Weave from my life His poem of days,
His calm pure dawns and His noons of force.
My acts for the grooves of His chariot-race,
My thoughts for the tramp of His great steeds’ course!”[1]

Love of Mother India and love of God now flamed up in Sri Aurobindo, the one intensifying the other, till they fused into one overmastering passion for the Divine and the fulfilment of His Will and Purpose in the material world.

But it is interesting to observe how the patriotic urge led him to spirituality. It is true that spiritual aspiration was already there, latent in him. His three outstanding spiritual experiences, which we have referred to, had come to him “unasked, unsought for”,[2] bearing witness to the fact that spirituality was the key passion and central yearning of his soul. But it awoke and began to dominate and lead his nature only after he felt that his work for the freedom of India, which had other and vaster aspects than the merely political, could not succeed except by the aid of a power beyond that of the human mind. He had by then knowledge enough of the spiritually-oriented culture of India, and faith and wisdom enough to perceive the working of a universal Intelligence behind the stumbling will and paltry efforts of man. He longed to harness that power to his work, which was slowly but steadily making him alive to its supernational, even its superhuman, magnitude and significance. It was assuming within him the dimensions of a world mission. But what actually happened was that the Power, which he sought to harness, tended, instead, to harness his whole being and nature and life to its own Will and Purpose, and began to lead him, through apparent success and failure, and through a criss-cross of various activities and experiences, towards the accomplishment of the real object of his life, his apostolic world-mission.

We shall endeavour to follow this intricate and intensely interesting course of his life in the light of his own statements, and where that light is not available, we shall stop short of forming definite conclusions rather than hazarding ingenious interpretations on the basis of ambiguous or misleading data, as some of his biographers (notably the overbold Girija Sankara Roy of Bengal) have done. For, as Sri Aurobindo has himself said, his life has not been lived on the surface; and those who presume to judge him by the so-called facts of his outer life, torn from the context of their spiritual and psychological motor forces, do nothing better than one who is naive enough to think that he has exhausted the glory and mystery of the sunrise when he has noted the glowing spectrum of the fugitive colours it casts up in the sky. To subject the actions of a spiritual personality to a mental and moral scrutiny is to risk tumbling into gross misrepresentations. It would be sheer pathetic fallacy, not from the standpoint of the canons of poetic criticism, but of those of prosaic, objective, rational judgment, to call in question Rama’s spiritual greatness, because he wept for the missing Sita in the forest, or killed (unjustly, as the Puritan would say) Vali, brother of the ape-king Sugriva,[3] or Sri Krishna’s divine character, because he made love (so it appeared outwardly) to Radha and any number of Gopis, and induced Yudhishthira to tell a camouflaged lie.[4] The mind of man should either declare that there is nothing super-rational or transcendental in spirituality, which is only a fine working of the reflective and analytic intellect, or learn the humility to recognise its own inherent limitations and not attempt to overshoot its mark. An overweening confidence in its own competence to judge all things under the sun is fatal to its own growth.

Sri Aurobindo used to go out with Deshpande and some others of his friends to the banks of the Narmada river in search of Yogis who could give him some power for his political work. On one such excursion, he visited a temple of Kali and had the realisation of the living Presence of the Mother in the image. We reproduce below the poem which he wrote later on this experience:

“In a town of gods, housed in a little shrine,
From sculptured limbs the Godhead looked at me, —
A living Presence deathless and divine,
A Form that harboured all infinity.

The great World-Mother and her mighty will
Inhabited the earth’s abysmal sleep,
Voiceless, omnipotent, inscrutable,
Mute in the desert and the sky and deep.

Now veiled with mind she dwells and speaks no word,
Voiceless, inscrutable, omniscient,
Hiding until our soul has seen, has heard
The secret of her strange embodiment,

One in the worshipper and the immobile shape,
A beauty and mystery flesh or stone can drape.”[5]

Sri Aurobindo paid two or three visits to a great Yogi, Brahmananda, who was living on the banks of the Narmada. He describes the Yogi in the following words: “There is no incontrovertible proof. Four hundred years is an exaggeration. It is known however that he lived on the banks of the Narmada for eighty years, and when he arrived there, he was already in appearance at the age when maturity turns towards over-ripeness. He was when I met him just before his death a man of magnificent physique — showing no signs of old age except his white beard and hair, extremely tall, robust, able to walk any number of miles a day and tiring out his younger disciples, walking too so swiftly that they tended to fall behind, a great head and magnificent face that seemed to belong to men of more ancient times. He never spoke of his age or of his past either except for an occasional almost accidental utterance. One of these was spoken to a disciple of his, well-known to me, a Baroda Sardar, Mazumdar (it was on the top storey of Mazumdar’s house by the way that I sat with Lele in 1908 and had my decisive experience of liberation and Nirvana). Mazumdar learned that he (Swami Brahmananda) was suffering from a bad tooth and brought him a bottle of…, a toothwash then much in vogue. The Yogi refused, saying: ‘I never use medicine. My one medicine is Narmada water. As for the tooth, I have suffered from it since the days of Bhao Gardi.’ Bhao Gardi was the Maratha General, Sadasiva Rao Bhao, who disappeared in the battle of Panipat, and his body was never found. Many formed the conclusion that Brahmananda himself was Bhao Gardi, but this was an imagination. Nobody who knew Brahmananda would doubt any statement of his — he was a man of perfect simplicity and truthfulness and did not seek fame or to impose himself. When he died, he was still in full strength and his death came not by decay but by the accident of blood-poisoning through a rusty nail that had entered into his foot as he walked on the sands of the Narmada…. I may say that three at least of his disciples to my knowledge kept an extraordinary aspect and energy of youth even to a comparatively late or quite advanced age — but this may not be uncommon among those who practise both Raja and Hatha Yoga together.”[6]

Describing his visit to Swami Brahmananda, Sri Aurobindo says again: “He had the most remarkable eyes. Usually his eyes were either closed or half-shut. When I went to see him and took leave, he opened his eyes full and looked at me. It seemed as if he could penetrate and see everything within clearly.”[7]

It was from a disciple of Brahmananda, Devdhar by name, who was an engineer at Baroda, that Sri Aurobindo took the first lessons in Yoga. “It (the Yoga) was confined at first to assiduous practice of pranayama (at one time for six hours or more a day). There was no conflict or wavering between Yoga and politics; when he started Yoga he carried on both without any idea of opposition between them. He wanted however to find a Guru. He met a Naga Sannyasi in the course of this search, but did not accept him as Guru, though he was confirmed by him in a belief in Yoga-power when he saw him cure Barin in almost a moment of a violent and clinging hill-fever by merely cutting through a glassful of water crosswise with a knife while he repeated a silent mantra. Barin drank and was cured….”[8] Thus, in God’s inscrutable ways, Sri Aurobindo was led to practise the very Yoga which he had so long fought shy of as being life-negating and anti-pragmatic. But it was not yet the spiritual aspect of Yoga, but only the preparatory neurosomatic and psycho-physical discipline. “A Baroda engineer who was a disciple of Brahmananda showed me how to do it, and I started on my own. Some remarkable results came with it. First, I felt a sort of electricity all around me. Secondly, there were some visions of a minor kind. Thirdly, I began to have a very rapid flow of poetry. Formerly I used to write with difficulty. For a time the flow would increase; then again it would dry up. Now it revived with astonishing vigour and I could write both prose and poetry at tremendous speed. This flow has never ceased up to now. If I have not written much afterwards, it was because I had something else to do. But the moment I want to write, it is there. Fourthly, it was at the time of the Pranayama-practice that I began to put on flesh. Earlier I was very thin. My skin also began to be smooth and fair and there was a peculiar new substance in the saliva, owing to which these changes were taking place. Another curious thing I noticed was that whenever I used to sit for Pranayama, not a single mosquito would bite me, though plenty of mosquitoes were humming around. I took more and more to Pranayama, but there were no further results. It was at this time that I adopted a vegetarian diet. That gave lightness and some purification.”[9]

On the same subject he says again: “After four years of Pranayama and other practices of my own, with no other result than increased health and outflow of energy, some psycho-physical phenomena, a great outflow of poetic creation, a limited power of subtle sight (luminous patterns and figures etc.), mostly with the waking eye, I had a complete arrest.”[10]

What Sri Aurobindo says regarding the subtle sight, referred to above, will be found interesting by the scientists who are materialistic in their thought and outlook, and deny the existence of the subtle worlds:

“I remember when I first began to see inwardly (and outwardly also with the open eye), a scientific friend of mine began to talk of after-images — ‘these are only after-images’. I asked him whether after-images — ‘remained before the eye for two minutes at a time — he said, ‘no’, to his knowledge only for few seconds; I also asked him whether one could get after-images of things not around one or even not existing upon this earth, since they had other shapes, another character, other hues, contours and a very different dynamism, life-movements and values — he could not reply in the affirmative. That is how these so-called scientific explanations break down as soon as you pull them out of their cloud-land of mental theory and face them with the actual phenomena they pretend to decipher.”[11]

Thanks to the remarkable advances in physics, biology, psychology, and para-psychology, it has become difficult for the modern sceptic to remain smugly entrenched within his rigid materialist bias. The new realms of knowledge these progressive sciences are opening before his vision; the conquering force and fervour, the profound penetration, keen sensibility and scrupulous observation with which they are exploring many an unsuspected hinterland and lowland, and even sometimes some of the uplands, of human personality and the subtler configuration and dynamic of Nature, in order to arrive at the organic unity of universal existence, have thrown down the bastion of scientific rationalism. Particularly, modern psychology is advancing with such giant strides that, it appears, it will not be long before it veers round to the ancient Vedantic truth of the living, multiple unity of all existence — sarvam khalvidam Brahma. This drive towards unity — unity in the life of humanity as well as in the personality of man — characterises the best efforts of all sciences and arts today. There is also a growing attempt at an integration of all sciences into a composite corpus of knowledge. One can very well discern materialistic rationalism fading away like the spectre of a discredited superstition.

“The New Physics”, says F.L. Kunz, “demonstrates the reality of super-sensory and non-material domains, styled Force-fields. Force-fields are aspects of that background of nature called the Continuum; they are today constantly employed in orbiting artificial satellites, exchanging signals with them, and dissolving matter into energy and residues.

“Thus we have two different and interconnected aspects of nature, namely, the discrete objects and creatures in the foreground, and the Continuum, which is to some extent revealed by the existence, the properties and the behaviour of sensed objects. In short, there is the phenomenal sense world and the noumenal real world, precisely as the best of the Greeks and the Hindus realised.”[12]

“There is no hypothesis capable of explaining the birth of life, the development of consciousness, without the intervention of factors that can be described as extra-scientific and supernatural,” says Lecomte du Noüy.

Once questioned on the validity of supersensory experiences, Sri Aurobindo replied:
“I suppose I have had myself an even more completely European education than you, and I have had too my period of agnostic denial, but from the moment I looked at these things I could never take the attitude of doubt and disbelief which was for so long fashionable in Europe. Abnormal, otherwise super-physical experiences and powers, occult or Yogic, have always seemed to me something perfectly natural and credible. Consciousness in its very nature could not be limited by the ordinary physical human-animal consciousness, it must have the other ranges. Yogic or occult powers are no more supernatural or incredible than is supernatural or incredible the power to write a great poem or compose great music; few people can do it, as things are, — not even one in a million; for poetry and music come from the inner being and to write or to compose true and great things one has to have the passage clear between the outer mind and something in the inner being….

“You ask me whether you have to give up your predilection for testing before accepting and to accept everything in Yoga a priori — and by testing you mean testing by the ordinary reason. The only answer I can give to that is that the experiences of Yoga belong to an inner domain and go according to a law of their own, have their own method of perception, criteria and all the rest of it which are neither those of the domain of the physical senses nor of the domain of rational or scientific enquiry.[13] Just as scientific enquiry passes beyond that of the physical senses and enters the domain of the infinite and infinitesimal about which the senses can say nothing and test nothing — for one cannot see and touch an electron or know by the evidence of the sense-mind whether it exists or not or decide by that evidence whether the earth really turns round the sun and not rather the sun round the earth as our senses and all our physical experience daily tell us — so the spiritual search passes beyond the domain of scientific or rational enquiry and it is impossible by the aid of the ordinary positive reason to test the data of spiritual experience and decide whether those things exist or not or what is their law and nature. As in Science, so here you have to accumulate experience on experience, following faithfully the methods laid down by the Guru or by the systems of the past, you have to develop an intuitive discrimination which compares the experiences, see what they mean, how far and in what field each is valid, what is the place of each in the whole, how it can be reconciled or related with others that at first might seem to contradict it, etc., etc., until you can move with a secure knowledge in the vast field of spiritual phenomena. That is the only way to test spiritual experience. I have myself tried the other method and I have found it absolutely incapable and inapplicable. On the other hand, if you are not prepared to go through all that yourself, — as few can do except those of extraordinary spiritual stature — you have to accept the leading of a Master, as in Science you accept a teacher instead of going through the whole field of Science and its experimentation all by yourself — at least until you have accumulated sufficient experience and knowledge. If that is accepting things a priori, well, you have to accept a priori. For I am unable to see by what valid tests you propose to make the ordinary reason the judge of what is beyond it.”[14]

The above quotation is an effective reply to those sceptics, scientific rationalists and materialists who impugn super-sensory and spiritual experiences. But it is a good augury that some of the greatest of modern scientists, men of high calibre and open minds, whose sole aim in their vocation is a disinterested search for truth, are fast outgrowing the limitations of their strait-jacket presuppositions, and advancing with firm steps towards wider horizons and a more unifying and harmonising knowledge of man and nature.

If the supersensory worlds exist — it would, indeed, be foolhardy to deny their existence in the teeth of overwhelming evidence from some of the researches of modern Science — we should inquire as to what they are; how they are situated, in what order or hierarchy; how they are related to our material world, and whether there are forces and influences from them penetrating and affecting our life and thought; what changes take place in us when we rise into them in consciousness, or receive their influences in us; what are the sources of subtle sight, subtle hearing, and other occult powers, which it is too late in the day to laugh away; above all, what are those domains of immortal light and bliss and blessedness of which the very greatest of our historical personalities speak in almost identical terms and with a singular ring and consensus of certitude, and whether they can be brought down to transfigure our mortal life and nature on earth into divine life and divine nature. These are some of the vital questions we have to attack and attempt to resolve, as we proceed with our study of Sri Aurobindo’s many-faceted life and work. For, even his politics was not the politics of a mere patriotic politician — it was an organic part and an expressive medium of his Yoga, and shot through with spirituality. The well-springs of its motivation lay, not in his enlightened mind and cultured heart, but in the deeps of his soul, far deeper than our reason and practical sense can ever probe. It takes a Yogi to appraise the actions and achievements of a Yogi. As Swami Vivekananda once said: “If there were another Vivekananda, he could have understood what Vivekananda has done.”

But we are always on firm ground. In the modern age of Science, Sri Aurobindo has proved by his experiences and example and teachings that spirituality is a perfectly scientific affair — a Super-Science, if you will, but not unscientific. He has blazed a trail for the modern scientists and the scientists of the future. He has pursued the spiritual life, the life of a dynamic Yogi, in the true scientific spirit, if by Science is meant an insatiable seeking for Truth, a consuming curiosity to discover the hidden secrets of man and Nature, and an unfaltering method of scrupulous observation, experimentation and experience. He was a great admirer of Science and its achievements. He acknowledged our indebtedness to Science for making us conscious of the immense potentialities of Matter and material life, and curbing the traditional religious tendency to the ascetic denial and escapism. Science has opened our eyes to the reality and sanctity, if not yet the divinity of Matter. It has helped to restore the ancient Vedic and Upanishadic gospel of the unity of all existence and the identity of Spirit and Matter. Sri Aurobindo had full faith in the final triumph of the true scientific spirit, unfettered and unperverted by passing, material interests, in revealing to man the infinite greatness that lies slumbering in him, and the transcendental glory of his destiny.

His spirituality, which germinated in England,[15] and developed in India, was an ascent of his soul, not through trance, or a suspension of the waking consciousness, but a fully conscious, exploratory, and heuristic ascent from level to level of experience, and from world to world of beings and forces, to the highest peaks of the transcendent Spirit, and its subsequent descent, charged with the dynamic Light and Power of the Spirit, to transfigure by means of them our squalid earthly life of darkness, disorder and discontent. His life, as it unfolds before us, is a vivid demonstration of the invincible power of the spirit of man, rising above all bondage to ignorance and mortality, and vindicating its birthright to absolute, masterful freedom and infinite perfectibility, which is, precisely, the cardinal aim and aspiration of Science. Sri Aurobindo was the greatest scientist of his age, but a scientist not only of Matter and Energy, but of the infinite and eternal Reality, the One without a second, the integral, indivisible unity of transcendent and universal Existence. His Yoga had no mists and shades and twilights in it, or the decoying glimmers of a spurious occultism. He lived and worked, taught and wrote, in the true spirit of a scientist, who has advanced in the sunlight of a growing knowledge, tested and verified in the crucible of hard experience.

[1] Poems — Past and Present, by Sri Aurobindo.

[2] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, p.155. About the experience of Nirvana, Sri Aurobindo writes: “It came unasked, unsought for, though quite welcome. I had no least idea about it before, no aspiration towards it, in fact my aspiration was towards just the opposite, spiritual power to help the world…”

[3] Rama, who wanted the ape-king Sugriva to help him in his search for the missing Sita, killed Vali, who had dispossessed his brother, Sugriva, of his kingdom and wife. (Ref. the Ramayana)

[4] In order to save the Pandavas from annihilation at the hands of the redoubtable Dronacharya in the battle of Kurukshetra, Sri Krishna persuaded the righteous Yudhishthira, who never spoke a lie, to announce to Dronacharya the news of his son Aswatthama’s death and to add in a very low voice, which was tactfully drowned in a sudden blare of trumpets, that it was Aswatthama, the elephant, who had died. The announcement had a paralysing effect on Dronacharya, the great Brahmin General, and the Pandavas were saved.

[5] Last Poems by Sri Aurobindo.

[6] From a letter written by Sri Aurobindo to Rajani Palit.

[7] From Nirodbaran’s Notes. The Yogi must have felt something extraordinary in the presence of Sri Aurobindo, and made an exception in his favour by opening his eyes full and looking at him.

[8] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, p. 85.

[9] Nirodbaran’s Notes.

[10] Life of Sri Aurobindo by A.B. Purani.

[11] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, pp. 141-2.

[12] From the journal, Main Currents in Contemporary Thought, March-April, 1961.

[13] “It would be wrong to condemn the alleged knowledge of the unseen world because it is unable to follow the lines of deduction laid down by science as appropriate to the seen world…” A.S. Eddington, Science and the Unseen World.

[14] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, pp. 142-45.

[15] It is generally held — and it is also true — that Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga began at Baroda. But that its seed was in him and first germinated in England, is proved by the following: “At London, when I was reading Max Muller’s translation of the Vedanta etc., I came upon the idea of the Self and thought that that was the true thing to be realised in life. Before that I was an atheist and agnostic.” — From Nirodbaran’s Notes.
It is to be noted that the germination took place in the mind and heart of one who was an atheist and agnostic, brought up from childhood in the midst of the triumphant materialism of the 19th century England!

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