By Manisha Jain
On the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, we are reminded of his belief that to reach the last rung of the evolutionary ladder, humanity will have to transcend its ordinary consciousness
After 14 years in England, Sri Aurobindo voyaged back to India. As his ship touched Apollo Bunder in Bombay ‘a vast calm descended on him’. Bombay was ‘a much quieter town then, crisscrossed by dykes and dotted with hamlets. The Gateway of India was still 15 years away. The year was 1893, and Aurobindo, all of 20 years old, was set for a stint at Gaekwad’s secretariat in Baroda, later to take over as Professor of English and French with the Maharaja’s College. He was soon plunged into a whirl of political and spiritual work.
He wrote: ‘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, At the same time I found myself entering supra-physical worlds and planes with influences and an effect from them upon the material plane, so that I could make no sharp divorce or irreconcilable opposition between what I have called the two ends of existence and all that lies between them.’
Aurobindo never thought of spirituality as a solitary personal ascent to some celestial height. He saw no dichotomy between the spiritual and the worldly. Almost immediately after his arrival in India, he began taking a keen interest in the Indian political situation and wrote a series of articles under a pseudonym in the Indu Prakash of Bombay.
They were marked by a sterling candidness unknown to the political journalism of the time: ‘I say of the Congress, then, this—that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it proceeds towards their accomplishment is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness, and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and the leaders in whom its trusts are not the right sort of men to be leaders; in brief, that we are at present the blind led, if not by the blind, at any rate by the one-eyed.’
The different streams of Sri Aurobindo’s life at Baroda—his learning Sanskrit and some other Indian languages and mastering the Vedic lore with a vengeance, taking up yoga, guiding secret societies in different parts of the country pledged to the ideal of overthrowing the British rule—are by now as well-known as his life at Calcutta as the principal of the National College and editor of Vande Mataram.
His role, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in giving a radical turn to the ideology of the Congress at its Surat Session (1907), his incarceration in Alipore Jail (1908) and C.R. Das hailing him as ‘the prophet of Indian nationalism’, his Integral yoga, and authoring the by now famous works like Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga , Foundations of Indian Culture, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and the epic Savitri.
Even so, for him what truly mattered was the inner life. ‘No one can write about my life because it has not been on the surface for men to see,’ he once told a scholar proposing to write his biography. But he certainly held out before us the possibility of the outer life changing in the light of the inner, the vision of a transformed humanity.
Much of what he says has important relevance for our times. The century that is coming to an end has been a tumultuous one. Never before in history has time been so crowded with events. Empires, colonies and feudalism have folded up. If the spirit of the time imposed democracy and socialism on some people, some others imbibed them spontaneously and the rest willy-nilly.
We also saw in the recent past the collapse of the Soviet communism—that area of socialism, which had stood in the way of man’s inner growth. Aurobindo had said, decades before anyone could have imagined the aforesaid collapse: ‘If communism ever re-establishes itself successfully upon earth, it must be on a foundation of soul’s brotherhood and the death of egoism. A forced association and a mechanical comradeship would end in a worldwide fiasco.’
Such radical changes have brought man closer to liberation from every kind of bondage. If man is to progress in the development of his consciousness, he must have freedom. But true progress—we may call it an evolution consciousness—does not proceed in a straight line. While we are poised for such a growth in consciousness today, strangely enough instead of being helped we are limited by the nature of the mind.
The human mind seems to have reached the last point in a blind alley and exhausted its capacity to be creative in a qualitative sense. But it refuses to admit it. All the marvels it has created—technology, political and social systems et al—do not make the modern man basically different from his ancestors.
The two world wars and the brutal conduct of those involved in them and numerous other events of our time testify to this. Every instrument and institution that man has made in his quest for perfection—religion, for example—proves a scourge, for the mind that uses it is often a mere servitor of the ego, and of an even more formidable menace, the collective ego.
The ego, once a helper, is now impeding man’s progress and it cannot be tackled by anything short of a new power of consciousness which Aurobindo calls the supermind: ‘Mind itself is too limited. If, then, man is incapable of exceeding mentality, he must be surpassed and supermind and superman must manifest and take the lead of the creation. But if his mind is capable of opening to what exceeds it, then there is no reason why man himself should not arrive at supermind and supermanhood or at least lend his mentality, life and body to an evolution of that greater term of the Spirit manifesting in Nature.’ (Life Divine)
It may not be easy to decipher the working of a mystic truth, of the unfolding of a spiritual future for mankind in the bizarre developments of our time. No wonder Aurobindo says that at present mankind is passing through an evolutionary crisis in which is hidden the choice of its destiny. The events of the 20th century clearly show that none of the stock panacea—the institutionalized religion or ideological tribalism or the magic of technology —can help man step into a sublime tomorrow.
What is indispensable is a readiness to shake off the puerile tricks of ego—a collective aspiration for transcendence into a meaningful existence. Aurobindo’s optimism, based on a clear analysis of the adventure of human consciousness through the ages of ignorance—groping for ‘God, Light, Freedom, Bliss and Immortality ‘—and his vision of a new humanity, enrich our travails and struggles with a certain justification that nothing else seems to provide.
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