Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When the most dangerous man came to Pondicherry

Pondicherry pier



“I can only repeat that he is the most dangerous man we have to reckon with”, thus Viceroy Lord Minto spoke of Aurobindo Ghose, the proponent of Purna Swaraj against the mighty British Empire in the early 20th century.
In the afternoon of April 4, 1910, the Pondicherry pier witnessed a scene which will remain etched in history: a strict orthodox Tamil Brahmin, Srinivasachari and Suresh Chakravarti, a 18-year old Bengali revolutionary shared a small boat to reach out to Le Dupleix, a steamer which had just arrived from Calcutta carrying the ‘most dangerous’ man on board.
In his short Bengali book, Smritikatha, Chakravarti gives a humoristic description of the ‘dangerous’ minutes he spent on the rowboat before they could come along side the Dupleix.

Suresh Chakravarti

Perhaps due to old reminiscences of his years in Great Britain, the Bengali leader would not leave before offering the duo a cup of tea in his cabin. By the time they disembarked and boarded the rowboat waiting to take the famous passenger to French India, it was 4 pm.
Chakravarti had arrived in Pondicherry a few days earlier, scouting for an accommodation for his leader; for the couple of days, Srinivasachari and his friends did not act on his request, thinking that he was a spy. It is only when the arrival of the political leader was confirmed that it was decided to have a reception committee at the pier. The young Bengali managed to dissuade Srinivasachari and others (including Subramanya Bharathi) to have any official function. “Sri Aurobindo's coming to Pondicherry was a closely guarded secret and he would like to live in strict solitude in order to avoid harassment by the agents of the British Government”, says one of Sri Aurobindo’s biographers.
For several months, Sri Aurobindo and his companions stayed on the second floor of a house belonging to one Shankar Chetty; Swami Vivekananda had stayed there when he had visited Pondicherry a few years earlier. In his memoirs, Chakravarti details the material arrangements: as there was no bathroom in Sri Aurobindo’s room, he had to come down to the ground floor at dusk for his bath. The daily menu never changed, same boiled rice, same brinjal, same dal cooked on two earth stoves. Nobody complained ever, the Yogi and his apprentice-yogis.

Shankar Chetty House

During the first three months, the young men remained inside the house day and night, it was too dangerous to roam the streets of the White Town; some British agents were certainly looking for a scoop for their promotion.
Life continued thus during the following years, though rules gradually became less strict for the disciples who were even allowed to play football. As for Sri Aurobindo, he was intensely immersed in his sadhana.
One young Tamil boy called Amrita, who later became a senior disciple, recalled that in 1913, "Every evening, a little after dark, [Subramanya] Bharathi would go to Sri Aurobindo's house. He chose that time not with the purpose of avoiding people who would want to make a note of his visit. It was because Sri Aurobindo used to come out of his room and receive his friends only after seven in the evening. An exception, however, was made for close friends like Bharati and Srinivasachari, who, at a very urgent need, could see him at any time of the day. Bharati would visit without fail.”
The 100 years of the Master’s arrival in Pondicherry are today celebrated: politicians will probably garland statues of Sri Aurobindo, ‘scholars’ will recount his achievements and the contribution of the State of Pondicherry to his inner realizations; many will quote Rabindranath (who visited him in 1928): “Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee! O friend, my country's friend, O Voice incarnate, free, Of India's soul....The fiery messenger that with the lamp of God Hath come...Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee,” but there is another side to the coin.
During the 40 years of his stay in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo faced constant enmity, to put it mildly, not only from sections of the local population, but also from the representatives of the British Crown, the French Administration as well as local politicians.
Recently I had the good luck to come across a secret file kept in the French National Archives in Nantes (France). This Police Report addressed to the Governor of French India was written in 1928. The local police dispatched the weirdest information to their bosses in Paris. A chapter about the Ashram reads: “It seems that the monastery has no rules, no status, one is at a loss to give a name to this association of foreigners [probably meaning Bengalis] in which all castes and religions meets and fusions [is it a compliment?]. Arawbinda [sic] Ghose would be the incarnation of Siva, the Destroyer God of the Tantric Trinity [sic], Mrs Paul Richard (alias Madame Mira Richard, alias Miradevy, alias Kalidevy, alias “Mother”) would represent Kali, the Goddess of War and Mr Paul Richard himself would be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ [Richard had left Pondicherry 14 years earlier after a short stay]. Two members (we couldn’t get their name) would respectively be St Abraham and Mohamed.”
The creativity of the French Police is difficult to match; they speak of ‘inner disciples’ (the Bengalis) and the ‘outer disciples’, something unknown in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga.
The report goes on for more than 20 pages: “The Great Sage appears to his ‘churchy’ followers twice a year … in a chariot decorated with flowers [Sri Aurobindo never came out of his room]. The adepts had to make offering of no less than 100 rupees.” The Police also speak “of a midnight darshan for inner disciples presided by Arawbinda Ghose himself.” Pure invention.
The British reports were not better. Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana however, continued apparently unhindered; with a few rare exceptions (such as French Governor François Baron), the local hostility was always present.
But there is worse. A shocking event took place in the evening of August 15, 1947. India (and Pondicherry) celebrated India’s Independence; Sri Aurobindo, whose birthday coincided with this momentous event, had just issued a message with his Five Dreams for the future of India and the entire human race, when goons belonging to a local political party turned violent and attacked some of the inmates of the Ashram. Mulshankar, a personal attendant of Sri Aurobindo who had left his duty for a few minutes and gone home for a shower was attacked and killed. Nirodbaran, a close confident of the Master wrote later: “Sri Aurobindo listened quietly [to the news] and his face bore a grave and serious expression that we had not seen before.”
India was free, but the Goonja Raj had begun.
Three years later, to a follower asking his opinion for a new status for French India, Sri Aurobindo wrote: “But if nothing is changed in local conditions and freedom is left for a certain type of politicians and party leaders to make use of their opportunities to pervert everything to their own profit, how are they to be prevented from prolonging the old state of things.”
Undoubtedly the greatest revolutionary of 20th century did not want to ‘prolong the old state of things”, he wanted changes to occur in every field of life, whether political, social, economic or spiritual.
Would politicians and philosophers hearken his words, he would indeed become the most dangerous man, because he dreamt of earth-shaking changes for humanity, and entrenched powers do not like changes.
But one day, his Dreams are bound to give a new shape to India and the World.

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