|Sri Aurobindo in 1911|
Although Pondicherry is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s arrival in the former French Establishment, the historic event was triggered by events which occurred a few months earlier in Kolkata.
In March 1910, two of the tallest spiritual giants of the 20th century, both fighting for the Independence of their country, could have met in Kolkata. It was not to be and soon their fate took them to far-apart places.
As Sri Aurobindo, the Prophet of Indian Nationalism spent his last weeks in British India, Thupten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who had recently arrived in Darjeeling, visited Kolkata.
After the troops of a Chinese warlord had entered Lhasa, the Tibetan leader was forced to take temporary refuge in India. Soon after his arrival in Darjeeling, an invitation came from Kolkata: the Viceroy, Lord Minto wanted to meet him.
As he arrived, he was received as a head of state and given a seventeen-gun salute and escorted in a royal carriage to Hastings House.
Though it was obvious that Britain would remain neutral in the Sino-Tibetan dispute, the Viceroy held long discussions with the Dalai Lama who eventually returned to the Land of Snows in 1911 and a year later declared the Independence of Tibet. His is still considered today as one of Tibet’s greatest spiritual masters.
Sri Aurobindo had a different fate. After his return from England in 1893, he had been at the forefront of the freedom struggle against the British Raj. At the time the Dalai Lama was received in great pomp, the same Lord Minto wrote to London: “I can only repeat that he is the most dangerous man we have to reckon with”. He was speaking about Aurobindo Ghose, who had been the first proponent of Purna Swaraj for India.
The two spiritual leaders would never meet; one can only call it, Fate.
For Sri Aurobindo, events were hotting up. One day, while he was in the Karmayogin office, he received the information about a police search and his likely arrest. Some of his young disciples were arguing about what to do, when Sri Aurobindo suddenly heard a voice saying, “Go to Chandernagore.”
Sri Aurobindo left immediately for the small French comptoir. There, a disciple Motilal Roy arranged his accommodation. Roy recalled later that the Master was totally immersed in his sadhana: He used to meditate with open eyes, and see subtle forms and spiritual visions: "A completely surrendered individual — one felt when he spoke as if somebody else was speaking through him… I placed the plate of food before him — he simply gazed at me and then ate a little — just mechanically!"
For a few days Sri Aurobindo had to shift residence several times as Roy feared that the dreaded British CID would find out about the presence of the revolutionary who finally asked Roy to make arrangements for his departure for Pondicherry; he would leave by the steamer Le Dupleix on March 31. After some last-minute incidents (which would have greatly disturbed any ordinary human being, but not Sri Aurobindo), he finally boarded the steamer at midnight and sailed to a new phase of his life.
Sri Aurobindo had already ‘seen’ that India was independent; it was only a question of time before it ‘came down’ on the material plane. He later shared his certitude with some of his disciples.
From now on, he would consecrate his spiritual energies to help humanity to undertake a new step in its evolution, a decision that many politicians in India never forgave.
In the afternoon of April 4, 1910, the Pondicherry pier witnessed a strange scene: a strict orthodox Tamil Brahmin, Srinivasachari, and Suresh Chakravarti, an 18-year old Bengali revolutionary shared a small boat to row out to Le Dupleix which had just arrived with the ‘dangerous’ man on board.
The young Bengali had 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”, says one of his 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. Chakravarti remembered the poor 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. But nobody complained ever.
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
Very few are those who met Sri Aurobindo during his stay in Pondicherry. One of them was Rabindranath Tagore who came in 1928 and wrote: “At the very first sight I could realise that he had been seeking for the soul and had gained it, and through this long process of realisation had accumulated within him a silent power of inspiration. His face was radiant with an inner light. I felt that the utterance of the ancient Rishi spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom of entrance into the All. I said to him, 'You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world. Hearken to me…”
During the following decades, Sri Aurobindo kept in touch with Bengal, mainly through a close disciple, Surendra Mohan Ghose, who was the Congress West Bengal Pradesh President and used to visit Pondicherry. He usually had four sessions with Sri Aurobindo: one to speak about international affairs, one for national politics, one for the situation in West Bengal and the last consecrated to Ghose’s personal sadhana.
On August 15, 1947, as everyone celebrated India’s Independence in Pondicherry, a shocking event took place. In the evening, 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, was stabbed. 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.”
After The Statesman had reported some kind of Satyagraha in the Ashram, Sri Aurobindo dictated a letter to the Editor: “There was no Satyagraha of any kind. There was an attack on the Ashram in which one member was stabbed to death and others injured and Ashram buildings stoned. …The attackers were mostly professional goondas of the town hired and organised for the purpose. We consider it as the result or culmination of a long campaign by a political party which has been making speeches and publishing articles and pamphlets against the Ashram and trying in all ways to damage it in the eyes of the public for the last two years.”
Sri Aurobindo explained: “there are three sections of the people here who are violently opposed to the existence of the Ashram, the advocates of Dravidisthan, extreme Indian Catholics and the Communists.”
For these small sections of the local community, Sri Aurobindo probably become the ‘dangerous man’, for he foresaw the future of humanity rising above differences created by ideologies, castes, creeds or religions. He was indeed the Prophet of a new Humanism. A hundred years after his arrival in Pondicherry, one should not forget his message: “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny.” The choice is ours.