Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta on 15 August, 1872. In 1879, at
the age of seven, he was taken with his two elder brothers to England for education and
lived there for fourteen years. Brought up at first in an English family at Manchester, he
joined St. Paul's School in London in 1884 and in 1890 went from it with a senior
classical scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where he studied for two years.
In 1890 he passed also the open competition for the Indian Civil
Service, but at the end of two years of probation failed to present himself at the riding
examination and was disqualified for the Service. At this time the Gaekwar of Baroda was
in London. Sri Aurobindo saw him, obtained an appointment in the Baroda Service and left
England for India, arriving there in February, 1893.
Sri Aurobindo passed thirteen years, from 1893 to 1906, in the Baroda Service, first in
the Revenue Department and in secretariate work for the Maharaja, afterwards as Professor
of English and, finally, Vice-Principal in the Baroda College. These were years of
self-culture, of literary activity -- for much of the poetry afterwards published from
Pondicherry was written at this time -- and of preparation for his future work. In England
he had received, according to his father's express instructions, an entirely occidental
education without any contact with the culture of India and the East.(1)
At Baroda he made up the deficiency, learned Sanskrit and several modern Indian
languages, assimilated the spirit of Indian civilisation and its forms past and present. A
great part of the last years of this period was spent on leave in silent political
activity, for he was debarred from public action by his position at Baroda. The outbreak
of the agitation against the partition of Bengal in 1905 gave him the opportunity to give
up the Baroda Service and join openly in the political movement. He left Baroda in 1906
and went to Calcutta as Principal of the newly-founded Bengal National College.
The political action of Sri Aurobindo covered eight years, from 1902 to 1910. During
the first half of this period he worked behind the scenes, preparing with other co-workers
the beginnings of the Swadeshi (Indian Sinn Fein) movement, till the agitation in Bengal
furnished an opening for the public initiation of a more forward and direct political
action than the moderate reformism which had till then been the creed of the Indian
In 1906 Sri Aurobindo came to Bengal with this purpose and joined the New Party, an
advanced section small in numbers and not yet strong in influence, which had been recently
formed in the Congress. The political theory of this party was a rather vague gospel of
Non-cooperation; in action it had not yet gone farther than some ineffective clashes with
the Moderate leaders at the annual Congress assembly behind the veil of secrecy of the
Sri Aurobindo persuaded its chiefs in Bengal to come forward publicly as an All-India
party with a definite and challenging programme, putting forward Tilak, the popular
Maratha leader at its head, and to attack the then dominant Moderate (Reformist or
Liberal) oligarchy of veteran politicians and capture from them the Congress and the
country. This was the origin of the historic struggle between the Moderates and the
Nationalists (called by their opponents Extremists) which in two years changed altogether
the face of Indian politics.
The new-born Nationalist party put forward Swaraj (independence) as its goal as against
the far-off Moderate hope of colonial self-government to be realised at a distant date of
a century or two by a slow progress of reform; it proposed as its means of execution a
programme which resembled in spirit, though not in its details, the policy of Sinn Fein
developed some years later and carried to a successful issue in Ireland.
The principle of this new policy was self-help; it aimed on one side at an effective
organisation of the forces of the nation and on the other professed a complete
non-cooperation with the Government. Boycott of British and foreign goods and the
fostering of Swadeshi industries to replace them, boycott of British law courts, and the
foundation of a system of Arbitration courts in their stead, boycott of Government
universities and colleges and the creation of a network of National colleges and schools,
the formation of societies of young men which would do the work of police and defence and,
wherever necessary, a policy of passive resistance were among the immediate items of the
Sri Aurobindo hoped to capture the Congress and make it the directing centre of an
organised national action, an informal State within the State, which would carry on the
struggle for freedom till it was won. He persuaded the party to take up and finance as its
recognised organ the newly-founded daily paper, Bande Mataram, of which he was at
the time acting editor.
The Bande Mataram, whose policy from the beginning of 1907 till its abrupt
winding up in 1908 when Sri Aurobindo was in prison was wholly directed by him, circulated
almost immediately all over India. During its brief but momentous existence it changed the
political thought of India which has ever since preserved fundamentally, even amidst its
later developments, the stamp then imparted to it. But the struggle initiated on these
lines, though vehement and eventful and full of importance for the future, did not last
long at the time; for the country was still unripe for so bold a programme.
Sri Aurobindo was prosecuted for sedition in 1907 and acquitted. Up till now an
organiser and writer, he was obliged by this event and by the imprisonment or
disappearance of other leaders to come forward as the acknowledged head of the party in
Bengal and to appear on the platform for the first time as a speaker. He presided over the
Nationalist Conference at Surat in 1907 where in the forceful clash of two equal parties
the Congress was broken to pieces.
In May, 1908, he was arrested in the Alipore Conspiracy Case as implicated in the
doings of the revolutionary group led by his brother Barindra; but no evidence of any
value could be established against him and in this case too he was acquitted.
After a detention of one year as undertrial prisoner in the Alipore Jail, he came out
in May, 1909, to find the party organisation broken, its leaders scattered by
imprisonment, deportation or self-imposed exile and the party itself still existent but
dumb and dispirited and incapable of any strenuous action.
For almost a year he strove single-handed as the sole remaining leader of the
Nationalists in India to revive the movement. He published at this time to aid his effort
a weekly English paper, the Karmayogin, and a Bengali weekly, the Dharma. But at last he
was compelled to recognise that the nation was not yet sufficiently trained to carry out
his policy and programme.
For a time he thought that the necessary training must first be given through a less
advanced Home Rule movement or an agitation of passive resistance of the kind created by
Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. But he saw that the hour of these movements had not come
and that he himself was not their destined leader.
Moreover, since his twelve months' detention in the Alipore Jail, which had been spent
entirely in practice of Yoga, his inner spiritual life was pressing upon him for an
exclusve concentration. He resolved therefore to withdraw from the
political field, at least for a time. (2)
In February, 1910, he withdrew to a secret retirement at Chandernagore and in the
beginning of April sailed for Pondicherry in French lndia. A third prosecution was
launched against him at this moment for a signed article in the Karmayogin; in his absence
it was pressed against the printer of the paper who was convicted, but the conviction was
quashed on appeal in the High Court of Calcutta. For the third time a prosecution against
him had failed.
Sri Aurobindo had left Bengal with some intention of returning to the political field
under more favourable circumstances; but very soon the magnitude of the spiritual work he
had taken up appeared to him and he saw that it would need the exclusive concentration of
all his energies. Eventually he cut off connection with politics, refused repeatedly to
accept the Presidentship of the National Congress and went into a complete retirement.
During all his stay at Pondicherry from 1910 onward he remained more and more exclusively
devoted to his spiritual work and his sadhana.
In 1914 after four years of silent Yoga he began the publication of a philosophical
monthly, the Arya. Most of his more important works, The Life Divine, The Synthesis of
Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Isha Upanishad, appeared serially in the Arya. These works
embodied much of the inner knowledge that had come to him in his practice of Yoga.
Others were concerned with the spirit and significance of Indian civilisation and
culture (The Foundations of Indian Culture), the true meaning of the Vedas (The Secret of
the Veda), the progress of human society (The Human Cycle), the nature and evolution of
poetry (The Future Poetry), the possibility of the unification of the human race (The
Ideal of Human Unity).
At this time also he began to publish his poems, both those written in England and at
Baroda and those, fewer in number, added during his period of political activity and in
the first years of his residence at Pondicherry. The Arya ceased publication in 1921 after
six years and a half of uninterrupted appearance.
Sri Aurobindo lived at first in retirement at Pondicherry with four or five disciples.
Afterwards more and yet more began to come to him to follow his spiritual path and the
number became so large that a community of sadhaks had to be formed for the maintenance
and collective guidance of those who had left everything behind for the sake of a higher
life. This was the foundation of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which has less been created than
grown around him as its centre.
Sri Aurobindo began his practice of Yoga in 1904. At first gathering into it the
essential elements of spiritual experience that are gained by the paths of divine
communion and spiritual realisation followed till now in India, he passed on in search of
a more complete experience uniting and harmonising the two ends of existence, Spirit and
Most ways of Yoga are paths to the Beyond leading to the Spirit and, in the end, away
from life; Sri Aurobindo's rises to the Spirit to redescend with its gains bringing the
light and power and bliss of the Spirit into life to transform it. Man's present existence
in the material world is in this view or vision of things a life in the Ignorance with the
Inconscient at its base, but even in its darkness and nescience there are involved the
presence and possibilities of the Divine.
The created world is not a mistake or a vanity and illusion to be cast aside by the
soul returning to heaven or Nirvana, but the scene of a spiritual evolution by which out
of this material inconscience is to be manifested progressively the Divine Consciousness
in things. Mind is the highest term yet reached in the evolution, but it is not the
highest of which it is capable. There is above it a Supermind or eternal
Truth-Consciousness which is in its nature the self-aware and self-determining light and
power of a Divine Knowledge.
Mind is an ignorance seeking after Truth, but this is a self-existent Knowledge
harmoniously manifesting the play of its forms and forces. It is only by the descent of
this supermind that the perfection dreamed of by all that is highest in humanity can come.
It is possible by opening to a greater divine consciousness to rise to this power of light
and bliss, discover one's true self, remain in constant union with the Divine and bring
down the supramental Force for the transformation of mind and life and body. To realise
this possibility has been the dynamic aim of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga.
Sri Aurobindo left his body on December 5, 1950. The Mother carried on his work until
November 17, 1973. Their work continues.
1 It may be observed that Sri Aurobindo's education in England gave him a wide
introduction to the culture of ancient, or mediaeval and of modern Europe. He was a
brilliant scholar in Greek and Latin. He had learned French from his childhood in
Manchester and studied for himself German and Italian sufficiently to study Goethe and
Dante in the original tongues. (He passed the Tripos in Cambridge in the first class and
obtained record marks in Greek and Latin in the examination for the Indian Civil Service.)
Back to footnote reference
2 For a more complete statement about Sri Aurobindo's
political life see Volume 26, On Himself, pp. 21-41.
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