by Tejaswi Subramanian
The longing to be free is lodged in such a deep layer of the human heart that a thousand arguments are powerless to uproot it.
Before there was a spiritual master, there was Aurobindo Ghosh – a nationalist revolutionary who was charged with ‘conspiracy to wage war against the King’ for his involvement in the Alipore Bombing case in 1908. It was an offence punishable with death by hanging, and he was accused of it along with his brother Barindra Ghosh. Even before this case, Aurobindo had established himself as an enemy of the British Empire in India with his incensed writings in the Bengali newspaper, Bande Mataram.
After a protracted trial that lasted until May 1909, Aurobindo was acquitted due to flimsy evidence, even as his brother was found guilty. During the trial, the brothers were held in police custody illegally and faced much torture. When Aurobindo walked out of jail, he was a spiritually transformed man. He swore off violence and politics, and quietly moved to Pondicherry, to begin a new life and on a spiritual quest. There, he practiced yoga in seclusion for four continuous years, and slowly developed his philosophy of ‘Integral Yoga’.
Inspiration struck when he was schooling in Britain
Aurobindo was sent to England as a boy of about 7 years of age, for his schooling. There he was a voracious reader highly influenced by P.B. Shelley, and his romantic idealisation of the French Revolution. On numerous occasions, he has cited his admiration for Shelley’s ‘The Revolt of Islam’, and the tenets of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were deeply entrenched in his psyche.
When he was old enough, Aurobindo enrolled in King’s College, Cambridge, where he was drawn to Irish nationalistic beliefs, and saw its relevance in India. He was particularly drawn to Charles Stewart Parnell’s ideology, wherefrom he drew the image of the enslaved nation as the Mother in chains.
Aurobindo returned to India in 1893, at the age of 21 years. Thereafter, slowly but surely threw himself into the Indian struggle for independence. This was the beginning of his approach to freedom as not just a nationalist ideal, but as important to humanity itself. He expounded its importance for achieving universal brotherhood and equality among all beings.
Although philosophical, he was still many years away from the beginning of his spiritual journey.
Reasons to move towards spirituality
In modern times, Aurobindo’s initial motivation to move to Pondicherry in order to pursue spirituality has been questioned. Bratya Basu, in his fictionalized play – Boma, suggests that he may have initially agreed to give up on his revolutionary activity so as to avoid acquittal.
This claim has been substantiated by Peter Heehs, Aurobindo’s biographer. According to Heehs, in February 1910, an arrest warrant had been issued against Aurobindo in a sedition case. Upon receiving a tip-off, he snuck away to Chandernagore to avoid prison, and originally intended to return to politics. From there, he reached Pondicherry, a French colony, to avoid the clutches of the British Empire.
During this time, the movement for Indian independence had not come of age, and Aurobindo may have decided that the movement was not strong enough for him to continue the crusade. It was only a decade later, in 1919, that the Non Cooperation movement would launched, setting the stage for India’s final and successful campaign for independence.
The Alipore-Aurobindo case papers today
It has been 110 years since the beginning of the historic trial, which was a landmark in the Bengali movement for Indian independence. Over 50 legal papers from the trial are preserved at a museum in Kolkata. The documents, however, are in poor state due to neglect. The rooms where they are kept are damp, with only light bulbs to fight the moisture and no air conditioning. Predictably, they are doing a poor job of it.
The museum also houses other important documents such as the arrest warrant against Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, and records of the 1930 attack on the Writers Building in Dalhousie. All of the documents are crumpled and parts of them are soggy with the ink blotched out.
The museum is under the care of the Calcutta High Court, which needs to route all funds for its improvement.
Aurobindo was born on 15th August, 1872. He was 75 years old when he India attained independence, a dream he had envisioned for his Motherland since he was a teenager. Just a little over 3 years later, he attained Samadhi. Many, including his longtime companion – the Mother, claim to have experienced a supernatural radiance from his body for at least 3 days after.
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior sub editor at Qrius
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