Who is Sri Aurobindo?

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was a modern Indian yogi who founded the form of yoga known as Integral Yoga, a theory and practice of consciousness (yoga darshana) aiming at the evolution of humans into a race of cosmic and transcendental beings, who he termed “supramental beings.” Apart from his own practice, he (writing in English) is today recognized as one of the early contributors to the modern academic fields of consciousness studies and transpersonal psychology. In these fields, he is known for introducing neologisms such as psychic being, overmind, and supermind. 

Sri Aurobindo’s life can be seen in terms of four phases, which succeeded each other with overlaps – the student-scholar-academic, the nationalist leader, the yogi, and the guru. The first phase can be periodized from 1880 to 1904. It spanned a schooling at St. Paul’s School, London and  King’s College, Cambridge, studying the Classics while versing himself in modern European literatures and languages. This education prepared him as a modern subject, who had internalized the post-Enlightenment values of social critique and creative freedom. This phase continued in Baroda (1893-1906) where he delved into Sanskrit literature and began learning Indian vernaculars, including his mother tongue, Bengali. Here he also served as a professor of French and the Vice Principal of Baroda College. Though this was the principal period during which Sri Aurobindo pursued scholarship, he kept himself informed of world developments in creative culture throughout his life. He also wrote scholarly treatises on philosophy, psychology, social and political studies, and literature; he was also a poet. 

The nationalist leader phase ran from 1906 to 1910. Aurobindo began his political activism in Baroda with a mandate of unconditional independence for India. In 1906, Aurobindo left Baroda and moved to Calcutta to join the newly formed National College as its principal and to pioneer and engage himself fully in the anticolonial resistance movement.[note]Peter Heehs. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. New York: Columbia University Press. (2008: 91-93, 97).[/note] He wrote inspired articles in the nationalist newspaper Bande Mataram, instigating civil boycott and national self-reliance (swadeshi) and led a revolutionary movement against the British. He was incarcerated for a year starting May 1908, for supposed terrorist activity. During this period, he was on trial, facing a likely death sentence. His life as a yogi had taken a powerful turn shortly before this and during the year of imprisonment, his yoga flourished. He has written about this: “I have spoken of a year’s imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year’s living in an ashram or a hermitage. The only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God.“[note]Sri Aurobindo. Tales of Prison Life, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram (1997: 1).[/note]

After his acquittal, Aurobindo remained briefly in politics, before following two adeshas (divine directives) in 1910 to move to Chandernagore and Pondicherry, French territories, respectively. He lived among revolutionaries in Chandernagore and corresponded with revolutionaries for some years from Pondicherry. But after 1911, he publicly withdrew from politics, though he kept an eye on Bengal politics, Indian politics and world politics all his life and intervened when he felt called upon to do so. 

The yogi phase of Aurobindo’s life can be periodized from 1908 to the end of his life in 1950, but if we were to define the yogi phase as being succeeded by the guru phase, we could periodize it from 1908 to 1926. Aurobindo’s serious turn towards the practice of yoga arose from a seeking for spiritual power (Shakti) that could help to free the nation.[note]Peter Heehs. Op. Cit., p. 87.[/note] In 1908, Aurobindo met with a Maharashtrian yogi, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, who taught him a meditation method for quieting the mind so that he could hear the voice of divine guidance. As a result, Aurobindo had the first of four major spiritual realizations. This was a realization that he identified as “nirvana” and sometimes as “the passive Brahman.” The primary features of this realization can be summed up as: (1) a sense of the unreality of material phenomena; (2) a loss of self, whether personal or impersonal; and (3) realization of a non-objectifiable background consciousness.[note]Sri Aurobindo. Collected Poems. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram (1999: 561).[/note]

Shortly after this, Aurobindo’s incarceration at Alipur Jail was decisive for his remaining three realizations and for charting his future trajectory. He was to say:

The first [realization] he had gained while meditating with the Maharashtrian Yogi Vishnu Bhaskar Lele at Baroda in January 1908; it was the realization of the silent, spaceless and timeless Brahman …..[;] his second realization … was that of the cosmic consciousness and of the Divine as all beings and all that is, which happened in the Alipore jail ….. To the other two realizations, that of the supreme Reality with the static and dynamic Brahman as its two aspects and that of the higher planes of consciousness leading to the Supermind, he was already on his way in his meditations at the Alipore jail.[note]Sri Aurobindo. Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. (2006: 94).[/note]

The “second realization” of the “cosmic consciousness and of the Divine as all beings and all that is” was described by him later in terms of the ecstatic love play of Krishna – Krishna as lover, embracing him in all things and revealing himself as seated in the hearts of all beings. He may have had the experience of the Parabrahman (“the supreme Reality with the static and dynamic Brahman as its two aspects”) also in the Alipur jail, but it is only in 1912 that he acknowledged in a letter to have had “a prolonged realization and dwelling in Parabrahman for many hours.”[note]Op. cit., p. 177.[/note]

Aurobindo claimed that the fourth realization that he spoke of – that of “the higher planes of consciousness leading to the Supermind,” was indicated to him in the jail by the spirit of Vivekananda, ten years his senior, who was the first yogi to attempt translating Indian yoga traditions in modern terms. To understand the significance of this “fourth realization,” we have to see that Vedanta had posited an ontological division between Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance),[note]Vidya and Avidya and their translations Knowledge and Ignorance, as well as several other cosmic principles, such as Life, Mind, Supermind, are capitalized by Sri Aurobindo (and many others writers on Vedanta). This is because yoga psychology treats cosmic principles as conscious beings.[/note] a division that was considered permanent by the commentators of the medieval period. All worldly existence is called Avidya because it is characterized by “separative consciousness” in which sentient beings have self-evident knowledge only of themselves and inferential knowledge of all “others.”  In contrast, Vidya, is so-called because in it all things are known by the self-evident identity of consciousness. Worldly existence was considered permanent Avidya, while to live in Vidya was only possible in deep trance or in an afterlife. 

Sri Aurobindo’s “fourth realization” was the awareness of a continuous range of consciousness intervening between the human mind and what Aurobindo called “Supermind,” which was a link or bridge between the Vidya (knowledge-by-identity) and the Avidya (separative consciousness). Supermind (which Aurobindo identified as Vijnana of the Upanishads) was both the Knowledge Consciousness and the Creative Consciousness of the One Reality, Brahman or Sacchidananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss) of Vedanta. It could manifest the Vidya in the form of Real-Ideas. One such form is the creation in which we find ourselves, manifest in Space and Time through Substance, Causality, and Will. The “Real-Idea” of this creation is a systematic graded and phased evolution of Consciousness out of an Inconscience,[note]The Real-Idea of our cosmos is a graded range of Consciousness from an Absolute Consciousness to a complete Unconsciousness. Each such density of Consciousness manifests properties specific to its being. The densest Unconsciousness is termed Inconscience by Sri Aurobindo. Multiplicity is a universal characteristic of Consciousness. It is also a principle that refers to the infinite capacity for emergent newness within Consciousness.[/note] and a Multiplicity towards embodiments of a Vidya consciousness in relational play in the cosmos. Sri Aurobindo called this condition a “divine life.” 

According to him, human beings could extend their mental consciousness, ascending from the human mind through ranges of quasi-cosmic mentality to a Cosmic Consciousness, or Overmind, which was the pinnacle of the Avidya, and then pass through an act of yoga, into the Integral Consciousness, or Supermind.[note]Cosmic Consciousness or Overmind is the determining consciousness of our cosmos. It is inclusive of all realities of the cosmos and subjects them to the laws of Mind, which are laws of separative exclusivity – in other words, each “category” or “thing” is divided from all others and knows only itself directly and others inferentially. Supermind transcends this law. Here there can be differentiation but not division. Each “thing” is aware of itself as a form of becoming of its origin and knows all others to be expressions of that same origin, hence knowable directly due to identity of origin. Thus Overmind partakes of Avidya or Ignorance while Supermind belongs to Vidya or Knowledge.[/note]  This ascent, followed by a “descent” of the law of Supermind transforming the operations of Mind, Life and Body, the instruments of Avidya, would bring about the conditions for a “divine life” in one’s own life. This could be achieved individually, but if instead the plane of Supermind could be made to “descend” into the Avidya and transform the planes of universal Nature,[note]Like the other capitalized terms, Nature is a principle and a being. Metaphysically it is code for the Vedantic assimilation of the Sankhya category of Prakriti (see Bhagavad Gita). It could be universal or individual.[/note] cosmic conditions for a “divine life” could appear, and a new species, a race of supermen, could arise through the yoga practice of individuals directed by the immanent Supermind. In Pondicherry, it is these last two realizations that he set himself to achieve, the realization of the Supermind and the bridging of the human consciousness with that of the Supermind through the establishment of the intervening levels of Cosmic Consciousness as part of his personal transformed nature. 

From 1912, Sri Aurobindo began maintaining a diary of his yogic practice, experience and understanding, later published as The Record of Yoga. Continued until 1920 and, after a gap, for a period in 1926, this forms an important document of scholarly practice, an example of auto-hermeneutics mediated by critical subjectivity and visionary insight. In 1914, he met a French couple, Paul and Mirra Richard, who visited Pondicherry from Paris and were both members of a group of spiritual occultism named  Mouvement Cosmique. They found complete consonance with Aurobindo’s views and decided jointly to start the monthly journal Arya. In 1915, the Richards had to leave India for France due to the outbreak of the first World War, and Aurobindo was left to write, edit, and produce Arya. From 1914 to 1920, Aurobindo serialized in Arya almost all his principal works on philosophy (The Life Divine), yoga (The Synthesis of Yoga), social and political writings (The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity), literary theory and criticism (The Future Poetry) interpretations of Indian wisdom literature (The Secret of the Veda, Isha Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Essays on the Gita), commentaries on Indian art and culture (A Defence of Indian Culture), and varied translations. 

After the war, Paul and Mirra returned to Pondicherry, with Mirra assuming an increasingly central position in Aurobindo’s life and yoga. From 1921 to 1926, Aurobindo immersed himself in yoga along with Mirra, declaring later that she was his Shakti. On 24th November 1926, Aurobindo declared that the Overmind had descended into his body, a critical stage of his yoga which necessitated his entry into seclusion so that he could  turn his entire attention to the fulfillment of the last phase of his yoga, the realization of Supermind and the transformation of his nature by its power. Around this time, he began referring to Mirra as the “Mother” and the disciples were asked to relate to her as an embodiment of the Divine Shakti, or Divine Mother. Essays comprising a book, The Mother, were also written at this time (1927), as part of an effort to explain the changed circumstances of sadhana and the new position of the embodied Mother in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and teaching. Around this same time, Aurobindo himself began being referred to as Sri Aurobindo. From this point, one can think of Sri Aurobindo as entering the fourth phase of his life – that of the guru.

The guru phase can be thought of as occupying the time period 1926 to 1950. The population of disciples grew rapidly from 1926 to 1934 and more steeply after 1940, during World War II. Though the Mother took charge of the material and spiritual side of the ashram, and Sri Aurobindo busied himself with the yogic work of uniting with Supermind and preparing the lower levels of consciousness and their instruments for supramental transformation, he also kept himself in contact with all the disciples through correspondence and through four appearances or “darshans” a year – on the Mother’s birthday, February 21st; the Mother’s final arrival in Pondicherry, April 24th; his own birthday, August 15th; and the day of his siddhi, November 24th. 

Sri Aurobindo’s line of approach in sadhana and his yoga teaching underwent changes at this point, both due to his own progressing experiences and the Mother’s knowledge. While he turned from his attempts to traverse the higher mental planes at will and to “supramentalize the overmind” and put his attention to the preparation of the planes of Life and Matter to open them to the supramental consciousness, he introduced in his teaching an emphasis on the emergence of “the psychic being” and the achievement of a “triple transformation.” 

To Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the psychic being is a portion of the supreme Divine animating the innermost core of each human being. Though all beings, human and non-human, sentient or apparently insentient, have a “psychic entity” or spark soul, this develops in humans into a soul personality, the essence of Personhood, representing a crystallization of some aspect of the infinite Divine Person. This psychic being is at first rudimentary, but it evolves by gaining power over nature, bringing it under its influence by “psychicizing” it and integrating it around itself. The other line of its evolution lies in making itself “cosmic.” 

The psychic being, which is the center of personal identity, can then ascend the scale of cosmic consciousness and unite with the Overmind, later utilizing its power to transform one’s nature by the consciousness of the Overmind. From this stage, in a final step, the psychic being could invoke the Supermental Shakti to raise it into identity with Supermind and then bring its power to supramentalize the mental-vital-physical nature complex. This process was designated “the Triple Transformation” by Sri Aurobindo and described in a revised version of The Life Divine in 1940.[note]Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram (2005: 922-952).[/note] Though operating under the law of  Ignorance, or what Sri Aurobindo sometimes called “the Overmind Maya,” the psychic being, as an eternal portion (amsa sanatana) of the Supreme Person, transcended the law of  Ignorance or Overmind. This is what allowed it to be effective in exceeding the cosmic manifestation and uniting with the Supermind, bringing a new law of being into the cosmos. The other aspect of his teaching which came to the forefront was the imperative of surrender to the Divine Mother, as the necessary and sufficient means to the attainment of all the stages of Integral Yoga.[note]Sri Aurobindo. The Mother with Letters on the Mother. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram (2012: 26).[/note]

In 1938, Sri Aurobindo slipped on a rug and fractured his left thigh. This resulted in a group of attendants being provided to keep watch and help him at all times. These attendants remained with him until the end of his life. In terms of world events, this was a critical period, as the world passed through the menace of Hitler and World War II. Sri Aurobindo “kept a close watch on all that was happening in the world and in India and actively intervened whenever necessary, but solely with a spiritual force and silent spiritual action…”[note]Sri Aurobindo. Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram (2006: 65).[/note] In spite of having been an anticolonial revolutionary and continuing to press for freedom from the British occupation of India, he pledged support for the Allied Forces during the Second World War, affirming, “not only is this a battle waged in just self-defense and in defense of nations threatened with the world domination of Germany and the Nazi system of life, but that it is a defense of civilization and its highest attained social, cultural and spiritual values and of the whole future of humanity.”[note]Op. cit., p. 453.[/note]

Sri Aurobindo lived to see the end of World War II with the victory of the Allied Forces and Indian independence from British rule on August 15th, 1947, which coincided with his birthday. Requested to give an address to the nation on this occasion, he spoke of five ideals that he had conceived as a youth, which then had seemed impossible but were now on the way to fulfillment. These were: (1) the liberation and unification of India; (2) the resurgence of Asia and her return to a pioneering role in the progress of human civilization; (3) a higher quality of life for humankind, secured through a confederated world union; (4) India’s gift to humanity of her spiritual knowledge and her means for the spiritualization of life; and finally (5) the uplifting of consciousness to a new level through the arrival of a new evolutionary stage in  terrestrial development.[note]Op. cit., p. 474-477.[/note]

Sri Aurobindo left his physical body on December 5th, 1950. On February 29th, 1956, the Mother, who continued his work, announced the manifestation of the Supermind in the earth consciousness. This was Sri Aurobindo’s goal in yoga. It implies the hidden activity of a Consciousness established in the world and exerting a pressure on both individuals and world circumstances, to hasten a turn towards collective spiritual realization. Though this remains at best a matter of faith, the legacy of Sri Aurobindo is his extensive scholarly exploration of consciousness and its possibilities. The contribution of his writings, both the public works on yoga philosophy and exegesis, and the records of private experience and introspection, open a fertile field of consideration in consciousness studies, transpersonal psychology and contemplative science in our times.