Sri Aurobindo: A spiritual icon who first conceived of India as Vishwa Guru

As India celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its Independence in 2022, the day also happens to be the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, once a renowned revolutionary, who later became a spiritual master. His life and teachings remain relevant to our turbulent times, and there is much to learn from the vast philosophical and political writings he has left behind.

Aurobindo was born in 1872. He was only seven when his Anglophile father sent his three sons to England for their education — Aurobindo studied Classics Tripos at Cambridge. Having ticked all the checkboxes to join the ICS ranks, somehow, Aurobindo either failed or failed to appear for the horse-riding tests, abjuring the career of a British Raj bureaucrat. In the UK, Aurobindo’s only tenuous link with India was through the newspaper clippings sent by his father; remarkably, despite spending all his adolescence in the UK, Aurobindo was a Francophile. In 1893, after a 14-year exile, Aurobindo returned to India and joined the Baroda state, first as a bureaucrat and then as a professor of French at the Baroda college. However, he spent considerable time and energy mastering Indian languages, philosophy and scriptures.

As an indomitable intellectual and an ardent nationalist, he published articles in the Bombay-based journal Indu Prakash attacking the extractive British and indolent Congressmen. Aurobindo’s pragmatic strategies to get rid of British rule marked him as “the Prophet of Indian Nationalism”. In 1893, a good 22 years before Gandhi, he had asked the elite Congressmen to cede the leadership of the independence struggle to the proletariat. Aurobindo publicly hailed the blood and fire approach of the French revolution against the glacial process of the British parliamentary dialogue. Unsurprisingly, his tone upset the powers-to-be, so Aurobindo was asked to change the topic — he wrote a series on Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram, attributing divine nationhood to “Mother India” and depicting the independence struggle as the sacred cause of freedom.

In the context of the political discourses today, it is important to remember that Aurobindo adopted spiritual nationalism as his political credo, not parochial or chauvinistic but one that enabled India to “fulfil her destiny as the spiritual guide of humanity at large”— making Aurobindo one of the earliest proponents of the notion of “India as the Vishwa Guru”. Adding to the gendered discourse on India’s subjugation, Aurobindo argued, much like the Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, that Pax Britannica had led to a loss of manliness, and retributive violence was mandatory to vindicate one’s manhood.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 provoked Aurobindo to leave his job in Baroda and plunge into the nationalist movement. He started the patriotic journal Bande Mataram to propagate radical methods and revolutionary tactics instead of supplication. Aurobindo’s defiance drew reprisal; he was arrested thrice by the British — twice for sedition and once for conspiring to “wage war”. Bizarrely, one can find several such “offenders” in contemporary India. During his incarceration, Aurobindo was placed in solitary confinement for six months when he began the practice of yoga. Though acquitted, Aurobindo faced a constant threat of jail or exile to the Andamans, forcing him to seek refuge in Pondicherry, a French enclave.

In Pondicherry, Aurobindo eschewed overt political activities and embraced spiritual pursuits, soon to emerge as one of the most original thinkers, philosophers and spiritual masters. He met Mirra Alfassa in Pondicherry, and their spiritual collaboration led to “Integral Yoga”. Aurobindo retreated into virtual seclusion, anointing Alfassa as “the Mother” to lead the organisation. As a French citizen, Alfassa guided the unprecedented expansion of the Aurobindo Ashram, on occasions playing on the rivalry between the British and French to her advantage.

Several Indians saw the Second World War as an opportune moment to get rid of colonial occupation; Aurobindo, an unswerving internationalist, asked his compatriots to support the Allies and ensure Hitler’s defeat. Aurobindo was fortunate to see Indian independence and, in a rare public appearance, spoke on the radio to present his vision for India. He was a prolific writer, producing several insightful treatises on Indian religious, spiritual and cultural knowledge. In 1943, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature and then again in 1950 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

India’s anti-colonial political movement invoked the notion of cultural and civilisational superiority vis-à-vis the material strength of the Western civilisation. Such a narrative attracted several Europeans to India; Sister Nivedita pursued Swami Vivekananda, while Mirabehn followed Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike the other two luminaries, Aurobindo put Alfassa on a high pedestal as the embodiment of the Divine Mother and also his Shakti (power). Thus, unlike the other two European women who struggled after the death of their mentors, Alfassa continued to flourish even after Aurobindo’s death in 1950. In independent India, she successfully negotiated with the postcolonial state to establish Auroville, one of the most exceptional townships, epitomising internationalism, cosmopolitanism and universal values.

Aurobindo’s life, teachings and legacy have contributed to the idea of India that embodies a revolutionary zeal deeply rooted in its cultural values and complex histories. For any meaningful and informed dialogue on India’s civilisational past, an engagement with icons like Aurobindo and Alfassa is mandatory. Religion for Aurobindo is “the following of the spiritual impulse in its fullness” and spirituality “as the attempt to know and live in the highest self, the divine, the all-embracing unity and to raise life in all its parts to the divinest possible values”. He was one of the first original thinkers to have paved the way for India’s mandate as “the spiritual guide to humanity” or the “Vishwaguru”, and that mandate was based on spiritual anchoring, inclusivity and shared humanity.