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object:1.01 - An Accomplished Westerner
class:chapter
book class:Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness
author class:Satprem
subject class:Integral Yoga

Humanly speaking, Sri Aurobindo is close to us, because once we have respectfully bowed before the "wisdom of the East" and the odd ascetics who seem to make light of all our fine laws, we find that our curiosity has been aroused but not our life; we need a practical truth that will survive our rugged winters. Sri Aurobindo knew our winters well; he experienced them as a student, from the age of seven until twenty. He lived from one lodging house to another at the whim of more or less benevolent landladies, with one meal a day, and not even an overcoat to put on his back, but always laden with books: the French symbolists, Mallarm, Rimbaud, whom he read in the original French long before reading the Bhagavad Gita in translation. To us Sri Aurobindo personifies a unique synthesis.
He was born in Calcutta on August 15, 1872, the year of Rimbaud's Illuminations, just a few years before Einstein; modern physics had already seen the light of day with Max Planck, and Jules Verne was busy probing the future. Yet, Queen Victoria was about to become Empress of India, and the conquest of Africa was not even completed; it was the turning point from one world to another.
Historically, it appears that the birth of a new world is often preceded by periods of trial and destruction, but perhaps this is simply a misreading: it may be because the new seeds are already alive that the forces of subversion (or clearing away) are raging. In any event,
Europe was at the peak of its glory; the game seemed to be played in the West. This is how it appeared to Dr. Krishnadhan Ghose, Sri Aurobindo's father, who had studied medicine in England, and had returned to India completely anglicized. He did not want his three sons, of whom Sri Aurobindo was the youngest, to be in the least contaminated by the "steamy and retrograde" mysticism in which his country seemed to be running to ruin. He did not even want them to know anything of the traditions and languages of India. Sri Aurobindo was therefore provided not only with an English first name, Akroyd,


but also with an English governess, Miss Pagett, and then sent off at the age of five to an Irish convent school in Darjeeling among the sons of British administrators. Two years later, the three Ghose boys would leave for England. Sri Aurobindo was seven. Not until the age of twenty would he learn his mother tongue, Bengali. He would never see his father again, who died just before his return to India, and barely his mother, who was ill and did not recognize him on his return. Hence, this is a child who grew up outside every influence of family, country, and tradition a free spirit. The first lesson Sri Aurobindo gives us is perhaps, precisely, a lesson of freedom.
Sri Aurobindo and his two brothers were entrusted to an Anglican clergyman of Manchester, with strict instruction that they should not be allowed the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence.4 Dr. Ghose was indeed a peculiar man. He also ordered Pastor Drewett not to give his sons any religious instruction, so they could choose a religion themselves, if they so wished, when they came of age. He then left them to their fate for thirteen years. He believed his children should become men of character. Dr. Ghose may appear to have been a hardhearted man, but he was nothing of the kind; not only did he donate his services as a doctor but also gave his money to poor Bengali villagers (while his sons had hardly anything to eat or wear in London), and he died of shock when he was mistakenlyinformed that his favorite son, Aurobindo, had died in a shipwreck.
The first few years in Manchester were of some importance to Sri Aurobindo because this is where he learned French (English was his "mother tongue") and discovered a spontaneous affinity for France:
There was an attachment to English and European thought and literature, but not to England as a country; I had no ties there. . . . If there was attachment to a European land as a second country, it was intellectually and emotionally to one not seen or lived in in this life,
not England, but France.5 The poet had begun to awaken in him; he was already listening to the footsteps of invisible things, as he put it in one of his early poems; his inner window had already opened,
4
5

On Himself, 26:1
On Himself, 26:7


although he was quite unimpressed with religion, as is evident from the account he gives of his "conversion." Predictably, Clergyman Drewett's mother had undertaken the task of saving the souls of the three heretic children, or at least that of the youngest one, whom she took one day to a meeting of "nonconformist" ministers. After the prayers were over, wrote Sri Aurobindo, nearly all dispersed, but devout people remained a little longer, and it was at that time that conversions were made. I was feeling completely bored. Then a minister approached me and asked me some questions. (I was about ten at that time.) I did not give any reply. Then they all shouted, "He is saved, he is saved," and began to pray for me and offer thanks to God.6 Sri Aurobindo, the seer, was never to become a religious man,
not even in India, and he often emphasized that religion and spirituality are not necessarily synonymous: True theocracy, he would write later, is the kingdom of God in man and not the kingdom of a Pope, a priesthood or a sacerdotal class.7
When he began his life in London, at the age of twelve, Sri Aurobindo knew Latin and French thoroughly. The headmaster of St.
Paul's School, where he had enrolled, was so surprised at the aptitude of his young student that he personally coached him in Greek. Three years later, Sri Aurobindo could skip half his classes and spend most of his time engrossed in his favorite occupation:reading. Nothing seemed to escape this voracious adolescent (except cricket, which held as little interest for him as Sunday school.) Shelley and "Prometheus Unbound," the French poets, Homer, Aristophanes, and soon all of European thought for he quickly came to master enough German and Italian to read Dante and Goethe in the original peopled a solitude of which he has said nothing. He never sought to form relationships, while Manmohan, the second brother, roamed through London in the company of his friend Oscar Wilde and would make a name for himself in English poetry. Each of the three brothers led his separate life. However, there was nothing austere about Sri Aurobindo, and certainly nothing of the puritan (the prurient,8 as he called it); it was just that he was "elsewhere," and his world was 6
7
8

Life of Sri Aurobindo, 8
The Human Cycle, 15:166
Thoughts and Aphorisms, 17:138


replete. He even had a way of jesting with a straight face, which never left him: Sense of humour? It is the salt of existence. Without it the world would have got utterly out of balance it is unbalanced enough already and rushed to a blaze long ago. 9 For there is also Sri Aurobindo the humorist, and that Sri Aurobindo is perhaps more important than the philosopher whom Western universities speak of so solemnly. Philosophy, for Sri Aurobindo, was only a way of reaching those who could not understand anything without explanations; it was only a language, just as poetry was another, clearer and truer language. But the essence of his being was humor, not the sarcastic humor of the so-called spiritual man, but a kind of joy that cannot help dancing wherever is passes. Now and then, in a flash that leaves us somewhat mystified, we sense behind the most tragic, the most distressing human situations an almost facetious laughter, as if a child were playing a tragedy and suddenly made a face at himself because it is his nature to laugh, and ultimately because nothing in the world and no one can affect that place inside ourselves where we are ever a king.
Indeed, perhaps this is the true meaning of Sri Aurobindo's humor: a refusal to see things tragically, and, even more so, a sense of inalienable royalty.
Whether St. Paul's School appreciated his sense of humor we do not know, but it certainly appreciated his astonishing culture;he was awarded a scholarship to attend Cambridge (just in time; the family remittances had practically stopped), which was not enough, however,
to relieve him from cold and hunger since his older brothers also partook heartily of the windfall. He was just eighteen. What was he going to that nursery-of-gentlemen for? For one reason, he was fulfilling his father's wishes though not for long. In his first year at King's College, he won all the prizes in Greek and Latin verse, but his heart was no longer in it. It was Joan of Arc, Mazzini, the American Revolution that haunted him in other words, the liberation of his country. India's independence, of which he would become one of the pioneers. This unforeseen political calling was to hold him for almost twenty years, even though at the time he did not exactly know what an Indian was, let alone a Hindu! But he learned fast. As with Western 9

On Yoga II, Tome 2, 871


culture, he managed to learn and assimilate Hinduism by leaps and bounds; in fact, he would be truly "Sri Aurobindo" only after assimilating both cultures and finding the point where the two worlds met in something that was neither one, nor even a synthesis of both,
but what we might call with Mother, who would later continue Sri Aurobindo's work, a third position, a "something else" we desperately need, we who are neither narrow-minded materialists nor exclusive spiritualists.
Thus, he became secretary of the "Indian Majlis," an association of Indian students at Cambridge, delivered revolutionary speeches, cast off his English first name, and joined a secret society called "Lotus and Dagger" (!) (Though, in this case, romanticism could lead one straight to the gallows.) Ultimately, he attracted the attention of the authorities, and his name was put on Whitehall's blacklist.
Nonetheless, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, only to fail to attend the graduation ceremony, as if that were enough of that. In the same casual way, he took the celebrated Indian Civil Service examination, which would have opened the doors of the government of India to him among the ranks of the British administrators; he passed brilliantly, but neglected to appear for the horsemanship test,
going for a walk that day insteadof trotting at Woolwich, and was consequently disqualified. This time the Senior Tutor of Cambridge was moved to write to the authorities: "That a man of this calibre should be lost to the Indian government merely because he failed to sit on a horse or did not keep an appointment appears to me, I confess, a piece of official short-sightedness which it would be hard to surpass. . . . He has had a very hard and anxious time of it for the last two years. Supplies from home have almost entirely failed, and he has had to keep his two brothers as well as himself. . . . I have several times written to his father on his behalf, but for the most part unsuccessfully. It is only lately that I managed to extract from him enough to pay some tradesmen who would otherwise have put his son into the County Court."10 The tutor's pleading would be in vain; the Colonial Office was convinced that Sri Aurobindo was dangerous.
They were not wrong.
10

Life of Sri Aurobindo, 43


When he sailed back to India, Sri Aurobindo was twenty. He had no position, no titles. His father had just died. What remained of his fourteen years in the West? We are tempted to recall Edouard Herriot's perfect definition, for if it is true that education is what remains when everything is forgotten, then what remains of the West after one has left it is not its books, its museums, and theaters, but an urge to translate into living acts what has been theorized. There,
perhaps, lies the true strength of the West. Unfortunately, we in the West have too much "intelligence" to have anything truly substantial to translate outwardly, while India, too inwardly replete, does not possess the necessary urge to match what she lives with what she sees.
This lesson would not be lost on Sri Aurobindo.




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