1893 – 1906 England to Baroda
Thus Sri Aurobindo sailed back to his country in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, having spent the most important and formative fourteen years of his life in a foreign land. He had grown up in England, but did not feel any attachment to it. India was beckoning. He wrote in his poem called ‘Envoi’:
“Me from her lotus heaven Saraswati
Has called to regions of eternal snow
And Ganges pacing to the southern sea,
Ganges upon whose shores the flowers of Eden blow.”
And how did Mother India receive her son after fourteen years of exile? With her unique and priceless gift—a spiritual experience. The moment Sri Aurobindo put his foot down on Indian soil, at Apollo Bunder in Bombay, a vast peace and calm descended upon him, never to leave him. Unknowingly and unasked the spiritual life had also begun, which was later to become his sole preoccupation.
But for the moment he was occupied with service at the Baroda State. He started by working in the survey and settlement department, then in the department of revenue and finally in the Secretariat. He also drafted the speeches of the Maharaja of the state, the Gaekwad, who once remarked to Sri Aurobindo that nobody would believe that the Gaekwad could have written such speeches. But his interests lay elsewhere. The Gaekwad, in a report, praised his ability and intelligence but also commented on his lack of punctuality and regularity. After some time Sri Aurobindo was, therefore, transferred to the Baroda College, first as a teacher of French, and then as vice-principal, where he was very popular with the students for his unconventional way of teaching.
In 1894, when Sri Aurobindo was 22 years old, he noted humorously in a letter to his sister Sarojini in Bengal:
“I am quite well. I have brought a fund of health with me from Bengal, which, I hope it will take me some time to exhaust; but I have just passed my twenty-second milestone, August 15 last, since my birthday and am beginning to get dreadfully old.”
Sarojini describes him as having “…a very delicate face, long hair cut in English fashion; Sejda [older brother] was a very shy person.”
In Baroda, Sri Aurobindo plunged himself into the study of Indian culture, as if to make up for all the years he had lost. He learnt Hindustani, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Sanskrit. He was a voracious reader, and two bookshops in Bombay kept him regularly supplied with books sent in crates. Sitting by a kerosene lamp he would read late into the night, unmindful of the swarming mosquitoes and often quite unaware of the waiting food beside him. His cousin Basanti Devi wrote about him in a letter:
“Auro Dada used to arrive with two or three trunks and we always thought it would contain costly suits and other luxury items like scents, etc. When he opened them I used to look at them and wonder. What is this? A few ordinary clothes and all the rest books and nothing but books! ... We all want to chat and enjoy ourselves in vacations. Does he want to spend even this time in reading these books?
But … it did not mean that he did not join us in our talks and chats and our merry-making. His talk used to be full of wit and humour.”
Sri Aurobindo read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bankim as well as Homer, Dante, Horace and many others. He also wrote a lot of poetry and his first collection of poems was published from Baroda.
But another future was preparing itself for Sri Aurobindo at the same time. It began in a most unobtrusive way soon after he came to Baroda. K. G. Deshpande, a friend from his Cambridge days, was in charge of a weekly published from Bombay called Induprakash. He requested Sri Aurobindo to write something on the current political situation of India. Sri Aurobindo began writing a series of fiery articles titled ‘New Lamps for Old’, strongly criticizing the Congress, then the main political party in India, for its moderate policy. Sri Aurobindo wrote:
“Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.”
And he added,
“I say, of the Congress, then, this,—that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it proceeds towards their accomplishment is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness, and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and the leaders in whom it trusts, not the right sort of men to be leaders;—in brief, that we are at present the blind led, if not by the blind, at any rate by the one-eyed.”
It would be interesting to remember that when Sri Aurobindo wrote these scathingly insightful words, he was merely 21 years old. The editors were frightened and requested Sri Aurobindo to write on cultural rather than political themes. Sri Aurobindo lost interest and the series stopped.
In 1901, Sri Aurobindo married Mrinalini Devi. Mrinalini had to go through all the joys and sorrows which are the lot of one who marries a genius and someone so out of the ordinary as Sri Aurobindo.
The period of stay in Baroda, from 1894 to 1901, was significant in several ways for Sri Aurobindo. It was here that he started working for India's freedom, behind the scenes. He perceived the need to broaden the base of the movement and to create a mass awakening. He went to Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, contacted the secret groups working for freedom and became a link between many of them. He established close contact with Lokmanya Tilak and Sister Nivedita. He arranged for the military training of Jatin Banerjee in the Baroda army and then sent him to organize the revolutionary work in Bengal.
At the same time, the Divine too continued to work unseen, within, revealing himself only on certain occasions. In his very first year at Baroda, when Sri Aurobindo was going in a horse-driven carriage, there was the possibility of a major accident. Suddenly he felt a Being of Light emerge from him and avert the accident. He described it in a sonnet written later:
“Above my head a mighty head was seen,
A face with the calm of immortality
And an omnipotent gaze that held the scene
In the vast circle of its sovereignty.
His hair was mingled with the sun and breeze;
The world was in His heart and He was I:
I housed in me the Everlasting's peace,
The strength of One whose substance cannot die.”
In 1903, Sri Aurobindo went to Kashmir with the Maharaja. There on the Hills of Shankaracharya he had a beautiful spiritual experience.
“One stands upon a mountain ridge and glimpses or mentally feels a wideness, a pervasiveness, a nameless Vast in Nature; then suddenly there comes the touch, a revelation, a flooding, the mental loses itself in the spiritual, one bears the first invasion of the Infinite.”
Once Sri Aurobindo visited a Kali Temple on the bank of the Narmada. He said:
“With my Europeanised mind I had no faith in image-worship and I hardly believed in the presence of God.”
But he was compelled to do so when he looked at the image and saw a living Divine presence. As he wrote afterwards:
“[Y]ou stand before a temple of Kali beside a sacred river and see what?—a sculpture, a gracious piece of architecture, but in a moment mysteriously, unexpectedly there is instead a Presence, a Power, a Face that looks into yours, an inner sight in you has regarded the World-Mother.”
The fourth experience has an interesting background. His younger brother Barin fell seriously ill with mountain fever. When the doctors were helpless, a Naga sannyasi happened to be passing by. He took a cup of water, making a cross with a knife as if cutting the water into four, while chanting a mantra and asked Barin to drink it. The next day Barin was completely cured. Sri Aurobindo was greatly impressed and this also proved to be his conscious entry into the field of Yoga.
“I thought that a yoga which requires me to give up the world was not for me. I had to liberate my country. I took it up seriously when I learnt that the same Tapasya which one does to get away from the world can be turned to action. I learnt that Yoga gives power and I thought why should I not get the power and use it to liberate my country?”
Sri Aurobindo said humorously that he had a side-door entry into yoga. He took up the practice of pranayama. Soon he observed some startling results. His mind and memory worked with a greater illumination and power. His skin became smooth and fair. But it ended with those results, and when Sri Aurobindo fell seriously ill he stopped, and began to look for another way. This new way opened up much later, but for the moment his scene shifted from Baroda to Calcutta.
We may perhaps end the Baroda period with a comment of A. B. Clark, the principal of Baroda College:
“So you met Aurobindo Ghosh. Did you notice his eyes? There is a mystic fire and light in them. They penetrate into the beyond.”And he added, “If Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices, Aurobindo probably sees heavenly visions.”