Sri Aurobindo (Śrī Aurobindo) (1872-1950) was a philosopher, scholar, poet, and Nobel peace prize nominee who was a significant figure in the Indian independence movement. It was his spiritual life and unconventional approach to yoga that left a lasting mark on his colorful life and legacy.
“Aurobindo fashioned an entire worldview, a system intended to reflect both science and religion and to integrate several concerns of philosophy – epistemology, ontology, psychology, ethics – into a single vision.”S.H. Phillips
In this article we will look at:
- The life of Sri Aurobindo
- His approach to philosophical teachings and Integral Yoga
- His influence and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- His writing and ten thought-provoking Sri Aurobindo quotes
Early Life of Sri Aurobindo
Aurobindo Ghose was born in Kolkatta, Bengal, and was one of three children. Aurobindo’s father had studied in Edinburgh and viewed British culture as superior to Indian and subsequently, Aurobindo received a Western education devoid of any of his Indian heritage.
He attended a Christian convent school in Darjiling before being sent to England at the age of seven where he continued his education at St Paul’s School in London. He studied for the Indian Civil Service at Kings College, Cambridge, and became somewhat of a scholar of languages. Having accomplished French in his childhood he went on to learn Latin as well as other European languages.
He returned to India in 1892 and began to turn his flair for languages to his heritage and began studying Sanskrit and subsequently, yoga. Aurobindo was in the Baroda Service between 1893 and 1906 before becoming the Principle of the Bengal National College.
Politics and the road to yoga
“Nationalism is a religion that has come from God.”Sri Aurobindo
Aurobindo’s involvement with Indian Nationalism and the revolutionary movement in Bengal politics formed a huge part of who he was as a man. His involvement in the political landscape of the time is vast and too broad for this article, so we’ll be focusing on Sri Aurobindo the Yogi but you can find out more about his political life here.
Aurobindo’s introduction to yoga began with Vishnu Bhaskar Lele who encouraged him to find his inner guide rather than seeking a guru for tutorage. During Aurobindo’s imprisonment for treason, he said that he experienced life-changing spiritual experiences. Once free he spent most of his time developing his practice of yoga and moved away from the political field.
Although he had intended to return to politics, his spiritual calling moved beyond the Nationalism of the country and he committed to a sādhanā that forced him to abandon the political landscape for good.
Aurobindo settled in the French colony Puducherry in southeast India where he developed “Integral Yoga”. The community that gathered around him formed the foundations of what became the Sri Aurobindo Ashram – a sought-after center for spiritual seekers worldwide.
“The practice of Yoga brings us face to face with the extraordinary complexity of our own being.”Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo’s approach is pretty different from a modern-day yoga class. His sādhanā wasn’t focused on the usual facets of yoga such as āsana, prāṇāyāma, and meditation but on connection to the Divine which he developed into “Integral Yoga” – a holistic approach to living a spiritual life outlined in his works “The Divine Life” and “The Synthesis of Yoga”.
Sri Aurobindo’s English education and understanding of Western philosophy no doubt influenced his perspectives on yoga and it is important to note that Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is not an easy concept to understand but let’s take look at some of the main principles.
“It is not his object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion – for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his Yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the One Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.” – auroville.org
Unlike traditional Indian approaches: enlightenment, liberation, mokṣa or saṃsāra, his teachings were fundamentally about “terrestrial life” and its “higher evolutionary stages”. His practice was a way to use yoga to go from the everyday mind to the “Supermind”.
The “Supermind” can be loosely interpreted as “Eternal Truth-Consciousness” or “Divine Knowledge”. The practice is based on concentration and not the modern postural yoga that we see in studios today or even the meditation and austerities of traditional haṭha yoga.
Auroville.org describes Integral Yoga as the “Transformation of our superficial, narrow and fragmentary human way of thinking, seeing, feeling and being into a deep and wide spiritual consciousness and an integrated inner and outer existence and of our ordinary human living into the divine way of life.”
To sum up the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo:
- Meditation, āsana, and prāṇāyāma aren’t necessary to liberate the soul and bring union with the Divine.
- Concentration and complete devotion to God is the yoga that bridges the gap between mind and “Supermind”.
- Sri Aurobindo wanted all of humanity to be able to live a divine human life on earth.
“Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of nature’s process.” – Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Located in Pondicherry, the Ashram took formal shape in 1926. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram was developed under The Mother, Sri Aurobindo’s “spiritual collaborator”. Mirra Alfassa (1879-1973), or The Mother as she was known, collaborated with Sri Aurobindo and spent most of her life at the head of the Ashram as Sri Aurobindo retreated into his sādhanā.
Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother focused their practice and teaching at the Ashram on consciousness or “Supermind” (supramental). The sādhanā was not just for personal liberation and connection to the Divine but to manifest a new state of evolution.
“The full expression of this consciousness on earth would result not only in a new species, as far beyond the human, as human race is beyond the animals, but also in a modification of the whole terrestrial creation, even more complete than the change brought about by the entrance on the world scene of the human race.” – sriaurobindotrust.org
Those who visited the Ashram were not forced to attend traditional yoga practices or rituals but were instead encouraged to form their own sādhanā. The Ashram offered a place for personal practice and provided a healthy lifestyle including exercise and (optional) postural yoga practice.
Sri Aurobindo’s died in 1950 but his legacy was continued by The Mother, and now in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (made a charity in 1955), and his many writings. Both were laid to rest in the grounds of the Ashram and Śrī Aurobindo and The Mother remain the spiritual head of the Ashram unlike other guru traditions.
Sri Aurobindo the writer
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram has published 78 books by Sri Aurobindo among which you’ll find poems, plays, and of course books on yoga. He captured the essence of not just culture and society but of humanity and the magnitude of yoga as a means of spiritual practice.
His best-known work, “The Life Divine”, is based on the ideology of Integral Yoga outlining the principles of “spiritual evolution”. Other notable works exploring key yoga texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas include: “Essays on the Gita”, “The Synthesis of Yoga”, “The Human Cycle”, “The ideal of Human Unity”, and “On the Veda”.
Sri Aurobindo Quotes
Undoubtedly he had a lot to say so let’s look at some of his writing and philosophical thought a little closer through ten thought-provoking Sri Aurobindo quotes:
“The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught.”- Sri Aurobindo
“When Reason died, then Wisdom was born.” – Sri Aurobindo
“Detachment is the beginning of mastery.” – Sri Aurobindo
“The cup has to be left clean and empty for the divine liquor to be poured into it.” – Sri Aurobindo
“In order to see, you have to stop being in the middle of the picture.” – Sri Aurobindo
“True knowledge is not attained by thinking. It is what you are; it is what you become.” – Sri Aurobindo
“He who chooses the infinite has been chosen by the infinite.” – Sri Aurobindo
“The only work that spiritually purifies us is that which is done without personal motives.” – Sri Aurobindo
“The whole world yearns after freedom, yet each creature is in love with his chains; this is the first paradox and inextricable knot of our nature.” – Sri Aurobindo
“The spiritual path is one of falling on your face, getting up, brushing yourself off, turning and looking sheepishly at God and then taking the next step.” – Sri Aurobindo
Find out more…
If you’re eager to find out more about the legacy that Sri Aurobindo leaves behind, then you can check out more about his political stance and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
If you’re looking to find out more about other influential yogis of the early 20th century, then take a look at the Yogananda.