Home Page | Workings | Works of Sri Aurobindo | On Himself


Sri Aurobindo on Himself

Part One

Section One

Life Before Pondicherry

This section, relating to the earlier part of Sri Aurobindo's life prior to his arrival at Pondicherry in 1910, is compiled from notes given by him during 1943-46 while reading the manuscripts of his three biographers submitted to him for correction or verification and approval. The notes were intended either to elucidate their statements by supplying the relevant facts or to correct and modify them wherever necessary.

In most cases brief references to the points in the original uncorrected manuscripts or to incomplete or erroneous statements in them are given in italics preceding Sri Aurobindo's comments on them. In some cases only small headings are given.

Some marginal notes written by Sri Aurobindo on another biography of his by a Maharashtrian author are also included here. Also notes and letters dictated by him to correct misleading or fabricated statements concerning him published in some journals and in a book are placed in this section.

A few letters written to disciples in answer to their inquiries concerning some facts of his early life are placed along with the notes on the same points.

I. Early Life in England: 1879-1893

Aurobindo was born on August 15th, 1872, in Calcutta. His father, a man of great ability and strong personality, had been among the first to go to England for his education. He returned entirely anglicised in habits, ideas and ideals,– so strongly that his Aurobindo as a child spoke English and Hindustani only and learned his mother-tongue only after his return from England. He was determined that his children should receive an entirely European upbringing. While in India they were sent for the beginning of their education to an Irish nuns' school in Darjeeling and in 1879 he took his three sons to England and placed them with an English clergyman and his wife with strict instructions that they should not be allowed to make the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence. These instructions were carried out to the letter and Aurobindo grew up in entire ignorance of India, her people, her religion and her culture.

Aurobindo never went to Manchester Grammar School. His two brothers studied there, but he himself was educated privately by Mr. and Mrs. Drewett. Drewett was an accomplished Latin scholar; he did not teach him Greek, but grounded him so well in Latin that the headmaster of St. Paul's school in London took up Aurobindo himself to ground him in Greek and then pushed him rapidly into the higher classes of the school.

Austen Leigh was not Provost at that time; the Provost's name was Prothero.

Aurobindo gave his attention to the classics at Manchester and at St. Paul's; but even at St. Paul's in the last three years he simply went through his school course and spent most of his spare time in general reading, especially English poetry, literature and fiction, French literature and the history of ancient, mediaeval and modern Europe. He spent some time also over learning Italian, some German and a little Spanish. He spent much time too in writing poetry. The school studies during this period engaged very little of his time; he was already at ease in them and did not think it necessary to labour over them any longer. All the same he was able to win all the prizes in King's College in one year for Greek and Latin verse, etc.

He did not graduate at Cambridge. He passed high in the First Part of the Tripos (first class); it is on passing this First Part that the degree of B.A. is usually given; but as he had only two years at his disposal, he had to pass it in his second year at Cambridge; and the First Part gives the degree only if it is taken in the third year; if one takes it in the second year one has to appear for the Second Part of the Tripos in the fourth year to qualify for the degree. He might have got the degree if he had made an application for it, but he did not care to do so. A degree in English is valuable only if one wants to take up an academical career.

St. Paul's was a day school. The three brothers lived in London for some time with the mother of Mr. Drewett, but she left them after a quarrel between her and Manmohan about religion. The old Mrs. Drewett was fervently Evangelical and she said she would not live with an atheist as the house might fall down on her. Afterwards Benoybhusan and Aurobindo occupied a room in the South Kensington Liberal Club where Mr. J. S. Cotton, brother of Sir Henry Cotton, for some time Lt. Governor of Bengal, was the secretary and Benoy assisted him in his work. Manmohan went into lodgings. This was the time of the greatest suffering and poverty. Subsequently Aurobindo also went separately into lodgings until he took up residence at Cambridge.

Name in England

The name given by his father was Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose.

Sri Aurobindo dropped the ‘Ackroyd’ from his name before he left England and never used it again.

Hardships During School Life in London

During a whole year a slice or two of sandwich, bread and butter and a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening a penny saveloy formed the only food.

Failure to Appear for the Riding Test in the I.C.S. Examination

Nothing detained him in his room. He felt no call for the I.C.S. and was seeking some way to escape from that bondage. By certain manoeuvres he managed to get himself disqualified for riding without himself rejecting the Service, which his family would not have allowed him to do.

After being disqualified for the Indian Civil Service Sri Aurobindo turned his full attention to classical studies.

These studies were already finished at that time

Two years after the Indian Civil Service examination he graduated from King's College with a First Class in Classical Tripos.

This happened earlier, not after the Civil Service failure.

Aurobindo, even before he was twenty years old, had mastered Greek and Latin and English and had also acquired sufficient familiarity with continental languages like German, French and Italian.

This should be corrected as: ‘...mastered Greek and Latin, English and French and had also acquired some familiarity with continental languages like German and Italian.’

In England at an early age he took the firm decision of liberating his own nation.

Not quite that; at this age Aurobindo began first to be interested in Indian politics of which previously he knew nothing. His father began sending the newspaper The Bengalee with passages marked relating cases of maltreatment of Indians by Englishmen and he wrote in his letters denouncing the British Government in India as a heartless Government. At the age of eleven Aurobindo had already received strongly the impression that a period of general upheaval and great revolutionary changes was coming in the world and he himself was destined to play a part in it. His attention was now drawn to India and this feeling was soon canalised into the idea of the liberation of his own country. But the ‘firm decision’ took full shape only towards the end of another four years. It had already been made when he went to Cambridge and as a member and for some time secretary of the Indian Majlis at Cambridge he delivered many revolutionary speeches which, as he afterwards learnt, had their part in determining the authorities to exclude him from the Indian Civil Service; the failure in the riding test was only the occasion, for in some other cases an opportunity was given for remedying this defect in India itself.

Young Aurobindo formed the secret sociey – ‘Lotus and Dagger’ – while in England.

This is not correct. The Indian students in London did once meet to form a secret society called romantically the ‘Lotus and Dagger’ in which each member vowed to work for the liberation of India generally and to take some special work in furtherance of that end. Aurobindo did not form the society, but he became a member along with his brothers. But the society was still-born. This happened immediately before the return to India and when he had finally left Cambridge. Indian politics at that time was timid and moderate and this was the first attempt of the kind by Indian students in England. In India itself Aurobindo's maternal grandfather Raj Narayan Bose formed once a secret society – of which Tagore, then a very young man, became a member, and also set up an institution for national and revolutionary propaganda, but this finally came to nothing. Later on there was a revolutionary spirit in Maharashtra and a secret society was started in Western India with a Rajput noble as the head and this had a Council of Five in Bombay with several prominent Maharatta politicians as its members. This society was contacted and joined by Aurobindo somewhere in 1902-3, sometime after he had already started secret revolutionary work in Bengal on his own account. In Bengal he found some very small secret societies recently started and acting separately without any clear direction and tried to unite them with a common programme. The union was never complete and did not last, but the movement itself grew and very soon received an enormous extension and became a formidable factor in the general unrest in Bengal.

While in London he used to attend the weekly meetings of the Fabian Society.

Never once.

Young Aurobindo was sensitive to beauty in man and Nature.... He watched with pain the thousand and one instances of man's cruelty to man.

The feeling was more abhorrence than pain; from early childhood there was a strong hatred and disgust for all kinds of cruelty and oppression, but the term ‘pain’ would not accurately describe the reaction.

He may have known a smattering of Bengali till he was five years of age. Thereafter till twenty-one he spoke only English.

In my father's house only English and Hindustani were spoken. I knew no Bengali.

In much of Aurobindo's early English verse written between his eighteenth and twentieth years in England, included in ‘Songs to Myrtilla’, the derivative element is prominent. Not only are names and lineaments and allusions foreign in their garb, but the literary echoes are many and drawn from varied sources.

Foreign to what? He knew nothing about India or her culture, etc. What these poems express is the education and imaginations and ideas and feelings created by a purely European culture and surroundings – it could not be otherwise. In the same way the poems on Indian subjects and surroundings in the same book express the first reactions to India and Indian culture after the return home and a first acquaintance with these things.

Like Macaulay's ‘A Jacobite's Epitaph’, Aurobindo's ‘Hic Jacet’ also achieves its severe beauty through sheer economy of words; the theme, the very rhythm and language of the poem, all hark back to Macaulay.

If so, it must have been an unconscious influence; for after early childhood Macaulay's verse (The Lays) ceased to appeal. The Jacobite's Epitaph was perhaps not even read twice; it made no impression.

Sir Henry Cotton was much connected with Maharshi Raj Narayan Bose – Aurobindo's maternal grandfather. His son James Cotton was at this time in London. As a result of these favourable circumstances a meeting came about with the Gaekwar of Baroda.

Cotton was my father's friend – they had made arrangements for my posting in Bengal; but he had nothing to do with my meeting with the Gaekwar. James Cotton was well acquainted with my elder brother, because he was Secretary of the South Kensington Liberal Club where we were living and my brother was his assistant. He took great interest in us. It was he who arranged the meeting.

For fourteen years young Aurobindo had lived in England divorced from the culture of his own nation and was not happy with himself. He longed to begin all again from the beginning and to try to re-nationalise himself.

There was no unhappiness for that reason, nor at that time any deliberate will for re-nationalisation – which came, after reaching India, by natural attraction to Indian culture and ways of life and a temperamental feeling and preference for all that was Indian.

He was leaving, he wished to leave, and yet there was a touch of regret as well at the thought of leaving England. He felt the flutter of unutterable misgivings and regrets; he achieved escape from them by having recourse to poetic expression.

There was no such regret in leaving England, no attachment to the past or misgivings for the future. Few friendships were made in England and none very intimate; the mental atmosphere was not found congenial. There was therefore no need for any such escape.

Aurobindo was going back to India to serve under the Gaekwar of Baroda; he cast one last look at his all but adopted country and uttered his parting words in ‘Envoi’.

No, the statement was of a transition from one culture to another. There was an attachment to English and European thought and literature, but not to England as a country; he had no ties there and did not make England his adopted country, as Manmohan did for a time. 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.

Death of Aurobindo's father due to false report of his son's death.

There was no question of the two other brothers starting [from England.] It was only Aurobindo's death that was reported and it was while uttering his name in lamentation that the father died.

After his father's demise the responsibility of supporting the family devolved on him and he had to take up some appointment soon.

There was no question of supporting the family at that time. That happened some time after going to India.