Sri Aurobindo.
Snapshot
  • Integral Yoga is the approach to go from matter to the original state of consciousness – through the help of Yoga.

    This is the story of its genesis.

If you’ve ever visited Pondicherry (Puducherry), chances are you’ve been to Auroville, the experimental ‘universal township’ established in 1968 to disseminate the message of Yogi Sri Aurobindo. However, it is equally likely that you know little about the story of the Bengali revolutionary and the French woman who founded it.

Mirra Alfassa, simply known as “The Mother” was born in 1878 in Paris to a Turkish Jewish father and an Egyptian Jewish mother. A quiet, introverted child given to spending long hours in isolation, she would later reveal to her biographers that during her childhood she had a recurring dream of a dark figure she had never met in real life. Many years later, upon their first meeting she would identify this figure as Sri Aurobindo. But for the time being she found few answers to her questions in the rapidly changing industrial society of pre-war Europe, and remained a firm atheist.

Alfassa married at 19 and lived a quiet life in Paris as a painter. It was in the heady intellectual melting pot of early 20th century Parisian society that she first came in contact with Indic philosophy when an artist friend gave her a copy of Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekananda along with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. For the staunchly atheist Alfassa, these books provided the first answers to the spiritual questions that had haunted her since childhood and piqued her curiosity about Yoga.

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From Aurobindo Ghose To Sri Aurobindo – The Transformation Of A Fiery Bengali Revolutionary

Meanwhile, half way across the world from Paris, an angry, idealistic alumnus of King’s College Cambridge, by the name of Aurobindo Ghose, then serving in the Indian Civil Service, was undergoing a mental and spiritual turmoil of his own. A staunch nationalist, Ghose found the idea of serving the British repulsive, yet he saw no hope in the parliamentary debating clubs that passed for anti-colonial resistance in the first decade of the 20th century.

Determined to take things in his own hands, Aurobindo, along with his brother Barindra Ghose, founded the secret revolutionary organisation called the Anushilan Samiti that was inspired by the nationalist ideas of Bankim Chandra. The Anushilan Samiti believed in militant nationalism and political violence in order to end British rule in India and to this end was involved in a number of assassination attempts, bombings and dacoities, besides publishing nationalist literature through its journals that was considered incendiary by the British and promptly banned.

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From its base in Dhaka, led by the Ghose brothers, the Anushilan Samiti drew up plans for a mass uprising against the British Raj, with its activities reaching a crescendo in the year 1908. In that year, the Samiti engineered 11 assassinations of British officials including that of the Dhaka district magistrate. The Samiti also tried to establish links with foreign organisations, sending its members to learn the technique of bomb making from Nicholas Safranski, a Russian revolutionary in exile in Paris. According to some accounts, the bomb making knowledge of the Anushilan Samiti was also passed on to Veer Savarkar, who was then based at the India House in Paris.

In 1908, when an assassination attempt at a British official went wrong, resulting instead in the death of two young British women, the colonial government cracked down hard on the Samiti. The Ghose brothers were arrested and Barindra Ghose was sentenced to death. Aurobindo Ghose escaped conviction by a hair’s breadth as no direct evidence linking him to the militant violence could be found. However, he remained in the criminal books of the British for the rest of his life. Following his trial and acquittal, Aurobindo Ghose gave up public and political life and retired to Pondicherry, then a French colony. The command of the Anushilan Samiti then passed on to Jatindranath Mukherjee, better known as Bagha Jatin.

The Arrival Of Mirra Alfassa In India

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In 1911, Alfassa married Paul Richard, an aspiring French Politician. Since Pondicherry was then a French colony, it was represented in the French parliament by Frenchmen and governed by French officers. As an upcoming politician, Paul Richard wanted to get elected to the French Parliament from Pondicherry and moved to India along with Alfassa to campaign for his election. It was then that Maria Alfassa first met Sri Aurobindo. She would later recall that the moment she met him, she realised that he was the dark figure she had been seeing in her dreams since she was a child.

Although by this time Sri Aurobindo had given up most of his anti-British activities and devoted himself entirely to Yoga, the colonial government was not entirely convinced of his intentions and kept him under close watch. As the First World War broke out, the British became even more nervous about Sri Aurobindo and his little band of followers from Europe. Following repeated requests to the French government, Mirra Alfassa and her husband along with a host of other followers of the ashram were forced to leave India. However, Alfassa did not stay away for long. She was by now convinced that her destiny lay in India, and as soon as the war ended she returned to Pondicherry.

Sri Aurobindo’s house in Pondicherry soon became the ashram where a handful of devotees regularly met. Intense discussions on Yoga, spirituality and philosophy were followed by a regimen of meditation and contemplation. These were the critical years during which the defining spiritual philosophy of Sri Aurobindo was being developed. Being an outsider, Alfassa was initially not accepted by the rest of the followers. However, Sri Aurobindo was convinced that Alfassa was a Yogini of the same stature as him and started calling her “The Mother”. This thawed the atmosphere at the ashram, and soon the name stuck. Mirra Alfassa of Paris had become “The Mother” of Pondicherry.

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In the meantime as Sri Aurobindo’s fame spread, his following increased which necessitated moving out of his original home and into a bigger ashram. Among those who gave grants for the construction of the new ashram were the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the richest man in the world, and an admirer of Sri Aurobindo.

In 1939, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the daughter of former American president, Woodrow Wilson came to stay at the ashram and became a permanent resident. She was given the name ‘Nistha’ or determination. While at the ashram, she helped with the translation into English of the classic work, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, written by Swami Nikhilananda describing the life and teachings of Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa.

Sri Aurobindo And Integral Yoga

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The greatest legacy of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother was the development of Integral Yoga.

In a nutshell, Integral Yoga is the philosophy that all life is Yoga. The notion seems more commonplace to us today as our normative idea of Yoga, influenced by the contribution of B K S Iyengar, Bikram Choudhary, and Patanjali has undergone a radical change. In the 1930s however, Yoga was still considered an obscure Eastern meditative technique with a mystical aura and loads of misconceptions surrounding it. Yogis typically retired from public life and devoted themselves entirely to the pursuit of Yoga. The likes of B K S Iyengar were yet to become famous in the West and it would have been considered scandalous for public figures to be photographed striking a yogic asana.

It is to Sri Aurobindo’s credit that he helped develop a body of work around the philosophy of Yoga that made it more accessible to the West at the same time that the likes of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya were reinventing Hatha Yoga or the physical practice of Yoga based on asanas and breathing exercises. In so doing, Sri Aurobindo built upon the foundation already laid by Swami Vivekananda in the previous century.

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In contrast to its more widely practised version, Integral Yoga does not prescribe any set series of asanas or breathing techniques. It is more psychological and meditative in nature, focusing on internal reflection and self-analysis as the means to achieving self-perfection.

Drawing from the Sankhya system of Indian philosophy, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother expounded the notion of involution, as the reverse of evolution, which became a central feature of Integral Yoga. Though the notion of involution has existed for long in theosophy, especially in Indic systems of thought, Sri Aurobindo refined it, being influenced especially by the rapid breakthroughs in particle physics that the 1920s and 1930s witnessed. From Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to Planck’s discovery of energy quanta, from de Broglie’s hypothesis on the dual nature of matter to Niels Bohr’s revolutionary formulation of the structure of the atom – the very nature of the physical world was being reformulated by scientists and Sri Aurobindo saw in all this an affirmation of the philosophical debates contained in Indic systems of thought.

Put simply, according to Sankhya, in the beginning there is consciousness, or purusha, which systematically fragments into matter or prakriti through a process of involution. In all matter, even the atom, there is thus present an involved consciousness. Our consciousness, as a result, is hidden or involved. This involution is the natural order of things – from purusha to prakriti, consciousness to matter. The process of evolution, according to Sri Aurobindo then involves taking the reverse path – from prakriti back to purusha, from matter back to the original state of consciousness – through the help of Yoga.

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The contemporary American philosopher and spiritualist Ken Wilber was influenced by Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and built upon his ideas to develop his own theory of Integral Spirituality. In 1968, the California Institute of Integral Studies was started in San Francisco by Haridas Chaudhuri, a professor of philosophy at the University of Calcutta and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo along with Frederic Spiegelberg, a professor of Asian Religions at Stanford.

Auroville – The City Of Dawn

Sri Aurobindo passed away in 1950 and the leadership of the ashram fell completely on the shoulders of Alfassa. By this time the ashram’s following had grown exponentially, as had the trickle of VIP visitors that included Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi besides foreign dignitaries. To incorporate the increasing number of followers, Alfassa decided to build a bigger ashram that would eventually become Auroville. Alfassa’s inspiration behind building Auroville was the idea of a place that no nation could claim and which would be open to all humanity. Thus was born Auroville – French for ‘city of dawn’. The name also doubled up as a tribute to Sri Aurobindo – the city of Auro. Today Auroville is a major destination for those seeking answers to their spiritual hunger. From world travelling backpackers to corporate honchos seeking to de-stress their best performers, the popularity of Auroville is growing each year. Even sceptics who prefer to brush aside the whole notion of Yoga and spirituality as a fad and hokum stop by to admire the tranquility of Auroville.

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The Mother passed away in 1973 after a brief illness. In 1978 the government of India honoured her by issuing a commemorative stamp in her name.

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