Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) has been one of the finest thinkers and philosophers of modern India. He was also a popular leader of the freedom movement who went on to become a yogi and a mystic.
Aurobindo was born in Konnanagar (West Bengal) on August 15, 1872. Soon after completing his education from Loreto Convent at Darjeeling, he was sent to England to pursue further studies. He studied in St. Paul's School in London from 1884. After securing a senior classical scholarship, he joined king's College, Cambridge in 1890.
After returning to India, he studied Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and philosophy. And then till 1910, he devoted himself to the freedom cause by introducing radical Programmes for the Bengal Congress while urging Indians to boycott all foreign-made goods and programmes of the British Government. He was arrested for his pro-swaraj activities in 1910 and jailed in Alipore for a year.
It was during his imprisonment that he underwent an intense mystical experience that was to have a profound impact on him. From then onwards, he assumed the life of a yogi and went to reside at Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu where he also founded an ashram. The town of Auroville in pondicherry, the 'universal town', was later conceived by one if his chief disciples, known as 'the Mother', to bear out Kurobindo's philosophical principles. Auroville, symbolising he universal spirit, was then opened in 1968. Aurobindo also published The Arya, a philosophical journal that included his well-known writings namely, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine.
Aurobindo's political ideas and his philosophy cannot be distinguished as two separate sets of thoughts. This is because all his political ideas are based on those very spiritual and moral concepts that form the essence of his philosophical thoughts. Thus, nationalism for Aurobindo is not simply a political programme or a concept of the intellect. It was a spiritual endeavour, "a religion that has come from God". It is an active religion whose main weapons are spiritual. Aurobindo believed that India's national movement had to succeed so that India could complete her destined task and "become herself. So swaraj was not merely a hint of political independence; swaraj was the means by which she could become a spiritual guide to the whole of humanity.
To deal with national oppression, Aurobindo advocated passive as well as active resistance depending upon the type of pressures applied. As political liberty is of the greatest importance to a nation, it has to be guarded or secured by any means.
Aurobindo was of the opinion that individuals must be ready to lay down their lives in their nation's interests. Only by identifying himself with the national will can an individual achieve fulfillment. But the nation itself was not simply a group of individuals, as Aurobindo saw it. It was an organism just as the individual is one, and a nation has itsown personality as well. The function of a society is to help an individual achieve the human ideals and so, a society's ideals have to be based 011 an accurate understanding of human existence. Man needs to realise that his essential being does not rely on scientific and technological advancements as those made in the West but is a result of living in the spirit.
The revolution conceived by Aurobindo was spiritual in nature. It involved a realisation based on the concepts of the Supreme Reality (Sachchidananda), Supermind (the Truth Consciousness) and Evolution. The basic idea of humanity was Brahma—whose freedom is equally shared by humans who have an organic relationship with one another. The Brahma (super-consciousness) is related to the Mind (consciousness) through the supermind, the most complete spiritual consciousness. And spiritual evolution was a process that spread over the whole of reality itself.
The Bhagavat Gita is one of the major spiritual works of the world. It forms an integral part of the Mahabharata and is the teaching given by Sri Krishna to Arjuna, when Arjuna faced a crisis of confidence, seeing the huge armies facing him, at the start of the great Mahabharata war. The Gita consists of 700 verses divided into 18 chapters. Sri Aurobindo has given his interpretation of the Gita, in the light of his experience, in the Essays on the Gita. The Essays on the Gita is not a verse by verse commentary on the Gita but Sri Aurobindo approaches the Gita in a large catholic and non-sectarian spirit and brings out the essential teachings in a clear, lucid and harmonious manner and in terms of language addressed to the modern intellectual man.
We are all aware of the supreme importance and the role the teachings of Gita play in the Indian spiritual life, but it would be pertinent to also know the important influence the Gita had on the life of both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The Gita, along with the Upanishads, was Sri Aurobindo’s companion in Alipore jail, where he had an intimate communion with Sri Krishna (the Lord of the Gita) and specifically followed the Gita’s yoga. Here, in jail, putting the Gita’s teaching into practice, Sri Aurobindo was constantly guided by Sri Krishna, whom afterwards he declared to have been the master of his yoga. The Gita formed an integral part of the foundation of his avataric realization – which is one reason why his Essays on the Gita remains an essential source of inspiration for all who want to follow in his footsteps (Preparing for the miraculous pg 79).
Here is what Sri Aurobindo himself says “Then He placed the Gita in my hands, His strength entered into me and I was able to do the Sadhana of the Gita. I was not only to understand intellectually but to realise what Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those who aspire to do His work, to be free from repulsion and desire, to do work for Him without the demand for fruit, to renounce self-will and become a passive and faithful instrument in His hands, to have an equal heart for high and low, friend and opponent, success and failure, yet not to do His work negligently.” (SABCL vol.2 pg 3). His fondness for the Gita continued in Pondicherry also and the largest number of references to scriptures in Sri Aurobindo’s works is from the Gita. The Mother herself has recalled that when She had come to a certain blank in her sadhana, while in France, an Indian gave her an old copy of an imperfect French translation of the Gita and asked her to regard Lord Krishna of the Gita as the in-dwelling Godhead. And the Mother says that her work was done in record time.
This is what The Mother has said about the Gita “Sri Aurobindo considers the message of the Gita to be the basis of the great spiritual movement which has led and will lead humanity more and more to its liberation, that is to say, to its escape from falsehood and ignorance, towards the truth.
From the time of its first appearance the Gita has had an immense spiritual action; but with the new interpretation that Sri Aurobindo has given to it, its influence has increased considerably and has become decisive.”
Now we come to the question as to why Sri Aurobindo wrote his commentary on the Gita. There are already hundreds if not thousands of expositions on the Gita by very learned and spiritual people, why add one more to their numbers? In Alipore jail, the Lord of the Gita gave Sri Aurobindo direct experience of the Gita’s teaching and yoga and gave him the command to revive the Santhan Dharma, the eternal religion and of which the Gita’s teachings is one of the main pillars. Much of Indian spiritual thought had been misinterpreted and distorted by western thinkers and even in India, misinterpreted and distorted, to represent narrow sectarian purposes, and it was to place these teachings in their true, wide and non-sectarian spirit that Sri Aurobindo has written about the Gita, in the light of his own experience and yoga, as expounded to him by the Lord of the Gita himself. Further in his writing, he has addressed himself to the modern intellectual man and put it in language suitable to his understanding.
In an undated (1912?) letter to Motilal Roy Sri Aurobindo Says, “I am now getting a clearer idea of that work and I may as well impart something of that idea to you; since you look to me as the centre, you should know what is likely to radiate out of that centre.
1.To re-explain Sanatana Dharma [the Eternal Law] to the human intellect in all its parts, from a new stand point. This work is already beginning, and three parts of it are being clearly worked out. Sri Krishna has shown me the true meaning of the Vedas, not only so, but he has shown me a new Science of Philology showing the process and origins of human speech so that a new Nirukta can be formed and the interpretation of the Veda based upon it. He has also shown me the meaning of all in the Upanishads that is not understood either by Indians or Europeans. I have therefore to re-explain the whole Vedanta and Veda in such a way that it will be seen how all religions arise out of it and is one everywhere. In this way it will be proved that India is the centre of the religious life of the world and its destined saviour through the Santana Dharma.(Mother’s Chronicles, Book 6, pg 336-337)
It would not be out of place to take the above as applying to the Gita also.
In order to get correct understanding of Gita’s teaching, it would be helpful to know as to who Sri Krishna is and who Arjuna is. Sri Krishna is the transcendent Godhead the Purshottama. At the same time He is the eternal Godhead immanent, lodged in the hearts of every person, every creature, governing, guiding from within. He is the avatar, who takes birth in human form, from time to time, to assist this great evolution, adventure of consciousness from unconsciousness to supreme consciousness. And who is Arjuna? He is a prince, a kshatriya, a man of action, and the representative man of his age, of humanity, who is engaged in the field of action, thirsting for knowledge, ready to receive knowledge – the knowledge of right course of action. And here in lies the eternal and universal relevance of the Gita, even after a span of nearly 5000 years. Arjuna’s query is what is right action, what action do I take faced with these massive Kuru armies? The war of Kurukshetra between right and wrong, between just and unjust, between good and evil, is being fought within us, in our hearts every day. The battle in the field of Kurus is the battle of striving humanity i.e. it is our battle. Each day, each moment, we have to decide what the right action is, what do I do in the given present situation, circumstances? And the Gita answers by giving us a standpoint, a solid basis, which once grasped and made a part of ourselves by practice and yoga, will in all circumstances, situations show us what needs to be done, what action to take, what dharma to follow. The teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads are addressed to seekers of knowledge while the Gita’s teachings is addressed to man of action, and though many of us may be seekers of knowledge, we are all kinetic men, men of action and the Gita’s teaching has direct relevance to us all.
Before we proceed to ask what is the Gita’s teaching as expounded by Sri Aurobindo, let us keep in mind that Sri Aurobindo never shirked realty, including material realty and never sought to dilute it or water it down to make it more in line with traditional view or to make it more pleasant or acceptable. Here is what he says in the Essays
“From a clash of material or other forces everything in this world, if not the world itself, seems to be born; by a struggle of forces, tendencies, principles, beings it seems to proceed, ever creating new things, ever destroying the old, marching one knows not very well whither. However that may be, this is certain that there is not only no construction here without destruction, no harmony except by a poise of contending forces won out of many actual and potential discords, but also no continued existence of life except by a constant self-feeding and devouring of other life. The command seems to have gone out from the beginning,’Thou shalt not conquer except by battle with thy fellows and thy surroundings; thou shalt not even live except by battle and struggle and by absorbing into thyself other life. The first law of this world that I have made is creation and preservation by destruction.’
“Ancient thought accepted this starting point so far as it could see it by scrutiny of the universe. The old Upanishads saw it very clearly and phrased it with an uncomprising thoroughness which will have nothing to do with any honeyed glosses or optimistic scuttling of the truth. Hunger that is Death, they said, is the creator and master of this world, and they figured vital existence in the image of the Horse of the sacrifice. Matter they described by a name which means ordinarily food and they said, we call it food because it is devoured and devours creatures. The eater eating is eaten; this is the formula of the material world.” (Essays on the Gita, pg 40-41)
“It is only a few religions which have had the courage to say without any reserve, like the Indian, that this enigmatic World-Power is one Deity, one Trinity, to lift up the image of the Force that acts in the world in the figure not only of the beneficent Durga, but of the terrible Kali in her blood-stained dance of destruction and to say, ‘This too is the Mother; this also know to be God; this too, if thou hast the strength, adore.” (Essays on the Gita pg 45)
“We must acknowledge Kurukshetra; we must submit to the law of life by Death before we can find our way to the life immortal; we must open our eyes, with a less appalled gaze then Arjuna’s, to the vision of our Lord of Time and Death and cease to deny hate or recoil from the Universal Destroyer” (Essays on the Gita pg 46)
“The weakness of the human heart wants only fair and comforting truths or in their absence pleasant fables; it will not have the truth in its entirety because there there is much that is not clear and pleasant and comfortable but hard to understand and harder to bear” (Essays on the Gita pg 381)
So what exactly is the Gita’s teaching according to Sri Aurobindo?
“The supreme and final word of the Gita for the yogin is that he should leave all conventional formulas of belief and action, all fixed and external rules of conduct, all constructions of the outward surface Nature, Dharmas, and take refuge in the Divine alone” (Synthesis of Yoga pg 274)
“What the great, the supreme word of the Gita is, its mahavakya, we have not to seek, for the Gita declares it in its last utterance, the crowning note of the great diapason “With th Lord in thy heart take refuge with all thy being; by His grace thou shalt attain to the supreme peace and the eternal status. So have I expounded to thee a knowledge more secret than that which is hidden. Further hear the most secret, the supreme word that I shall speak to thee. Become my-minded, devoted to Me, to Me do sacrifice and adoration; infallibly, thou shalt come to Me, for dear to Me art thou. Abandoning all laws of conduct seek refuge in Me alone. I will release thee from all sin; do not grieve.”(Essays on the Gita pg 34)
“The ordinary life consists in work for the personal aim and satisfaction of desire under some mental or moral ideal. The Gita’s yoga consists in the offering of one’s work as a sacrifice to the Divine, the conquest of desire, egoless and desireless action, bhakti for the Divine, an entering into the cosmic consciousness, the sense of unity with all creatures, oneness with the Divine. This yoga adds the bringing down of the supramental Light and Force (its ultimate aim) and the transformation of the nature.” (Letters on Yoga pt II pg 669)
“This world is, as the gita describes it, anityamasukham, so long as we live in the present world-consciousness; it is only by turning from that to the Divine and entering into the Divine consciousness that one can posses through the world also, the Eternal” (Letters on Yoga pt I pg 71)
“The Gita cannot be described exclusively a gospel of love. What it sets forth is a yoga of knowledge, devotion and works based on a spiritual consciousness and realisation of oneness with the Divine and of the oneness of all beings in the Divine. Bhakti, devotion and love of God carrying with it unity with all beings and love for all beings is given a high place but always in connection with knowledge and works.” (Letters on Yoga Pt I pg71)
“But note that the Gita was not meant by the writer to be an allegory – you can say, if you like, that now we should dismiss the ancient war element by interpreting it as if it were an allegory. The Gita is yoga, spiritual truth applied to the external life and action – but it may be any action and not necessarily an action resembling that of the Gita. The principle of the spiritual consciousness applied to action has to be kept – the particular example used by the Gita may be treated as a thing belonging to a past world.” (Letter of Yoga Pt I pg 71/72)
“_____ one has first to conquer the lower nature, deliver the self involved in the lower movement by means of the higher Self which rises into the divine nature; at the same time one offers all one’s actions including the inner action of the yoga as a sacrifice to the Purushottama, the transcendent and immanent Divine. When one has risen into the higher Self, has the knowledge and is free, one makes the complete surrender to the Divine, abandoning all other dharmas, living only by the divine consciousness, the divine Will and Force, the divine Ananda.” (Letters on Yoga Pt I pg70)
“The teaching of the Gita is the teaching for life, and not a teaching for the life of a closet. It is a teaching which means perfection of action. It makes man great. It gives him the utter strength, the utter bliss which is the goal of life in the world” (SABCL vol 2 pg 430)
“In the Gita we find that Sri Krishna unites the Vedanta philosophy with the philosophy of Sankhya. Modern science denies that man has a soul. Science considers only the laws of nature. It regards nature as material, and man as merely product of nature. It says man is a creation of natural forces. All his actions are results of fixed laws and he has no freedom. According to the Sankhya, man has a soul and is essentially the Purusha and not matter. The spirit does not act. The soul is calm and motionless. Prakriti is always shifting and changing, and under her influence all actions take place. Prakriti (nature) acts.
Man can only free himself by recognising that he is the purusha. Sri Krishna adopts this theory of Sankhya in the Gita, and he also adopts the philosophy of Vedanta. He says that man has an immortal soul, but there is also Universal soul. Man is merely part of God. He is merely a part of something that is eternal, infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent. This eternal power is what really exists, and in all that we see, hear, feel, it is He alone who exists. It is He alone whom we feel and see. Parmeshwara build up this world by his Maya (illusion). He is the master of the great illusion which He calls Maya. This He made to express Himself the one. All these things around us are transitory. Within us is that which cannot change, which is eternally free and happy. If he feels himself miserable, it is because he in his ignorance allows himself to be dominated by egoism (Ahankara). He thinks that he is all. He does not realise that God is the master of this Lila (God’s action). He thinks that it is I who act, am the lord of my body, and because he thinks so, he is bound by his action. By these forces he is driven from birth to birth. The great illusion is that this body which he inhabits is himself; next he identifies himself with the mind, and thinks it is I who think, see and feel. In realty according to the Gita, God is within the heart of every creation.
The second thing you have to recognise is that you are only a part of Him, who is eternal, omniscient and omnipotent.” (SABCL vol 2 pg 426)
The Gita further details about the 3 gunas and how they determine mans nature and actions. It also goes on to explain about the dharma of the individual and his duties. Speaking about the duties here is what Sri Aurobindo says about the problem and solution given by the Gita:
“Your duty to your family seems to conflict with your duty to society, that of society to nation, and that of the nation to mankind. How shall we follow the path which leads to solution? It is difficult to say what is right and what is wrong. How to decide it then?
There is one way: do action in Yoga, and then you rise above ignorance and sin cannot touch you, and you rise above all that hampers you and binds you.
So what is yoga?
The first element is Samata. Samata means you shall look with equal eyes upon happiness and misfortune, praise and blame, honour and dishonour, and success and failure. You shall regard none of these, but with a calm and unshaken mind, the work which you are given to do you should proceed with that, unshaken by praise or censure of the world. The man who has this samata, has no friends and no enemies. He looks upon all with equal feelings, because he has knowledge, because he has looked into himself and out into the world. He finds himself everywhere and all in himself. He finds himself in all, because God is in all, Whether he looks at the high or low, he sees no difference and sees that in every creature there is Narayan. He sees that he is only an Amsha (part) of one which is in every matter. If there be any differences, they are only temporary and outward. He is only that through which Vasudeva carries on his Lila (play). He is not anxious to know what will happen tomorrow, because the action is not guided by laws. The man who has communion with God has no reason to be guided by laws, because he knows God is alone and all. He is not troubled by the fruits of his action. You have the right to action, to work, but not to the fruit. Work and leave the result to Me..........
Yoga means freedom from Dwandwa (duality). His is free from the bondage of pleasure and pain, of anger and hatred and attachment, of liking and disliking, because he looks with equal eyes on all. He does not shrink from misfortune or misery, happiness and unhappiness. He rises above the bondage of the body, because no man can give him pleasure or pain, because he has his own source of strength, of delight and happiness. This is the freedom which the Gita says the Yoga gives. The freedom which we ordinarily mean is Mukti. This is the freedom which the Gita promises. He says if you act in Yoga, you rise above grief and pain, even above all things. You are free from fear or sin, because you do not act for yourself. You do not act because you will get pleasure, but for the sake of God: that is how you are to reach Yoga.......
The teachings of the Gita, if it is followed, delivers you form all possibility of sin, of sorrow. He (Sri Krishna) says: “Take refuge in Me, I shall free you from all evil. Do everything as a sacrifice to Me.”..... This is the way in which Sri Krishna has solved the problem put by Arjuna......The man of knowledge doing Yoga acts in communion with God; others act in pursuance of their desires.” (SABCL vol 2 pg428-429-430)
“The argument of the Gita resolves into three great steps by which action rises out of the human into the divine plane leaving the bondage of the lower for the liberty of the higher law. First, by renunciation of desire and a perfect equality works have to be done as a sacrifice by man as the doer, a sacrifice to a diety who is the supreme and only Self though by him not yet realised in his own being. This is the intial step. Secondly, not only the desire of the fruit, but the claim to be doer of works has to be renounced in the realisation of the Self as the equal, the inactive, the immutable principle and of all works as simply the operation of universal Force, of the Nature-Soul, Prakriti, the unequal, active, mutable power. Lastly, the Supreme Self has to seen as the Supreme Purusha governing this Prakriti, of whom the Soul in Nature is a partial manifestation, by whom all works are directed, in perfect transcendence, through Nature. To Him love and adoration and the sacrifice of works have to be offered; the whole being has to be surrendered to Him and the whole consciousness raised up to dwell in His divine transcendence of Nature and of His works and act in a perfect spiritual liberty.
The first step is Karmayoga, the selfless sacrifice of works, and here the Gita’s insistence is on action. The second is Jnana-yoga, the self-realisation and knowledge of the true nature of the self and the world, and here the insistence is on knowledge, but the sacrifice of works continues and the path of works becomes one with but does not disappear into the path of knowledge. The last step is Bhaktiyoga, adoration and seeking of the supreme Self as the Divine Being, and here the insistence is on devotion; but the knowledge is not subordinated, only raised, vitalised and fulfilled, and still the sacrifice of works continues; the double path becomes the triune way of knowledge, works and devotion. And the fruit of the sacrifice, the one fruit still placed before the seeker, is attained, Union with the divine Being and oneness with the supreme divine Nature.” (Essays on Gita pg 34-35.)
This is only a short and necessarily partial exposition of what Sri Aurobindo has said in the Essays on Gita. As already mentioned earlier, Gita’s teaching had a profound influence on Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and it would be worthwhile to pursue the Essays on Gita directly and in its entirety.
Lastly we come to the question – is Gita’s teaching the same as Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga or is there something more in Integral Yoga? Let us see what Sri Aurobindo himself has to say:
“Our Yoga is not identical with the Yoga of the Gita although it contains all that is essential in the Gita’s yoga. In our yoga we begin with the idea, the will, the aspiration of the complete surrender; but at the same time we have to reject the lower nature, deliver our consciousness from it, deliver the self involved in the lower nature by the self rising to freedom in the higher nature. If we do not do this double movement, we are in danger of making a tamasic and therefore unreal surrender, making no effort, no tapas and therefore no progress; or else we may make a rajasic surrender not to the Divine but to some self-made false idea or image of the Divine which masks our rajasic ego or something still worse.” (Letters on Yoga Pt I pg 70)
“it is not a fact that the Gita gives the whole base of Sri Aurobindo’s message; for the Gita seems to admit the cessation of birth in the world as the ultimate aim or at least the ultimate culmination of yoga; it does not bring forward the idea of spiritual evolution or the idea of the higher planes and the supramental Truth-Consciousness as the means of the complete transformation of earthly life” (Letters on Yoga Pt I pg 69)
“The Gita does not speak expressly of the Divine Mother; it speaks always of surrender to the Purshottama – it mentions her only as the Para Prakriti who becomes the Jiva, that is, who manifests the Divine in the multiplicity and through whom all these worlds are created by the Supreme and he himself descends as the Avatar. The Gita follows the Vedantic tradition which leans entirely on the Ishwara aspect of the Divine and speaks little of the Divine Mother because its object is to drawback from world-nature and arrive at the supreme realisation beyond it; the Tantric tradition leans on the Shakti or Ishwari aspect and makes all depend on the Divine Mother because its object is to possess and dominate the world-nature and arrive at the supreme realisation through it. This yoga insists on both the aspects; the surrender to the Divine Mother is essential, for without it there is no fulfilment of the object of the yoga.”(Letters on Yoga Pt I pg72)
As to whether the method of the Gita has any relevance today, to the sadhak of Integral Yoga , we may well remember Sri Aurobindo’s words
“I may say that the way of the Gita is itself a part of the yoga here and those who have followed it, to begin with or as a first stage, have a stronger basis than others for this yoga. To look down on it, therefore, as something separate and inferior is not a right standpoint.” (Letters on Yoga Pt II pg580)
1.SABCL vol 2 – Karmayogin
2.SABCL vol 22 – Letters on Yoga Pt I
3.Thoughts on the Gita – M.P.Pandit
4.Preparing for the Miraculous – Georges Von Vrekhem
5. SABCL vol 13 – Essays on the Gita
6. Mother’s Chronicles Book Six – Sujata Nahar
7. SABCL vol 23 – Letters on Yoga Pt II