A brief survey of Sri Aurobindo's writings

Matthijs Cornelissen

Introduction

SRI AUROBINDO was a prolific writer: his Complete Works consists of thirty-seven volumes, more than 20,000 pages in all. Though his writings on yoga and philosophy are the most widely known, his oeuvre also includes original work on politics, social development, psychology, culture, art, literature, poetics and linguistics. In his early years, he wrote a number of plays; poetry he wrote throughout his life. Most of his prose writings came during well-defined periods, each with a distinct content and style. Between 1906 and 1910, he produced short political and cultural articles that came out in several Calcutta-based newspapers. From 1910 to 1914, he wrote mainly for himself — extensive research notes on yoga and linguistics, as well as draft translations and commentaries on a number of Sanskrit texts. In 1914, he began publishing again, and in the following six years he serialised, in monthly instalments, the chapters of all his major prose writings. He did so in the Arya, a philosophical review he brought out from Pondicherry. In the late 1920s and early to mid 1930s, he wrote more than 5000 letters, most in response to questions by his disciples. Between 1920 and 1940, Sri Aurobindo revised several of his Arya writings and published most of them in book form: Essays on the Gita, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, The Life Divine, The Future Poetry, and three socio-political works. His Collected Plays and Poems, a few small booklets and three volumes of Letters of Sri Aurobindo were also brought out during his lifetime. In 1948, he published the extensively revised Part I of The Synthesis of Yoga. His other writings, comprising more than half of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, were published in book form only after 1950.

In terms of content, his writings can be grouped under five headings, each of which will be elaborated below:

  1. Poetry, plays and literary criticism
  2. Writings on politics, culture and social psychology
  3. Translations of and commentaries on Sanskrit texts
  4. Writings on yoga and philosophy
  5. Autobiographical writings and writings on the Mother and the Ashram

Poetry, plays and literary criticism

Sri Aurobindo considered himself first and foremost a poet. He wrote his first poems during his student days and he continued to write poetry throughout his life. His poems deal with a wide range of topics and reveal his stunning insight into human nature and the depth of his love for this divine manifestation in all its complexity and beauty. The most remarkable poems are perhaps those in which he expressed his spiritual experiences. He wrote a number of sonnets of this type, as well as the 24,000-line epic, Savitri. Sri Aurobindo used Savitri, in his own words, as "a ladder of ascension", and one finds in it descriptions of his own sadhana as well as the Mother's. Shortly before his passing in 1950, he still dictated some of the most beautiful and touching lines of Savitri, the passage in which Narad explains how Savitri is destined to stand alone facing Death, and how her response will decide not only her own fate, but the future of the world. One cannot but feel that Sri Aurobindo foresaw here the Mother's role in the continuation and fulfilment of his work.

Sri Aurobindo wrote a number of essays and many letters on English literature and poetics. They are presently available as The Future Poetry and Letters on Poetry and Art. In his younger years, Sri Aurobindo wrote a number of plays, the first while he was still in Baroda and the last during his early years in Pondicherry. The plays are probably the most neglected and undervalued part of his oeuvre. Their plots are dramatic in the best sense of the word, and the characters have that peculiar mix of the archetypal and the unique which makes stage-personalities memorable: once you have watched, or even just read these plays, their main characters have a good chance of staying with you for life.

Writings on politics, culture and social psychology

At the beginning of his stay in Baroda, Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of political articles for a local newspaper, but their publication was stopped when it became clear they were too radical for the times: they advocated complete political independence from Britain as the primary objective of Indian politics. A decade later, he took up the same idea again in a flood of short and fiery articles, which were published in nationalist newspapers brought out from Calcutta, the capital of British India. Many of these articles were political in nature, others dealt with culture, education and social issues. The political writings from this period appear in three volumes of the Complete Works: Bande Mataram (I and II), and Karmayogin. The Bande Mataram volumes contain articles written between 1890 and 1908; most of them were originally published in the nationalist newspaper of the same name between 1906 and 1908. Karmayogin has articles published in 1909 and 1910, most from the newspaper Karmayogin. His writings from this period have a markedly different style from his later works: short, sharp and witty, they dissect the antics of India's colonial rulers with uncanny precision. The British Police Commissioner in Calcutta found them sufficiently unbearable to describe Sri Aurobindo as the most dangerous man in the British Empire. The articles he wrote on culture, mostly between 1890 and 1910, have been collected in a fourth volume, Early Cultural Writings.

Sri Aurobindo remained interested in social and political affairs throughout his life, but after moving from Calcutta to Pondicherry his perspective changed. In the Arya, the philosophical review he published between August 1914 and January 1921, he brought out a series of essays on Indian culture, which are now published as The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture. Another series of essays, titled The Psychology of Social Development (later titled The Human Cycle), deals with the long-term evolution of society. In them Sri Aurobindo argues that we are presently in a transitional period between a rational-individualistic and a subjective-spiritual period of human history. His political ideas of the time centre round The Ideal of Human Unity, the still unresolved question of how to ensure political and economic unity while preserving social and cultural diversity. A third series, later published under the title War and Self-Determination, discusses the emerging spirit of nationalism. These three series of articles have since been published together, and they are now available in one volume that carries the three titles. Although extensively illustrated with events from the period in which they were written, Sri Aurobindo's socio-political writings contain a treasure of insights on social and political development that are still relevant today.

Translations of and commentaries on Sanskrit texts

Sri Aurobindo attached great importance to India's Sanskrit heritage, and wrote once that he considered a proper understanding of the Rig Veda a "practical necessity for the future of the human race". He looked at the verses of the Rig Veda as the expression of a profound, consciousness-centred understanding of reality, and in The Secret of the Veda he explains how a spiritual and psychological reading of these ancient texts leads to a more consistent translation of the Sanskrit terminology than the prevalent ritualistic and naturalistic interpretations. Hymns to the Mystic Fire contains Sri Aurobindo's translations of Rig Veda verses that are addressed to Agni. His little-known research notes on Vedic Sanskrit will soon come out as a volume of the Complete Works titled Vedic and Philological Studies.

Sri Aurobindo published in the Arya two series of commentaries on the Gita. They are now available under the title Essays on the Gita. Though Sri Aurobindo translated a considerable part of the Gita, the Essays themselves do not contain a line-for-line translation of the original text, but follow their own storyline. Several of Sri Aurobindo's disciples have attempted to reconstitute a linear translation using Sri Aurobindo's translations wherever available followed by the relevant passages from the Essays. The most significant is perhaps Anilbaran Roy's The Message of the Gita, which he compiled with Sri Aurobindo's approval in 1938.

Sri Aurobindo's translations of the Upanishads have been gathered together in two volumes. The first volume, titled Isha Upanishad, contains, besides several translations and shorter commentaries, also two book-length texts that started as commentaries on the Isha Upanishad, but over time grew into early drafts of The Life Divine. The second volume, Kena and Other Upanishads, has translations and commentaries on the Kena, Katha, Mundaka and other Upanishads. Both volumes contain both published and hitherto unpublished material.

Writings on yoga and philosophy

With his writings on yoga and philosophy, we have reached the core of Sri Aurobindo's work. In his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo expounds his vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. For those interested in yoga rather than philosophy, the last four chapters of The Life Divine are of special interest. The first of them, "The Triple Transformation", gives a magnificent description of how his Integral Yoga extends beyond the more traditional paths of yoga. The next two chapters deal with the transformation required for the individual to attain what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental consciousness. The final chapter deals with the changes Sri Aurobindo envisages in our collective life.

The Synthesis of Yoga consists of four parts and an introduction. In the introduction, he explains why a synthesis of the Indian yoga traditions is required, and why this synthesis has to be psychological in nature. It offers an excellent introduction into what Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga is about, and it explains how the Integral Yoga differs from more traditional approaches. The first three parts of the book deal with the three traditional paths of Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yoga. The last part deals with his own Yoga of Self-Perfection. It may be noted that only Part I, "The Yoga of Divine Works", was entirely revised and published as a book during his lifetime. Part II, "The Yoga of Integral Knowledge", he revised only partially, and Parts III and IV did not receive any revision. As a consequence, the terminology used in these last two parts of The Synthesis differs slightly from the one used in The Life Divine and Letters on Yoga.

The next major work dealing with yoga consists of his Letters on Yoga. The collection of letters on yoga that was part of the SABCL edition constituted three volumes. The extensively enlarged collection of letters that is coming out as part of the Complete Works will have four volumes. Only the first of these four volumes is presently available, as part of the set.

Besides these three major publications, there are two volumes with short essays on yoga and philosophy. The first, Essays on Philosophy and Yoga, contains material published during Sri Aurobindo's lifetime, mostly in the Arya. The next, Essays Divine and Human, consists of material published after 1950.

Autobiographical writings and writings on the Mother and the Ashram

Sri Aurobindo once said that his life was not on the surface for others to see, but still there is an impressive amount of biographical material available. The Complete Works includes two such volumes: Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, dealing mainly with his early years in England, Baroda and Calcutta, and Letters on Himself and the Ashram. It also contains one volume about the Mother titled The Mother with Letters on the Mother.

Besides these three, there are the two volumes of the Record of Yoga, the diary Sri Aurobindo kept of his spiritual endeavour during the early years in Pondicherry. These contain the "laboratory notes" he maintained between 1909 and 1927 about his own yogic development. The Record of Yoga is a unique text, in that no one with a similar level of attainment has left such a detailed record of his own inner experiments. Though the Record throws light on his sadhana and his methods of inner enquiry, it was not written for others, and at places it is extremely difficult to understand. For most of us, it will be more fruitful to concentrate on the conclusions he drew from these experiments, and on what he published in his writings on yoga and philosophy, especially The Synthesis of Yoga, The Life Divine, and the Letters on Yoga. Regarding his own inner life, the most beautiful and vivid descriptions can probably be found in his poetry, especially in his sonnets and in Savitri.

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