This biography of Sri Aurobindo concentrates on his involvement in the political life of India as a participant, and, later, after he retired from politics, as a keen observer of Indian and world affairs who even made public statements supporting the Cripps Mission and the Allied Powers during World War II. The author aims to deliver Sri Aurobindo from a limited historical role and relocate his life and work as a visionary who elevated India’s role in modern history. He highlights the relevance of Sri Aurobindo’s writings to the world today and to its future, calling them a living, provocative mass of ideas. Pointing out the themes of evolution and the liberation of the human being in Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, he claims that the importance and necessity of freedom is the critical lesson from Sri Aurobindo even today.
It has become kind of mandatory to start every biography of Sri Aurobindo and, as a consequence, also every review of such a biography with something Sri Aurobindo wrote about it in 1930:
I see that you have persisted in giving a biography — is it really necessary or useful? The attempt is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for man to see.
—Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes, CWSA Vol. 36, p. 11
And it is true, one could well argue, that the only accurate in-depth biography of Sri Aurobindo is his own Savitri. To understand integral yoga, there is again no better way than to read what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have written themselves, and for this, one can find a good starting point in the series of small compilations edited by A.S. Dalal. To get a broad overview of the entire range and depth of Sri Aurobindo’s writings, one could do worse than taking up Reading Sri Aurobindo, edited by Gautam Chikermane and Devdip Ganguli, which has short essays by a wide variety of authors on each of the thirty-six volumes that together make up Sri Aurobindo’s Complete Works.
The value of Mystic Fire does not lie in these things, but in what Atulindra Nath Chaturvedi writes about Sri Aurobindo’s human side, how he developed in the context of the cultural and political life of his time. And there are good reasons for reading about the details of his outer life. Even if Sri Aurobindo called things like his record marks in Greek and Latin “trifles” (CWSA 36, p. 13), for us ordinary mortals reading about his outer life in England, Baroda, Calcutta, and Pondicherry adds something valuable. It makes him a bit more approachable as another human being, and it gives us courage to make at least an attempt at walking, on our own much diminished scale, in the same direction. Though we may never fully understand the heights and depths Sri Aurobindo reached at the end of his life, reading about where he started is inspiring—and it is enjoyable because Atulindra writes well.
One of the best parts of Mystic Fire are its descriptions of small but significant human interchanges, of moods, feelings, intentions, the fine details of life noted down by the people who met Sri Aurobindo or got acquainted with him in a wide variety of social settings. It is clear that Sri Aurobindo left a deep impression on the people around him, whether they were family and acquaintances impressed by his gentle inward demeanour and sense of humour, his comrades in the Indian struggle for political independence he initiated and that became a reality on his 70th birthday, his readers and co-authors who admired his wit and precision of style, or the British office bearers who considered him the most dangerous man in the British empire. Atulindra describes all these encounters as if they are part of a single, pretty wonderful, and actually rather romantic story, in a style that stands out by a special kind of almost poetic psychological precision, which brings them vividly to life in the reader’s mind.
But it is not only its style that makes Mystic Fire worth reading. The author has an acute sense of history and of what happens when different cultures, religions, political systems, and individuals with different spiritual sensitivities meet. One of the things he describes with outstanding clarity is how Sri Aurobindo, when he fought to get India its political independence back, stressed the need for India to recover first her spiritual roots, her soul. And it is here that the main message and significance of this biography can be found.
When Sri Aurobindo concentrated his efforts on the revival of Indian culture and religion, what he meant was not something narrow, exclusive, or communal. It was the ancient, all-inclusive spirituality that he would later call the original Vedanta. Atulindra stresses that Sri Aurobindo was right from the beginning perfectly clear and explicit about this, and it may be worth repeating here the definition of the Sanathana Dharma that Atulindra quotes. It is the one Sri Aurobindo gave in the Karmayogin:
The religion which embraces Science and faith, Theism, Christianity, Mahomedanism and Buddhism and yet is none of these, is that to which the World-Spirit moves. … This sanatana dharma has many scriptures, Veda, Vedanta, Gita, Upanishad, Darshana, Purana, Tantra, nor could it reject the Bible or the Koran; but its real, most authoritative scripture is in the heart in which the Eternal has His dwelling.
—Sri Aurobindo, Karmayogin, CWSA Vol.8, p. 26
Atulindra also quotes what Sri Aurobindo wrote on another occasion: “we do not understand Hindu nationalism as a possibility under modern conditions. … under modern conditions India can only exist as a whole.” (Ibid, p.304)
One of the most important messages Mystic Fire gives us is that using Sri Aurobindo’s authority to support communal thinking does a great disservice to India, to Sri Aurobindo, and to the work he came to do for the future of humanity.
Mystic Fire: The Life of Sri Aurobindo by Atulindra Nath Chaturvedi is a joy to read, and whole-heartedly recommended.
Dr Matthijs Cornelissen teaches Psychological Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Work at the SAICE and is the founder-director of the Indian Psychology Institute.
Reviewed in August 2023