Anilbaran Roy’s account is his record of informal conversations between Sri Aurobindo and about a dozen of his disciples between May and September 1926. These talks were serialised in part for Mother India during the early 1950s and in full between 1977 and 1986 for Sri Aurobindo Circle. The talks cover a wide range of topics—his own life and spiritual practice, his method of yoga, India under British rule, Indian politics and the freedom struggle, Indian religion, education and culture, Western influence on life in India, and the future of humanity. As with A.B. Purani’s account of Sri Aurobindo’s talks in the 1920s, they give the reader a sense of Sri Aurobindo’s versatile personality, his spiritual insight and experience, and his approach to some of the important issues of his time.
THE BENGALI POLITICAL LEADER Anilbaran Roy came to live with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry in May 1926. Soon after his arrival he was invited to join the talks Sri Aurobindo had with a small group of disciples several evenings a week. Recognising their value, Anilbaran began noting down these talks from memory. His record has been published, in whole or part, in two periodic journals; this is the first time they are appearing in book form.
Some of these talks – about forty percent– were also recorded by another participant, A. B. Purani, and published in his Evening Talks; the two accounts differ somewhat, of course, in content and expression. The remaining sixty percent of the talks were recorded only by Anilbaran, and for most readers they will be new.
In his notebooks Anilbaran generally gave the names of the participants; these names have been retained in this book, and they bring to the talks a sense of personality and intimacy. The discussions were informal, open-ended and animated. The disciples were free to ask questions or make comments; Sri Aurobindo was likewise free in his replies. His remarks are clear, candid, incisive, and sometimes sharp. Anilbaran has admirably captured their power. He has also managed to convey the congenial atmosphere of the talks. The light hearted banter among the participants adds to the reading enjoyment.
There is a fair dose of politics in the talks. Asked about the “characteristics of Indian politicians”, Sri Aurobindo tells his listeners, “They never do a thing at the right time and whatever they do, they do it badly,” at which point laughter breaks out. More seriously he goes on to explain, “They are out of touch with reality—they see what the English people are doing in England and try to apply that to this country, though it may be quite unsuitable here.” Elsewhere he comments, “The present politics in India is not essentially different from European politics; it is rather an imperfect imitation of it.” Then he asks, “Is it worthwhile for Indians to give up their own Swadharma in pursuit of these foreign ideals?”
The politics of Mahatma Gandhi comes up several times for discussion. In one talk Sri Aurobindo says, “Gandhi made a confusion of things when he sought to win over the Mahomedans by helping them in the Khilafat movement.… Gandhi took no account of facts, ignored the nature of the Mahomedans, formed in his own mind a scheme of Hindu-Muslim unity and thrust it upon the country without regard to the existing circumstances.” In another talk Sri Aurobindo speaks about a fatal flaw in Gandhi’s insistence on pacifism: “Gandhi’s doctrine of meeting violence by soul-force is most impracticable. The oppressor will respond only when he has a soul, but in most cases there is no soul to respond.”
Sometimes the conversation turned to Hindu religion and its customs. Sri Aurobindo did not think much of the efforts at the time to reform the caste system. “Mere interdining and so forth cannot affect the caste system,” he remarks. “Unless there is intermarriage, the caste system cannot be said to have disappeared.” The Shraddha ceremony for deceased family members he dismisses as a “social superstition”. As for Hinduism as a whole, he considers it “more fundamentally tolerant than any other religion in the world”. Always in the end he affirms the intrinsic value of Indian religion and culture.
Nations other than India also come up for discussion in the talks. When A. B. Purani offers an item of news, “The crew of a Japanese ship saved many shipwrecked Englishmen at the risk of their own lives,” Sri Aurobindo comments, “That is quite like the Japanese. They would rather perish than neglect their duty.” Anilbaran then asks, “What has made the Japanese so dutiful?” Sri Aurobindo explains, “It is their ancient culture—the splendid organisation and the discipline of the Samurai which has reached the whole people. That discipline consists in great self-restraint and sacrifice at the call of duty.” Other countries are similarly assessed with the same sure eye.
Often the conversations explorevarious aspects of spiritual life, and on occasion Sri Aurobindo speaks of his own sadhana. In a discussion about the need for a Guru, Sri Aurobindo observes, “Though generally a touch from the Guru is necessary, it is not indispensable. In my case there was no touch from a Guru. I got an inner touch and then practised Yoga. At a certain stage, when I could not proceed further, Lele gave me some help. When I came to Pondicherry, I got from within a programme for my sadhana. I did it myself, but I could not figure out how to help others; then Mirra came and I found out with her help.”
Sri Aurobindo also speaks about his system of Yoga. “In the course of evolution,” he says in one talk, “Nature has brought forth the mental consciousness. The next stage is the manifestation of the Supramental. The bringing down of the supramental consciousness is the object of our Yoga.… [O]ur object is to transform this life with the help of the Supramental.” Throughout the talks there are hints about how to practise the Yoga and questions about its relation to other paths. When Anilbaran asks how Tantrics use the lower movements of their nature to help build up their spiritual life, Sri Aurobindo simply says, “I have no objection to taking fish; you can even take wine if it suits you; but how can the sexual act be made a help to spiritual life?” Then he explains why sex is inadvisable from a Yogic point of view. As for the use of drugs, he notes, “Drugs give an artificial stimulation which makes possible certain experiences, but these experiences do not bring any permanent change.” When Anilbaran asks, “How do things of beauty help our spiritual development?”, Sri Aurobindo offers this insight: “Cultivation of the sense of beauty brings a refinement which makes spiritual transformation easier when there is the necessary opening. There is the aspect of beauty in God and it is easy to approach Him through beauty.”
The talks of 1926 cover a large canvas. In them Sri Aurobindo speaks of his own life and work and sadhana; his method of Yoga and that of other paths; the condition of India under British rule and the country’s struggle for freedom; Indian religion, education and culture; Western religion, science and social life; the West’s influence on life in India; the future of humanity; and much else besides. The book is, as the back-cover blurb puts it, “a valuable record of Sri Aurobindo’s viewpoint on many important issues at the time”.
Bob is the Director of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and Research Library.
Reviewed in February 2021