Early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo

In the formative years of our youth, some of us experience those serendipitous and decisive moments which open new vistas and reveal to us our calling  in life; one individual may chance upon a stirring piece of music and be impelled to become a musician; another may be captivated by an enigmatic pattern of numbers and subsequently enroll in math studies; and yet another might discover an uncanny aptitude for mechanical tools and go on to build a business around it.  These are predestined moments, moments when the soul shines forth to disclose our purpose and guide us to our vocation in this incarnation.   In the lives of mystics as well, we see such transcendental moments which initiate their entry into the spiritual path.  This article presents some early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo as noted down in his poems.

Before we discuss Sri Aurobindo, let me digress by providing an example from the early life of a noted computer scientist Michael O. Rabin.  In this excerpt from the book Out of their minds: the lives and discoveries of 15 great computer scientists by Dennis Shasha, Michael Rabin narrates an episode in his childhood which motivated him to study math even though his father wanted him to devote himself to religious studies.

My sister, who is five years older than I, brought home The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Krif.  Reading that and other books on the pioneers of microbiology sparked my imagination, so from the time I was eight until about twelve, I thought I might become a microbiologist.

Then one day serendipity played a role and I was kicked out of class.  There were two ninth-grade students sitting the corridor solving Euclid style geometry problems.  I looked at what they were doing.  There was a problem they couldn’t solve.  So they challenged me and I solved it.  The beauty of that, the fact that by pure thought you can establish a truth about lines and circles by the process of proof, struck me and captivated me completely. [1] (link)

Such transformative experiences abound in the lives of mystics as well.  Ramakrishna Paramahansa early in his childhood was said to have been entranced by the ethereal sight of dazzling white geese silhouetted against a dark monsoon sky.  Rabindranath Tagore in his youth had a vision of the world bathed in light; this vision informed his soul-stirring poetry and philosophy of life.

Early experiences of Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo was born in 1872 in Calcutta, India.  At the tender age of seven, he was sent to England by his father for higher studies and that is where he remained till the age of twenty-one.   While in England, he once came across a brief statement on the “Six philosophies of India” and was especially struck by the concept of the Atman in Advaita.  He thought it might bear a clue to the reality behind the phenomenal world but he couldn’t ascertain its deeper significance at the time. [2]

He returned back from England to India in February of 1893 on board a steamship as was the custom in those days.  When the ship docked at Apollo Bunder (seen below) in Bombay(now Mumbai), he felt a vast calm descending upon him.  This envelope of calm that ensconced him persisted for many months. [2]

Photo: Apollo Bunder circa 1900. Click image for source

He subsequently took up employment with the Maharaja of Baroda State. In the first year of his stay(approx 1893-1894), he was involved in a horse carriage accident during which he had the vision of a Godhead surging up from within to save his life. [2]   He wrote the poem “The Godhead” describing this experience.

Photo: Horse-drawn carriage circa 1900. Click image for source.

The Godhead

I sat behind the dance of Danger’s hooves
In the shouting street that seemed a futurist’s whim,
And suddenly felt, exceeding Nature’s grooves,
In me, enveloping me the body of Him.

Above my head a mighty head was seen,
A face with the calm of immortality
And an omnipotent gaze that held the scene
In the vast circle of its sovereignty.

His hair was mingled with the sun and breeze;
The world was in His heart and He was I:
I housed in me the Everlasting’s peace,
The strength of One whose substance cannot die.

The moment passed and all was as before;
Only that deathless memory I bore.

In 1905, during his travels around the region of Baroda, he visited a temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali in Chandod on the banks of the Narmada river, where he experienced a palpable living presence of Kali manifesting before him [2].   This experience was noted down in his poem “The Stone Goddess” seen below.

Photo: Goddess Kali

The Stone Goddess

In a town of gods, housed in a little shrine,
From sculptured limbs the Godhead looked at me,  —
A living Presence deathless and divine,
A Form that harboured all infinity.

The great World-Mother and her mighty will
Inhabited the earth’s abysmal sleep,
Voiceless, omnipotent, inscrutable,
Mute in the desert and the sky and deep.

Now veiled with mind she dwells and speaks no word,
Voiceless, inscrutable, omniscient,
Hiding until our soul has seen, has heard
The secret of her strange embodiment,

One in the worshipper and the immobile shape,
A beauty and mystery flesh or stone can drape.

Between May-August 1903, he had traveled to Srinagar in northern part of the country on official business.  Here he had the opportunity to visit the centuries-old Shankaracharya temple which stands on the ridge of the Takht-i-Sulaiman (Seat of Solomon) hill.  At this site, he had an  experience of the vacant Infinite [2].  Two of his poems “The hilltop temple” and “Adwaita” seem to recount the episode.

Photo: Shankaracharya temple on the Takht-i-Suliman Hill, Srinagar taken around 1868. Click image for source.

The hilltop temple

After unnumbered steps of a hill-stair
I saw upon earth’s head brilliant with sun
The immobile Goddess in her house of stone
In a loneliness of meditating air.
Wise were the human hands that set her there
Above the world and Time’s dominion;
The Soul of all that lives, calm, pure, alone,
Revealed its boundless self mystic and bare.

Our body is an epitome of some Vast
That masks its presence by our humanness.
In us the secret Spirit can indite
A page and summary of the Infinite,
A nodus of Eternity expressed
Live in an image and a sculptured face.

Advaita

I walked on the high-wayed Seat of Solomon
Where Shankaracharya’s tiny temple stands
Facing Infinity from Time’s edge, alone
On the bare ridge ending earth’s vain romance.

Around me was a formless solitude:
All had become one strange Unnameable,
An unborn sole Reality world-nude,
Topless and fathomless, for ever still.

A Silence that was Being’s only word,
The unknown beginning and the voiceless end
Abolishing all things moment-seen or heard,
On an incommunicable summit reigned,

A lonely Calm and void unchanging Peace
On the dumb crest of Nature’s mysteries.

What should we make of such enigmatic incidents? The Mother Mirra Alfassa had the following to say on the mystic relevance of such early experiences.

For those who have come upon earth fully conscious of their entire being and conscious of their Origin, there is at first a period when this consciousness gets veiled by the physical life and the body-consciousness. It withdraws deep within and waits for the hour when the outer circumstances will make it necessary for that inner self to manifest and to become fully active in the body. And generally, as life is organised, it is some more or less dramatic event that makes this change not only possible but needed.

Even those who have come fully conscious, because they are compelled to take birth in the body of a child, their consciousness withdraws for many years, more or less, and has not the full activity that it had in other worlds. But some circumstance, some event tears off the veil and the inner consciousness takes back its place and its activity. It is that that is fully described in these lines of Savitri.

It is only when the outer crust of the ordinary life is violently broken by some unexpected and tragic event that the inner consciousness has the opportunity of taking the place of this outward movement and governing fully the whole being. From the point of view of growth of consciousness, that is the justification of all these dramatic events.  An eventless life is not often a progressive life.[3]

Even his godlike strength to rise must fall:
His greater consciousness withdrew behind;
Dim and eclipsed, his human outside strove
To feel again the old sublimities,
Bring the high saving touch, the ethereal flame,
Call back to its dire need the divine Force.

(Sri Aurobindo. Savitri, Book I, Canto III)

Click image for source

References

  1. Dennis ShashaOut of their minds: the lives and discoveries of 15 great computer scientists, p 69
  2. Sri Aurobindo.  Autobiographical Notes, p 106.
  3. Huta.  About Savitri: With some paintings

Related Posts

  1. Twin souls
  2. Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo
  3. Ramana Maharshi on World War II
  4. Silviu Craciunas has a dream of Sri Aurobindo
  5. Some disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
  6. Raising a child prodigy
  7. Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
  8. Stages in the spiritual journey (as per Anandamayi Ma)

44 thoughts on “Early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo

  1. ipsa

    Just to make a change on the year:
    Thus Sri Aurobindo sailed back to his country in 1893, at the age of twenty-one.

    Reply
  2. ipsa

    The whole post is very original with personal divine touch and the last part gave a different wholesome perspective to what one know and translated into a practical universal fact which human being
    goes through in evolutionary life cycle for a divine life. Thanks for the nice post.

    Reply
    1. kalpana

      Thank you for sharing the link. Although I have visited in the past, and do so every now and then, providing this link in connection with Sandeep’s post, led me to rediscovering the significant dates and meetings in Sri Aurobindo’s life, with a rare collection of photographs. Thanks!

      Reply
  3. onlywhitehorses

    Excellent and most timely post. In my own life, and as a transpersonal, integral psychotherapist, I am aware of the “veil-ripping” properties of early childhood trauma. My hope is that disordering and disintegration will be recognized as pathways toward reordering and pschospiritual re/integration by those in my field, beyond just us transpersonal types.

    Reply
    1. therapist

      “veil-ripping” properties of early childhood trauma.

      Seeing child hood abuse as good for the mystical life, I think makes it only slighter better a rationalization than Catholícs who beat their children for their spiritual betterment.
      Something I wonder about Aurobindo is to what extent his vision reflected his undealt with trauma. Its clear he was abdandoned at a tender age as a sensitive child. And that it would have left him with life long scars.

      Reply
      1. Sandeep Post author

        He wasn’t exactly abandoned and certainly not abused. He lived with his brothers in England so he did have some family life in that sense, in addition to contact via letters from his father. Lack of maternal love may have possibly left him withdrawn but I wouldn’t characterize that as trauma.

        You seem to underestimate the healing effects of mystical experience which has the magical power to purge the subconscious. Sri Aurobindo as well as his disciples seem to have experienced some form of retrograde amnesia as a result of Yoga. See the Section “Loss of Memory due to psychic transformation“.

        Man has a dual basis – electromagnetic and biological. Normally, we function in the biological basis and suffer its attendant psychological instabilities. When the electromagnetic basis is activated via the Kundalini, the biological basis becomes considerably diminished and one attains a state of psychological stability. As Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutras 4.30 – “tatha klesha karma nivritti” (the afflictions of the mind are cleansed)

  4. Pingback: Kali « Earthpages.ca

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  6. Sandeep Post author

    Another reference on this topic. Sri Aurobindo said:

    “When I was reading Max Mullers’ translation of the Vedanta in London I came upon the idea of ‘Self’ and I decided that Vedanta is something to be realized in life. Before that I was an atheist and agnostic. How do you explain that? You can’t say that it was the atmosphere of the place. It was in the blood or perhaps carried from past life. Then there was the experience when I came to India : as soon as I set my foot on Apollo Bunder, I felt a vastness and a tremendous calm coming over me. I did not know, of course, that it was an experience. It was a sense of calm and vastness pervading everywhere and I had not got it in the steamer. That is the atmosphere of the place. Another instance is the sense of the Infinite I had at the Shankeracharya Hill at Kashmir and at Parvati Hill near Poona, and the reality of the image in a temple at Karnali near Chandod.”

    (A.B. Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Third Series, 5th February 1939, p 209)

    Reply
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  8. Sandeep Post author

    Regarding the details of the exact location of the Kali Mandir and its historical background, information can be obtained from a letter by Ranadhir Upadhyaya, dated November 10, 1974.

    “The temple is generally called ‘Mahakali Mandir of Karanali’. It is situated on the northern bank of the river Narmada, just near the famous Kubereshwar Temple. One has to climb about 100 steep steps to reach the Kali Temple after about a mile’s boating in Narmada from Chandod. The Shrine is approximately 300 years old. Sri Somvargiriji Maharaj, a Mahant of Niranjani Akhada took to the Sri Chakra Upasana worship of the Divine Shakti three centuries ago. He got the three Sri Chakras drawn on three triangular pieces of metal and did Tantra Sadhana for some years. Ultimately he got “siddhi” and acquired occult powers, with great spiritual consciousness. It is said that he had realised Mahakali through the Siddha Chakras and She used to manifest before him often. He was a great yogi and Tantrik. A few days before his death he installed the three Siddha Chakras and Kali idol in front of his yajna-kunda, by the side of a wall and erected a small temple. Since then it is looked after and worshipped by Niranjani Sadhus. The beautiful idol of Mahakali in the temple is about three feet high and a folding wooden tiger is fixed near her feet in such a way that it appears as if the Goddess is mounted on the tiger with Her face in the west direction. An iron trisul is placed by the side of the idol. The three yantras are not visible. The entire atmosphere of the place is surcharged with powerful spiritual vibrations. The temple is not at all famous and is in a dilapidated condition.

    From the year 1903 to 1922, Niranjani Mahant, Sri Himmatpuriji was worshipping the Kali idol. With Lele and Deshpande Sri Aurobindo visited the temple in 1906 during this Mahant’s lifetime and when he looked at the idol of Kali, he saw the Mother Mahakali a living Presence, deathless and divine’.”

    (Sri Aurobindo In Baroda, p 150)

    Reply
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  13. Sandeep Post author

    Disciple : Moti Babu has related that when you were five years old you got a vision of a great light at Darjeeling and you became unconscious.

    Sri Aurobindo : And then, what happened further ? (After some time) All that is a legend. I told him something because he was constantly asking me about my child­hood. I had no such experience of light when I was a child. My uncle told me that I was very bright, but I have no recollection of those days and if you want the truth it was not light but darkness that I saw at Darjeeling. I was lying down one day when I saw suddenly a great darkness rushing into me and envelop­ing me and the whole of the universe. What I told Moti Babu was that after that I had a great Tamas – darkness – always hanging on to me all along my stay in England. I believe that darkness had something to do with the Tamas that came upon me. It left me only when I was coming back to India. If people were to know all the truth about my life they would never believe that such a man could come to anything.

    […]

    Sri Aurobindo: No, I had no extraordinary spiritual experience in my early life.

    I remember only three experiences. One was the Darjeeling experience. And the second came upon me at the age of twelve or thirteen. I was extremely selfish and then something came upon me and I felt I ought to give up selfishness and I tried in my own way – of course, imperfectly – to put it into practice. But that was a sort of turning-point in my inner life. The last came just before I left England. It was the mental rather than the spiritual experience of the Atman. I felt the One only as true ; it was an experience absolutely Shankarite in its sense. It lasted only for a short time.

    (A.B. Purani, Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo , Second Series, pp 164-166 passim.)

    Reply
  14. mike

    “What I told Moti Babu was that after that I had a great Tamas – darkness – always hanging on to me all along my stay in England”

    Yes, l can well believe that, having spent most of my life in the UK – it’s a dismal place. l’ve never liked the atmosphere here, very uncomfortable and incompatible – something very heavy and something l find difficult to live with. But, l suppose l’m here because it’s the best place for my overall development, as Mother would say.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Mike: But, l suppose l’m here because it’s the best place for my overall development, as Mother would say.

      Quite true. It is possible to reach a state where one becomes oblivious to one’s environment. Those who live in the vital need good weather to stay cheerful, but those who live in the psychic don’t care about it. In the initial stages, it is helpful to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of city life but later on, one has to accept to live in all conditions with equanimity.

      Too much of good weather can also be detrimental to spiritual growth, because it influences the mind to become excessively optimistic about one’s spiritual condition.

      Reply
  15. mike

    “Too much of good weather can also be detrimental to spiritual growth, because it influences the mind to become excessively optimistic about one’s spiritual condition.”

    l haven’t heard that before. The UK weather is a blessing in that case lol. Rain Rain Rain.

    “In the initial stages, it is helpful to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of city life but later on, one has to accept to live in all conditions with equanimity.”

    l’m just wondering how those at the ashram [or any ashram] would see that. l agree with you, that the Yoga has to be done in the world at large. lf it was only confined to the people at the ashram it could never spread on a global scale, which is what SA and Mother want. There must be thousands trying to practice the integral yoga in cities around the world. l believe those who were originally chosen to live at the ashram were some kind of experimental prototype for humankind.
    l often wonder how many are chosen for this particular yoga, who are living in the ‘hustle and bustle’ [of course lndia would have many SA followers, l suppose. l don’t here of many in my psrt of the world, but quite probably, they are being prepared quietly in every corner of the world. One day, every country might experience a supramental explosion lol.
    Sorry, l’m babbling a bit tonight – probably the weather 😉

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      If you had too much good weather, you might never get depressed or not very often. The invigorating air inflates your inner being and makes you mistake vital happiness for deeper psychic experiences. This is just something I concluded after observing some practitioners with polyannish views of spiritual life.

      As for the hustle and bustle being detrimental to meditation, it is based on apocryphal evidence of another practitioner. The type of exposure required varies from person to person depending on the stage of their sadhana. There were people who were allowed by SA&M to experience the world outside the Ashram, while others were discouraged from doing so.

      Arabinda Basu was told by Sri Aurobindo, “I’ve shown your letter to the Mother. We both agree that you should see a little more of life before settling here.”

      Romen Palit was allowed by the Mother to leave the Ashram. He writes, “In 1937 I was restless and in November the Mother asked me to ‘go out and see the ordinary life’. She wanted me to make a free and independent choice of life. She said that she did not want me to be like D. This person whom the Mother mentioned had begun to go out of the Ashram from 1936 and ended by leaving the Ashram altogether in 1953.

      I went out. I was in Chittagong, then in Maharashtra, where the Mother sent me letters; sometimes the address too was written in her own hand. I returned two months later. The Mother enquired as to how I liked all these people and places. She had got my room freshly painted and dis­tempered in my absence. She told me that she had got my room all cleaned and tidy. She was all smiles. I think she ex­pected me to turn over a new leaf. But the lure of the external world was pulling. And my father, in spite of being an old associate, added to this unnatural thirst, by tempting me with prospects of sending me to England to become a member of the Indian Civil Service. I could not gauge the full import, but it was a fascination indeed.

      In the meantime I left my studies and started working under Chandulal in the newly begun construction of Golconde, where I gave a good account of myself as a worker. The Mother was exceedingly pleased.

      But this was not to last. The old depression, moods, the attraction of the external world returned and I succumbed to them. On the first occasion, it was almost the Mother who sent me out. The second time I myself decided to go; that was in October 1938. The Mother was not at all pleased. It was but natural. She told me that perhaps I thought that I would be happy with my father. No, that was not true. She added that I could go but I must return with the determination not to go back to ordinary life. ” (Romen Palit, The Grace, pp 101-103)

      Reply
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  17. Tina

    I’ve had some personal questions lingering in my subconscious for a while now… reading your replies on this post, Sandeep, answered them for me……
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      A poem to fit the occasion then…

      God Moves in Mysterious Ways – by William Cowper

      God moves in a mysterious way,
      His wonders to perform;
      He plants his footsteps in the sea,
      And rides upon the storm.

      Deep in unfathomable mines
      Of never failing skill,
      He treasures up his bright designs,
      And works his sovereign will.

      Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
      The clouds ye so much dread
      are big with mercy, and shall break
      In blessings on your head.

      Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
      But trust him for his grace;
      Behind a frowning providence,
      He hides a smiling face.

      His purposes will ripen fast,
      Unfolding every hour;
      The bud may have a bitter taste,
      But sweet will be the flower.

      Blind unbelief is sure to err,
      And scan his work in vain;
      God is his own interpreter,
      And he will make it plain.

      Reply
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  24. Nachiketas

    I think the poem hill-top temple was inspired by his visit to Parvati Hills in Pune. He confirms here in Evening Talks with AB Purani:

    “Sri Aurobindo: God knows how! It began very early perhaps. When I landed on the Indian soil a great calm and quiet descended on me. There were also other characteristic experiences – at Poona on the Parvati hills and then in Kashmir on the Shankeracharya hill, – a sense of a great infinite Reality was felt. It was very real.”

    Reply

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