This article is motivated by a recent comment on this blog. Those who have gained some familiarity with Sri Aurobindo are often baffled by his conduct: How could he smoke or eat meat while practicing Yoga? Doesn’t it violate the central tenets of Yoga? If that didn’t hinder his practice, can I emulate him? The answer is: “No, you shouldn’t emulate him” as we shall see by the end of this article.
Offering any explanation of such eccentric behavior is dicey because it opens you to the charge of being engaged in a cover-up. Some people are eager to interpret these habits as weaknesses in a bid to “humanize” Sri Aurobindo. Those struggling with Yoga tend to get galvanized when they see a reflection of their own weaknesses in some revered figure. Be that as it may, the interpretation that I offer here is not that of an apologist; it is based on an amalgam of personal experience, intuition as well as deduction drawn based on remarks of Sri Aurobindo and other seers.
Sri Aurobindo used to smoke while he was being educated in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This was not unusual considering the fact that most men smoked in that era. Smoking wasn’t regarded as a health hazard until the middle of the 20th century when concrete proof of a link between smoking and cancer began to be emerge . Beginning in 1905, Sri Aurobindo practiced Pranayama for nearly three to four years. It is not known if he ceased smoking during this time, although it would have been beneficial to do so. In January 1908 he had the nihilistic realization of Nirvana. A few months later, he attained the realization of cosmic consciousness in Alipore jail. Available references indicate that even after these realizations, he continued to smoke and eat meat right until the 1920s. By “meat”, we mean fish and chicken. Sri Aurobindo was born in Bengal, where fish remains an essential part of the cuisine.
According to historical records, the Mother once told a disciple, “You people have injured him(Sri Aurobindo). Don’t give him wine and bad cigars, he may get a cough.” . Such cautionary remarks, natural on her part, have to be balanced with Sri Aurobindo’s observation about his own consciousness. During a conversation with a disciple, Pavitra who was recounting his struggles in overcoming the smoking habit, Sri Aurobindo observed, “As for myself, I smoke a little, but for me it is all the same, and my mind is as calm when I do not smoke.”
Sri Aurobindo ceased smoking after the Mother informed him that she couldn’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke which pervaded the house. She had grown up in a household where no one smoked. In deference to her discomfort, he stopped smoking from that day on. After that, smoking and alcohol were not permitted in the Ashram .
Another renowned Yogi of the last century, Swami Vivekananda, also used to smoke cigarettes and eat meat (he was quite strict about celibacy though). While visiting America, he inadvertently and impolitely blew smoke in the face of his hostesses causing some consternation. In England, Mr. E.T. Sturdy called him a hypocrite for preaching renunciation while being engaged in sensual pleasures while women like Mrs. Johnson and Miss Muller became disenchanted with his “sinful” habit of smoking. In response to Mr. Sturdy’s accusations, the Swami admitted that he occasionally smoked and ate meat and replied that he never pretended to be something he was not .
In what follows, I am going to offer a few arguments to unravel such nonconformal conduct on part of those that we are supposed to (and even inclined to) emulate.
Firstly, we have to understand that all Yogis are not identical. The personality and constitution of the person makes a huge difference in the practice of austerities. Some Yogis tend to be gentle and sweet in disposition, while others are vigorous and fiery. This difference can be illustrated through the example of Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda. Ramakrishna himself would only accept food offered by pure people but he freed Swami Vivekananda from all such restrictions:
When he (Ramakrishna) was offered food, or even a tumbler of water, he knew instinctively if the person who offered it to him was morally pure or not and in the latter case rejected it. He refused to eat sweetmeats offered to him by rich disciples who, as he said once, tied a hundred prayers for the grant of riches or success in lawsuits to a single sweetmeat. He did not insist on caste considerations, his eye being more on the sincerity and moral purity of the person who offered him food or drinking water. In the case of Narendra(Vivekananda), however, he held that he was “the roaring fire”, burning up all impurity and that he could eat anything and anywhere. He would give over to him to eat sweetmeats we have spoken of above, that he would not offer to the other disciples .
The principle of Adhikara (spiritual capacity) needs to be factored into this discussion. There are some exceptional souls who are “born for Yoga” and quickly attain Self-realization at an early age, while others struggle throughout their life without much success. Those in the first category tend to be endowed with an extraordinary capacity of consciousness; they are able to withstand the kind of impurities and imbalances which might precipitate an ordinary soul into a life of decadence. Consider the case of Swami Vivekananda again. During his first few visits to Ramakrishna, he found himself entering a state of cosmic consciousness at the initiation of the Master. The other monks who came to Ramakrishna were not so fortunate; they had to labor for some years in order to be uplifted. Similarly, Sri Aurobindo attained Nirvana in 1908 after sitting for just three days in meditation with a Yogi named Lele. This is quite an extraordinary achievement which cannot be easily duplicated.
One must also be able to imagine the state of a person who has attained Self-realization in order to understand their non-conformal conduct. When the power of Kundalini surges through the spine, there is a yogagni (fire of yoga) which begins to simmer throughout the body. As a result, conventional biological processes become disrupted and attenuated. The inner fire (yogagni) has the power of dissolving many of the impurities which one may absorb through food and drink. Ramana Maharshi alluded to this capacity in a Q&A:
Question: Could one receive spiritual illumination while eating flesh foods?
Ramana Maharshi: Yes, but abandon them gradually and accustom yourself to sattvic foods. However, once you have attained illumination it will make less difference what you eat, as, on a great fire, it is immaterial what fuel is added. 
After Self-realization, there are Chakras in the head and above which are activated. Because of that, the thought processes which cycle incessantly in the brain are permanently nullified and the mind becomes detached from the influence of sensory impulses. The differentiation between pleasure and pain is diminished or even eliminated, depending on the degree to which consciousness has been transformed. As Sri Ramakrishna once said, “After attaining the knowledge of Brahman, one doesn’t discriminate about food. The Rishis who had attained the knowledge of Brahman and experienced the bliss of Brahman could eat any food, even pork.” 
People who attain Self-realization lose control over their outer nature for a period of time. The soul finds itself immersed in a greater ocean of consciousness. The mind feels liberated from the bodily ego and is not in complete possession of the body, as the following exchange between Sri Aurobindo and a disciple indicates:
Nagin: During the state of self-realisation very little sense remains of my body. I do not know what it does or where it lies.
Sri Aurobindo: That is usual. I was in that way unconscious of the body for many years.
Nagin: It also happens that when the experience is of a voidness I feel the whole body to be as light as cotton-wool.
Sri Aurobindo: Yes. it becomes like that. In the end you feel as if you had no body but were spread out in the vastness of space as an infinite consciousness and existence – or as if the body were only a dot in that consciousness. 
Such an individual loses the distinction between social norms of right and wrong, good and bad, etc. to which society remains bound. In this dialogue, Ramakrishna states that there was a phase after his Self-realization when he enjoyed the smell of burning corpses!
Narendra — In the matter of drinking and eating, the best is that which chance brings.
Sri Ramakrishna — It is true of a particular state of mind. For a jnani (self-realized sage) nothing is prohibited. According to the Gita the jnani does not eat, he just makes an offering to his Kundalini.
“This does not hold true for the devotee. Now my mood is such that I can’t eat unless I am given bhoga (food offered to the deity) by a brahmin. Formerly, the state of my mind was such that I would enjoy inhaling the smell of the burning corpses on the other side of Dakshineswar. Now, I can’t eat food offered by everyone. 
A Self-realized sage may, for a period of time, exhibit one of four states that have been classically described by various seers: Jadavat(inert and motionless), Balavat(child-like), Pisacavat (ghoulish), unmattavat(eccentric and uncontrolled). Adi Shankaracharya enumerated these four states in his work, the Viveka-chudamani (540)
“Digambaro vapi cha sambaro va
Tvagambaro vapi chidambarasthah
Unmattavat vapi cha balavat va
Pishachavat vapi charatyavanyam.”
There is evidence that Sri Aurobindo experienced the Jadavat state. In a fragmentary undated letter which he had written to his wife but never sent, he wrote “Mrinalini, I received a letter from you some time ago. I have not answered it. For some time I have been in a jadavat [inert yogic] state and all kinds of work and writing have been impossible. Today some impulsion has come and I can answer your letter.”
A comprehensive commentary on these four states has been given by Sri Aurobindo in his works. In The Life Divine, he wrote:
…the person finds itself dissolved into a vast impersonality, and in this impersonality there is at first no key to an ordered dynamism of action. A very usual result is that one is divided into two parts of being, the spiritual within, the natural without; in one there is the divine realisation seated in a perfect inner freedom, but the natural part goes on with the old action of Nature, continues by a mechanical movement of past energies her already transmitted impulse. Even, if there is an entire dissolution of the limited person and the old ego-centric order, the outer nature may become the field of an apparent incoherence, although all within is luminous with the Self. Thus we become outwardly inert and inactive, moved by circumstance or forces but not self-mobile(jadavat) even though the consciousness is enlightened within, or as a child though within is a plenary self-knowledge (balavat) or as one inconsequent in thought and impulse though within is an utter calm and serenity(unmattavat), or as the wild and disordered soul though inwardly there is the purity and poise of the Spirit (pisacavat). 
The very physical consciousness in man, the annamaya purusa, can without this supreme ascent and integral descent yet reflect and enter into the self of Sachchidananda. It can do it either by a reflection of the Soul in physical Nature, its bliss, power and infinity secret but still present here, or by losing its separate sense of substance and existence in the Self within or without it. The result is a glorified sleep of the physical mind in which the physical being forgets itself in a kind of conscious Nirvana or else moves about like a thing inert in the hands of Nature, jadavat, like a leaf in the wind, or otherwise a state of pure happy and free irresponsibility of action, balavat, a divine childhood. But this comes without the higher glories of knowledge and delight which belong to the same status upon a more exalted level. It is an inert realisation of Sachchidananda in which there is neither any mastery of the Prakriti by the Purusha nor any sublimation of Nature into her own supreme power, the infinite glories of the Para Shakti. Yet these two, this mastery and this sublimation, are the two gates of perfection, the splendid doors into the supreme Eternal.
The life soul and life consciousness in man, pranamaya purusa, can in the same way directly reflect and enter into the self of Sachchidananda by a large and splendid and blissful reflection of the Soul in universal Life or by losing its separate sense of life and existence in the vast Self within or without it. The result is either a profound state of sheer self-oblivion or else an action driven irresponsibly by the life nature, an exalted enthusiasm of self-abandonment to the great world-energy in its vitalistic dance. The outer being lives in a God-possessed frenzy careless of itself and the world, unmattavat, or with an entire disregard whether of the conventions and proprieties of fitting human action or of the harmony and rhythms of a greater Truth. It acts as the unbound vital being, pisacavat, the divine maniac or else the divine demoniac. Here too there is no mastery or supreme sublimation of nature. There is only a joyful static possession by the Self within us and an unregulated dynamic possession by the physical and the vital Nature without us .
Sri Aurobindo’s smoking, wine-drinking and meat-eating has to be viewed in the light of all these factors. It can be ascribed to some unknown combination of habit, irreverent personality and the state of his Self-realization. He could give up smoking in one day because he had already attained Brahman in 1908. His mind was no longer tied to the senses. Smoking was just a pastime for him rather than a dependency.
In a conversation with Carlos Castaneda, his teacher Don Juan also elucidates on how he gave up smoking and drinking in one day:
I wanted to buy him some beer in the restaurant. He said he never drank, not even beer….I must have had a look of doubt on my face, for he then went on to explain that he used to drink in his youth, but that one day he simply dropped it.
“People hardly ever realize that we can cut anything from our lives, any time, just like that.”
He snapped his fingers.
“Do you think that one can stop smoking or drinking that easily?” I asked.
“Sure!” he said with great conviction.” Smoking and drinking are nothing. Nothing at all if we want to drop them.” 
To sum up, exceptional souls practicing Yoga can engage in nonconformal behavior and renounce it just as easily. Unless one has evidence of one’s exceptional aptitude in Yoga, one must stick to the conventional path and follow the austerities which have been recommended. In Patanjali’s well-known system, they are called Yama, Niyama, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, etc. In the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, one starts with aspiration, rejection and surrender until the psychic being in unveiled.
- A.B Purani, Life of Sri Aurobindo, 4th edition 1977, p 26.
- Siddharth Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies, New York : Scribner, 2010, p 241.
- Purani Talks manuscripts 5: 89;
- Pavitra. Conversations with Sri Aurobindo, April 26, 1926
- Mother’s Agenda. Jun 14, 1965.
- S.N.Dhar. A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda, Madras: Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra:1975, vol. 2, p 1192-1195.
- ibid., vol. 1, p 120.
- David Godman. Be as you are, p 204
- Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. vol.4, sec X. http://www.kathamrita.org/kathamrita4/k4SectionX.htm
- Nagin Doshi. Guidance from Sri Aurobindo, vol. 1 p. 64
- Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. vol.2, sec XVI. http://www.kathamrita.org/kathamrita2/k2sec16.htm
- Sri Aurobindo in Baroda, edited by Roshan and Apurva, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993, p 73.
- Sri Aurobindo. Life Divine, CWSA vol. 21-22, p 243.
- Sri Aurobindo. Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA vol. 23-24, pp. 499-500.
- Carlos Castaneda. Journey to Ixtlan, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991, p 8. (google book page)
- The rationale behind vegetarianism
- How to eat like a Yogi
- Equanimity as the foundation of Integral Yoga.
- Practising Titiksha with marshmallows
- Developing one’s own spiritual atmosphere (Gita 3:17)
- Transcending the work-leisure cycle
- The ability to withstand hardships in the spiritual path
- Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
- Signs of spiritual apitude
- Aspects of Karma-Yoga
- Can I have more than one Guru?
- Why does Yoga give you a “high”?
- Early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo
- Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo
- Progress reports of Sri Aurobindo