Sri Aurobindo’s prose style – by Goutam Ghosal

Goutam Ghosal is the Head of the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan (for those who may not know, this was the experimental school founded by Rabindranath Tagore).  His research areas include Sri Aurobindo’s Prose, Poetry and Drama, Tagore’s Poetry and Songs, Shakespeare’s Characters and Poetry from the point of view of Consciousness, Indian Poetry in English (Old and New School), 19th Century British and American Literature.  The following article appeared as chapter nine “Style in the Major Works: Fusion of Myths and Seven Kinds of Style” of Ghosal‘s book Sri Aurobindo’s Prose Style published in 1990.

Sri Aurobindo’s Prose Style

The creative writer generates life into the ancient myths by using them significantly in his texts. Quotations are often lifeless for the creative artist. He re-shapes them and reminds us of the myth by his own sentence which is full of the memory of a citation, an epigram or a paradox or any kind of pithy saying. For Sri Aurobindo, the past is a living reality to be found in the future. The sleeping myth becomes a flaming metaphor in his texts. He knows both the worlds—the east and the west—very well and he sees the soul of myth. In the great books of the Pondicherry period, myths are fused with an effortless ease. While trying to characterise the Asura, he remembers Aeschylus’s phrase.

… he is thus blown along on the hurricane of his desires and ambitions until he stumbles and is broken, in the great phrase of Aeschylus, against the throne of Eternal Law.

In Essays on the Gita, he recalls an apophthegm by Heraclitus and harmonises the idea with the Gita’s ideal of life as battle. From Heraclitus he moves freely to the world of the Upanishads. He refers to the Darwinians and “Modern Science” in passing. He also uses myths as metaphors both in satiric prose and in serious discourses. He is annoyed with William Archer, who misinterprets Indian culture.  After pages of refutation, he calls Archer’s attack a “ridiculous Phillipic”. Phillipic refers to any discourse which is full of invective.  The myth refers to one of the three orations of Demosthenes against Phillip of Macedon.  Archer is also ‘Apollo’.  Sri Aurobindo changes the myth into metaphor and pun in the following words:

This new journalistic Apollo, our Archer who is out to cleave with his arrows the python coils of Indian barbarism, abounds in outcries in this sense.

The metaphorical flourish is meant to be ironical. Hence the surplusage.

Essays on the Gita is full of illustrations based on the clues offered by the Sanskrit text. The book becomes experiential and original, as Sri Aurobindo recreates myths, metaphors and symbols. The culmination of an exposition is often marked by a synonymous phrase or a clause or a sentence from the original text, which has often a metaphorical function. After the original commentaries, the Sanskrit synonym looks like his own creation. The word ‘Over-Soul’ belongs to Emerson in a special sense. Sri Aurobindo uses it in a fresh context. Prose style achieves a global character, as the transcendentalist’s phrase is blended with the culture of the Gita.

He is at once the Father and Mother of the universe; the substance of the infinite idea, Vijňāna, the Mahat Brahman, is the womb into which he casts the seed of his self-conception. As the Over-Soul he casts the seed; as the Mother, the Nature-Soul, the Energy filled with his conscious power, he receives it into this infinite substance of being made pregnant with his illimitable, yet self-limiting Idea.

The substance of the passage will show that Sri Aurobindo is not applying Emerson’s phrase. The word might be floating somewhere in the vast contour of his consciousness, but the idea is non-Emersonian. The synthesis of eastern and western myths is also to be found in The Life Divine.

This is the fall of man typified in the poetic parable of The Hebrew Genesis. That fall is his deviation from the full and pure acceptance of God and himself, or rather of God in himself, into a dividing consciousness which brings with it all the train of the dualities, life and death, good and evil, joy and pain, completeness and want, the fruit of a divided being. This is the fruit which Adam and Eve, Purusha and Prakriti, the soul tempted by Nature, have eaten.

This is from Chapter VII entitled The Ego and the Dualities. There is a citation from Shwetashwatara Upanishad before the beginning of the discourse. The quotation hints at the theme of the chapter. The reference to the “Hebrew Genesis” shows the synthetic mind. Sri Aurobindo’s intuitive comments on great personalities and events are full of mythical metaphors formed of Balaram, Jehovah, Nero, Rudra, Vibhuti, Kali, Yatudhani and other classical figures from that world and this world.

We see seven kinds of style in the Pondicherry period.  There are other varieties too, but these are the most marked in the writer of the Arya period.  Obviously, the Arya writings give us the best of Sri Aurobindo.  At the risk of seeing imperfectly we have tried to characterise these seven styles of the Pondicherry period.  Here is the first:

God to the soul that sees is the path and God is the goal of his journey, a path in which there is no self-losing and a goal to which his wisely guided steps are surely arriving at every moment. He knows the Godhead as the master of his and all being, the upholder of his nature, the husband of the nature-soul, its lover and cherisher, the inner witness of all his thoughts and actions. God is his house and country, the refuge of his seekings and desires, the wise and close and benignant friend of all beings. All birth and status and destruction of apparent existences is to his vision and experience the One who brings forward, maintains and withdraws his temporal self-manifestation in its system of perpetual recurrences. He alone is the imperishable seed and origin of all that seem to be born and perish and their eternal resting-place in their non-manifestation. It is he that burns in the heat of the sun and the flame; it is he who is the plenty of the rain and its withholding; he is all this physical Nature and her workings. Death is his mask and immortality is his self-revelation. All that we call existent is he and all that we look upon as non-existent still is their secret in the Infinite and is part of the mysterious being of the Ineffable.

This is English on the surface, but Sanskrit at bottom. Sri Aurobindo does not sacrifice the principle of the English sentence structure, but he infuses in his impeccable English the rhythm of Sanskrit verse. The Gita is an influence. While translating the sacred verses, he is trying to transfer the essence and rhythm of the original to his English. The beginning is Sanskritic in rhythm, and a peculiar twist makes it complicated. But then it is the thought that causes the complexity. The discipline of the structure is remarkable, especially in view of the fact that the material is born with the inspiration. The complex beginning is immediately followed by the typical tīkā (expository) style of Sanskrit literature. Then he blends the sutra (aphorism) with his explanatory mode. There is a memory of Thomas Browne, and yet it will be futile to search for an influence. The most condensed mode in the passage is “Death is his mask and immortality is his self-revelation”. Even the expository sentences in the passage conceal more than they reveal. Much depends on how we read the passage. For instance, there is almost a pauseless movement in the last sentence.

The second is an inspired style caught in the periodic structure. Of the sixty-nine words in this passage, fifty-six are contained in the four parallel infinitive phrases which make up the compound subject and contain the main themes of the sentence.

To make the mind one with the divine consciousness, to make the whole of our emotional nature one love of God everywhere, to make all our works one sacrifice to the Lord of the worlds and all our worship and aspiration one adoration of him and self-surrender, to direct the whole self Godwards in an entire union is the way to rise out of a mundane into a divine existence.

This type of writing is very common in his major works and we often see it in The Life Divine and in Essays on the Gita. The structure is not new, neither is it obsolete. Even Saul Bellow uses it. De Quincy, Ruskin and Burke were masters of the mode. What is new is the intensity of spiritual emotion, which gives a new flavour to this style. In a way this is the style of the Yogi as lover. Generally, this kind of periods hints at the Yoga of surrender. The writer tries to heighten the emotional tone; he tries to make us feel the romance of surrender. Obviously, he is less of an intellectual here.

The third is a synthetic style.  It is based on a synthesis of science, psychology and literature.

The most disconcerting discovery is to find that every part of us—intellect, will, sense-mind, nervous or desire self, the heart, the body—has each, as it were, its own complex individuality and natural formation independent of the rest; it neither agrees with itself nor with the others nor with the representative ego which is the shadow cast by some central and centralising self on our superficial ignorance. We find that we are composed not of one but many personalities and each has its own demands and differing nature. Our being is a roughly constituted chaos into which we have to introduce the principle of a divine order.

This is not the language of religion; this is the language of psychological investigation, we have taken a very short unit. After finding our being to be a roughly constituted chaos, the writer goes on to clarify the inner and outer influences, the materials coming from outside and inside, and the impression left is that of a cosmic photographer who takes the total picture of the inside of man. Even this short unit speaks of the language of experience. The listing inside the parenthesis is the initial picture of the many planes inside us. The ‘shadow’ metaphor is so naturally used that we hardly detect it as metaphor: It would be interesting to see the rest of the passage, where details come in abundance.

Moreover, we find that inwardly too, no less than outwardly, we are not alone in the world; the sharp separateness of our ego was no more than a strong imposition and delusion; we do not exist in ourselves, we do not really live apart in an inner privacy or solitude. Our mind is a receiving, developing and modifying machine into which there is being constantly passed from moment to moment a ceaseless foreign flux, a streaming mass of disparate materials from above, from below, from outside. Much more than half our thoughts and feelings are not our own in the sense that they take form out of ourselves; of hardly anything can it be said that it is truly original to our nature. A large part comes to us from others or from the environment, whether as raw material or as manufactured imports; but still more largely they come from universal Nature here or from other worlds and planes and their beings and powers and influences; for we are overtopped and environed by other planes of consciousness, mind planes, life planes, subtle matter planes from which our life and action here are fed, or fed on, pressed, dominated, made use of for the manifestation of their forms and forces.

The inspiration is camouflaged by a very powerful intellectual mind. Every parallelism, every phrase and every word should be marked. Not a single word is decorative. The phrase “modifying machine” is absolutely natural in the context. A careful eye scrutinises the inspired details: “from above, from below, from outside”. There is a memory of Eliot’s essay on tradition, but Eliot could not characterize the planes inside us. There is a sudden rush of polysyndeton at one place (“from other worlds and planes and their beings and powers and influences”). This sudden scope given to inspiration deepens the sense of wonder associated with the topic. In the very next clause, inspiration is once again allowed to be mixed up with intellect and this time inspiration chooses the mode of asyndeton.  No rhetorical figure is a waste.

The fourth style is a great rush of eloquence born of spiritual inspiration.

A guidance, a governance begins from within which exposes every movement to the light of truth, repels what is false, obscure, opposed to the divine realisation.  Every region of the being, every nook and corner of it, every movement, formation, direction, inclination of thought, will, emotion, sensation, action, reaction, motive, disposition, propensity, desire, habit of the conscious or subconscious physical, even the most concealed, camouflaged, mute and recondite is lighted up with the unerring psychic light, their confusions dissipated, their tangles disentangled, their obscurities, deceptions, self-deceptions precisely indicated and removed; all is purified, set right, the whole nature harmonised, modulated in the psychic key, put in spiritual order.

The wonder lies in the fact that the explanatory character of the passage is unhampered by the breath-stopping flow of single word parallelism.  A less gifted writer trying this game would have offered us a caricature.  This cannot be the product of a mere trick.  The verb “exposes” is apt in the context: the opening of the psychic being means a great inner exposure.  The anaphoral “every” is not just for emphasis; it is a way of detailing and it is also a way of entering into a fluent single word parallelism.  After the third “every”, Sri Aurobindo drops the anaphoral mode just to highlight the different areas of the being.  Obviously, he wants us to study. every word carefully and a further prolongation of the anaphoral “every” would have distracted us from the details.  The passage is about the “unerring psychic light” which takes the lead of our being. The anaphoral “their” stresses the power of the psychic and the last part of the passage heightens the degree of emphasis; the psychic being brings about a total purification and leads us to a “spiritual order”.

The fifth is something like the style of a historical novelist. In the following passage, the writer brilliantly transcribes his intuitive inlook into history. There is no imaginative rush and the prophetic note is much too clear in the manner of presentation.

The old Hellenic or Graeco-Roman civilization perished, among other reasons, because it only imperfectly generalised culture in its own society and was surrounded by huge masses of humanity who were still possessed by the barbarian habit of mind. Civilization can never be safe so long as, confining the cultured mentality to a small minority, it nourishes in its bosom a tremendous mass of ignorance, a multitude, a proletariate.  Either knowledge must enlarge itself from above or be always in danger of submergence by the ignorant night from below.  Still more must it be unsafe, if it allows enormous numbers of men to exist outside its pale uninformed by its light, full of the natural vigour of the barbarian, who may at any moment seize upon the physical weapons of the civilized without undergoing an intellectual transformation by their culture.  The Graeco-Roman culture perished from within and from without, from without by the floods of Teutonic barbarism, from within by the loss of its vitality.

The problem of citing a longer unit prevents us from showing the full argument. However, the passage quoted is enough to show another new style. This is a deep visional inlook into history. A careful gaze will reveal that this style is different from the manner used in Baroda to sum up the characteristics of the age of Kalidasa.  Sri Aurobindo has more than one manner of generalisation. The passage is expository in essence and yet many things are summarily told.  It is rich in thought, dispassionate in argument and much-in-little in such sentences as “The Graeco-Roman culture perished from within and from without, from without by the floods of Teutonic barbarisms, from within by the loss of its vitality”. One notices again the writer’s restraint in the use of figurative language; there is a wonderful apophthegm secretly placed inside the dense texture of exposition: “Either knowledge must enlarge from above or be always in danger of submergence by the ignorant night from below.”

In the social writings he holds his inspiration tight. Coming here we find that the long procession of parallel structure has vanished; the inspirational tempos are cut short and the mighty waves of rhythm have given place to lapping ripples. The poet, however, is not dead as the sixth style will confirm.

For Nature is slow and patient in her methods. She takes up ideas and carries them out, then drops them by the wayside to resume them in some future era with a better combination. She tames humanity, her thinking instrument, and tests how far it is ready for the harmony she has imagined; she allows and incites man to attempt and fail so that he may learn and succeed better another time.

The passage is a colourless wonder; its poetry is concealed by the apparent bareness.  Every sentence is a truth-saver and yet there is no outward show, no glaik of rhetoric.  The metaphor (“her thinking instrument”) is colourless but pregnant.  It is a metaphor by courtesy and may elude the attention of a careless reader.  The rhythm is unmistakable. It is the prose of a seer-poet who is a great economiser like the poet of the Mahabharata.

There is sometimes a sense of thrill and adventure in Sri Aurobindo’s prose. This is the seventh style.

Imagine not the way is easy; the way is long, arduous, dangerous, difficult. At every step is an ambush, at every turn a pitfall. A thousand seen or unseen enemies will start up against thee, terrible in subtlety against thy ignorance, formidable in power against thy weakness. And when with pain thou hast destroyed them, other thousands will surge up to take their place. Hell will vomit its hordes to oppose and enring and wound and menace; Heaven will meet thee with its pitiless tests and its cold luminous denials.

Thou shalt find thyself alone in thy anguish, the demons furious in thy path, the Gods unwilling above thee.  Ancient and powerful, cruel, unvanquished and close and innumerable are the dark and dreadful Powers that profit by the reign of Night and Ignorance and would have no change and are hostile.  Aloof, slow to arrive, far-off and few and brief in their visits are the Bright Ones who are willing or permitted to succour.  Each step forward is a battle.  There are precipitous descents, there are unending ascensions and ever higher peaks upon peaks to conquer.  Each plateau climbed is but a stage on the way and reveals endless heights beyond it.  Each victory thou thinkest the last triumphant struggle proves to be but the prelude to a hundred fierce and perilous battles…

One has the impression of a fairy tale writer trying to captivate his audience with fearful possibilities in the life of the hero. But this is a real tale told not by a dreamer but by an experienced adventurer of consciousness. There is a striking antithesis in the strange phrase “cold luminous denials”. The Divine Life is not a prize without effort.  The cold denial, according to Sri Aurobindo’s world-view, is a blessing, because it ripens the consciousness. Denial involves suffering and suffering is the key to the Golden Palace. Hence the denial is luminous. “God is a great and cruel Torturer because he loves,” says Sri Aurobindo in an aphorism. The last few lines immediately picture the mind of a pilgrim going to Amarnath. If he is asked to write about his journey, he will probably write in the same vein. He can hardly find a better expression than what is described in the words: “Each plateau climbed is but a stage on the way and reveals endless heights beyond it”.  The whole thing is a kind of warning or teaching of an experienced wayfarer regarding the dangers and perils of the way to the God-province.

Books by Goutam Ghosal on Sri Aurobindo:

Goutam Ghosal

  1. Sri Aurobindo’s Prose Style.  (amazon) (flipkart)
  2. The Rainbow Bridge: A Comparative Study Of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.  (amazon) (flipkart)
  3. Sri Aurobindo and World Literature.  (amazon) (flipkart)

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13 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo’s prose style – by Goutam Ghosal

  1. Diane

    Normally I don’t like intellectual interpretations and analyses of Sri Aurobindo’s works but this is certainly an exception. Very erudite, but as well, sensitive and sympathetic, I believe I will buy the book

  2. makarand

    Impressive! One studies Sri Aurobindo for reasons other than English. One gets all but it begins by growth in English.

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  5. hari

    I read somewhere (maybe kheper), it says Aurobindo had a poor writing style. It baffles me because I always thought his style was better than that of many so-called top writers you see today. I know people have their preferences, but calling it ‘poor’ makes little sense to me.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Yes, it baffles me too. These opinions seem to emanate from “scholars” whose heads are loaded with complex literary theories. By contrast, a person who is attuned to Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness just falls in love with his writing style.

      1. nishat

        It’s usually a good practice to completely ignore the literary critics, professors and writers of prefaces/summaries etc. This applies all across the spectrum even to critics of say Dostoevsky, Lloyd Wright and Shankara etc. I guess most of these literary critics only write due to the “publish or perish mantra” or because they have nothing better to do 😦 credo experto (trust me who has tried!)

      2. RJ

        I recently read a quote about writer HP Lovecraft that seemed applicable to Sri Aurobindo’s prose style as well. To paraphrase: “Lovecraft is hard to read for current readers because he modernized a prose style that is no longer extant”. In other words, imagining styles evolving through a branching evolutionary tree, Lovecraft chose to develop a branch that, in retrospect, was not developed further by the mainstream. I think that might be true of Sri Aurobindo, too. For some people(my previous self among them), it can take a little while to get used to the highly intricate and developed post-Victorian prose Aurobindo uses before seeing how deeply FUTURISTIC his ideas are. (Yes, ARE!)

        (Lovecraft was, IMO, a brilliant writer from a purely literary perspective, though obviously nowhere near Sri Aurobindo in any sense. I don’t mean to compare them in any other way than to point out that that comment is insightful.)

        Of course, even if one is able to get “past” his style and understand him “intellectually”(like a student of English literature might), one will not understand anything if the consciousness is not ready.

  6. Pingback: Xu Fancheng (徐梵澄) : a Chinese disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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