‘Sri Aurobindo: His Political Life and Activities’: Compiler and Editor: Anurag Banerjee. Preface: Prof. Kittu Reddy. Publisher: Overman Foundation. Number of pages: 453. Price: Rs. 490.
In this 453 page book, Banerjee reveals many interesting details of Sri Aurobindo’s political life through a variety of government documents, press reports, letters and essays, some of which are being published for the first time. It includes some material published in the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo that help provide an overall completeness and perspective, but it also includes less known material that has been published in various books and journals by disciples, and still rarer material from newspapers and documents of the period investigated. It is well-organized and presented.
With few exceptions, this book focuses on the period between 1905 when Sri Aurobindo took up the post of principal at the National College in Calcutta, and 1910 when he withdrew from active political work to focus on his spiritual work in Pondicherry. This was a pivotal period in which the populace of the country was transformed from being passively accepting of British rule to seeking full political independence. Though it did not achieve its aim until 37 years later, the character and methods of the movement were largely established during this period. The book is organized into 14 sections, among them including: “Bengal National College, the Barisal Conference and the Bande Mataram;” “The Surat Congress: December 1907;” “Sri Aurobindo in the Deccan;” “The Alipore Bomb Trial;” “The Poet of Patriotism;” and “Sri Aurobindo and the British Government.”
The book takes the reader back in time to this momentous period. We can read Sri Aurobindo’s speech to the students at the newly formed Bengal National College which he was selected to head, and we find reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo by his fellow lecturers. The Barisal Provincial Conference in April 1906 was convened by some of the Nationalist leaders shortly after the partition of Bengal, at the end it was broken up by the police. We can read the fiery speeches of some of the members. We learn about the government prosecution of the Bande Mataram paper in 1907. We can read Sri Aurobindo’s written statement to the court and the judge’s eight page ruling on the case, summarizing all the evidence and concluding that Sri Aurobindo was not proved to be the editor of the seditious article in question.
We also learn about the Indian National Congress in Surat, in which the National Congress, consisting of Moderates and Nationalists, was finally split along ideological lines, dramatically enacted when a brawl broke out on the speaker’s platform. Days earlier, the Nationalists had just formed their own party and had had their first conference with Sri Aurobindo presiding. There Sri Aurobindo laid out in a speech the programme of the Nationalists, and its position vis á vis the Moderates. From then on the Nationalists became an independent and powerful voice in the nation’s politics, and the Bande Mataram became its primary voice, awakeningIndia to the ideals of political independence. After the Surat conference, Sri Aurobindo travelled in the Deccan giving speeches on the Nationalist ideals and program to hundreds and sometimes to thousands of people. We can read some of these speeches, and accounts of some of those who attended.
In the early morning of 2 May 1908, Sri Aurobindo was arrested in his home in Calcutta for his alleged conspiracy in a bombing in which two ladies were mistakenly killed in an attempt on the life of Mr. Kingsford, a judge who had formerly imprisoned various revolutionaries. This was the beginning of what would become known as the Alipore Bomb Trial, in which Sri Aurobindo would spend a year as an undertrial prisoner, only to be finally acquitted. This section, which takes up a quarter of the book, gives many details of the case and its background from various perspectives.
After his acquittal in the Alipore Bomb Trial, Sri Aurobindo continued the Nationalist movement almost single-handedly giving speeches and publishing two political weekly papers, the Karmayogin and the Dharma, the first in English and the second in Bengali. In the section “The Poet of Patriotism,” we can read a number of these fiery speeches, as well as some important articles published in the Karmayogin. We also get other perspectives of this period from the accounts of others.
In “Sri Aurobindo and the British Government,” we can read documents and letters of British government officials showing the danger that Sri Aurobindo represented to them. Some of these pertain to the case of sedition brought against him for the article which appeared in the Karmayogin on the 25th December 1909, titled “To My Countrymen,” a kind of last will and testament in which he championed the cause of the Nationalist party, severely criticized the government, and announced its intentions to deport him. Before the warrant against him was issued, he had already left for Chandernagore and Pondicherry. Some of these letters show disagreement within the government concerning the merits of the case and the possibility of conviction. Subsequently the publisher of the paper was convicted, and then after an appeal, was acquitted. We can read the verdicts in both cases which review the evidence, as well as other’s views. The case against Sri Aurobindo was subsequently dropped.
There are other interesting topics covered in this informative and well-researched work. Banerjee has done a good job to bring together a collection of new and interesting material which sheds light on Sri Aurobindo’s life during this important period.
About the Reviewer: Dr. Larry Seidlitz received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1993. He was an Assistant Professor and researcher in psychiatry and psychology at The University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, U.S.A. He is currently a faculty member of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research (Pondicherry). He is also the editor of the journal ‘Collaboration’ published by Sri Aurobindo Association of California and author of many articles on Integral Yoga.