Documents in the Life of Sri Aurobindo
VISITORS IN PONDICHERRY 1911-1912
Extracts from Alexandra David-Néel. Journal de voyage: lettres à son mari (11 août 190427 décembre 1917). Paris: Plon, 1975, pp. 68-101 passim. Translated from the French.
Adyar-Madras, 27 November 1911
First I was in Pondicherry. There also I was reminded of Versailles: a dead city that had once been something and remembered it, rigid in its dignity, irreproachably correct, concealing beneath an impeccable coat of whitewash the cracks in the old walls. My hotel too sported a splendid coat of whitewash on its facade, but the interior was in serious need of a good sweeping. I spent the night in a filthy hole. Rats scuttled across the room, which in the morning was littered with their excrement. Fortunately the day was lovely, and I was able to go about the whole afternoon in some nameless prehistoric contraption pushed by four blacks.1 I took a photograph of it and I will send it to you as soon as I make a print.
In the evening I had a conversation with a Hindu about whom I may never have spoken to you, since I have not been in correspondence with him, but know him only through the good opinion of friends [Paul and Mirra Richard]. I spent two wonderful hours reviewing the ancient philosophical ideas of India with a man of rare intelligence. He belongs to that uncommon category that I so much admire, the reasonable mystics. I am truly grateful to the friends who advised me to visit this man. He thinks with such clarity, there is such lucidness in his reasoning, such lustre in his eyes, that he leaves one with the impression of having contemplated the genius of India such as one dreams it to be after reading the noblest pages of Hindu philosophy.
I knew that this philosopher had taken a political stance that was not pleasing to the British, but naturally I was discreet enough not to speak of that. Besides, we were soaring far above politics. But while we soared, others were content to remain on the ground. I am speaking of the English police. When I arrived in Madras the head of the C.I.D.2 was waiting for me in person. He asked me very civilly and politely, I must say what I had been doing in Pondicherry in the house of this suspicious character. I was not surprised. I knew in advance that my visit would be taken note of. Moreover I made no efforts to conceal it.
Good Heavens, how petty and paltry it all seems their agitation, their cowardliness, their distress. What a different atmosphere there was in that silent house in Pondicherry! Through it passed the breath of the things that are eternal. In the calm evening, seated by a window that looked out over the rather funereal gardens of this defunct city, it seemed as if we could see beyond life and death. And when I think of the proud disdain with which he seems to regard the couch of the ascetic, which beckons me even now, and of his promise of dreams other than those that haunt the feverish brains of these poor lunatics!
Adyar, Madras, 19 December 1911
One of these days Im going to write to that Hindu of Pondicherry I mentioned earlier. He has a keen power of analysis, and a critical turn of mind. Calling his attention to the experiments he himself is conducting with careful and meticulous control, I will ask him: Am I entering samādhi, am I really touching Nirvana, or is it just fatigue, or perhaps my sensations are being dulled by age? Are my indifference, my beatitude, of a transcendental kind, or is it only torpor, the beginning of my decline? I imagine that the question will make him laugh, as he laughed so sweetly the day I told him, in regard to something similar: One reaches a point where one no longer knows whether one is becoming prodigiously wise, or taking leave of ones senses.
[Calcutta] 14 February 
This morning I went to Government House. I am going to be given a set of letters of introduction and recommendations which will continue to facilitate access to many things and many people. Of course it was known, here too, that I had been to Pondicherry and seen Aurobindo Ghose. I had no idea he was such an important man. If I had known, I would have tried to make him speak on politics to see what sort of political ideas would germinate in the brain of a Vedantic mystic. But though I knew he had been involved in a political trial, I did not know the precise reason. This morning the private secretary to the Viceroy told me, I think he considers our civilisation, our education and all our modern progress to be godless, and therefore condemns them. This may very well be. Hindus look at the world from a different angle than we do. If our interview had not been limited to a few hours at twilight, in the monastic house in Pondicherry, I might have picked his brain and discovered where the cracks in our Western materialistic civilisation lie. But it may be that I owe a beautiful memory to my being insufficiently informed about him false and illusory, no doubt, like most beautiful memories: the vast empty room, the window open on the mauve sky of evening, and Aurobindo Ghose and I speaking of the supreme Brahman, the eternal existence, and for a moment crossing the threshold of the Beyond, where life and death cease, and living the dream of the Upanishads.
Extracts from Alexandra David-Néel. LInde où jai vécu. Paris: Plon, 1951, pp. 222226. Translated from the French.
The train carrying me to Madras halted. It was one of the big expresses. The porters jostled one another, grabbing at the voluminous baggage of the sahibs in those days all whites were sahibs, masters. I allowed a little time for those in more of a hurry than I to leave their compartments, and then got down. Before I could take three steps on the platform a well-dressed Englishman came forward and greeted me. He gave my name an English pronunciation: Mrs. Nil?. I was not surprised that this gentleman had come to meet me. I was going to stay with some orientalist friends of mine who lived in the great estate owned by the Theosophical Society in Adyar, in the vicinity of Madras. The man who accosted me presumably had been sent by them with instructions to take me to my destination. But as it was already late in the afternoon, I preferred to sleep at the hotel, which was located right in the station, and not to go to Adyar until the next day. This I explained in a few words to the gentleman. But whether he answered or not, I could not hear a thing. Then we were separated by the noisy crowd of travellers. He rejoined me at the door of the hotel, and went ahead to ask for a good room, and to order some tea. I was absolutely convinced that he had been sent by my friends. Accordingly I gave him a friendly smile, and asked: Do you live at Adyar? You must be a member of the Theosophical Society. He seemed a little amused by my question, but answered with perfect courtesy: No, I am the chief of police.
I was of course surprised, but not as much as I might have been. I was coming from Pondicherry, where I had met Aurobindo Ghose. Sri Aurobindo has become the greatest of the Indian gurus of the intellectual type, admired and venerated by the elite of his compatriots, but at the time he was only a politician fighting the British who had taken refuge in French territory.
I thought it preferable to come myself instead of sending a subordinate, said the chief of police. I was thankful for this courtesy. Please take your tea, he said. Five oclock tea is, of course, a sacred rite for the English.
I told the chief of police that no interrogation was necessary. He knew quite well that I had come from Pondicherry and who I had seen there. That was why he was here. He acknowledged that he was aware of my case. I showed him letters issued to me by the India Office in London for the Viceroy and the Governors of the Indian provinces. This seemed to set his mind at ease; such an insignificant person as I could pose but little danger to the British domination of India. Nevertheless I added: I had heard of Aurobindo Ghose as a distinguished philosopher, and it is as such that I wished to see him and speak to him. He certainly is a very remarkable scholar, conceded the chief of police. But he is a dangerous man. We hold him responsible for the recent assassination of Mr. Ashe. It appears that Mr. Ashe, of whom I had never heard, was an English official. I replied simply that it seemed very improbable that the learned man who had spoken to me so knowledgeably on philosophical topics was an assassin. He certainly did not kill Mr. Ashe himself, replied the chief of police. He had him killed.
I was not at all keen to poke my nose into the activities of the Indian revolutionaries, and the conversation ended there.
The room where we met contained only a table and two chairs that faced each other, on either side of the table. Sri Aurobindo was sitting in one of the chairs, his back to a wide-open window. Nothing could be seen through the window, neither building nor tree. The vast green3 sky of India filled it entirely like a screen on which the outline of the guru was traced. Was it a deliberately planned effect? I cannot say for sure that it was, but recent visitors [i.e. visitors who had witnessed the darshans of the forties] tell me that the master does not neglect showmanship. According to them Sri Aurobindo, who, in the last years of his life, showed himself to hardly anyone but disciples and regular visitors, once or twice a year placed himself behind a curtain beneath which only his feet emerged. His admirers were then permitted to pass before him in order to prostrate themselves before the feet thus offered to their veneration. I cannot guarantee the authenticity of this information,4 although it did come to me from several different sources.
While Sri Aurobindo spoke with me, four young men stood by a corner of the table. Their attitude of adoration and ecstasy was extraordinary. Tall, robust, immobile, their eyes fixed on their master, they resembled a group of statues.
At one point, wishing to ask Sri Aurobindo certain personal questions, I felt I would like to be alone with him. I dont know whether he read my thoughts or whether he felt the same way as I, but all at once, without his having said a word or made a gesture, all four disciples trooped out in a single movement, stiff, silent, like robots drawn by invisible wires.
Letter Hardinge to David-Néel, 11 March 1912. From Mlle Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet, Fondation Alexandra David-Néel, Digne, France. Translated from the French.
VICEROYS CAMP, INDIA
Thank you for your letter and for the explanations it contains.
I am sure you can understand that it is very difficult for a Government to know whether the relations of an individual with a political refugee are of a political or philosophical nature. In any event I fully accept your assurances that your interest in a certain person in Pondicherry was purely philosophical. If I had not been convinced of this I would not have had letters of recommendation to the British authorities issued to you.
I wish you success in your philosophical investigations in India.
Items 4af from Baroda State records, confidential files, B.R.O.C. 21/Poli Hall, File 5. Central Record Office, Baroda.
Police Commissioners Office
Dear Mr. Gupta,
Re Mr. D.L. Purohits visit to Pondicherry the Madras C.I.D. reported on the 27th July that the first thing he did on going to Pondicherry was to pay a visit to Arabindo Ghose. He came to Arabindo Ghoses house direct from the Odiyanacholai Choultry where he had removed his things from the Railway waiting room & was engaged in conversation with Arabindo for about two hours. He then visited the Secretariat & a few temples and asked if there was any Veda Patasala attached to them, what the income of the temple was, the pay of the Archakas etc. He made a rapid survey of the place & then left. He took no notes of the information he obtained from the enquiries in the Pondicherry temples[.] It appears that the main object of his visit was to see Arabindo Ghose.
I cannot give you the exact date of his visit to Pondicherry but the details of it were reported on the 27th July so it must have been sometime in July.
Baroda, 7th Sept. 1912
A Confidential Report has just been received through the British CID that you visited Pondicherry in July and had a long interview with Aravind Ghose. The report contains such a detailed and circumstantial account of your visit to a temple and of your other movements in Pondicherry that it is difficult to regard it as anything other than a correct and true account. I cannot tell you how greatly your action will compromise HH [His Highness] the Maharaja if this report is true. Considering all that has lately happened in Baroda and the proclamation issued by H.H. it is hardly credible that a man of your education and understanding should commit such an act of grave indiscretion. You are not on leave but travelling on duty at State expense for [a] particular purpose and should have known that any official like you from Baroda travelling in India on a mission would be keenly watched, and be shadowed by the Detective Police wherever you go.
I therefore request you to be good enough to send me a full explanation of your reported conduct with the least possible delay. I also warn you under pain of very serious consequences to you not to visit or have anything to do with any Anarchists or Extremists or any Political Suspects in Bengal or other part of India. That as you know is no part of your mission. You may have visited Arabind Ghose as an old friend but the inevitable construction which will be put, and I believe is being put by the British Authorities on the CID report is that you and your friend Mr V.G. Pradhan have been sent out on some Political mission and that you went to Pondicherry only for the purpose of seeing Aravind Ghose perhaps with a secret message from H.H. Nobody however will be more astonished or disgusted to hear of your alleged conduct than the Maharaja himself.
Awaiting a full and accurate statement of facts and your explanation thereof[.]
To Prof D.L. Purohit
17 Ezra Street
In reply to your confidential letter d[ated] 7th Sep 1912 and received by me on the 11th, I beg to submit the following few lines for favo[u]r of kind consideration:
On my return from Europe I submitted a report which refers to the law of association, associations cultuell[e]s and the law of 1907 under which all associations for worship require registration in France. Non-registered churches were judicial non-entities and can hold no property (vide pp. 39 & 40 & paras 106, 107 & 108 of the report.) Similarly a particular policy is adopted in connection with prostitution, drink, vagrancy & various other social problems[.]
When I came to Madras I learnt that Pondicherry is only a few miles from the main line. I thought it better to see how french laws work in connection with Hindu temples and under Indian conditions.
At the same time I had learnt that every man going to & coming from Pondicherry is watched by the British Detective Department especially who are Northerners. I had also learnt from the papers some months back that Mr. Ghose had left Pondicherry for Paris.
When I came to Conjeeveram I decided to go to Pondicherry as I had nothing to fear from C.I.D. as my work was confined purely to the study of social and religious activities and as there would be no other opportunity to see the practical working of these laws in India and thus to test the propriety of my proposals re registration of institutions, prevention of mendicancy &c (vide proposals Nos 8 & 13) &c at the end of para 162 and p 66 of my report I resolved to go to Pondicherry.
I reached it at about 2 AM on the 23rd of July and slept in the waiting room at night. In the morning I went to a native rest house at about 8 or 9 A.M. I had my bath and then went to the Perumal Coil and other temples and mutts & talked to various people[,] Nagar Chetty and others[,] as to the control of Hindu temples &c[.]
I then went to the Secretariat in a Riksha. When I reached the Secretariat I was told that the secretary was not in the office but that he might be at home. I was told he lived in the vicinity. Meanwhile a man in European costume came where I was standing and asked me whether I wished to see the secretary.
I said: Yes.
He said: Very well, let me try at his place.
I followed him and the riksha followed us. Within 2 or 3 minutes he asked me whether I had a card with me[.]
I handed over my visit card to him. He read it & said:
He Oh! You come from Baroda[.]
He Well, do you know Mr Aravinda Ghose?
He Will you like to see him?
I No, thanks. He is I think in Paris.
He Yes, alright. He is in Paris[.] Meanwhile he had handed over my card to a man who had dressed like a cooly. He stopped near a house. I also stopped and the cooly went up.
I Is this the house of the Secretary?
The cooly returned in a few seconds & told me
I The Secretary is a good man[.]
He Yes, he is very kind. I must go up to see him.
The cooly asked me for
To my utter surprize I found myself in presence of Mr Ghose. He was also astonished to see me there.
G What brings you here?
I I thought you were in Paris[.]
I showed him the circular printed letter of my questions. (Appendix A) Had it not been for the sake of good manners and courtsey [sic] due to one who was for sometime my official superior I would have returned from him unceremoniously. I never dreamt that any mischievous interpretation was likely to be placed on this occurrence.
He read the questions and made some observations. The very full memo thereof is enclosed herewith (Ex B).
Ordinarily the discussion of these questions lasts 2 hours or more e.g. with Sir Subrahmnya Aiyer, with Sir Gurudass Banerjee &c. But here as I put no questions, it terminated in about 25 or 30 minutes.
I solemnly affirm that there was absolutely no talk on political or any such questions.
I came down & went to the Secretariat. I sent my card to him & he made the appointment at 3-30 P.M.
I then went to one Sundar Murty Chetty & talked to him on various questions of my inquiry & returned to the rest house for lunch.
Thereafter I went to some other temples, talked to various people and called on the secretary at the appointed time. He was good enough to supply me with the information he had and then introduced me to the head of his bureau who supplied me with the detailed information. I departed from Pondicherry at about 5-30 P.M[.] on the same day.
I cannot claim Mr Ghose as my friend. When he was the acting head of the college, he did not recommend me for the permanent post for certain reasons unprofitable to mention here although he was satisfied with my work. There were other occassions [sic] also where he did not act as a friend to me.
When he came to Baroda after the Surat Congress in 1907, I did not see him even in Baroda & refused to attend meetings held in this connection. Thus I had no reason to see him now.
I had never exchanged a line with him. I had no sympathy with his views as I always held them to be misleading & mischievous. This was known to many. Under these circumstances it will be clear that I did not go to Pondicherry to see him as has been alleged by the C.I.D.
Of course under the Huzur Orders, I was to go round in my private capacity (vide Huzur Orders re India trip). Yet I was fully conscious of my responsibility as a Government servant travelling at Government expenses. I also knew that severe penalties were in store for him who was even suspected to have connection with him[.]
I knew that every movement of mine would be watched. Watched or not, private or official persons, I had no business with him, had no reason to see him.
Had I gone to see Mr Ghose, I would not have gone round the town with full publicity with exchange of cards in the open day light. I might have gone to his house at night and might not have visited any body else. I might not have gone to the Secretariat and the rest house. I might have refused to show my card, might have disguised my identity or would [not] have given out my whereabouts, profession and caste &c. I might have taken precautions not to reveal my identity. I might not have stopped in the waiting room. I might not have taken all my luggage and a peon with me. I might have gone incognito.
But nay! I went to see the working of certain ordinances and conditions &7 temples and not to see Mr Ghose as is meanly alleged. I therefore went as usual and not stealthily.
Had I suspected that Mr Ghose was in Pondicherry, I might have refrained from going there or would have taken precautions not to see him. But! alas! I thought a kind man was helping me to see the Secretary to the French Government. Really [??] made to see Mr Ghose by fraud. Knowing affairs in Baroda as I know, I would have been a veritable madman to ask to see Mr. Ghose or any such[.]
I am extremely sorry that this has been the source of pain and anxiety to your Excellency, His Highness and the Government.
I challenge C.I.D. to show that in this trip I have ever talked on political subjects with any body or that ever in my life had I sympathized with the extremist or anarchist views in politics.
I went there conscientiously in pursuance of my inquiry but was unfortunately deceived to interview the man whom I never wished to meet, whom I deliberately avoided hithertofore & wished to avoid.
Unfortunately leaders of Religious thought are the persons who take prominent part in politics. Politics is not my concern. I have avoided all contact with and talk about politics. To avoid misunderstanding, I have put down my questions in writing. I have carried out my resolution not to communicate with newspapers, not to take part in meetings. Many times I was requested, nay pressed to address a meeting or say a few words to the students or select audience but I declined to do so in pursuance of my resolve.
I shall avoid all extremists, anarchists, & political suspects however well up they may be in subjects of my inquiry. I know Messrs B.C. Pal and A.K. Dutt in Bengal and Messrs. Lajpatra[i] & Ajitsinghji in Punjab to fall under the description and I shall avoid all intercourse with them. I do not know other names under the injunction of Your Excellency[.] I shall be much obliged if Your Excellency will kindly send me a list of such persons C/O Post Master Benares so that I cannot unwittingly come in contact with them.
I take liberty once more of expressing my great regret at the unfortunate occurrence which has caused so much anxiety to the Government.
The allegation that we are on a political mission or that I went to Pondicherry only for the purpose of seeing Mr Ghose, perhaps with a secret message &c is simply astounding, mean, wicked & false. I solemnly affirm that I did not go to Pondicherry to see Mr Ghose but that I was duped into seeing him, that I had no message & that I had not a word exchanged on politics & that I simply went there in pursuance of my inquiry.
If your Excellency had forwarded the report, I would have been able to say how far the facts alleged therein are true to false. But in absence of it, I have submitted briefly the facts & my explanation thereof.
Praying that my report will receive kind and favo[u]rable consideration,
I have the hono[u]r to be
THE COLLEGE, BARODA
I was deputed by H.H. the Gaikwar of Baroda to study various religious and social activities of the United Kingdom. I visited some countries on the Continent and Egypt.
At present I am going round India to study similar activity in this country.
The questions I have to study are:
1. How the religious institutions of the country are striving to do the work of the Church viz. Moral and spiritual uplift of the people and translation of the ideal into practical life and how they could be made to do it more efficiently?
2. How can various religious orders and caste organisations be made instruments of social welfare?
3. Is it desirable to create [an] influential class of priests? What should be the lines for the better education of the priests and for propagation of scriptures in the light of the modern spirit?
4. Is it desirable for the State, apart from establishment of State religion, to have a kind of bureau where information could be collected and schemes could be suggested for better functioning of various religious and humanitarian institutions? Can it be done by native rulers having identity of faith with the preponderating majority of their subjects e.g. Hindus, Mahomedans or Sikhs?
5. Is it desirable for the State to undertake the responsibility of imparting religious and moral education based on the principles stated in the light of modern thought, culture and progressive social ideas and conditions?
6. What practical steps could be taken for co-operation between the church, private and State endeavours with a view to promote social welfare in various directions e.g. temperance, anti-gambling, purity, foreign-travel, marriage and sexual relations, thrift, protection of children and defectives, public and private health, charities, prevention of cruelty to children and to animals, women and widows, backward and depressed classes, education, continuation schools, housing, &c.
Will a Grant-in-aid System help the various institutions and agencies in doing good to the people e.g. orphanages, mothers meetings, schools for mothers, boyscout movement, adult school, brotherhood movement, band of hope, teaching of Hygiene, temperance and purity, etc.?
I shall feel obliged if you will kindly give me the benefit of your advice and give me necessary instructions. Any suggestions as to places, persons and institutions to be visited and literature bearing on the subject in books, reports, pamphlets, etc. will be welcome.
I request you will kindly intimate the hour that may suit your convenience when I may call on you.
Requesting for a line in reply.
Extract from the journal d[ated] 23-7-12
Mr. Ghose after reading various questions of the circular letter, talked of Yoga not the conventional method of
He is not in favo[u]r of monastic institutions though it serves as a centre of individual development and is a precious heritage. He believed in
Certainly a bureau is necessary. He would like to have committees to organise & supervise charity work and to control or to supervise religious endowments. He was against vagrancy law.
His Excellency the Dewan Saheb,
As I am extremely grieved at the manner in which my visit to Pondicherry undertaken in the conscientious discharge of the work connected with the study of the religious & social institutions and activities, has unfortunately been misconstrued in certain quarters, in spite of my candid and unreserved explanation, I feel in all consciousness that I ought no longer, under the undeserved treatment accorded to me, to continue in the service of the State.
2 I therefore most humbly and respectfully beg to tender my resignation of the post of a professor in the Baroda College from the 3rd January next when the College reopens after the present vacation.
3 I shall esteem it a great favo[u]r if at the end of the present vacation I am graciously granted such privilege and other leave as I am entitled to under the rules.
Extract from A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo. First Series. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 22.
When the talk turned to Prof. D.L. Purohit of Baroda Sri Aurobindo recounted the incident of his visit to Pondicherry where he had come to inquire into the relation between the Church and the State. He had paid a courtesy call on Sri Aurobindo as he had known him at Baroda. This had resulted in his resignation from Baroda State service on account of the pressure of the British Residency. I conveyed to Sri Aurobindo the good news that after his resignation Mr. Purohit had started practice as a lawyer and had been quite successful, earning more than the pay he had been getting as a professor.
1 The conveyance to which Mme David-Néel refers did in fact have a name: pousse-pousse.
2 Criminal Investigation Department: the detective police.
3Mme David-Néel was of the opinion that the sky of India is not blue like that of Mediterranean countries or of central Asia. It is opalescent green; hence the expression of certain Indian poets: the parrot of the sky.
4 It was, of course, not authentic.
5 The gentleman is calling you.
7 conditions & doubtful (MS torn).
8 The traditional founder of the system of rājayoga.
9 (Of the) ether.
10 Each of the four graded classes of society.
11 Religious exercises.
12 Mind, sense mind, intellect, ego-sense.
13 The essential matrix of consciousness.