Mahatma Gandhi’s aborted attempt to meet Sri Aurobindo by Sandeep Joshi
In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom struggle, sought to meet Sri Aurobindo because they had never met in person before. The latter declined the request because he didn’t want to break the seclusion that he had been observing since 1926. Strangely, the Mother who had no such restriction also declined to meet him. By combining the correspondence available in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi with the records in the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, it is possible to build a complete picture of why this important meeting never transpired. One of Mahatma Gandhi’s letters seen below also furnishes us with a second-hand account of daily life in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
For those who may not know, from 1906 to 1910 Sri Aurobindo had risen to become a prominent leader in India’s freedom struggle against British rule. He retired to Pondicherry in April, 1910 after receiving a Divine command (“adesh”) to abandon political life and devote himself to spiritual transformation. In 1915, Gandhi, who had been fighting for the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa for about two decades, returned to India and within a few years became the undisputed leader of the Indian freedom struggle. For many years, the national leadership continued to hope that Sri Aurobindo would one day return to lead the freedom struggle. In 1920, Gandhi had wired Sri Aurobindo to accept the nomination for the president of the upcoming Congress session but the latter turned down the request (1).
In November 1933, Gandhi embarked on a nation-wide tour as part of his campaign against untouchability and the caste system. Since his tour was to take him to Pondicherry, he sought to use the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with Sri Aurobindo. He wrote to Govindbhai Patel, an Ashram inmate, to facilitate the meeting:
December 25, 1933
On receipt of your letter I inquired and learnt that an invitation had been received from Pondicherry, and most probably I shall be visiting the place. If I go, I should certainly like to call on Shri Aurobindo. It would be a great disappointment to me if I could not see him. If, therefore, you can arrange for a meeting without much fuss, please do so. After the programme is finalized, I also will write and request for an interview (2)
Govindbhai put the matter before Sri Aurobindo who politely declined:
28 December 1933
Govindbhai Patel: Here is a postcard from Gandhi. If you think he can receive something from you, please grant him permission to meet you.
Sri Aurobindo: You will have to write that I am unable to see him because for a long time past I have made it an absolute rule not to have any interview with anyone—that I do not even speak with my disciples and only give a silent blessing to them three times a year. All requests for an interview from others I have been obliged to refuse. This rule has been imposed on me by the necessity of my sadhana and is not at all a matter of convenience or anything else. The time has not come when I can depart from it. (3)
Gandhi again pressed Sri Aurobindo for a few minutes of his time:
2 Jan 1934
M. K. Gandhi: . . . Perhaps you know that ever since my return to India I have been anxious to meet you face to face. Not being able to do that, I sent my son to you. Now that it is almost certain that I am to be in Pondicherry, will you spare me a few minutes & see me! I know how reluctant you are to see anybody. But if you are under no positive vow of abstinence, I hope you will give me a few minutes of your time. . . .
Sri Aurobindo replied to him courteously:
It is true that I have made no vow, for I never make one, but my retirement is not less binding on me so long as it—and the reason for it—lasts. I think you will understand that it is not a personal or mental choice but something impersonal from a deeper source for the inner necessity of work and sadhana. It prevents me from receiving you but I cannot do otherwise than keep to the rule I have adhered to for some years past. (4)
Sri Aurobindo’s letter was delayed so Gandhi had to write again to Govindbhai:
January 12, 1934
I have written to you saying that I had written a long letter to Shri Aurobindo. I have received no reply till today. I have written to you in reply to your English letter, too, and said that you may ask me any questions you wish to when we meet. (5)
Sri Aurobindo surmised (correctly) that his letter must have been intercepted by the British intelligence agency. Gandhi was being closely monitored by the British to ensure that he kept his pledge of eschewing political agitation during the untouchability tour. Reports of his talks and actions were continuously filed by low-level observers and traveled all the way to the secretary of state for India in Whitehall in England. (6)
12 January 1934
Govindbhai Patel: Gandhi writes that he has not yet received Sri Aurobindo’s answer. I hear that he asked at least a line in Sri Aurobindo’s hand; and that Sri Aurobindo has written a full letter in his own hand—which he does not usually do. Is this a fact?
Sri Aurobindo: Yes. I wrote to him a short letter explaining the nature of my retirement and regretting that I could not break my rule so long as the reason for it existed. It was addressed to Bangalore I believe and ought to have reached him, unless it has been pocketed by the C.I.D. I suppose even if he had left Bangalore it would have been forwarded to him. You can write and inform him of the fact. (7)
Since he could not meet Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi wondered if he could meet the Mother instead and also tour the Ashram.
January 21, 1934
It seems my stay in Pondicherry will be a very brief one. But if I can, I should very much like to see Mother and to go round the Ashram. Sri Aurobindo’s letter reached me yesterday after a good deal of wandering. I cannot follow all that you say in your letters. I may say this for myself, that nothing is dearer to me in this world than the search for truth (8).
Govindbhai put Gandhi’s new request before Sri Aurobindo.
24 Jan 1934
Govindbhai Patel: I am sure he will prolong his stay to see the Mother. And the Mother is Mother after all, let him have Her touch. I am sure he is not going to bother Mother by political topics. If he talks at all, he will talk about his search after Truth.
Sri Aurobindo: With his programme it is impossible. Also I do not see any utility. You must on no account ask him to delay his departure, that is quite contrary to what we wish. His search for Truth is on fixed lines of his own and the Mother can say nothing to help him there—nor has he said that he wants any help—and the Asram would hardly please him since it is run on quite unascetic lines contrary to his ideal (9).
Sri Aurobindo turned down the request because Gandhi’s political and spiritual ideals were markedly different from those espoused by him and the Mother. Inspired by Tolstoy, Gandhi had adopted an extreme form of ascetism; he used to observe fasts regularly ; he had given up cow’s milk because of its allegedly aphrodisiac properties and then taken to drinking goat’s milk. There were differences on the political front as well. During his political career, Sri Aurobindo had advocated a vigorous industrialisation of the country to free India from its dependence on British goods while Gandhi who preferred a simple rural life wanted everyone to make their own clothes at home by spinning cotton on the charkha (the spinning-wheel). Sri Aurobindo had advocated passive resistance as long as the ruling power, the British, did not turn violent, in which case the resistance had to become more active and aggressive (10). By contrast, Gandhi favoured the use of Ahimsa (non-violence) in all circumstances in the fond hope that it would melt the aggressor’s heart. He even asked Jews to practice the same method against Hitler. Hitler, on the other hand, had once advised a British minister: “All you have to do is to shoot Gandhi” (11).
Since he did not receive any favourable reply from Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi decided against visiting Pondicherry :
February 3, 1934
I have your letter. A new programme has been drawn up, in which the visit to Pondicherry has been dropped. I must confess that I do not have the same curiosity that you have. I have respect for all individuals. I have known about Sri Aurobindo since a long time. You have many Gujaratis there. There are others, too. I would want to know something of an ashram which shelters so many people. It was in order to satisfy this desire that I made the attempt. But that is over now. It would have given me some satisfaction if I could have at least met you all. (12)
Gandhi then wrote a letter to Vallabhbhai Patel (another Indian leader) informing him of the reluctance of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to meet him:
February 5, 1934
The attempt which I made to see Shri Aurobindo was for the sake of the Gujaratis in Pondicherry. His refusal was courteous. He said that he saw nobody. The Revered Mother did not reply at all. My visit to that town has been dropped now. In a way I am glad that it has been. (13)
In the meanwhile, a notice had been put up in the Ashram prohibiting members from attending Gandhi’s meetings, as we learn from the following exchange.
On 9 February 1934
Disciple: It seems some people from the town went to see Gandhi and asked him why he had cancelled his visit to the Asram. Gandhi is supposed to have said that it was because Sri Aurobindo was not willing to see him, after which he showed a copy of the notice which was put on our notice board—the one prohibiting members of the Asram from attending Gandhi’s arrival procession, etc. I don’t believe Gandhi actually had a copy of the notice but some people in town must have known of it.
Sri Aurobindo: That is all nonsense. Gandhi’s decision not to come here was made before the notice was put on the board. My decision to issue the notice and his decision not to come may have coincided —but how could he know it except by telepathy?
Disciple: In one of his letters to Govindbhai, Gandhi said that he would be much disappointed if he did not see Sri Aurobindo. If that was the case, I wonder why he couldn’t wait till the 21st to have Darshan.
Sri Aurobindo: I suppose the disappointment was nothing more than a phrase —meaning, I would so much have liked to see what kind of a person you are. If I have read his last letter to Govindbhai aright, his request was dictated by curiosity rather than anything else. If anybody expected him to come here seeking for Truth, it was absurd—he has his own fixed way of seeing things and is not likely to change it. (14)
Plans changed again. Gandhi decided to visit Pondicherry on February 17, 1934 (15). Sri Aurobindo still refused to allow Gandhi to meet the Mother!
16 Feb 1934
Govindbhai Patel: As he has written to me to inform you, shall I answer that the Mother cannot see him or shall I remain silent? If he enquires about seeing Mother, shall I say that she will not be able to see him?
Sri Aurobindo: You can tell him that just now the circumstances are such that it is impossible for the Mother to receive his visit (16).
Given the series of blanket refusals, Sri Aurobindo then asked Govindbhai to personally meet Gandhi to alleviate any misunderstanding.
Disciple: Yesterday Gandhi asked permission to see the Mother. I heard that Mother asked Govindbhai to meet him and explain her inability to see him.
Sri Aurobindo: Gandhi wrote to Govindbhai and from his letter it seemed as if he were still expecting to see the Mother and the Asram or at least expecting an answer. In view of this persistence we sent Govindbhai to explain to him that it was impossible for the Mother to receive his visit (17).
The rationale behind this stubborn reluctance to receive Gandhi becomes apparent in a subsequent letter that Gandhi wrote after meeting Govindbhai. It seems that the Ashram was being closely watched by the British. Welcoming Mahatma Gandhi at this juncture might have imperiled the friendly relations that the Ashram enjoyed with the French government which ruled over Pondicherry. In this letter, we also get a glimpse of daily life in the Ashram.
February 19, 1934
Letter to Vallabhbhai Patel
I visited Pondicherry. I could see nobody there. Mother didn’t reply at all. But Govindbhai came and saw me when I was in another place. He told me the whole story. The Ashram is being watched, and so there was some risk even in letting me visit the place. Half the number of the inmates are Gujaratis. Govindbhai was also in the Ashram formerly. The daily routine in this Ashram is as follows: They get up at five in the morning. Every sadhaka has a separate room for himself. There are about 150 sadhakas. They come from everywhere. Among them are Dilip (Kumar Roy) andHarin Chattopadhyaya, the husband of Kamaladevi. The Ashram has rented about 40 houses. The food is similar to that provided in our Ashram. Shri Aurobindo comes out only on three days in the year. Shri Aurobindo and Mother don’t sleep at all. Shri (Aurobindo) does recline in an armchair between 3.30 a.m. and 4.30 a.m., but he does not sleep. The sadhakas have to send up their diary every day. They can ask questions. Letters from Shri (Aurobindo) and Mother are delivered to them four times a day. Between them, they write about 200 letters daily. No letter remains unattended to. Shri (Aurobindo) knows innumerable languages. He reforms sadhakas through secret influence on their minds. Harin Chattopadhyaya has given up drinking, etc. Liquor and meat are forbidden in the Ashram. This is the description given by Govindbhai, and he has invited me to join the Ashram. I hope you will be satisfied with this (18).
Sri Aurobindo and the Ashram which came up later in Pondicherry had been under British surveillance since 1910. It was in 1937, when a Congress government came to power in the Madras Presidency (roughly equivalent to today’s Tamil Nadu state) that the surveillance finally came to an end. Doraiswamy Iyengar, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and a lawyer by profession, made the request to the Premier of Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopachari to have it ended (19).
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