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Religions of South Asia 11.

2-3 (2017) 274–341 ISSN (print) 1751-2689 ISSN (online) 1751-2697

The Making of an Avatar:

Reading Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950)
Alex Wolfers1
King’s College
University of Cambridge, CB2 1ST

ABSTRACT: Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), the revolutionary yogi of Pondi-

cherry, was one of India’s first global gurus of the modern age. Eluding easy clas-
sification, at different stages in his life he played the role of scholar, politician,
poet, philosopher and mystic. Despite being the subject of considerable scholar-
ship, Aurobindo has generally been presented as a disjointed figure, fragmented
and constrained by disciplinary boundaries. Ongoing disputes within the wider
Aurobindo community regarding his contested legacy have drawn attention to
his (mis)appropriation by a resurgent Hindutva ethno-nationalism. Against the
attempts by some to monumentalize Aurobindo as an infallible Avatar, this inter-
disciplinary review of the field of Aurobindo studies seeks to bring together a wide
range of scholarly perspectives so as to serve as a meeting ground for multiple
overlapping interpretations and future integral research. Indeed, only if we place
Aurobindo’s accession to Avatarhood in the context of his poetic, political and
prophetic vision can we better understand how he reconciled the revolutionary
and the mystic in his own life. Just as Aurobindo’s theo-political reconfiguration of
Hinduism under colonial conditions invokes an anticipatory horizon of individual
and collective transformation, his conception of Avatarhood demands a mode of
spiritual envisioning that sets the stage for utopian struggle.

KEYWORDS: Aurobindo; Avatar; Hindu nationalism; Integral Yoga; Mirra Alfassa;

Neo-Vedanta; political theology; Rishi; spiritual evolution.

On the fourteenth of August 1947, the eve of India’s independence from

British imperial rule, Aurobindo Ghose communicated a message to the
nation at the request of All India Radio. In his proclamation, issued from the
depths of his Ashram in Pondicherry, the 74-year-old yogi recalled the five

1. Alex Wolfers is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His thesis focuses on the
political theology of the Bengali anti-imperialist thinker Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950). He
works on the intersection between theology and global intellectual history with particular
emphasis on conceptions of struggle, sovereignty and revolutionary subjectivity. His pub-
lications include ‘Born like Krishna in the Prison-House: Revolutionary Asceticism in the
Political Ashram of Aurobindo Ghose,’ South Asia (2016).

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2018, Office 415, The Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield S1 2BX.
Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 275

utopian dreams of his younger days. In his characteristically prophetic tone,

Aurobindo outlined a global vision for the future towards which human-
ity should collectively strive. While freedom from Empire was an important
milestone on the journey, according to Aurobindo true independence was an
ongoing project that demanded inter-religious harmony, worldwide unity
and the social, political and spiritual evolution of a new form of divine life. An
intensely private man, this pronouncement was one of the few public state-
ments that Aurobindo was to make after relinquishing frontline politics and
absconding from Bengal in 1910. He died three years later.
Aurobindo is now predominantly remembered as the yogi of Pondicherry,
one of India’s first global gurus of the modern age. However, this diminishes
the many voices in which he spoke and the diverse roles he played through-
out his life. At different moments Aurobindo was a scholar, revolutionary,
poet, philosopher, mystic and guru, defying straightforward classification. As
a result, the trajectory of his life is normally portrayed as disjointed. Although
there has been considerable scholarship on Aurobindo, studies have gener-
ally approached him in a fragmentary way, constraining him within disciplin-
ary boundaries. While work on Aurobindo has undoubtedly benefitted from
such focused specialization along the broad dividing lines of history, political
thought, theology, philosophy, literature, psychology and more, the lack of
interaction between these disciplines has for the most part stifled the field.
At the centre of this vast literature, Aurobindo has remained a somewhat
obscured and enigmatic figure, adding to the prevailing sense of a cloistered
area of study.
Many biographies of Aurobindo have been published by his ashram and
written by disciples. However, even the most insightful ones exhibit a dis-
tortive tendency towards uncritical devotionalism (Keshavmurti 1969; M. Das
1972; Iyengar 1972; Navajata 1972; Purani 1978; Rishabhchand 1981; Umar
2001; S. R. Sharma 2003; Aju Mukhopadhyay 2010). Hagiography often plays
a key role in orienting a community of spiritual seekers, but the ‘truths’ con-
veyed by the idealized representations of a guru through the eyes of the
faithful should be clearly distinguished from those generated by the critical
interrogation required of academic analysis. Aurobindo himself had main-
tained that biographical accounts were neither necessary nor useful because
his life had ‘not been on the surface for men to see’. He valued self-cultivation
and inner strength far above external measurements of fame, status or social
recognition. Aurobindo insisted upon his humanity even as he embraced his
‘divinity’ and, considering his tremendous impact, understanding his contri-
bution critically remains crucial (Aurobindo 2011: 44, 418; 2012b: 94). This is
especially important since, over the last few decades, Aurobindo has been glo-
rified by nationalists, often with a Hindu supremacist bias.
Since the early 1970s the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives in Pondicherry
have been gathering the scattered materials related to Aurobindo’s life and
publishing their findings in their journal, Archives and Research (1977–1994). In

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276 religions of south asia

1997, to commemorate the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of his

birth, they began to produce the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (CWSA)
in a uniform library edition of 37 volumes (Aurobindo 1997). This vast com-
pilation of over 17,500 pages of published and unpublished writings includes
his critical scholarship, cultural analysis, translations, political journalism,
writings in Bengali, theological treatises, mystical poetry, letters to disciples,
autobiographical notes and much else. Through this endeavour the Ashram’s
archivists have rendered a valuable service to Aurobindo scholarship, bring-
ing together his fragmented legacy to facilitate a coherent engagement with
his life and thought and opening him up to an international audience.
By far the most significant recent work of scholarship has been the publi-
cation of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs (2008a). As one of the ashram
archive’s founding members and the former editor of its journal, Heehs’
packed biography draws upon almost 40 years of thorough documentation
and painstaking research. In contrast to previous hagiographical accounts,
Heehs attempts to humanize Aurobindo and reconcile the different aspects of
his life, placing special emphasis on his historical context. Heehs’ accessible
work has raised Aurobindo’s profile far beyond the walls of the ashram and
inspired many new scholars to focus their research on him.
However, certain factions within the ashram have taken offence at the pub-
lication and have repeatedly attempted to prevent its release; a case for the
ban is still pending in the State of Orissa High Court. Heehs has endured con-
siderable harassment from disgruntled devotees and in 2012 even faced the
threat of deportation to America. Perhaps what is most surprising about the
controversy is the absence of explicitly offensive content in the book (Seidlitz
2008; Heehs 2012). In fact, from an academic perspective, one of the major
weaknesses of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is its lack of critical analysis and reluc-
tance to problematize its subject.
Among Heehs’ inarticulate and noisy critics—many of whom appear not to
have read the book—the predominant topics of contention involve his focus
on the mundane details of Aurobindo’s life, his depiction of the shared inti-
macy between Aurobindo and his chief collaborator, the Mother, as well as
Heehs’ relative indifference to Aurobindo’s spiritual accomplishments. This
conflict effectively illustrates the underlying opposition between the guru-
disciple worldview and the spiritually sympathetic but secular, rational and
‘objective’ empirical outlook assumed by Heehs. Some of his more thought-
ful critics, who tease out these tensions with care, are worth reading (Desh-
pande 2008; V. Patel 2011).
The Heehs controversy continues to brew against the wider political back-
drop of resurgent Hindutva authoritarianism. Since the election of Narendra
Modi as Prime Minister of India in 2014, these reactionary forces have attained
an unprecedented institutional and ideological dominance. In this climate of
rising intolerance Aurobindo is one among many politically contested national
icons. The belligerent faction within the Ashram, reflecting wider currents of

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 277

Hindu chauvinism, appears to be set on monumentalizing Aurobindo as an

infallible Avatar. In their eagerness to purify him of human imperfections,
Aurobindo becomes lifeless and sterile, an idol to be fetishized rather than an
ideal to be pursued. This Avatar exists outside history, in a cold and sanitized
realm of representation, for behind the grandiose facade, Aurobindo’s mean-
ing is lost. While in itself the presentation of Aurobindo as a divine Avatar
who should be approached with uncritical veneration may help practitioners
of yoga surrender their ego to the higher teachings of their guru, the problem
arises when all other interpretations are silenced and alternative approaches
are considered null and void.
This article explores Aurobindo from a wide variety of scholarly perspec-
tives and is a preliminary attempt to assemble these disjointed approaches
within an ‘integral’ unity. I restrict myself to highlighting the more impor-
tant areas of discussion and major lines of argument taken by scholars.2 I
emphasize the most recent literature and the new directions that scholarship
has been taking, in large part thanks to the discussion that Heehs has pro-
voked. Moving beyond both ‘standardized’ and ‘fragmentary’ treatments of
Aurobindo, the next generation of scholars would benefit considerably from
an interdisciplinary approach that could serve as a meeting ground for mul-
tiple overlapping interpretations.
Only by reading Aurobindo’s systematization of yoga together with his
poetic, political and prophetic vision, can we understand how he reconciled
the revolutionary and the mystic. Although Aurobindo never conclusively
defined his conception of Avatarhood, it emerged in his thinking as an impor-
tant symbol of spiritual embodiment overlapping with the Guru’s intermedi-
ary role as guide and exemplar of transcendent truths. By his own estimation,
Aurobindo’s realization of Avatarhood was not a seamless ascent but a con-
tinuous struggle for self-overcoming that illuminated the universal human
capacity for transformation within us all (Aurobindo 2012a: 472–73, 476–78).

Revolutionary Sannyasi
The crisis in which the Avatar appears, though apparent to the outward eye only
as a crisis of events and great material changes, is always in its source and real
meaning a crisis in the consciousness of humanity when it has to undergo some

2. I have not included writings in journals and magazines associated with the wider Aurobindo
Ashram community, but interested scholars may find the following titles helpful: Sri Aurobindo
Mandir Annual; The Advent; Mother India; Śraddha: A Quarterly Devoted to an Exposition of the Teach-
ings of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo; Invocation: Study Notes on Savitri; Sri Aurobindo Circle; Collabo-
ration: Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; New Race: A Journal of Integral and
Future Studies; AntiMatters; Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New
Thought, Research, and Praxis; and Sri Aurobindo’s Action: The Journal of India’s Resurgence (H. K.
Kaul 1972).

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278 religions of south asia

grand modification and effect some new development. For this action of change a
divine force is needed.
(Aurobindo 1997b: 168)

The Avatar ‘is never in fact merely a prophet, he is a realizer, and establisher … of
something essential and radical needed for the terrestrial evolution which is the
evolution of the embodied spirit through successive stages towards the Divine’.
(Aurobindo 2012a: 491)

Born in 1872 in British-ruled Bengal, Aurobindo was sent to England by his

Anglophile father to be educated at St. Paul’s School and later at King’s Col-
lege Cambridge, where he distinguished himself as a scholar of classics. On
his return to India in 1893 he took up service under the Maharaja of Baroda,
in present-day Gujarat, where he taught at the state college and immersed
himself in translating Bengali and Sanskrit texts, literary criticism and poetic
composition. The partition of Bengal in 1905 and the unprecedented Swadeshi
agitation that followed provoked Aurobindo to enter the political arena. He
quickly rose to prominence as an uncompromising visionary polemicist and
revolutionary thinker and his radical perspective came to shape Bengali poli-
tics over the next decade (Fig. 1). Determined to silence this firebrand, the
British government imprisoned him for a year (1908–1909) as the suspected
ringleader of a group of young ‘terrorists’. As discontent in Bengal subsided,
and under the persistent threat of deportation, in 1910 Aurobindo retreated
to the French enclave of Pondicherry, outside the reach of the British colonial
state. For the next four secluded years, he dedicated himself entirely to mysti-
cal experimentation and the practice of yoga.
In 1914, with Europe on the brink of war, Aurobindo met the French occult-
ist Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973) and, with her husband Paul Richard, launched the
philosophical monthly, Arya. Published in India and France, it functioned as the
mouthpiece for Aurobindo’s unique synthesis of spiritual thought across East
and West. When in 1920 Richard returned to Europe, Mirra decided to remain
with Aurobindo in Pondicherry where she eventually became his most signifi-
cant spiritual collaborator. Over the following years, as Aurobindo developed
his capacity for mystical experience, a loose community of seekers gathered
around him. By 1926, formally taking on the role of Guru, Aurobindo had
dropped his surname, assumed the honorific title ‘Sri’ and designated Mirra
‘The Mother’. That same year, after a particularly momentous inner realiza-
tion, Aurobindo formally established the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and entrusted
Mirra with full organizational responsibilities as he withdrew from public view
to focus on consolidating his yogic experimentations. By the time of his death
in 1950 Aurobindo, widely renowned in India, was beginning to be heralded in
the West, starting with commendations by the French writer Romain Rolland
(1929, 1930), and later Francis Younghusband (1942). In 1949 Younghusband,
Aldous Huxley and the Chilean poet-activist Gabriela Mistral, among others,
supported the movement to award him a Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 279

Figure 1. Aurobindo in Bombay (January 1908) while on a lecture tour through Maharashtra
following the turbulent 1907 Surat Congress. Images reproduced with the kind permission of
the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

Early studies introducing Aurobindo to the world as a mystical and phil-

osophical bridge between East and West were written by both interested
outsiders (A. C. Das 1934; Maitra 1941, 1945; G. H. Langley 1949; Colaço 1951a,
1951b, 1952a, 1952b, 1953a, 1953b, 1953c; Bristow 1952; Pearson 1952; Sorokin
1954) and direct disciples eager to consolidate his legacy (Monod-Herzen
1947, 1954a, 1954b; Sethna 1947b, 1953; D. K. Roy 1952; Diwakar 1954; Purani
1955; I. Sen 1957; Smith 1958). This first wave was soon joined by scholar-
ship seeking to recover his foundational political role during the Swadeshi
movement, most notably by Haridas and Uma Mukherjee who demonstrated
a particular dedication to salvaging Aurobindo’s early polemical jour-
nalism (1957a, 1957b, 1957c, 1958a, 1958b, 1964). Karan Singh (1963, 1980),
with a foreword by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, remains
a reliable introduction. Most of these early works were situated within a
narrow nationalist historiography, limited by an agenda of commemorat-
ing the nascent nation-state and its founding figures like Aurobindo, in
the late 1960s more critical scholarship started to question its unqualified

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280 religions of south asia

celebratory tone. The relationship between religion and politics throughout

the Swadeshi era came under scrutiny.
In his public capacity, writing in the Bande Mataram and Karmayogin jour-
nals, Aurobindo propagated a new transformative ‘Extremist’ grammar of
collective struggle, radical freedom (absolute Swaraj) and civil disobedience
capable of breaking the pre-existing ‘Moderate’ framework of elite participa-
tion and constrained constitutional reform (Goyal 1964; Argov 1966, 1967; De
1996; Choudhury 1973; Poddar 1977; G. Srivastava 1982; S. Ghose 1984; R. K.
Ray 1984, 1988; N. K. Ghosh 1989; S. Gupta 1999; S. P. Basu 2004). Aurobindo’s
revolutionary vision harnessed Hindu symbolism, ritual and metaphysics to
develop a potent ‘political theology’ capable of inspiring the youth of Bengal to
dedicate their lives to emancipatory struggle demanding confrontation, civil
disobedience and rupture with the status quo out of love for the motherland.
Along with his brother Barin, away from the scrutiny of the colonial state, he
coordinated the spread of secret societies which trained recruits for armed
insurgency and martyrdom. The dedicated band of ‘revolutionary sannyasis’
that they inspired carried out a violent programme of military insurrection,
political robbery, bomb-throwing and assassination (Tripathi 1967, 1979; Guha
1971, 1978; Choudhuri 1979; D. Ray 1990; Chakrabarti 1992; Papia Chakravarty
1992; D. Chaudhuri 1995; A. Mukherjee 1995a; Samar Basu 1998; Van Bijlert
1999; S. N. Das 2002; Noorani 2005; Gomes 2007; Hoda 2008; Dube 2009; Pras-
anta Chakravarty 2016; N. Roy 2016; Samanta 2017–2018).3
Where the Mukherjees had interpreted Aurobindo’s interweaving of reli-
gion and politics as a ‘strategy … to intensify and popularise the movement’,
Barbara Southard in her perceptive exploration of religious and social strati-
fication in Bengal questioned their instrumental account on the basis that
Vaishnavism would have resonated far more with most Bengali Hindus than
the Śākta orientation that Aurobindo promoted, popular with upper-caste
members of the bhadralok (1980). Conversely, unpacking Aurobindo’s reli-
ance on both Vaishnava and Shakta idioms, Leonard Gordon suggested that
the predominance of Shaktism in his outlook reflects that tradition’s posi-
tive valuation of violence (1974). In turn, David Johnson’s theologically astute
reading uncovered the depth of the interrelationship between religion and
politics in Aurobindo’s ‘spiritualised nationalism’ (1973, 1974).
Though often reductive on the topic of religion, Sumit Sarkar’s The
Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1973) remains the most comprehensive over-
view of the period. Informed by a Marxist sensitivity to class struggle and
concerned by the dominance of bellicose Hindu ethno-nationalist readings

3. This decisive moment still exerts a firm hold over the Bengali middle-class imagination
with Aurobindo’s precise role in the conspiracy attracting particular interest. Especially
noteworthy is the reverential 1971 biopic Mahabiplabi Arabindo directed by Dipak Gupta
starring Dilip Roy as Aurobindo, and, more recently, the 2015 play Boma written and
directed by Bratya Basu which holds up the episode as a mirror reflecting contemporary

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 281

(Majumdar 1963), Sarkar’s multi-layered study of the socio-political dynam-

ics of Swadeshi depicted the movement as irredeemably middle class and, as a
result, somewhat of a failure. He praised Aurobindo for prefiguring Gandhian
Satyagraha and significantly expanding the ways that politics could be con-
ceived, yet discerned in his rhetoric the intimidation of lower caste Hindus
and Muslims by the privileged middle class. There is no doubt, as is dem-
onstrated by the numerous Hindu-Muslim riots that occurred during the
Swadeshi movement, that political mobilization on religious lines did consid-
erably exacerbate the pre-existing socio-economic fissures in Bengali society.
One of the most insightful defenders of Aurobindo’s culturalist imagination
has been Sugata Bose, who has shown how he contrasted the Mughal Empire
favourably with British misrule (Bose and Jalal 1998) and, distancing himself
from prevailing nostalgic evocations of a pristine pre-Mughal Hindu past, dem-
onstrated the strikingly cosmopolitan orientation of his composite nationalism
(1997, 2017).4 Peter Heehs too has endeavoured to rescue Aurobindo from both
bigoted distortion (Gautier 1996, 2001; Frawley 1998; K. Reddy 2003; A. Ganguly
2016a, 2016c; Paranjape 2016a, 2016b) and the oversimplistic condemnation of
secularist historians (Rudolph 1963; T. Chand 1972; Thapar 1975; B. Chandra
1981; Mazumdar 1992; Tamminen 1996), attempting to distinguish Aurobindo’s
cosmopolitan appreciation of Hinduism from the aggressive nationalism of con-
temporary Hindutva ideologues (Heehs 2003c, 2006; Kvassay 2009; Hartz 2015).
In contrast to Heehs’ apologism, other scholars have rightly foregrounded the
more problematic aspects of Aurobindo’s thought, especially his unacknowl-
edged religious and caste bias and the privileged assumptions that lie behind
his professed universalism (Jyotirmaya Sharma 2003; R. B. Mehta 2007).5 Never-
theless, as Heehs has argued, Aurobindo did make a concerted effort to reach
out to Muslims and tempered his rhetoric considerably after communal ten-
sions flared up in 1907 (Heehs 1997b; B. Krishna 2002).
However, Heehs’ most enduring contribution to Aurobindo scholarship has
been his sensitive use of archival material and skilful harmonization of the
numerous, often conflicting, eyewitness accounts of events by police and the
competing militant factions within the Swadeshi underground. This pains-
taking task requires a synoptic approach, considering the inevitably obscure

4. In 2016, in his capacity as MP for Trinamool Congress, Bose addressed the Lok Sabha on the
topic of nationalism and despotism, drawing upon Aurobindo’s ideals of democratic plural-
ism to challenge the heavy-handedness of the Modi government (Bose 2016). The speech
itself and the responses generated by it offer a glimpse into the clash of claim and counter-
claim surrounding Aurobindo’s contested legacy (A. Ganguly 2016b; R. Reddy 2016).
5. In September 1990, during his infamous rath yatra to ‘reclaim’ the mythological birthplace
of Ram in Ayodhya from the Muslims—resulting in widespread communal riots and ulti-
mately the demolition of a sixteenth-century mosque—the then BJP President L. K. Advani
erroneously invoked Aurobindo to buttress his claims to the site. While the historicity of
Ram has become an important ideological motif within Hindutva, Aurobindo himself was
largely indifferent to the question, emphasizing instead the imaginative force of the ava-
taric ideal represented by Ram (S. Chand 2007).

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282 religions of south asia

nature of clandestine organization and Aurobindo’s tendency to remain in the

shadows. Heehs’ work provides the clearest historical account of Aurobindo’s
dual roles as both revolutionary propagandist and the initiator and inspira-
tion of the terrorist underground from behind the scenes (1989, 1992a, 1992b,
1998b, 2009, and especially 1993). The links between his political programme
and parallel international currents such as Irish anti-imperialism and Rus-
sian anarchism have also proved illuminating (Heehs 1994; A. Sen 2007). But
Aurobindo combined these foreign influences with indigenous cultural prac-
tices, and scholars have more recently shown the benefits of analysing his
revolutionary programme through the theological category of Shakta Tantra
(Urban 2003; Fabish 2007; Stoeber 2009). Nevertheless, much more remains to
be said about the constitutive imbrication of power, freedom and violence in
his conception of politics and the political. Kees Bolle has also demonstrated
the continued importance of Tantra in Aurobindo’s later mystical theology
(1962, 1965; Gier 2007).

Political Theology

The dominant tendency of scholarship on Aurobindo’s early revolutionary

career has been to historicize his vision and political programme, binding it
to its specific time and place, and thus neglecting its philosophical content
and enduring significance. Breaking new ground in Indian historiography,
the emergent interest in intellectual history calls for renewed attention to
the relevance of Aurobindo’s political thought, or what I have read through
the prism of ‘political theology’ (Wolfers 2016). Special attention should be
accorded to Andrew Sartori’s highly original neo-Marxist reading of Swadeshi
‘culturalism’ which frames the turn to culture in the thought of Aurobindo
and his contemporaries as a response to changed economic circumstances
(2003, 2008). However, his ultimate conclusion that such a ‘cultural turn’ was
merely the result of ‘misrecognition’ appears somewhat reductive. Whereas
Heehs and Sarkar portrayed the Swadeshi revolutionaries as naive yet heroic
failures, positive reappraisals by Partha Chatterjee (2006) and Dilip Menon
(2012) emphasize the creative legacy of the movement and the radical refram-
ing that their ‘terrorism’ enabled during the anti-imperialist struggle.
In Christopher Bayly’s comprehensive writings on the influence of pre-
colonial ‘old patriotisms’ on Swadeshi intellectual trends, Aurobindo appears
as a somewhat conservative and nativistic figure, caught within the reac-
tionary categories of tradition (Schwarz 1997; Bayly 1998, 2012). By contrast,
Sugata Bose’s favourable account endorses him as a self-consciously innova-
tive thinker rather than a traditionalist, whose ethics of arya are akin to Islamic
jihad and whose later writings still remain relevant for the South Asian polity
(2007). Indeed, Aurobindo’s revolutionary conception of Swaraj—related to
arya—is indebted to his predecessor Swami Vivekananda’s understanding of

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 283

radical freedom (Dalton 1966, 1970, 1982; Bishop 1982). He has also been
compared with his Swadeshi era political collaborators, Bipin Chandra Pal
(1858–1932) from Bengal (S. N. Dubey 1988; Swarup 2007; Swaraj Basu 2007)
and the Maharashtrian Balgangadhar Tilak (1856–1920) (V. P. Varma 1958,
1983; Hazary 1995; S. Kapoor 1991; Dora 2007). As for many of his contem-
poraries, Aurobindo’s pursuit of an ethical—as opposed to moral—grounding
for his worldview would certainly benefit from further study (O’Connor 1977;
Minor 1978; Phillips 2007).
Aurobindo’s most high-profile political counterpoint and intellectual inter-
locutor was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), who returned to India
from South Africa in 1915 and came to dominate the political landscape over the
next few decades (S. L. Malhotra 1970; Bolle 1989; Kanta and S. Kapoor 1993;
J. N. Mohanty 1993d; P. K. Das 2001). Although Gandhi attempted to meet with
Aurobindo on several occasions, the latter had little time for such an encoun-
ter and spoke dismissively about what he perceived to be the Mahatma’s anti-
modernism, his spiritual superficiality and, crucially, his dogmatic opposition
to violence (Minor 2003; Heehs 2010b). On the other hand, Dennis Dalton has
contrasted the attempts of both men to reformulate an authentic Hindu self-
hood capable of grounding their struggle towards the shared ideal of a stateless
society (1965, 1993). Mithi Mukherjee, too, draws out their similarities, rec-
ognizing Aurobindo’s role in challenging the illusory notion of imperial justice
with ‘an alternative discourse of legislative freedom’ in a way that prefigured
that of the Mahatma (2010). An ambitious article by European political theorist
Jimmy Klausen, which engages Aurobindo’s and Gandhi’s interpretations of the
Bhagavad Gita under the rubric of Hindu notions of violence and life, points to
the long-overlooked importance of non-Western thought in global discussions
(2014). However, the article is unfortunately limited by its unfamiliarity with
the context and the full extent of their interaction.
Indeed, though the theological implication of Aurobindo’s reading of
the Gita has consistently received comment (Bazemore 1972; D. White 1972;
R. Mehta 1975; Minor 1980, 1986b; P. M. Thomas 1987; S. K. Ghose 1988; S.
P. Singh 1988; Williams and McElvaney 1988; Seshagiri Rao 1989; Jhabwala
1991; S. P. Agarwal 1993; Wirth 2003; McDermott 2008; S. P. Pani, A. N. Mishra
and Satpathy 2009; Maharaj 2015), the recent focus on the history of ideas
has brought the text’s inherent politics to the fore (King 1980a; Sharpe 1985;
Danino 2002). In a close reading of his Essays on the Gita, Sartori charts the
intellectual shift that occurred during Aurobindo’s incarceration as he tran-
sitioned ‘from nationalist politician to international spiritual guru’ (Robinson
2006; Sartori 2010; Reddy Areevidu 2015). Sanjay Palshikar, meanwhile, dis-
cerns in the text’s updated rendering of traditional Sāṃkhyan philosophical
categories Aurobindo’s creative engagement with modernity and the deeper
significance of the asuric or demonic in the Hindu nationalist imagination
(2010, 2014). Finally, paying special attention to the principle of Avatarhood
in the text, Nagappa Gowda correctly recognizes that, unlike Bankim Chandra

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284 religions of south asia

Chatterjee (1838–1894), Tilak and Gandhi’s ‘socio-pragmatic’ readings of the

Gita as a civic creed, Aurobindo’s mystical interpretation insists upon the
‘transmutation of human limitations’ (2011).


In Pondicherry, the transformation of Aurobindo from revolutionary to guru

was a gradual process that cannot be separated from his relationship with
Mirra Alfassa (Fig. 2). After some initial reluctance, as Aurobindo accepted
his paternal role as the transcendent authority of his fledgling ashram, Mirra
‘The Mother’ excelled in the day-to-day management of this spiritual com-
munity (Heehs 2010a; 2015). In spite of the difficulties she faced as a for-
eign woman taking command of the well-being and inner growth of, at first,
mainly Indian disciples, with Aurobindo’s support (‘The Mother and I are one
but in two bodies’) together they established a uniquely international space
for experimental thought and practice (R. M. Johnson 1991; Syman 2010).
As well as her impressive administrative abilities and effective expansion of
the ashram facilities, ‘The Mother’, as Sri Aurobindo’s primary mediator and
interpreter, injected a strand of devotionalism into the community and made
his philosophy more accessible by lending simplicity to his lofty musings and
often challenging Victorian prose.6
In addition to Heehs’ work on their longstanding collaboration (2008a,
2011), most of the biographical accounts centred on Mirra have been writ-
ten by direct disciples or associates of the ashram (Pandit 1975; Iyengar 1978;
Sethna 1980; Nahar 1985–2002; Richard 1987; K. Joshi 1989; J. K. Mukherjee
1997; Aju Mukhopadhyay 2002; S. Panda 2009) the best of which are by Georges
van Vrekhem (1997, 2000) and Anurag Banerjee (2014). These cover her own
fascinating journey through the occult and artistic circles of Paris and Algeria
before meeting Aurobindo (her ‘Krishna’), and finally becoming the figure-
head of the Mission after his death until her own in 1973 (Huss 2015, 2016). In
Kumari Jayawardena’s treatment of the many white women who travelled to
South Asia during British rule ‘in search of black gods’, Mirra is presented as a
pioneering socialist and feminist in her own right (1995).
As well as The Mother’s own writings (2003) and devotional perspec-
tives through the eyes of faith (Nandakumar 1977a, 1977b, 1979; A Basu 1980;
Lohman 1986; Kumari 1990; Madhusudan Reddy 1996), Robert McDermott has
written the most comprehensive theological account of the esoteric signifi-
cance of their mystical interplay (Roarke 1973; N. D. Ghosh 1976; Deshpande
1999; McDermott 2001a, 2001b; Lester 2011; Aurobindo 2012b; Julich 2013;

6. Anita Desai’s Journey to Ithaca and Lee Langley’s A House in Pondicherry, both published in
1995, include fictional accounts of life in and around the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which fea-
ture versions of Aurobindo and the Mother.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 285

Figure 2. Mirra Alfassa photographed while living in Japan (1916–1920). Images reproduced
with the kind permission of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

Madhusudan Reddy 2014d; Anway Mukhopadhyay 2017; Beldio 2018). Noting

that The Mother has often been the biggest ‘stumbling block’ in understand-
ing Aurobindo’s final vision, McDermott’s lyrical introduction elucidates
how devotees were called upon to participate in the united Aurobindo-
Mother soul and, through it, experience the joy and delight of submission to
the Divine Will. In sharp contrast, Troy Organ’s sober review of McDermott’s
work takes exception to the confusion that Mirra’s ‘gnosticism, occultism,
and bhaktism’ introduced, and blames her for ‘creating an Aurobindoism’
that obfuscates the penetrating insights of Aurobindo himself (1976). How-
ever, one area in which Aurobindo and The Mother’s collaboration bore par-
ticular fruit was the field of education; together they developed a creative,
child-centred system of learning comparable to that of Steiner, Montessori
and Froebel (Pavitra 1967; K. Joshi and Artaud 1974; Cenkner 1975, 1976; Dow-
sett and Jayaswal 1975a, 1975b, 1976; Koyal 1976; N. Prasad 1976; Dowsett 1977;
R. N. Sharma 1985, 2002; G. R. Sharma 1987; S. P. Singh 1992; Klaudt 1997; Mar-
shak 1997; K. Sharma 2001; K. Joshi 2002; Pathak 2002; Sahu 2002; Chakraborty
2004; S. S. Chandra and R. K. Sharma 2004; R. Pani 2007; Partho 2007; Ranade

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286 religions of south asia

2007; Y. K. Singh 2008; Grand 2011; Samuel 2011; P. R. Trivedi 2012; S. R. White
and Janowiak 2012; D. Banerji 2017a; Zulaski 2017; Dini 2018).
In 1968, just 12 kilometres away from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondi-
cherry, The Mother founded the experimental township of Auroville.7 With its
futuristic ethos and looser organizational arrangements, Auroville’s outlook
is markedly more global in its orientation than the ashram, designed as a uto-
pian space where people from around the world could ‘live in peace and pro-
gressive harmony’ beyond race, religion, politics and nationality (Fig. 3) (N.
Prasad 1965; McDermott 1972c; Alain 1992; P. C. Mukherjee and Rath 2015; Fass-
bender 2018). Originally intended to accommodate 50,000, now, 50 years after
its founding, Auroville houses just under 2,900 inhabitants from over 50 coun-
tries (Fig. 4). Investigations into the practical realities of communal life in this
utopian ‘intentional community’ (Mitchiner 1991; Sullivan 1994; Meier 2006;
R. Kapoor 2007; Miles 2008; H. Thomas and M. Thomas 2013) have included
sociological overviews (Shinn 1984), architectural perspectives (Kundoo 2007,
2009; N. Joshi and Walsky 2013), insider accounts (Savitra 1974, 1980; Thépot
2004; Auroville Today 2006; K. Sen 2015; Majumder 2017; Gaartz 2018; Kapur
2018) as well as studies of spiritual tourism (Sharpley and Sundaram 2005;
T. Ganguly 2018) and conflict resolution (Gabriau 1999; Mueller 1999; Kent
2013). The most insightful of these have explored the difficulties faced by the
community today as it struggles to sustain its missionary outlook without the
charismatic leadership of its absent founders (Minor 1999, 2000; S. Pandya
2016). In response to this dilemma, David Lorenzo posits the deployment of a
‘rhetoric of right’ by Aurovilians that privileges ‘pure, intuitive wisdom’ over
reason or tradition, that enables them to promote the needs of the future
over the demands of the past (1999). Tariq Jazeel effectively deconstructs the
reproduction of an anticipatory consciousness and ideological imagination in
Auroville’s specific architectural and spatial rationality (Forthcoming). Situ-
ating Mirra’s utopia in its Tamil rural context Jessica Namakkal exposes the
community’s inability to recognize its own indebtedness to the exclusion-
ary colonial power dynamics that its universalist aspirations had initially
intended to overcome (2012). Turning Westwards, work on the Human Poten-
tial Movement and the Esalen Institute in California demonstrates the enor-
mous impact of Aurobindo’s thought on 1960s counterculture and New Age
practice (Murphy 1992, 2014; Kripal 2005, 2007; Goldman 2012; Phipps 2012;
Kabil 2015). The California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and its founder,
Haridas Chaudhuri, have been particularly important for the establishment of
‘Integralism’—inspired by Aurobindo’s integrative and epistemically pluralist
vision of truth—as an autonomous interdisciplinary field outside India (1951,
1953, 1954, 1965a, 1965b, 1967, 1972a, 1974; Voigt 1985; Anderson 2006; Subbi-
ondo 2006, 2011, 2015; Dolan 2011; Shirazi 2011, 2015).

7. That same year, Mirra heralded the Paris student uprisings in May as an authentic revolu-
tionary moment that resonated with her own agenda.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 287

Figure 3. The ‘Galaxy Plan’ on which Auroville is modelled, designed by French architect Roger
Anger under the Mother’s guidance. Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Sri
Aurobindo Ashram Trust

Figure 4. Stamp issued in 2018 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Auroville’s found-
ing. Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

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288 religions of south asia

The Life Divine

In Pondicherry, Aurobindo developed a speculative metaphysical system

that could provide the philosophical structure for his expanding but con-
flicting mystical experiences (both apophatic and kataphatic), and that would
be equipped to respond to the major philosophical concerns of his day; both
Indian and European. Building on his earlier political outlook, he interwove
Hindu theology with European philosophy—especially Nietzsche and Hege-
lian idealism—to formulate an ‘integral’ vision that, unlike previous intel-
lectual systems, neither reduced spirit to matter nor matter to spirit but
embraced life itself in a ‘future synthesis of human thought, experience and
aspiration’. Reflecting on the limits of traditional Hindu Vedānta, whereas
Aurobindo believed that the impersonal non-dualism of Śaṅkara’s Advaita
had overemphasized the illusory nature of the world (O’Neil 1980; P. Sinha
1986; S. Pandey 1987; Warrier 1990; V. N. K. Reddy 1992), and that the devo-
tional dualisms of Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita and Madhva’s Dvaita denied the
paramountcy of mystic singularity, his own world-affirming conception of
Sachchidananda—a compound of sat (truth), cit (consciousness) and ānanda
(bliss)—rightfully privileged the playful creativity that characterized life and
Divinity. Aurobindo’s panpsychic interpretation of Sachchidananda affirmed
both being and becoming as varying registers in the dialectical movement
of spirit (Ward 1996). The superabundant chit-shakti (consciousness-force) of
creative Divinity first manifests or ‘involves’ itself into gross matter as ‘incon-
scient’ spirit before striving in turn to ‘evolve’ and perfect itself through self-
knowledge in a ‘cosmic yoga’ of self-overcoming.
Aurobindo’s masterwork, The Life Divine, describes how, through the twin
processes of centrifugal ‘involution’ and centripetal ‘evolution’, Sachchi-
dananda achieves greater self-realization. Thus, Darwinian evolution is no
longer a merely horizontal, terrestrial dialectic, for when allied with involu-
tion, it becomes a vertical progression in which, through successive leaps of
consciousness, Matter flowers into Life which in turn surpasses itself in the
form of Mind (Chincholkar 1966; Madhusudan Reddy 1966, 1972; R. S. Sriv-
astava 1968; R. Trivedi 1971; Veliyathil 1972; Devdas 1974, 1980; Devadoss
1984; B. Gupta 1990–1991, 2012; S. N. Sharma 1992; Mohrhoff 2008; Sivarama­
krishnan 2009; Kharmalki 2010; K. Joshi 2013). Here his affinities with Hegel
and Nietzsche are apparent as Aurobindo urges us to overcome our present
limitations and actively participate in these cosmic processes of spiritual-
ized ‘evolutionary’ struggle for individual, civilizational and world-historical
There are many good overviews of purnadvaita or integral Advaita, the onto-
logical model that Aurobindo outlined in The Life Divine (Chandrasekharam
1941; Donnelly 1955; S. Banerjee 1956–1959; R. S. Misra 1957; Ferriols 1966;
Purani 1966; Bruteau 1971; Ockham 1977; O’Neil 1979; Iyengar 1982; Phil-
lips 1985a, 1986; A. Basu 1987; S. Chakravarty 1991; Sethna 1992; A. Reddy

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 289

2012–2015; Madhusudan Reddy 2014a). As with most mystical traditions, the

level of the rational Mind is not the final stage of spiritual growth. However,
in his modern reconfiguration of Hinduism, Aurobindo goes a step further:
echoing the Nietzschean Übermensch, his future-oriented metaphysics envi-
sions the human as a transitional being and a stepping stone in the ascent of
dynamic divinity (Organ 1962, 1964; Devdas 1967; Lad 1967; Chattopadhyaya
1968, 1976a; Srinivasan 1972; Chatterji 1977; K. Dwivedi 1985; Rafique 1987,
1988; Susai 1993; Gier 2000; Mirabile 2001; R. Sarkar 2002; Sorgenfrei 2002).
For Aurobindo, to participate in the creative self-overcoming of being and the
Divine Life that transcends the lower physical, vital and mental dimensions of
existence, is to bring down to earth a further higher plane of consciousness—
the ‘supermind’ (H. Chaudhuri 1972b; Phillips 1985b). Gazing outward at the
ever-expanding horizon of world-spirit, Aurobindo’s yogic practitioner stands
at the vanguard of evolving Divine life, finding in the cosmogenetic dynamics
of Sachchidananda, as it struggles to attain complete self-knowledge, a com-
pelling foundation for his utopian autopoesis (Goswami 1976; J. N. Mohanty
1993c; M. Gupta 2014).
For English-educated, middle class, Bengali Hindus like Aurobindo, forced
to reconfigure their culture under the humiliating conditions of colonialism,
spiritual discourse and practice provided a solid foundation for articulating
indigenous power and agency (King 1985; M. Chatterjee 1989). Unlike popular
religion which was tied to the messier ritual and belief systems of the recent
past, spirituality promised them direct access to mysticism in the universalist
and ‘scientific’ register they considered necessary for the future (A. Sharma
1998). In this nineteenth-century intellectual environment, the threat that
evolutionary theory posed to traditional accounts of divine creation explains
the centrality of ‘spiritual Darwinism’ to neo-Hindu thought and practice, as
exemplified by Aurobindo, and his near contemporaries like Keshab Chandra
Sen (1838–1884), Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) and the Theosophists (Kill-
ingley 1995; Singleton 2007; C. M. Brown 2007a, 2007b, 2010a, 2010b, 2012).
But more than an explanation of the past, conceptions of spiritual evolution
provided a prescriptive pathway to ethical perfectability and transcendence
(Alter 2004, 2006), one that spoke to a shared pursuit—on both sides of the
colonial encounter—for the great man of the age. It was through this discur-
sive framework that more traditional mystics and ‘Avatars’ like Caitanya and
Ramakrishna were reappraised and reformulated as world-historical figures
of collective transformation. However, for all the professed universalism of
Aurobindo’s spirituality, developed in opposition to the parochialism of reli-
gion, his modern ideal of Avatarhood is overdetermined by its unacknowl-
edged encounter with colonial Christianity.
In many respects, Aurobindo’s Avatar displays an incarnational and mes-
sianic dimension that reflects contemporaneous Christological concerns with
important and underexplored implications for the role of the tragic within
human experience (Parrinder 1964, 1970; Bassuk 1987; A. Basu 1988; Neufeldt

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290 religions of south asia

1989a, 1989b). However, Aurobindo’s insensitivity to the local, and imperious

disdain for the vernacular, is often evident in his repetition of crude Orien-
talist stereotypes regarding Buddhism and especially Islam about which he is
either dismissive or entirely silent.8
Robert Minor (1986a) and, in a similar vein, Michael Stoeber (1990, 1992),
have pointed out how Aurobindo imbued Vedāntic theories of karma and rein-
carnation with renewed direction and eschatological significance as rebirth,
traditionally conceived as a ‘retributive’ mechanism, assumed a redemptive,
moral and emotional ‘soul-making’ function (J. White 1990). Steve Odin’s read-
ing of this involutional-evolutional dialectic through the lens of Hegelian Ide-
alism emphasizes the transfigurative dimension introduced by Aurobindo’s
teleology (1981). Stafford Betty’s interrogation of Aurobindian theodicy reveals
the intimate relationship between spontaneous creative līlā (play) and the
blissful destruction involved in Sachchidananda’s ‘ananda of becoming’ in an
account that implicitly recollects his original advocacy of violent insurgency as
a revolutionary leader in Bengal (1976). Indeed, as Nalini Bhushan and Jay Gar-
field have compellingly demonstrated, Aurobindo’s reformulation of Vedānta
around līlāvāda rather than māyāvāda, which privileged the life-affirming
immanence of the tradition, reflects his unshakeable commitment to trans-
form rather than transcend the world (2011a, 2017; Morey 2012; Phillips 2013).9
However, the continuities between his earlier ideal insurgent subject—the rev-
olutionary sannyasi—and his later figuaration of Avatarhood, have yet to be
explored in detail.

The Politics of Friendship

In an interpretation suggestive of Aurobindo’s enduring importance as a

resource for working through the disfiguring burden of the colonial legacy,
Pankaj Mishra’s accessible book on the emergence of a ‘remade’ Asia, From the
Ruins of Empire, positions the revolutionary yogi’s critique of Western civili-
zation alongside that of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Muhammad Iqbal

8. Although Aurobindo himself was not explicitly vocal about interfaith dialogue, aspiring
instead to transcend religion entirely, his mystic vision offers a productive hermeneutic
horizon that unveils further possibilities for fruitful Hindu-Muslim cultural interaction
(Chubb 1972b; Hick 1973; Minor 1979, 1987; N. Sharma 2003; Cohen 2008). Comparative
and historical accounts of Aurobindo’s spiritual thought in relation to Judaism (M. Chat-
terjee 1997), Christianity (Arapura 1958; Olsson 1959; Nedumpalakunnei 1979; Devdas 1983;
Thompson 1990; Sethna 1996; Wygant 2001; McLaughlin 2003, 2011; Cornet, Faesen and Kal-
lungal 2012; Moanungsang 2014; Allison 2015), Hinduism (Chubb 1972a; Heehs 2008b, 2013a),
and Buddhism (V. P. Varma 1973; Kitagawa 1990), provide a preliminary basis for this.
9. For more on this topic, see the 1950 symposium proceedings of the Indian Institute of Phi-
losophy at Amalner which centred on the following question: ‘Has Aurobindo Refuted
Māyāvāda?’ (I. Sen, Nikam, H. Chaudhuri and Malkani 2011).

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 291

(1877–1938) and other Asian and Middle Eastern luminaries (2012).10 Similarly,
Elleke Boehmer has centred her study of the ‘potentially productive inbe-
tweenness’ of resistance networks in the interstices of empire, on Aurobindo’s
collaboration with the Scots-Irish revolutionary Sister Nivedita (1867–1911), a
friend of the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin and disciple of Swami Vivek­
ananda (2002). This line of inquiry marks an attempt to problematize the
overreliance of earlier studies on Indian nationhood as the organizing prin-
ciple in postcolonial historiography. In a similar vein, Leela Gandhi’s excel-
lent book on late-Victorian intellectual subcultures—aesthetic, vegetarian,
homosexual and mystic—and the transnational politics of intimate friend-
ship, underscores the significance of cosmopolitan spiritual spaces like the
Aurobindo ashram in dismantling the hierarchical structures and enforced
boundaries that sustained the colonial enterprise; a chapter on Aurobindo’s
elder brother, the poet Manmohan Ghose, probes his artistic friendships
within the literary circle of Oscar Wilde (2006; S. Mohanty 2015). Gandhi’s
most recent book, The Common Cause, goes further in defence of Aurobindo’s
ethical mysticism by demonstrating how he deployed a radically egalitarian
and anti-transcendentalist ‘art of descent’ to deflate the widespread Euro-
pean racial theories that reinforced Aryan supremacy (2014a).
Ashis Nandy’s psychoanalytic study, The Intimate Enemy, has pioneered
another distinctive approach to Aurobindo in relation to the psychic life of
colonialism. His widely celebrated work on mimetic rivalry on both sides of
the colonial encounter casts Aurobindo as the indigenous counterpart to the
arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling in order to delve into the strategies of resis-
tance and inner defence that ultimately enslave both colonizer and colonized
(1983; Rabello de Castro 2018). However, although Nandy correctly recognizes
Aurobindo’s attempt to surpass the psychological limits imposed by the colo-
nial aggressor, he nevertheless diagnoses his subject a little unfairly—in con-
tradistinction to Mohandas Gandhi—as ultimately unable to transcend his
condition as a culturally alienated imperial subject. At any rate, Aurobindo
was certainly not constrained by the same inferiority complexes and suprem-
acist fantasies that burden his Hindutva followers.11
Reflecting upon his subversive use of Orientalist discourse, Srinivas Arava­
mudan discerns in Aurobindo’s ‘theolinguistics’ an authoritative hybridity;
an emerging Hindu universalist vocabulary in the global language of empire

10. Although Mohammed Iqbal, the poet-philosopher and ‘spiritual father of Pakistan’, has
often been compared to Aurobindo in passing, the significant resonances of his Nietzs-
chean neo-Sufism with the latter’s intellectual project have received inadequate attention
(Rafique 1974; S. K. Ghose 1979a; Skowron 2006; T. K. Basu 2007).
11. An earlier study by Richard Koenigsberg of Aurobindo’s psychic tensions, rendered his
faith in nationalism somewhat simplistically as the ‘projective equivalent of [his] wish to
restore the omnipotence of the mother’ (1977), while another psychological reading by
Dinesh Sharma has delineated the ‘central developmental traumas’ of his life and thought
in a more positive light (2014; Heehs 1997a).

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292 religions of south asia

that he terms ‘Guru English’ (2003, 2006). Aurobindo understood scripture

as a record of enlightenment, subordinating the exegetical strictures of
traditional Vedānta to the imperative towards future yogic transformation
(B. Pani 1993; Khanna 2004). Philosophy, too, he conceived as merely an aux-
iliary scaffolding with which he could imperfectly articulate his authoritative
intuitions and insights (R. Trivedi 1968; McDermott 1972a; R. C. Sinha 1981;
Nayak 1987; Organ 1988). However, Aurobindo’s ability to interweave Indian
and European traditions with such skill has not only provided modern Indian
thought with a firm philosophical foundation (P. T. Raju 1953; R. N. Sharma
1960; R. S. Srivastava 1961, 1984; Naravane 1964; Nilima Sharma 1972; B. K. Lal
1973; R. P. Srivastava 1973; Mahadevan and Saroja 1981; B. Gupta 1982; J. N.
Mohanty 1993, 2002; Hacker 1995; Chattopadhyaya 1999), but has simultane-
ously enabled it to serve as a shared bridge for further comparative dialogue
across the cultural divide (V. P. Varma 1955a; Burtt 1956; Maitra 1956; Puli-
gandla 1975; M. Basu 1988; Halbfass 1988; Chattopadhyaya 1997a; Aykara 2002;
R. C. Gordon 2007; A. Chatterjee 2018).12
During the 1970s, inspired by the internationalist idealism of the times,
many studies sought to highlight the evident similarities between Aurobin-
do’s evolutionary theology and those of the French vitalist philosophers Henri
Bergson (1859–1941) (A. C. Bhattacharya 1972) and Teilhard de Chardin (1881–
1955) (Zaehner 1971; Bruteau 1972, 1974; Feys 1973, 1977; Sethna 1973, 1981,
2000; King 1974, 1980b, 1989, 2011; Chetany 1978; Brookman 1988; Korom 1989;
Aykara 1997; Mikes 2008; Consiglio 2015). These contrasting interpretations
betray competing commitments to their respective traditions but read together
demonstrate how harmoniously Aurobindo, Bergson and Teilhard ground
divinity in immanent life.13
Existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard and Heidegger, too, have proved to
be productive interlocutors for Aurobindo, their encounter revealing creative
new ways of reflecting on phenomenology and hermeneutics in the recogni-
tion of human finitude (Le Cocq 1972; Madhusudan Reddy 1973; Dhirendra
Sharma 1974; Chatterji 1976; Chubb 2006; Bannon 2007; Banchetti-Robino
2010), or indeed as a valuable resource for an environmentally aware ‘ecstatic
naturalism’ (Kealey 1990; Corrington 2016). In the 1950s, Calcutta-born phi-
losopher J. L. Mehta studied under Heidegger in Germany, whom he revered
as his ‘rishi’, considering his approach the key to reinvigorating the roots
of Indian metaphysics (J. L. Mehta 1990). Informed by this, some have revis-
ited Aurobindo’s exegetical writings, The Secret of the Veda and Hymns to the
Mystic Fire, contrasting the superficial, naturalistic dissections carried out by

12. Aurobindo’s familiarity with Greek philosophy from his Cambridge days as a Classics
scholar continued to serve as a stable reference point in the development of his own vision
(V. P. Varma 1960b; Chatterji 1982; Anderson 2000; A. Basu 2002; Kealey 2002; Mayer 2002).
13. French scholars were much quicker to connect the two (Monestier 1963). As early as 1955,
Father Jules Monchanin (1895–1957) compared Teilhard’s and Aurobindo’s thought in a lec-
ture he delivered at Pondicherry.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 293

Western philologists with his esoteric and psychologically coherent approach

to the Vedic invocation of divinity which he regarded as confirmation of
his own lived subjective experiences (K. Roy 1993; K. Acharya and S. A. Joshi
1996; K. Joshi 2012b). Others have unpacked the mystic poet’s linguistic epis-
temology and his rigorous theorization of the ability of language, especially
Sanskrit, to formulate or obscure sacred truth (Purani 1963; Gilbert 1973;
Chattopadhyaya 1989; J. K. Mukherjee 1989; J. N. Mohanty 1993a; S. P. Singh
2001; S. Mishra 2001, 2005; Madhusudan Reddy 2014b; Nikhil Kumar 2016).
Innovative research by Brainerd Prince discovers in Aurobindo’s principle
of ‘integralism’ a post-Heideggerian way beyond ontotheology that gestures
towards an exciting new ‘dialogical-hermeneutical’ horizon for the study of
religion (2010, 2017).
Another fruitful exchange has brought together Aurobindo and the pro-
cess philosophers A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, whose system-
atized evolutionary panentheism privileges divine ‘process’ or becoming,
over being (S. P. Singh 1972; A. K. Sarkar 1976; Narayan 1983; Simmons 1984;
Phillips 1989b; A. Basu 1990; Stansell and Phillips 2010; Padiyath 2014). In this
case, process thought has a great deal to offer since its up-to-date and rigor-
ous philosophical reasoning has been able to clarify many of the tensions and
ambiguities within Aurobindo’s Vedānta.
Recent attempts to promote the critical applications of Aurobindo’s thought
to contemporary social and political challenges have placed his mature social
and political writing in conversation with a broad range of cross-disciplinary
theorists. For instance, Ashmita Khasnabish, the postcolonial feminist thinker,
has developed her conception of the ‘political sublime’, a materially and psy-
chically integrated ethical orientation, by reading Aurobindo in conversation
with Rawls, Appiah and Amartya Sen (2002, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014). Likewise,
the sociologist Ananta Kumar Giri has effectively used Aurobindo to broaden
the prevailing Habermasian focus on narrow rational argumentation and
possessive individualism in the public sphere. Thinking alongside Aurobindo,
Giri urges us to redeploy Kant’s ‘public use of reason’, supplemented by spiri-
tual ideas and practices of solidarity that could be capable of contesting basic
socio-political assumptions and the teleology of the liberal capitalist nation-
state (1998, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012 and especially 2013). Replacing
the state-level with a world perspective, legal scholar B. S. Chimni has shown
how Aurobindo’s Ideal of Human Unity has contributed to discussions of global
law and justice in an effort to ‘decolonize international relations’ (2006; S. R.
White 2005, 2007).
Amongst the numerous reliable overviews of Aurobindo’s political
philosophy (Purohit 1965; Nagaraja Rao 1970; Appadorai 1971, 1992; Jha
1975; Bhagwan 1976; Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay 1979; Chelysheva 1989;
Chousalkar 1990; Khan 1995; P. K. Mishra 1995; Doctor 1997; G. N. Sarma 1997;
P. Chandra 1998; U. Sharma and S. K. Sharma 2001; Jayapalan 2003; H. H. Das
2005; Pruthi 2007; Komalesha 2008; Paranjape 2008a; G. Singh 2008; Ragi 2011;

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294 religions of south asia

Tankha 2011), the works of Vishwanath Prasad Varma and Shiva Kumar Mital
remain the most comprehensive (V. P. Varma 1957, 1960a, 1961; Mital 1981).
In The Human Cycle, Aurobindo charts the unfolding of world-historical con-
sciousness through time, using his psychological framework of social devel-
opment. From our instinctive and irrational origins, through the growth and
decay of various civilizations, he points to the emergence of individualism
and its increasing subjugation under the machinery of the modern nation-
state (Cairns 1972; Koller 1972; S. K. Ghose 1982c; Madhusudan Reddy 1984a,
2014c; K. L. Deutsch 1986; R. N. Sharma 1991; Raghunath Ghosh 2008; Lessem,
Abouleish, Pogačnik and Herman 2015). In this moment of increasing commu-
nal tension within India and rapid militarization abroad, however useful the
state might be as a transitional formation in the shift towards a more harmo-
nious planetary unity, if it did not ultimately wither away (V. P. Varma 1956;
R. N. Kaul 1965; S. K. Banerji 1974; Ranchan and Gupta 1988; Chattopadhyaya
2003; Mahapatra 2004; Shah 2008) it would always remain vulnerable to the
destructive urges of ‘national egoism’ and exploitative ‘economic barbarism’
(Winston 1994; Sethna 1998; M. T. Desai 1999; Shah and Jacoby 2013).
At core, Aurobindo was a ‘spiritual anarchist’ concerned more with free-
dom (Swaraj) than peace or justice. His ‘religion of humanity’ is marked by the
attempt to reconcile the tensions between inner and outer, objective and sub-
jective liberty, the basis on which to consolidate a mystic collective, and the rela-
tionship between the state, society, individual and ashram (McDermott 1972b,
1978; S. K. Ghose 1973, 1979b, 1982b; Gopalan 1977; Dalton 1979; Bali 1980; K. Roy
1989; Kluback 1990; Morris 1990; Verma 1990a; K. Gandhi 1991; V. R. Mehta 1992;
J. N. Mohanty 1993b, 1993e; Dwivedy 2001; Indira Devi 2002; Aparna Banerjee
2012). In addition to Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya’s excellent comparative writ-
ings on Aurobindo in relation to Hegelian and Marxist conceptions of histori-
cal change (V. P. Varma 1955b; Chattopadhyaya 1976b, 1978; Pampapathy Rao
1983; K. Gandhi 1996; V. K. Dubey 2002; Hemsell 2017), Vraj­endra Raj Mehta has
developed an ‘integral-pluralist’ critique of Eurocentric Marxism and Liberal-
ism in light of South Asia’s peculiar cultural diversity, inspired by Aurobindo’s
analysis of India’s unique civilizational evolution (Dutt 1960; V. R. Mehta 1978,
1983; Pande 1999; S. K. Ghose 2003; R. Malhotra 2011). However, since Aurobindo
never developed a programmatic theory of concrete socio-political transforma-
tion, his approach risks slipping towards a comfortable teleological inevitability
and grandiose fantasy, untethered from reality. Here too there is great potential
for reading him alongside contemporary political thinking.


The single aspect of Aurobindo’s life that has been most resistant to schol-
arship was, for him and his closest disciples, the most important: his role as
a yogi and guru (Fig. 5). From as early as 1905 until his death in 1950 he

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dedicated himself increasingly to the refinement of yogic techniques. From

the vantage point of his later framework he carried out his mystic exper-
imentation with the stated ambition of bringing down the next evolution-
ary stage of higher consciousness to earth, simultaneously with the intention
of including all aspects of human and non-human existence in his vision. As
he asserted: ‘All life is Yoga’. Aurobindo’s position within India’s guru pan-
theon and his original contribution to the formulation of modern yoga has
been strangely neglected, though with the recent increasing interest in yoga
it is hoped that this is now changing (Gleig and Flores 2014). Aurobindo’s
crowning achievement and the basis for his visionary authority was his own
self-actualisation as a pioneer of consciousness, capable of navigating and
illuminating the journey of mystic traversal on behalf of all who might follow
in his wake (Feys 1976).

Figure 5. Aurobindo in Pondicherry c. 1914. Images reproduced with the kind permission of the
Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

As a guru, Aurobindo sought to explicitly formulate the multiple inter-

woven forms of subjectivization and heightened experience normally acces-
sible only to the realized yogi, in order to render his transformative insights
applicable. This culminated in a psychic cartography of the soul’s ascent
with which he personally guided his fellow disciple-practitioners along the

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296 religions of south asia

often treacherous and obscure path of spiritual self-overcoming. In the field

of mystic experience, truth is anchored by the intimacy of subjective know-
ing rather than objective distance. Aurobindo’s yoga of experimentation
supplements the rational-scientific epistemology imposed by modernity
with alternative supra-rational access to truth (E. Deutsch 1964; Minor 1981;
Phillips 1984; Kar 1985a, 1985b; Riepe 1986; Raina and Habib 1996; Kluback
2001; Raghuramaraju 2006; Nikhil Kumar 2009, 2012, 2013, 2018; Paranjape
2009; Farber 2012; Madhusudan Reddy 2014e; S. G. Kulkarni 2015; D. Banerji
The key texts that push his philosophy into mysticism, far beyond the
rational limits of the mind, are his expository writings in The Synthesis of
Yoga, his more cryptic, personal diary of spiritual experiments and experi-
ences published posthumously as Record of Yoga, and Letters on Yoga (Vols. 1–4),
containing thousands of his letters to and conversations with initiates navi-
gating various hazardous psychic tendencies, desires, fears and attachments.
Although somewhat unsystematic, together these provide an unparalleled
intimate insight into the inner life of an Avatar. Since Aurobindo did not pub-
lish any definitive set of techniques for his disciples, the following analytical
approaches (R. S. Srivastava 1962; Tamaki 1964; Pandit 1966; K. D. Acharya
1968; Shrivastava 1987; K. Joshi 2011) and insider guides will be useful for
anyone interested in the practical dimensions of his unique ‘Integral Yoga’
(Rishabhchand 1953, 1955; Manibhai 1958; Pandit 1962, 1980, 1982a, 1983b;
T. Chatterjee 1970; K. Joshi 1988, 2010, 2012a; Satprem 1968; J. K. Mukherjee
2003; Seidlitz 2014, 2016; A. Joshi 2017).
Original work by Debashish Banerji brings out the radical plurality of
Aurobindo’s teaching and the considerable emphasis he placed on the seek-
er’s responsibility for their own spiritual growth, privileging inner aspiration
or the ‘guru within’ over devotional dependency on an external author-
ity, avataric or otherwise—an important consideration for an ashram with-
out the physical presence of its guru. Drawing upon the post-structuralism
of Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, and placing his Integral Yoga within the
framework of an immanent metaphysics of practice, Banerji’s book renders
Aurobindo pertinent to the present moment, characterized as it is by the fra-
gility of the human within unstable techno-capitalist postmodernity (2009,
2012a, 2012b, 2016). By outlining the architectonics of his mystic experience
as steps on a path to be trodden afresh by each individual seeker, Banerji
has counteracted the prevalent inclination within academia to crystalize
Aurobindo’s philosophy in a bold attempt to bridge the disciplinary chasm
between theory and praxis.
As Aurobindo himself insisted, ‘yoga is nothing but practical psychology’.
His inherently open-ended vision has unsurprisingly inspired a wide vari-
ety of psychological approaches, both rooted in traditions of India (Subbann­
achar 1964; Cornelissen 2001, 2008a, 2008b; K. Joshi and Cornelissen 2004; S. K.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 297

K. Kumar 2008; Miovic 2008; Cornelissen, G. Misra and S. Varma 2011a, 2011b;
D. Banerji 2013; Ramakrishna Rao 2017) and the West (Miovic 2004a, 2004b;
Cornelissen 2005). In addition to transpersonal psychology (Vrinte 1995;
Cortright 2007, 2013; S. Menon 2008), which recognizes the value of transcen-
dent aspects of human experience beyond quotidian finitude, Aurobindo’s
yoga has played an important role, together with Jungian depth psychology,
in demarcating a new intermediary discipline that his follower Indra Sen—
who met with Jung in India in 1933—has termed ‘Integral Psychology’ (1952,
1970, 1986; Sachdeva 1978; Sobel and Sobel 1984; S. P. Singh 1986, 2003; Dalal
1989, 1991, 2001, 2007; R. Kumar and J. K. Larsen 2007; Salmon and Maslow
2007; Stein 2012; Johnston 2016a, 2016b; Borden 2017). The yoga popularizer
Ken Wilber has also attempted to schematize integral psychology within an
‘objective’ scientific framework capable of mapping all knowables (1983, 1997,
2000), though many have questioned his inclinations towards a totalizing tax-
onomy (Vrinte 1996, 2002; Leicht 2006; Flores 2010). Although Aurobindo
himself dismissed vulgar Freudian interpretations of the human psyche that
reduced the lotus to ‘the mud from which it grows’, the possibilities of psy-
choanalytic readings of the transformative power of the mystic unconscious
in Aurobindo’s overall vision have barely been explored (Subbannachar 1966;
Khasnabish 2003; Mohrhoff 2007; Shirazi 2013).


Aurobindo’s exceptional multidimensionality and breadth of thought have

often tended to obscure his consistency, evident in the recurrence of cer-
tain guiding proclivities throughout his life. From his early years as a classics
scholar in Cambridge, eagerly rereading Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, to his time
in Bengal at the vanguard of Swadeshi politics imagining the possibilities of
Swaraj, and towards the end of his life as the guru of Pondicherry, still refin-
ing his epic verse Savitri, Aurobindo’s most enduring self-identification has
been as a poet (Gaur 2003; Yadav 2007a; Ulrich 2010). In his various literary
explorations—plays, prose, translation, criticism and poetry (A. N. Dwivedi
1977a; Naik 1979a; Nandakumar 1982, 1989; Ghosal 1991)—Aurobindo drew
upon Greek and Sanskrit myth and symbolism to reflect on philosophical and
implicitly political themes including heroic action, indomitable feminine
power, primordial life-force, the frenzied dance of love and death, and the
mystic stillness that grounds the cosmos (Feys 1983; Kallury 1989; Devy 1993;
Saha 1998; Murugesu 2001; Shukla 2002; K. Joshi 2004; Pakle 2006). His plays,
Vasavadutta (Bhatta 1979; A. N. Prasad 2005a) and Perseus the Deliverer (Nanda-
kumar 1969, 1977c; K. R. Chatterjee 1979; Indra 1989; V. K. Singh 2001; Jadhav
and Karekatti 2013) in particular, in staging the struggle between conflicting
value-laden subjectivities, attest to the dramaturgical demands of an emerg-
ing nationalist mythopoesis (Seetaraman 1964; Bhatta 1974; S. S. Kulkarni

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298 religions of south asia

1977, 1990; Viswanatham 1977; A. K. Sinha 1979, 2005, 2006; S. C. Sarkar 1982;
Murti 1987; Jaiswal 1993; R. G. Joshi 1994; Bana 1996; Yadav 2000, 2007b; Nand
Kumar 2003; Ghosal 2004; Thakur 2004; K. H. Mehta 2005).
Aurobindo’s distinctive voice owes much to his early appreciation of the
Romantic poets (Rao 1996; R. K. Singh 1996a; Sethna 1997; Ghosal 2000).
Indeed, he has been compared with Shelley (Annie 2005), Keats, Wordsworth
and Blake (Verma 1990b), as well as the epic poets Milton (Iyengar 1989)
and Dante (Nandakumar 1981; Schildgen 2002, 2006, 2012, 2016). However,
as his yoga progressed, Aurobindo’s language became pregnant with a life-
affirming mysticism (S. K. Ghose 1967, 1983; Sastry 1969; S. K. Sarma 1972;
Paranjape 1988; Saha 1995; Ram and Bindra 1996; K. Gandhi 2001; G. Kumar
2001a; A. N. Prasad 2007; Jitendra Sharma 2011; A. K. Panda 2013). In The Future
Poetry, Aurobindo’s most elaborated work of criticism—akin to the theories of
Matthew Arnold, James Cousins (D. K. Chatterjee 1989) and Thomas Carlyle
(Ranjan Ghosh 2006)—he proposed the need for a novel form of transforma-
tive aesthetics for the coming age (S. K. Prasad 1970, 1974; Seturaman 1970;
Devi 1983; Bhagat 1989; Narasimhaiah 1989; Rao 1997; B. K. Das 2000; Verma
2000; G. Kumar 2001b; Ghosal 2011; V. K. Dwivedi 2012), an early intimation
of which he saw in Walt Whitman (M. Das 1969; R. K. Singh 1996b; Mondal
2013; Kakarla 2017). In a similar vein, Tamara Chin discerns in Aurobindo’s
aesthetic cosmopolitanism an ‘anticolonial critique of racialized philology’
that was designed to undercut Eurocentric literary norms and democratise
English, the language of empire (2014).
He argued for the centrality of language in the awakening of collective con-
sciousness and the actualization of the divine life, suggesting that the poetry of
the future should be structured around the illuminating powers of the sacred
mantra (Lalitha 1973; Krishnamoorthy 1979; Verma 1989b, R. Mishra 2002;
K. K. Sharma 2003; Nikhil Kumar 2014; Suneeti 2014).14 In fact, for Aurobindo,
artistic endeavour and aesthetic appreciation were essential elements in the
cultivation of mystic intuition, offering a rewarding path to inner growth by
integrating higher insight from ‘overhead’ realms above the rational mind
and poetizing or grounding these elusive truths (Apostolos-Cappadona 1980;
Cenkner 1984; S. K. Ghose 1984; Atkinson 1993; Sivaramakrishnan 1998, 2014;
Balakrishnan 2012).15 Effectively complementing Aurobindian aesthetics with

14. Another much-neglected area of Aurobindo’s corpus is his critical writing on Indian cul-
ture. Like the aesthetic theorist Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), even during his early
days in Baroda as a quiet schoolmaster-scholar, he endeavoured to articulate a proto-
Saidian deconstruction of Orientalist caricatures (Heehs 2003b), attempting in his The Sig-
nificance of Indian Art in particular to replace the colonial gaze with indigenous principles of
aesthetic connoisseurship (Anand 1989; Chattopadhyaya 1997b; Ujjwala 2012, 2013; Beldio
15. In 1968, following an intense encounter with Aurobindo’s philosophy, the avant garde
composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) developed a style of ‘intuitive music’ that
experimented with initiatory vibrations from a higher level of consciousness, the ‘over-

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Derridean deconstuction, Harold Coward advances the dialogue between

poststructuralism and mysticism, liberating language from any stale fixity
in order to expand listeners’ openness to poetic consciousness (1989a, 1990).
Further inquiries into Aurobindo’s aesthetic theory offer additional valuable
insights (Gokak 1973; S. K. Ghose 1982a; J. S. Agarwal 1983; Justa 1987, 1988;
Ranchan 1987; P. Roy 1990, 2011).
Unsurprisingly, considering his grand stature in Indian English literature,
critics are divided over Aurobindo’s poetic legacy. Indeed, his grandiose self-
styling as the spiritual oracle and Avatar of the new age, while simultaneously
anchored in a somewhat anachronistic Victorian register, has, for many, ren-
dered his output indigestible and left him vulnerable to the sharp tongues of
later Modernist detractors (P. Lal 1959; Jussawalla 1968; Parthasarathy 1976;
Daruwalla 1980; Mehrotra 1992; R. Mishra 2003; S. K. Sarma 2006).16 But, while
his metaphysically burdened verses have often been compared unfavourably
to the lighter touch of his contemporary Tagore, their shared ability to evoke
the ānanda (bliss) pervading creation has frequently been noted (K. N. Pandya
2004; Ghosal 2007; B. D. Sarkar 2007, 2008; Raghupathi 2012; Samantaray 2017).
Nevertheless, scholars and inheritors of Aurobindo’s mystic poetics have
been eager to leap to his defence (Narasimhaiah 1969; Gokak 1970, 1995; Devy
1984, 1992; Iyengar 1984; Ramakrishna 1986; Nandakumar 1995; S. K. Gupta
1997; C. S. Singh 1997; B. K. Das 1999; O. P. Bhatnagar 2002; Ramamurti 2004;
Paranjape 2008b; Rukmini 2014). For those in search of a basic overview of
Aurobindo’s literary pursuits, the following compilations (R. Gupta 1972; Var-
ious 1972; Verma 1989a; Mathur 1997; A. P. Patel and Dodiya 2002) and short
critical introductions will be helpful (S. K. Ghose 1969, 1977; Kotoky 1969; Ver-
ghese 1971; A. N. Dwivedi 1979; Nandakumar 1988; Tyagi 1988; Varshney and
Prabha 1991; A. K. Singh 1993; N. K. Mishra and Tripathy 2002; Heehs 2003a;
K. K. Singh 2004; Saurendranath Basu 2011; Aju Mukhopadhyay 2013; Sam­
antaray 2013; Ghosal 2014).
First begun during World War I and incomplete at the time of his death,
at close to 24,000 lines contained within 12 books and 49 cantos, Aurobindo’s
blank verse epic, Savitri, represents the culmination of his literary achieve-
ments. Based on the romance of Savitri and Satyavan from the Mahabharata,
as in his other poetry, the poem extrapolates a rich symbolic voyage from a
minor mythic episode (Verma 1977; Budholia 2003; N. K. Mishra 2007; R. Roy
2007; Mutyaboyina 2012; Vats 2012; Dutta 2013). The overt narrative of love
conquering death becomes a luminous inner journey of individual yogic
ascent. For Aurobindo, Savitri was never ‘a poem to be written and finished’

mind’; see, for example, his Mantra, Licht and Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days).
In the domain of drama theory, too, the theatre director Veenapani Chawla introduced
Aurobindian insights to the stage (L. Gandhi 2014b).
16. For instance, in his polemical manifesto on Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry, P. Lal argued for
expelling the ‘greasy, weak-spined and purple-adjectived’ spiritual tone that he claimed
had ‘infected’ Indian poetry thanks to Aurobindo’s influence (1959).

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300 religions of south asia

but both ‘a field of experimentation’ and ‘means of ascension’, at once deeply

autobiographical but also universal in scope (Gokak 1979; Raghavacharyulu
1979; Phillips 1989a; S. Roy 1991; Nikhil Kumar 2007). For the reader, Savitri
does not need to be understood since it operates more as a liturgical perfor-
mance, a hymn to the dawn, even the chanting of which enables participation
in the infinite vision of the rishis. Unsurprisingly this is one area of Aurobindo
scholarship where insiders have offered the most insight (Sethna 1947a, 1970,
2010; Purani 1956, 1967; Nandakumar 1962, 1984; R. Gupta 1967, 1969a, 1969b;
Iyengar 1968, 1975; Pandit 1969–1977, 1976, 1982b, 1983a; R. Mehta 1972; A.
N. Dwivedi 1977b; Madhusudan Reddy 1984b; S. K. Sarma 1984; R. K. Singh
1984, 1996c, 2005; S. K. Ghose 1989; D. S. Mishra 1989; Deshpande 2000–2002,
2015; N. K. Gupta 2001; J. K. Mukherjee 2001; A. K. Ganguli 2002, 2008; Iyer
2005; Paul 2006; H. Panda 2007; Bidwaikar 2011; Sivaramakrishnan 2011; Nad-
karni 2012; Subramania Chetty 2012; Chakravorty 2014; Ujjwala 2014a, 2014b;
Shraddhavan 2015–2017; A. Reddy 2016). The most lucid readings of Savitri
have brought to the fore the centrality of the text to Aurobindo’s overarching
project of human emancipation and his dynamic affirmation of life over death
(S. K. Sarma 1989; Hartz 2011; D. Banerji forthcoming).

Beyond the Horizon

It was the hour before the Gods awake.

Across the path of the divine Event
The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone
In her unlit temple of eternity.
(Canto I, The Symbol Dawn, Savitri)

We do not belong to the past dawns, but to the noons of the future.
(Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita [CWSA, Vol. 19]: 10)

But why should we revisit Aurobindo today? Does his message still matter?
As Aurobindo increasingly identified himself as an avatar, so grew his deter-
mination to guide all of humanity towards a higher field of consciousness.
Aurobindo’s Avatar affirms the battles and struggles of immanent Life-spirit,
as creaturely aspiration reaches beyond itself in harmony with the performa-
tive descent of divinity. Rare photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in
1950, the year of Aurobindo’s death, capture him seated beside the Mother
giving darśana (sacred viewing) (Fig. 6), and alone in his private rooms, the
latter balancing his transcendent remoteness and majestic stillness with his
human vulnerability (Fig. 7). Here, the man belies the monument. Behind the
swirl of personas and performances the enigmatic personality remains, hold-
ing within the avataric impulse to struggle forward towards a higher ideal.
But that is not to say that there can only be one authentic Aurobindo.
The field has long been dominated by a reverential tone and Aurobin-
do’s resistance to neat categorization has contributed to his diffuse spectral

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 301

Figure 6. Aurobindo and the Mother giving darśana on 24 April 1950 (photograph by Henri
Cartier-Bresson). Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

presence across a wide variety of disciplines. Eager to cater either to the

already sympathetic community or to introduce Aurobindo to an unfamiliar
audience, scholars have often assumed an uncritical expository style. Since
this considerable body of literature has remained fragmented, without the
requisite attention to other contributions within Aurobindo scholarship or
to fresh theoretical approaches in South Asian studies and beyond, it has fos-
tered a timid conservatism.
Such well-furrowed ground, repetitious, tired and resistant to original
insight, consequently serves to discourage future researchers and has caused
the subject to appear, like Aurobindo himself, excessively idiosyncratic and
isolated. However, some of the more recent studies mentioned here do ges-
ture towards a more exciting direction. Future scholars must go even further.

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302 religions of south asia

Figure 7. Aurobindo in his room in Pondicherry sitting for Henri Cartier-Bresson. Reflecting on
Aurobindo’s striking stillness, Cartier-Bresson commented: ‘I had the impression that he was
beyond time’. Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

Studies of Aurobindo would be enriched by a variety of interdisciplinary,

‘integral’ readings. To suggest this is not to claim that we can or even should
hanker after any singular, ‘real’ or definitive Aurobindo, but rather to cel-
ebrate his polyvocality and the multiple possibilities that his thinking opens
up for us. Heehs’ historical objectivism certainly need not be the final word. A
bold and sometimes dangerous thinker, often at odds with prevailing norms,
Aurobindo invites careful scrutiny, for today his far-reaching statements and
interventions may appear inadequate or even questionable, while some of his
claims now seem entirely unconvincing. Aurobindo himself negotiated the
tensions between humanity and divinity, theology and politics, and evolution
and revolution as his ideas and their contexts shifted. Against the corrosive
character of much of the recent debate surrounding him, an atmosphere of
free and robust debate receptive to constructive criticism should be fostered.
Aurobindo is not so frail that he shudders at the slightest breeze, but a regime
of absolute veneration has contributed to an environment of anxiety that
paradoxically serves to diminish the object of devotion at its centre.
Students and first-time readers of Aurobindo would do well to consult the
following edited collections of his own writings, organized around the themes
of religious nationalism (Johari 1993; Heehs 2005), writings on Indian culture
(S. Chatterjee 2015), spiritual evolution (Pavitra 1963; Devasenapathi and Bala-
subramanian 1976; McDermott 2001a, 2001b), social transformation (Motwani

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 303

1962; Richards 1985), cultural criticism and secular modernity (S. Mohanty
2008), and general introductions by Heehs (1998a) and Paranjape (1999). Of
the numerous anthologies that bring together diverse scholarly perspectives
on Aurobindo for the wider ashram community (A. Basu 1973; K. Gandhi 1973;
Amal Kiran and Nirodbaran 1997; A. Reddy and S. Mohanty 1997) and inter-
ested researchers (Batstone 1973; V. C. Joshi 1973; Iyengar 1974; Sri Aurobindo
Samiti 1975; Grover 1992; C. S. Singh 2002; Sanyal and K. Roy 2007a, 2007b;
Aparajita Mukhopadhyay 2015), compilations edited by Heehs (2013b), McDer-
mott (1974), H. Chaudhuri and McDermott (1972), and H. Chaudhuri and Spie-
gelberg (1960), provide the most reliable starting point. However, as with the
discipline of Aurobindo studies in general, these volumes have suffered from
inadequate internal interaction and so remain a collection of fragments rather
than a coherent whole. The challenge now is to push against the comfort-
able insularity by resituating Aurobindo within his multiple shifting contexts,
unpacking his overlapping layers of meaning and transposing his visionary
impulse to our present with creative élan.
The time has come to read Aurobindo against the grain. Despite having
withdrawn from direct political activism in 1910, for the next 40 years of his
life Aurobindo kept a close watch on world events. Already condemned by
some of his former revolutionary disciples for his narrow spiritual focus, he
alienated himself further due to his later internationalist political outlook.
During the 1930s and 1940s, while Hindu nationalists like Savarkar openly
celebrated Hitler, and some anti-imperialists such as Subhas Chandra Bose
allied themselves with him opportunistically, Aurobindo viewed the Führer as
his own ‘avataric’ antagonist whose barbaric ‘religion’ of domination threat-
ened to engulf the globe (Aurobindo 2006: 466–68). Aurobindo’s turn to yoga
should not be regarded as a total disavowal of the political; rather, it enabled
him to formulate an expansive critical grammar of collective resistance and
transformative struggle in a cosmopolitan, universalist and insurgent Hindu
register of ethical self-formation, oriented towards the cultivation of a cre-
ative utopian vision beyond both liberalism and materialism. Today, the asuric
resurgence of authoritarian narcissists like Trump, Modi, Putin, Netanyahu,
and Erdoğan, who artfully channel the nihilistic resentment of majoritarian
grievance, compels a return to these principles and their possibilities. Read-
ing Aurobindo in this political moment can serve to illuminate the present
crisis, the need to reimagine a better future, and to once again demand the
Aurobindo’s boundless optimism, too, sits at odds with readings of the
twentieth century as an age of catastrophe, irredeemably scarred by wars
and collective traumas such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Partition. Thus,
for all his apparent modernism, including his teleological conviction that
progress was inevitable, it may well be that our understanding of Aurobindo
would benefit considerably from postmodern re-readings. In our current pes-
simistic conditions of apathy and despair wherein all significant political

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304 religions of south asia

decisions are constrained within the hegemonic bounds of an unimagina-

tive short-term pragmatism, Aurobindo’s irrepressible hope that a series of
defeats will always be overcome by a greater victory is certainly compel-
ling. Drawing upon both visionary Romanticism and common Hindu theo-
logical tropes, from his revolutionary period in Bengal until his final years
in Pondicherry, Aurobindo strove to cultivate the messianic vision of a rishi.
Part prophet and part artist, the Aurobindian Avatar encourages an insur-
gent ‘spiritual optics’ unconstrained by material realities and, since this mode
of envisioning creates the conditions for its own realization, as much about
the present as the future. Inspired teachers, like Christ, Buddha, Krishna and
Muhammad, bring their ‘divine Seer-Will’ to bear on the task of imagining
the world anew, thinking beyond finitude, beyond the end of history, so as to
illuminate the new ideal towards which a collective (r)evolutionary subjectiv-
ity can struggle. Those who are able to open themselves to this creative pro-
cess of envisioning must infuse their life and actions with the spark of divine
possibility and invest soul, mind and body into its fulfilment. The case for re-
reading Aurobindo is strengthened by his fiercely anti-nostalgic insistence
that an Avatar always points to a horizon beyond itself, gesturing towards
further configurations of infinite spirit, at a future Avatar to come. It would
be unfortunate if Aurobindo’s vision were to be lost in the clamour of reac-
tionary Hindutva.


CWSA Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo, Sri. 1997)


Acharya, Kala, and Shubhada A. Joshi (eds.). 1996. Śrī Aurobindo and Vedic Interpretations. New
Delhi: Somaiya Publications.
Acharya, K. D. 1968. Guide to Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy. New Delhi: New Light Composing Agency.
Agarwal, Jagdish Saran. 1983. The Splendour of Sri Aurobindo’s Muse. Bikaner: Ratna Smriti
Agarwal, Satya P. 1993. ‘Aurobindo: Extending Lokasaṁgraha, with Modification, from Karmay-
oga to Pūrṇayoga.’ In Satya P. Agarwal, The Social Role of the Gītā: How and Why: 137–85. Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass.
Agrawal, K. A. (ed.). 2003. Indian Writing in English: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers
& Distributors.
Alain, G. 1992. Auroville: A Dream Takes Shape. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.
Allison, John Matthew. 2015. ‘Of Bliss and Love: Methodological “Play” in Hindu-Christian Com-
parative Theology.’ Journal of Comparative Theology 5 (1): 3–19.
Alter, Joseph S. 2004. Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.

—2006. ‘Yoga at the Fin de Siècle: Muscular Christianity with a “Hindu” Twist.’ The International
Journal of the History of Sport 23 (5): 759–76.

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Wolfers   The Making of an Avatar 305

Amal Kiran and Nirodbaran (eds.). 1997. Sri Aurobindo and the New Age: Essays in Memory of Kishor
Gandhi. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.
Anand, Mulk Raj. 1989. ‘Sri Aurobindo the Critic of Art.’ Journal of South Asian Literature 24 (1):
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