Aurobindo in England: How he Failed to Become an Englishman

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He was a poet, a philosopher, a seer and a sage, who guided the spiritual evolution of men and women who flocked to his ashram in Puducherry, India, from across the globe. But only few know that Sri Aurobindo was a revolutionary in the first decade of the 20th century, and fewer still that he was groomed to become a propah ‘English lad’ who would hopefully join the Indian Civil Service (ICS) one day.

It was Aurobindo’s 14-year-stint in England that shaped him intellectually, and later prompted him to forfeit a career in the coveted Indian Civil Service, to return to India. His goal was to serve the people of his country and, according to him, the ICS did not constitute service. We look at some of the most fascinating, but lesser-known years of Aurobindo’s life.

Aurobindo with his family
Young Aurobindo with his family | Wiki Commons

Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta on 15th August 1872 to Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose and Swarnalata Devi. Dr Ghose was a civil surgeon in British government service who had made his way through difficult circumstances. Having lost his father at the age of 12, he went, much against his family's wishes, to Calcutta Medical College and was subsequently posted in Bhagalpur. He later went to the United Kingdom to get his MD degree.

His wife Swarnalata was the daughter of the famous nationalist and Brahmo leader Rajnarayan Bose. Upon his return from the UK, Dr Ghose was posted in Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) as the civil surgeon of that district. Since the conditions in Rangpur were very unhealthy, he sent his wife, who was pregnant with their third child, to a friend's home in Calcutta. A boy was born and was named Aurobindo.

Early Years

In 1877, when Aurobindo was five, Dr Ghose sent him and his two elder sons (Benoybhushan and Manmohan) to a prestigious school, Loreto House, in Darjeeling. The boys studied there for two years. But Dr Ghose was convinced that he wanted the boys to be raised as Englishmen. He also wished that they make it to highest possible careers available to Englishmen, like the Indian Civil Service. He felt this would not be possible if the boys continued to stay in India.

Young Aurobindo with his brothers
Young Aurobindo with his brothers | Wiki Commons

So, in 1879, Dr Ghose took the boys to England, where he arranged for them to be looked after by a couple called the Drewetts in the industrial town of Manchester. Mr William Drewett, the husband, was a clergyman.

The Ghoshes had another son born to them in England. They named him Barindrakumar. Leaving the elder boys in the care of the Drewett family, Dr Ghose and his wife, along with the baby Barindra and daughter Sarojini, returned to India the following year, while their three boys remained under the guardianship of the Drewetts in England.

English Guardians

After two years of home-schooling, Benoybhushan and Manmohan were admitted to Manchester Grammar School while Aurobindo continued to be tutored at home. Mr Drewett taught him Latin and History while Mrs Drewett taught him English, Arithmetic and French.

After five years of this arrangement, Drewetts decided to migrate to Australia but they left the boys in the care of Mr Drewett’s elderly mother. The lady along with the boys moved to London, where they took up residence at Stephens's Avenue. Manmohan and Aurobindo were now admitted to the prestigious St Paul's School as day scholars.

St Paul's School , London
St Paul's School , London | Wiki Commons

St Paul’s School had a long and rich history, much like Eton and Harrow. The Master of the institution, Fredirick William Walker, initially admitted Aurobindo to the Fifth Form and helped him with his Greek learning. Favourably impressed with the boy's learning aptitude, he soon fast-tracked Aurobindo to the Seventh Form, where most of the other boys were older than he was.

At St Paul's, Aurobindo acquired a fair bit of mastery over Latin and Greek, as also over English and French. Aurobindo, however, did not quite learn the sciences. In his inimitable style, he referred to this in his later life: “Not one word of Chemistry or any other damned science. My school, sir, was too aristocratic for such plebeian pursuits.”

It is said that many years later, during the time of the Alipur Conspiracy Case, when Aurobindo's name featured in the British press, Mr Walker remembered him as the most intellectually gifted boy who had ever passed through his hands at St Paul's.

Hard Times

But the financial condition of the brothers was becoming increasingly difficult. In the initial years, they occasionally went on holiday to the countryside, to places like St Bees and the Lake District, but later this practice stopped.

The remittances from Dr Ghose, earlier around 360 pounds annually, were not as regular as before even as the boys’ expenses increased as they grew up. Because of this, they had to leave their Stephen’s Avenue dwellings. Luckily, James Cotton, brother of Henry Cotton, an ICS officer posted in India and a friend of Dr Ghose, arranged for their stay in a room at the Liberal Club in South Kensington, which he managed. Benoybhushan, whose education had ended after school, assisted Mr Cotton in petty tasks and was paid five shillings a month. The boys had to suffer a poor diet. Aurobindo described this time in his words:

“During a whole year a slice or two of sandwich bread and butter and a cup of tea in the morning and in the evening a penny saveloy formed the only food.”

In Cambridge

In December 1890, a term before completion of his stint at St Paul’s, Aurobindo took the entrance exam to King's College at Cambridge University as a classical scholar.

Kings College - Cambridge
Kings College, Cambridge | Library of Congress

He joined the college in October 1890. He received 80 pounds annually as a Senior Classical Scholar and was given lodgings across the King's Lane. Founded in 1441, by Henry VI, the King's College had some of the finest buildings in England which were marvels of architecture. Its Chapel is regarded as one of the greatest examples of late Gothic English architecture and one of most beautiful buildings in England.

Referring to such an ambience Aurobindo remarked that one was privileged to move "among ancient and venerable buildings, the mere age and beauty of which are in themselves an education."

In June 1890, when he was not even 18, Aurobindo took the ICS qualifying examination. In this, he took ten papers like Latin, Greek, Italian, French, English Literature, English History, English Composition, Political Economy and Mathematics. He scored record marks in Latin and Greek and secured an overall rank of 11th among the successful candidates and now entered the probationary stage.

The ICS required a probationer to complete the Tripos within two years of the ICS qualifying examination. The Tripos, in its usual course, took three years, after which a degree was awarded. Moreover, the probationership required one to clear two periodic assessments and a final one. After successfully clearing the first and second assessment examination, a candidate was to receive a stipend of 75 pounds each time and 150 pounds after clearing the final examination.

In most cases, students took a year of special tutorials to prepare for one of the toughest examinations in the world, and many made it in the second or third attempts. Aurobindo could have chosen to take the examination after a year at the College. He would have then got his Tripos degree too, which was only after spending three years at the university. But it was due to his need for money during those days - not just for him but his brothers too - that he took the ICS exam straight after he finished his studies at St Paul's.

A Greater Mission

For some years before this, even as early as his time at St Paul's, a feeling was building within him that his life was meant for a very great purpose. By his Cambridge days, this feeling was raging in his mind that he had to return to India and serve the country of his birth and ancestors. His father too, by that time, felt the great misery of his countrymen under British rule, and the sentiment was being strongly reflected in his letters to his sons.

Aurobindo as a Young Man
Aurobindo as a Young Man | Wiki Commons

At Cambridge, Aurobindo was associated with the Indian Majlis, a forum that enabled him to get familiar with political debates concerning India. He was also interested in the Irish struggle and admired Charles Parnell to the extent of writing a poem when the Irish leader died. After the end of his second year at Cambridge, Aurobindo became clear that his future lay in India.

He still had to decide about the ICS. Despite receiving multiple calls, he did not appear for the mandatory horse-riding test, and was finally disqualified from the Service. Upon receiving the news, he came home and casually remarked to his brothers that he had chucked the ICS. It was an extraordinary occurrence with hardly any precedent. A certain Subhas Bose, not born at that time, was to do this three decades later. He must have had Aurobindo's example to inspire him.

Why did Aurobindo compete for the ICS when he did not finally join service? There are two possible reasons. First, from the time he landed in England, his father had expressed his desire that Aurobindo join the ICS. So the young man had little choice but to take the examination. Besides, he was still not clear about the path he should take, going forward, and he finally realised that the ICS would not be an appropriate vehicle for him to serve his countrymen. He probably realised that the so-called 'Indian Civil Service' was neither Indian, nor civil, nor service.

Second, in those days, Aurobindo was first and foremost a scholar, and pursuing knowledge even for his ICS papers was something a person of his temperament would have enjoyed. But the later humdrum life of an administrator was not something that could have suited his temperament.

Sri Aurobindo in his later years
Sri Aurobindo in his later years | Auroville Ashram

He could have rejected the ICS and stayed in England as a poet-scholar and pursued a life of academics. But even that was surpassed by his need to serve people in India. And it was no ordinary notion of service. He was prepared to sacrifice almost everything in the process.

Aurobindo’s mind was made up to serve his countrymen. But when left England for India in February 1893, he probably could not foresee that the next phase of his life in Baroda and Calcutta would guide him onto the revolutionary path, and that a deep longing for inner inquiry would eventually prompt him to relinquish almost everything, including his career as a nationalist revolutionary, and live a life of solitude for the next four decades in Puducherry.

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