A Talk on the Occasion of Her Birth Centenary
The title of my talk today may have sprung upon you a pleasant surprise. You may have heard her name as if in a dream and forgotten it as something of no consequence. A few eminent people have even asked me, “Is there anything really to say about her?” It is always the man who counts with us and the woman who helps the man from behind passes into oblivion. Moreover, the spell of Sri Aurobindo’s supramental consciousness under which we had been living led us to forget that before he became the superman he had come on earth a human being like us and had a wife whose name was Mrinalini. We have been dwelling upon his vast multifaceted personality since 1950. Let us today unearth this buried past of his life, his human side which people so dearly seek for and has a strong appeal to them.
By a luminous chance, in this year falls Mrinalini’s birth centenary; a few papers and a booklet on her life came into my hands. Poring over them I was stirred to my depths and struck as by a veritable spiritual treasure waiting to be discovered. At the same time I could not but be moved profoundly by its sublime pathos. To Sarada Mata she was a heavenly being. To talk of such a person is to be inspired with noble feelings of love and self-giving and to be lifted into a higher consciousness permeated with beauty, purity and love. Mrinalini who was born a hundred years ago and brought up in the natural surroundings of Shillong, exquisitely matched to her name, was married to a Virat Purusha (“world-wide Being”) whose name had the same meaning as hers: “the lotus.”
Daughter of a respectable Hindu family, she was 14 years younger than Sri Aurobindo. Her father, one of the early batches of England-returned Bengalis, held a high Government post in the Shillong Agricultural Department. He was a very fine gentleman. He once met Sri Aurobindo’s father. Mrinalini was the eldest of his children. Of a fair complexion, a rosy hue seemed to be reflected from it. Her graceful face was framed by a rich crop of dark curls. The palms of her hands and the soles of her feet had a ruddy tint like those of new-born children as if she had smeared āltā. In her early days her friends used to tell her that her hands were stuffed with cotton. Feeling hurt at such odd remarks, she would complain to her uncle, “Do buy me a good pair of hands.” So simple she was! Sri Aurobindo’s hands too were soft and warm like the downy feathers of birds. She was sent to a Calcutta Brahmo Girls’ School for studies and there contracted a life-long friendship with one Sudhira Bose whose brother belonged to Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary party and later joined the Ramakrishna Mission as a sannyasi. Girish Chandra Bose, a very intimate friend of Mrinalini’s father, almost like an elder brother, used to look after Mrinalini in Calcutta. He was the Principal of a famous college there. It was he who arranged the marriage of Mrinalini with Sri Aurobindo in a most unorthodox manner.
Sri Aurobindo, as you know, had returned to India and taken up a job in Baroda. “When, after about 7 years of service, he had become the Vice-Principal of the college in that city, he decided to marry. He was then 29 years of age. He had put an advertisement in a Calcutta paper that he would marry a girl of a Hindu family according to Hindu rites. He had already become a name in Calcutta.
Sri Aurobindo’s insistence on marrying a Hindu girl according to Hindu rites is worth noting. I believe that Bankim’s novels which he had read soon after returning from England gave him an insight into the character of Hindu women in Bengal. For, till then, he had had no opportunity to come into close contact with them. A fervent admirer of Bankim, he wrote in his essays on Bankim one year after his arrival in India: “The social reformer, gazing, of course, through that admirable pair of spectacles given to him by the Calcutta University, can find nothing excellent in Hindu life, except its cheapness, or in Hindu woman, except her sub-serviency. Beyond this he sees only its narrowness and her ignorance. But Bankim had the eye of a poet and saw much deeper than this. He saw what was beautiful and sweet and gracious in Hindu life, and what was lovely and noble in Hindu woman, her deep heart of emotion, her steadfastness, tenderness and lovableness, in fact, in her woman’s soul; and all this we find burning in his pages and made diviner by the touch of a poet and an artist.”
The advertisement caught the attention of Girish Bose. He found that the conditions stipulated would suit Mrinalini admirably. He at once negotiated the marriage. Sri Aurobindo came to see the prospective bride and at one single glance made his choice, though there were a number of high-born maidens on the waiting list eager for the coveted prize. The marriage ceremony took place according to Hindu rites and’ was attended by eminent persons like J. C. Bose, Lord Sinha, etc. but none from Sri Aurobindo’s paternal or maternal side. His maternal relations were of Brahmo society.
Mrinalini, at 14, was married like Sati to Shiva, but had no idea about it. Her entire married life of 18 years was practically passed alone. Her husband was plunged in political work, later in deep meditation on the Supreme in the far South while the wife exiled from him in the North-East lived meditating on him, her single thought dwelling upon her Shiva who had made her his companion, but who could not give her company nor any safe refuge of her own. Her husband had heard the call of the Supermind and was to bring it down on earth, while she for 8 long years passed her days of lonely sorrow in the hope that one day she would be called to his side.
At last that day arrived and Shiva sent her the call saying, “My tapasya is fulfilled, I have attained Siddhi.1 Come, be a help in my vast work.” Then in great joy and hope she prepared herself to meet her Lord. But destiny willed otherwise. At that very time, her life’s thread was snapped.
This in short is the tragic saga of Mrinalini’s life. Let us go back and trace the chequered course of her earthly existence. Mark that Sri Aurobindo was very particular to marry a Hindu girl in the Hindu way quite contrary to what his father had done. Sri Aurobindo after his return from England studied the Hindu religion and culture and must have found profound truths which must have influenced him in his choice. Besides, in Bengal the reformist Brahmo Samaj was at that time much in fashion and educated people were attracted by the modes and manners of that society. Sri Aurobindo, I am afraid, did not have much sympathy with it though his own maternal grandfather was a leading Brahmo, as well as a great nationalist. He was known as Rishi Raj Narayan Bose. Sri Aurobindo has written a fine sonnet on him in English.
After the marriage Sri Aurobindo left for his maternal uncle’s place at Deoghar with his wife and then for Baroda via Nainital, taking his sister Sarojini with them. The Maharaja of Baroda was vacationing at Nainital, during that time. Mrinalini lived for a full first year with Sri Aurobindo. After that reports vary. Whatever the truth, I believe this period was the springtime of her married life and filled with a happiness which would be denied to her for the rest of her days. She must have now come to know that Sri Aurobindo was not at all like any other person she had known. He on his side had ample opportunity to minister to the needs of her soul and turn her young mind to the high ideals cherished by him. At least he must have sown the seeds which would sprout and bear rich fruit in the future.
After a year Mrinalini had to go back to her father’s home and could not return soon to Baroda, however much she wanted. Occasionally she revisited it. Now she was living either with her parents at Shillong or in Deoghar, the home of Sri Aurobindo’s maternal uncle. Sri Aurobindo wished very much that she should live amicably with his relatives. He had begun to visit Calcutta for his secret political work but meeting with Mrinalini was not always possible either because she was away in Shillong or because he was too busy. Besides, he had no permanent home of his own at Calcutta. Calcutta was also passing through a violent political ferment. From Baroda he used to write letters to Mrinalini. A few of them have been luckily preserved. In the famous letter written in 1905 where he speaks of his three madnesses, he tells of his inner change’ and, defining Mrinalini’s role as a true Hindu wife, he writes,
“You have by now found out that the man with whom your fate is linked is of a strange character ... in every respect different from the present day people and out of the ordinary.
“The founders of the Hindu religion ... loved extraordinary characters, extraordinary endeavours, extraordinary ambitions. Madman or genius, they respected the extraordinary man. But all this means a terrible plight for the wife, and how could the difficulty be solved? The sages fixed upon this solution; they told the woman: ‘Know that the only mantra for womankind is this: the husband is the supreme guru, the wife shares the dharma (law of conduct) of her husband. She must help him, counsel him, encourage him in whatever work he accepts as his dharma. She should regard him as her god, take joy in his joy, and feel sorrow in his unhappiness. It is for the man to choose his work; the woman’s part is to give help and encouragement.’
“Now the question is: are you going to follow the way of the Hindu religion or the way of the new-fangled Reformist religion? You are a daughter of a Hindu family.... I have no doubt that you will follow the former way.
“You may say that you are an ordinary girl, you have no strength of mind, no intelligence; you fear even to think of them. Well, there is an easy way; take refuge in God, enter into the path of God. He will fill up all your wants. Or if you have faith in me, I shall impart my strength to you which, instead of reducing my strength, will increase it.
“The wife is the Shakti, the strength of her husband. This means that the husband’s strength is redoubled when he sees his own image in his wife and hears an echo in her of his own high aspiration....”
This was the ideal Sri Aurobindo set before Mrinalini, a girl of eighteen years at that time. Today this ideal has undergone a tremendous change, has turned a somersault, so to say. Woman demands equality with man. This is the Yuga-dharma. Of course, Sri Aurobindo does not mean that any and every husband has to be accepted as a god. He had also spoken of woman being subjected to the yoke of man’s tyranny. We shall see that he has even asked his wife’s forgiveness for failing in duty to fulfil her rightful demands. In the last letter dated 1906, Sri Aurobindo wrote that he was about to leave Baroda for ever, but he did not know where he would put up. He had given up meat and fish for good, had to devote much time to yogic practice. So he needed a place of his own. Mrinalini was then in Shillong; he would try to visit her. But once in Calcutta a huge heap of work fell upon his hands and people flocked in numbers to see him.
If Mrinalini was hoping that since Sri Aurobindo would be living in Calcutta she would have his company, it was a vain hope. In fact, her father wrote that he knew next to nothing about the married life of Mrinalini in Baroda. After Sri Aurobindo came to Bengal and during the stormy years that followed, Mrinalini had little or no opportunity of living a housewife’s life in the quiet company of her husband. Her life during this period was one of continuous strain and suffering. She spent the greater part of her time either with Sri Aurobindo’s maternal relatives at Deoghar or with her parents at Shillong. She was present with her husband at the time of his arrest in May 1908 and received a frightful mental shock of which a most painful evidence was seen in the delirium of her last illness ten years later. “I do not know how far Mrinalini assisted Sri Aurobindo in his political work, ” he added, “but this much is true that she never stood in his way. Sri Aurobindo had a quiet sincere love for her and she had towards her husband an unquestioning obedience.” This in brief is the picture of her unhappy life at Calcutta. As rightly said by Tolstoy, “It is not so easy to be married to an exceptional genius. It is like living by the bank of a great river, it can overflow the bank.”
However, there were a few short interludes of sweetness like oases in a desert. We shall speak about them later on.
At last Sri Aurobindo came away to Calcutta in 1906, as the Principal of the National College on a salary of Rs.150, leaving his job of the Vice-Principal with a handsome pay of Rs, 600 per month. He had rented a house and, though Mrinalini was living with him, Sri Aurobindo became so preoccupied with various activities that he could hardly spare much time to give her company. He wrote in 1907 to her at Deoghar, “Here I do not have a moment to spare. I am in charge of writing for ‘Bande Mataram’, I am in charge of the Congress work”, etc. Then again: “This is a time of great anxiety for me. If at this time you get restless, it can only increase my worry and anxiety. But if you write encouraging and comforting letters, that will give me great strength. As you have married me, this kind of sorrow (separation) is inevitable for you. Occasional separations cannot be avoided; for unlike the ordinary Bengali, I cannot make the happiness of the family and relatives my primary aim in life.” Then in 1907 came his arrest and release. Mrinalini was at that time in Shillong living with her parents. In 1908, he writes from Calcutta:
“I have not written to you for a long time. This is my eternal failing. If you do not pardon me out of your goodness, what shall I do?
“From now on I no longer am the master of my will. Like a puppet I must go wherever God takes me. It will be difficult for you to grasp the meaning of these words just now. But it is necessary to keep you informed, otherwise my movements may cause you sorrow and regret.... Already I have done you many wrongs and it is but natural that this should have displeased you.”
This sufficiently confirms what Bhupalbabu has said about Mrinalini’s life. Of course, as I have mentioned, everything was not so bleak and dismal. There were some bright spots. For instance, when Sri Aurobindo had once returned to Calcutta from political tours in the mofussils with a virulent attack of malaria he stayed with Bhupalbabu and was nursed by Mrinalini. Here is what her cousin says about it:
’Nursing and service of the sick was Mrinalini’s forte. She poured all her heart into it and those who were blessed with her ministration could never forget the care and solicitude she had bestowed upon them.
“I remember how Mrinalini served him during his illness — sitting by his bed-side, she would fan him, gently massage his head and feet. She would herself prepare his diet. At other times, when he was absorbed in writing, Mrinalini would wait till he had finished his work. She would attend to his ablutions, serve his meals or tea at the appointed time. Her father would procure cauliflowers and other vegetables of Sri Aurobindo’s preference, from special markets and her mother herself would cook dishes for him. Sri Aurobindo would relish every bit of the various dishes. It pleased Bhupalbabu immensely to see him enjoying the meal to the last morsel and remark that it was a matter of great joy to feed such people.”
Poor Sri Aurobindo! During his long stay in Baroda he was utterly deprived of good cooking. He once remarked that his Mahratta servant knew only how to cook meat. In England, of course, cooking could not have been better either. Only when he visited Bengal he had the chance of enjoying good cooking, especially at Bhupalbabu’s residence. There was another entertaining feature which was a completely new experience to Sri Aurobindo. During meal-time, he used to be surrounded by Mrinalini’s relatives from the oldest to the youngest as was the custom in Bengal. While the old ladies would pester him with their entreaties to partake of a big measure of their rich preparations, the young girls would tease him with gibes, taunts and pleasantries in their colloquial tongue — it was their special privilege. Sri Aurobindo enjoyed these sweet banterings but could not, alas, retort since he was not familiar with the language. Mrinalini and others would come to his rescue. He used to regret his inability to understand his mother- tongue fully.
There was another humorous episode narrated by Sri Aurobindo’s friend Charu Dutt which brings out a typical aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s nature. He writes, “When in 1907 Sri Aurobindo was arrested and released, Bhupalbabu came down to Calcutta from Shillong with Mrinalini to meet Sri Aurobindo. He had hired a house. One evening he came to our house in Wellington Square. Sri Aurobindo had not yet returned from the college. He told us, ‘I have come to invite Arabinda to have dinner with us. My daughter has come to meet him. He will spend the night with us and return in the morning. Do send him, please.’ At 5 Arabinda returned, he understood at once that some mischief was afoot. All of us in a chorus started talking. Arabinda smiling said, ‘Why not speak one at a time?’ I replied, ‘Look, such a gala day comes once in a while. Arabinda is going to meet his wife tonight.’ He, seemingly grave, replied, ‘Go on!’ ‘Bhupalbabu came here to invite you to his place and pass the night over there.’ Arabinda added, ‘Yes, what next?’ Now it was my wife’s turn, ‘Please be ready in time, we have sorted out new clothes for you to wear. And we have made two garlands, one is yours, the other for Mrinalini-di.’ Sri Aurobindo quietly heard and entered the bathroom to dress himself. He was looking fine, a shy smile lining his face. My wife came forward, gave the garlands and said, ‘This one is for you and the other for Mrinalini-di, don’t forget.’ ‘Yes, yes, I’ll do exactly as you say.’ ‘But don’t return before morning, ’ we shouted. The servant was asked to lock the gate.
“Next morning, a servant came up and said, ‘Sir, Mr. Ghosh wants to know when you will come down for tea.’ ‘What? He has returned so early?’ ‘Sir, he returned at night.’ We went down and found him smiling to himself, sitting in a chair. We began to shower him with questions. After a while he answered quietly, ‘Now listen. I had my sumptuous dinner and did exactly your bidding!’ ‘But why have you come away?’ His reply, ‘I’ve explained to her everything. With her permission I have come away.’ ”
In singular contrast to the delectable domestic entertainments came the rude shock on the night of Sri Aurobindo’s arrest, the last day when Sri Aurobindo and Mrinalini were living together in Grey Street, Calcutta. While relating that nightmarish event afterwards to her young cousin, Mrinalini’s voice used to get choked and her eyes fill with tears. She said;
“One night we were in deep sleep. Suddenly in the early morning there were loud knocks at the door. I got up quickly and opened the door to see a sergeant, 2 pointing a pistol at me and asking me to show where Sri Aurobindo was. He was sleeping. Dumbfounded I pointed towards him. The entire house was filled with a posse of the police. I was then asked to move to the next room. Sri Aurobindo was sleeping on a rug spread on the floor. I heard the police telling him: ‘Are you Mr. Ghosh? An educated person like you sleeping on such a bed and leading such a dirty life? It is most shameful.’ To which he retorted, ‘What is shameful to you is a thing of honour to us. For us Hindus, such a life is a symbol of renunciation as well as an ideal.’ The sergeant could only give him a hard stare. At last he broke open my box and with gusto caught hold of some letters written to me by Mr. Ghosh.
“I had collected some soil from Dakshineswar and kept it in a vessel. When the police discovered it, there was such a mad dance! I couldn’t understand what made them so ecstatic as if they had discovered America. I learnt later on that they had thought it to be material for making a bomb.
“What happened next is beyond a woman’s delicate nature to describe. The sergeant asked Mr. Ghosh to follow him; he wouldn’t allow him even to use the bathroom. Mr. Ghosh asked, ‘Where have I to go?’ ‘To Lalbazar’, 3 he replied. Then they tied a rope around his waist. Seeing this I lost all control and felt like falling upon them and snatching him away from the police’s clutch, but checked myself somehow. I tried to call God, but couldn’t, as I had lost faith in Him. If He was present, I thought, how could He allow such savage treatment to a guiltless soul? But all my prayer was of no avail. The police took him away to the van. What happened next I didn’t know. When I regained my senses, I found myself in the house of Mr. K. K. Mitra, a relative of Mr. Ghosh.”
“Since then a period of intense darkness descended upon Mrinalini’s life, ” writes her cousin. “Aimless and bewildered she didn’t know what to do, where to go. One day she was talking to me about this critical phase, ‘I couldn’t call even God. How could I ? I had no other God except my husband. I have seen God’s manifestation in him alone. When he spoke I felt as if a distant bodiless sound was coming out of his mouth. When he looked at me, I felt as if two dreamy eyes were pouring their effulgent rays on my body. When such an unearthly person was snatched away from my world, I felt that death alone was my resort without him. But still death did not come. At that moment Sudhira4 came and clasped me.’ Henceforth Mrinalini began to frequent the Ramakrishna Ashram, escorted by Sudhira.”
Sri Aurobindo was in that epoch the undisputed leader in the mind of the people. Mrinalini recounts: “So when we visited the girls’ school of the Ramakrishna Mission all the girls came out to see me. You don’t know what an embarrassing situation I had to face. The girls began to offer me pranams. I heard whispers that Aurobindo’s wife had come to bless them. After coming out I asked Sudhira, ‘Knowing everything why have you brought me here?’ She replied smiling, ‘Dear sister, you are a fire hidden under ashes. How will you conceal yourself?’ ”
Anxious about her disturbed mental condition, Sudhira introduced Mrinalini to Sarada Mata, Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, and prayed for her help. She listened quietly and said, “My daughter, don’t be disturbed. Your husband is under the full protection of God. With Thakur Ramakrishna’s blessings he will soon be proved innocent. But he will not lead a worldly life.” Then she advised Mrinalini to read Sri Ramakrishna’s books and visit her now and then.
After this, according to Mrinalini’s cousin, her father took her away to Shillong. They used to come to Calcutta to visit Sri Aurobindo in the jail. Mrinalini always remained calm and composed.
We have a reminiscent account of Mrinalini’s sojourn in Shillong from Ila Devi, mother of Dr. Satyavrata Sen. Ila was a minor at that time living with her parents in Shillong as very friendly neighbours. She writes:
“I saw her in my early teens. Minudi (nickname) was incomparable in her sweetness of character. She stole away the children’s hearts with her affection. One day she was late in coming for the play. I went to look for her and found that the wife of the local magistrate was requesting Minudi to sing. Shy and hesitant she sat before the harmonium and began a well-known Bengali devotional song. I listened to the whole song standing outside. So rapturous was her voice that I couldn’t move away.
“I learnt about Sri Aurobindo’s arrest from Minudi’s young sister who was of our age. He became the topic of the day. Minudi used to hear the talks but never lost her composure. She was leading a very simple life and eating simple food, avoiding meat and fish. They had a lovely garden from which she would pick flowers in the early morning and enter her Puja House (House of the Deity) and spend many hours there. It was kept beautifully decorated with pictures of Kali, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Sarada Mata. Two small pictures of Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo were placed on either side of a shelf. One day I entered the room after she had left and I saw flowers offered at Sri Aurobindo’s feet and incense burning by the side.
“Plenty of people used to come to have her Darshan and do pranam to her. If she had any foreknowledge of it she would try to avoid them but would sometimes be caught unawares. When the news of Sri Aurobindo’s release arrived, our school dispersed and we ran to Minudi to offer our heart’s love. We used to think that she would one day join Sri Aurobindo and she was herself cherishing that hope till her last day.”
Here is a sequel by Mrinalini’s young sister: “When Sri Aurobindo was released, we all were very happy. We came to Calcutta and lived in a rented house. Mrinalini went to live with Sri Aurobindo at his aunt’s place. We gave a feast in our house to celebrate his release and all were in a gay mood. Things appeared to change for the better and my sister found peace after long days of trial and tribulation, but for one year only.”
After his release, Sri Aurobindo started the journals Karmayogin and Dharma. Mrinalini was living with him for some time. They also passed short periods together at Deoghar with Sri Aurobindo’s maternal uncle’s family. The episode I am going to relate took place probably at this time or it may be at another time before Sri Aurobindo’s arrest. It is narrated by Mrinalini’s cousin; he gives no date. Sarojini and Mrinalini could not get on well together. It was Sarojini who used to pick quarrels with Mrinalini over trifles. Mrinalini would complain to Sri Aurobindo about Sarojini’s bad temper, but each time his advice would be, “Endure, endure”, which did not please her much. She wanted that at least for once Sarojini should be administered a mild rebuke, but entreaties went unheeded. At last Mrinalini told Sri Aurobindo in a firm tone that unless he did something she would refuse to do any household chores. Now Sri Aurobindo had to act. Fixing his gaze upon Mrinalini he said, “Look here, do you think anybody’s conduct can be changed in the way you want it? If I rebuke you or Sarojini, will it immediately make either of you give up your defects? Rather, instead of the peace you are asking for, it will have quite the opposite effect. I have told you to endure. If you follow sincerely the path advised by me, you will see that everything will move on peacefully as if by magic, after a few days.” From then, as Mrinalini reported, there was no discord in their dealing with each other. Their domestic life took a sudden turn for the better without their knowing. Of course Mrinalini resolved to follow Sri Aurobindo’s advice.
There is another episode related by the same cousin on Mrinalini’s authority. It seems that during Sri Aurobindo’s tenure as the editor of the above-mentioned two papers, he used to analyse the characters of his co-workers and find out what resemblance they bore to the characters of the Mahabharata. One day he was supposed to have said that at the end of the Dwapara Yuga he had been born as Sri Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha and Mrinalini as his wife Usha (the daughter of a Titan king). One can’t vouch for the truth of the story since it involves a chronological anomaly, but it is not impossible according to occult science. Sri Aurobindo’s composition of a long poem in Bengali, “The Abduction of Usha”, lends some credence to the account. If true it suggests that Mrinalini’s relation with Sri Aurobindo goes back many lives. We know nothing further of Mrinalini’s life during this period,
The day Sri Aurobindo left for Chandernagore she was living elsewhere in Calcutta. She and her people knew nothing about his whereabouts. Only after he had reached Pondicherry, they got the news. Naturally their anxiety was in the extreme. Then Mrinalini was taken back to Shillong by her father.
Now begins the most crucial chapter of her life — a life of austere tapasya for 8 long years. Outwardly her marriage had come to an end, but the inner bond continued and became more intense. What Sri Aurobindo wanted her to do when he was near, but she could not, now the painful separation induced her to pursue. A true Hindu wife, she embraced the ideal of the Godward life indicated by her husband. But her God was Sri Aurobindo. He was the Alpha and Omega of her existence. Meditating on him and trying to live in his consciousness brought about a radical change in her life. Eventually she united herself in death with her Lord.
There are two accounts of her life in Shillong at that period, one by her young sister and the other by her young cousin who was very fond of her; the accounts are complementary to each other. I have already given portions from them. Here is the sister’s account:
“Every early morning, after her bath she would pluck flowers from the garden. She would look incomparably beautiful amidst countless flowers of all varieties of colour. She would then enter the Puja House and pass hours in meditation. After that, she would attend to the usual chores and spend the rest of the day in the study of religious books, mostly of Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. In the evening, she shut herself up for hours again in the Meditation Room. At times, at the request of her parents and friends she would take up the harmonium and sing devotional songs composed by Tagore and others.
“She was always simply but neatly dressed and looked like a Yogini. In the matter of food, meat, fish and sweets were excluded from her diet. Only at the request of her parents she would waive this austere rule.
“Letters from Sri Aurobindo arrived at long intervals addressed to her as Mrs. Ghosh. That would revive her spirit for a few days. But never did she seek sympathy or open her heart to anyone except her mother and Sudhira. My cousin who had gone to Pondicherry wrote to us that Sri Aurobindo was plunged deep in yoga. Sri Aurobindo asked Mrinalini to follow the same path. She began the practice according to the directions given by Sri Aurobindo. We hoped for a long time that he would return to Bengal when the political situation had eased. But it was a vain hope, for it was feared that he would be arrested as soon as he set his foot on Indian soil. My father tried hard to take Mrinalini to Pondicherry, but the Government refused permission.”
Now let us read the other account. The cousin writes:
“During these last 8 years, occasional letters from Sri Aurobindo were her only solace and support, Shillong was a hilly place, one of the loveliest spots of Nature. Mrinalini would wander about in the garden in her leisure time. One day I asked her, ‘Didi, you seem to love flowers best of all!’ She replied, ‘You know, your Gurudev was like a flower. I used to smell the fragrance of flowers in his presence.’ [The Mother also has said that a lotus-fragrance used to emanate from Sri Aurobindo’s body.] One evening meandering through a pine wood, Mrinalini sat upon a hillock. From there, the range of hill-tops beyond was exposed to view, clear like an enormous picture. Looking at the beautiful scene, Mrinalini fell into a meditative mood. I also enjoyed the charm of the place, but since her meditation lasted too long I got fidgety. When she opened her eyes, I asked her, ‘Didi, there is so much beauty all around us and you pass the entire period in darkness!’ She answered, ‘Silly boy, you don’t know that this infinite splendour helps me to plunge into the source of its beauty. You were annoyed perhaps! You know, in your Gurudev’s heart is a heavenly city many times more beautiful than this outer beauty.’ I have alluded to her love flowing towards all. During her stay in Calcutta all followers of Sri Aurobindo had her touch of love and care. Sudhir Sarkar, when he used to go on secret work in cognito, would relate with tears how Mrinalini used to dress him with Sri Aurobindo’s suits.
“She had a strong attraction for the English language and wanted to improve her knowledge of it. With this object she began to coach me which was a great blessing indeed to me. She used to correct our pronunciation, and teach us how to read and articulate properly. One day I asked her, ‘Didi, tell me why you are taking so much trouble to teach me English. What do you gain by it?’ A bit irked, she replied, ‘Leave those wise talks. Tell me, aren’t you profiting by it and am I not gaining too? Do you know that your Gurudev’s mother tongue is English?’ ‘What?’ I exclaimed, ‘he is the son of Bengali parents!’ Then she told me the whole story of his life and added, ‘If I have to follow him, I must have a good knowledge of English. Do you see now, my boy, how I gain by teaching you? I receive now and then a few letters from him. One or two happen to be in English. His letters written in Bengali are so accomplished that they put our own usage to abject shame.’
“Now arrived the fatal year 1918 which blasted all her hopes.
“In 1918 Mrinalini came to Calcutta probably from Ranchi for some eye trouble and stayed with Girish Bose. When Sourin, Nolini Gupta and others were going to Bengal sometime earlier, Sourin asked Sri Aurobindo, ‘I shall meet Mrinalini. What shall I tell her?’ Sri Aurobindo replied, ‘I shall be glad if you can manage to bring her here.’ Life was hard at that time, with great financial difficulties, but in spite of everything Sri Aurobindo wanted Mrinalini to join him. When somebody told Sri Aurobindo about the difficulty, he answered, ‘Eat less food.’ ”
Now for the sister’s account about Mrinalini:
“At last arrived the year 1918, December. She received the call from Sri Aurobindo, saying, ‘My sadhana is over. I have achieved my object, siddhi. I have a lot of work to do for the world. You can come now and be my companion in this work.’ This naturally made Mrinalini and all others extremely happy.
“Now our father thought of taking my sister to Pondicherry. The Government gave permission. So they arrived in Calcutta via Ranchi. But Mrinalini Devi fell a victim to the ‘scourge of influenza which was raging everywhere. After a week’s illness she passed away on 17 December at the age of 32. The mental agony that she had kept suppressed for years exploded during the illness in her delirium, particularly the frightful nightmarish scene of Sri Aurobindo’s arrest.
“There was a mention in her horoscope that her 32nd year would be critical. Sri Aurobindo knew it and wanted us to remind him about it when she would be 32. But all of us forgot except my mother. She was at that time in Ranchi. Hearing about the illness she hastened to Calcutta but Mrinalini Devi passed away within half an hour of her arrival When she learnt that we had not informed Sri Aurobindo, a telegram was sent to him. On reading it, Sri Aurobindo said, ‘Too late!’ My cousin who was there at the time wrote to my mother: ‘Today I saw tears in the eyes of your stone-hearted son-in-law. With the telegram in one hand, he sat still and tears were in his eyes.’ Sri Aurobindo told him too that Mrinalini’s soul had come to him soon after her death. Also a photo of Mrinalini Devi that was on the mantel-piece is said to have fallen.
“In the evening after Mrinalini’s expiry Sudhira took my mother to Sri Sarada Devi. She was at that time in deep meditation. When she opened her eyes and saw them, she said, ‘You have come? I was seeing in my vision my daughter-in-law, Mrinalini. She was a goddess born as your daughter in consequence of a curse. Now that her karma is exhausted her soul has departed.’ She often used to enquire after her health.
“A few days before her death when she had realised that her end was near Mrinalini sold many of her ornaments and wished that the proceeds should be utilised in charitable works. The remaining unsold ones were kept in Sudhira’s custody and with Sri Aurobindo’s approval a scholarship was to be awarded to a poor girl-student of the Nivedita Girls’ School out of the interest on the investment of the money realised from the sale of those ornaments. She had a small boxful of letters received from Sri Aurobindo. She desired that the box should be drowned in the Ganges after her death. It is a great pity that most valuable letters were lost to us in this way.
“Though my sister led an outwardly simple life people who came in contact with her had felt the aura of her extraordinary personality. Even her nearness was guarded by a zone of aloofness which could only be breached by her friend Sudhira and her mother.”
Thus ends the sad story of Mrinalini’s life. She had fulfilled the role of a Hindu wife assigned to her by her husband and her life became an embodiment of the Gita’s famous sloka “मन्मना भव, मद्भक्तो, मद्याजी...” — “Be my-minded, devoted to me....” Her one-pointed love and self-abnegation remind us of those sacred Hindu wives of historical fame and her name certainly falls in line with them. I do not accept Bhupalbabu’s view that while being linked with a most forceful person of the epoch Mrinalini had nothing uncommon in her.
A pragmatic modern Bengali writer of the life of Confucius raised a pertinent question regarding the marriages of spiritual persons in which Sri Aurobindo also figured as one. I sent it in the form of a questionnaire to Sri Aurobindo more out of fun than with a serious intention. Here are his good- humoured replies, albeit a bit sharp.
Myself: Somebody writing a life of Confucius in Bengali says:
“Why do the Dharma-gurus marry, we can’t understand. Buddha did and his wife’s tale is হৃদযবিদারক (heart-rending).”
Sri Aurobindo: Why? What is there হৃদযবিদারক (heart- rending) in it?
Myself: He goes on: “Sri Aurobindo, though not a dharma-guru but dharma-mad, ধর্ম পাগল, has done it too.” Well, Sir?
Sri Aurobindo: Well, it is better to be ধর্ম পাগল (dharma- mad) than to be a sententious ass and pronounce on what one does not understand.
Myself: “We feel so sad about Buddha’s wife, so too about the wife of Confucius.”
Sri Aurobindo: Poor sorrowful fellows!
Myself: “We don’t understand why they marry and why the change comes soon after marriage.”
Sri Aurobindo: Perfectly natural — they marry before the change, then the change comes and the marriage belongs to the past self, not to the new one.
Myself: “The wives of Buddha and Ramakrishna felt proud when they were left.”
Sri Aurobindo: Then what’s the harm?
Myself: “If married life were an obstacle to spirituality then they might as well have not married.”
Sri Aurobindo: No doubt. But then when they marry, there is not an omniscient ass like this biographer to tell them that they were going to be ধর্ম গুরু or ধর্ম পাগল or in any way concerned with any other ধর্মthan the biographer’s. Well, if a biographer of Confucius can be such an unmitigated ass, Confucius may be allowed to be unwise once or twice, I suppose.
Myself: I touch upon a delicate subject, but it is a puzzle.
Sri Aurobindo: Why delicate? and why a puzzle? Do you think that Buddha or Confucius or myself were born with a prevision that they or I would take to the spiritual life? So long as one is in the ordinary consciousness, one lives the ordinary life. When the awakening and the new consciousness come, one leaves it — nothing puzzling in it.
Sri Aurobindo’s argument is sound and convincing. Still, my puzzle remained. For it was based on a different reason altogether. I thought that Sri Aurobindo had already taken a vow to fight for India’s freedom and had already been engaged in a secret revolutionary movement before his marriage. How, then, could he contract any marriage? Knowing very well what would be the consequence of his political struggle against a strong and powerful alien Government how could he entangle an innocent girl’s life in his perilous fate? This was my puzzle. I was to find later on that his old friend Charu Dutt was troubled in the same way with this question and he asked Sri Aurobindo quite frankly, “You knew that one day you would jump into the whirlwind of political revolution. Why then did you marry?” He replied, “You see, Charu, at that time I was under a spell of despair. So I thought that if I have to pass my life as a pedagogue, why not marry?” Sri Aurobindo’s answer was very strange, indeed. I am afraid it is not at all in keeping with his character. Was it then Dutt’s invention which he was quite capable of at times? Or was it Sri Aurobindo’s trick to cover truth with truth which he also used to employ? At any rate, it seems like putting off a child with a facile answer. We have seen what has been the consequence of the marriage. It was a long tale of woe leading, however, to a marvellous spiritual consummation. And I need not add that Mrinalini herself would prefer a thousand lives of suffering with Sri Aurobindo as her husband to a life of earthly bliss with richer conjugal ties. She suffered for no fault of hers. As an Indian, one will be prone to attribute it to her past karma, as Sarada Mata would have it. But I believe that there was a greater cosmic purpose she came to serve. The very fact that she became Sri Aurobindo’s spouse goes in support of that conjecture, even if we may not be disposed to accept Mrinalini’s assertion that she was said to have been Usha in one of her previous lives. In India, a woman’s life is held to be not of bhoga, but of self-giving, renunciation, tyaga as typified in the lives of Sita and other women of holy birth. My contention therefore is that Mrinalini’s soul chose this destiny to hold up an example of an ideal Hindu wife in this materialistic age. That example which had remained buried for a hundred years in the earth- memory now revives and Mrinalini will be remembered as an unforgettable part of Sri Aurobindo’s early life.
As regards Sri Aurobindo, I seem to have stumbled upon the key to the deeper mystery concealed behind his apparently futile marriage. The letter he wrote to Bhupalbabu after Mrinalini’s demise holds that key; Here is the letter:
My dear father-in-law,
I have not written to you with regard to the fatal event in both our lives; words are useless in face of the feelings it has caused, if even they can express our deepest emotions. God has seen good to lay upon me the one sorrow that could still touch me to the centre. He knows better than ourselves what is best for each of us, and now that the first sense of the irreparable has passed, I can bow with submission to His divine purpose. The physical tie between us is, as you say, severed; but the tie of affection subsists for me. Where I have once loved, I do not cease from loving. Besides, she who was the cause of it, still is near, though not visible to our physical vision.
It is needless to say much about the matters of which you write in your letter. I approve of everything that you propose. Whatever Mrinalini would have desired, should be done and I have no doubt this is what she would have approved of. I consent to the chudis (gold bangles) being kept by her mother; but I should be glad if you would send me two or three of her books, especially if there are any in which her name is written. I have of her only her letters and a photograph.
I find this letter extremely interesting, full of surprises. It is underlined with hitherto unknown aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life and throws overboard our accustomed notions or conceptions about him. It is therefore a precious document. I shall try to probe the deeper meanings as I have understood them, knowing very well that my interpretations may be met with a strong disbelief and dubbed romantic fancy.
First of all, the letter is written in a very simple style and restrained in tone. It has a classical sublimity and is vibrant with a poignant pathos. People can be easily deceived about its inner richness. It is a masterpiece in the genre of letter- writing.
Sri Aurobindo addresses the recipient as “my dear father- in-law”. The first surprise is that one who had apparently snapped all worldly relations and had been living in a supreme consciousness, admitted still the old bond, unlike any other yogi. Next, we discover that he had maintained an intermittent connection with his wife also, though in the correspondence I have quoted earlier, he had said that once one becomes a yogi, the past relations belong to the past. He called his wife to join him in his sadhana. Also in his Calcutta period, he hoped that his separation from Mrinalini would , end and they would pursue their sadhana together, somewhat like Sri Ramakrishna keeping his wife Sarada Devi with him after he had attained his siddhi. If that is so, how are we to understand Sri Aurobindo’s earlier statement that marriage becomes a thing of the past when the husband takes up yoga? Would it mean that though the wife lives with the husband, the basis of the relationship is entirely spiritual as in the case of Sri Ramakrishna? We cannot find any other satisfactory solution to the apparent contradiction. Also it is consonant with Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga where all relations are sublimated into a higher consciousness, not rejected. Then comes the stupendous phrase, “The one sorrow that could still touch me to the centre”, rising in a crescendo to “where I have once loved, I do not cease from loving”, and reaching the climax in the last phrase, “She who is the cause of it”, cannot but bewilder us and show how deep was Sri Aurobindo’s love for Mrinalini. We are likely to ask ourselves, “One who had realised Nirvana, had the cosmic experience of Vasudeva and other high experiences, can he still harbour or be subject to such human emotions?” We would have brushed the matter aside as a fictitious story, had the letter not carried Sri Aurobindo’s own signature. I shall not enter into a controversy over the genuineness of the feelings expressed in the letter, but humbly state that we know very little of the great Enigma that was Sri Aurobindo. The Mother herself confessed that though living for thirty years with Sri Aurobindo, she did not know him. Besides, we, the attendants of Sri Aurobindo have seen on the one hand his vast Impersonal Self high-seated above the turmoils of the world and on the other, his aspect of the Person who, before his passing, embraced passionately his devoted servant Champaklal. That would have been indeed incredible, had we not witnessed it with our own eyes. There are other mysteries we have seen before which his unbelievable shedding of a few tears pale into insignificance.
Sri Aurobindo has said somewhere that in the heart of the Impersonal there is the Person who, if one can approach him, is inexpressibly sweet and lovely, or something to this effect.
So let us not be too hasty in labelling and categorising Sri Aurobindo according to our fixed, preconceived notions. Love was indeed the principal theme of his dramas, narrative poems, his epic Savitri, and finds a crowning note in that passage where Savitri says:
“Love must not cease to live upon the earth;
For Love is the bright link twixt earth and heaven,
Love is the far Transcendent’s angel here;
Love is man’s lien on the Absolute.”
But, of course, this Love which Savitri celebrates is not a common emotion:
“For Love must soar beyond the very heavens
And find its secret sense ineffable.
It must change its human ways to ways divine,
Yet keep its sovereignty of earthly bliss.”
Yes, heaven and earth must fuse in Love, and such Love is indeed the secret of the Integral Yoga.
Lastly I shall try to solve the riddle I have posed earlier: Why did Sri Aurobindo marry? As far as I have understood his philosophy of life, he was from the beginning holding the view that life is not an illusion; he refused even to accept a yoga which rejected life. The wholeness, the integrality of the experience of life was his doctrine, not certainly life as we know it, but in its modified form, as he stated. And love through marriage playing a very important role could not be excluded from the pursuit of his avataric mission which meant to change the world. That experience left out would not give the seal of completeness to that mission or enable him to say to us, “This experience also I have had.” Therefore he entered the worldly life and knew what love was, particularly woman’s love, from direct experience. As soon as he met the destined woman he chose her at a single glance. While in the case of Savitri love met her in the wilderness, in the case of Sri Aurobindo love met him in the heart of a town from a simple girl unknown and unaccomplished, a common girl according to the father, but rich indeed in soul-quality.
Sri Aurobindo once wrote to D that he had been deprived from his childhood of what could be called love, and brought up as he was in a Europeanised home and then in a foreign land his nature became reserved and shy of expression. Now Mrinalini’s soul of sweetness and candour touched that chord and became the cause of his love which had remained dormant so long.
To conclude, you will be happy to learn that Bhupalbabu visited the Ashram with his wife in the thirties and did pranam to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, his son-in-law, during the Darshan. The Mother seems to have told him that Mrinalini’s soul was with her. Dyuman adds that Bhupalbabu had the vision of Mrinalini in the Mother when he went to the Darshan and bowed to her and he was very much consoled. (I believe that in the interval she has taken a new birth and is now perhaps living as a sadhika in the Ashram.)
A Note on Sri Aurobindo’s “Siddhi”
It is bound to be surprising to our ears that a little before December 17, 1918 when Mrinalini died Sri Aurobindo had written to her that he had attained his “Siddhi” (“Goal”) and that she should come over to Pondicherry and join him in his world-work.
Surprising, for two years later, On April 7, 1920 he wrote to his brother Barindra that he was only rising then into the lowest of the three levels of Supermind and trying to draw up into it all the lower activities and that his Siddhi would be complete in the future. Even as late as November 1926, when the Overmind Consciousness descended into his body, he declared that he would be going into retirement for a dynamic meditation to bring about the Supermind’s Descent. November 24 of that year is generally called the Siddhi Day or the Day of Victory, and this is understandable since the Overmind’s descent forms the firm base and promise of the final step. The Overmind, the World of the Great Gods, may rightly be considered the Supermind’s delegate, constituting the door to the Supreme Dynamic Divine. The ultimate Siddhi, of course, was still in the future and it was so as late as 1950 in which on December 5 Sri Aurobindo left his body. Early that year he had told the Mother in anticipation of his own departure: “You have to fulfil our Yoga of Supramental Descent and Transformation.” How, then, shall we come to terms with the letter to Mrinalini at the end of 1918?
The mystery gets further deepened when we come across a letter Sri Aurobindo wrote in late August 1912 to Motilal Roy of Chandernagore: “My subjective sadhana may be said to have received its final seal and something like its consummation by a prolonged realisation and dwelling in Parabrahman for many hours.... My future sadhana is for life, practical knowledge and shakti — not the essential knowledge or shakti in itself which I have got already — but knowledge and shakti established in the ... physical self and directed to my work in life....” And the crowning shade of the puzzling situation comes in a letter, again to Mrinalini, not from Pondicherry but from Calcutta itself. The English translation reads:
“I have not written to you for a long time. I feel that a great change will soon take place in our life. If it does, all our wants will come to an end. I am waiting for the Mother’s Will. A final change is also going on in me. Frequent avesh (“afflatus”) of the Mother is happening in me. Once this change is finished and the avesh becomes permanent, there will be no farther separation between us, because that day of Yoga- siddhi is near. After that will begin a full flow of action. By tomorrow or the day after it some signs will appear. Then I shall meet you.”
It seems certain that at different times Sri Aurobindo had different goals in view and, once they were achieved, there was a sense of Siddhi during the interval before he saw a further path ahead.
What, however, renders the letter of 1918 the most astonishing is the fact that the other two announcing the Siddhi were penned before the Arya was started in August 1914, the year in which earlier (March) the Mother had come to Pondicherry from France. We can understand that when Sri Aurobindo wrote those letters the full ideal whose realisation consisted in the Supermind’s taking possession of the physical being itself had not been formulated. But by 1918 the Arya, expressing this ideal, had already run for over four years, the Mother had begun co-operating with Sri Aurobindo and, though she left in 1915 with her husband owing to the outbreak of World War I, she was expected to return, as she did in 1920. Some definite spiritual milestone of great moment must have been reached at the end of 1918 and required some immediate assistance in work. Such a mile- stone alone could have prompted that letter. But we have no clue to its nature.
(K. D. Sethna)
1 The word “Siddhi” (“Goal”) has to be understood in a special sense here. It will be elucidated at the end of out narrative
2 It was the Police Superintendent, in fact. (Author)
3 A Police-station. (Author)
4 Mrinalini’s life-long friend since school-days. (Author)