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Stories of Jail Life

1 - Spiritual Awakening

by Sri Aurobindo


From the chapter 4 of "Stories of Jail Life"

[In the solitary cell (photo left)]

I have described my mental state on the first day of solitary confinement. For a few days I had to go without books or any other aid to spend the period of forced isolation. Later on Mr. Emerson came and handed over to me the permission to get some clothes and some reading material from home.[...]: among books I asked for the Gita and the Upanishads.[...] Before that I had enough leisure to realise the enormity or the dangerous potentiality of solitary confinement. I could understand why even firm and well-developed intellects break down in such a state of confinement and readily turn toward insanity. At the same time, I could realise God's infinite mercy and the rare advantage offered by these same conditions. I was in the habit of sitting down in meditation for an hour in the morning and the evening. In this solitary prison, not having anything to do, I tried to meditate for a longer period. But for those unaccustomed it is not easy to control and steady the mind pulled in a thousand directions.

Somehow I was able to concentrate for an hour and a half or two, later the mind rebelled while the body while the body too was fatigued. At first the mind was full of thoughts of many kinds. Afterwards, devoid of human conversation and insufferable listlessness due to absence of any subject of thought, the mind gradually lost its capacity to think. There was a time a condition when it seemed a thousand indistinct ideas were hovering round the doors of the mind but with the gates closed; one or two that were able to get through were frightened by the silence of these mental states and quietly ran away. In this uncertain, dull state I suffered an intense mental agony. In the hope of mental solace and resting the overheated brain I looked at the beauties of nature outside, but with that solitary tree, a sliced sky and the cheerless prospects in the prison how long can the mind, in such a state, find consolation? I looked towards the blank wall. Gazing at the lifeless white surface the mind seemed to grow even hopeless, realising the agony of the imprisoned condition the brain was restless in the cage. I again sat down to meditate. It was impossible.


I was amazed at this condition! True, while outside, I never wished to stay idle or without any activity, still I had spent long periods in solitary musings. Had the mind now become so weak that solitude of a few days could make so restless? Perhaps, I thought, there is a world of difference between voluntary and compulsory solitude. It is one thing to stay alone in one's home, but to have to stay, forced by others, in a solitary prison cell is quite another. There one can turn at will to men for refuge, find shelter in book knowledge and its stylistic elegance, in the dear voice of the friends, the noise on the roadside, in the varied shows of the world, one can find joy of mind and feel at ease. But here bound to wheels of an iron law, subservient to the whim of others, one had to live deprived of every other contact. According to the proverb, one can who stand solitude is either a go or a brute, it is discipline quite beyond the power of men. Previously I was unable to believe this in what the proverb said but now I could feel that even for one accustomed to yogic life this discipline is not easy to acquire. I remember the terrifying end of the Italian regicide, Breci. His cruel judges, instead of ordering seven years' solitary confinement. Within a year Breci had gone mad. But he had endured for some time! Was my mental strength so poor? Then I did not know that God was having a game with me, through which He was giving me a few necessary lessons. First, He showed me the state of mind in which prisoners condemned to solitary cells move towards insanity, and turned me wholly against the inhuman cruelty of the western prison administration., so that I might, to the best of my ability, turn my countrymen and the world from these barbarous ways to the path of a more humane prison organization. This was the first lesson.

I remembered, fifteen years back, after return home from England, I had written some bitterly critical articles from Induprakash, of Bombay, against the petitionary ethics of the then Congress. Seeing that these articles were influencing the minds of the young, the late Nahadeo Govind Ranade had told me, when I met him, for nearly half an hour, that I should give up writing these articles and advised me take up some other Congress work. He was desirous of my taking up the work of prison reform. I was astonished and unhappy at the unexpected suggestion and had refused to undertake that work. I did not know then that this was a prelude to the distant future and that one day God Himself would keep me in prison for an year and make me see the cruelty and futility of the system and the need for reform. Now I understood that in the present political atmosphere there was no possibility of any reform of the prison system, but I resolved before my conscience to propagate and argue in its favour so that these hellish remnants of an alien order were not perpetuated in a self-determining India.

I also understood His second purpose: it was to reveal and expose before my mind its own weakness so that it might get rid of it for ever. For one who seeks the yogic state crowd and solitude would mean the same. Indeed, the weakness dropped off within a very few days, and now it seems that the mental poise would not be disturbed even by twenty years of solitude. In the dispensation of the All-Good (Mangalamaya) even out of evil cometh good.
The third purpose was to give me this lesson that my yogic practices would not be done by personal effort, but that a spirit of faith and reverence (shraddha) and complete self-surrender (atma-samarpana) were the road to attain self-perfection in the yoga, and whatever power or realisation the Lord would give out of His benignity, to accept and utilise these should be the only aim of my yogic endeavor. Since the day when the deep darkness of Ignorance began to lessen, I started to see the true nature of the All-Good Lord's amazing infinite goodness as I watched the different events in the ward. There was no event - great or small or even the smallest - from which some good has not accrued. He often fulfils 3 or 4 aims through a single event. We frequently see the working of a blind force in the world; accepting waste as a part of nature's method we ignore God's omniscience and find fault with the divine Intelligence. The charge is unfounded. The divine Intelligence never works blindly, there cannot be the slightest waste of His power, rather the restrained manner in which, through the minimum of means He achieves a variety of results is beyond the human intelligence.

Troubled by mental listlessness I spent a few days in this manner. One afternoon as I was thinking streams of thought began to flow endlessly and then suddenly these grew so uncontrolled and incoherent that I could feel that the mind's regulating power was about to cease. Afterwards when I came back to myself, I could recollect that though the power of mental control has ceased, the intelligence was not self-lost or did not deviate for moment, but was as if the intelligence was watching quietly this marvellous phenomenon. But at the time, shaking with the terror of being overcome by insanity, I had not been able to notice that. I called upon God with eagerness and intensity and prayed to Him to prevent my loss of intelligence. That very moment there spread over my being such a gentle and cooling breeze, the heated brain became relaxed, easy and supremely blissful such as in all my life I had never known before. Just as a child sleeps, secure and without fear, on the lap of his mother, so I remained on the lap of the World-Mother. From that day all my troubles of prison life were over.
Afterwards on many occasions, during the period of detention, inquietude, solitary imprisonment, and mental unease because of lack of activity, bodily trouble or disease, in the lean periods of yogic life, these have come but that day in a single moment God had given my inner being such strength that these sorrows as they came and went did not leave any trace or touch on the mind; relishing strength and delight in the sorrow itself the mind was able to reject these subjective sufferings. The suffering seemed as fragile as water drops on a lotus leaf. Then when the books came, their need had considerably lessened. I could have stayed on even if the books were not there. Though it is not the purpose of these articles to write a history of my inner life, still I could not but mention this fact. From this one incident it will be clear how it was possible to live happily during solitary confinement.
It was for this reason that God had brought about this situation or experience. Without turning me mad He had enacted in my mind the gradual process towards insanity that takes place in solitary confinement, keeping my intelligence as the unmoved spectator of the entire drama. Out of this came strength, and I had an excess of kindness and sympathy for the victims of human cruelty and torture. I also realised the extraordinary power and efficacy of prayer.

From the chapter 5 of "Stories of Jail Life"

[After the intervention of Dr. Dally, Sri Aurobindo was allowed to have a walk out of the solitary cell]

[...] From that day on I would take a stroll everyday in the morning and evening in the open space before decree [...] at times I would stay out for two hours, there was no time limit about it. I enjoyed this very much.
On one side were the jail industries, on the other the cowshed - my independent kingdom was flanked by these two. From the industrial section to the cowshed, from the cowshed to the industrial section, travelling to and fro I would recite the deeply moving, ageless, powerful mantras of the Upanishads, or watching the movements and activities of the prisoners I tried to realise the basic truths of the immanent Godhead, God in every form. In the trees, the houses, the walls, in men, animals, birds, metals, the earth, with the help of the mantra: "All this is the Brahman" (sarvam khalvidam Brahma), I would try to fix or impose the realisation on all of these. As I went on doing like this sometimes the prison ceased to appear to be a prison at all. The high wall, those iron bars, the white wall, the green-leafed tree shining in the sunlight, it seemed these commonplace objects were not unconscious at all, but that they were vibrating with a universal consciousness, they love me and wish to embrace me or so I felt. Men, cows, ants, birds are moving, flying, singing, speaking, yet all is Nature's play; behind all this is a great pure detached Spirit rapt in a serene delight. Once in a while it seemed as if God Himself was standing under the tree, to play upon His flute of Delight; and with its sheer charm to draw my very soul out. Always it seemed as if someone was embracing me, holding me on one's lap. The manifestation of these emotions overpowered my whole body and mind, a pure and wide peace reigned everywhere. It is impossible to describe that state. The hard cover of my life opened up and a spring of love for all creatures gushed from within. Along with this love such sattvic emotions as charity, kindness, ahimsa, etc., overpowered my dominantly rajasic nature and found an abundant release. And the more these qualities developed, the greater the delight and deeper the unclouded peace. The anxiety over the case had vanished from beginning, now it was a contrary emotion that found room in my mind: "God is All-good, He had brought me into the prison house for my good, my release and the quashing of the charge was certain". I grew firm in this faith. After this for many days I did not have to suffer any troubles in the jail.

Sri Aurobindo

[In the solitary cell, Sri Aurobindo had a spiritual experience with Vivekânanda.
See also a description of the above spiritual experience in the famous Uttarpara Speech.
Later on, Sri Aurobindo was allowed to live among other prisoners, see next text]

in SABCL, Volume 4 Writings in Bengali "Stories of Jail Life"

published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Pondicherry
diffusion by SABDA

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