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Stories of Jail Life

2 - Teachings from behaviour of other prisoners

by Sri Aurobindo


Spiritual experiences in Jail
From the chapter 8 of "Stories of Jail Life"


[…] Let me first speak about the companions of my days of trouble, the boys who had been accused along with me. Watching their behavior in the courtroom I could really feel that a new age had dawned, a new type of children had begun to live on the Mother's lap. Those days the Bengali boys were of two kinds: either docile, well-mannered, harmless, of good character, cowardly, lacking in self-respect and high aims; else they were evil characters, rowdies, restless cheats, lacking in restraint and honesty. Between these two extremes, creatures of many kinds must have been born in the land of Mother Bengal, but except for eight or ten extraordinarily talented and vigorous pioneers no strong representatives of a superior breed beyond these two groups were usually to be seen. The Bengali had intelligence, talent, but little power of manhood. Looking at these lads, however, one felt as if the liberal, daring men of an earlier age with a diferent training had come back to India. That fearless and innocent look in their eyes, the words breathing with power, their carefree delighted laughter, even in the midst of great danger the undaunted courage, cheerlfulnes of mind, absence of despair or grief, all this was a symptom not of the inert Indians of those days, but of a new age, a new race and a new stir. If these were murderers, then one must say that the bloody shadow of killing had not fallen across their nature, in which there was nothing at all of cruelty, recklessness or bestiality. Without worrying in the least about the future or the outcome of the trial they passed their days in the prison with boyish fun, laughter, games, reading and in discussions. Quiet early they had made friends with every one, with officers, the sentries, convicts, European sergeants, detectives, court officials and without distinguishing between friends and foes, the high and the low, had started to tell stories and jokes. They found the time spent in the court-room quite tireseome, for in that farce of a trial there was very little that was enjoyable. They had no books with which to beguile the time, and talking was forbidden. Those of them who had started doing yoga, and who hadn't so far learnt how to concentrate while in a crowd, for them passing the time became difficult. At first some of them began to bring books with them, this was soon followed by others. Later on one could see strange spectacle: while the trial was going on, and fate of thirty ot forty accused persons was wrangled over, whose result might be hanging or tranportation for life, some of these accused persons without as much as glancing at what was happening around them, were absorbed in reading the novels of Bankimchandra, Vivekananda's Rajayoga or Science of Religions, or the Gita, the Puranas or Eastern Philosophy. Neither the English sergeants nor the English policemen objected to this. They must have thought that if this keeps the caged tigers peaceful, that only lightens our duty.


From "Prison and Freedom"


In the modern times we have arrived at a point of transition between the new and the old. Man is ever moving forward to his goal, from time to time one has to leave the plains and ascend the heights, and it is during these periods of ascent that revolutions occur in the state, society, religion as well as in the intellectual spheres. In the present times there is a preparation, if nothing else, to move towards the subtle from the physical. Because of the minute examination and finding of the laws of the physical universe by the western scientists, the soulying plains surrounding the upward Way have been cleared. The knowers of the West are taking their first step in the vast, inner worlds and many are tempted by the hope of conquest. Apart from this there are other visible signs - such as the quick spread of Theosophy, the welcome given to Vedanta in America, the partial and indirect influence of India in western philosophy and modes of thinking. But the most remarkable sign is the sudden and unexpected emergence of India. By claiming the role of world teacher, the Indians are raising to inaugurate a new age. If the Westerners are deprived of the help from India they will not be able to succeed in their progress. Just as in the cultivation of the supreme means to the flowering of inner life no country had excelled India in the knowledge of Brahman or Self (tattvajnana), and yoga, similarly the purification of nature, control over the senses, the power of Brahman realisation, the energy born of askesis, tapasya, and the lesson of non-attached activity as yoga, these two are India's very own. To acquire, by ignoring outward joys and sorrows, the inner freedom is possible only for the Indian, the Indian alone is capable of undertaking activity in the spirit of non-attachment, while the sacrifice of ego and indifference in action are acknowledged as the highest aim of her education and culture and are the seed of her national character.

The truth of this view I first realised in the Alipore jail. Those who live there are usually thieves and robbers, murderers. Though we were forbidden to speak with the convicts, in practice this rule was not strictly observed. [...] Those who were arrested with me for the same offence, they too have been described in such unspeakable terms and the most heartless murderers. If there is my place where the Indian character may be looked upon with the eyes of contempt, if it possible to see it at its worst, lowest and most hateful state, Alipore jail is that place , imprisonment at Alipore is that inferior and degenerate state. In such a place I spent twelve months like this. Thanks to my experience of these twelve months I have been able to return to the world of action with tenfold hope, with a fixed notion about Indian superiority, with redoubled respect for human character, the future progress and well-being of the motherland and the human race. This is not due to my inherent optimism or excessive trust. Srijut Bipinchandra Pal had felt the same way in the Buxar jail; in the Alipore Jail Dr. Daly who had served here earlier, supported this view. Dr. Daly was a generous and wise person, experienced in the ways of men, the worst elements of human nature were presented to him every day, yet he used to tell me: "The more I see and hear of Indian gentlemen or the poor folk, men who are distinguished in society or the convicts in a prison, I am convinced that in quality and character you are superior to us. Looking at these lads has further confirmed me in my judgement. Who can judge from their behaviour, character and other high qualities that they are anarchists or assassins? Instead of finding in them cruelty, wildness, restlessness or impropriety, I find the opposite virtues." Of course thieves and robbers do not turn into holy men while they are serving a term in prison. The British prison is not a place for reform character; on the contrary, for the ordinary convict it is but an instrument for the degradation of character and manhood. They remain the thieves and robbers they had been before being sent to the gaol. [...] But what of that? The humanity of the Indian survives every loss. Fallen because of social abuses, crushed out because of loss of humanity, on the outside are the distortions of dark dubious and shameful emotions, yet within, the nearly vanished humanity seems to save itself in hiding, thanks to the inborn virtue of Indians, it expresses itself time and again in speech and act. Those who having seen the filth outside, turn away their face in contempt, only they can fail to say that they failed to find in them the least trace of humanity. But one who has given up the pride of holiness and looks at them with one's own natural clear vision will never agree to such a view. After six months of imprisonment in the Buxar jail Srijut Bipinchandra Pal had seen God among the thieves and robbers, which he had openly confessed in an Uttarpara meeting. In the Alipore jail itself I too could realise this fundamental truth of Hinduism for the first time among the thieves robbers and killers, in the human body I could realise the Divine Presence.


Let me speak of an innocent person at Alipore. As an accused in a dacoity case he has been sentenced to ten years' rigorous imprisonment. A cowherd by profession, uneducated, without anything to do with reading or writing, his only support was his faith in God and patience worthy of an Aryan and other noble qualities. Faced with this old man's attitude towards life my pride of learning and forbearance was completely shattered. There was a serene and simple friendliness written in the old man's eyes, his talk was always full of amiability and friendliness. At times he would speak of his sufferings, even though he was innocent of the charges, and speak of his wife and children, he even wondered when God would bring him release so that he could meet them, but never did I find him depressed or restless. Waiting for God's Grace, he spent his days quietly doing his duties in the prison. His efforts and thoughts were not concerned about himself, but about the well-being of the others. His sense of kindness and sympathy for the unfortunate frequently came out in his speech, serving others was the law of his being. The noble qualities were further set off by his humility. Knowing that he had a heart thousand times nobler than mine, I would feel ashamed at his humility; to have to accept the old man's services embarrassed me, but he would not be held back so easily. He was all the time anxious about my comfort. As with me, so with the others, his kindly attention and humble service and respect seemed to be much greater especially for the innocent and miserable ones. Yet on his face and in his conduct there glowed a natural serene gravity and majesty. He had a great love for the country too. I shall always remember the white-whiskered serene visage of this old convict full of kindness and generosity. Even in these days of decline among the Indian peasantry - whom we describe as uneducated, "small people", chhotolok - may be found such representatives of Indian race. India's future is hopeful only because of this. The educated youth and the unlettered peasantry, the future of India lies with these two classes. The future Aryan race will be a blend of the two.

[…] Let me speak of two educated young men. These were the two Kavirajs of Harrison Road, Nagendranath and Dharani. The manner in which quietly and contentedly they too suffered this sudden mishap, this unjust punishment was astounding. I could never find in them the slightest anger or censure or annoyance over those for whose fault they had to pass their youth in hellish prison. [...] Both brothers were Sadhaks but their natures were different.
Nagendra was steady, grave, intelligent. He was very fond of godly conversation and religious topics. [...] [when he asked] for the Gita he had been given the Bible instead. In the witness box he would tell me of his feelings on reading the Bible. Nagendra hadn't read the Gita but I noticed to my surprise that, instead of speaking about the Bible, he was expressing the inner sense of the Gita's verses [...] Without reading the Gita, to be able to realise in the Bible the spirit of equality, renunciation of the desire for the fruit, to see the Divine in all things, etc., is the index of a not negligible inner life or spiritual capacity.
Dharani is not as intelligent as Nagendra, but he was obedient and tender by nature, temperamentally a devotee. He was always wrapt up in the idea of divine Motherhood, and looking at the Grace that shone on his face his innocent laughter and gentle devotional attitude it was hard to realise that we were confined to the jail. [...]

They are both innocent [...], they had been able to reject the supremacy of external joys and sorrows and succeeded in preserving the freedom of their inner life. But the virtues of the national character came out even among the real offenders. [...] I stayed in Alipore for 12 months, and excepting one or two [...] we received from all and sundry good behaviour. Rather it was in among those spoilt by modern education that these qualities seemed to be lacking. Modern education may have many virtues to recommend itself, but civility and selfless service form no part of these. The kindness and sympathy that are such valuable elements of Aryan education, I found even among the thieves and robbers. [...] A Mohameddan convict used to love the accused like his own children and at the time of parting he could not restrain himself from shedding tears. Pointing out their suffering and humiliation as the price of patriotism he would tell others and express his sorrow by saying, "Look these are gentlemen, sons of the rich, but they suffer here because they have tried to help the poor and distressed." Those who vaunt about western culture, I would like to ask them: Is this self-control, charity, generosity, gratitude, godly love for others to be found among the lower order of criminals, the thieves and robbers of England? In fact Europe is the land of enjoyment, India of sacrifice. The Gita describes two kinds of creatures - deva and asura. The Indian is intrinsically of the deva kind, the western of the asura. But in this age of deep darkness (ghor kali) because of the disappearance of Aryan education due to the predominance of tamas [= inertia], in our national decline, we are acquiring the inferior qualities of the asura while the Westerners, because of the national progress and growth of manhood are acquiring the qualities of the deva. But in spite of this, in their deva qualities something of the asura, and in our asuric qualities something of the deva can be imperfectly glimpsed. The cream among them also cannot wholly get rid of the asuric qualities. When one compares the inferior specimens of both the cultures, the truth comes out quite strikingly.

Sri Aurobindo

in SABCL, Volume 4 Writings in Bengali "Stories of Jail Life" & "Prison and Freedom"

published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Pondicherry
diffusion by SABDA

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