Editor’s note: In this Bengali writing, Sri Aurobindo speaks of the kindness, generosity, self-control, charity and other noble qualities that he witnessed among the thieves, robbers and other convicts during his twelve months in Alipore Jail. Titled originally as “Prison and Freedom”, the first part of the essay gives us a description of the inner freedom that marked the character and conduct of the prisoners.
Men as we are, we are mostly creatures of circumstance, confined to the sensations of the outer world. Our mental activities depend upon such external sensations, even our reason is unable to go beyond the limits of the material; and the joys and sorrows of life are but echoes of outward events. This slavery is due to the domination of the body. In the Upanishad it has been said,
“The self-born has set the doors of the body outwards, therefore the soul of a man gazes outward and not at the self within; hardly a wise man here and there, desiring immortality turns his eye inward and sees the Self within him.”
Normally, the outward, physical eyes with which we observe the life of man, in that kind of seeing the body is our chief support. However much we may call the Europeans materialists, in fact all men are materialists. The body is an instrument for the fulfilment of religious life, a chariot with many horses to pull it, the body-chariot on which we ride across the ways of the world.
But, admitting the false importance of the body we give such a prominence to the physical mind that we find ourselves wholly entangled by outward activity and superficial good and evil.
The result of such ignorance is life-long slavery and subordination. Joys and sorrows, good and evil, affluence and danger, compel us to mould our mental states in their own terms, and we too float along the waves of desire to which we give our thoughts.
Greedy of enjoyment and afraid of sorrow we come to depend on others, and receiving our joy and sorrow from others, we suffer endless misery and humiliation. Because, be it man or nature, whoever or whatever is able to exercise control over our body, or can bring it within the field of its own forces, we have to submit to that influence. Its extreme example is to fall into the hands of enemies or the life of imprisonment.
But the person, who, surrounded by friends and boon companions, moves about freely, even his condition is just as wretched as of those who spend their days in prison. The body is the prison, the body-centred intelligence, the reasoning Ignorance is the enemy that imprisons.
This state of imprisonment is the perennial condition of man.
On the other hand, on every page of literature and history we find the irrepressible eagerness and enthusiasm on the part of the human race to gain freedom. As in the political and social spheres, so in the life of the individual in every age we find the same endeavour. Restraint, self-torture, indifference, stoicism. Epicureanism, asceticism, Vedanta Buddhism, Advaita, the doctrine of Maya, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Gita, the path of Knowledge, Devotion and Activity—the paths are many, the goal is the same. The aim is always—victory over the body, getting rid of the domination of the physical, the freedom of the inner life.
Western scientists have arrived at the conclusion that there is no world other than the physical, the subtle is based on the material, the subtle experiences are but reflections of the external experiences, man’s attempt to be free is in vain; the philosophy, religion and Vedanta are but unreal imaginings, and wholly limited by the physical reality as we are, the attempt to untie the knot or cross the limitations of our physical nature is an attempt doomed to fail.
But the longing to be free is lodged in such a deep layer of the human heart that a thousand arguments are helpless to uproot it.
Man can never remain content with the conclusions of the physical sciences. In all ages he has felt vaguely that the subtle elements capable of conquering the physical limits are definitely to be found in his own inner being, that there is an Inner Controller, a Person, for ever free and full of Delight, within him.
It is the object of religion to realise this state of eternal freedom and pure Delight. This object of religious seeking is also the object of evolution of which science speaks. Reason or its absence is not the real difference between man and animals. The animals have the power to judge, but in the animal body that power does not develop.
The real difference between man and animal lies elsewhere: a complete submission to the body is what constitutes the animal state, while in the conquest of the body and the effort at inner freedom lies man’s manhood!
This freedom is the chief goal of religion, this is what it calls mukti. It is for the sake of mukti that through knowledge we try to find out the mental guide of the body and life who lives within, or through action-devotion try to surrender to it our body, mind and life. The central ethical injunction in the Gita—yogasthaḥ kuru karmāṇi—this freedom is the yoga of the Gita.
When the interior joys and sorrows, instead of depending on external good and evil, well-being and danger, become self-generated, self-propelled, self-bound, then the normal human condition is reversed, and the outer life can be modelled on the inner, the bondage of action slackens.
The ideal person of the Gita renounces the desire for the fruit of action and practises active renunciation in the supreme Person, Purushottama. He is “duḥkheṣvanudvignamanāḥ sukheṣu vigataspṛhaḥ”; attaining an inner freedom he enjoys self-delight and self-control.
Unlike the normal human individual he does not seek any external refuge out of fear or sorrow born of greed for pleasure, he does not accept his joys and sorrows from others and yet is free of the bondage of action. Rather in the battle between Gods and Titans, it is the man, sent by God, greatly controlled, a mightily puissant protagonist, beyond anger and fear, he the man of yogic action who helps to usher in a political or religious revolution, or by preserving the established state and religious order, fulfills in a non-attached spirit God’s own work; he is the superior person of whom the Gita speaks.
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 western scientists, the outlying plains surrounding the upward Way have been cleared. The knowers of the West are taking their first step in the Vast, inner worlds, 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 rising to inaugurate a new age. If the westerners are deprived of the help from India they will not be able to succeed in their efforts at progress.
Just as in the cultivation of the supreme means to the flowering of the inner life no country had excelled India in the Knowledge of Brahman or Self (tattvajñāna), and yoga, similarly the purification of the nature, control over the senses, the power of Brahman-realisation, the energy born of askesis, tapasyā, and the lesson of non-attached activity as yoga, these too are India’s very own. ‘
To acquire by ignoring the outward joys and sorrows the inner freedom is possible only for the Indian, the Indian alone is capable of undertaking activity in a 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, robbers, murderers. Though we were forbidden to speak with the convicts, in practice this rule was not strictly observed. Apart from that there were the cook, the waterman, the sweeper, the cleaner, with whom one could not help coming into contact, and many times we would speak freely with each other. Those who were arrested with me for the same offence, they too were described in such unspeakable adjectives as heartless murderers.
If there is any place where the Indian character has to be looked upon with eyes of contempt, if it is possible to see it at its worst, lowest and most hateful state, then 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 Bepinchandra 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 present 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 much 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 don’t turn into holy men while they are serving a term in prison. The British prison is not a place for reform of 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 that they had been before being sent to gaol; they continue to steal even in the prison, in the midst of the strict prohibitory rules they manage to indulge in addiction, continue to cheat. 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, shameful emotions, yet, within, the nearly vanished humanity seems to save itself in hiding, thanks to the inborn virtue of the Indians, it expresses itself time and again in their speech and act. Those who, having seen the filth outside, turn away their face in contempt, only they can say that they have 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 Bepinchandra 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.
In this country who knows how many hundreds of innocent people are undergoing hellish long-term imprisonment and working out the misdeeds of their past lives towards a heavenlier way ahead?
But see the average Westerner, who is not purified by religious emotions and is not of a godly nature; how these people fare in such tests, those who live in the western countries or are familiar with their literature expressive of western mentality and character can easily infer. In a similar situation either their tearful earthly hearts with their depressive anger and sorrow move towards hell’s murk and, because of the contagion of companions, adopt their cruelty and low ways, else, because of the extreme pressure of weaknesses, lose strength and reasoning power so that what survives is only a remnant of humanity.
Let me speak of an innocent person at Alipore. As an accused in a dacoity case he had been sentenced to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment. A cowherd by profession, un-educated, 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. All his efforts and thoughts were not concerned about himself, but about the well-being of others. His sense of kindness and sympathy for the sorrowing 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 embraced 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 the 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.
I have spoken about an uneducated peasant. Let me now 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 a hellish prison.
They were devoid of the glory of modern education, a knowledge of western languages and familiarity with western learning. The mother-tongue was their only stay, but among the English-educated group I have found few men of comparable calibre. Instead of complaining to either man or God, both of them had accepted the punishment with a smile.
Both brothers were sādhaks but their natures were different.
Nagendra was steady, grave, intelligent. He was very fond of godly conversation and religious topics. When we had been kept in solitary confinement the jail authorities had permitted us, at the end of the day’s labour, to read books. Nagendra who had asked for the Gita 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 with surprise that instead of speaking about the Bible he was expressing the inner sense of the Gita’s verse—once in a while it even appeared as if the sublime and divine statements of Krishna at Kurukshetra were coming out of the same lotus lips of Vasudeva in the Alipore dock. Without reading the Gita to be able to realise in the Bible the spirit of equality, renunciation of the desire for fruit, to see the Divine in all things, etc., is the index of a not negligible inner life or spiritual capacity, sādhanā.
Dharani was not as intelligent as Nagendra, but he was obedient and tender by nature, temperamentally a devotee. He was always wrapped 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 in a jail. Knowing these men, who can say that the Bengali is low and despicable? This power, this manhood, this sacred fire is only hidden amidst the ashes.
They were both innocent. Imprisoned without any fault of their own, by their own qualities or by virtue of their training 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 twelve months, and excepting one or two all the convicts, the thieves, the dacoits and the murderers with whom we had come in contact, we received from all and sundry good behaviour and helpfulness. Rather it was 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 an Aryan education, I found that even among the thieves and robbers.
The sweeper, the cleaner, the waterman, they all had to share, for no fault of their own, part of the misery and hardship of our solitary confinement, but they never expressed to us their anger or annoyance on that score. At times they ventilated their distress before the native jailors, but they would also cheerfully pray for our release from detention.
A Mohammedan convict used to love the accused like his own children and at the time of parting he could not restrain 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, and this their suffering is because they have tried to help the poor and the 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 inertia, in our national decline, we are acquiring the inferior qualities of the asura while the westerners, because of their national progress and the evolution 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. Among them those who are the cream, even they cannot wholly get rid of the asuric qualities. When one compares the inferior specimens of both cultures, the truth comes out quite strikingly.
. . . those persons in whose bearing I have seen this inner freedom, while I was in the prison, they are the prototypes of the godward emotions, devabhāva. . .
Read another Bengali Writing of Sri Aurobindo:
Humility, Nobility and the Aryan Character
- Fixed in yoga do thy actions. Gita, II, 48. ↩
- He whose mind is undisturbed in the midst of sorrows and amid pleasures is free from desires. Gita, II, 56. ↩
- Thinking that the police had come to know of the bombs Ullaskar, one of the conspirators, had removed a packet containing bombs to his friend Nagendranath’s house, who did not know anything about its content. Later, to save his friend, Ullaskar gave a true confession. But the police did not release the brothers. ↩
~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 9
~ Design: Beloo Mehra