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A Comparison Between Subhas Chandra Bose and Sri AurobindoFrançois Gautier

François Gautier

There are many similarities between two extraordinary historical figures of India’s Independence movement: the great yogi and philosopher Sri Aurobindo & nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose. Yet, at some point, they went their separate ways and ended up deeply disagreeing with each other. Why? This piece will enlighten you…


Both were born in Bengali families, Subhas in 1887 in Orissa (then Bengal),  and Sri Aurobindo in 1872, also in West Bengal. Both came from relatively wealthy families: Subhas was a son of a successful lawyer and Sri Aurobindo’s father Dhun Ghose was an assistant surgeon and later a civil surgeon in Bengal. Both fathers were enamored of the British way of life: Subhas was sent to a Baptist mission protestant European school in Cuttack, where English was the official medium of language; Sri Aurobindo’s father put him in Loreto House boarding school in Darjeeling, where English was the sole medium. Both the mothers had a tough life: Prabhavati who died in 1943 had 14 children! Sri Aurobindo’s mother Swarnalotta Devi lost her mind early and died in 1907, without having recognized her son. Both children were sent later to England:  Subhas travelled to Great Britain in 1919; and Sri Aurobindo went to Manchester Grammar School and later to Cambridge. Both appeared in the Indian Civil Service exam, Shubas in 1919 and Sri Aurobindo in 1887. Both failed to appear in the final test, because they had reserves about working for the British and both failed on the Civil Service horse-riding exam, which was then compulsory.  Both shared the same passion for the Bhagavad Gita, which they thought, should be the inspiration, not only for the Indian independent struggle, but also a guide for a universal, harmonious humanity. Subhas Chandra admired greatly Sri Aurobindo about whom he said “in my undergraduate days, Sri Aurobindo was easily the most popular leader in Bengal… His was a name to conjure with. He had sacrificed a lucrative carrier and had become a fearless advocate of independence at the time when most of the congress leaders would talk only of colonial self government “. And Sri Aurobindo spoke in his early revolutionary days of Shubas as ‘a fearless leader’.



The two of them were also ardent nationalists: Subhas met Mahatma Gandhi in July 1921 and took charge of media and publicity for the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee; Sri Aurobindo, though he worked for sometime under the Maharaja of Baroda, started newspapers that preached independence from the British and joined the Congress’ non corporation and passive resistance. The two young men also got got fed up with the mild Congress opposition to the British, preached by Mahatma Gandhi and quickly turned in to extremists. Bose attracted many idealistic youngsters, as they became leaders of nationalist politics. Sri Aurobindo, along with Tilak, split the Congress in 1908 and became the leader of what was called the Extremist Group.  Both eventually advocated the use of force against the British: Sri Aurobindo allowed his brother Barin, to manufacture revolver and bombs in their father’s ancestral house in the suburbs of Calcutta; and Subash, as we will see later, formed his own army.


Subhas Chandra Bose and Sri Aurobindo both went to jail: Bose in 1925, when he was leading a protest in Calcutta; and Sri Aurobindo in 1908 on the suspicion that he was connected to the Alipore bomb case. After being released from jail, they both went back to working for the Congress. Chandra Bose became the general secretary of the party, with Jawaharlal Nehru.  Sri Aurobindo turned back to writing against the British and toured India, his most famous speech happened in Uttarpara, then West Bengal, where for the first time he spoke about his yoga “India doesn’t rise as other countries do, for herself to be strong and trample over the weak. She is rising to shed over the world the eternal light entrusted to her. India has always existed for humanity and not for herself and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be great”. Meanwhile, Bose organized a paramilitary cops in uniform, to the dislike of Mahatma Gandhi who despised any form of violence.


This is where the similarity between Bose and Sri Aurobindo started parting ways : Sri Aurobindo, hearing that he was again going to be arrested, received an adesh, a divine comment, that he should go to Pondicherry to continue his yoga; Bose travelled to Europe, where he met Benito Mussolini, who was then the champion of fascism in Europe, along with Hitler. It is then that Bose decided that he would form an army along the lines of the Italian one. Sri Aurobindo, now in Pondicherry, dedicated himself entirely to his yoga and to write a monthly philosophical magazine, called the Arya, out of which would come out his most famous philosophical books: Life Divine, Synthesis of Yoga or the Foundations of Indian Culture.


The Second World War proved to be the definite dividing point between the two leaders. Sri Aurobindo felt that Hitler was an Asura, a being manipulated by hostile forces and that he must be fought, as otherwise, his victory and the conquest of the world, would mean the end of the present cycle of humanity. Bose escaped from house arrest in Kolkata to Nazi Germany, where he became part of the German setup, heading the newly created special bureau for India. He formed a battalion of about 5000 Indian soldiers, called the Indian Legion, which was later attached to the dreaded Waffen SS. It’s members had to swear an allegiance, not only to Bose but also to Hitler. Bose met Hitler later, but the Germans felt he was not as popular as Mahatma Gandhi or Nehru, so bumped him to the Japanese. Meanwhile, around Sri Aurobindo, who had gone deeper and deeper in his yoga, an ashram began to form. Sri Aurobindo had ceased any political activity, although he kept a keen interest in the World events and used his inner power to influence them.


Subhas Chandra Bose was then transferred from a German submarine to a Japanese one and began forming another liberation army in Japan. They fought along the Japanese, particularly in Burma and were on the verge of reaching India at the Manipur borders. This is what Sri Aurobindo wrote then to a disciple: “the Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual companion) and I are very angry against Subhas for having brought the Japanese into India and reproach him with it as a treason and crime against the Motherland”. Bose managed to establish in the Andaman and Nicobar Island a provisional Indian government, but the Japanese remained the masters and didn’t allow him much leeway. Meanwhile, Sri Aurobindo was as critical as ever at Subhas, calling him “desperate and leading India towards doom”.


We will never know what would have happened if Subhas had survived his aircraft crash on 18th August 1945, but already many of his troops had surrendered to the British and the rest retreated towards Malaysia. There have been controversies whether he really died or escaped, but we found a number of testimonies of his being badly burned and later dying in hospital. Sri Aurobindo survived him for five years and his immense spiritual, philosophical, political and poetic work remain behind and are an inspiration today all over the World. His Pondicherry ashram, as well as the international city of Auroville, stand as a testimony to his enduring influence.


There is no doubt that both men were exceptional beings, ardent nationalists, and selfless workers. We know today what monster Hitler was, having murdered in cold blood six million Jews just because they did not belong to the so called ‘Aryan race’, invading Europe and Russia and killing millions of human beings. Bose allying with both the Nazis and the Japanese was a grievous mistake and Sri Aurobindo rightly condemned it. Both men believed that violence against the enemy or against adharma was justified, but Sri Aurobindo emphasized that one could, as a yogi does, decide from moment to moment, who the most dangerous enemy was. And for him, though he fought the British for a long time, he had decided that the free World should unite against Hitler and the Japanese thirst for hegemony. Subhas estimated that any means was justified to fight the English colonizer and there he may have committed a grievous mistake.

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