Although Pondicherry is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s arrival in the former French Establishment, the Bengali seer‘s highest ideals and vision remain today virtually unknown in India.
August 15, 1947, the day India obtained her independence, coincided with Sri Aurobindo’s 75th birthday. It was a ‘justice of history’ for someone who had tirelessly worked for this momentous event. It was on that day that the Sage of Pondicherry wrote about his five dreams.
The first was that India be united again.
Will the present divisions disappear one day? If yes, what will be the cost? Nobody can answer this.
The second was to see the “resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia”.
This is certainly happening fast.
The third dream was of a “world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind.”
Many new groupings such the European Union, the ASEAN or more recently the BRIC are slowly taking shape.
The fourth dream was a ‘spiritual gift of India to the world’.
One only has to go to a bookshop in the West or look at the number of works on yoga, dharma, etc. to see that something of this has already been achieved.
The fifth and final dream was a new “step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society”.
This is probably the only relevant adventure in the world today.
Some of these visions, particularly the last one, may take some time to materialise, although all of them are en route. As Sri Aurobindo once wrote to a disciple, solvitur ambulando: it is in walking that the problems get solved.
Sri Aurobindo had another dream directly linked to Pondicherry. This was to have a large French University there.
Today, this dream seems to have conveniently been forgotten by all.
On September 27, 1947, the recluse granted an audience to Mr. Maurice Schumann, the Special Envoy of the French Prime Minister, Mr. Ramadier.
“Sri Aurobindo, the most powerful Indian thinker, interrupted his confinement which started 21 years ago to receive Governor Baron and Mr. Maurice Schumann” reported AFP. “Now 75 year-old, Sri Aurobindo took part in the first revolutionary national… then took refuge at Chandernagore and later in Pondicherry in 1926  where he began to live a ‘mystic’ life. …Once only, 19 years ago, Sri Aurobindo interrupted his confinement to talk with the poet Rabindranath Tagore. He had with Governor Baron and Mr. Schumann a 45 minute-meeting, during which he declared: ‘France, after India is the country for which I have the most fondness and respect.’ ”
Sri Aurobindo assured Schumann of ‘his full support’ for a University “as a permanent meeting place between France and India.” Earlier, in May 1947, the topic had already come up at the highest level when Governor FranÃ§ois Baron and Henri Roux, the French ChargÃ© d’Affaires in Delhi had met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss the future relations between France and the soon-to-be dominion. (Pondicherry finally acceded to the Union of India in 1954)
Baron’s proposal, which he felt could speed up the resolution of the problem of French settlements, was: the French would quit the territory, but would leave behind an important university where French culture would have a predominant place. According to the minutes of the meeting, “The Governor spoke about the French Government’s desire to develop cultural institutions in Pondicherry and a kind of a university. The idea was that this university should serve India by bringing French culture to the French [nationals].” It was obviously not for French nationals alone, but also Indian (and foreign) students who would benefit from the scheme.
Apparently Nehru was a bit reluctant; the British Consul General in Pondicherry had warned Delhi that it was a French trick to keep a foothold in the subcontinent.
Soon after Sri Aurobindo’s departure in December 1950, several eminent Indians decided to create an institution to promote Sri Aurobindo’s vision and work. Amongst them were Union ministers such as Dr. K.M. Munshi, who had been a student of Sri Aurobindo during his Baroda’s days and several chief ministers — Pt. G. B. Pant (Uttar Pradesh), M.K. Vellodi (Hyderabad), N.K. Chaudhuri (Orissa) and Dr Gopichand Bhargava (Punjab). It was finally decided to organise a Memorial Convention in Pondicherry under the Chairmanship of Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.
In April 1951, the latter addressed a letter to The Mother describing in detail the objectives of the Sri Aurobindo Memorial Committee. He spoke of: “[the] general desire to do what we can to help in the continuation of the work started by Sri Aurobindo. …We felt that the best memorial would be to establish an International University at Pondicherry which would be an embodiment of all the special features of Sri Aurobindo’s life and achievement”.
Probably due to the political situation in the French Settlement, the ‘French university’ had become an ‘International university’.
The Convention of the Sri Aurobindo Memorial was held on April 24 and 25, 1951. Several resolutions, including one about the setting up of a university, were passed. Unfortunately, there was no longer any question of the French government’s participation or even keeping a special place for French culture.
The foundations of the University were laid after Dr. Munshi visited the Ashram in March 1952. He then wrote to Nehru, who remained skeptical, replying: “So far as the university centre is concerned, a number of prominent men in India have commended it, but I have failed to find out under whose auspices it will run and who will be responsible for it.”
Eventually, a ‘University’ was set up within the Ashram. It was called the “Sri Aurobindo International University Centre” (today the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education). For political reasons (Pondicherry was still a French colony), the French official component of the Center was put aside, though it had French as the main language of dissemination. Today, even French diplomats admit that the center has done a great job for the propagation of the French language in India.
At a time when rumours circulate that the Pondicherry Central University will soon have a new Center for Kashmiri Studies, Sri Aurobindo’s vision is yet to be fulfilled.
It would greatly benefit India and France to have hundreds of students graduating every year with French as their first language. With many new French enterprises setting up shop in India (and more will come soon when they begin to abandon China’s shores), the students would certainly have great employment chances.
While the modalities would have to be worked out by the French and Indian authorities; it could be something like a joint venture with a strong state backing. This is something the Indian and local Government could to pay concrete homage to Sri Aurobindo. Garlanding statues is not enough.
And why not ask President Sarkozy to lay a foundation stone during his forthcoming visit to India? It would be a fair way for France to repay the debt accrued by 200 years of colonization of its settlements in India, during which little was invested in education.
Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.
Also see: Partition, Aurobindo, and the truth