A Very Modern Guru – Excerpts from Nirodbaran’s Talks

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Editor’s note:  In the introductory chapter of his two-volume book ‘Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo’ Nirodbaran refers to Sri Aurobindo as a modern Guru for the modern age. What does he mean by that? Let’s find out.

On December 17, 1969, during a talk delivered at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) Nirodbaran read out some excerpts from ‘Correspondence’ to pay homage to Sri Aurobindo, the ‘very modern Guru.’ This and all his other talks delivered at SAICE have been compiled and published in a book form. We bring for our readers a selection from the aforementioned talk, excerpted from the book – “Talks by Nirodbaran at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education” edited by Ranganath R. and Sudha, Helios Books, 2012, pp. 277-281.

The modern age has produced a modern Guru who could deal with each sadhak according to his nature. When I asked from what perennial fount flowed so much laughter, his cryptic answer was the Upanishadic “রসো বৈ সঃ” (raso vai sah: Verily He is Delight).

In the whole of spiritual history I know of no Guru-Shishya relationship in which the Guru of venerable age and vast learning has given such unlimited liberty to the disciple, so that I could challenge his Karmayoga doctrine, refuse to accept his own example as having any validity for common people like us, carry on a long-drawn out argument on Homeopathy vs. Allopathy, etc., etc.

In all the exchanges what was remarkable was his calm and cool temper, yogic samata, inexhaustible patience and above all his sunny humour pervading the entire correspondence. At times, he asked to be excused for the bantering tone he could not resist when his own Karmayoga based on experience was tilted at.

Very freely he used swear-words for the sake of fun or perhaps to shock the puritan temper. I was occasionally on the perilous brink of irreverence. When people complained of it, he replied, “I return the compliment—I mean, reply without restraint, decorum or the right grave rhythm. That is why I indulge so freely in brackets.”

As regards subject matter he gave me a wide field to range over. Supermind, literature, art, religion, spirituality, Avatarhood, love, women, marriage, medical matters, sex-gland, any topical question, such as goat-sacrifice at Kalighat, Bengal political atrocities, sectarian fanaticism, hunger-strike, India’s freedom, etc., etc. were my rich pabulum.

I need not labour the point that in the process emeralds and lapis-lazulis of rare value were the reward extracted from his supramental quarry, though at the cost of being dubbed a “wooden head” and many other complimentary epithets. Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Napoleon, Virgil, Shaw, Joyce, Hitler, Mussolini, Negus, Spanish Civil War, General Miaja, romping in, oh, the world-theatre seen at a glance exhibiting many-coloured movements for the eye’s, the ear’s and the soul’s rejoicing. (Introduction, Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, p. xi)

Sri Aurobindo, painting by his brother Barindra Ghosh

[Reading from the ‘Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo’]:

The history of this correspondence dates back to the early thirties, 1933 to be exact, when I made the Ashram my permanent home… Sri Aurobindo explained to me in this letter how the outer life can be made a field of yoga and how work done as a part of Karmayoga, with the right attitude, can be a very good training for the completely yogic life. But very little of this advice was put into practice: the flicker of light kindled in the Ashram got enveloped by the darkness of the world around…


One day, when my notebook came back from Sri Aurobindo, I began to read what he had written, when to my utter bewilderment I came across the sentence, “Well, sir, do you understand now?” I was so taken aback that I could not believe my eyes. “Is this a joke or a slip of the pen?” I asked myself, for I did not remember his having addressed anybody as “sir”!

By the way, somebody who is not familiar with these English terms told me, sometime ago, “Sri Aurobindo respects you very much.” (Laughter) So there you are.

How great was the thrill when I saw pages filled with a fine close handwriting, though written at a tremendous speed! “Oh, how much he has written!” would be the first thought… not what He has written. (Laughter)

And the contents used to be indeed a feast for the gods, though I must say it was for him a god’s labour to answer to so many letters and note-books in one single night… Friends wondered how I dared to take such an extraordinary liberty with Sri Aurobindo; to some it even appeared sacrilegious. They often asked me, “Don’t you tremble with fear when you face him during Darshan?” Fear? Where was the question of fear when his face, his eyes would say ma bhaih, his lips parted in a sweet smile and his whole body bending in love and sweetness to bless the head lying at his feet?

I remember clearly the scene.

He had a rose in his hand; somebody had offered it to him. He was dangling his rose like this when I approached, a sweet smile was there. I bowed, simply bent down like that [re-enacting the gesture]. I came away after doing pranam to the Mother. I don’t know, people who were behind me, told me afterwards “Just when you left, Sri Aurobindo was looking at the Mother like this.” [re-enacting this gesture too] (Laughter)

…the temptation to draw Sri Aurobindo out was so irresistible that we did not much weigh the wisdom of our queries…

Some of you have heard about how I had once made a very insolent remark: “I don’t understand how you’ve lived dangerously when you had a fat salary;” so that was the silly, insolent, stupid question I posed to him, and you may remember the reply. It is very tempting to read out this letter to you (Laughter), and for some of you it will be quite new…Yes, here it is! [Reading from Correspondence]:

[Nirodbaran]: You wrote the other day that you had lived dangerously. I don’t understand how you’ve lived dangerously when you had a fat salary…”

[Sri Aurobindo:] There is a coward in every human being – precisely the part in him which insists on ‘safety’— for that is certainly not a brave attitude. I admit however that I would like safety myself if I could have it – perhaps that is why I have always managed instead to live dangerously and follow the dangerous paths, dragging so many poor Nirods in my train.


[Nirodbaran]: All that we know is that you did not have enough money in England – also in Pondicherry in the beginning. In Baroda, you had a handsome pay, and, in Calcutta, you were quite well off.

[Sri Aurobindo:] I was so astonished by this succinct, complete and impeccably accurate biography of myself that I let myself go in answer! But I afterwards thought that it was no use living more dangerously than I am obliged to, so I rubbed it all out. My only answer now is !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, you see, twenty-six exclamation marks I saw exactly in my notebook: it’s still there. His original answer had been written in pencil, not in ink, and he’d rubbed it all out. I was simply stunned, wondering what have I done, what have I done. (Laughter) Lost so much, so much, really so much writing! He’d simply let himself go first in reply, I’m sure about it, but he rubbed it all out!

[Sri Aurobindo:] … Karl Marx himself could not have made a more economic world of it! But I wonder whether that was what Nietzsche meant by living dangerously?

[Nirodbaran:] (The next day I wrote) I am rather grieved to know that you rubbed off what you wrote, and that my attempts to draw you out have failed very narrowly! Everybody’s opinion is that nothing can be got out of you unless you are “pricked” (not my term) – so much of your life of which we know so little!

Sri Aurobindo here wrote in the margin: “Why the devil should you know anything about it?”

He is a very modern Guru.

He used expressions like “why the devil”, “damn it”, etc. (Laughter) Even “Subhan Allah!” I came across, the other day, in a letter. I learnt all this from him, and I swore in a letter, “By the Guru!” (Laughter) So he wrote back: “By the Guru! What kind of oath is this?”

Now, to continue with my reply to Sri Aurobindo’s letter about “living dangerously,”

[Nirodbaran:] …of course, I don’t mean that lack of money is the only danger one can be in. Living poorly seems to me to be akin to living dangerously, isn’t this mostly true?

Now note his style in the reply:

[Sri Aurobindo:] Not in the least. You are writing like Samuel Smiles. Poverty has never had any terrors for me, nor is it an incentive. You seem to forget that I left my very safe and ‘handsome’…

Handsome written within quotes, if you please!

[Sri Aurobindo:] …Baroda position without any need to it, and that I gave up also the Rs. 150 of the National College Principalship, leaving myself with nothing to live on. I could not have done that if money had been an incentive… If you don’t realise that starting and carrying on, for ten years and more, a revolutionary movement for independence, …

Mark you, revolutionary, not non-violent!

[Sri Aurobindo:] …without means and in a country wholly unprepared for it, …

Mark every word!

[Sri Aurobindo:] …meant living dangerously, no amount of puncturing of your skull with words…


[Sri Aurobindo:] …will give you that simple perception. And as to yoga, you yourself were perorating at the top of your voice about its awful, horrible, pathetic and tragic dangers, so…

The next day I wrote back:

[Nirodbaran:] I beg to submit my apologies. I committed this folly because of ignorance of facts. Believe me.

I’ve become a lamb. (Laughter)

[Nirodbaran:] I did not know that you were the brain behind the revolutionary movement, and its real leader, till I read the other day what Barin babu has written about you. Now I really know what is meant by the phrase “living dangerously.” Of course, I was not referring to anything about yoga or the inner life. But why put me to shame by dragging my poor self into it? My dangers don’t prove anything, do they?

[Sri Aurobindo:] Wait a sec. I have admitted nothing about Barin babu – only to having inspired and started and maintained, while I was in the field, a movement for independence…

So there you are!

~ Cover image: Rishabh Sharma

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