With the 150th birth anniversary of the philosopher providing a fitting backdrop, Kavita Kishore explores the threads that link him to Puducherry

In a small stall off the beach, a potter is giving finishing touches to a sculpture he is making for the 150 birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda even as several schools and colleges conducted functions to celebrate the occasion.

Although many people across Puducherry celebrated the event, few of them are aware of Swami Vivekananda’s connections to the town.

When Swami Vivekananda travelled from Kanyakumari to Chennai, it is said that he stopped in Puducherry for a few days. According to popular belief, he is said to have stayed in the house on Vysial Street that Sri Aurobindo and Subramania Bharathiyar occupied when they first came to the town.

According to Joint Secretary of the Ramakrishna Seva Sangam in Puducherry, Mr. Swaminathan, despite several people claiming that Swami Vivekananda stayed in that particular house, there is no documentary evidence. The Sangam is doing its best to find evidence. They have explored the Aurobindo Ashram Library and other archives to no avail. They were now planning to look in the National Archives.

There was also a Ramakrishna Vasaga Salai in Puducherry, which was possibly in existence before 1940. Although there were some photographs that depicted the place, it was hard to locate any other evidence, he said.

Swami Vivekananda, however, had a deep connection with the town through Shri Aurobindo.

Inspiration to Aurobindo

According to Aurobindonian Scholar, Prema Nandakumar, since Swami Vivekananda and Shri Aurobindo were born only nine years apart, they were almost contemporaries. Swami Vivekananda was the inspiration for the Vande Mataram movement that a young Shri Aurobindo and several of his contemporaries participated in. When Shri Aurobindo was imprisoned in Alipore Jail from 1908 to 1909 in the Alipur Bomb Case, he read the Bhagavat Gita and other spiritual books to gain higher consciousness. It was then that Swami Vivekananda played a role in his achievement of spirituality, she said.

Later on, Shri Aurobindo went on record in the book On Himself, which can be obtained from the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library: “It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence…The voice spoke only on a special and limited, but very important, field of spiritual experience and it ceased as soon as it had finished saying all that it had to say on that subject”.

K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, in his book Sri Aurobindo:  A Biography and a History (1985 edition), quotes Sri Aurobindo as saying, “He (Vivekananda) visited me for 15 days in Alipore Jail and, until I could grasp the whole thing, he went on teaching me and impressed upon my mind the working of the Higher Consciousness - the Truth-consciousness in general - which leads towards the Supermind.” 

Vivekananda’s influence was felt all over India at the time, especially in Bengal. So, it is not surprising that he played a role in Sri Aurobindo’s rise to spirituality as well. In a letter to Motilal Roy, also from the Birth Centenary Library, Sri Aurobindo says, “Remember also that we derive from Ramakrishna. For myself, it was Ramakrishna who personally came and first turned me to this yoga. Vivekananda in the Alipore Jail gave me the foundations of that knowledge which is the basis of our sadhana”.

Although the route that Swami Vivekananda’s spirituality took was different from that of Sri Aurobindo, there are some similarities between their philosophies, including the importance given to Indian culture, the dedication to social service and education and tolerance of all religions, said Ms. Nandakumar.

Installation of carving

In order to preserve the connection between Swami Vivekananda and Puducherry, the Ramakrishna Seva Sangam was planning to install a carving of him to celebrate his 150 birth anniversary, Mr. Swaminathan said.