Aurobindo Ghose was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bengal Presidency, India on 15 August 1872 . His father, Krishna Dhun Ghose, was then Assistant Surgeon of Rangpur in Bengal, and a former member of the Brahmo Samaj religious reform movement who had become enamoured with the then-new idea of evolution while pursuing medical studies in Britain. His mother was Swarnalata Devi, whose father was Shri Rajnarayan Bose, a leading figure in the Samaj. She had been sent to the more salubrious surroundings of Calcutta for Aurobindo's birth. Aurobindo had two elder siblings, Benoybhusan and Manmohan, a younger sister, Sarojini, and a younger brother, Barindrakumar (also referred to as Barin).
Sri Aurobindo's close spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (b. Alfassa), came to be known as The Mother. She was a French national, born in Paris on 21 February 1878 (later she adopted Indian Nationality). In her 20s she studied occultism with Max Theon. Along with her husband, Paul Richard, she went to Pondicherry on 29 March 1914, and finally settled there in 1920. Sri Aurobindo considered her his spiritual equal and collaborator. After 24 November 1926, when Sri Aurobindo retired into seclusion, he left it to her to plan, build , guide and run the ashram, the community of disciples which had gathered around them. Some time later, when families with children joined the ashram, she established and supervised the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education with its experiments in the field of education. When he left his body in 1950, She continued their spiritual work, directed the ashram, and guided their disciples.
The boys were taught Latin by Drewett and his wife. This was a prerequisite for admission to good English schools and, after two years, in 1881, the elder two siblings were enrolled at Manchester Grammar School. Aurobindo was considered too young for enrolment and he continued his studies with the Drewetts, learning history, Latin, French, geography and arithmetic. Although the Drewetts were told not to teach religion, the boys inevitably were exposed to Christian teachings and events, which generally bored Aurobindo and sometimes repulsed him. There was little contact with his father, who wrote only a few letters to his sons while they were in England, but what communication there was indicated that he was becoming less endeared to the British in India than he had been, on one occasion describing the British Raj as a "heartless government".
Drewett emigrated to Australia in 1884, causing the boys to be uprooted as they went to live with Drewett's mother in London. In September of that year, Aurobindo and Manmohan joined St Paul's School there. He learned Greek and spent the last three years reading literature and English poetry. He also acquired some familiarity with the German and Italian languages and, exposed to the evangelical strictures of Drewett's mother, a distaste for religion. He considered himself at one point to be an atheist but later determined that he was agnostic. A blue plaque unveiled in 2007 commemorates Aurobindo's residence at 49 St Stephen's Avenue in Shepherd's Bush, London, from 1884 to 1887. The three brothers began living in spartan circumstances at the Liberal Club in South Kensington during 1887, their father having experienced some financial difficulties. The Club's secretary was James Cotton, brother of their father's friend in the Bengal ICS, Henry Cotton.
By 1889, Manmohan had determined to pursue a literary career and Benoybhusan had proved himself unequal to the standards necessary for ICS entrance. This meant that only Aurobindo might fulfil his father's aspirations but to do so when his father lacked money required that he studied hard for a scholarship. To become an ICS official, students were required to pass the competitive examination, as well as to study at an English university for two years under probation. Aurobindo secured a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge, under recommendation of Oscar Browning. He passed the written ICS examination after a few months, being ranked 11th out of 250 competitors. He spent the next two years at King's College. Aurobindo had no interest in the ICS and came late to the horse-riding practical exam purposefully to get himself disqualified for the Service.
In Baroda, Aurobindo joined the state Service in 1893, working first in the Survey and Settlements department, later moving to the Department of Revenue and then to the Secretariat, and much Miscellaneous work like teaching grammar and assisting in writing speeches for the Maharaja of Gaekwad until 1897. In 1897 during his work in Baroda he started working as a part-time French Teacher at Baroda College (now Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda). He was later promoted to the post of vice-principal. At Baroda, Aurobindo self-studied Sanskrit and Bengali.
In Bengal, with Barin's help, he established contacts with Revolutionaries, inspiring radicals such as Bagha Jatin or Jatin Mukherjee and Surendranath Tagore. He helped establish a series of youth clubs, including the Anushilan Samiti of Calcutta in 1902.
Aurobindo attended the 1906 Congress meeting headed by Dadabhai Naoroji and participated as a councillor in forming the fourfold objectives of "Swaraj, Swadesh, Boycott and national education". In 1907 at the Surat session of Congress where moderates and extremists had a major showdown, he led with extremists along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The Congress split after this session. In 1907–1908 Aurobindo travelled extensively to Pune, Bombay and Baroda to firm up support for the nationalist cause, giving speeches and meeting with groups. He was arrested again in May 1908 in connection with the Alipore Bomb Case. He was acquitted in the ensuing trial, following the murder of chief prosecution witness Naren Gosain within jail premises which subsequently led to the case against him collapsing. Aurobindo was subsequently released after a year of isolated incarceration.
In his autobiographical notes, Aurobindo said he felt a vast sense of calmness when he first came back to India. He could not explain this and continued to have various such experiences from time to time. He knew nothing of yoga at that time and started his practise of it without a Teacher, except for some rules that he learned from Ganganath, a friend who was a disciple of Brahmananda. In 1907, Barin introduced Aurobindo to Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, a Maharashtrian yogi. Aurobindo was influenced by the guidance he got from the yogi, who had instructed Aurobindo to depend on an inner guide and any kind of external guru or guidance would not be required.
In July 1905 then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, partitioned Bengal. This sparked an outburst of public anger against the British, leading to civil unrest and a nationalist campaign by groups of Revolutionaries, who included Aurobindo. In 1908, Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki attempted to kill Magistrate Kingsford, a judge known for handing down particularly severe sentences against nationalists. However, the bomb thrown at his horse carriage missed its target and instead landed in another carriage and killed two British women, the wife and daughter of barrister Pringle Kennedy. Aurobindo was also arrested on charges of planning and overseeing the attack and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Alipore Jail. The trial of the Alipore Bomb Case lasted for a year, but eventually he was acquitted on May 6, 1909. His defence counsel was Chittaranjan Das.
In 1910 Aurobindo withdrew himself from all political activities and went into hiding at Chandannagar in the house of Motilal Roy, while the British were trying to prosecute him for sedition on the basis of a signed article titled 'To My Countrymen', published in Karmayogin. As Aurobindo disappeared from view, the warrant was held back and the prosecution postponed. Aurobindo manoeuvred the police into open action and a warrant was issued on 4 April 1910, but the warrant could not be executed because on that date he had reached Pondicherry, then a French colony. The warrant against Aurobindo was withdrawn.
In Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo dedicated himself to his spiritual and philosophical pursuits. In 1914, after four years of secluded yoga, he started a monthly philosophical magazine called Arya. This ceased publication in 1921. Many years later, he revised some of these works before they were published in book form. Some of the book series derived out of this publication were The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on The Gita, The Secret of The Veda, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, The Upanishads, The Renaissance in India, War and Self-determination, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and The Future Poetry were published in this magazine.
At the beginning of his stay at Pondicherry, there were few followers, but with time their numbers grew, resulting in the formation of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926. From 1926 he started to sign himself as Sri Aurobindo, Sri (meaning holy in Sanskrit) being commonly used as an honorific.
For some time afterwards, his main literary output was his voluminous correspondence with his disciples. His letters, most of which were written in the 1930s, numbered in the several thousands. Many were brief comments made in the margins of his disciple's notebooks in answer to their questions and reports of their spiritual practice—others extended to several pages of carefully composed explanations of practical aspects of his teachings. These were later collected and published in book form in three volumes of Letters on Yoga. In the late 1930s, he resumed work on a poem he had started earlier—he continued to expand and revise this poem for the rest of his life. It became perhaps his greatest literary achievement, Savitri, an epic spiritual poem in blank verse of approximately 24,000 lines.
His main literary works are The Life Divine, which deals with theoretical aspects of Integral Yoga; Synthesis of Yoga, which deals with practical guidance to Integral Yoga; and Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, an epic poem. His works also include philosophy, poetry, translations and commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1943 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.
Sri Aurobindo left his body on 5 December 1950. Around 60,000 people attended to see his body resting peacefully. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the President Rajendra Prasad praised him for his contribution to Yogic philosophy and the independence movement. National and international newspapers commemorated his death.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was heavily inspired by Satprem's writings about Sri Aurobindo during a week in May 1968, a time at which the Composer was undergoing a personal crisis and had found Sri Aurobindo's philosophies were relevant to his feelings. After this experience, Stockhausen's music took a completely different turn, focusing on mysticism, that was to continue until the end of his career.
William Irwin Thompson travelled to Auroville in 1972, where he met "The Mother". Thompson has called Sri Aurobindo's teaching on spirituality a "radical anarchism" and a "post-religious approach" and regards their work as having "... reached back into the Goddess culture of prehistory, and, in Marshall McLuhan's terms, 'culturally retrieved' the archetypes of the shaman and la sage femme... " Thompson also writes that he experienced Shakti, or psychic power coming from The Mother on the night of her death in 1973.
Sri Aurobindo's ideas about the further evolution of human capabilities influenced the thinking of Michael Murphy – and indirectly, the human potential movement, through Murphy's writings.