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Profiles in Greatness: Nolini Kanta Gupta

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There are men and men; qualities differ.  We have little men in plenty even though famous and powerful.  Such little men who become ‘great’ in appearance cause us greater despondency than the ordinary little men.  For, looking at the ‘great’ little men, we doubt the legitimacy of greatness itself. But true greatness has very little to do with fame or power.  We can experience the values of greatness when we come in contact with the truly great. 

“We broke through the thickets and chose a spot right on top of the hill.  There we came across a rock rising steep and straight on one side about breast-high and on the other sloping gradually to a distance of some ten or twelve yards.  The plan was that Prafulla would take his shelter behind the abruptly steep side of the rock as he threw the bomb at the other side and duck immediately so that the splinters from the explosion did not hit him.  I climbed a tree to have a clear view of the scene.  Barin and Bibhuti took their positions around.”

“As we lay in wait, I saw a spark flash out over there with a puff of smoke and such a terrific noise!  The sky seemed to be getting broken up into bits and waves of sound went echoing from one end to the other as if in a hundred simultaneous claps of thunder… I was of course beside myself with excitement and joy.  “Successful, successful!” I shouted climbing down the tree.”

“But what is this?  What a gruesome spectacle!  Prafulla lay limp.  Ullas held him in his arms.  Slowly the body was laid down.  We sat around and nobody spoke a word…

“We had thought that the explosive would catch fire only after the bomb touched the ground…. but it exploded as soon as it had come in contact with the air upon being thrown up… I had been carrying it in my hands.  It might have exploded even by a slight swing.  That it did not was my sheer good luck…

“We started down the hill… ‘We were five when we came, only four are now returning,’

I once blurted out.  ‘No sentimentality please!’  Barin rebuked me.”

For the narrator of this episode, Nolini Kanta Gupta, that took place sometime in 1907 in the forests of Deoghar, the passage from the bomb to the Supramental Yoga had not been very long.  Those who believe in mysticism say that there are souls who participate in certain missions symbolically, to give these works a spiritual impetus.  Sri Aurobindo himself, the first to demand unqualified freedom for India, was once looked upon by the British as “the most dangerous man in the whole country”.  He switched over to his mission of untold significance—to concentrate on and invoke the power that would hasten man’s spiritual evolution—when his inner vision assured him of India’s freedom.

While many were surprised at Sri Aurobindo disappearing from the high noon of his political glory into the Yogic horizon of French Pondicherry, foremost among those who quietly followed him there was Nolini Kanta Gupta.

Born on 13 January 1889 at Faridpur in what was then East Bengal, Nolini Kanta, son of an eminent lawyer, studied at the Presidency College , Calcutta, under teachers like Acharya J.C. Bose, P.C. Roy, H.M. Percival and Manmohan Ghose.  He was a brilliant student, but his imagination was soon captured by a group of revolutionaries dreaming and planning an armed struggle against the British with Maniktala Gardens as their center.  Through them he came in contact with Sister Nivedita and Sri Aurobindo.  In 1908 the entire group was arrested and so was Sri Aurobindo, accused of sedition and waging war against the King Emperor, in what is famous as the Alipore Conspiracy Case.

The incarceration gave Nolini Kanta the chance to come into closer personal contact with Sri Aurobindo.  After their release he assisted Sri Aurobindo in editing Dharma and Karmayogin, an association that was to prove life-long.

Under Sri Aurobindo’s guidance, Nolini Kanta’s intellectual training became rapid.  Sri Aurobindo taught him French, not beginning with the alphabet, but making him directly plunge into Moliere’s plays.  Later he was to learn Sanskrit, Latin and Greek more or less following the same daring process.

At Pondicherry Nolini Kanta and a few associates guarded and served  Sri Aurobindo as best as they could, until the arrival of the Mother in 1920.  As Nolini Kanta recollected, “The Mother taught us by her manner the meaning of disciple and the Master.  She has always practiced what she preached.  She showed us, by not taking her seat in front of or on the same level as Sri Aurobindo but by sitting on the ground, what it meant to be respectful to one’s Master, what was true courtesy….  It was the Mother who opened our eyes and gave us that vision which made us say, even as Arjuna, ‘By whatever name I have called you O Krishna, O Yadava, O Friend, thinking in my rashness that you were only a friend, and out of ignorance and from affection, oblivious of your greatness, whatever disrespect I have shown you out of frivolity, whether sitting or lying down or eating… may I be pardoned for all that,  O thou Infinite One.'” Nolini Kanta’s surrender to the Master was complete, but it was a hero’s surrender—like that of Arjuna.  Indeed, only those who have known Nolini Kanta personally know that he had the wisdom, enlightenment and dynamism to become a genuine guru himself, but as the historian S.K. Mitra writes in the “Dictionary of National Biography, “Ever averse to limelight and to any personal reference, Nolini Kanta rarely speaks about himself.  His grave personality with its reserve and firmness covers a soft heart, a sweet amiability and a humorous temper which only the yogi in him knows how and when to express,” From 1926 till his passing away on the 7th of February 1984, Nolini Kanta was the Secretary of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga aims at transforming man, including his physical aspect, into a Gnostic being, not to realize the Divine only in one’s awakened soul nor to embrace Nirvana.  We do not know how long it will take for the vision to materialise.  Nolini-da, as he was called affectionately, exemplified the discipline a Sadhaka of the Integral Yoga should follow, giving due importance to all the faculties of one’s being—body, life, mind and soul or the psychic being.  He had been an excellent sportsman and he devoted time to physical culture till his early nineties.  Human emotions in him had been sublimated into a lofty universal empathy and compassion.  He had used his intellect to interpret events, philosophy and literature in the lift of the Truth—his soul.  The Collected works of Nolini Kanta Gpta published in nine volumes (English) by Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Pondicherry, are a series of rare value comprising a large sweep of observations, from matters spiritual to topics like Robert Graves and Boris Pasternak. No wonder that in this era of exaltation of false values the series is little known, just as its author was in this age of glamorous charlatans and showmen stealing the show even in the arena of spirituality.

– Visvavasu