It was good tidings for all lovers of Sri
Aurobindo's writings. In 1996 the Sri Aurobindo Ashram announced
that it would bring out The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo in
35 volumes. The set would include around 2,500 pages of new texts
that were not part of the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library,
the 30-volume set published around 1972 and no longer available.
Publication of the Complete Works would begin in 1997 and was
expected to take four years. But by August 2003, more than six
years later, only 21 volumes have been published. Why the delay?
estimate of four years was made by Jayantilal, the founder of
the Archives, who initiated the project and has since passed away,"
Bob ventures carefully. "Jayantilal was an inveterate optimist
who always minimised the difficulties. The rest of us had serious
doubts about the four-year schedule, but he had none, so he boldly
went ahead and announced it. As we expected, the work is taking
longer than four years. But even the editors underestimated the
time it would take!
"When we began, we had 20 years of work
behind us. In 1975 Nolini-da passed on to the Archives all of
Sri Aurobindo's manuscripts in his possession - more than 150
notebooks and thousands of loose sheets. In 1977 we started the
journal Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research in which over the
next 18 years we published more than 2,000 pages of newly discovered
writings, including most of the Record of Yoga. During this period
we also brought out Essays Divine and Human and new editions of
The Future Poetry and Savitri. By 1997 when the Complete Works
began, we had half-a-dozen volumes ready or almost ready for publication
and another half-a-dozen well underway. But after those books
were printed, things slowed down. We have ten people working full-time
on the job, another ten working part-time, but it is still a long
Why is it taking so long? "First,"
answers Richard, "because we are perfectionists. Otherwise
this work would be rather pointless, since reasonably adequate
editions of the major works are already available. We read the
text of each volume at least twice against Sri Aurobindo's manuscripts
and the early editions of his works. The exact procedure differs
from one book to another, but to do it properly is always time-consuming.
Second, we are including much more previously unpublished material
than we had originally planned. The volumes we are bringing out
are getting bigger and bigger. In the beginning they were four
or five hundred pages each on the average, but the new ones are
six or seven hundred pages or even more, and there will be more
than the projected 35 volumes. Part of the reason for this is
that we have had some surprises, especially with Sri Aurobindo's
letters. When we started, the volumes of letters were not our
responsibility. Kishor Gandhi was to edit the letters. But then
he passed away. All his material came to us. We had thought the
letters were in pretty good shape, so we were planning to add
some new letters and then print the books. But when we started
comparing the Centenary edition of the letters with Sri Aurobindo's
manuscripts, we found that many mistakes had been made when the
letters were first transcribed. So now all the letters - thousands
of them - are being compared with Sri Aurobindo's manuscripts
to ensure their accuracy. Several people in the Archives are doing
this full-time, leaving less manpower available for other volumes
of the Complete Works.
"Actually, the whole project is going
pretty quickly by normal standards for this kind of work. Recently
I was looking at the critical edition of the Mahabharata which
was brought out over a period of decades by the Bhandarkar Oriental
Research Institute. In the introduction to one of the early volumes,
the chief editor remarked that he had been in charge of the project
for seventeen years. During that time, critical editions of four
of the eighteen Parvas had been published. Sri Aurobindo's writings
do not pose exactly the same kinds of problems as the Mahabharata,
but if you want to produce a good edition you cannot cut corners."
The old edition and the new
How does the new
Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo differ from the old Centenary
edition of his writings? Bob explains: "The Complete Works
will be more accurate than the Centenary edition and contain a
lot of new material - well over 3,000 pages that were not in the
Centenary edition. Essays Divine and Human has about 300 pages
of newly published writings on philosophy and yoga. The Record
of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo's diary of his sadhana between 1909 and
1927, is a 1,500-page text that has been published for the first
time. His writings on the Upanishads now fill two volumes, not
just one as in the Centenary. The Vedic material, likewise, will
take up three volumes instead of two; most of the new texts will
go in a volume we are calling Vedic Studies with Writings on Philology.
Many autobiographical writings will be added to On Himself, which
will require two volumes. The Letters on Yoga may take up four
volumes, not just three, because so many letters will be added.
So you see, although the Complete Works is taking time, the result
will be worth the wait. People will be getting more than they
Letters on Yoga
Does the Archives
now possess all of Sri Aurobindo's writings? How complete will
the Complete Works be? "With the exception of the letters,
it will be fairly complete," answers Peter. "We have
virtually all the surviving manuscript material for his books,
essays, poems and plays, and we will include almost everything
that is not too fragmentary to publish. But the Letters will not
be complete. More letters could still turn up unexpectedly, and
we can't even use everything we have. In some cases we have the
whole correspondence, including the disciple's own letters, such
as Nirodbaran's and Nagin Doshi's. In other cases only Sri Aurobindo's
answers have been preserved, but sometimes these are meaningful
only if you have the questions." Matthijs elaborates: "Many
people have cut out the personal stuff, sometimes literally with
scissors. So you have these frustrating cases where you are left
with a remark by Sri Aurobindo such as 'Yes, this is a perfect
description of the psychic emergence' and you don't know what
experience it refers to. That is one reason why editing the letters
is so difficult. To include a single line like this out of context
doesn't make sense. Neither is it possible to include the disciples'
complete letters. They often went on for pages at a time, with
a few words written here and there in the margin by Sri Aurobindo.
As it is, we may have to publish the Letters on Yoga in four volumes
rather than three, even if we give only Sri Aurobindo's answers
as in the previous editions. In the other volumes -Letters on
Poetry and Art, On Himself and The Mother with Letters on the
Mother - we will include the disciple's question when it helps.
The preparation of these volumes of letters is now our main focus."
Letters on Poetry and Art
In the early days the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
was a hotbed of poets, with Sri Aurobindo, in his own words, "directly
responsible for the poetry department". For him, writing
poetry could be part of one's sadhana if practised with the right
inner attitude, and he helped his disciples in their poetic efforts.
"Hundreds of his letters on poetry and literature will now
appear in a new volume, Letters on Poetry and Art," explains
Peter. "In the Centenary edition these letters (about 500
of them) appeared in three different books: The Future Poetry,
On Himself and Savitri. But now we have some 1000 letters, so
we decided to put them in a separate volume; it will be almost
800 pages long. Even so, it will not contain the detailed comments
that Sri Aurobindo made on specific poems of his disciples. Nirodbaran
and Amal Kiran have published some of their poems with Sri Aurobindo's
corrections and appraisals. We decided that only Sri Aurobindo's
remarks of general interest will be included in Letters on Poetry
and Art." Adds Bob: "Some day we plan to publish the
letters not by subject but by correspondent. In this format the
disciple's questions are included as well as Sri Aurobindo's replies.
In the case of literary correspondence, the disciple's poems can
be printed along with Sri Aurobindo's comments. The material will
be left in chronological order and we will be able to include
more of it. The correspondence really springs to life when it
is presented as a day-to-day exchange between master and disciple.
We may eventually wind up with 20 or 30 books like this. But we
will take this up only when the Complete Works are finished."
Preparing editions of Sri Aurobindo's writings
On what basis do
the editors in the Archives prepare the texts for publication?
And what does 'editing' mean when applied to the writings of Sri
Aurobindo? Answers Peter: "We don't 'edit' in the way the
term is usually understood. Our aim is to publish Sri Aurobindo's
works in accurate texts that represent his final intentions. The
authenticity of the text is our concern. When we have to make
decisions, they are based on textual evidence and not on subjective
factors such as our own stylistic preferences. If a sentence is
somehow defective due to a slip of the pen or incomplete revision,
we may emend it, but only when we feel sure that the emendation
is what Sri Aurobindo intended to write. He used to joke about
his slips of the pen, so that possibility has to be taken into
account when something in the manuscript doesn't seem to make
sense. But we are extremely cautious about making such emendations
- even more so than previous editors."
Richard gives an example of an incompletely revised sentence.
"In the second paragraph of the essay Purna Yoga,1 Sri Aurobindo
originally wrote: 'It does not matter if for the present you fall
short of your aim so long as you give yourself wholly to the attempt.'
He then revised the sentence and changed 'wholly' to 'wholeheartedly'.
He also crossed out the two occurrences of 'you' and wrote 'we'
above them. Where 'your' appeared before 'aim', he crossed out
the 'y' so that it became 'our'. But he did not touch 'yourself'.
So the manuscript reads: 'It does not matter if for the present
we fall short of our aim so long as we give yourself wholeheartedly
to the attempt.' The ungrammatical phrase 'we give yourself' obviously
came about due to an oversight in revision. No editor would print
it, even though it is what is in the manuscript. When the essay
was published in the first edition of The Hour of God in 1959,
'yourself' was corrected to 'ourselves' as Sri Aurobindo presumably
intended. In Essays Divine and Human, where such essays reproduced
from his manuscripts are now published, we have accepted this
emendation and others like it. In newly published material we
have made similar emendations ourselves where necessary."
Peter continues: "Any time there is a doubt about a sentence,
our first response is to look at the manuscript. Sometimes a translator
will come and ask if a certain sentence is okay or not, and give
all sorts of reasons why it should be changed. (This usually happens
with translators, because they have to understand every word before
they can translate it.) The answer is always found by analysing
the physical evidence. It is never a question of making a purely
subjective decision. It is the same when we evaluate previous
editions. In practice, when we prepare Sri Aurobindo's writings
for publication, part of our work consists of restoring texts
to their original form where we feel that others have edited them
Matthijs clarifies: "Our effort is to keep the writings as
Sri Aurobindo wrote them. We have found that former editors took
lots of liberties with capitalising words and changing punctuation
marks. In the Centenary edition, for example, the policy adopted
for Sanskrit words was to capitalise the first letter of all words
that are not italicised. In Essays on the Gita the word 'guna'
occurs a couple of hundred times. Sri Aurobindo rarely italicised
or capitalised that word. In the Centenary edition, it has been
systematically capitalised; 'guna' has become 'Guna' everywhere.
In the Complete Works, we have gone back to what was printed during
Sri Aurobindo's lifetime. Another example, also in Essays on the
Gita, is the word 'dharma', which Sri Aurobindo wrote with or
without capitalising the 'd', depending on what he meant. In the
Centenary edition the word was uniformly capitalised, blurring
the distinction he intended to make. Here too we went back to
the original. In this one book, there are more than 1,000 small
differences such as these between the new edition and the previous
one. People say that we have 'changed' it, but in fact what we
did was to revert to the original, that is, we restored what Sri
Aurobindo himself wrote."
The Archives has been severely put to the
test in connection with the edition of Savitri that was published
in 1993. Many people were shocked by the number of differences
from previous editions. Sri Aurobindo had worked on Savitri for
34 years - from 1916 until the month before his passing in 1950.
During this time the poem grew from a narrative poem of moderate
length into an epic of almost 24,000 lines. He revised the poem
again and again, filling notebooks, chit-pads and loose sheets
of paper with his alterations and additions, and revising by dictation
when he could no longer see well enough to do it with his own
hand. The text was undoubtedly a challenging one. Only after seven
years of careful checking and rechecking of the original manuscripts
was it announced in the Archives and Research journal of December
1986 that a new edition of Savitri was ready. But this turned
out to be just the beginning. The long list of corrections published
in the journal caused an outcry in some circles in the Ashram.
There were people who found that the new edition contained changes
which were not to their liking or not what they were used to reading
in an earlier edition that the Mother herself had given them.
And had not the Mother said to Amal Kiran in 1954 that she wouldn't
allow him to change even a comma in Savitri?
Richard answers: "There has been a lot of confusion because
that statement of the Mother has been misinterpreted by people
who don't know about the editorial work she actually authorised.
Taken out of context, what she said to Amal may sound like an
unanswerable argument against the new edition of Savitri and,
by extension, against the work of the Archives as a whole. It
is cited, for example, in several court cases against the 1993
edition of Savitri which we have had to fight in the last few
years. (As you can imagine, this has not helped us to stay on
schedule with the Complete Works.) But the fact is that in 1954
the Mother approved of plenty of changes in the printed text of
Savitri. More generally, she sanctioned the method of basing corrections
on a comparison of the copies, typescripts, etc., with the manuscript
- the method that was later applied more systematically by the
Archives. Her approval of the editorial process is mentioned in
Amal's book Our Light and Delight in the next paragraph after
he reports that she told him he was not to change 'even a comma'.
So her words have to be understood in this context.
"Contrary to popular belief, the published text of Savitri
was in a state of flux in the early days. Mistakes were gradually
being noticed and were corrected almost every time there was a
reprint up to 1976, after which the Archives began its work and
it was decided not to make any further corrections until the new
edition was ready. There are more than 170 differences between
the 1950-51 edition and the 1954 edition, including about 80 involving
commas and others that are much more significant. In the last
two pages of Book Four, Canto Two, several lines of the first
edition were replaced in 1954 with versions whose wording is entirely
different. These versions were taken from a typescript revised
by Sri Aurobindo, which had been overlooked when the first edition
was prepared. The Mother was aware of the work that was done on
Savitri in 1954. Since she approved of the corrections then being
made, her remark to Amal cannot possibly have meant that she wanted
the text printed in 1950-51 to be kept exactly as it was. She
could not have meant anything other than what Amal himself explained
in an interview a few years ago, namely, that he was not to change
anything according to his own ideas. In the same interview, he
mentioned another conversation he had with the Mother in which
he explained to her that corrections in Savitri might be necessary
because Sri Aurobindo's words had sometimes been misread. She
said, 'That's a different matter.'
"The discovery of errors in the published text of Savitri
continued after 1954 and led to many further corrections when
the Centenary edition was published in 1970. But most of these
mistakes were obvious enough to be noticed by someone reading
the printed book. In those days, the manuscripts and typescripts
were checked only when an error was suspected. (It was while doing
this kind of spot-checking in 1954 that the revised typescript
I mentioned was found by accident.) Yet the only way to be sure
about the accuracy of the text is to read the final manuscripts
all the way through and look at all the subsequent stages of copying,
typing and printing to see whether differences from the manuscript
were due to Sri Aurobindo's dictated revision or to someone else's
inadvertency. This is what the Archives has spent so many years
"After completing three such readings of the manuscripts
of Savitri, we published our first list of proposed corrections
in 1986. There was some criticism of that list, and this had to
be dealt with before we could proceed further. But this was intelligent
and constructive criticism, in contrast to much of what the Archives
has faced more recently. It had the valuable effect of stimulating
Nirodbaran and Amal, who had worked on the earlier editions under
the Mother's supervision, to play an active role in preparing
the new edition of Savitri and ultimately to take full responsibility
for it. They spent four years looking at the manuscripts and other
materials related to each point in our list of proposed corrections.
It was they who decided every detail of what was finally printed.
What was remarkable was to witness Nirodbaran's absolute integrity.
He had been the one who had copied the manuscripts of Savitri
for Sri Aurobindo and he had done a very impressive job. But if
our readings were right, he had made some mistakes in copying
the hundreds of pages of difficult manuscripts. He now had the
authority to make the final decisions. He could easily have justified
his own copying where we doubted its correctness. Nobody could
have challenged him. But he never once took that attitude. His
only concern was with seeing what Sri Aurobindo had written and
The text reads:
"What we seem to be is a thinking human animal. What we are
and have to become is God; the secret purpose of our existence
here is to find the occult Reality of ourselves and the world,
to become Divine." This text was written between the middle
and late 1940s.
From Essays Divine and Human, vol. 12 CWSA , p. 287
Gradually, Sri Aurobindo's finely etched handwriting
became notorious for being almost illegible. In his Correspondence,
Nirodbaran cites an instance where he protested, "Good Lord,
your writing is exceeding all limits, Sir!" Sri Aurobindo
retorted, "Transformation of handwriting. The self exceeds
all limits, the handwriting should do so also. "Peter comments:
"There are early periods of the handwriting when almost every
letter is distinctly formed. There are later periods when you
often have just the general shape of a word and have to see from
the context what word fits, looking at a combination of form and
meaning. The last stage of the handwriting, around 1947 when Sri
Aurobindo's eyesight was failing, looks almost illegible at first
sight. Often it is hard to figure out where one word ends and
the next begins. But when you study this handwriting it turns
out to be rather systematically illegible, making it not impossible
to read. For example, sometimes in trying to decipher a word it
helps to count the dots of the 'i's; generally they are all there
somewhere. And if we are lucky, there may be an earlier draft
of the same text that is clearer. Meanwhile, as we struggle to
transcribe the texts, the pressure to finish the book and get
it to the press is mounting, because we are always behind schedule.
"A lot of what we do is essentially glorified proofreading.
That sometimes brings the danger that the work becomes just the
grist of the day, where you go through another 20 pages of text.
Doing this kind of work is entirely different from reading Sri
Aurobindo's writings for yourself, where you can enjoy the flow
of the argument and the beauty of the language. We sometimes miss
the forest for the trees. But there is a reward in this work.
It is fascinating to study the way in which Sri Aurobindo revised
his own texts - a privilege which others cannot share with us.
This work does take you into his consciousness, so to speak, and
it gives a kind of precision and in-depth understanding, looking
at the exact nuances of the words he is using and seeing why he
is changing one word to another. It gives a particular intimacy."
Richard describes the experience of deciphering words that have
almost been given up as illegible: "In front of you is the
manuscript of a writing that has never been published before.
It is to be included in a book that is nearly ready to go to the
press. But in the printout there are still places marked with
'[. . .]', meaning an illegible word. I know that this piece of
paper has been lying around for maybe 90 years or so and that
something is written there, something that came from Sri Aurobindo's
consciousness, which nobody has been able to decipher. This is
the last chance to read that word or phrase for this edition.
And that is exciting. At this point I lock myself in the cold
storage room where we keep Sri Aurobindo's original manuscripts
and I will remain there until I solve the problem. I feel somewhat
like a yogi doing tapasya in a cave in the Himalayas. Taking my
small loupe with 8x magnification, I put it on the word in the
manuscript and sit there looking at it, aware of the context but
preferably with no preconceived ideas about what kind of word
it might be. I have found that it is mainly a question of tenacity,
of not giving up. After staring at a word sometimes for hours,
there is a mysterious moment when suddenly, without my knowing
exactly when or how it happened, I know what is written there.
You can call it intuition or whatever you like. That is one of
the satisfactions of this work."
Editing Sri Aurobindo's texts is one thing,
understanding them is something else. Peter remarks: "In
a sense, the meaning is not our problem. Our aim is to provide
an accurate text by following Sri Aurobindo's manuscripts. Obviously,
to be able to do anything in the English language you have to
know the language, and of course we try to understand the text
ourselves as part of the process. But it is not our work to interpret
the text for readers. Here and there we have added factual footnotes
about the manuscript or some textual difficulty, but we do not
comment on the text. For the Record of Yoga we will publish a
glossary and a structural outline of the system of terminology,
because it is so unusual and inaccessible. But even there, we
keep the element of subjective interpretation to a minimum. We
study the contexts in which Sri Aurobindo has used a particular
word, in the Record and in his other works, and on that basis
we formulate a definition, as close as possible to his own words,
taking the Sanskrit dictionary definition and if necessary the
etymology into account. That is as far as the responsibility of
the Archives goes, as we see it. Any interpretation of the text
or commentary on it is an individual's personal business."
The Mother's works
Is there any chance of bringing out a Complete
Works of the Mother - a revised and enlarged edition of the Collected
Works? Bob shakes his head. "Not at the moment. We are fully
absorbed in Sri Aurobindo's works. The Mother's works are on hold.
What is being done for now is to reissue the 17-volume Collected
Works of the Mother in a new edition. Its text will be the same
as that of the first edition, apart from the correction of a few
errors. And by the end of this year we will issue a CD-ROM of
these 17 volumes, with a good search programme. I may add that
the 17 volumes are now available not only in English but in French
- and the work of preparing the French edition for press was done
largely by Jyoti Sobel, who is now an Aurovilian. So for the moment
we are concentrating on Sri Aurobindo's works, but a Complete
Works of the Mother will come."
1 Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine
and Human, CWSA, vol. 12, p. 98.
2 Nirodbaran, Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, p. 689.