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August 2003

Publishing Sri Aurobindo's
Complete Works

- in conversation with Carel

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?


Sri Aurobindo. Photo circa 1911-1920"The 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 process."

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 were promised."

3.	from left to right: Peter Heehs, Matthijs Cornelissen, Richard Hartz and Bob Zwicker

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 too freely."
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 doing.
"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 following it."

The handwriting

A sample of the handwriting of Sri Aurobindo

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."

The meaning

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.

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