Pondicherry derives from Puduhcheri, a new town. Yes, it is a new, an ever-new town, new from age to age.
In Agastya’s time it was Vedapuri, the seat of Vedic knowledge. The truths of the Veda are at once eternal and ever-new. Coming down to our own days, we find Vivekananda visiting Pondicherry in 1893, just a few months before embarking on his historic voyage to America, where the multitudes of people heard in him the voice of eternity ringing across the ages, and saw in him the ineffable vision of God.
Vivekananda, the dearest disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Tilak, the fearless Champion of India’s swaraj, Bharathi, the patriot Bard of India’s nationalism and independence, Sri Aurobindo, the Heaven-born Prophet of India’s independence and of the Life Divine — all hallowed the town with the dust of their feet. Sri Aurobindo’s fixing on Pondicherry as the divinely ordained seat of his world-transforming Sadhana led to visits by a number of distinguished leaders of the national movement — Lala Lajpat Rai, C.R. Das, Moonje Purushottandas Tandon and Rabindranath Tagore, to name only a few. In 1914 there occurred an epoch-making event in the history of the world. From Paris came a remarkable spiritual figure, Madame M. Alfassa, now known as the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It is she who by her divine Personality and far-seeing powers of organisation has changed the face of Pondicherry to a great extent, and is continuing to build a New Life in this ever new town. The Vedapuri of old is again going to be the Vedapuri of the modern times — the meeting-place of East and West, the place of pilgrimage of the whole world.
During his six-year itinerary, Vivekananda toured India from end to end. From the Himalayan heights down to the plains he came, to the farthest point of Cape Comorin, the confluence of the three waters, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea. The appalling poverty, malignant wretchedness, and untold degradation of India tortured his athletic heart. Furthermore, the caste-system was for him an unspeakable abomination.
Equally, to set foot on foreign shores was, in those days, a counter-abomination for the orthodox. Hence Vivekananda’s position in the orthodox circles of Pondicherry could easily be imagined. There was a hot exchange of words over his sea voyage between Vivekananda and an orthodox pandit of the town. The pandit had a musty load of crystallised superstitions of by-gone days in his head. He gloried in spending all his energy discussing the touchableness and untouchableness of this man and that man, of this food and that food, of this country and that country. We shall leave Vivekananda himself to relate to us that curious incident:
“Balaji and G.G. may remember one evening at Pondicherry — we were discussing the matter of sea-voyage with a Pandit, and I shall always remember his brutal gestures and his kadapi na (Never)! They do not know that India is a very small part of the world, the whole world looks down with contempt upon the three hundred millions of earth-worms crawling upon the fair soil of India and trying to oppress each other. This state of things must be removed.” This was the Pondicherry of 1893!
Few could really feel and appreciate his stupendous sacrifice for his Motherland. Rabindranath said of Vivekananda, “He sacrificed his life into a bridge between East and West.” Sri Aurobindo said of Vivekananda, “The capitulation of Vivekananda to Sri Ramakrishna was a capitulation of the West to the East.” The symbolic beginning is now become the realistic fact that is emerging in Pondicherry. France replaced her political link with Pondicherry with a golden link of her culture. Pondicherry stands as an Indian town with a broad intellectual culture and outlook — the promising beginning of a consummation of Vivekananda’s dream to bring West into East and East into West, as well as Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s dreams, all aiming at Unity in diversity of culture.