By Claude Arpi
The current chaos we witness in the world—in politics, environment, society—is but a stage in evolution in which India can play an important role by rediscovering her true spirit. A political writer and Aurobindonian shares his views
It was presumably my ‘good’ karma which made me visit India during my university holidays of 1972. My main interest was to meet the Tibetan refugees, working on the construction of high-altitude roads. These people had lost everything, were living in the worst conditions, and still they smiled.
It was when I met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala that I began to grasp that Tibetans and Indians had a different set of values compared to us Westerners. They did not possess much material wealth or political freedom, but had deep human qualities. Watching this ‘simple monk’, I understood that, though endangered, inner calm and compassion still survive; he was the personification of a wisdom which directed its energy to look ‘within’, into the heart of man.
Perhaps the West had spent too much time looking ‘outside’. It had concentrated on ‘outer’ realisations and on controlling the material world, but in the process, it had forgotten inner virtues and powers of the spirit. Did the Tibetan road worker have a lost key to happiness?
I had another question—should the material world be abandoned and all life devoted to reaching ‘higher’ realms? I had some reservations. Was it my ‘karma’ or a coincidence that I carried from France Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine? One of the first sentences went home: “The affirmation of a divine life upon earth and an immortal sense in mortal existence can have no base unless we recognise not only eternal Spirit as the inhabitant of this bodily mansion, the wearer of this mutable robe, but accept Matter of which it is made, as a fit and noble material out of which He weaves constantly His garbs, builds recurrently the unending series of His mansions.”
Matter had to be transformed in the image of the Spirit. In the same work, Sri Aurobindo noted: “The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation…(is) the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality.” Unfortunately, as he put it: “These persistent ideals of the race are at once the contradiction of its normal experience.” This central contradiction had to be worked out; Matter and Life had to be transformed.
This discovery decided me: I did not want to spend my life in a Himalayan cave, but to live more a ‘concrete’ life. Two years later, I left France for Auroville, whose ideals, defined by the Mother, corresponded with my search: “Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.”
Is Sri Aurobindo still relevant in the 21st century? To answer this query in a few lines does not do justice to Sri Aurobindo who left us 35 thick volumes of his philosophical, socio-political and evolutionary thought, as well as Savitri, an epic in 28,000 verses. However, some glimpses of his socio-political philosophy and how it translated into action might be thought-provoking.
Today, we hear that India is shining as never before. But on the streets of any metropolis or in the villages of rural India, one sees the same ‘misery’ I saw more than 30 years ago, when I first cam here. It is true that the Spirit of India appears to have woven new garbs. However, is it not symptomatic that a great deal of the ‘shine’ has come from the Indian Diaspora in the West that did not reject the world ‘outside’ while retaining some inner Indian values?
Sri Aurobindo, in his Foundations of Indian Culture, envisioned a three-point programme for the ‘renaissance in India’:
“The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work.
“The flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second.
“An original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult.”
These tasks, written nearly a century ago, remain unfulfilled. ‘Synthesis’ is a key word in Sri Aurobindo’s vision. Recently, this ‘Indian renaissance’ has been equated to economic growth, a Chinese-model development with an eight or nine per cent GNP growth (to ‘become rich is glorious’ a la Deng Xiaoping). This is certainly not the sort of renaissance Sri Aurobindo envisaged (though he excluded nothing).
‘Synthesis’ certainly does not mean aping the West. India has to rediscover her past, not for the sake of the past, but because, as Sri Aurobindo said: “Spirituality is the master-key of the Indian mind.” The ancient seekers found: “The physical does not get its full sense until it stands in right relation to the supra-physical; (Ancient India) saw that the complexity of the universe could not be explained in the present terms of man or seen by his superficial sight, that there were other powers behind, other powers within man himself of which he is normally unaware.” This knowledge is key to the true transformation of the bodily mansion of Mother India.
In the meantime, planetary civilisation is going through one of the most difficult (and challenging) times of its recorded history. Newspapers published anywhere in the world have similar headlines: war, environmental catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, corruption, viruses…
In 1940, Sri Aurobindo foresaw: “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny… Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites…”
How can we deal with this crisis? Sri Aurobindo’s answer is: by a change in consciousness, not only on the individual level but a revolutionary transformation of the entire race. Sri Aurobindo noted: “The end of a stage of evolution is usually marked by a powerful recrudescence of all that has to go out of the evolution…. The law is the same for the mass as for the individual.”
The planet is going through this stage. India could help, but will she be able to grasp once more the Spirit that sustained her past achievements, and formulate a ‘greater synthesis’? In 1920, Sri Aurobindo wrote to his brother Barindranath: “The chief cause of the weakness of India is not subjection nor poverty, nor the lack of spirituality or Dharma, but the decline of thought-power, the growth of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge… The modern world is the age of the victory of Knowledge.” Since then, a tremendous change has occurred; the explosion of the Indian IT phenomenon is one of the many signs. But is it enough?
Fifty-four years after Sri Aurobindo’s departure, can his message help us deal better with this troubled world?
Though for the sake of sadhana he lived a secluded life, Sri Aurobindo never retired into some sort of nirvana or beatific splendour. He remained well acquainted with the politics of the subcontinent and the world situation. In 1940, when many Indian leaders were vacillating and would have supported a German victory in World War II, he expressed ‘unswerving sympathy’ to the Allies’ cause. He wrote: “We feel that not only is this a battle waged in just self-defence and in defence of the nations threatened with the world-domination of Germany and the Nazi system of life, but that it is a defence of civilisation and its highest attained social, cultural and spiritual values and of the whole future of humanity.”
Most Indian politicians believed that Sri Aurobindo could no longer understand the intricacies of the freedom struggle. When Sir Stafford Cripps came to India in March 1942 with a proposal for dominion status as a first step towards full independence, Sri Aurobindo immediately offered his support. Unfortunately, Congress leaders rejected the proposal. Dr K.M. Munshi, a senior minister in the first Indian Cabinet after independence (and founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), told an audience soon after Sri Aurobindo passed away in December 1950: “We rejected the advice…today we realise that if the first proposal had been accepted, these would have been no Partition, no refugees and no Kashmir problem.”
Sri Aurobindo disapproved of the ‘two-nation theory’ and described it as “only a newly-fangled notion invented by Jinnah for his purposes and contrary to the facts”. If Pakistan would accept its common past with India, a great step towards a more harmonious relation would be made. And why not create a confederation between the two nations?
Today, Sri Aurobindo would certainly condemn terrorism simply for the reason that it is again the future of the human race. How can one accept an ideology that seeks to dominate others and impose by force its will on the rest of humanity?
Sri Aurobindo had taken a similar position when North Korea attacked the South in 1950. He even foresaw the invasion of Tibet: “The whole affair is as plain as a pike-staff. It is the first move in the Communist plan of campaign to dominate and take possession first of these northern parts and then of South East Asia as a preliminary to their manoeuvres with regard to the rest of the continent—in passing, Tibet as a gate opening to India. If they succeed, there is no reason why domination of the whole world should not follow by steps until they are ready to deal with America.”
Sri Aurobindo opposed the hegemony of any one single ideology. For the planet to survive, every nation, every culture or individual has to find its rightful place according to its own genius.
On August 15, 1947, India obtained the independence that Sri Aurobindo had worked so much towards. It coincided with his 75th birthday. For this occasion, he wrote about his five dreams. The first was to see India united again: “India today is free but she has not achieved unity.” Though the occasion arose a few times, political leaders were never able to grasp the opportunity. Can this division disappear one day?
The second dream was to see the “resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia”. He envisaged an important role for Asia in the future of mankind. Today, this continent has arisen from the ashes of colonial rule and it is widely predicted that Asia could be the leader of the world in a few decades. One hopes that it will not be an economic leadership alone, but a deeper one, more in resonance with its spiritual roots.
Sri Aurobindo’s third dream was a “world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind.” Many groupings such the European Union or the ASEAN are already taking shape. The subcontinent has been slow to come together, but the progress towards a free trade zone and a region where ideas and people can travel freely seems now to be on its way.
The fourth dream was a “spiritual gift of India to the world”. Here again, one just has to go to a bookshop in the West or look at the number of yoga, dharma or meditation centres flourishing in the US or Europe to see that a firm beginning has been achieved.
The final dream was a new “step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society”.
Sri Aurobindo has described this quest as ‘the Adventure of Consciousness and Joy’. It seems to be the most urgent task at hand for humanity. If enough individuals would aspire for this higher consciousness, undoubtedly the process could be hastened and the world around us would begin to change. The Mother once told the Ashram children: “I invite you to a Great Adventure”.
It is perhaps the only relevant adventure in the world today.
Claude Arpi has lived in India since 1974 to study and practise Integral Yoga. He has extensively researched the history of Tibet, China and the Indian subcontinent. His books include The Fate of Tibet; And Dark Shall be the Night: The Karma of Tibet, and the soon-to-be-published When the Panchsheel would Shine over the Universe like a Sun: Fifty Years Later. He regularly writes on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations in Rediff.com, The Pioneer and specialised magazines.
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