By Peter Heehs
Before he became the yogi of Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo was “the most dangerous man in India” for British colonial rule.
We take a look at his legacy of nationalism, and how it is in danger of being hijacked and misinterpreted by secularists and Hindu nationalists alike
At the beginning of February 1910, Aurobindo Ghose was the only important leader of the ‘Extremist’ or Nationalist party still active after years of repression by the British government. British officials called him “the most dangerous man in India”, and were trying to get rid of him by appealing his acquittal in a capital case, or by prosecuting him for sedition or, if all else failed, by deporting him without trial.
Thousands of young men looked to Aurobindo for direction and inspiration. His articles were read by people around the country, and were commented on abroad. Two weeks later, he left Calcutta and in April sailed secretly to Pondicherry.
Cutting off all connection with his party and his newspaper, he devoted himself to yogic sadhana. Aurobindo Ghose the firebrand prophet of the freedom movement was soon forgotten, replaced in the public eye by Sri Aurobindo, the prophet of divine life.
Right to freedom
Sri Aurobindo’s political career lasted only four years, from February 1906 to February 1910. During this period he changed the course of Indian politics. Before he began publishing his views, the Indian National Congress was an annual debating society, controlled by men who believed that a few tepid resolutions were going to sway imperial statesmen in London and Calcutta. By the time he left the field, the ideal of political independence had been hammered into the mind of a generation. Nineteen years later, it became the official creed of the Congress.
Sri Aurobindo was not alone in bringing about this change. Lokmanya Tilak declared that swaraj was his birthright; Bipin Chandra Pal demanded “complete autonomy” from Britain. But no one went as far as Sri Aurobindo in enunciating the legitimacy and necessity of political independence. “Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation,” he wrote, “to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility.… The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude.”
Sri Aurobindo became convinced that India had to be free while still a student in England. A decade of observing British politics at close range convinced him that his country had little to hope from Parliament. His models of political transformation were the French and American revolutions and the Italian ‘Risorgimento’. The language of his political writings echoes Jefferson’s and Rousseau’s: India based its claim to freedom on “the inalienable right of the nation to independence”.
The young Aurobindo’s study of classical and European history had shown him that colonial rulers do not surrender their possessions on request. They had to be shown the door. Passive resistance—boycott of the rulers’ schools, businesses and courts—was a vital instrument in the revolutionary’s toolkit; but active resistance, including armed revolt, was usually needed as well. With this in mind, he spent four years setting up proto-revolutionary groups before he entered politics. The idea was for them to become a disciplined armed force that eventually would engage in guerrilla warfare.
Sri Aurobindo entered the public political field when he saw that the agitation against the partition of Bengal had gathered enough force to propel Extremist politicians like Tilak and Pal into the leadership of the Congress, transforming that do-nothing body into a centre of anti-British activism. Keeping himself in the background, he wrote articles for Bande Mataram, a newspaper of Calcutta that set a new standard for English-language journalism in India. Most of his pieces highlighted the failure of the “mendicant” programme of the then predominantly Moderate Congress. He also criticised the British government and its leaders, but avoided the stridently xenophobic language of the popular Bengali press. He “based his claim for freedom for India on the inherent right to freedom, not on any charge of misgovernment or oppression”, he later wrote. If he “attacked persons even violently, it was for their views or political action, not from any other motive”.
Sri Aurobindo believed that India had to be free because Britain was sucking out its life, just as Rome had done to its imperial possessions 2,000 years earlier. He was well acquainted with European culture and found little in it to be emulated. A decade before the outbreak of World War I, he prophesised that Europe’s greed and competitiveness were pushing it towards destruction. India, on the other hand, though fallen into weakness, possessed things that had to be preserved—arts, languages, literatures, philosophies, religions and, most important, a system of spiritual discipline that allowed men and women to realise the truths behind the philosophies and religions.
Religion of nationalism
Sri Aurobindo began the practice of yoga in 1905, not as a means of escaping from life and action, but as a way of getting the strength he needed to succeed in his political mission. In 1908, a temporary guru gave him an opening into the experience of the inner Self. From this point on, his outlook was fundamentally spiritual even when he was engaged in political work. He began to regard himself as an instrument in the hands of the Divine and encouraged others to do the same. “Have you got real faith?” he asked at a political rally in 1908. “Or is it merely a political aspiration? Is it merely a larger kind of selfishness?” The only “political creed” that could liberate India was one that came from a “higher source”. Those who lived this creed felt that they were “instruments of God to save the light, to save the spirit of India from lasting obscuration and abasement”.
Sri Aurobindo called this creed the “religion of nationalism”. This is the most misunderstood term in his political vocabulary. His admirers as well as his detractors have repeatedly quoted the passage from the speech in which he introduced this idea. “Nationalism is not a mere political programme; Nationalism is a religion that has come from God.” This, say his admirers, shows that Aurobindo sought his inspiration in India’s ancient religious tradition, what foreigners call ‘Hinduism’ but children of the soil call sanatana dharma.
The same passage, say his critics, shows that he was trying to turn the national movement into a movement for Hindu revival, with the inevitable consequence that India’s Muslims became antagonised and partition became inevitable. As a historian, I feel obliged to show the falsity of both these readings. To begin with, Sri Aurobindo did not connect his “religion of nationalism” with Hinduism. Rather, it was a movement in which “the name of the motherland was invested with divine sacredness and her service espoused with religious fervour and enthusiasm”. It was the British who “menaced the insurgent religion of nationalism” by raising Muslim prejudices against what they “declared to be an essentially Hindu movement”.
In a speech of 1909, delivered at the invitation of a Hindu group in Uttarpara, Sri Aurobindo did connect his “religion of nationalism” with the sanatana dharma; but he made it clear that he did not mean by this any sectarian religion, but the “eternal religion” that underlay all limited systems of belief. “A narrow religion, a sectarian religion, an exclusive religion can only live for a limited time and a limited purpose,” he pointed out. The eternal religion would live forever because it was based on the realisation that God “is in all men and all things”.
In contemporary India, political leaders of the past have been turned into tokens that are exchanged by party bosses at election time. It is not surprising that Sri Aurobindo has been subject to this kind of commerce. One party places out-of-context quotations from his works in its manifesto; a rival party says it plans to base its programme on his ideals. A religio-political pressure group features him prominently on its website; a journalist writes that he was “was second to none” in promoting religion-tainted politics. None of these exploiters or critics of Sri Aurobindo’s legacy show adequate familiarity with his works.
A journalist, Jyotirmaya Sharma (in his recent book Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism), draws most of his quotations from edited compilations. In concluding, he perpetrates the following anachronism: “The Maharshi [Sri Aurobindo] has turned into a pamphleteer of the Hindu rashtra concept without being conscious of it.” It certainly is regrettable that proponents of the Hindu Rashtra should selectively appropriate Sri Aurobindo’s works, even when he explicitly stated that he was opposed to the very idea. “We do not understand Hindu nationalism as a possibility under modern conditions,” he wrote in 1909. “Under modern conditions India can only exist as a whole.” It is equally regrettable that opponents of Hindutva should combine out-of-context snippets from Sri Aurobindo’s works in a distorted presentation that excludes key portions of his thought.
Visions of future
On his 75th birthday, Sri Aurobindo sketched the five “world-movements” he had hoped to see fulfilled in his lifetime. During his youth, they had seemed to be “impractical dreams”. Now they were “on their way to fulfillment”. The first was “a revolutionary movement that would create a free and united India”. This (he was speaking on August 15,1947, the day India received independence) was now a reality. But his hopes for a more equitable international order extended beyond the borders of his own country. He dreamed also of “the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia”, and of “a world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind”.
Sri Aurobindo’s nationalism, even while he was active in Indian politics, was not coloured by that smug self-flattery that characterises most modern ‘patriotism’. He noted as early as 1919 that Indians had to have “the courage to defend our culture against ignorant occidental criticism and to maintain it against the gigantic modern pressure”, but that they also had to have the “courage to admit not from any European standpoint but from our own outlook the errors of our culture”. Pride in the accomplishments of one’s motherland should not take the form of an “unthinking cultural chauvinism which holds that whatever we have is good for us because it is Indian or even that whatever is in India is best, because it is the creation of the Rishis”. What India needed was not an isolated self-glorification, but “a unity with the rest of mankind, in which we shall maintain our spiritual and our outer independence”.
Sri Aurobindo stressed this point in a talk with a former political associate in 1915: “We Indians should begin to think seriously what part Indian thought, Indian intellect, Indian nationhood, Indian spirituality, Indian culture have to fulfill in the general life of humanity. That humanity is bound to grow increasingly one. We must necessarily be in it and of it. Not a spirit of aloofness or of jealous self-defence, but of generous emulation and brotherhood with all men and all nations, justified by a sense of conscious strength, a great destiny, a large place in the human future—this should be the Indian spirit.”
Sri Aurobindo’s vision stretched beyond national and international politics into the realms of cultural and spiritual development. During the national movement he often said that one of the reasons India had to be free was to enable it to transmit its literary, artistic, and spiritual gifts to the rest of the world. This, he was happy to report in 1947, was happening more and more. “Amid the disasters of the time more and more eyes are turning towards (India) with hope”, resorting not only “to her teachings, but to her psychic and spiritual practice” as well. His final vision was of another order: “A 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”. It was to help fulfill this visionary dream that he retired from the field of nationalist politics in February 1910.
Peter Heehs is author of four books, including The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India (OUP, second edition 2004), and editor of The Essential Writings of Sri Aurobindo (OUP, 1997) and Indian Religions: The Spiritual Traditions of South Asia (Permanent Black, 2002). He is based in Pondicherry.
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