Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism
(Speech given on 30 April 2002 at the
National Council of Education, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, for the
inauguration of a project
on “Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism.”)
Sri Aurobindo, who has rightly been described by Satprem as Adventure of Consciousness, is a striking example of the irresistibility of the soul and spirit and an outstanding refutation of the thesis that man is a machine that can be tuned by external stimuli and behaviouristic methods of education. For here was the one over whose upbringing, scrupulous instructions were carried out to ensure that he should receive an entirely European education and should not be allowed to make the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence, and while from the age of seven to twenty-one (1879‑1893), he grew up in England in entire ignorance of India, her people, her religion and her culture, his attention from the age of eleven began to be drawn to India and his feeling was soon canalized into the idea of the liberation of India. And if we study the series of articles that he wrote at the age of twenty-two, soon after his return to India, under the title “New Lamps for the Old”, we realize that the author was the Soul that belonged to Mother India and that his Spirit was a vast universality that had intimations from the pinnacles of some transcendental reality. He had the courage to subject the then leaders of the Congress to scathing criticism for their petitions and cravings for ineffective and minor reforms. His revolutionary spirit is seen here already ablaze with the fire of nationalism that was to turn into ashes the iron fetters of bondage and slavery in a foreseeable future. Let us listen to some of the first words of the soul of the nation that were penned by Sri Aurobindo:
“Our appeal, the appeal of every high‑souled and self‑respecting nation, ought not to be to the opinion of the Anglo‑Indians, no, nor yet to the British sense of justice, but to our own reviving sense of manhood, to our own sincere fellow‑feeling — so far as it can be called sincere ¾ with the silent and suffering people of India. I am sure that eventually the nobler part of us will prevail, that when we no longer obey the dictates of a veiled self‑interest, but return to the profession of a large and genuine patriotism, when we cease to hanker after the soiled crumbs which England may cast to us from her table then it will be to that sense of manhood, to that sincere fellow‑feeling that we shall finally and forcibly appeal.”
The most important things of history have remained unacknowledged, and the early story of the inspiring force of Indian Nationalism illustrates this truth quite vividly. How many of us really know the thoughts and stirrings of the soul of India that were being incubated in the fire that was burning in Sri Aurobindo right from the time of the series of those articles that were offering “New Lamps for the Old”? And how many of us can today recall the unparalleled event of world history when within three brief years the great daily Bande Mataram, edited by Sri Aurobindo, discovered the soul of the Indian nation day after day, infusing in the country wave after wave with new currents of electricity of thought, and changed the entire atmosphere and fixed in the awakened mind of the people the goal of the attainment of complete independence, complete Swaraj? And how many of us are able to see that it was during those three years, the basic programmes of the struggle for freedom of India were already visualized and empowered for their eventual unfoldment leading up to the victorious fulfilment during the next forty years? The programmes of boycott and non‑cooperation, the programme of Swadeshi and National Council of Education and programmes of creation of arbitration courts and of reaching out to the masses of the people were not only advocated, but were greatly and warmly responded to through the powerful messages that emanated from Bande Mataram and spread over the whole country. Sri Aurobindo points out:
“In the enthusiasm that swept surging everywhere with the cry of Bande Mataram ringing on all sides men felt it glorious to be alive and dare and act together and hope; the old apathy and timidity was broken and a force created which nothing could destroy and which rose again and again in wave after wave till it carried India to the beginning of a complete victory.”
One of the great illuminations that were given to India at that stage of those three brief years was to define with sunlight clarity the meaning and force of Indian Nationalism. At a time when confusing notions of Nationalism were being enunciated and the leaders of the so‑called Extremist party were being denounced not only by British bureaucracy and rulers but even by the Moderates and editors of important journals, Sri Aurobindo rejected the theory that the essential conditions of nationality are unity of language, unity of religion and life, and unity of race. He pointed out that the English nation itself was built out of various races, that Switzerland has distinct racial strains speaking three different languages and professing different religions, that in America the candidates for White House addressed at that time the nation in fourteen languages, that Austria is a congeries of races and languages and that the division in Russia are hardly less acute. He argued that the idea that unity in race, religion or language is essential to nationality is an idea which will not bear examination. He referred to the example of the Roman Empire, which created a common language, a common religion and life, and tried its best to crush out racial diversities under the weight of its uniform system, but it failed to make one great nation. In an illuminating passage, Sri Aurobindo defined the essential elements of nationality. He wrote:
“We answer that there are certain essential conditions, geographical unity, a common past, a powerful common interest impelling towards unity and certain favourable ‘political conditions which enable the impulse to realize itself in an organized government expressing the nationality and perpetuating its single and united existence. This may be provided by a part of the nation, a race or community, uniting the others under its leadership or domination, or by a united resistance to a common pressure from outside or within. A common enthusiasm coalescing with a common interest is the most powerful fosterer of nationality. We believe that the necessary elements are present in India, we believe that the time has come and that by a common resistance to a common pressure in the shape of the boycott, inspired by a common enthusiasm and ideal, that united nationality for which the whole history of India has been a preparation, will be speedily and mightily accomplished.”
Sri Aurobindo published a series of articles on passive resistance, another developing a political philosophy of revolution and wrote many leaders aimed at destroying the shibboleths and superstitions of the Moderate party, such as the belief in British justice and benefits bestowed by a foreign government in India, faith in British law courts and in the adequacy of the education given in schools and universities in India, and stressed more strongly and persistently than had been done the emasculation, stagnation or slow progress, poverty, economic dependence, absence of a rich industrial activity and all other evil results of a foreign government. Assisted by this publicity the ideas of Nationalism gained ground everywhere, especially in the Punjab which had before been predominantly Moderate. The golden message that wove together various threads of the Nationalist programme was that of Swaraj, not merely of home rule or colonial Swaraj, but of complete independence.
In stirring words, Sri Aurobindo wrote in the issue of Bande Mataram of February 18,1908,
“Swaraj is no longer a mere word, no longer an ideal, distant and impossible, for the heart of Bengal has seized upon it, and the intellect of Bengal has acknowledged it. We hold no brief for anyone, but we believe that Srijut Manoranjan Gulia was an inspired speaker when he told the Conference never to lose sight of God in the movement. Mighty aspirations are in the heart of the people and he is false to the inspiration within him who tries to dwarf them. Let us work practically at the smallest details, but let us never forget that the work is not for its own sake but for the sake of Swaraj... Village Samitis are good, not for the sake of Village Samitis but for the sake of Swaraj. Boycott is good, not for the sake of Boycott but for the sake of Swaraj. Swadeshi is good, not for the sake of Swadeshi but for the sake of Swaraj. Arbitration is good, not for the sake of arbitration but for the sake of Swaraj. If we forget Swaraj and win anything else we shall be like the seeker whose belt was turned indeed to gold but the stone of alchemy was lost to him for ever.”
Let us note that the purely political elements of the Nationalist programme and activities were those which lasted and after each wave of repression and depression renewed the thread of the life of the movement for liberation and kept recognizable one throughout nearly fifty years of its struggle. But unfortunately, the one important programme that did not survive effectively was that of National Education, in spite of the fact that some of the greatest nationalist leaders had joined together to establish the National Council of Education, to establish the Bengal National College.
Sri Aurobindo, had attached much importance to national education. As a Professor in the Baroda College, he had full experience of the education given by the British system in the schools and colleges and in the universities, and he had been disgusted with it. That system, he had felt, tended to dull and impoverish and tie up the naturally quick and brilliant and supple Indian intelligence, and to teach bad intellectual habit and spirit by narrow information and mechanical instruction its originality and productivity. It is to be noted that the movement of National Education had begun well and many national schools were established in Bengal and many able men had become teachers. The development was, however, insufficient and the financial position of the schools was precarious. Sri Aurobindo had decided to take up the movement personally and see whether it could be given a greater expansion and a stronger foundation, but his departure from Bengal cut short that plan. In the process of repression and the general depression caused by it, most of the schools failed to survive.
But the idea has lived on, and the perpetual continuity of the National Council of Education, which is a live organisation even today, can become a catalytic agent of major and revolutionary changes in the present system of education. In that process, Sri Aurobindo’s own writings on national system of education and the experiments carried out subsequently at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, as also those which are being conducted at Auroville and many other institutions which have been inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of education, can provide a powerful support and guidance.
As is well known, Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of articles on education in the Karmayogin during 1909‑10 under the titles “A System of National Education” and “The National Value of Art”. He also wrote a preface on “National Education” which appeared in the Arya in 1920 in two parts. His book The Synthesis of Yoga in which we find extraordinary insights in regard to education appeared serially in the Arya from August 1914 to January 1921 in four parts.
Sri Aurobindo stated that the basic issue lay, in the national system of education, not between modernism and antiquity but between an imported civilisation and the greater possibility of the Indian mind and nature, not between the present and the past, but between the present and the future. According to him, the national system of education should mark a break forward away from the present artificial falsity to India’s own greater innate potentialities which are demanded by the soul of India. He argued that the aim and principle of a true national education is not to ignore modern truth and knowledge, but to take our foundation on India’s own being, own mind and own spirit. He further argued that the idea of national education challenges the sufficiency of the assumption that the modem European civilisation is a thing that we have to acquire and fit ourselves for, and so only can, we live and prosper and that is what our education must do for us. He pointed out that India would do better, taking over whatever new knowledge or just idea the West has to offer to assimilate to its own knowledge and culture, its native temperament and spirit, mind and social genius and create therefrom the civilisation of the future.
Sri Aurobindo considered that India has seen always in the human being his soul, a part of tile divinity enwrapped in the mind and the body, a conscious manifestation in Nature of the universal self and spirit. He concluded that the one central object of the national system of education should be the growth of the soul and its powers and possibilities as also the preservation, strengthening and enrichment of the national soul and normative needs of its ascending movement. He also put forth in its aim the raising of both the individual soul and the national soul into the powers of life and ascending mind and soul of the humanity.
Sri Aurobindo has given to us a great heritage of profoundest philosophy of education which, if implemented, can prepare in young men and women of India the inspiration and method to become powerful instruments of Indian culture, its universality and its natural harmony and unity with the progressive forces of human civilisation which can culminate in the realisation of the ideal of human unity that recognises at once the freedom of each nation and the underlying oneness of the human species.
It is extremely gratifying that we are meeting here today under the patronage of the National Council of Education, which was founded by great leaders of the nationalist movement, including Bipin Chandra Pal, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore and Surendranath Banerjee. It is also befitting on this occasion that we are here today to join together in initiating a research project on “Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism”, and that a memorial fund has been constituted for the purpose in the name of Shri Prithwi Singh Nahar, who was an ardent and illumined disciple of Sri Aurobindo, and who had offered his entire life to the study and practice of the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He was a poet and an art critic as also a profound philosopher who had entire mastery over Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy and yoga. In fact, one of the immortal services that he has rendered to this philosophy and yoga is his 100‑page Index of The Life Divine, the philosophical magnum opus of Sri Aurobindo. I would like to mention also in this connection that during my college days, it was that Index which helped me immeasurably to understand the interconnection of complex and difficult ideas of this great philosophical work of Sri Aurobindo, and I am greatly indebted to him. I am also happy that this memorial fund has been created by the members of the family of Shri Prithwi Singh Nahar, all of whom have been my senior colleagues and whom I have respected and loved ever since I met them in 1956. On this occasion, I should also like to remember Shri Abhay Singh Nahar, one of the distinguished sons of Shri Prithwi Singh Nahar, who has recently passed away but with whom I had intimate level of friendship. His entire life was devoted to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry, and after his education under the direct guidance of the Mother, he had ably organised several services of the Ashram ranging from carpentry to construction and automobile workshop and transport. He was, indeed, heroic, courageous and scrupulously loyal to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the ideals that they had put forward for the integral yoga. I feel particularly happy that today, the 30th April, is his birthday, and that this fund is created on his birthday is to me a matter of special significance.
I am sure that the research project “Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism”, which is being launched today will prosper and will result in the production of numerous works that will bring to light Sri Aurobindo’s pioneering work in the discovery of the soul of India and in the birth of Indian nationalism of which the freedom of India has been one of the victorious results. There is so much to learn from Sri Aurobindo, and there is in him a perennial inspiration to practise the greatest lessons of the Indian heritage and Indian spirituality that can contribute the evergreen fruits to the world of its dynamic divine life, robust intellectuality and victorious vitality.
I feel deeply grateful to the National Council of Education for having invited me on this occasion and giving me a valuable opportunity to beta part of this programme and of the launching of the research project on Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism.
© Dr. Kireet Joshi, 2002