Remembering Sri Aurobindo's Nationalism in His Words


Sri Aurobindo at the Bengal National College in 1907 (courtesy Sri Aurobindo Institute)

15th August is celebrated as India’s Independence Day. It is also the birth date on the Gregorian calendar of one of India’s most celebrated children, a man who left an imprint in the temporal and spiritual worlds in a way few have.

That child of Bharat Mata, of Shakti, was Aurobindo Ghosh.

Dr. Karan Singh, a scholar on Indian philosophy, had written an interesting book about Aurobindo Ghosh many moons ago, calling him the ‘Prophet’ of Indian Nationalism. The choice of terminology seems rather problematic to this day, but perhaps one can forgive it for the intent it wishes to highlight - that the sleeping spirit of the nation, when it needed a jolt, a thousand watt powerful lightning strike, had the opportune man to do it in the form of Aurobindo Ghosh. 

For a man who had grown up in England, Sri Aurobindo’s fierce spirit of nationalism had a remarkable quality to it. While Dr. Karan Singh attributed to him the influence of his surgeon father’s news sharing about maltreatment of Indians by the British, it is said that Mazzini was a big influence on the way Aurobindo thought vis-a-vis India.

This much is clear; while yet at Cambridge Aurobindo had become imbued with deep patriotic fervour and a desire to dedicate himself to the liberation of his country from foreign rule. At that time of course his inspiration was exclusively European. It is very likely that he was influenced by Mazzini's Risorgimento. He was certainly influenced by the Irish patriotic movement that was at the time in full action. This is evident not only from his later writings when he returned to India, but also from his early poems written when he was still in England

And yet, the problem with this thesis never ends. This is especially true when one reads carefully of how Sri Aurobindo had conceived India to be. For instance, when he wrote an open letter to sections of Indians, calling out their hypocrisy, he chose to write the following:

To those who impugning the holiness of their Mother refuse to lift her out of danger lest they defile their own spotless hands,to those who call on her to purify herself before they will save her from the imminent & already descending sword of Death, — greeting.

Or for that matter, when one looks closely at the Bhawani Mandir pamphlet that is believed to have been authored by him, we see the sharp difference in the nationalism of Sri Aurobindo from the nationalism that Europeans proposed:

For what is a nation? What is our mother-country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty Shakti, composed of the Shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation, just as Bhawani MahishaMardini sprang into being from the Shaktis of all the millions of gods assembled in one mass of force and welded into unity. The Shakti we call India, Bhawani Bharati, is the living unity of the Shaktis of three hundred millions of people; but she is inactive, imprisoned in the magic circle of tamas, the self-indulgent inertia and ignorance of her sons. To get rid of tamas we have but to wake the Brahma within.

Or for that matter, when he answers the question of who Bhawani is, one sees the strong distinction of approach in the ascription of divinity to the nation, the land of the ancestors and the adherents to its civilization in the same pamphlet.

When, therefore, you ask who is Bhawani the mother, She herself answers you, “I am the Infinite Energy which streams forth from the Eternal in the world and Eternal in yourselves. I am the Mother of the Universe, the Mother of the Worlds, and for you who are children of the Sacred land, aryabhumi, made of her clay and reared by her sun and winds, I am Bhawani Bharati, Mother of India.”

Or in explaining what a nation is, Sri Aurobindo’s reference to analogies from Sanatana traditions marks a stark difference in the way people would see from a European perspective:

The country, the land is only the outward body of the nation, its annamaya kosh, or gross physical body; the mass of people, the life of millions who occupy and vivify the body of the nation with their presence, is the pranamaya kosh, the life-body of the nation. These two are the gross body, the physical manifestation of the Mother. Within the gross body is a subtler body, the thoughts, the literature, the philosophy, the mental and emotional activities, the sum of hopes, pleasures, aspirations, fulfilments, the civilisation and culture, which make up the sukshma sharir of the nation. This is as much a part of the Mother’s life as the outward existence which is visible to the physical eyes. This subtle life of the nation again springs from a deeper existence in the causal body of the nation, the peculiar temperament which it has developed out of its ages of experience and which makes it distinct from others. These three are the bodies of the Mother, but within them all is the Source of her life, immortal and unchanging, of which every nation is merely one manifestation, the universal Narayan, One in the Many of whom we are all the children.

In 1907, when writing about the Bengali poet and author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya and giving him the title of Rishi, Sri Aurobindo had this to write on the divinity of Bharat Mata, a concept distinct from the conception of motherland as seen in the European context:

It is not till the motherland reveals herself to the eye of the mind as something more than a stretch of earth or a mass of individuals, it is not till she takes shape as a great Divine and Maternal Power in a form of beauty that can dominate the mind and seize the heart that these petty fears and hopes vanish in the all-absorbing passion for our mother and her service, and the patriotism that works miracles and saves a doomed nation is born.

And indeed, the view of this nationalism went to its logical conclusion. While criticising Rash Behari Bose’s speech in the council, Sri Aurobindo laid out clearly the definition of what ‘nationalists’ meant in the Indian context, placing it absolutely distinct from loyalists, moderates, extremists and all the other wordsoup of its time:

The Nationalists hold that Indians are as capable of freedom as any subject nation can be and their defects are the result of servitude and can only be removed by the struggle for freedom; that they have the strength, and, if they get the will, can create the means to win independence. They hold that the choice is  not between autonomy and provincial Home Rule or between freedom and dependence, but between freedom and national decay and death. They hold, finally, that the past history of our country and the present circumstances are of such a kind that the great unifying tendencies hitherto baffled by insuperable obstacles have at last found the right conditions for success. They believe that the fated hour for Indian unification and freedom has arrived. In brief they are convinced that India should strive to be free, that she can be free and that she will, by the impulse of her past and present, be inevitably driven to the attempt and the attainment of national self-realisation. The Nationalist creed is a gospel of faith and hope.

Even in examining the failures of why Indians became slaves, Sri Aurobindo was very clear:

The great weakness of India in the past has been the political depression and nullity of the mass of the population. It was not from the people of India that India was won by Moghul or Briton, but from a small privileged class. On the other hand the strength and success of the Marathas and Sikhs in the eighteenth century was due to the policy of Shivaji and Guru Govind which called the whole nation into the fighting line. They failed only because the Marathas could not preserve the cohesion which Shivaji gave to their national strength or the Sikhs the discipline which Guru Govind gave to the Khalsa.

To conclude this collection of his thoughts, it would perhaps be best to point out how he saw freedom, and in his own words from 1908, give a hint about why perhaps he gave up everything to become a sannyasi.

Without political freedom the soul of man is crippled. Only a few mighty spirits can rise above their surroundings, but the ordinary man is a slave of his surroundings and if those be mean, servile and degraded, he himself will be mean, servile and degraded. Social freedom can only be born where the soul of man is large, free and generous, not enslaved to petty aims and thoughts. Social freedom is not a result of social machinery but of the freedom of the human intellect and the nobility of the human soul. A man who follows petty ends cannot feel his brotherhood with his fellows, for he is always striving to raise himself above them and assert petty superiorities. If caste makes him superior or money makes him superior, he will hug to his bosom the distinctions of caste or the distinctions of wealth.


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