Criticism of Indian culture

WHEN we try to appreciate a culture, and when that

culture is the one in which we have grown up or from

which we draw our governing ideals and are likely

from overpartiality to minimise its deficiencies or from overfamiliarity

to miss aspects or values of it which would strike

an unaccustomed eye, it is always useful as well as interesting

to know how others see it. It will not move us to change our

view-point for theirs; but we can get fresh light from a study

of this kind and help our self-introspection. But there are different

ways of seeing a foreign civilisation and culture. There

is the eye of sympathy and intuition and a close appreciative

self-identification: that gives us work like Sister Nivedita’s Web

of Indian Life or Mr. Fielding’s book on Burma or Sir John

Woodroffe’s studies of Tantra. These are attempts to push aside

all concealing veils and reveal the soul of a people. It may well

be that they do not give us all the hard outward fact, but we are

enlightened of something deeper which has its greater reality;

we get not the thing as it is in the deficiencies of life, but its

ideal meaning. The soul, the essential spirit is one thing, the

forms taken in this difficult human actuality are another and

are often imperfect or perverted; neither can be neglected if we

would have a total vision. Then there is the eye of the discerning

and dispassionate critic who tries to see the thing as it is in its

intention and actuality, apportion the light and shade, get the

balance of merit and defect, success and failure, mark off that

which evokes appreciative sympathy from that which calls for

critical censure. We may not always agree; the standpoint is

different and by its externality, by failure of intuition and selfidentification

it may miss things that are essential or may not

get the whole meaning of that which it praises or condemns: still

we profit, we can add to our sense of shade and tone or correct

our own previous judgment. Finally there is the eye of the hostile

critic, convinced of the inferiority of the culture in question, who

gives plainly and honestly without deliberate overcharging what

he conceives to be sound reason for his judgment. That too has

its use for us; hostile criticism of this kind is good for the soul and

the intellect, provided we do not allow ourselves to be afflicted,

beaten down or shaken from the upholding centre of our living

faith and action. Most things in our human world are imperfect

and it is sometimes well to get a strong view of our imperfections.

Or, if nothing else, we can at least learn to appreciate opposite

standpoints and get at the source of the opposition; wisdom,

insight and sympathy grow by such comparisons.

But hostile criticism to be of any sound value must be criticism,

not slander and false witness, not vitriol-throwing: it must

state the facts without distortion, preserve consistent standards

of judgment, observe a certain effort at justice, sanity, measure.

Mr. William Archer’s well-known book on India, which

on account of its very demerits I have taken as the type of the

characteristicWestern or anti-Indian regard on our culture, was

certainly not of this character. It is not only that here we have a

wholesale and unsparing condemnation, a picture all shade and

no light: that is a recommendation, for Mr. Archer’s professed

object was to challenge the enthusiastic canonisation of Indian

culture by its admirers in the character of a devil’s advocate

whose business is to find out and state in its strongest terms

everything that can be said against the claim. And for us too it is

useful to have before us an attack which covers the whole field

so that we may see in one comprehensive view the entire enemy

case against our culture. But there are three vitiating elements

in his statement. First, it had an ulterior, a political object; it

started with the underlying idea that India must be proved altogether

barbarous in order to destroy or damage her case for

self-government. That sort of extraneous motive at once puts his

whole pleading out of court; for it means a constant deliberate

distortion in order to serve a material interest, foreign altogether

to the disinterested intellectual objects of cultural comparison

and criticism.

In fact this book is not criticism; it is literary or rather

journalistic pugilism. There too it is of a peculiar kind; it is a

furious sparring at a lay figure of India which is knocked down

at pleasure through a long and exuberant dance of misstatement

and exaggeration in the hope of convincing an ignorant

audience that the performer has prostrated a living adversary.

Sanity, justice, measure are things altogether at a discount: a

show-off of the appearance of staggering and irresistible blows

is the object held in view, and for that anything comes in handy,

—the facts are altogether misstated or clumsily caricatured,

the most extraordinary and unfounded suggestions advanced

with an air of obviousness, the most illogical inconsistencies

permitted if an apparent point can be scored. All this is not the

occasional freak of a well-informed critic suffering from a fit of

mental biliousness and impelled to work it off by an extravagant

intellectual exercise, an irresponsible fantasia or a hostile

war-dance around a subject with which he is not in sympathy.

That is a kind of extravagance, which is sometimes permissible

and may be interesting and amusing. It is a sweet and pleasant

thing, cries the Roman poet, to play the fool in place and right

season, dulce est desipere in loco. But Mr. Archer’s constant

departures into irrational extravagance are not by any means

in loco. We discover very soon,—in addition to his illegitimate

motive and his deliberate unfairness this is a third and worst

cardinal defect,—that for the most part he knew absolutely

nothing about the things on which he was passing his confident

damnatory judgments. What he has done is to collect together in

hismind all the unfavourable comments he had read about India,

eke them out with casual impressions of his own and advance

this unwholesome and unsubstantial compound as his original

production, although his one genuine and native contribution is

the cheery cocksureness of his secondhand opinions. The book

is a journalistic fake, not an honest critical production.

VOLUME 20

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO  P 199

The causes of the First World War

National egoism remaining, the means of strife remaining,
its causes, opportunities, excuses will never be wanting. The
present war came because all the leading nations had long been
so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a
Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and
colonial rivalries in Northern Africa over which the dominant
nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of
them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium
were mere determining circumstances; to get to the root causes
we have to go back as far at least as Agadir and Algeciras. From
Morocco to Tripoli, from Tripoli to Thrace and Macedonia,
from Macedonia to Herzegovina the electric chain ran with that
inevitable logic of causes and results, actions and their fruits
which we call Karma, creating minor detonations on its way
till it found the inflammable point and created that vast explosion
which has filled Europe with blood and ruins. Possibly
the Balkan question may be definitively settled, though that is
far from certain; possibly the definitive expulsion of Germany
from Africa may ease the situation by leaving that continent in
the possession of three or four nations who are for the present
allies. But even if Germany were expunged from the map and
its resentments and ambitions deleted as a European factor,
the root causes of strife would remain. There will still be an
Asiatic question of the Near and the Far East which may take
on new conditions and appearances and regroup its constituent
elements, but must remain so fraught with danger that if it is
stupidly settled or does not settle itself, it would be fairly safe to
predict the next great human collision with Asia as either its first
field or its origin. Even if that difficulty is settled, new causes
of strife must necessarily develop where the spirit of national
A First Step towards International Unity 391
egoism and cupidity seeks for satisfaction; and so long as it lives,
satisfaction it must seek and repletion can never permanently
satisfy it. The tree must bear its own proper fruit, and Nature is
always a diligent gardener.
Complete works of Sri Aurobindo Vol 25 p 390-391

The causes of the First World War

 

National egoism remaining, the means of strife remaining,

its causes, opportunities, excuses will never be wanting. The present war came because all the leading nations had long been

so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a

Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and

colonial rivalries in Northern Africa over which the dominant

nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of

them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium

were mere determining circumstances; to get to the root causes

we have to go back as far at least as Agadir and Algeciras. From

Morocco to Tripoli, from Tripoli to Thrace and Macedonia,

from Macedonia to Herzegovina the electric chain ran with that

inevitable logic of causes and results, actions and their fruits

which we call Karma, creating minor detonations on its way

till it found the inflammable point and created that vast explosion

which has filled Europe with blood and ruins. Possibly

the Balkan question may be definitively settled, though that is

far from certain; possibly the definitive expulsion of Germany

from Africa may ease the situation by leaving that continent in

the possession of three or four nations who are for the present

allies. But even if Germany were expunged from the map and

its resentments and ambitions deleted as a European factor,

the root causes of strife would remain. There will still be an

Asiatic question of the Near and the Far East which may take

on new conditions and appearances and regroup its constituent

elements, but must remain so fraught with danger that if it is

stupidly settled or does not settle itself, it would be fairly safe to

predict the next great human collision with Asia as either its first

field or its origin. Even if that difficulty is settled, new causes

of strife must necessarily develop where the spirit of national

egoism and cupidity seeks for satisfaction; and so long as it lives,

satisfaction it must seek and repletion can never permanently

satisfy it. The tree must bear its own proper fruit, and Nature is

always a diligent gardener.

 

National egoism remaining, the means of strife remaining,

its causes, opportunities, excuses will never be wanting. The present war came because all the leading nations had long been

so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a

Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and

colonial rivalries in Northern Africa over which the dominant

nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of

them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium

were mere determining circumstances; to get to the root causes

we have to go back as far at least as Agadir and Algeciras. From

Morocco to Tripoli, from Tripoli to Thrace and Macedonia,

from Macedonia to Herzegovina the electric chain ran with that

inevitable logic of causes and results, actions and their fruits

which we call Karma, creating minor detonations on its way

till it found the inflammable point and created that vast explosion

which has filled Europe with blood and ruins. Possibly

the Balkan question may be definitively settled, though that is

far from certain; possibly the definitive expulsion of Germany

from Africa may ease the situation by leaving that continent in

the possession of three or four nations who are for the present

allies. But even if Germany were expunged from the map and

its resentments and ambitions deleted as a European factor,

the root causes of strife would remain. There will still be an

Asiatic question of the Near and the Far East which may take

on new conditions and appearances and regroup its constituent

elements, but must remain so fraught with danger that if it is

stupidly settled or does not settle itself, it would be fairly safe to

predict the next great human collision with Asia as either its first

field or its origin. Even if that difficulty is settled, new causes

of strife must necessarily develop where the spirit of national

egoism and cupidity seeks for satisfaction; and so long as it lives,

satisfaction it must seek and repletion can never permanently

satisfy it. The tree must bear its own proper fruit, and Nature is

always a diligent gardener.

 

National egoism remaining, the means of strife remaining,

its causes, opportunities, excuses will never be wanting. The present war came because all the leading nations had long been

so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a

Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and

colonial rivalries in Northern Africa over which the dominant

nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of

them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium

were mere determining circumstances; to get to the root causes

we have to go back as far at least as Agadir and Algeciras. From

Morocco to Tripoli, from Tripoli to Thrace and Macedonia,

from Macedonia to Herzegovina the electric chain ran with that

inevitable logic of causes and results, actions and their fruits

which we call Karma, creating minor detonations on its way

till it found the inflammable point and created that vast explosion

which has filled Europe with blood and ruins. Possibly

the Balkan question may be definitively settled, though that is

far from certain; possibly the definitive expulsion of Germany

from Africa may ease the situation by leaving that continent in

the possession of three or four nations who are for the present

allies. But even if Germany were expunged from the map and

its resentments and ambitions deleted as a European factor,

the root causes of strife would remain. There will still be an

Asiatic question of the Near and the Far East which may take

on new conditions and appearances and regroup its constituent

elements, but must remain so fraught with danger that if it is

stupidly settled or does not settle itself, it would be fairly safe to

predict the next great human collision with Asia as either its first

field or its origin. Even if that difficulty is settled, new causes

of strife must necessarily develop where the spirit of national

egoism and cupidity seeks for satisfaction; and so long as it lives,

satisfaction it must seek and repletion can never permanently

satisfy it. The tree must bear its own proper fruit, and Nature is

always a diligent gardener.

Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo Vol p 390-391

 

Indian culture in peril

 

India if she adheres to her own civilisation,
if she cherishes its spiritual motive, if she clings to its spiritual
principle of formation, will stand out as a living denial,
a hideous “blot” upon this fair, luminous, rationalistic world.
Either she must Europeanise, rationalise, materialise her whole
being and deserve liberty by the change or else she must be kept
in subjection and administered by her cultural superiors: her
people of three hundred million religious savages must be held
down firmly, taught and civilised by her noble and enlightened
Christian-atheistic European warders and tutors. A grotesque
statement in form, but in substance it has in it the root of the
matter. As against the attack—not universal, for understanding
and appreciation of Indian culture are now more common than
before,—India is indeed awaking and defending herself, but not
sufficiently and not with the whole-heartedness, the clear sight
and the firm resolution which can alone save her from the peril.
Today it is close; let her choose,—for the choice is imperatively
before her, to live or to perish.

VOLUME 20
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO p 61

 

The need of an aggressive defence of Indian culture

 

There arises the necessity of a defence and a strong, even

an aggressive defence; for only an aggressive defence can be

effective in the conditions of the modern struggle. But here we

find ourselves brought up against an opposite turn of mind and

its stark obstructive temper. For there are plenty of Indians

now who are for a stubbornly static defence, and whatever

aggressiveness they put into it consists in a rather vulgar and

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. As if

all the later clumsy and chaotic developments were laid down

by those much misused, much misapplied and often very much

forged founders of our culture. But the question is whether a

static defence is of any effective value. I hold that it is of no

value, because it is inconsistent with the truth of things and

doomed to failure. It amounts to an attempt to sit stubbornly

still while the Shakti of the world is rapidly moving on her way,

and not only the Shakti of the world but the Shakti in India also.

It is a determination to live only on our past cultural capital, to

eke it out, small as it has grown in our wasteful and incompetent

hands, to the last anna: but to live on our capital without using

it for fresh gains is to end in bankruptcy and pauperism. The

past has to be used and spent as mobile and current capital for

some larger profit, acquisition and development of the future:

but to gain we must release, we must part with something in

order to grow and live more richly,—that is the universal law of

existence. Otherwise the life within us will stagnate and perish

in its immobile torpor. Thus to shrink from enlargement and

change is too a false confession of impotence. It is to hold that

India’s creative capacity in religion and in philosophy came to

an end with Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa and Chaitanya and

in social construction with Raghunandan and Vidyaranya. It is

to rest in art and poetry either in a blank and uncreative void

or in a vain and lifeless repetition of beautiful but spent forms

and motives. It is to cling to social forms that are crumbling and

will continue to crumble in spite of our efforts and risk to be crushed in their collapse.

Aggressive defence implies a new creation from this inner

and commanding vision and while it demands a bringing of what

we have to a more expressive force of form, it must allow also

an effective assimilation of whatever is useful to our new life

and can be made harmonious with our spirit. Battle, shock and

struggle themselves are no vain destruction; they are a violent

cover for Time’s great interchanges. Even the most successful

victor receives much from the vanquished and if sometimes he

appropriates it, as often it takes him prisoner. The Western attack

is not confined to a breaking down of the forms of Eastern

culture; there is at the same time a large, subtle and silent appropriation

of much that is valuable in the East for the enrichment

of occidental culture. Therefore to bring forward the glories of

our past and scatter on Europe and America as much of its

treasures as they will receive, will not save us. That liberality

will enrich and strengthen our cultural assailants, but for us it

will only serve to give a self-confidence which will be useless

and even misleading if it is not made a force of will for a greater

creation. What we have to do is to front the attack with new and

more powerful formations which will not only throw it back,

but even, where that is possible and helpful to the race, carry the

war into the assailant’s country. At the same time we must take

by a strong creative assimilation whatever answers to our own

needs and responds to the Indian spirit. In certain directions,

as yet all too few, we have begun both these movements. In

others we have simply created an unintelligent mixture or else

have taken and are still taking over rash, crude and undigested

borrowings. Imitation, a rough and haphazard borrowing of

the assailant’s engines and methods may be temporarily useful,

but by itself it is only another way of submitting to conquest.

A stark appropriation is not sufficient; successful assimilation

to the Indian spirit is the needed movement. The problem is

one of immense difficulty and stupendous in its proportions and

we have not yet approached it with wisdom and insight. All

the more pressing is the need to awaken to the situation and

meet it with original thinking and a conscious action wise and

powerful in insight and sure in process. A mastering and helpful

assimilation of new stuff into an eternal body has always been

in the past a peculiar power of the genius of India.

 

VOLUME 20

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO  P75-80

Difference between Indian and European culture

 

The whole root of difference between Indian and European

culture springs from the spiritual aim of Indian civilisation. It

is the turn which this aim imposes on all the rich and luxuriant

variety of its forms and rhythms that gives to it its unique

character. For even what it has in common with other cultures

gets from that turn a stamp of striking originality and solitary

greatness. A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of this

culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. Not only did it

make spirituality the highest aim of life, but it even tried, as far

as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to

turn the whole of life towards spirituality. But since religion is in

the humanmind the first native, if imperfect form of the spiritual

impulse, the predominance of the spiritual idea, its endeavour to

take hold of life, necessitated a casting of thought and action into

the religious mould and a persistent filling of every circumstance

of life with the religious sense; it demanded a pervadingly religio-philosophic

culture. The highest spirituality indeed moves in a

free and wide air far above that lower stage of seeking which

is governed by religious form and dogma; it does not easily

bear their limitations and, even when it admits, it transcends

them; it lives in an experience which to the formal religious

mind is unintelligible. But man does not arrive immediately at

that highest inner elevation and, if it were demanded from him

at once, he would never arrive there. At first he needs lower

supports and stages of ascent; he asks for some scaffolding of

dogma, worship, image, sign, form, symbol, some indulgence

and permission of mixed half-natural motive on which he can

stand while he builds up in him the temple of the spirit. Only

when the temple is completed, can the supports be removed,

the scaffolding disappear. The religious culture which now goes

by the name of Hinduism not only fulfilled this purpose, but,

unlike certain credal religions, it knew its purpose. It gave itself

no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no

universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no

single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or

cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward

endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided manystaged

provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it

had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the

eternal religion, san¯atana dharma. It is only if we have a just and

right appreciation of this sense and spirit of Indian religion that

we can come to an understanding of the true sense and spirit of

Indian culture.

Now just here is the first baffling difficulty over which the

European mind stumbles; for it finds itself unable to make out

what Hindu religion is. Where, it asks, is its soul? where is its

mind and fixed thought? where is the form of its body? How can

there be a religion which has no rigid dogmas demanding belief

on pain of eternal damnation, no theological postulates, even

no fixed theology, no credo distinguishing it from antagonistic

or rival religions? How can there be a religion which has no

papal head, no governing ecclesiastic body, no church, chapel

or congregational system, no binding religious form of any kind

obligatory on all its adherents, no one administration and discipline?

For the Hindu priests are mere ceremonial officiants

without any ecclesiastical authority or disciplinary powers and

the Pundits aremere interpreters of the Shastra, not the lawgivers

of the religion or its rulers. How again can Hinduism be called

a religion when it admits all beliefs, allowing even a kind of

high-reaching atheism and agnosticism and permits all possible

spiritual experiences, all kinds of religious adventures? The only

thing fixed, rigid, positive, clear is the social law, and even that

varies in different castes, regions, communities. The caste rules

and not the Church; but even the caste cannot punish a man for

his beliefs, ban heterodoxy or prevent his following a new revolutionary

doctrine or a new spiritual leader. If it excommunicates

Christian or Muslim, it is not for religious belief or practice, but

because they break with the social rule and order. It has been

asserted in consequence that there is no such thing as a Hindu

religion, but only a Hindu social system with a bundle of the

most disparate religious beliefs and institutions. The precious

dictum that Hinduism is a mass of folk-lore with an ineffective

coat of metaphysical daubing is perhaps the final judgment of

the superficial occidental mind on this matter.

 

VOLUME 20

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO P179-180