The Relevance of Sri Aurobindo in the development of modern India
I feel greatly honored for the invitation to speak at the Andhra University. As you are all aware, it was the Andhra University that gave the Sir Cattamanchi Ramalinga Reddy National Prize to Sri Aurobindo at a Convocation held at the University on 11 December 1948.
Sri Aurobindo is well known all over the world as a great spiritual personality, as the harbinger of the concept of Integral Yoga, and as the Avatar of the Supermind. However, it is as important to know that he considered the worldly life as an integral part of the divine life; as a consequence he has written and commented on many of the problems of the modern world, anticipating many of the problems both of India and the world and suggesting solutions. As a matter of fact, on the very day that India got her freedom he gave a message. It may also be noted that 15th August is the birthday of Sri Aurobindo. I am reading some parts of the message.
15th AUGUST 1947
August 15th, 1947 is the birthday of free India. . . . August 15th is my own birthday and it is naturally gratifying to me that it should have assumed this vast significance. I take this coincidence, not as a fortuitous accident, but as a sanction and seal of the Divine Force that guides my steps on the work with which I began life, the beginning of its full fruition. Indeed, on this day I can watch almost all the world movements which I hoped to see fulfilled in my life time, though then they looked like impracticable dreams, arriving at fruition or on their way to achievement. In all these movements free India may well play a large part and take a leading position.
The first of these dreams was a revolutionary movement which would create a free and united India. India today is free but she has not achieved unity. The old communal division into Hindus and Muslims seems now to have hardened into a permanent political division of the country. It is to be hoped that this settled fact will not be accepted as settled forever or as anything more than a temporary expedient. For if it lasts, India may be seriously weakened, even crippled: civil strife may remain always possible, possible even a new invasion and foreign conquest. India’s internal development and prosperity may be impeded, her position among the nations weakened, her destiny impaired or even frustrated. This must not be; the partition must go. Let us hope that that may come about naturally, by an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action, by the practice of common action and the creation of means for that purpose. . . . But by whatever means, in whatever way, the division must go; unity must and will be achieved, for it is necessary for the greatness of India’s future.
Another dream was for the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia and her return to her great role in the progress of human civilization. . . .
The third dream was a world union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind. That unification of the human world is under way; for unification is a necessity of Nature, an inevitable movement. . . . the unification is therefore to the interests of all, and only human imbecility and stupid selfishness can prevent it; but these cannot stand forever against the necessity of Nature and the Divine Will. . . .
Another dream, the spiritual gift of India to the world has already begun. Amid the disasters of the time more and more eyes are turning towards her with hope and there is even an increasing resort not only to her teachings, but to her psychic and spiritual practice.
The final dream was 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. Here too, the initiative can come from India and, although the scope must be universal, the central movement may be hers. “
It is evident that Sri Aurobindo was in close touch with all the problems of India and the world and was working in his own spiritual way for their betterment.
As is evident from this message, in the view of Sri Aurobindo all problems, including the most mundane ones, can be solved only on the basis of a living and dynamic spirituality. As a matter of fact, he stressed this in his message to this very Andhra University on 11 December 1948. He wrote:
“It would be a tragic irony of fate if India were to throw away her spiritual heritage at the very moment when in the rest of the world there is more and more a turning towards her for spiritual help and a saving Light. This must not and will surely not happen; but it cannot be said that the danger is not there. There are indeed other numerous and difficult problems that face this country or will very soon face it. No doubt we will win through, but we must not disguise from ourselves the fact that after these long years of subjection and its cramping and impairing effects a great inner as well as outer liberation and change, a vast inner and outer progress is needed if we are to fulfil India’s true destiny”.
In this talk I shall take up some of the burning issues that confront India today and suggest some means of how to bring about this inner liberation in the light of Sri Aurobindo.
I take up 4 issues of concern as the central theme of my talk. These issues are:
- The communal problem, more particularly the Hindu-Muslim problem.
- The very divisive political system that is being practiced today in India
- The education system which is still in many ways a continuation of the system of Macaulay.
- The problems of globalization and Swadeshi
The Communal problem
One of the most serious and apparently intractable problems facing India since the beginning of the last century is the communal problem and more precisely the Hindu-Muslim problem. As you are all aware, Sri Aurobindo had taken an active part in the Freedom Movement in the earlier part of the twentieth century; his advent into politics gave a completely new turn to Indian politics and was based on the deeper strengths of Indian culture, namely spirituality.
Even in those early days, Sri Aurobindo was aware of the communal problem and had warned about the dangers regarding the Hindu-Muslim differences. He made suggestions to resolve these differences as early as in 1909. Let us take a look at some of the statements made by Sri Aurobindo at that time and see how relevant they are even today.
When the British as part of their policy of divide and rule, were contemplating separate electoral representations for the Hindus and the Muslims, he wrote:
“The question of separate representation for the Mohammedan community is one of those momentous issues raised in haste by a statesman unable to appreciate the forces with which he is dealing, which bear fruit no man expected and least of all the ill-advised Frankenstein who was responsible for its creation. …. Our own attitude is clear. We will have no part or lot in reforms, which give no popular majority, no substantive control, no opportunity for Indian capacity and statesmanship, no seed for Indian democratic expansion. We will not for a moment accept separate electorates or separate representation, not because we are opposed to a large Mohammedan influence in popular assemblies when they come but because we will be no party to a distinction which recognizes Hindu and Mohammedan as permanently separate political units and thus precludes the growth of single and indivisible Indian nation. We oppose any such attempt at division whether it comes from an embarrassed Government seeking for political support or from an embittered Hindu community allowing the passions of the moment to obscure their vision of the future.”
Regarding the relations between Hindus and Muslims he wrote:
“But the country, the swadesh, which must be the base and fundament of our nationality, is India, a country where Mohammedan and Hindu live intermingled and side by side. The Mohammedans base their separateness and their refusal to regard themselves as Indians first and Mohammedans afterwards on the existence of great Mohammedan nations to which they feel themselves more akin, in spite of our common birth and blood, than to us. Hindus have no such resource. For good or evil, they are bound to the soil and to the soil alone. They cannot deny their Mother nor can they mutilate her. Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists by the greatness of his past, his civilization and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself”.
On bringing about Hindu-Muslim unity he wrote:
“Of one thing we may be certain, that Hindu-Muslim unity cannot be affected by political adjustments or Congress flatteries. It must be sought deeper down in the heart and in the mind, for where the causes of disunion are there the remedies must be sought. We shall do well in trying to solve the problem to remember that misunderstanding is the most fruitful cause of our differences, that love compels love and that strength conciliates the strong. We must strive to remove the causes of misunderstanding by a better mutual knowledge and sympathy; we must extend the unfaltering love of the patriot to our Mussulman brother, remembering always that in him too Narayana dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom; but we must cease to approach him falsely or flatter out of a selfish weakness and cowardice. We believe this to be the only practical way of dealing with the difficulty. As a political question the Hindu-Muslim problem does not interest us at all, as a national problem it is of supreme importance. We shall make it a main part of our work to place Mohammed and Islam in a new light before our readers to spread juster views of Mohammedan history and civilization, to appreciate the Musulman’s place in our national development and the means of harmonizing his communal life with our own, not ignoring the difficulties that stand in the way of the possibilities of brotherhood and mutual understanding. Intellectual sympathy can only draw together; the sympathy of the heart can alone unite. But the one is a good preparation for the other”.
When we take a close look at these statements, three points come out clearly. They are:
- We must become Indian first and foremost and all religious or other affiliations are secondary.
- Hinduism is the basis of Indian culture but it is a Hinduism that is wide enough to absorb the Islamic religion and every other religion.
- Hindu-Muslim unity cannot be brought about by political means; it has to come by making a deep and sincere study of the religions which will lead to a greater understanding and harmony. To fulfill this purpose, institutions could be set up which will study all the religions and bring about a deeper harmony among them. Ultimately we have to move from religion to spirituality.
Another very important passage from Sri Aurobindo on the contributions of different religions is:
“Each religion has helped mankind. Paganism increased in man the light of beauty, the largeness and height of his life, his aim at a many-sided perfection. Christianity gave him some vision of Divine love and charity, Buddhism has shown him a noble way to be wiser, gentler and purer; Judaism and Islam, how to be religiously faithful in action and zealously devoted to God; Hinduism has opened to him the largest and profoundest spiritual possibilities. A great thing would be done if all these God-visions could embrace and cast themselves into each other; but intellectual dogma and cult-egoism stand in the way.
All religions have saved a number of souls, but none yet has been able to spiritualize mankind. For that there is needed not cult and creed, but a sustained and all comprehending effort at spiritual self-evolution.”
The message is clear, we have to go beyond narrow religion and graduate into spirituality. Unfortunately, the political system as it is practiced in India encourages indirectly and sometimes directly all the narrow religious, regional and fissiparous tendencies. This seems to be the inevitable consequence of the party system that we have adopted.
The Political System
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively about the renaissance taking place in India; he noted that it was particularly strong and vibrant in most of the fields of culture. The only exception was in the political field.
He remarked that this presented a serious danger to the soul of India. For a political Westernization of India would be followed by a social turn of the same kind and bring a cultural and spiritual death in its train. It is indispensable therefore that in the political field there has to be a true renaissance based on the genuine Indian political temperament and culture. One cannot ignore or minimize this danger as one sees that even today we are still hypnotized by the Western model in the field of politics, either by the Parliamentary type of democracy or by the Communist model.
It should be evident to all intelligent observers of Indian politics that the country has become very badly divided and this is the biggest obstacle to the development and growth of the Indian nation. The solution to this state of affairs lies in creating a national government, a government where the national interest is paramount, and the party interest must be relegated to a secondary position. India will have thus to find out its own political system. This needs a serious debate and consultation. The time has come to start this process.
In this talk, I am suggesting some lines on which a debate can take place in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s political thought.
Sri Aurobindo wrote in the beginning of the twentieth century:
“Spirituality is India’s only politics…… I have no doubt we shall have to go through our Parliamentary period in order to get rid of the notion of Western democracy by seeing in practice how helpless it is to make nations blessed. India is passing really through the first stages of a sort of national Yoga.
In another context he said:
Nowadays people want the modern type of democracy—the parliamentary form of government. The parliamentary system is doomed.
[In India] one should begin with the old Panchayat system in the villages and then work up to the top. The Panchayat system and the guilds are more representative and they have a living contact with people; they are part of the people’s ideas. On the contrary, the parliamentary system with local bodies—the municipal councils—is not workable: these councils have no living contact with the people; the councillors make only platform speeches and nobody knows what they do for three or four years; at the end they reshuffle and rearrange the whole thing, making their own pile during their period of power.
Certainly, democracy as it is now practised is not the last or penultimate stage; for it is often merely democratic in appearance and even at the best amounts to the rule of the majority and works by the vicious method of party government, defects the increasing perception of which enters largely into the present-day dissatisfaction with parliamentary systems.
The solution lies in probably in the line of action as proposed in the following message..
In a message given by the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram to the Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, in 1969, she wrote:
Let India work for the future and take the lead. Thus she will recover her true place in the world.
Since long it was the habit to govern through division and opposition. The time has come to govern through union, mutual understanding and collaboration.
To choose a collaborator, the value of the man is more important than the party to which he belongs.
The greatness of a country does not depend on the victory of a party, but on the union of all parties”.
Sri Aurobindo also believed that the State must not take too much power into itself. He was clear that the State had a limited role to play. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
The business of the State, so long as it continues to be a necessary element in human life and growth, is to provide all possible facilities for cooperative action, to remove obstacles, to prevent all really harmful waste and friction, and, removing avoidable injustice, to secure for every individual a just and equal chance of self-development and satisfaction to the extent of his powers and in the line of his nature. So far the aim in modern socialism is right and good. But all unnecessary interference with the freedom of man’s growth is or can be harmful. Even cooperative action is injurious if, instead of seeking the good of all compatibly with the necessities of individual growth,—and without individual growth there can be no real and permanent good of all,—it immolates the individual to a communal egoism and prevents so much free room and initiative as is necessary for the flowering of a more perfectly developed humanity.
Sri Aurobindo believed in giving freedom to the individual and not too much government control:
“I have no faith in government controls, because I believe in a certain amount of freedom—freedom to find out things for oneself in one’s own way, even freedom to commit blunders. Nature leads us through various errors and mistakes; when Nature created the human being with all his possibilities for good and ill she knew very well what she was about. Freedom for experiment in human life is a great thing. Without the freedom to take risks and commit mistakes there can be no progress.”
Describing the present state of government, particularly Socialism and Communism he wrote:
“In Socialism you have the State which intervenes at every step with its officials who rob money…. It is the State bureaucracy that dictates the policy irrespective of the good of the commune. In Communism they hold the land as the common property of the whole unit, and each one is entitled to labour and to have his share from the produce.
In India we had a kind of communism in the villages. The whole village was like a big family and the lowest had his right as a member of the family. The washerman, the carpenter, the blacksmith, the barber, all got what they needed. That is the only communism that is practicable. Each such commune can be independent and many such units can be scattered all over the country and they can combine or coordinate their activities for a common purpose.
Regarding the capitalist class, he wrote:
It is better not to destroy the capitalist class as the Socialists want to: they are the source of national wealth. They should be encouraged to spend for the nation. Taxing is all right, but you must increase production, start new industries, and also raise the standard of living; without that if you increase the taxes there will be a state of depression.
It will not be possible to present in any detail in this talk about the system that we can adopt, for that has to evolve by serious discussion and unbiased thinking; but it is imperative that this process is started immediately at the national level on changing the political system on non-party political lines, always keeping in mind the interests of the country.
The Education system
In the year 1906, Sri Aurobindo became the Principal of the National College of Education in Calcutta. In that context he wrote a series of articles on education and described briefly what he termed a national education. “It is the education which starting with the past and making full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of our national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing us the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that Europe can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these we must harmonise into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines.”
Sri Aurobindo always had great hopes in the young; it is interesting to note that according to the latest census, there are 336 million Indians below the age of 15, another 121 million between the age of 15 and 19 and 271 million between the age of 20 and 34. In sum more than 70% of Indians are below 34 years of age. It is a very happy augury for the future. Sri Aurobindo always had tremendous faith in the youth of India. He wrote:
“Our call is to young India. It is the young who must be the builders of the new world — not those who accept the competitive individualism, the capitalism or the materialistic communism of the West as India’s future ideal, not those who are enslaved to old religious formulas and cannot believe in the acceptance and transformation of life by the spirit, but all who are free in mind and heart to accept a completer truth and labour for a greater ideal.”
Sri Aurobindo had little love for British education in India, which he called a “mercenary and soulless education,” and for its debilitating influence on the “the innate possibilities” of the Indian brain. “In India,” he said, “the students generally have great capacities, but the system of education represses and destroys these capacities.” As in every field, he wanted India to carve out her own path courageously.
But the full soul rich with the inheritance of the past, the widening gains of the present, and the large potentiality of the future, can come only by a system of National Education. It cannot come by any extension or imitation of the system of the existing universities with its radically false principles, its vicious and mechanical methods, its dead-alive routine tradition and its narrow and sightless spirit. Only a new spirit and a new body born from the heart of the Nation and full of the light and hope of its resurgence can create it.
It is beyond this brief presentation to spell out the features of a national education as Sri Aurobindo envisioned it; let me just mention that he laid great stress on the cultivation of powers of thought and concentration, which runs counter to the present system of rote learning. The student had to be trained to think freely and deeply: “I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness,” Sri Aurobindo observed in 1920, “is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge. Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think.” Sri Aurobindo also insisted on mastery of one’s mother-tongue, on the teaching of Sanskrit, which he certainly did not regard as a “dead language,” on artistic values based on the old spirit of Indian art, all of which he saw as essential to the integral development of the child’s personality. In short, nothing whether Indian or Western was rejected, but all had to be integrated in the Indian spirit.
This is clearly not the line Indian education has taken. If we see today that nothing even of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana is taught to an Indian child, we can measure the abyss to be bridged. That the greatest epics of mankind should be thrown away on the absurd and erroneous pretext that they are “religious” is beyond the comprehension of an impartial observer. A German or French or English child will be taught something of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, because they are regarded as the root of European culture, and somehow present in the European consciousness. He will not be asked to worship Zeus or Athena, but will be shown how the Ancients saw and experienced the world and the human being. But Indian epics, a hundred times richer and vaster in human experience, a thousand times more present in the Indian consciousness, will not be taught to an Indian child. Not to speak of other important texts such as the beautiful Tamil epics, Shilappadikaram and Manimekhalai. Even the Panchatantra and countless other highly educational collections of Indian stories — even folk stories — are ruled out.
The result is that young Indians are increasingly deprived from their rightful heritage, cut off from their deeper roots. We note that a French or English child will be given at least some semblance of cultural identity, whatever its worth; but here, in this country which not long ago had the most living culture in the world, a child is given no nourishing food — only some insipid, unappetizing hodgepodge, cooked in the West and pickled in India. This means that in the name of some irrational principles, India as an entity is throwing away some of its most precious treasures. As Sri Aurobindo put it:
“Ancient India’s culture, attacked by European modernism, overpowered in the material field, betrayed by the indifference of her children, may perish for ever along with the soul of the nation that holds it in its keeping”.
Certainly some aberration worked upon the minds of those who devised Indian education after Independence. Or perhaps they devised nothing but were content with dusting off Macaulay’s brainchild. It is painful to see that the teaching of Sanskrit is almost systematically discouraged in India ; it is painful to see that the deepest knowledge of the human being, that of yogic science, is discarded in favour of shallow Western psychology or psychoanalysis; it is painful to see that the average Indian student never even hears the name of Sri Aurobindo, who did so much for his country ; and that, generally, Western intellectualism at its worst is the only food given to a nation whom Sri Aurobindo described as once the “deepest-thoughted.”
One very important point in education that needs to be stressed is that education should improve the quality of life; it must be oriented to practical skills to face the outer world and psychological skills to master the inner world. A mere academic training without its application to life is of no great use.
Finally, education should not be restricted to the academic institutions; in fact, all life is education.
It is time that we address these central questions in the very near future, even as the Western edifice crumbles. Again and again, in the clearest and strongest terms, Sri Aurobindo asserted that India can never survive as a nation if she neglects or rejects what was always the source of her strength. And that strength is spirituality, a life-embracing spirituality.
Globalization and Swadeshi
The modern world is faced with the phenomenon of globalization on an unprecedented scale. The scientific and technological revolutions in the last half century and more have broken the barriers of space and time and turned the world into a village. One of the consequences of this has been the total interdependence of nations on all the levels, political, economic, intellectual and cultural. All nations, whether rich or poor, are now interlinked as never before. While this is a happy development in many ways, it carries with it some serious dangers, particularly to developing and weak nations.
India is today confronted with this huge rush of modern life and thought. It is invaded by the Western civilization that is in many ways almost her opposite or inspired at least with a very different spirit to her own. This invasion is particularly strong in the cultural field and it carries with it the danger of being affected on all other planes, political, economic and social.
How do we face this situation?
On the face of it, we see two reactions.
The first reaction is to accept almost all that comes from the West and imitate their civilization. This approach carries with it serious dangers for it might mean the loss of our culture and separate identity. This will be neither good for India nor for the world; for India has a very unique and special message for the world.
The second one is to try to resist this invasion by shutting our doors to all external influence. This method is neither possible nor even desirable.
In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
“Even if to stand still and stiff within our well-defended gates were desirable, it is no longer possible. We can no longer take our single station apart in humanity, isolated like a solitary island in the desert ocean, neither going forth nor allowing to enter in,—if indeed we ever did it. For good or for ill the world is with us; the flood of modern ideas and forces are pouring in and will take no denial. There are two ways of meeting them, either to offer a forlorn and hopeless resistance or to seize and subjugate them. If we offer only an inert or stubborn passive resistance, they will still come in on us, break down our defenses where they are weakest, sap them where they are stiffer, and where they can do neither, steal in unknown or ill-apprehended by underground mine and tunnel. Entering unassimilated they will act as disruptive forces, and it will be only partly by outward attack, but much more by an inward explosion that this ancient Indian civilization will be shattered to pieces. Ominous sparks are already beginning to run about which nobody knows how to extinguish, and if we could extinguish them, we should be no better off, for we should yet have to deal with the source from which they are starting.”
What we need now is an aggressive defense. Aggressive defense 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.
In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
“To recover its own centre, find its own base and do whatever it has to do in its own strength and genius is certainly the one way of salvation. But even then a certain amount of acceptance, of forms too,—some imitation, if all taking over of forms must be called imitation,—is inevitable. We have, for instance, taken over in science not only the discoveries and inventions, but the method and instrumentation of inductive research, in politics the press, the platform, the forms and habits of agitation, the public association. I do not suppose that anyone seriously thinks of renouncing or exiling these modern additions to our life,—though they are not all of them by any means unmixed blessings,—on the ground that they are foreign importations. But the question is what we do with them and whether we can bring them to be instruments and by some characteristic modification moulds of our own spirit. If so, there has been an acceptance and assimilation; if not there has been merely a helpless imitation. But the taking over of forms is not the heart of the question”.
But what exactly do we mean by acceptance and assimilation?
“When I speak of acceptance and assimilation, I am thinking of certain influences, ideas, energies brought forward with a great living force by Europe, which can awaken and enrich our own cultural activities and cultural being if we succeed in dealing with them with a victorious power and originality, if we can bring them into our characteristic way of being and transform them by its shaping action. That was in fact what our own ancestors did, never losing their originality, never effacing their uniqueness, because always vigorously creating from within, with whatever knowledge or artistic suggestion from outside they thought worthy of acceptance or capable of an Indian treatment”.
The solution thus lies in keeping our windows wide open, but at the same time create from within and express in our characteristic way of being.
We shall conclude with this passage from Sri Aurobindo:
“There is in every individualized existence a double action, a self-development from within which is its greatest intimate power of being and by which it is itself, and a reception of impacts from outside which it has to accommodate to its own individuality and make into material of self-growth and self-power. The two operations are not mutually exclusive, nor is the second harmful to the first except when the inner genius is too weak to deal victoriously with its environmental world; on the contrary the reception of impacts stimulates in a vigorous and healthy being its force for self-development and is an aid to a greater and more pronouncedly characteristic self-determination. As we rise in the scale we find that the power of original development from within, of conscious self-determination increases more and more, while in those who live most powerfully in themselves it reaches striking, sometimes almost divine proportions. But at the same time we see that the allied power of seizing upon the impacts and suggestions of the outside world grows in proportion; those who live most powerfully in themselves, can also most largely use the world and all its material for the Self,—and, it must be added, most successfully help the world and enrich it out of their own being. The man who most finds and lives from the inner self, can most embrace the universal and become one with it; the Swarat, independent, self-possessed and self-ruler, can most be the Samrat, possessor and shaper of the world in which he lives, can most too grow one with all in the Atman. That is the truth this developing existence teaches us, and it is one of the greatest secrets of the old Indian spiritual knowledge.”