April 04, 2020
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The Elusive Aura Of Aurobindo

A cusp figure straddling the spiritual and political. How do Aurobindo’s ideas relate to the Hindu right, to Gandhi, to today’s debates?

The Elusive Aura Of Aurobindo
Illustration by Saahil
The Elusive Aura Of Aurobindo

In the middle of the current ‘nation-wide’ debate on nationalism, I am reminded of Sri Aurobindo. After all, he was a man hailed by most leading nationalists of his time, across ideologies. But the man Aurobindo was most impressed with was perhaps Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Among other things, he significantly praised Tilak for his balance between “progressive ideas” and “conservative temperament”. It is interesting that Aurobindo should recognise this paradox in Tilak as exceptional. It does throw some light on what Aurobindo perhaps regarded as a desirable balance for a nationalist.

In 1936, Aurobindo declined from meeting Jawaharlal Nehru, citing, “Jawaharlal is coming on a political mission and as president of the Congress, while we have to steer clear not only of politics but of the shadow of politics.” Aurobindo did not see the ashram as a site for politics the way Gandhi did. Though like Gandhi, Aurobindo believed the ashram to be a place for intense activity. But his project of “Swaraj” was primarily about spiritual regeneration. Gandhi was not only keen to meet Aurobindo in Pondicherry (an event that never took place), but he had also wired him in 1921 with a request to nominate him for the president of the upcoming Congress session. Aurobindo declined. He partly upheld Gandhi’s movement of “passive resistance” (which he conceived before Gandhi’s famous essay on Satyagraha was published), but also critiqued it for not being “masculine” enough. In his words: “We do not want to develop a nation of women who know only how to suffer and not how to strike.”

In contrast, Aurobindo offered his idea of “active resistance” against “illegal and violent methods of coercion”. In such cases, Aurobindo did not prefer “meek submission to illegal outrage”, in the name of passive resistance. Gandhi would have agreed to that description of “active resistance” as his idea of Satyagraha was full of intense, nonviolent activity. Aurobindo however calls for a measured necessity for violence, limited to “repelling attacks” that does not spill over into “aggressive resistance.” He believed there could be no compromise regarding the duty of “national manhood”. The concept of an assertive masculinity is fitted into this gendered idea of the nation as divine mother. It lies at the crux of Aurobindo’s national idea.

But Aurobindo offers a radical twist to his idea of the nation-as-mother by defining it not in terms of the “sacred” but in terms of the “divine”. In an essay on social reforms, Aurobindo talks about the impossibility of certain tenets of what was held “sacred” earlier, to be recreated in modern times. He writes, “Manu is no doubt national, but so is the animal sacrifice and the burnt offering. Because a thing is national of the past, it need not follow that it must be national of the future. It is stupid not to recognise altered conditions.” Gandhi says something very similar in Hind Swaraj, “The true dharma is unchanging, while tradition may change with time. If we were to follow some tenets of Manusmriti, there would be moral anarchy. We have quietly discarded them altogether.” There is a striking resemblance between Aurobindo’s divine/sacred schema and Gandhi’s dharma/tradition. If for Gandhi, dharma is eternal and tradition historical, for Aurobindo the idea of the “sacred” is historical, while the “divine” is something that being eternal, always belongs to the future.

Aurobindo looks at the past in “national” terms, and even conceives of “Sanatana Dharma” in terms of the spirit of national history. Nationalism, like sanatana dharma, is “eternal religion”. Nationalism is both “God” and “Nature”, it is divine nature. Aurobindo takes the idea of the nation far beyond its actual, historical invention in the modern west and its transportation to the colonies. He stretches the idea of the nation into the medieval and ancient era from a spiritually-imbued, orientalist perspective of a unified cultural ethos, as well as a historical one. The description is reminiscent of Hegel. “(T)o each nation”, writes Hegel, “a single principle, comprised under its geographical and anthropological existence.”

This principle, to Hegel, is also the “natural principle”, related to both “spirituality” and “divine law”. The unfolding of this national principle, “from its undeveloped infancy up to the time when, in the full manhood of free ethical self- consciousness, it presses in upon universal history”, is for Hegel, however, a movement within modernity and the development of the modern state. Aurobindo seems to be carving out a third place, between the Hegelian Left and the Hegelian Right. Though, like the Hegelian Right, Aurobindo does concur with the idea of the nation as ideal and destiny, he didn’t argue for an Absolute – restorative – order, where state and orthodox religion converged. Rather, Aurobindo developed a dialectic (like a Left Hegelian), quite unique in nature, between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘divine’, and threw the question of a synthesis into an unspecified and culturally heterogeneous idea of a ‘future’. For Aurobindo, the modern condition meant a facilitating moment for a new, historical reconciliation between faiths.

Aurobindo finds this “single principle” stretching far back into the time of the Vedas. He situates the “foundation” of this dharma in the Vedas, but he also finds it a “concealed divinity within Hinduism”. For Aurobindo, the gradual un-concealment of this spiritual “veil” would set the course for the “future of India”. It is an interesting paradox, where the revelatory status of the foundational text is thrown into the future where it may be “knowable or discoverable”. There is a certain Heideggerian resonance here for sure, which raises the question, whether Aurobindo meant the Vedas are yet to be understood, or that each era is meant to understand it differently and newly. Heidegger’s concept of the concealed and unconcealedness comes from the Greek word, ‘alethia’, which means “the unconcealedness of beings”. This unconcealedness, Heidegger clarifies, is neither factual nor propositional, “but a happening”. Since being exists and expresses itself in language, this unconcealedness is possible only in language. This unconcealedness for Heidegger raises the question regarding the “nature of truth”. Can this nature of truth be known in the future? Heidegger’s language suggests a paradox: The future, in relation to the “primitive” is also “futureless”. In his words: “What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure.” For Aurobindo, the future, in relation to the eternal, shines with a possibility, a promise. It is, for him, concealed in the language of the Vedas. But why grant a text the future, that Aurobindo grants divinity? What makes Manusmriti sacred, hence a thing of the past, and Vedas divine, hence a thing of the future?

I will hazard a short answer to this pertinent question, since it is beyond the scope of this essay. For Aurobindo, the epistemological content of the Vedas is a “concealed” one, as noted above. He does not give this idea any casteist sanction, but relates it to its future-ness. The other aspect Aurobindo attaches crucial importance to in The Secret of the Veda is the element of “sacrifice”. Delving into the various “symbolic” aspects of sacrifice, Aurobindo considers this sacrificial moment as the foundational one for the spiritual law of being, the law of spiritual being. It can be compared to Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘mythical violence’ that is law-founding and blood-spilling, a conservative and restorative form of violence. The idea and act of sacrifice marks a certain ritual and scriptural sanction into the world of the ‘divine’. Sacrifice here appears to be the act that allows the state of exception from embracing the (norm of) divine law. But this law is not entirely understood by Aurobindo as a norm. As he says elsewhere: “This sanatana dharma has many scriptures, Veda, Vedanta, Gita, Upanishads… nor could it reject the Bible and the Koran; but its real, most authoritative scripture is in the heart in which the Eternal has His dwelling.” So despite giving the Vedas a higher scriptural and “foundational” sanction (and one may ask, is the ‘foundation’ pure? Is its ‘light’, uncontaminated by the ‘shadow’ of caste?), Aurobindo treats it among other such texts in terms of what exceeds these texts. The future of the divine law, one learns from Aurobindo, simply lies in the heart. No text, despite its inclusion in the ‘nation’s’ spiritual history, can guarantee or claim that future.

In the statement on Manu we saw earlier, Aurobindo makes a distinction between something regarded sacred in the past that need not be considered “national” in the future. There is a strong idea of the “future” in Aurobindo’s nationalism, and one may align it with the idea of the “divine”. The divine law is analogous to the idea of natural law, where violent means can be conceived to achieve just ends. But the divine is also aligned to the future, towards a law of the future, where certain specific texts/ideas of the past are to be relinquished. But what is this violence of divine law that is non-textual, non-sacred? What spirit does it embody? Is the divine law a mystical/spiritual law? In The Divine Life, Aurobindo finds it as much in material things – life, labour and vitality, as much in the spiritual. Divine law seems like an inexhaustible idea or “force”. The question appears: Are there comparable elements of Aurobindo’s idea with Benjamin’s idea of ‘divine violence’? For Benjamin, ‘divine violence’ is violence of pure means, a law-establishing violence which demands bloodless sacrifice and the establishment of (a new) justice. It is both a task and an event. In Aurobindo’s case, the ‘divine task’ is attached to the moment of ‘sacrifice’, symbolic or real. As an event, Aurobindo retains the idea of both violent and non-violent sacrifice, even though defined at a symbolic, spiritual level. The idea of ‘divine’ and ‘mythical’ violence, as Benjamin differentiates them, appears unresolved in Aurobindo.

When Aurobindo stretches the idea of the motherland and nationalism politically, in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations, we encounter more interesting findings. To begin with, he is categorical that “Hindu-Mahomedan unity” cannot come from “political adjustments or Congress flatteries. It must be sought deeper down, in the heart and the mind, for where the causes of disunion are, there the remedies must be sought.” On the same question, while admiring the nationalist spirit of the “Hindu Sabha”, Aurobindo critiqued its “rivalry with Mahomedan pretensions.” So Aurobindo is unhappy with both appeasement and antagonism as political attitudes towards the Muslim community.

Having made this firm, preliminary objective, Aurobindo detects the fundamental problem between Hindus and Muslims as one based on “misunderstanding”. He directs the nation’s energies to “remove the cause of… misunderstanding.” The Hindu’s patriotic duty lay in “unfaltering love” for the Muslims, in whom, says Aurobindo, “Narayana” dwells and to whom “our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom.” So the idea of the nation-as-mother is an inclusive one, not specific to any religious community, and that is because the national community demands a higher unity than religion. For Aurobindo, “(t)he days of religions are over”, for “none have solved mankind’s problems.” The national for Aurobindo seems to be more futuristic than the religious, perhaps in the sense that the religious is merely the sacred and belongs perpetually to the past, while the national is part of the march of divinity, always looking towards the future. It is in this context of the future that Aurobindo places the historical event of Islamic conquest in India.

For him, the “real problem” of Muslim rule in India wasn’t “subjection to a foreign rule and the ability to recover freedom, but the struggle between two civilisations.” To Aurobindo there were “two conceivable solutions” to this problem: The first was “a higher spiritual principle” attempted by Akbar and Guru Nanak, which ended in failure as Akbar’s attempt was more “intellectual and political” rather than “spiritual” while Nanak’s, though “universal in principle” ended up as a “sect in practice”. For Aurobindo to endorse (or reject) the importance of spiritual thought vis-à-vis its universal scope is rather strange. As if, like Hegel, the ultimate test of cultural thought has to be of a “world-historical” order. The second was a “political patriotism” that went beyond the religious sphere and united the two communities, and Aurobindo once again credits Akbar for it. But interestingly, he locates the failure of this attempt in the “common administrative abilities of the two communities”. Aurobindo finds the absence of both spiritual and institutional measures in the medieval attempts to unite Hindus and Muslims. But for the future, Aurobindo saw a possible reconcilement in the combination of “the deepest elements of Islam and Vedanta.” This is a deeply heterogeneous idea compared to Vivekananda’s hierarchical division of the “Vedanta soul and Muslim body”. Aurobindo’s idea in contrast, is closer to Dara Shikoh’s gesture towards an Indo-Islamic tradition, the prince and mystic being among the first to translate The Upanishads into Persian.

To come back to the ‘nationalist’ context of Hindu-Muslim unity, while accepting Hindu-Muslim rivalry as a medieval legacy and “British ascendancy”, Aurobindo says, he does not “understand Hindu nationalism as a possibility under modern conditions” (my italics). Hindu nationalism made sense to him only during the time of Shivaji and Ramdas, when the “misuse of their domination by the Mahomedan element was fatal to India’s future.” This future, for Aurobindo, seems to be invested in the “divine” aspect of the nation, where a shared cultural unity and a spirit of toleration may thrive together. “Mahomedan domination”, he writes, “once tending to Indian unity and toleration, had become oppressive and disruptive.” So for Aurobindo, it is not Mahomedan rule in itself that threatened the ethos of ‘Indian nationalism’ during the medieval era, but its subsequent excesses. But in his time, Aurobindo felt, the idea of “swadesh” included both Hindus and Muslims. So his “ideal therefore is an Indian nationalism” rather than “Hindu nationalism”. The reason he gave is again a simple, historical one: Though he defined this nationalism as “largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions”, he held it was “wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions.” It was Aurobindo’s belief that through a manly spirit of intensity and brotherhood, Hindus would be able to win Swaraj for themselves and despite resistance from the Muslims, for them as well. Aurobindo was willing to grant the Hindu Sabha its relevance in modern times, if it would “direct its whole efforts” towards unity and brotherhood. But if it worked as a “disruptive” agency, he urged for its rejection. Here too, the desire for the “inevitable future” moves Aurobindo to seek this reconciliation and brotherhood between the two communities. The idea of the future within Aurobindo’s conception of the ‘divine’ seems to include the idea of reconcilement that is at once spiritual and national, and that requires the overcoming of the historical. It is an interesting suggestion by Aurobindo for Hindus and Muslims to abandon history for the sake of a divinely ordained future.

The Hegelian echo in Aurobindo' idea of a nation-state as divine manifestation, and as the will and spirit of the people, tends to structure the liberating aspect of human destiny and experience within the problem of a nation-power. If there is any promise in the future of the nation, imagined in terms of rapprochement of ties, the terrible ghosts of history in people’s memory and consciousness, currently haunt that possibility.

Text cited:

1. Sri Aurobindo, Nationalism, Religion, and Beyond: Writings on Politics, Society and Culture, edited by Peter Heehs, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005
2. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, Volume 15, The Complete Works of Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, 1998
3. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Volume 21 and 22, The Complete Works of Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, 2005
4. M.K Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, (ed.) Anthony Parel, Cambridge Text in Modern Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
5. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, translation and introduction by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Perennial Classics, New York 2001.
6. G.W.F Hegel, Philosophy of Right, translated by S.W. Dyde, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001
7. Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, edited and introduced by Peter Demetz, translation by Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books, New York, 1986
8. Sri Aurobindo, ‘Bal Gangadhar Tilak’, Early Cultural Writings (1890-1910), 
9. Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes And Other Writings Of Historical Interest

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. A shorter version of this piece appears in the magazine.

Slide Show

Sri Aurobindo’s mind-life was complex, to say the least. Born to an Anglophile father who groomed him from childhood for the Indian Civil Services, Aurobindo, on his return to India, turned to revolutionary ideas and inspired many young men to take up arms against the British. His life took a turn towards the mystic and spiritual after a stretch in Alipore jail for his revolutionary activities, where he is said to have had a deep, mystical experience.

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