Synopsis: This article examines the nationalist writings and agenda of the revolutionary turned monk Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), who consolidated the cult of the motherland with the politics of a virile masculine resistance to British colonialism. Aurobindo was the first significant political leader to formulate an agenda for direct political action on spiritual (Hindu) principles. The most portrayed and at times caricatured figure of the early twentieth century “Swadeshi” revolutionary was a young (upper-caste and middle-class) Hindu male who carries a pistol and a copy of the Bhagavadgita in his two pockets. And Aurobindo’s writings and speeches were the direct inspiration behind this figure. The extremists’ strong and addictive ideals of self-sacrifice (atmotsarga) and devotion towards nation (deshabhakti) retained their significance long after “armed struggle” declined in influence in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent “satyagraha." Document:Mehta.pdf (426.42 KB) Prior publication date: Tue, 2006-12-19 18:00 printer friendly version
The Bhagavadgita, Pistol, and the Lone Bhadralok
Aurobindo’s first contact with revolutionary ideas occurred as early as 1890, when he was in Cambridge, studying the classics and preparing for the Civil Service Examination. A recent volume by Elleke Boehmer (2002) details the influence of Irish nationalism on his thought, which would later intensify with his friendship with Margaret Noble, the Irish political activist who later came to be known as Nivedita, after she became Swami Vivekananda’s disciple (pp. 34]124). Boehmer speaks of Aurobindo’s continued support of armed revolutionary tactics that continued at least until his arrest in 1908. A significant current biographer of Aurobindo – Peter Heehs – has pointed out the lack of solid evidence for Aurobindo’s involvement with terrorist groups, especially Maniktala Secret Society of which his brother Barin was the leader. However, Heehs concurs with Amales Tripathi in the view that Aurobindo’s silences on the subject of his involvement spoke more than his non]admissions (Heehs, 1998, p. 43). It is significant that the Maniktala Secret Society grew out of the Calcutta Anushilan Samiti, an organization "founded in 1902 to promote physical, mental, and moral culture among Calcutta students" (Heehs, 1998, p. 18). The ideological blueprint for this society came from Aurobindo’s Bhawani Mandir, or Bankim’s Anandamath, or both. Aurobindo, however, did not admit to knowledge of or involvement in terrorist activities at his trial that followed a 12]month incarceration, and he was acquitted. A sea]change is discernible in his writings following his prison term and acquittal. His earlier speeches and writings, while replete with references to Hindu mythological figures and allegories, more often than not dealt with direct, immediate political issues and events. His post imprisonment writings are exceptionally vague and general in nature, the political astuteness of his earlier articles drowned here in spiritual overtones. In his first significant public appearance, he spoke of the epiphanies he had in prison, and ended his speech with a revision of a particularly poignant political point he had made a year and a half earlier. I will touch upon the relevant portions of the two speeches that speak clearly of the ideological shift that had taken place in the speaker’s political stance.
In a speech he delivered before his arrest, to the National Union in Bombay, Aurobindo had drawn applause from the crowd by championing nationalism as the singular plan of action that remained for the virtuous to follow:
There is a creed in India today which calls itself Nationalism, a creed which has come to you from Bengal. … What is Nationalism? Nationalism is not a mere political programme; Nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed in which you shall have to live. (Ghose, 1996, p. 251)
The use of religion in the above section comes across as strategic, and typical of Aurobindo’s fiery oratory style. The figure of Krishna as the visionary godhead partaking in human affairs in the epic Mahabharata recurs in this speech, as in numerous other writings by Aurobindo.
I would digress a little to point towards the re]invention of the Krishna figure in Aurobindo’s writings, along with a renewed interest in the Bhagavadgita. The re]invention of Krishna in colonial India began notably with Bankim’s Krishnacharitra, a text that can be best described as a meticulous mixture of historical scholarship and literary criticism, coalesced with a revisionist sense of history and a nascent nationalism. Bankim found Krishna as capable of becoming the great unifying symbol for Indian culture and civilization, a flawless leading figure that could represent India in the sense that Christ represented Western civilization. But Krishna – as he was worshipped throughout India – was unacceptable to the revisionist nationalist historian whose role Bankim assumed for himself. Krishna had been, from at least the eleventh century onwards, a rustic figure approachable by the common populace through mystical devotion. Krishna was one of the few gods who became the focus of the Bhakti poets and saints who sang against the Brahminical control over the common people’s spiritual lives through their control of the temples and the Sanskrit language. This Krishna, the "beloved" of numerous Bhakti poets and saints all over India (many of whom were influenced by the teachings of Sufi mystics) was a rustic flute]playing cowherd, interested more in love than in war. The Krishna that would become Bankim’s "myth of praxis," had to be purged of the rusticity and eroticism that had accumulated over the dark centuries of emasculated Hinduism. Bankim’s Krishna (the "original" Krishna, according to him) became a robust politico, a spiritual leader par excellence and most important – a mainstream Hindu god. The Bhagavadgita was rediscovered as a text that provided guidance in time of war; and the lonely figure of Arjuna who must fight the long arduous war for justice in spite of his reluctance to kill became the symbol for the bhadralok revolutionary who must participate in a violent struggle to forge a nation out of blood and sacrifice. The non]violent religious practices of Vaishnavs (who did not practice animal sacrifice, for example) could meet the violence associated with Shakta mother]worship (animal]worship was almost mandatory in Shakta festivals) under the aegis of a new Hindu "wartime" philosophy. The selfless action performed by Arjuna who was nothing but an instrument in the grand divine design of things (nimitta, as he is called by Krishna in the Bhagavadgita), was valorized ad infinitum by the nationalist leaders. The extremist leaders used the model for action strategically and mercilessly in their propaganda to draw ingenuous students who were trained for terrorist tasks. Even in his speech in 1907, Aurobindo used the rhetoric of the Bhagavadgita to sway his audience:
Have you realised that you are merely instruments of God, that your bodies are not your own? You are merely instruments of God for the work of the Almighty. …If you have realised that, then you are truly Nationalists; then alone will you be able to restore this great nation. …and this great nation will rise again and become once more what it was in the days of its spiritual greatness. (Ghose, 1996, p. 252)
Here, Aurobindo used the celebrated discourse from Bhagavadgita on the immortality of the soul, the mortal fragility of the body and the ease with which the virtuous abandon their bodies for a just cause – in short, the ideal speech for the recruitment of prospective martyrs for the cause of the nation:
Sri Krishna cannot grow to manhood unless he is called upon to work for others, unless the Asuric forces of the world are about him and work against him and make him feel his strength. Therefore in Bengal there came a time, after the first outbreak of the triumphant hope, when all the material forces that can be brought to bear against Nationalism were gradually brought into play, and the question was asked of Bengal, ‘Can you suffer? Can you survive?’ The young men of Bengal who had rushed forward in the frenzy of the moment, in the inspiration of the new gospel they had received, rushed forward in the frenzy of the moment, in the inspiration of the new]found strength and expecting to bear down all obstacles that came in their way, and were now called upon to suffer. They were called upon to bear the crown, not of victory, but of martyrdom. They had to learn the real nature of their new strength. It was not their own strength, but it was the force which was working through them, and they had to learn to be the instruments of that force. (Ghose, 1996, p. 258)
It is worthwhile to remember, at this point, at least one young man – Khudiram Bose, who was hanged in 1910 for his attempt to kill Judge Douglas Kingsford – who probably received the instructions for the operation from Aurobindo, via middlemen. Heehs refers to a number of accounts by Aurobindo’s co]revolutionaries that mention Aurobindo’s direct involvement in terrorist activities, including the assassination attempt on Kingsford, in Muzaffarpur: "Jadugopal Mukherjee and Arun Chandra Guha write of Aurobindo not only as the founder of the revolutionary party but also as a member of a Russian]style ‘revolutionary tribunal’ that sentenced an unpopular judge to death. One writer goes so far as to have Aurobindo literally give his blessing to the young men chosen to carry out this mission."6 The files of the Home Department of the British Government also contained detailed reports on Aurobindo’s presence at the top of the chain of command in many terrorist operations (Heehs, 1998, p. 51). Incidentally, while Aurobindo was represented by the notable attorney C. R. Das in his trial and was acquitted, Khudiram was left to take his chances with the justice system. Tagore in Ghare Baire (1916) wrote apprehensively of the revolutionary leader Sandip fleeing the scene of unrest to save his own skin while his young disciple Amulya got killed in action. A parallel is evident, though Khudiram was not the only ‘soldier’ abandoned by his celebrity leaders and Aurobindo was not the only leader who did not take the fall for his subordinates, and Tagore denied any connection between his fictional character and Aurobindo.
Partha Chatterjee, in his seminal work on Indian nationalism, found the nationalist thought that originated in Bankim and was inherited culturally by Aurobindo’s generation was ideologically limited, as it was "born out of the encounter of a patriotic consciousness with the framework of knowledge imposed upon it by colonialism. It leads inevitably to an elitism of the intelligentsia, rooted in the vision of a radical regeneration of national culture"(Chatterjee, 1986, p. 79). Chatterjee had found it "not surprising that in the history of political movements in India, Bankim’s direct disciples were the ‘revolutionary terrorists,’ the small group of armed activists drawn from the Hindu middle classes, wedded to secret underground organization and planned assassination."
Chatterjee and other Marxist historians of Indian nationalism have repeatedly pointed out the problems inherent in imposing a national idea on a vastly agrarian population, without interceding in the class relationships. Aurobindo had begun his political career by attacking the old guard of the Indian National Congress for their elitism and for their distance from the needs and condition of the "people." As the commander of an army of bhadralok revolutionaries, Aurobindo practiced a different form of elitism. And faced with physical persecution, he retreated, famously, into spirituality. The retreat began in his first celebrated public appearance, a lecture popularly known as the Uttarpara Speech, in which Aurobindo emerged as a man of god. He spoke of the epiphanies he had inside the prison, his dialogues with Krishna (the god), and concluded with a complete reversal of his past ideas:
I spoke once before with this force in me and I said then that this movement is not a political movement and that Nationalism is not politics but a religion, a creed, a faith. I say it again today, but I put it in another way. I say no longer that Nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the sanatana dharma [Hinduism] which for us is Nationalism. This Hindu nation was born with the sanatana dharma, with it it moves and with it it grows [sic]. Where the sanatana dharma declines, then the nation declines, and if the sanatana dharma were capable of perishing, with the sanatana dharma it would perish. The sanatana dharma, that is Nationalism. This is the message that I have to speak to you. (Ghose, 1996, p. 376)
Aurobindo left Bengal in April 1910 to avoid further persecution by the British, to live in Pondicherry under French jurisdiction, where he became a recluse and wrote many philosophical and theosophical volumes. The references to "sanatana dharma" and the Bhagavadgita would return in Indian politics with the most successful leader – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – who would manage to mobilize more sections of the common population than any leader who came before or after. The validity of Gandhi’s theories and the eventual success of his version of nationalism, however, are still being debated.
The birth of the sovereign nation of India in August 15, 1947, coincided with Aurobindo’s birthday. On the eve of the much awaited Independence Day, Aurobindo’s message to his countrymen was broadcast by All India Radio. August 15 belonged to the bloodiest period in the history of the subcontinent, as at least 500,000 people died in the "partition riots" and many millions became official refugees. Punjab and Bengal, the two regions that were divided to give birth to Pakistan, were devastated by unprecedented violence – murder, rape, and arson.7 M. K. Gandhi was in East Bengal, trying to quell the riots, far from the regality of the Independence Celebrations in New Delhi. Aurobindo foresaw, in the event of the much awaited independence, neither the insurmountable challenges that faced the new leaders of a nation more diverse and heterogeneous than the entire continent of Europe, nor the absence of any revolutionary spirit of the people.
Aurobindo spoke, in his address, of the absurdity of the partition of India, and then looked forward to a globalization of culture, with an Indian hegemony:
an international spirit and outlook must grow up and international forms and institutions; even it may be such developments as dual or multilateral citizenship and a voluntary fusion of cultures may appear in the process of the change and the spirit of nationalism losing its militancy may find these things perfectly compatible with the integrity of its own outlook. A new spirit of oneness will take hold of the human race.
The spiritual gift of India to the world has already begun. India’s spirituality is entering Europe and America in an ever increasing measure. That movement will grow; 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. (Ghose, 1996, pp. 538]9)
A similar hope for India’s spiritual leadership of the world was predominant in Vivekananda’s writings. But Aurobindo’s choice of words came during a subcontinent] wide bloodbath, which followed closely the worst famines caused by the British hauling grains from India to feed the commonwealth’s soldiers fighting World War II. His "prophesizing" – considering his political revolutionary past – makes us pause, and question the various ideologies of Indian nationalism that produced the "terrorist leader turned philosopher" Sri Aurobindo, and millions of dead and displaced subjects. Beyond the violence of the 1947 partition, the postcolonial nation]state of India has had a complex relationship with religious nationalism. A complex line]up of lenses stands between our mind’s eyes and Aurobindo’s cultural nationalism and philosophical optimism: Gandhi’s murder in the hands of a Hindu nationalist in 1948 and the subsequent marginalizing of Hindu nationalism, five decades of state sponsored secularism punctuated by oppression of minorities, caste]based mobilizations and sporadic violence, the return of Hindu nationalism with a vengeance in the 1990s, and the constant ongoing negotiations of neo]liberal Hindu fundamentalism – both national and diasporic – with global capitalism, to mention a few. It would not be fair to consider Aurobindo complicit in the creation of an ideology by which more lives were destroyed than were built, but would it be fair to absolve him completely?
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Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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Ghose, A. (1996). Nationalism: Selected writings and speeches. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo
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1 Bhadralok is a modern Bengali word, possibly meant for a Bengali equivalent of
"gentleman." Its meaning evolved during the late nineteenth century to denote the
specific class of upper]caste, (Western]) educated Hindu Bengali men who separated
themselves from the poor masses, the lower]caste Hindus, and the non]Hindus.
2 Quoted in Bose & Jalal (1997, p. 50).
3 "The Present Situation," a speech delivered in Bombay on 19 January 1907. Ghose (1999,
4 Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838]1894) was the first significant novelist and essayist
in the Bengali language. In addition to his vast range of contribution to the creation of a
Bengali colonial bhadralok culture, Bankim’s symbolic juxtaposition of the nation and the
mother]goddess in his novel Anandamath (1882) created the image of "country as
mother," that influenced most Indian nationalist imaginings that followed. His novels also
marked the early consolidation of the "feeble domesticated woman" with the "mythically
powerful mother]goddess," thus instituting both the gendered representation of the
nation and the woman’s position within that nation. Aurobindo Ghose hailed Bankim as
the Rshi (seer) of Indian nationalism.
5 Shamita Basu (2002) has used the phrase "the theater of truth" convincingly in her
important work on Vivekananda.
6 Heehs (1996) mentions several other revolutionaries’ memoirs that refer to Aurobindo’s
involvement: "M. N. Roy, who as Narendranath Bhattacharya was active in Bengal
between 1906 and 1915, commented that Aurobindo was ‘the Supreme Commander of the
Revolution.’ Surendra Mohan Ghose, active from around 1908 (at which time he saw
Aurobindo in Mymensingh district) and later one of the leaders of the Jugantar Party,
stressed in a talk of 1971 that Aurobindo was ‘the founder of the Indian revolutionary
party." Jadugopal Mukherjee, active from 1905 and from around 1913 one of the principal
leaders of the Jugantar Party, wrote in his memoirs that he learned some time after
joining the party that Aurobindo was "the actual founder and leader of the new [that is,
the revolutionary] party." He also noted in passing that there was a legend that Aurobindo
and two others ordered that judge Douglas Kingsford should be killed. Arun Chandra
Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality .:: www.jmmsweb.org ::.
Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2007 77]98.
Guha, active from around 1908 and later an important member (and, still later, a
historian) of the Jugantar Party, wrote that Jugantar was the "brain]child of Aurobindo."
Like Jadugopal he claimed that Aurobindo helped make the decision that Kingsford should
7 For a newly researched account of the partition, see Pandey (2002).
Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Program For The Study of Religion, University of Illinois at Urbana]Champaign
707 South Mathews, Urbana, Illinois 61801/USA e: email@example.com
Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality .:: www.jmmsweb.org ::. Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2007 77]98.