Sri Aurobindo does not reject rationality but exploits its own uncertainties to indicate ways to the experience of greater clarities. In this kind of exploitation, Sri Aurobindo is not the first nor the only thinker. Indeed, we find that most of the principal thinkers of the Bengal Renaissance strongly embrace rationality. This is an important revisionary factor because the Enlightenment was, in fact, largely a reaction against the irrationalism of religion in
Europe and in the colonized domain of , a purely revivalist impulse could very well have asserted a spirit of pre-modern religion that rejected reason. […] In fact, we may surmise that the reason we have not been able to engage seriously with the solutions that were opened up during the Bengal Renaissance, is the continuing presence of that gulf in our times. During the Bengal Renaissance an attempt was made to close that gulf. Rationality and spirituality walked hand in hand. India
From the late 18th c., whether we consider Ram Mohun Roy (1774-1833), Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), the foundations of the Brahmo movement, or whether we look at Vivekananda, or later Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) or Sri Aurobindo, in all of them there was an attempt to build a bridge between rationality and the life of the spirit. Once more, in this, these thinkers were not creating in a vacuum, but rekindling the rich intellectual discursive tradition of darshana (yoga philosophy), bhashya (commentary) and vitarka (debate), now translated into a hybrid engagement with an occidental philosophical discourse.
Sri Aurobindo’s contribution here too, is profound because he draws close attention to the transition between reason and what transcends it. He demonstrated the limits of Reason, why the Enlightenmet was blighted by principled internal conflict and impotence in the achievement of its own goals of knowledge. Like Immanuel Kant, who used the tools of logic to demonstrate the limits of Reason, Sri Aurobindo engaged the discourses of Philosophy and Psychology to work out the properties and office of Reason. He then indicated the transition from the power of rationality to the power of a spiritual rationality, a supra-rationality, through the mediation of an intuitive mind. In this, he critiqued the mainstream Enlightenment notion of a static rational definition of the human by translating the premises of Indian yoga and echoing Nietzsche at the same time – “Man is a transitional being.”[iii]
This transitionality opens up a post-humanist possibility, seen by Sri Aurobindo as the transformation of human Reason to an individualized cosmic Mind and what he calls Supermind. Thus, Sri Aurobindo, in his engagements with the discursive grounds of the Enlightenment, demonstrated its fulfillment through the marriage of rationality and spirit. But this discourse found its voice in Sri Aurobindo due to the ground prepared by earlier thinkers of the Bengal Renaisaance. The Bengal Renaissance provided the rich soil and Sri Aurobindo planted the tree which yields the flower of an alternate fulfillment to the Enlightenment. Though we have largely swept aside (or under) this discourse, a contemporary postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment makes its consideration possible and urgent. […]
In all these voices, the ideal of a spiritual reconstitution of individual and social life is powerfully present as an alternative form of living modernity. It seeks to express itself not outside of the modern but within the modern and not outside of life but as a transformed definition of life. Each of these figures represents a powerful social force through which a spiritual practice expresses itself in its own way. Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to this core concern of the Bengal Renaissance is perhaps the most profound, in that he heralds a new age of spiritual experimentation and development which treats all life as yoga. […] […]
Two of the thinkers who took this discourse furthest, were Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. They both saw that, given the ubiquitous world-wide sweep of modernity, such an alternative destining could only be secure in islands dedicated to subjective exploration where the expansion of the inner life would provide a selective filter for the assimilation and reconstitution of modernity. In this, they both rethought the pre-modern form of the ashrama, a communitarian habitus of continuous learning and spiritual growth, in engagement with the forces of the world.
Tagore’s ashrama of universal man-making, Visva-Bharati, at Shantiniketan and Sri Aurobindo’s ashrama at
may be seen as the materialized topoi of these creative social ideas. To what extent these strategies and experiments have been successful in their intent in the long run is questionable, but the compromised realities of these social forms today cannot be seen as lack of insight of their founders, since continuous subjective engagement, critique and furtherance by living milieus would be needed to keep them alive, something dependent on succeeding generations. […] […] Pondicherry
The Bengal Renaissance … was largely creative and progressive in seeing this long cultural discourse as a living and mutating one, something lending itself to innovation in different contexts and demanding ongoing adaptations in the present. This redefinition of Hinduism was one which made it evolutionary, not something which embraced only a specific ideology but one which engaged with all histories of spiritual practice, making up the fabric of its unfinished body. This indeed, is how Sri Aurobindo presented his definition of Sanatan Dharma in the famous Uttarpara speech (1909).[vi]
Sri Aurobindo saw clearly that the difficulty of defining a national identity in terms of religious ideology went back to the limitations of the mind. The mind divides reality in terms of binaries. Thus, we can dwell on unity and we can dwell on infinity, but the mind cannot hold these radically different realities at the same time. But the Brahman is both one and infinite. Hence we see that though Universalism seems to be an all-inclusive idea, what this implies to the mind is problematic, because true universality, or more properly integrality, is not within the power of human reason to grasp. […]
Sri Aurobindo was among those of the later generations of the Bengal Renaissance who were deeply influenced by Bankim’s vision and actively promoted a form of nationalism in which Indians were asked to perceive the nation as the living form of the Divine Mother. He and his revolutionary collaborators published their rousing articles in a journal by the name of Bande Mataram. Songs addressing the Divine Mother, adapted from the rich tradition of Bengali Kali and Durga worship, carrying obvious nationalist overtones appeared in large numbers, including in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976). Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) painted a poster of Bharat Mata which was used in a political rally. […]
The properly theorized idea of “nation soul” in modern times makes its appearance in late 18th century
. It is voiced in the writings of a philosopher named Johann Herder (1744-1803) and soon, through Herder’s contemporary, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel takes Herder’s idea and makes it the cornerstone of his Philosophy of History which is a theory of evolution consonant with the ideology of the Enlightenment.[xvi] One could argue in fact, that Hegel’s Philosophy of History provides the best philosophical description for the teleology of the Enlightenment. In Hegel’s scheme, it is Reason (he calls this Consciousness) which is God, trapped in matter. Matter has laws but these laws are not self-conscious, they are expressed unconsciously. But they evolve in time creating forms that have greater and greater power of consciousness, leading to the human being, who has rational choice. For Hegel, the human being is the pinnacle of this evolution of Reason. As we know, according to the Enlightenment idea (and the Renaissance which preceded it), Man, as possessor of Reason, is the measure of all things. Hegel’s Philosophy of History then proceeds to trace the further evolution of Reason through human collectivities, the nation-souls. Germany
For those who know of the evolutionary philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, we can see how close, and yet how subtly different Hegel’s idea is from that of Sri Aurobindo. At the start of this discussion, I spoke of the changes in epochs being guided by what Hegel calls the Zeitgeist, the Time-Spirit according to Sri Aurobindo. […]
In passing, we may note the apparent similarity between Hegel’s Metaphysics and Sri Aurobindo’s idea of evolution as stated in The Life Divine. Though a similar process of the Involution-Evolution of Consciousness forms the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s theory, Consciousness does not equate to Rationality in Sri Aurobindo’s case, nor does it eschew Reason. As mentioned earlier, the hybrid form of this Metaphysics straddles two discourses, that of western speculative Metaphysics and of the Indian dasrhana-yoga tradition, which invites subjective verification through the praxis of yoga. This dependence on praxis renders Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary theory closer to Nietzsche’s project of self-transcendence. Even prior to the human with its location in terms of a “reversal of consciousness’ and agency in his scheme, the steps of the evolution are not continuous and determinable but having discontinuities and processes involving agency. Finally, the source of Consciousness in the evolution reveals itself to be the Supermind, with its transcendental freedom from cosmic conditions and ability to transform them, as discussed above. In this cosmic evolution, souls (including individual and collective souls, such as nation-soul) have a part to play, but none of these are static. […]
We have also noted earlier the equation of this nation soul with the image of Mother India. We find a continuation of the matristic and spiritual ideas of this image and its form of address in the yogic praxis and teaching of Sri Aurobindo. Thus, Sri Aurobindo does not reject the idea of the nation soul but theorizes it so as to introduce a variant response to the Eurocentric discourse. The reality given by him to the nation soul is not that of a simplistic ahistorical essence. This is something to be noted, since the idea of “
” as an eternal Hindu nation has made its appearance in today’s world with religious nationalism, staking its claim of identity on the nation soul. India
The idea of nation soul in Sri Aurobindo has a basis in historicity. In Sri Aurobindo’s yoga philosophy, there are two aspects to the nation soul, just as there are two aspects to the human soul – a psychic entity and a psychic being. The psychic entity is an unformed matrix or reservoir of psychic energy out of which, through historical processes, a psychic personality or psychic being gets formed. These historical processes are determined by the relationship between soul and nature. Again, as we saw with the cosmopolitanism of the Bengal Renaissance, collective entities are not restricted to nations. So, too, in Sri Aurobindo’s idea of a cosmic evolution, the collective soul is not restricted to nations, and includes sub-national and supra-national conscious agencies.