Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sri Aurobindo carried this message of the spirit from Bombay to Bengal, from Baruipur to Kishoreganj

Modern Intellectual History, 4, 1 (2007), pp. 129–144 C2007 Cambridge University Press
doi:10.1017/S1479244306001089 Printed in the United Kingdom

the spirit and form of an ethical polity: a meditation on aurobindo’s thought
sugata bose, Harvard University
Until the end of 1907 Aurobindo’s exhortations to the youth were balanced in his articles by the application of a razor-sharp intellect. Charged with sedition, he stepped down as principal of the Bengal National College with a parting advice to his students to serve the motherland: "Work that she may prosper; suffer that she may rejoice."19 While the sedition case was going on, Aurobindo wrote three important articles in Bande Mataram entitled "The Foundations of Sovereignty", "Sankharitola’s Apologia" and "The Unities of Sankharitola" that were masterpieces of political polemic. Already in his pieces on passive resistance, he had identified the need for a central authority to guide the movement.
He now answered those who contended that the diversity of races in India doomed the prospect of national unity. "One might just as well say", he wrote, "that different chemical elements cannot combine into a single substance as that different races cannot combine into a single nation".20 His more nuanced studies on Indian unity belong, however, to a much later phase of his writing career.
In 1908 Aurobindo’s rhetoric was elevated to an altogether different spiritual plane. In January of that year he spent a few days practising yoga under the direction of Bishnu Bhaskar Lele in Baroda. When he rose to speak before the BombayNationalUnion on 19 January 1908, "he seemed to the audience as one in the grip of a trance".21 Bengal had once judged all things through "the imperfect instrumentality of the intellect", but the work of "unaided intellect" was now done. "What is Nationalism?" he asked. "Nationalism", the answer came, "is not amere political programme.Nationalism is a religion that has come from God. . .Nationalism is immortal. . . God cannot be killed, God cannot be sent to jail." The country could not be saved merely by boycott, national education or Swadeshi.
In place of the pure intellect, the need of the hour was faith of which another name was selflessness. "This movement of nationalism", Aurobindo clarified, "is not guided by any self-interest, not at the heart of it . . . We are trying to live not for our own interests, but to work and die for others". The third name for faith and selflessness was courage which came not from being "a Nationalist in the European sense, meaning in a purely materialistic sense", but from a realization that "the three hundred millions of people in this country areGod in the nation".22
Aurobindo carried this message of the spirit from Bombay to Bengal, from Baruipur to Kishoreganj. He spoke of faith and the dispelling of illusion through suffering, but he was no traditionalist, which is why he is probably so misunderstood today by neo-traditionalists like Ashis Nandy. Speaking to the Palli Samiti of Kishoreganj, he accepted the virtues of village upliftment, but was not ensnared by the mirage of self-sufficient village communities. "The village must not in our new national life be isolated as well as self-sufficient", he advised, "but must feel itself bound up with the life of its neighbouring units, living with them in a common group for common purposes". The unity that he urged was not of opinion or speech or intellectual conviction. "Unity is of the heart", he was convinced, "and springs from love".23
Aurobindo’s spiritual fervour deepened further during his nearly year-long stay in Alipur jail during the bomb-case trial of late 1908 and early 1909. There he read the Gita and saw visions of Sri Krishna as his protector and guide. He gave a vivid description of his experiences in jail in his famous Uttarpara speech delivered immediately after his release from detention. It is a speech hugely misunderstood by historians thoroughly imbued with the secular ideology of the postcolonial Indian state. "I spoke once before with this force in me", Aurobindo declared near the conclusion of this speech, 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, faith; I say that it is the Sanatana Dharma which for us is nationalism.24
Sumit Sarkar cites these lines disapprovingly in his book on the Swadeshi movement indicating an inversion fromthe cultivation of religion as "a means to the end of mass contact and stimulation of morale" to religion as "an end in itself ". The implication here is that the instrumental use of religion for the purpose of mass nationalism can perhaps be condoned from the secular standpoint, but the protection of religion as a goal of the campaign for swaraj—an end sought by anti-colonial leaders from Aurobindo to Gandhi—cannot.
Dipesh Chakrabarty has been right in pointing to "the remarkable failure of intellect" and, one might add, imagination not only in Sarkar’s book in particular, but in works by secularist historians in general, in dealing with the question of religion in public life.25 Sarkar sees the Uttarpara speech as the product of amoment of "strain and frustration" without caring to delve into what Aurobindo might have meant by sanatan dharma.
The speeches Bepin Pal and Aurobindo Ghose gave in Uttarpara after their release from Buxar jail and Alipur jail respectively in 1909 were certainly different in tenor from Surendranath Banerjee’s Uttarpara speech on Mazzini in 1876. Both spoke of their realization in jail "of God within us all". "I was brought up in England amongst foreign ideas", Aurobindo recalled, "and an atmosphere entirely foreign". He had believed religion to be a delusion and when he first approached God he had "hardly had a living faith in Him". But now he not only understood intellectually but realized what it was to "do work for Him without demand for fruit". The sanatan dharma that Aurobindo invoked in his Uttarpara speech was no narrow or bigoted creed, but as large as "life itself". It was that dharma that had been cherished in India for "the salvation of humanity". India was rising again not "as other countries do, for self or when she is strong, to trample on the weak"; she was rising "to shed the eternal light entrusted to her over the world". "India has always existed for humanity and not for herself", Aurobindo contended at Uttarpara, "and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be great".26
The inversion of the humanistic aspiration in Hinduism and Islam alike to a parody called communalism is the signal achievement of our secularist historians, not of Aurobindo.
18 Aurobindo, Doctrine of Passive Resistance, 81, 83–5, 87–8.
19 Speeches of Aurobindo Ghose (Chandernagore: Prabartak Publishing House, 1922), 7.
20 Iyengar, Sri Aurobindo, 149–50.
21 Ibid., 160.
22 Speeches of Aurobindo Ghose, 10–12, 15, 27, 35–9.
23 Ibid., 65, 70, 75.
24 Ibid., 108.
25 Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Radical Histories and the Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some Recent Critiques of Subaltern Studies", Economic and Political Weekly, 8 April 1995, 256–80, 753.
26 Speeches of Aurobindo Ghose, 86–7, 90–93, 100–1, 108.
the spirit and form of an ethical polity

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