Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sri Aurobindo was hardly a champion of any religious creed

AntiMatters, Vol 3, No 4 (2009) About Home > Vol 3, No 4 (2009) > Banerji
Sri Aurobindo, India and Ideological Discourse
Debashish Banerji
Abstract: In the first part of this talk, I consider Sri Aurobindo's nationalism and contextualize it within the colonial-national interchange and the modern understanding of the nation. This includes a consideration of the nation-soul idea. In the second part, I apply the implications of this nationalism to Sri Aurobindo's social ideas - concerning the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville and, in general, the social context of the Integral Yoga and his vision of the future, so as to engage reflection on the present. Full Text: PDF
Talk presented at Fundamentalism and the Future, Conference held at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, September 11–12, 2009. Originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of Collaboration . Republished with permission.

Sri Aurobindo has been increasingly marginalized or co-opted by a variety of mainstream discourses. He has been appropriated, for instance, by the Hindu right, along with Vivekananda. Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo are now seen as the founding figures of what is known as Hindutva3 in India. And along with this, happily accepting this identification, the Marxist left has turned on Sri Aurobindo as one of its "whipping boys." So Sri Aurobindo has increasingly been reduced to this image in modern and contemporary scholarship: either a champion, one of the founding figures or "mascots" of Hindutva, or "the whipping boy" of Indian Marxism.4

Now both of these are gross reductions. Sri Aurobindo in fact, had socialistic leanings, though he was generally averse to any ideological labeling. Thus, when necessary, he contested authoritarianism in the practice of Socialism. He stood against both Stalinism and Maoist China as regimes creating political conditions which stifled the freedom of individual growth. Yet, he was definitely not in favor of a rampant capitalism, identifying it as "economic barbarism." So there are grounds for constellating Sri Aurobindo with certain socialistic thinkers in terms of his intellectual preferences.

As far as religion and spirituality are concerned, as clearly evidenced by the passage from The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo was hardly a champion of any religious creed, attempting to cabin the approach to the Divine in terms of boundaries or a certain national history. In the passage of our consideration, he has very clearly conceptualized a field of plural religion and spiritual practice in premodern India.

However, he has been co-opted by the emergent political field of Hindutva in modern times. This has led to a certain perception of Sri Aurobindo in mainstream Indian discourse and among a large number of his Indian followers as the champion or founder of this unitarian definition of Hinduism.
This image has sought its support in certain texts of Sri Aurobindo. These are usually early nationalistic texts which have been taken out of context and interpreted in modern times according to prevalent discourses of nationalistic religion. [...]

An important thing to bear in mind, is that 19th century Europe was shot through and through with the idea of this racial philosophy of history. Today we may find it difficult to believe, but the whole of the 19th century Europe was pervaded by the sense of racism. It wasn’t something exclusive to Germany. It was in England, it was all over Europe. There was a sense that the world is made up of races, and these races can be arranged in a classification scheme which represents them eternally in their essential truth in terms of a hierarchy of scale. It was this racial essence which stood largely behind the European idea of the nation. This was the discourse of Racist Enlightenment and it was the predominant discourse of colonialism.

Thus we can see that the idea of nation soul arises out of the discourse of the Enlightenment and its extension in colonialism. Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda, and other thinkers of the Bengal Renaissance have subverted this colonial discourse by inserting a spiritual content into it. This is the dialogic response to the interpellation of racial colonialism, whether Positivist or Orientalist. This is the acceptance of the interpel-lated discourse which becomes transformed in the retelling. What was attempted by these Indian nationalist spiritual thinkers was the extension of an alternate discourse in the forms of the West. It appeared to be new, but it may be seen as a case of old wine in new bottles. It was the spiritual knowledge and experience of the colonized culture being crafted in the discourse of the colonizer. Along with a spiritual inflection to racial essence came a transformed content to the nation soul. [...]

Modernity with its homogenizing forces, with its ability to isolate and disperse populations across the globe is contested by alternate societies, alternate social forms, what today we call intentional communities. But the idea of the intentional community as an alternate form to the drive of modernity was part of the discourse of Indian nationalism, not only present before Sri Aurobindo but continuing after him.

It is the idea of the spiritual community, the intentional community of Universal Man-making, Visva-Bharati, that was fielded by Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, for example, prior to the birth of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Again, it is the idea of a spiritual community dedicated to truth and a simple life of offering to the Divine that was privileged by Gandhi in his vision of the postcolonial village, and in his own ashram at Sabarmati. It is this idea of spiritual community that takes a certain form with Sri Aurobindo, which is not a pre-modern form, but a postmodern form. That is something important we need to realize. It is the privileging of a communitarian social form but in a way which puts it into dialogue with the forces of modernity. [...]

When instead of evolving towards a greater freedom of collective expression arising from inner union, a passive surrender in the disciples demands literal solutions to every trivial concern, the ashram devolves into a religious order or cult. Instead of a plural field of becoming and embodiment, it begins to be dominated by parasitic forces who erect an unreachable icon and a cultic practice and demand boons of mundane satisfaction from it. On the other hand, what responds to them is no longer the guru but a number of intermediate authorities who rise to take advantage of the need for displaced or surrogate responsibility. The light that leaned down from Above recedes and what is left in its place is a ground reality of the rhetoric and politics of authorization, the control of substitute authorities in place of the freedom and beauty of Love, and the regime of Theology in the name of Knowledge.

It is important to ponder these possibilities in the ideal and life of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In the later years of her life, the Mother took this ideal a step closer to the world at large with the creation of Auroville. Among other things, the Mother may have responded to some of the shadows of the ashram idea in setting up an alternate social field for the practice of the same yoga. Here, she insisted, there was to be no religious worship and no hierarchic authority. It is the aspiration for Becoming, a growth of consciousness in individuals representing all forms of world culture, which alone would safeguard the progress to Unity and Harmony for this society.

Thus, shorn of all premodern "Indian" formalisms, it represented a postmodern form, free of traditional commitments. But set up to be independent and in the proximity of the ashram, what Auroville also represented is an opportunity for a dialogue between premodern Indian forms of spiritual culture with a long cultural history and a new postmodern international form built purely on the foundation of a spiritual anthropol-ogy, an integral psychology for achieving the same goals. As we know from the history of these organizations, that dialogue was sundered and remains largely unexplored.

Today, the rise of Hindutva as an identity construct in India combined with a religious interpretation of the Integral Yoga among many at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, threatens to define tight boundaries of belonging and normative behavior in the originating social context which was conceived by its founders as a laboratory representative of humanity and a world transforming practice. With the departure of the Masters and the early generations of disciples who lived in their atmosphere of plastic wideness, depth and height — a culture which enabled individual interpretation, practice, expression and an increasing inner growth into Oneness — what seems to be developing is a field of politics, group conditioning, cultic identity and majorita-rian justice.

Today the social habitus necessary to the flowering of the Integral Yoga may be in danger. It is time for all people of sincerity and aspiration, who have been touched by the light that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother brought to humankind, to introspect deeply and to rethink our choices, alignments, responsibilities and actions. BANERJI : SRI AUROBINDO, INDIA AND IDEOLOGICAL DISCOURSE 112

(title unknown) from enowning by enowning
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set on the danger in the world. In short, Heidegger came to believe that Husserl's phenomenological method was abstracting away all the juicy stuff that makes up the world we actually perceive. [...]

Once you've established that human beings understand the world in different ways depending on all kinds of circumstances, you have also opened up the possibility that there are better and worse ways to relate to the world. In Being and Time, for instance, Heidegger argues that since human beings are the sort of creatures that wonder about themselves, that ask the question "What is it to be a human being?" it is more authentic for such human beings to live in a culture that encourages people to think about that question in the deepest way. Heidegger noted that there were two such notable societies, the ancient Greeks and the Germans. And here we can further understand Heidegger's rather enigmatic attraction to the Nazis.

He found the Nazis exciting because he thought that they were encouraging the Germans to think really hard about what it means to be Germans. This encouraged thinking Germans to be human beings at the highest level of being a human being: creatures who constantly question what it means for a human being really to be a human being. His ultimate disappointment with the Nazis was, thus, a disappointment with their ability to pull this off, to make Germany into the great cosmic center of thinking about the Question of Being. In the end, the way Heidegger saw it, the Nazis failed him.

Write Heidegger's philosophy off all you like, expunge it from the records. But the problem isn't going to go away. At its heart, the debate between Husserl and Heidegger touches at root issues of how we understand the world and whether that understanding is stable and timeless. Heidegger was not a "relativist" (as the accusation sometimes goes), but he was deeply convinced that human beings are what they are, in the deepest ways, because of the cultures, traditions, and modes of life from which they spring.

For those who are convinced that there is deep truth in that insight (and this includes most of us, if we stop and think about it for a moment), Heidegger is our contemporary. His particular take on Phenomenology opened up huge new philosophical possibilities that directly influenced schools of thought like Existentialism, Deconstruction, and Pragmatism. More important, the tentacles of Heidegger's thinking are part of what set the stage for many of our most trenchant debates about history, culture, and human nature. Heidegger (cue ominous music here) is everywhere. That means the ugliness is everywhere, too. Once you connect "being human" to a certain set of traditions, to a nation or an ethnicity or anything else, the little fascist inside begins to grow.

Heidegger's little fascist was nastier and more virulent than most. Screw him then, throw him to the dogs. I suspect, though, that the little fascist is alive and well in many of us. Heidegger walked down a road that all of us have taken to some degree. The monstrous detour down which Heidegger got lost is not as difficult to stumble upon as we like to pretend. Every time we try to suppress Heidegger, we end up reminding ourselves that he hasn't gone away. • 2 December 2009 Home > Columns > Idle Chatter The Heidegger in All of UsWhether we like it or not... Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He can be reached at