Friday, February 26, 2016

Sri Aurobindo had condemned the undemocratic elements of the caste system

So the question arises why Prof Thapar did not talk about two of the most influential personalities who are associated with Indian nationalism of that period and even to this day: Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Though Prof Thapar did not mention them, elsewhere in a similar context, she refers to “upper castes like Brahmanas and Kayasthas”.
So the implication is clear. The process of Indian nationalism was an upper-caste imitation of European race theory of the 19th century. According to her, “the Aryan race theory has not only served cultural nationalism in India but continues to serve Hindu revivalism and, inversely, anti-Brahmin movements.”
Therefore, one needs to explore the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo and see if they supported the Aryan race theory and the caste hegemony. There is ample documentary evidence to show that a section of Indians, an educated powerful and wealthy class, did want to identify themselves with the colonial administrators, copying their manners and dissociating themselves with anything Indian. Most of these people belonged to Indian “upper castes”. Not only were they not nationalists, the emerging nationalist school of thought strongly criticized them.
Identifying oneself with the British and distancing oneself from the downtrodden masses on racial basis was criticized by Swami Vivekananda thus: “When I see Indians behaving like Europeans, the thought comes to my mind, perhaps they feel ashamed to own their nationality and kinship with the ignorant poor, illiterate, down-trodden people of India! Again, the Westerners have now taught us that those stupid, ignorant low-caste millions of India clad only in loin cloths are non-Aryans! They are therefore no more our kith and kin!”
Sri Aurobindo, during his vigorously nationalist period of life, had written about caste prejudices existing in the Hindu community. From Prof Thapar’s point of view, he is expected to rationalize the caste discriminations on the basis of race. On the other hand, his stand differs even from the opinion of Lokmanya Tilak.
In his essay The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity, published in the journal Bande Mataram (September 20,1907), he writes: “The Nationalist does not quarrel with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation and of the fixed hereditary anti-democratic caste organization into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims.”
In the same article, Sri Aurobindo further points out that Indian nationalism must, by its inherent tendencies, move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions, and inequalities. It is also well known that Sri Aurobindo in his Secret of the Vedas, criticized the Aryan race theory as “falsehood” and “hazardous speculations”, and warned about its “most far-reaching political, social or pseudo-scientific conclusions”.
Now, free of this flawed framework, one needs to evaluate the Hindutva process in issues related to social emancipation—particularly in matters such as of fighting racism, caste discrimination—including untouchability— and gender-related issues.
Given in the form of a Sanskrit verse, the definition provides three criteria to call oneself a Hindu. They are: 1. Belief in the authority of the Vedas, 2. Variety of means (of approaching God), 3. No insistence on one deity.
Here again, one finds that the two out of the three criteria emphasize theo-diversity and flexibility. Another important aspect that has to be noted is that despite the charges of Tilak being an orthodox supporter of caste, (which he was to some extent, but he was also to some extent a radical social reformer), he did not bring in the caste system as one of the defining feature of the term “Hindu”.
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the revolutionary-politician turned mystic-poet in his now famous Uttarpara speech delivered on May 30 1909, gave the following definition of “Hinduism”:
“But what is the Hindu religion?…That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others…This is the one religion that can triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy. It is the one religion which impresses on mankind the closeness of God to us and embraces in its compass all the possible means by which man can approach God. It is the one religion which insists every moment on the truth which all religions acknowledge that he is in all men and all things and that in him we move and have our being. It is the one religion which enables us not only to understand and believe this truth but to realise it with every part of our being. It is the one religion which shows the world what the world is, that it is the Lila of Vasudeva. It is the one religion which shows us how we can best play our part in that Lila, its subtlest laws and its noblest rules. It is the one religion which does not separate life in any smallest detail from religion, which knows what immortality is and has utterly removed from us the reality of death.”
In this definition, Sri Aurobindo explicitly states that Hinduism is so-called because of the geographical locality in which it was preserved and nurtured, in “the Hindu nation…in this peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages.” Here it is to be noted that the use of the term “Aryan race” is not the same as the term was used in the European context where it means a biological race.
In fact Sri Aurobindo was one of the earliest critics of the race concept as a pseudo-scientific category. A decade after his Uttarpara speech, in Indian Spirituality and Life-I, Sri Aurobindo again defined Hinduism:
“And if we are asked…what is Hinduism…we can answer that Indian religion is founded upon three basic ideas or rather three fundamentals….First comes the idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the one without a second of the Upanishads who is all that is and beyond all that is, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God or Purusha of the Theists who holds in his power the soul and nature, in a word the Eternal, the Infinite. This is the first common foundation…For its second basic idea is the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite…The third idea…is that while the Supreme or the Divine can be approached through a universal consciousness and by piercing through all inner and outer Nature, That or He can be met by each individual soul in itself, in its own spiritual part, because there is something in it that is intimately one or at least intimately related with the one divine Existence.”
This definition has a strong connect with Tilak. In both, pluralism and flexibility are emphasized. It should be noted that the definition of Sri Aurobindo elaborates on the affirmative criterion of Tilak, namely the acceptance of Vedas as the Vedic “Idea of One Existence”, and associates with it the Buddhist concept, though Buddhism rejects the scriptural authority of Vedas. Once again here, the simplistic reading of the term “Vedas” as similar to an Abrahamic scriptural authority is rejected in favour of a deeper and larger understanding of the term.
A most probable unstated and even unconscious influence on Dr Ambedkar could have been Sri Aurobindo. As seen earlier in this series, Sri Aurobindo was brought by Sayajirao Gaikwad to Baroda, and he influenced the thinking of the reformist king. Sri Aurobindo contributed to the development of Baroda and was also instrumental in writing a lot of the late Sayajirao’s important speeches.
Sri Aurobindo, who had condemned the undemocratic elements of the caste system in no uncertain terms, had written way back in 1907:
“The Nationalist does not quarrel with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation, and the fixed, hereditary, anti-democratic caste-organisation into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims. In the present absolutism in politics and the present narrow caste-organisation in society, he finds a negation of that equality that his religion enjoins. Both must be transformed. The historic problem that the present attitude of Indian Nationalism at once brings to the mind, as to how a caste-governed society could coexist with a democratic religion and philosophy, we do not propose to consider here today. We only point out that Indian Nationalism must by its inherent tendencies move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions and inequalities.” (The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity, Bande Mataram, 20 September 1907)
One can also see how he takes forward the idea of Sri Aurobindo, Sayajirao and Lajpat Rai that democracy is part of the spiritual conception of Brahman. His anger comes from the non-implementation of the social implication of Advaita. In fact, Swami Vivekananda’s similar observations about Hinduism merit recollection here.

  • Ambedkar, Democracy, Upanishads
  • Aryans, Caste, Nationalism, Emancipation
  • Geography, Culture, Rootedness, A Large Heart

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