A book comes along once in a way which hits you hard; and this is one of those. I discovered Swami Vivekananda through his Complete Works at the age of 40, and I kicked myself for having missed it for such a prolonged period of my life. I kick myself again after a decade, as I discover another giant, Sri Aurobindo, through his articles, letters, speeches, and conversations. Sri Aurobindo is unfortunately a vaguely known figure in the collective Indian psyche. Most students are dimly aware that he did something for India and spirituality, but that is the beginning and end of their knowledge on Sri Aurobindo. At least that was the case with me in my growing years despite a more than adequate exposure to education and libraries.
It is a loss for us because Sri Aurobindo has a deep relevance to our country and our future. Spirituality defined him, but it was not the spirituality of a renunciating monk. He was rooted firmly in the realities of the world around him; and India’s future worried him. His articles show an unclouded vision of India. For instance, he believed that India’s future should be rooted in its ancient past. A blind aping of European ideals in terms of politics, administration, morals, ethics, law, and so on would be a recipe for disaster. We had a character of our own; we did well over thousands of years solving our own problems; and, there is no reason this could not happen in the future too. Foreign rule destroyed our shell, but the core was still intact, he thought.
In this wonderful book, Sri Aurobindo comes alive as another great author, Michel Danino, carefully selects his writings in the context of India’s future. Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively on an overwhelming variety of topics, and it would be an act of consummate skill to select those which would be a representation of the divine man. Not only that, a great motivation would push the reader to explore further. This book looks mostly to present the great man’s views on India- her glorious past, the tumultuous present of his times, and an optimistic future. Sri Aurobindo was sincere in his belief that a spiritual India would be the only hope for a divine future of the world rather than the western materialism of limited utility.
Michel Danino is a perfect man to bring back Sri Aurobindo into public conscience. The only thing foreign about Danino is the French origin; he is more Indian than any Indian- a proper ‘Insider’ by all definitions. At the age of 21, after completing his studies in France, a calling to India brought him to Pondicherry, the spiritual home of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. He has stayed in India since then. He presently is a guest professor at IIT- Gandhinagar, where he is helping to set up the Archaeological Sciences Center. His work towards the cause of Indian culture and heritage is tremendous and overwhelming. His earlier books, ‘Indian Culture and India’s Future’ and ‘The Lost River: On the Trail of Sarasvati’ are scholarly classical works; and a must read for every school and college going student of India. He writes regular columns on aspects of our culture and heritage which we as Indians should be truly proud of. His speeches on Aryan Invasion Theory are again a must listen to deconstruct the fantasies woven by our politicians, journalists, and historians of so many decades. He is presently working to bring an updated version of his earlier book on the Aryan invasion to seal the debate on this obnoxious theory. Michel Danino is active in a Kurukshetra war against the naysayers of anything good about India. Michel Danino has also co-authored a textbook for Intermediate level called ‘Knowledge Traditions and Practices of India.’ Having translated ten of the thirteen volumes of ‘Mother’s Agenda’ from French to English and having spent most of his life soaked in the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, there is no better person than Danino to select the works of Sri Aurobindo to revive the great man. And he does a splendid job. As always.
The author arranges the writings of Sri Aurobindo in a chronological framework which clearly sets up the biography of the great person. Born on 15th August 1872, Aurobindo Ghose had his early education in Darjeeling and at the age of 7 years, left for England. He studied at various places in England, finally graduating from King’s College, Cambridge University in 1890. Two years later, the academically brilliant Aurobindo passed a very tough Indian Civil Service Exam but he did not turn up for a horse-riding test, and hence the examiners disqualified him! At the age of 21 years, in 1893, Aurobindo came back to India and joined the state service of Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda. He became the Vice-principal of Baroda college in 1905 at the age of 33 years where he taught English and French. Gradually, he became involved in the Revolutionary movement against the British by contacting secret societies in Maharashtra and Bengal. He used his writing powers for a series of anti-colonial magazines like Indu Prakash, Bhawani Mandir, and Bande Mataram. The Swadeshi movement was kickstarted by the partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1906, at the age of 34 years, he shifted to Calcutta to become the Principal of the newly opened Bengal National College. He soon became the editor of Bande Mataram. The British arrested and then released him for seditious writings in Bande Mataram in 1907. Later, he resigned from the Bengal National College.
The Swadeshi Movement of Aurobindo and others had already laid the base for Indian Independence. Their Nationalist Party was with the Congress initially but broke away from the Moderates due to differences in opinion. This was in the 1907 Surat session, with Aurobindo presiding over its conference, where serious differences erupted on the ways to go for Independence. Aurobindo’s arrest in the Alipore Bomb Case in 1908 and a year in jail was a life-changing experience for him. A deep spiritual experience transformed his life radically. Now, his spiritual journey came to the fore. His enlightenment gradually weaned him away from the independence movement and elevate him into another divine sphere. However, he had his eyes and ears grounded to the India around him.
Continuous harassment of Sri Aurobindo in his earlier Avatar as a revolutionary writer by the Britishers forced him to flee to the peace of French ruled Pondicherry. He finally settled in Pondicherry in 1910. He continued to write extensively from Pondicherry on Indian politics despite being deep in Sadhana for his spiritual work. He wrote and discussed extensively during the tumultuous times of the second world war. On his 75th birthday, in 1947, India finally gained her independence. He was not happy at the state of India and pleaded for extreme caution in building the future. In 1950, Sri Aurobindo gained Moksha.
It is important to note that writing for Bande Mataram, he laid the ideals of Swaraj, Swadeshi, and the doctrine of passive resistance at least a decade before Gandhi. The appeasement of Muslims was in full force by the Congress which Sri Aurobindo strongly disapproved of. It is surprising that Vande Mataram poem was controversial that time too for the Muslims. Aurobindo clearly expressed that the character of India was Hindu and there is nothing wrong in invoking the Hindu Gods. Sri Aurobindo was insistent that the representation of Mother India as Goddess Durga does not amount to any religious fanaticism.
He encouraged his disciples to do a self-study and not accept blindly without reason the view of the past. His study of the Vedas and the Upanishads convinced him of a Truth which he termed Realistic Advaita in contrast to the Idealist Advaita of Shankara. Whether disagreeing with Shankara or rejecting Max Mueller completely, he discovered the truths by understanding the scriptures on his own. The past should be a guide and not a fossilized permanent step in the individual journey to Divinity, he strongly claimed. Sri Aurobindo said if questioning the past is wicked, then even Adi Shankara was wicked too! Truth needs discovery on an individual basis and his realization was based on individual Sadhana. He was a proponent of a system called Integral Yoga to reach the Divine. However, his spirituality was always rooted strongly on the Vedas and the Upanishads. He was never keen on having thousands of disciples. A few good ones would suffice, Sri Aurobindo would say.
The Aryan-Dravidian divide and the question of a separate Tamil identity amused him, and he roundly rejected the malicious theories propagated by the likes of Max Mueller and his German Indologists group. He repeatedly rejects Max Mueller in his articles and called the Aryan Invasion Theory a dubious one. Dr Ambedkar did the same. It is pertinent to note here that this obnoxious theory came into serious questioning by great intellectuals of that era, and they had considerable support by the archaeological excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro years before Independence. It is amazing that none of this came to us during our growing years. Most Indians simply internalized the Aryan fantasy with some deplorable consequences.
Gandhi came back to India in 1915 and took over the Congress reigns. The Indian National Congress was in existence from 1885, but it was more of a gentle movement composed of the elite intellectuals far removed from the masses. As Michel Danino says, the members came from the Anglicized upper classes having faith in British ‘fair-mindedness’ and the ‘providential character’ of British rule in India. Year after year it swore an unswerving allegiance to the British Crown and was content on giving petitions which the colonial rulers completely ignored. The call of Bankim Chandra and Swami Vivekananda (who was nine years senior to Sri Aurobindo) gradually found political expression as a freedom struggle that followed the partition of Bengal in 1905.
Our history books again make Gandhi the center point of independence movement. The facts speak otherwise. The Nationalist Movement composed of Aurobindo, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Ashwini Kumar Dutt and others were highly active in the struggle for independence. The Nationalist movement went underground in 1907-1908. The base for the independence hence was very much in place when Gandhi came back from South Africa.
The Cripps proposal is another area of contention between Sri Aurobindo and the Congress. The British government partly under American pressure to secure Indian support for the war and partly realising the inevitability of future Independence sent Stanford Cripps in 1942 with a proposal for Dominion status after the war. This was a first step towards Independence. Sri Aurobindo in a remarkable foresight became an ardent supporter of this proposal and wrote publicly for accepting it. Unfortunately, the concept of ‘complete Independence or nothing’ and the anti-war stance of Gandhi made the Congress completely reject the Cripps proposal. It is interesting to note that even Subhash Bose became a critic of the Cripps proposal. In all fairness, Rajagopalachari and Nehru were in favour, though Gandhi was highly irritated and thought Sri Aurobindo to be meddling in national affairs. Michel Danino quotes historian R C Majumdar who said, ‘Arabinda had a much clearer idea as to what should be the future politics of India than most of its leaders who shaped her destiny. We may refer to his advice to the Congress to accept the proposals of Cripps. The Congress rejected it at that time but many of its leaders admitted later that Arabinda was right.’ The Partition and the blood bath following it might have never happened had the Cripps proposal gained acceptance. History would have changed indeed.
Sri Aurobindo was a severe critic of Mahatma Gandhi which comes across clearly in his writings and conversations. Ahimsa or non-violence is fine for a method of inner spiritual transformation, he thought. Ahimsa as a weapon against dominating powers is weak and ineffective. At best it could grant some concessions from the dominating powers as it happened in South Africa, but it cannot be really a weapon of great power. Ahimsa is not the Dharma of the Kshatriya who will lay down his life and even use violent means to protect what is Truth. Ahimsa is a spiritual quality meant for inner transformation rather than the ideal of a nation facing many internal and external problems, including invasions.
He thought of Gandhi no less a dictator than Stalin. His word was the law in the Congress who accepted his views blindly without any resistance. This was objectionable to him. He squarely put the blame of Hindu-Muslim disunity on the politics of the Congress and the support of Gandhi to the Khilafat movement. To Sri Aurobindo, it was also distasteful that some people, including Gandhi, thought Hitler could change by non-violence. Hitler was the greatest evil of that time, and Sri Aurobindo was severely critical of any disciple appreciative of Hitler or Nazism
Aurobindo was prophetic when he said that Gandhi will have no relevance for a future India. To Gandhi’s son and to his disciples, Aurobindo simply asked whether India should fight an invasion by Afghanistan or Russia by non-violence or the Charkha. Obviously, there were no answers. Sri Aurobindo saw Gandhi more as a Russian Christian than a true Hindu with his concepts of Ahimsa, surrender, suffering, and acceptance of evil as a purifying experience. These held true for an individual but not for the nation. Nehru blundered on both Kashmir and China, a scenario which Aurobindo predicted with clarity. The rise of China and Russia worried him no end which comes across clearly in his writings. These hypercritical objections to Gandhi, Congress, and Nehru ensured that only traces of his name remained in our text books, discounting a great person. The victors write the history. But his heart bled for India as much as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, if not more.
Aurobindo supported the Allied forces openly during the second world war. For him, Dharma included the duty for a righteous war-the Kshatriya Dharma of Arjuna. It was not that Britishers or Americans are angels he said, but Hitler and Nazism stood for the worst threat to humanity and the Earth. He was clear that the only way to defeat Hitler was by going to war. He had no patience with Gandhian principles of non-violence against an Asura like Hitler. Gandhi wrote in one of his articles asking the British to allow Germany to peacefully conquer them, and the Jews accept killing by the anti-Semites as a supreme act of non-violence. This would surely melt Hitler’s heart! Aurobindo was also extremely critical of Subhash Bose who took the help of the Axis powers- the Germans and the Japanese- to fight the British. To Aurobindo that was a worse crime because Hitler to him was evil incarnate. The Japanese also were suspicious in their aims as Aurobindo thought that if Bose won, the Japanese would have ruled us for another extended period. Fortunately, nothing of that sort happened. Later, he accepted that Subash Bose had made a folly in decision making but accepted his sense of patriotism fully.
His views were far reaching and reading some of his articles takes the breath away as he predicted with enormous precision at what is going to happen in a post-Independent India. Aurobindo was critical of the parliamentary system of European Democracy and that of Russian Socialism or Communism. India had its own ethos and had to chart its own path based on Dharmic principles. The root of India’s future is our spiritual heritage and on this there was no compromise on his stand. He had some specific ideas about how to administer India which was in a danger of collapsing if not handled well. Sadly, a false idea of secularism equating spirituality with religion and shunning everything which made our national character since thousands of years allowed the present state of degeneration. He foresaw corruption, goonda-raj, and a confused Indian identity many years before we even got our independence.
As a man of medicine, this book stimulated me to study more of Sri Aurobindo on evolution and left me stunned. Sri Aurobindo had highly evolved thoughts on evolution. At a time when Darwin’s evolution was deep in controversy and continues to the present times, Aurobindo freely accepted the evolution of matter and life. The highest principle evolved so far is mind. But evolution cannot stop with mind, for mind is not its last word- and that was his boldest statement.
Matter transforms itself into the higher forms of life; and life into mind. The mind is that of the Jiva, above which there are three minds, the Overmind, the Supermind and Saccidananda- the highest ideal to realise and the pinnacle of evolution. Man has the potential to realise these higher states through knowledge, effort, and Sadhana. At the highest point, one becomes identical with Siva. The latter’s Sakti (power) with man makes him a Superman. Superman is one who has surrendered his own ego (ahamkara) to Siva and merged himself in the Absolute. He is a self-ruler but does not strive to stamp his own individuality upon the world.
According to Sri Aurobindo, man’s destiny lies in understanding the real purpose of nature and in trying to realise it in his individual as well as social life. The philosophy of evolution assumes a special status in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. There are two aspects involved-an ‘Involution’ (a downward movement) and an ‘Evolution’ (an upward movement). Involution is the delight of Saccidananda or Brahman, plunging or degenerating into the realm of ignorance to create the world. From the bottom level of inert matter, evolution is a home-coming to Brahman. Hence involution precedes evolution and understanding them together is important in Aurobindo’s philosophy.
The scientific view does not grant any purpose, meaning or direction to evolution. Aurobindo’s evolution includes this idea in a broader framework of spirituality. For Aurobindo, evolution becomes a conscious movement, at least from the mind onwards. Aurobindo was not scientifically off when he said of a conscious movement in evolution. This aspect holds importance in some mainstream narratives of evolution. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb in their book, ‘Evolution in Four Dimensions’, say that it is transmission of information either vertically between generations or horizontally between the species in the same generation which is the key to evolution. The transmission of information occurs not in one manner but in four diverse ways. Genetics is the first and still the most important. But the other mechanisms are epigenetics, cultural factors and symbolic factors of which language development is a critical component. In higher animals like chimpanzees and humans, symbolic communication plays a key role in deciding the direction of evolution. In humans especially, the development of language is an extremely high form of symbolic communication which allows a very rapid transfer of information; and is instrumental in strategies to manipulate the environment using science and technology. In this scheme, the manipulation of genes itself gives a certain direction to evolution.
Purpose or no purpose, meaning or no meaning, Aurobindo’s view of evolution was deeply rooted in the Upanishidic wisdom and it had most importantly no problems with the prevailing scientific view of those times. Unfortunately, all ‘religious’ resistance is defined by what the Abrahamic religions felt about evolution. Barring a few, most scientists then and amazingly now also are completely ignorant about the Hindu view of evolution. It would be the dream realized of Aurobindo and Vivekananda who wanted a blending of Eastern Spiritualism with Western materialism for the future of humanity. If only western scientists and authors understand Aurobindo on evolution before widely condemning religion as standing in the way of science.
Each piece carefully selected by Danino is a classic representation of the great man. Aurobindo lived in complex times at the cusp of important world events. He had a crystal clear vision and spoke illuminatingly on a variety of topics related to India’s past, its strategies for the future, deficiencies of European parliamentary democracy, Russian socialism, Chinese aggression, spirituality, building of national character, remodelling of the education system, getting Sanskrit back on the tracks, study of the scriptures to arrive at the truth individually, atheism, religion, caste, Hindu-Muslim unity, scientific materialism and its dangers, and everything one can possibly think of!
For future reference, I have a habit of underlining important lines while reading books, even if they cost a bomb (this one does not). There is also a wicked intent to prevent my dear wife from gifting away any clean book to relieve the pressure off my bookshelf. Books once read should go for distribution, she strongly feels; and I strongly disagree. My possessiveness of books is ‘psycho-pathological’ needing treatment, according to my better half. But she thought I was crossing limits when she found me underlining complete pages in succession while reading this book! But such were the goldmine of thoughts found in the pages of this book. This is a wonderful book for the uninitiated to journey into the world of Sri Aurobindo. For the deeply involved, it is a smart recap.
It would do well for the future of this lost country to return to the ideas of Sri Aurobindo, especially by the political and bureaucratic heads determining our fate. There is an urgent need of understanding Sri Aurobindo by our school students, college students and anyone remotely calling himself an Indian. One may not agree with all his views, which would be precisely what Sri Aurobindo himself would want. He wanted each person to think for himself or herself and arrive at the Truth- not of lofty heights where one can withdraw into oneself- but a divine realisation which would transform the world too. In these pages, I could only compare Sri Aurobindo with King Janaka of ancient times- a great combination of Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma. A perfect Yogi jumping out from the pages of the Holy Gita. Divinity flowed in the writings of Sri Aurobindo, and Michel Danino has perfectly shown us why. I only wish the author makes this into a series on Sri Aurobindo on each of the topics he spoke and wrote about. This book would surely go a long way in the re-discovery of a great son of India to be truly proud of.
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