historical figures

Spiritual violence and the divine revolution of Aurobindo Ghosh

The spiritual and political blurred throughout the extraordinary life of the 'revolutionary Sannyasi'.

In 1879, a young Indian boy arrived in England from Kolkata. His father had sent him to receive a British education. Aurobindo Ghosh showed enormous promise and would go on to receive a scholarship to study classics at King’s College, Cambridge.

By the time he had moved back to Calcutta in 1906, the state of Bengal had been split in half by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India. The British claimed this schism was "administrative", but it was largely an attempt to quell burgeoning political dissent in the region.

The partitioning of Bengal – a prime example of the British's "divide and rule" policy – incensed many sections of the population. The Indian "middle classes" mobilised under the banner of Swadeshi, the anti-imperial resistance movement that would eventually force the British to revoke the partition six years later.

While moderate Indian leaders lobbied the British for greater representation, many of the younger generation in Bengal – particularly Hindus – believed that "prayer, petition and protest" would fail, and more radical action was needed: non-cooperation, law-breaking and even violence, in the name of Swaraj – self-rule. One of the figureheads of "extremist" Swadeshi was Aurobindo – a teacher, poet, polemical journalist and underground revolutionary leader.

Divided legacy

In his later years, Aurobindo became one of India’s most influential international gurus, redefining Hinduism for the modern age with his experimental mysticism (Integral Yoga), global outlook and life-affirming metaphysics of divine evolution. His philosophy is taught across India and was recognised early on by prominent Western figures including Aldous Huxley, who nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. He was also a major inspiration for the New Age movement that swept across the West.

Today, the popular perception of Aurobindo’s life is divided. The early political firebrand and later mystic are seen as separate identities, split by a year of imprisonment during which Aurobindo was spiritually awakened.

However, for Alex Wolfers, a researcher at Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity, this dichotomy is a false one. The spiritual and political blurred throughout Aurobindo’s extraordinary life, particularly during his time as a leading light of radical Swadeshi, said Wolfers, who is investigating spirituality in Aurobindo’s early political writing.

Blending ideas

Through research at archives in Delhi, Kolkata and Aurobindo’s Ashram in Pondicherry, Wolfers has traced the emergence of a new theology of revolution in Aurobindo’s thoughts, one that harnessed the spiritual to challenge “the sordid interests of British capital”.

Aurobindo fused the political and spiritual, mixing ideas from European philosophy, particularly Hegel and Nietzsche, with Hindu theology under the aegis of the Tantric mother goddess, Kali, and Bengali Shaktism – the worship of latent creative energy – to develop a radical political discourse of embodied spirituality, heroic sacrifice and transformative violence.

He complemented this with poetic interpretations of the French revolution and Ireland’s growing Celtic anti-imperialism, as well as contemporary upheavals in Russia, South Africa and Japan.

Through his polemical speeches and essays, Aurobindo furiously developed his political theology against a backdrop of assassination, robbery and bombings, weaving all of these strands into what Wolfers argues is the central symbolic archetype in his political theology: the revolutionary Sannyasi.

Spirit and action

In Hindu philosophy, Sanyasis are religious ascetics – holy men who renounce society and worldly desires for an itinerant life of internal reflection and sacrifice. Throughout the late 18th century in famine-stricken Bengal, roving bands of Sannyasis – together with their Muslim counterparts, Fakirs – challenged the oppressive tax regime of the British, and repeatedly incited the starving peasants to rebel.

Aurobindo amplified and weaponised this already potent symbolic figure by recasting him as a channel for divine violence. By embodying Swaraj, the revolutionary Sanyasi could kill with sanctity. Violent revolution became spiritually transcendent, without murderous stain.

“Just as the traditional Sanyasi intensifies his inner divinity through ascetic practice or the voluntary embrace of suffering, Aurobindo venerates the element of violence and adversity in existence as a prelude to collective ‘self-overcoming’,” said Wolfers.

As Wolfers puts it, the revolutionary Sanyasi is the man of spirit and action, sanctified by sacrifice, whose volatile potency is ready to detonate like a bomb in a violent spectacle of Liebestod: the "love-death" of German romanticism, the ecstatic destruction needed for rebirth. As Aurobindo himself states, “war is the law of creation”.

“This violent vanguardism is often seen as an infantile politics that limits broader participation in a political movement,” said Wolfers, “But even the non-violent Gandhi significantly borrowed from Aurobindo’s transgressive politics. This form of terrorism was crucial in implanting the radical ideals of Swaraj that later anti-imperialist politics were structured around.”

Spreading the ideology

Aurobindo’s highly Anglicised, elite Cambridge education had left him estranged from his roots. On his return to India in 1893, he had to "re-learn his identity" through classical Hindu texts, whereas his younger brother Barin, who had grown up closer to home, was more familiar with the living traditions of Bengal.

Together, Aurobindo, the prophetic visionary, and Barin, the untiring activist, organised the spread of a loose network of underground terrorist cells throughout the land and incited the increasingly politicised student communities of Bengal to submit themselves to the militant spirituality of the "revolutionary Sannyasi".

“These young revolutionaries took their cues from Aurobindo’s discourses of Sannyasi renunciation: they left their families and society, living rigorously according to rituals and timetables, dressing in the traditional ochre robes of the Sannyasi. Some even made use of Tantric practices, carrying out blood rites and secret vows in cremation grounds to purify their life in contact with death,” said Wolfers. “Through these practices they cast off their allocated ‘middle classness’, breaking free from imposed British society.”

Inclusive and anarchic outlook

The revolutionaries targeted figures of British state authority and, in May 1908, Aurobindo was arrested in connection with the botched assassination attempt of a notorious magistrate. It was while in solitary confinement in Alipore jail that he experienced the spiritual awakening that confirmed his mystic status.

Over 60 years after his death in 1950, Aurobindo’s legacy continues to live on, despite often being misappropriated 
for political gain.

“The figure of the revolutionary Sannyasi has had an enormous afterlife: in its various guises and mutations, its influence is evident across the political spectrum from Gandhian mobilisation to Bengali Marxism and Hindu nationalism. Even today, it remains an important trope in Indian politics,” said Wolfers.

“From as early as the 1920s, Hindu nationalist organisations began to recast Aurobindo in an increasingly right-wing mould to assert Hindu dominance against the subcontinent’s Muslim and Christian minorities,” he said. “But hyper-masculine Hindu chauvinism, still a major force in Indian politics today, stands in sharp contrast with his original inclusive and ‘anarchic’ outlook.”

This article was originally published on University of Cambridge website.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

When house hunting is as easy as shopping for groceries

The supermarket experience comes to a sector where you least expected it.

The woes of a house hunter in India are many. The dreary process starts with circling classifieds in newspapers and collecting shiny brochures. You flip through the proposed and ready designs that launch a hundred daydreams on the spot. So far so good. But, every house hunter would attest to the soul-crushing experience of checking out a disappointing property.

The kitchen of a 2BHK is carved from the corner of the hall, the 3BHK is a converted 2BHK, the building looks much older than in the pictures…. after months of reading the fine line, and between the lines, you feel like all the diagrams and highlights seem to blur into each other.

After much mental stress, if you do manage to zero in on a decent property, there’s a whole new world of knowledge to be navigated - home loans to be sifted through, taxes to be sorted and a finance degree to be earned for understanding it all.

Do you wish a real estate platform would address all your woes? Like a supermarket, where your every need (and want) is catered to? Imagine all your property choices nicely lined up and arranged with neat labels and offers. Imagine being able to compare all your choices side by side. Imagine viewing verfied listings and knowing what you see is what you get. Imagine having other buyers and experts guiding you along every step while you make one of the most important investments in your life. Imagine...

MagicBricks has made every Indian house hunters’ daydream of a simplified real estate supermarket a reality. Now you have more than a pile of brochures at your disposal as the online real estate marketplace brings you lakhs of choices to your fingertips. Instead of bookmarking pages, you can narrow down your choices by area, budget, house type etc. Just so you aren’t hit by FOMO, you can always add a suburb you’ve been eyeing or an extra bedroom to your filter. But there’s more to a house than just floor space. On MagicBricks, you can check for good schools in the vicinity, a park for evening walks or at least an assured easier commute. Save time and energy by vetting properties based on the specs, pictures and floor plans uploaded and have all your niggling concerns addressed on the users’ forum.

Shortlisted a property? Great! No need to descend down another spiral of anxiety. Get help from reliable experts on MagicBricks on matters of legalities, home loans, investment, property worth etc. You can even avail their astrology and Vastu services to ensure an auspicious start to life in your new home or office. With its entire gamut of offerings, MagicBricks has indeed brought the supermarket experience to real estate in India, as this fun video shows below.


Get started with a simplified experience of buying, renting and selling property on MagicBricks here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of MagicBricks and not by the Scroll editorial team.