In recent years we have heard much about Aurobindo Ghose’s radical nationalism: his arrest in the Alipore bomb case under charges of “waging war against the Government” during British rule, his invocation of India as his mother, a divinity to be revered and set free from chains, and his scathing editorials in the newspaper Bande Mataram. Inspired by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the Vedas, he urged people to shake off their colonial stupor, recover their spiritual power and demand complete freedom.
For some, such nationalism is suspect. For others, worthy of reverence, even of emulation, though India has now been free for over seventy years.
Stepping back from both these positions, it is interesting to explore what nationalism really meant to this leader of India’s freedom movement. For if Swaraj was a direct revelation of god, as Aurobindo said, he also wrote that it implied “a vast and entire freedom” that was not merely national but also individual, social and spiritual. How did these ideas develop in the course of his life and work?
In his famous Uttarpara speech, delivered after his release from prison, Aurobindo would say: “She does not rise as others do, for herself or when she is strong, to trample on the weak. She is rising to shed the eternal Light entrusted to her over the world. India has always existed for humanity and not for herself and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be free.”
These words marked a transition from Aurobindo Ghose to Sri Aurobindo. The next forty years of his life in Pondicherry focused on tracking this transforming power of “Light” or “Consciousness”.
Why was spiritual power so important? Was it also an evolutionary force? How then, to cope with Darwin? Where can one address such questions freely if not at places of cultural, intellectual and spiritual conversation?
The one freedom Aurobindo offered was to acknowledge the soul, without hang-ups, free of nationality, caste, creed and politics. Such exploration also needed the qualification of lived spiritual experience that could express itself coherently and not just by set academic limits. Earlier, as a Principal of the Bengal National College he invited free thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Ananda Coomaraswamy to teach. Later, Tagore would write in The Modern Review in 1928 about his visit to Pondicherry: “At the very first sight I could realize that he had been seeking for the soul and had gained it…(I felt) that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom of entrance into the All.”
Like Tagore, other leaders urged him to return to political life, often resenting his reluctance to do so. Some also misunderstood his call to support the British during World War II. Many asked how he could he propose such a thing? Aurobindo would demand in turn if they were they proposing to support Hitler instead? “If the totalitarian Powers win...it will be a new order of naked brute Force, repression and exploitation,” he wrote. “It is a struggle for the liberty of mankind to develop, for conditions in which men have freedom and room to think and act according to the light in them and grow in the Truth, grow in the Spirit.”
A major hurdle remained in this vision however: as long as the human ego persisted in all its perversity, the best humanitarian efforts would fail. “Man must be sacred to man regardless of all distinctions of race, creed, colour, nationality, status, political or social advancement,” Aurobindo would write in The Ideal of Human Unity. “The body of man is to be respected, made immune from violence and outrage...”
The universal power of the soul had to be tapped, Aurobindo believed, for any meaningful result, in its essence, was freedom, equality and unity. The freedom thus being prepared for would finally find voice on the day of India’s independence, also Aurobindo’s seventy-fifth birthday.
All India Radio requested a message from him that came to be called “The Five Dreams”. It is a message that can be mined for social, political, cultural, economic, scientific as well as spiritual and evolutionary discussion.
The first dream that Aurobindo laid out was about the need to reunify a people that was being divided, through whatever means, and in whatever form, preferably in a natural way – a process that is ongoing. The second dream was about the freedom of Asian countries from colonial rule in the wake of India’s freedom, which the world saw.
The third was a progressive world union: “for unity is a necessity of nature...and only human imbecility and selfishness can prevent it....nationalism will have fulfilled itself and lost its militancy and would no longer find these things incompatible with self-preservation...” Is that not an urgent reflection needed for our times, not just in India but worldwide?
The fourth dream detailed by Aurobindo was about the spiritual (not religious) gift of India to the world. And finally the fifth dream: “a step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and dream of individual perfection and a perfect society.”
This trajectory from revolutionary to evolutionary, from nationalism to universalism is something the human species cannot eventually escape. Though the world seems stuck on a regressive step right now, it is perhaps to pull back and spring further than what our limited minds have so far allowed. The range of the conscious spirit is higher, wider and freer and yet, anchored in ground reality. How can it embrace the staggering changes – inward, outward and societal – and carry us through the catastrophe and chaos of our times? Can these discussions enter our forums and platforms and eclectic literary circles, old and new?