Indian Nationalism, Pluralism and Sri Aurobindo

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Text by Richard Carlson.


Sri Aurobindo is a complex figure. In India he is often remembered as both a maha-guru and a charged symbol of its independence movement. In the cultural memory of some Hindu ultranationalist his writings and speeches are often deployed as an emotional declarations of resentment toward the legacy of occupation and militancy toward the partition of the subcontinent into a Hindu and Islamic State. A close reading however, of how he is portrayed in ultranationalist rhetoric reveals that Aurobindo’s words are often historically de-contextualized, his sentences cut up into snippets to form slogans of nationalism that invite quite the opposite of the intended meaning. These sectarian readings of Aurobindo collapse his cosmopolitan vision of a pluralist India into a chauvinist ideology that suit the narrow communal interest of political Hindu Nationalism. This introductory article, as do those that follow presents Indian Nationalism through the biography and works of Sri Aurobindo.


Until the first years of the twentieth century –when it became distinctly political- Indian Nationalism had taken the form of a cultural and religious movement. The movement for Indian Nationalism traces its genealogy to the early 19th century and the founding figure of the Bengal Renaissance, Raja Rammohan Roy (1775-1833).

The Bengal Renaissance was an intellectual awakening that rivaled its European counterpart in marking the transition from feudalism to modernity in Bengal and other parts of India. The Bengal Renaissance was a cosmopolitan movement that was not only a cross-cultural hybrid but an epistemic one as well. The movement grafted the ideology of the European Enlightenment, through the universal application of reason and social humanist values on to a nascent Hindu reform movement by the Brahmo Samaj and similar organizations.

As annunciated by its founder Rammohan Roy in 1828 the mission of the Brahmo Samaj was to preach the true Vedanta of India whose teachings were wide enough to embrace all faiths within an inclusive universal religion while simultaneously undermining the foundationalist claims of any final scriptural authority as the privileged bearer of truth.

If Rammohan Roy inhabited a Hinduism that was cosmopolitan, he was also a Unitarian who co-founded the Calcutta Unitarian Society. His work would influence another famous Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson who read his translation of the Upanishads. Emerson's vision of Transcendentalism in its American context come from sources that parallel those that inspired Rammohan Roy. Roy sowed the dynamism intrinsic to the idea of the Enlightenment into the soil of ancient Eastern, the cosmopolitan rhizomes that emerged and spread out across cultures, became a formative force in the movement towards Indian nationalism. It is therefore, not surprising that almost a century after Roy and Emerson that Mohandas K. Gandhi would find inspiration in his struggle for national independence in the writings of the Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist, who was inspired by the Vedanta of ancient India in the translations and commentaries he read by Roy and others.

While holding fast to the principles of the Enlightenment that were founded on the omniscience of reason the Bengal Renaissance interrogated existing Hindu orthodoxy. In doing this it also widened the appeal of Hinduism across the sub-continent by eschewing the many repressive practices it had historically used to discipline large portions of the population especially, through the caste system and by its treatment of women.

The Bengal Renaissance found expression throughout the 19th century, in the activities of intellectuals, social reformers, journalists, writers, poets, artists and scientists. Even after the insurrection against the British in the Revolt of 1857 the movement continued to flourish through a creative explosion of literature notably found in the work of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who wrote novels, essays, poems and commentaries. It was Chatterjee who wrote the poem Bande Mataram that was to become the anthem of the independence struggle. The poem personified (Mother) India as the Hindu goddess Durga. Chatterjee believed that a reawakened India could achieve status as a world cultural power.

For all its creativity however, the Bengal Renaissance was to remain confined mostly to upper caste and wealthier Hindus, some of whom even considered themselves atheists. This socio/economic fact however, would unfortunately later undermine their rhetoric in advocating a unified Bengal and Indian subcontinent.

In the 1870 and 1880’s cultural nationalism coupled with Hindu reformist revivalism in movements like the Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dyananda, became the source of inspiration for many Indian writers, activist and reformers. Although it was as reform minded in its opposition to the caste system and the oppression of women as the Brahmo Samaj the Arya Samaj believed in the authority on the “divinely inspired” Vedas while the Brahmo Samaj refused any allegiance to one ultimate scriptural authority.

In the 1890s Swami Vivekananda would emerge to champion a vision of a pluralistic Hinduism with India as its homeland. Although the belief in India as the sacred home of Hinduism is now thought by some to be a reactionary idea, Vivekananda’s beliefs in Indian Nationalism can hardly be called nationalist in a xenophobic sense. He had no difficulties in reconciling the many diverse cultures of India within a cosmopolitan world view. He was perhaps the first key figure to introduce the Vedanta and Yoga to the West, by personally bringing its universal message abroad in successful trips to England and America, where he famously addressed the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

The Indian nationalist movement became distinctly political at the turn of the 20th century when the British attempted to partition Bengal. Although it was officially announced as an administrative partition, that would facilitate better governance, the partition had the impact of dividing Bengal along geographical lines (East/West) and thereby along religious lines (Hindu/Muslim) This was a political move consistent with the divide and conquer strategy of Colonial Empire. The relationship between the British and the Indian Nationalist movement now became one of a Colonial-National interchange, as a newly emerging independent nation prepared to articulate its founding discourse.

In response to the British action in Bengal several nationalist leaders emerged such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal to help forge a popular resistance to the colonialist enterprise by calling for complete independence from England. One of the leaders of the independence movement was Aurobindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo). Sri Aurobindo based his demand for independence on the inherent right of a nation for self-determination and the inherent evil of colonialism that subjugated indigenous peoples to foreign occupation.

At a young age Sri Aurobindo had been sent to England by his Anglophile father to be raised and educated. He graduated from Cambridge where he was educated in the Classics. He could read and write in multiple European and Indian languages. At Cambridge he won prizes for Greek and Latin poetry. Culturally Auronbindo was a cosmopolitan figure, philosophically he had certain affinities with Nietzsche, Bergson, Tagore.

When he returned to India rather than becoming a privileged member of the Crown’s Indian Civil Service (ICS) he choose to rediscovered his Indian heritage by immersing himself in its indigenous traditions that he found in the Vedanta and the practice of Yoga. His will to cultural and self-discovery transformed him into both a revolutionary and a yogi. It did not take long to find himself on trail for his life as the British tried him on charges of sedition.

Although due to his revolutionary activities the British considered him to be an extremist in fact, Auorbindo advocated a secular democracy for a free India in which Hindus, Muslims and others would be given equal status as the citizens of a modern unified nation. But even though his political ideas were inspired by European political theory Aurobindo’s writings and speeches also barrowed heavily from the symbols and sources of Hinduism. In one famous speech he would describe the essence of the culture of the sub-continent and its newly emerging nation to be the “sanatan dharma”, The “eternal law” that expresses the essence of ones religious being. Aurobindo projected this eternal law on to the nation. The “sanatan dharma” however, is also used to describe the essence of Hinduism. Therefore, whether one believes in a pluralist or a sectarian form of Hinduism makes all the difference in interpreting the term. Today Hindu Nationalist often invoke the “sanatan dharma” in problematic ways for a nations with a secular constitution.

Due to such misappropriation of language and the confusion of cultural memory with critical history, many contemporary political theorist both on the Right and the Left often historically de-contextualize both Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo to conflate their multi-dimensional view of a national polity with the reductive contemporary phenomena of Hindu Nationalism, often called “Hindutva” (Hinduness).

The contemporary movement of Hindu Nationalism however, began long after Vivekananda had died and Aurobindo had retired from politics. A rough date for the advent of the current Hindu Nationalist movement perhaps maybe around 1925 when K.B. Hedgewar founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S); a militant ultranationalist movement. Hedgewar wished to protect India from further foreign subjugation by uniting Hindus on a common platform by instilling discipline and national character. Hedgewar had been influenced by the concept of Hindutva in the writing of Vināyak Dāmodar Savarkar; who conflated Hinduism with Indian identity

After Hedgewar the leadership of the R.S.S was passed on to Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, whose view of Hinduism while open to absorbing Jainism and Buddhism, was overtly hostile to Christianity, Islam. Under Golwalkar R.S.S political activities increased until the movement was briefly outlawed when members of the R.S.S were convicted of the assassination of Gandhi. Known for his extremist view, in his book, "We, Our Nationhood Defined" (1939), Golwalkar praised Adolph Hitler’s ethic of ethnic cleansing by writing:

“Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

as well as denouncing Muslims as citizens of India:

“Ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindustan, right up to the present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting on to take on these despoilers. The Race Spirit has been awakening.”

But the founding fathers of current Hindu Nationalism had little influence on the Indian Independence Movement, most of whose leaders -unlike Hedgewar and Golwalker- understood Hinduism as an inclusive faith that would thrive within the secular democracy they sought to create. This has not however, stopped the present day successor ideologues of Hindu Nationalists from attempting to incorporate some of the founders of India’s cultural and political independence movement into their reactionary cause.

The appropriation of political figures from the early independence movement such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo, by contemporary Hindu Nationalists in an effort to further their exclusionist ends, is done in much the same cynical fashion as the attempt by contemporary American Tea Party politicians to appropriate the legacies of America’s founders in claiming to known the “original intentions” of the framers of the constitution: Jefferson, Franklin, Paine et al. in trying to legitimize their demands for libertarian economics and xenophobic politics.

In the case of Vivekananda and Aurobindo both held complex social understandings of nationalism that in many ways was similar to their European contemporaries, who were sympathetic to the progressive social movements of the post-Romantic era, such as Thomas Carlyle, and Oscar Wilde. Indeed Aurobindo’s brother was friends with Wilde.

For both Vivekananda and Aurobindo, as with the earlier Bengal Renaissance figures, Hinduism was synonymous with a universal religion that was characterized by its radical inclusivity. The universal religion of Vedanta that they heralded was a system of beliefs that could include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist and members of other faiths including non-believers. It was a religion whose social values were coextensive in its aims with the religion of humanity proclaimed by the champions of the secular European Enlightenment.

Having become confident that the independence struggle would succeed Sri Aurobindo gradually withdrew from the arena of nationalist politics and began to concentrate more on his spiritual practice of integral yoga. In his years after politics he devoted himself to the spiritual practices of integral yoga and rejected narrow sectarian identification with religious forms such as traditional Hindu practices. His social-political text advocated a form of nationalism based on a secular social democracy that could evolve toward Utopian forms of spiritual anarchy. While unique in its invocation of Vedantic practices of self-knowledge, his political views are of a social progressive who envisions a future that -while cosmic in scope- is entirely consistent with other European socio-utopian discourse of the era.

While the spirit of Sri Aurobindo’s integral discourse can be traced back to the syncretistic doctrines and cosmopolitanism of the Bengal Renaissance, the cultural and political forms of engagement that evolved from the Bengal Renaissance failed to cast a net wide enough to serve as a foundation for a unified India. Although the Bengal Renaissance embraced a cultural ethos of universal human rights when it evolved into a political resistance movement it was not able to sustain a call for a single nation on the subcontinent. Its social message could not fully infiltrate into the economic structures of lower castes to fully gain their support and so was looked upon with suspicion by Marxist. Most importantly, it could not convince Muslims that its promises of equal status under one secular nation would suit their needs and demands. The fact that the discourse that followed the Bengal Renaissance resonated primarily with wealthy and upper middle class Hindus of certain upper castes ultimately undermined its utopian urge and influence to construct a unified nation and universal religion. However, the view of those who can be included as major figures in Bengal Renaissance from Rammohan Roy to Sri Aurobindo advocated a pluralistic nationalism one that is far different than the communal nationalism espoused by the Hindu right political parties of today’s India.

The dynamics of Indian Nationalism, Communalism and Orientalism are further elucidated in three excellent articles that follow which explore the revolutionary activities and socio-spiritual writings of Sri Aurobindo.

The article by Marcel Kvassay entitled “Heehs, on Sri Aurobindo and Indian Communalism” is a review of several books by the author Peter Heehs. Heehs is certainly the foremost biographer of Sri Aurobindo yet, he has recently come under attack through the hate speech and legal actions of Hindu fundamentalist in response to his recent scholarly biography: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo.

The books reviewed are:

(1998). Nationalism, Terrorism, Communalism. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

(2005). Nationalism, Religion, and Beyond. Delhi: Permanent Black.

(2008). The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. New York: Columbia University Press.

The next article by Peter Heehs “Shades of Orientalism”, introduces Orientailsm into the study of Indian Nationalism and Sri Aurobindo. The abstract reads:

“Edward Said attempts to show that all European discourse about the Orient is the same, and all European scholars of the Orient complicit in the aims of European imperialism. There may be “manifest” differences in discourse, but the underlying “latent” orientalism is “more or less constant.” This does not do justice to the marked differences in approach, attitude, presentation and conclusions found in the works of various orientalists. I distinguish six different styles of colonial and postcolonial discourse about India (heuristic categories, not essential types), and note the existence of numerous precolonial discourses. The thought of the early-twentieth-century writer Sri Aurobindo took form in a colonial framework and has been used in various ways by postcolonial writers. An anti-British nationalist, he was by no means complicit in British imperialism. Neither can it be said, as some Saidians do, that the nationalist style of orientalism was just an imitative indigenous reversal of European discourse, using terms like “Hinduism” that had been invented by Europeans. Five problems that Aurobindo dealt with are still of interest to historians: the significance of the Vedas, the date of the vedic texts, the Aryan invasion theory, the Aryan-Dravidian distinction and the idea that spirituality is the essence of India. His views on these topics have been criticized by Leftist and Saidian orientalists, and appropriated by reactionary “Hindutva” writers. Such critics concentrate on that portion of Aurobindo’s work that stands in opposition to or supports their own views. A more balanced approach to the nationalist orientalism of Aurobindo and others would take account of their religious and political assumptions, but view their project as an attempt to create an alternative language of discourse. Although in need of criticism in the light of modern scholarship, their work offers a way to recognize cultural particularity while keeping the channels of intercultural dialogue open.”

The article by Debashish Banerji entitled “Sri Aurbindo, India and Ideological Discourse” explores both inclusive and exclusionist Hinduism through the creation of what Banerji calls four forms of Orientalism: Enlightenment Positivism, Positivist Racism, Romantic and Dialogic that are briefly summarized here:

1) Positivism in this Enlightenment sense does not make any distinction between human beings, colonizer or colonized. It moves towards the equalization of the field. It is burdened by what it calls the ”white-man’s burden”.

2) Positivist Racism also starts with the precept that Reason is the primary defining attribute of human beings. In this sense, it is also definitional in its approach to Humanity, but it construes non-White people, non Western people, as racially different and inferior. Non-Western people - we find here the invention of “the west” as a self-identifying civilizational essence tied to race and differentiated from “the east” or “the Orient”-  just don’t have that definitional property of Reason to the degree required to be given entry into the club of Humanity. That is, the brown, black, red and yellow peoples of the world are “not quite/not white,” in Homi Bhabha’s celebrated description of the phenomenon.

3) Along with these, almost as their necessary inverse, come two other discourses. They constitute the field of Orientalism. The first of these could be called Romantic Orientalism. This discourse starts by acknowledging the “Enlightened West” to be defined by Materialism, and then projects its Other, the domain of Romanticism and Spritituality onto the ”the Orient,” ie. the colonized. The colonized is that Other because s/he fills the lack of Euro-America, its lost spirituality, rejected because not a part of its definition of the Human. Thus the fascination of the Other as the romantic, exotic, primitive, spiritual native  (in our case, Indian) characterizes Orientalism. But Orientalism is also conflicted. Just as the discourse of Positivism expresses itself as a binary, Orientalism also carries an internal conflict which divides it into two discourses. One of them is the mainstream Orientialist discourse, that so well brought out by Edward Said, which characterizes the Oriental or “non-Western” people as those who will remain and are meant to remain creatures of imagination and spirituality, never capable of political self-determination or rational epistemology.

4) The fourth discourse is where some promise starts emerging. This is a variant of Romantic Orientalism, what may be termed Dialogic Orientalism. This is constituted by the awareness among those within the West who perceive the origin of the Other within their own culture, who believe that spirituality is part of the definition of the Human, which has been suppressed and neglected in the development of the progressive “logocentric” discourse of the Enlightenment. This anthropological deformation needs to be corrected. Engagement in dialogue with the living potential of that in non-western cultures can transform and enrich the world, and create a new future.

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