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Indian Political Thought: Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo was renowned and important personality in the history of the Indian resurgence and Indian nationalism. Aurobindo had a versatile brilliance. He was a great poet, a thoughtful thinker, a distinguished metaphysican, a great prophet and a passionate patriot. He wrote effective texts that represented the crystallization of the new and rising soul of India and given a spiritual message for humankind.

Political career of Aurobindo was from 1906 to 1910. Though, he had been active behind the scene surveying, organizing and supporting the nationalist cause, ever since his return to India, especially during his trips to Bengal. This period of his activity from 1906-1910 visualized as a complete change of India's political scene. Before Aurobindo began publishing his visions, the Congress was an annual debating society whose rare victories had been instances of the empire taking a favourable view to its petitions. By the time, Aurobindo left the field, the ideal of political independence had been firmly rooted into the minds of people, and nineteen years later, it became the official saying of the Congress.

This change was affected by the beginning of the belligerent nationalist thought of Lokmanya Tilak who declared that swaraj was his birth right and Bipin Chandra Pal who demanded "complete autonomy" from Britain. However, none went as far as Aurobindo in pronouncing the legality and necessity of complete independence. He "based his claim for freedom for India on the inherent right to freedom, not on any charge of misgovernment or oppression". He wrote that "Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation. To attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility. The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude."

Aurobindo's huge, complex, and sometimes chaotic literary work includes philosophical speculation, poetry, plays, and other works. His magnificent works are

  • The Life Divine (1939)
  • The Human Cycle (1949)
  • The Ideal of Human Unity (1949)
  • On the Veda (1956)
  • Collected Poems and Plays (1942)
  • Essays on the Gita (1922)
  • The Synthesis of Yoga (1948)
  • Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol (1950)

The Life Divine, his greatest writing, is a mammoth work in which he made an original contribution in the field of philosophical thought of the modern world. In nature it is at once visionary and revelatory. The book enlightens the different processes of Sri Aurobindo's conception of the spiritual evolution. Dr. Karan Singh writes about it as "According to this theory, creation began when a part of the supreme, Unconditioned and Absolute Reality plunged into the grossest and densest matter. From the dawn of creation the spirit that was involved in matter began its slow but sure evolution on the path which leads back to its source of origin. After aeons life began to make its appearance in primitive forms which gradually evolved upwards. Then, after another tremendous gap, mind first appeared among living creatures. The next step upwards was the advent of the human race when intellect began to assume the dominating role. This, however, is by no means the final phase of evolution. In fact it is an intermediate stage, and mankind is now poised on the threshold of the next leap forward in the evolutionary process. This step is the evolution of the mind to Supermind, the luminous realm of -Truth Consciousness. The instruments of this Supermind will be intuition and direct cognition rather than the imperfect reasoning intellect which our race possesses at present."

Aurobindo was heavily influenced by the western philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), and he created an amalgamation of Bergson's evolutionary view and the Upanisads. According to Aurobindo, no evolution is possible without involution, which involves the succession of the divine to the world of matter. The Eternal Spirit is beyond all description, but it descends into the lower realms of being and then by evolution ascends until it returns to its source. This transition from the Eternal Spirit to the multiplicity of the phenomenal world is what Aurobindo calls Supermind.

Political work of Aurobindo revealed diverse influences. Among these, the Indian tradition of perfectionism in philosophy have captivated him the most. The great European theorists from Homer to Go'ethe influenced him greatly during his formative period and the study of Geeta, Upanishads and Vedanta had a profound impact on his political thinking. Romain Rolland stated that Sri Aurobindo was "the highest synthesis of the genius of Asia". He integrated the materialist trend in western philosophy with the idealist tradition in Indian philosophy. Vedantic philosophy as advocated by Ramakrishna and Vivekanand also influenced Aurobindo's thinking.

He was also motivated by the significant vitality and diversity of the lndian intellectual tradition. He supposed that the writings of the Vedantic sages and the Buddha reflect the prodigy of the yoga Indian mind. However, later on, according to Aurobindo, the Indian philosophical tradition became narrow in viewpoint and lost its enthusiasm and vitality. As against this, western philosophy managed to retain its dynamism and continued to grow. Aurobindo wanted to combine the best elements of the Indian and western philosophical tradition.

He described deeply the origin, nature and destiny of this world in his theory of evolution. His theory of creation established that matter passes through various stages of development; from the plant and animal stages to that of the mind and the super mind. In his opinion, matter is spirit in a hidden form, growing progressively towards the revelation of the spirit which is the supreme, unconditioned and absolute reality. In this process of evolution, in the change from the mind to the super mind, the technique of 'yoga' helps human beings to accelerate the process.

It can be assessed that in his political thought, Sri Aurobindo had forwarded a vivid theory of nation and nationalism and a methodology for achieving it. Basically, Sri Aurobindo was not a theorist, but a yogi. he was the innovator of the supramental. In the first part of his life, he was a forecaster of Indian nationalism, and in the second half of his life, he was a developer of the supramental. Through his own sadhana, and yogic practices and with the help of the Mother, who was a very powerful spiritual figure in her own right and his spiritual collaborator, Sri Aurobindo gradually developed and perfected the "integral yoga". According to him, it is the integral yoga which can enable us to move from the present fractured, fragmented and disoriented state of our consciousness to a much clearer and sharper focus of our psyche and ultimately a breakthrough into the higher consciousness.

It is significant to note that Sri Aurobindo was not a theoretical philosopher. He was a yogi, a practitioner of integral yoga who looked upon himself as the path finder, as somebody who has gone where nobody else had ever been. In trying to clear the way, he had to undergo sadhana and tremendous spiritual and psychological and physical strain. For 40 years, he lived in one house, and in one room for 25 years without ever leaving the room. The amazing thing was that a man like Sri Aurobindo, with a brilliant mind, a great activist, effectively shut himself off from the rest of the world and with his sadhana developed the whole concept of the integral yoga.

In all his books, he defines in great detail the problems he encountered on his path, and what is to be done. Yoga cannot be described in words; it has to be experienced, but basically it involves the quest for what he calls the psychic being. The psychic being in traditional Hindu thought would be the atman, the divinity within us. Sri Aurobindo has analysed the physical dimension, the psychological dimension of vital, emotional dimension, the psychological dimension and then the other deeper dimensions of the human body. His integral yoga brings together the four traditional yogas of Hindu philosophy and religious striving: the Jnana yoga (the way of wisdom), the Bhakti yoga (the way of devotion), Karma yoga (the way of words), and Raj yoga (the way of spiritual practices), and inner development.

Sri Aurobindo brings these together in an extraordinary way and is able, therefore, to put before us the integral yoga with all its difficulties. He has never underestimated the difficulties involved. He talks about the negative, hostile and dark forces that are constantly trying to obstruct the descent of the light. And yet he has ultimately overcome it. Sri Aurobindo developed his own technique called 'Integral Yoga' or 'Purna Yoga' which integrates the techniques of four yoga i.e. Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga and Raja yoga-as well as the Tantrik philosophy. Through this integral Yoga, a Yogi can rise to the supremental level, which will bring him joy (Ananda). The achievement of Ananda helps in self-realization and assists in the service of humanity

Sri Aurobindo further explained that since 'matter' is not different from 'spirit', 'gradual evolution of matter will convert it into pure spirit. Despite the difficulties in the way which may decelerate the process, the advancement of humanity in the direction of spiritual perfection will continue. In this process, a few developed souls will work as vanguards and will struggle hard to find the path for others. Aurobindo supposed that India's tradition of spiritual thought and practice was very progressive and the whole of humanity could benefit from this in its spiritual journey. He wanted India to take the lead and for this reason, thought that India ought to be free, to play her true role in the spiritual renewal of the world.

Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita is proficient; one does not have to accept his theory of supramental transformation to take advantage of his extremely powerful writings on the Gita, the Upanishads, our social, political problems, education and health. His mastermind lightened the intellectual background. But if people have to follow or understand what his peculiar contribution to philosophy has been, then they have to realise it has been this theory of evolutionary spiritualism, supramentalisation and consciousness on planet earth; it is only this ultimate according to Sri Aurobindo. When this new dimension comes about, there will be final reconciliation between matter and spirit, inner and the outer light, thinking and feeling, being and doing, and between the kinetic and the quiet elements of the human psyche. None of the problems of the world can be solved unless there is a leap in the new consciousness. There have been great rishis, prophets and avataras who have done great things, but they left the world pretty much as it was when they came in. He said he was not satisfied with these. He wanted to create a new world, change the consistency of this world, and change matter itself. Matter itself will be divinised according to Sri Aurobindo, once the supramental light begins its full efflorescence on globe.

The contribution of Sri Aurobindo to modern Indian political thought may be categorized under four titles:

  1. His concept of spiritual nationalism and divinity of motherland.
  2. His exposition of the ideal of complete freedom from foreign rule.
  3. His contribution to the theory of boycott and passive resistance.
  4. His vision of the high role that India was destined to play in world affairs and his ideal of human unity.

The foundation of political philosophy of Aurobindo was his notion of spiritual nationalism and the mysticism of the motherland. Aurobindo offered an element of spiritualism to nationalism.

His writings in this period must be visualized against the political background of India in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His objective was to mobilize the people for the fight against the foreign ruler and his ultimate goal was full freedom for the country. Aurohindo's thoughts in the later phase, i.e. from 1910 onwards reveal clearly the need for humanity to return to the spiritual motivations.

Aurobindo's Views on the Indian National Congress: When Aurobindo returned from England, he perceived the political scene and expressed his views through his literatures in journals like 'Bande Mataram'. He critically appraised the working of the Congress organization and its leadership at that time. He criticised the Congress on four grounds:

  1. Its aims and objectives.
  2. Its composition.
  3. The motives of the leaders.
  4. The methods adopted by them for the realisation of their aims and objectives.

This does not indicated that he was against the national Congress. In contrast, he declared that "The Congress was to us, all that is to man most dear, most high and most sacred." But at the same time, he did not express his disappointment and dissatisfaction about its working. When considering aims and objectives of the organization, he thought that the Congress did not have a straightforward goal of national freedom. The leaders of the Congress were wasting time on trifles like certain administrative reforms, which were totally insufficient to meet the need of the time. Their demands, he delivered were 'shamefully modest.' On the view of composition of the Congress, he thought that the Congress was a middle class organization and therefore, did not represent the Indian public. The newly educated middle class leadership was only interested in gaining power and a place in the Indian polity. He highlighted the need for converting the national movement into a mass movement by including in it the vast numbers of the proletariat. He believed that the development of the Indian 'proletariat' on the horizon of the national movement would be an important factor to the solution of the problem of transforming the Congress into a truly national and popular body.

Regarding the motives of the Congress leaders, his observation was that they were not genuine leaders. They were timid and frightened of displeasing their rulers. He believed that these flaws in the organization had unfavourably affected the national movement in the country. He sensed that the Congress leadership had not perceived the British rule correctly and therefore, instead of confidently asserting their goal, the leaders relied on the sense of justice and compassion of the British rulers. They resorted to useless petitions of the Congress. He therefore stressed the need for a broad based organization that could channelize the entire power of the country to free it from foreign rule. Thus, his firmness on motivating the masses with the spirit of independence was one of the first efforts to give a mass character to the freedom movement.

Nature of the British Rule: Aurobindo's first political writings in 'lndu-Prakash' - an Anglo-Maratni paper was a direct attack on British rule. Of course, some leaders participating in the national movement were also condemning British rule at that time, but their disparagement was quite indirect. His writing was a departure from this style of expression. He created such a sensation in the country that Justice M.G. Ranade had to warn the editor of Indu-Prakash to be careful, and afterward the editor had to request Aurobindo to amend his writing style, which he did rather unwillingly. The purpose of Aurobindo's criticism of the British rule was twofold. In the first instance, he wanted to strengthen the anti-British sentiments in the country and secondly, to break the myth of British dominance. He expressed the view that the British political system was in no way the best as was extensively believed by Indian intellectuals. He also criticized for the absence of social freedom and equality.

Regarding the nature of the British rule in India, he expressed the view that, "It is mercantile in foundation and exploitative in character". It must be, therefore, deteriorated from its base itself, in order to achieve freedom and independence of the country. Aurobindo defined the behaviour of the British officials as rude and arrogant. He believed that the system of administration set up by the British in lndia was systematically unsuitable to the Indian people, their socio-economic system, their mind and genius. He also condemn the anglicised Indians who regarded the British way of life and culture worth matching. He, however, did not object to learning from the experience of the British, though he was against the thoughtless imitating of European ideas and ideals. He opposed to the growing tendency among Indians to disregard the past and of having no clear vision for the future.

Concept of Nation and Theory of Spiritual Nationalism: Aurobindo's notion of nation was extremely influenced by Bankimchandra, a great Bengali novelist. He believed that the nation is not just a piece of land nor a mass of human beings. It is neither a figure of speech nor the creation of mind. It is something more than a geographical unit or a figment of people's imagination. Therefore, his concept of nation is thoughtful and very different from the commonly held patriotic notions about the nation. According to him, India was like his mother and hence, he was highly dedicated to her. He adored India as a Mother Goddess, and advised the young patriots to work for their nation which is their mother. He believed that the freedom of the motherland is the most urgent duty of her children for which they must be ready to sacrifice even their lives.

According to Aurobindo's understanding, the 'nation' is a mighty 'shakti' composed of all the shaktis of all the millions of units that develop the nation. It is thus a living entity. He expressed his profound feelings of love and dedication to the motherland in several articles and poems. Such patriotism, he believed could work wonders. Thus, Aurobindo's definition-of nationalism had a spiritual dimension, unlike the ordinary patriotic understanding of the terms nationalism. Nationalism in his opinion is not just a political movement. It is neither a political programme nor an intellectual past time. According to him, nationalism is similar to religion. It is a faith and a dogma which one has to live. It is a religion which has come from God. Hence, it cannot be crumpled. Even if attempts are made by external forces to suppress it, it remerges and survives due to the strength of God in it. Sri Aurobindo Militant Nationalism is immortal. It cannot die, because it is not a creation of human beings. But is created by God. If one wants to be a nationalist, one must work for his nation.

Nationalism in his opinion was a deep and enthusiastic 'religious sadhana'. In this viewpoint, there is a difference between Aurobindo's concept of nationalism and nationalism as perceived by other thinkers and political activists of his time. Nationalist movement prompted off by the partition of Bengal was in the opinion of Aurobindo, a divinely inspired and guided movement. In his belief, this movement was not guided by any political self-interest, but it was a religious mission which the people were trying to fulfil. Thus for him, "nationalism is a religion by which people try to realise God in their nation, and their fellow countrymen".

Final Goal: Swaraj, India's liberation from foreign supremacy was the final goal for Aurobindo. 'Swaraj', i.e., self-rule by Indians was not just economic and political nature. It was essential for India to perform its spiritual mission dedicated to the upliftment of humanity. He supported independence for India for following reasons:

Liberty being the first crucial condition of rational development intellectual, moral, individual and political is in itself a necessity of national life. Hence, it was worth determined for its own sake.

Secondly, in the process of development of human beings, spiritual and moral advance is more important than material improvement. Aurobindo believed that India with her spiritual development was intended to take the lead for the progress of the world and for this reason, India must be free. India must have swaraj to live well and happily. To accomplish this goal, Indians should not live as slaves but as free people to work for the spiritual and intellectual benefit of the human race. The notion of nationalism which dominated his thought and activity in the early phase was just fast movement in the direction of the unity of humankind. This unity of humankind was regarded by him as a part of nature's eventual scheme and as the unavoidable goal of human development. To attain this goal of national independence, he elucidated the methods to be followed.

Positive Programme of Political Action: In 1906, Aurobindo left his job at Baroda and rushed into active politics. At this stage that he thought and wrote about the political methods to be adopted against the British. He suggested two types of the theoretical base of the political course of action. Complete freedom from British domination was his ultimate goal and this he believed, could not be achieved by appeals to the charity of foreign masters, but by channelizing the unlimited reserved strength of millions of Indians. According to Aurobindo, this boundless reservoir of inner strength and power of the people could be channelized through different kinds of political actions; such as through secret revolutionary propaganda by setting up revolutionary organisation. The object of this action was to prepare for an armed insurrection. Another step is continuous propaganda against foreign rule through writings, speeches, and public contacts. This was regarded by many at that time as an impossible scheme because in their opinion the British Empire was too strong to be destabilised through such techniques. Next technique is mobilising the masses through various organizations to carry an open and total opposition to foreign rule through methods of non-cooperation and passive resistance.

Aurobindo attempted all the three methods. Even when he was at Baroda, he had contacts with the revolutionary organizations in Bengal as well as Maharashtra. He tried to establish secret groups through his Bengali contacts in the Baroda Army. At the same time, he developed contacts with radical Congress leaders like Tilak and cooperated with him to reduce the influence of moderates on the organization. In the situation of political chaos following the partition of Bengal, he organised and proliferated methods of passive resistance. His promotion of the method of passive resistance was the result of his disenchantment over the constitutional methods of moderate leaders.

He was opposed to methods like passing resolutions, sending petitions, and entering into negotiations with British rulers. Instead, he supported methods like 'boycott' of foreign goods 'non-cooperation' with the rulers. These methods were most suitable at the time. Thus, the measures he advocated were not moral or spiritual but very practical political measures. He did not reject the use of force in the application of these methods. Violence was not offensive for Aurobindo. The use of force and violence was justified, if circumstances demanded them. In this thought, there is a difference between Gandhiji's method of civil resistance and Aurobindo's method of passive resistance. Gandhiji regarded violence as unprincipled and hence, harmful and objectionable. He also regarded it as polluted by moral fear and as incompatible with the end for which it could be used. But for Aurobindo, passive resistance was a comprehensive programme of national revival.

Programme of Action Boycott was main phrase in the programme of action proposed to resist high handedness and oppressive measures employed by the British rulers. 'Boycott' in this framework means an act of organised rejection to do anything which shall help or assist the British bureaucracy in administration of it. This non co-operation was to continue as long as the ambitions of the people remained unfulfilled. The object of putting this method of 'boycott' on the head of the programme was to make the administration under present conditions impossible. The main target of the 'boycott' was British goods, since economic exploitation by the British rulers was to be stopped forthwith. Aurobindo believed that if this was done, the domain would collapse in consequence. Boycott of the British system of education was another part of the programme. This system was found to be anti-national as well as defective in its very foundations.

It was completely controlled by the government as it was used by foreign rulers to teach loyalty to them and discoursed patriotism and the national spirit. This programme included boycott of government run schools and colleges and sought to establish national education institutions and a system directed towards creating awareness about the problems of the country, love for the nation and mental preparedness among the youth of the country to fight against the dominance of alien power. It also supported boycott of the British judicial system. The system was regarded as partial, costly, frequently subordinated to the political objects of the rulers and disastrous as far as the people of this country were concerned.

The administration of justice was disparaged for being bureaucratic in nature. Lastly, this programme included boycott of administration. The executive/ administrative machinery were regarded as ruthless, exploitive, arbitrary and inquisitorial in character. The objective of boycott was to decrease the administrative machinery to a mere skeleton so that it would be useless for the rulers in their efforts to exploit and harass the helpless people of this country. Aurobindo was well aware of the importance of neatness and discipline for a nation. When he encouraged boycott, he also supported alternative arrangements to replace the existing system. He regarded this programme as a scheme of self-development and believed that if the people were firm in applying these methods, British rule could be finished.

Aurobindo made immense contribution to the theory of passive resistance and boycott. Autobindo explicated the aim of passive resistance as "to make British administration impossible by an organized refusal to do anything which shall help the development of British trade and commerce resulting in the exploitation of the country". Aurobindo clarified that the passive resistance may turn to be violent in case of ruthless suppression by the monarch. In this way, it contrasted from Gandhiji's technique of non-violent resistance. Aurobindo comprehended that his idea of passive resistance would be fruitful if there was boycott of British in every field. Along with his theory of economic boycott, he expanded his visions on national education. Along with his theory of economic boycott, he emphasized the requirement of Swadeshi. Along with educational boycott, he forwarded his views on national education. With judicial boycott, he stressed the necessity of establishing national arbitration courts. He also asked for social boycott of those Indians who did not support the cause of non-cooperation with the British.

Aurobindo also contributed in political arena by representing his ideal of complete freedom. Aurobindo was the first Indian political leader to use the word "Independence" instead of "Swaraj'. He powerfully believed that without political freedom, India cannot progress. Political freedom must precede socio-economic and administrative reforms. As he observed "Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation; to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion and moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility".

Another major contribution of Aurobindo was his idea of the high role that India was intended to play in world affairs and it is ideal of human unity. At a time when British rule in India was firmly and securely established, Aurobindo had the breadth of vision to predict India as a free nation and her contribution to the world community.

He realized that India had a spiritual message which was immediately needed by the people of the world. He was convinced that independent India was to fulfil her true fortune in the international community. He supported the notion of human unity. He appealed for independence for India in the extensive interest of the humanity. He stated that "Our ideal of patriotism proceeds on the basis of love and brotherhood and it looks beyond the unity of the nation and envisages the ultimate unity of mankind. It is a unity of brothers, equal and free men that we seek, not the unity of master and serf, of devourer and devoured".

It has been observed that Sri Aurobindo's political activities brought him into conflict with the British in India. He was arrested on charges of sedition in 1908 and spent a year in the grim conditions of the jail at Alipore. It was a time of great connotation in his life. He realised more intensely than ever before the one spirit that unites and moves mankind, and it changed his perception of the role that the political struggle had played in his life. It no longer seemed an end in itself, but only the beginning of his work to accelerate the initiation of a new consciousness in mankind based on the approval of human unity as a fact. His experiences while in prison convinced him of the truth long preserved in the ancient spiritual traditions of India. Sri Aurobindo observed that a sense of the infinite transfusing all things, even the most material, is native to the Indian soul that sense makes true brotherhood possible. He wrote in the Human Cycle that

"Yet is brotherhood the real key to the triple gospel of the idea of humanity? The union of liberty and equality can only be achieved by the power of human brotherhood and it cannot be founded on anything else. But brotherhood exists only in the soul and by the soul: it can exist by nothing else. For this brotherhood is not a matter either of physical kinship or of vital association or of intellectual agreement. When the soul claims freedom, it is the freedom of its self-development, the self-development of the Divine in man and in all his being."

Sri Aurobindo was an extraordinary person. His contribution for struggle of independence is unforgettable. In his message on August 15, 1947, he said that "August 15, 1947 is the birthday of free India. It marks for her the end of an old era, the beginning of a new age, but we can also make it by our own life and acts as a free nation, an important date in a new age opening to the whole world for the political, social, cultural and spiritual future of humanity. August 15 is my own birthday and it is naturally gratifying to me that it should have assumed this vast difference. I take this coincidence not as a fortuitous accident, but as the sanction and seal of the divine force that guides my steps on the work with which I began life, the beginning of its full fruition. Indeed on this day, he says, I can watch almost all the world movements which I hope to see fulfilled in my lifetime; though then they looked like impracticable dreams arriving at fruition or on their way to achievement. In all these movements, free India may well play a large part and take a leading position."

Several scholars opined that writings of Sri Aurobindo was significant not only because he was a great leader but because they were instilled with spirit of high patriotic passion. His speeches had power of influencing people and leaders during the struggle for independence (Vishwanath Prasad Varma, 1990).

To summarize, Sri Aurobindo emerged as distinctive player in spreading political thought in India. It is said that none of the intellectuals had explored the nature of freedom more profoundly and passionately than Sri Aurobindo. In his writing, 'The longing to be free', he explained so nicely that masses was influenced by his great opinion. Sri Aurobindo looked at the concept of freedom first from the perspective of an innovatory political leader. In his public speeches and writings, Sri Aurobindo emphasized the importance of Independence not only for India's sake but for humankind as a whole. His concept of freedom had extended to hold the whole world, and he had come to see clearly the importance of coordinating the claims of freedom with those of equality and association. Sri Aurobindo has gained special position not only in the Indian history, but in the International field. He was a multidimensional man having a generous personality. His deep knowledge in Western and Eastern cultures assisted him to assimilate for the development of human potential and growth.