Philosophy of Indian Nationalism
A most luminous and revelatory exposition of philosophy of nationalism and of Indian nationalism is to be found in the writings of Sri Aurobindo. In fact, Sri Aurobindo’s own life is a flaming example of Indian nationalism, not only in its uniqueness but also in its universality. If we study the history of Indian nationalism, we shall find that he stands out as the most heroic nationalist who formulated in the most inspiring terms the true aim of Indian nationalism, during the early period of nationalist struggle and accomplished the task of fixing it in the national consciousness within a short period of two years (1906-8) through blazing pages of the Bande Mataram. This miracle can be regarded as an unparalleled achievement in the entire world history of nationalism.
The greatest thing done in those years was
the creation of a new spirit in the country, a new electric current that awakened the people to the true meaning of nationalism and filled them with enthusiasm that created waves after waves all over the country. Repression and depression could not silence the stir of this enthusiasm. After each wave of repression and depression, it renewed the thread of the life of movement for liberation and kept it recognisably one throughout nearly fifty years of its struggle. The cry of Bande Mataram rang on all sides, and people felt it glorious to be alive and dare and act together and hope. The old apathy and timidity was broken and a force was created which nothing could destroy, and it carried India to the beginning of a complete victory.
It must be remembered that the climate under which the message of the Bande Mataram had to combat with its adversary forces was entirely unfavourable. The British Government had detected in Sri Aurobindo “the most dangerous man” and had perceived the rising tide of nationalist movement with utmost severity and with harshest measures of repression. Within the country itself, there was the rising tide of the Moderate Party and its
leaders who had belief in British justice and benefits from the foreign government in India, faith in British law courts and in the adequacy of the education given in schools and universities in India. They had assumed that the philosophy of nationalism was impracticable and they had stigmatised this philosophy as a philosophy of extremism. These leaders had an ambiguous attitude towards the demand of complete independence of India. Many of them preached the gospel of faith in the British and in the British rule. Even those among them whose heart rebelled against the servile doctrine were intellectually so much dominated by the British influence that they could not
embrace the philosophy of nationalism with their whole heart and tried to arrive at a compromise between subjection and independence. They discovered an intermediate path in which the blessings of freedom could be harmoniously wedded with the blessings of subjection! They spoke, therefore, of colonial self-government. Some of these leaders were emotionally nationalists and yet intellectually loyalists. There was a view that disunion and weakness are ingrained characteristics of the Indian people and outside power was
necessary in order to arbitrate, to keep the peace and to protect the country from the menace of the mightier nations. They also advocated that a healthy development was possible at the time only under foreign domination and that such development must be first effected before we could begin to dream of freedom or even of becoming a nation. In the view of the Moderate Party, the philosophy of Indian nationalism as advocated by nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Sri Aurobindo and others was untenable and was even an avoidable menace.
There was a view among journalists such as that of Mr. N.N. Ghose of the Indian Nation that because there is diversity of race in India, because there is diversity of religion in India, and because there is diversity of language in India, the essential conditions of a nationality were absent and there was no possibility of creating a nationality in our country. As this perilous contention is crucial to the understanding of the notion of nation, of nationality
and of nationalism, it may be useful to refer to the article Sri Aurobindo wrote in Bande Mataram (August 17, 1907) in which he answered it
effectively. He argued that every nationality has been formed in spite of diversity of race or religion or language, and not unoften in spite of the coexistence of all these diversities. He pointed out that the English nation has been built not only out of various races but keep to this day their distinct individuality and that each one of them clings to its language tenaciously. He referred to the striking example of Switzerland where distinct racial streams speaking three different languages and, later, professing different religions coalesced into and persists as one nation without sacrificing a single of those diversities. He referred to France where three different languages are spoken; he pointed that in America, the candidates for White House addressed the nation in fourteen languages; he referred to Austria, a congeries of races and languages, and he referred to acute divisions
Sri Aurobindo maintained that the contention that unity in race, religion or language is essential to nationality will not bear examination. He acknowledged that such elements of unity are very helpful to the growth of nationality, but they are not essential and will
not even of themselves assure its growth. Referring to the example of the Roman Empire, he pointed out that even though it created a common language, a common religion and life, and did its best to crush out racial diversities under the heavy weight of its uniform system, failed to make one great nation.
What, then, Sri Aurobindo asked, are the essential elements of nationality? And he answered:
"We answer that there are certain essential conditions, geographical unity, a common past, a powerful common interest impelling towards unity and certain favourable political conditions which enable the impulse to realise itself in an organised government expressing the nationality and perpetuating its single and united existence. This may be provided by a part of the nation, a race or community, uniting the others under its leadership or domination, or by an united resistance to a common pressure from outside or within. A common enthusiasm coalescing with a common interest is the most powerful fosterer of nationality. We believe that the necessary elements are present in India, we believe that the time has come and
that by a common resistance to a common pressure in the shape of the boycott, inspired by a common enthusiasm and ideal, that united nationality for which the whole history of India has been a preparation, will be speedily and mightily accomplished." 1
In these brief but compelling lines we have a quintessential answer to the question as to what is a nation, what is nationality and what is nationalism. In the light of this affirmation it becomes clear that a nation or what may be called the soul of nation may exist and yet it may not be visible; it may take birth, but it may take long for it to create and develop; it may develop in many directions, but not yet integrally; it may be recognised by some or many in the country but not necessarily by masses of people; it may rest on a geographical unity, and yet it can become fragmented or disrupted or divided for short or long periods; it may attain even political unity as also geographical unity and yet its centrifugal and centripetal forces may not be in harmony with each other or in a balanced state of equilibrium. There may be rise and fall in the self-awareness of nationalism, new questions may arise that
may disturb the manifestation of the soul of the nation. And yet, the seer of the soul of the nation will always recognise it and work for its manifestation.
Much has been written about the philosophy of nationalism and philosophy of Swaraj. Leaders of the Moderate Party, in order to belittle the importance of what they called extremists and their philosophy derided their opponents as votaries of violence and lawlessness and advocates of a blind or impulsive pursuit of the impracticable ideal of complete independence of India. Sri Aurobindo, in order to clarify the position of the philosophy of nationalism, wrote a brief but a powerful article on April 26, 1907, under the title, Nationalism Not Extremism. He said that the new movement was not primarily a protest against bad Government but that it was a protest against the continuance of British control. He pointed that the new movement was born of a convict-ion that the time had come when India can, should and would become great, free and united again. He clarified that it was not a negative current of
destruction, but a positive, constructive impulse towards the making of a modern India, that it was not a cry of revolt and despair, but a gospel of national faith and hope. He said that its true description was not Extremism but Nationalism.
Continuing his argument, Sri Aurobindo pointed out that there were not two parties in India but three, – the Loyalists, the Moderates and the Nationalists, and he articulated clearly the philosophies of all the three parties so as to bring out clearly the philosophy of nationalists. This articulation is so succinct and brings out the philosophy of nationalism with such sharpness that we should read it in full.
Sri Aurobindo wrote:
"The Loyalists would be satisfied with good Government by British rulers and a limited share in the administration; the Moderates desire selfgovernment within the British Empire, but are willing to wait for it indefinitely; the Nationalists would be satisfied with nothing less than independence whether within the Empire, if that be possible, or outside it; they believe that the nation cannot and ought not to
perish as a nation. The Loyalists believe that Indians have not the capacities and qualities necessary for freedom and even if they succeed in developing the necessary fitness, they would do better for themselves and mankind by remaining as a province of the British Empire; any attempt at freedom will, they think, be a revolt against Providence and can bring nothing but disaster on the country. The Loyalist view is that India cannot, should not and will not be a free, great and united nation. The Moderates believe the nation to be too weak and disunited to aim at freedom; they would welcome independence if it came, but they are not convinced that we have or shall have in the measurable future the means or strength to win it or keep it if won. They therefore put forward Colonial Self- Government as their aim and are unwilling to attempt any methods which presuppose strength and cohesion in the nation. The Moderate view is that India may eventually be united, self-governing within limits and prosperous, but not free and great. The Nationalists hold that Indians are as capable of freedom as any subject nation can be and their
defects are the result of servitude and can only be removed by the struggle for freedom; that they have the strength, and, if they get the will, can create the means to win independence. They hold that the choice is not between autonomy and provincial Home Rule or between freedom and dependence, but between freedom and national decay and death. They hold, finally, that the past history of our country and present circumstances are of such a kind that the great unifying tendencies hitherto baffled by insuperable obstacles have at last found the right conditions for success. They believe that the fated hour for Indian unification and freedom has arrived. In brief, they are convinced that India should strive to be free, that she can be free and that she will, by the impulse of her past and present, be inevitably driven to the attempt and the attainment of national self-realisation. The Nationalist creed is a gospel of faith and hope." 2
This statement is also a manifesto of the philosophy of Swaraj. This philosophy regarded Swaraj as not mere political freedom but a freedom vast and entire, freedom of the individual, freedom of the community, freedom of the nation, spiritual freedom, social freedom
and political freedom. Sri Aurobindo, in a powerful article on Swaraj (February 18, 1908), argued that if political freedom is absent, the community has no great ends to follow and the individual is confined within a narrow circuit in which the superiority of caste, wealth or class is the only ambition he can cherish. He pointed out that if political freedom opens to him a wider horizon, he forgets the lesser ambitions. Moreover, he contended, a slave can never be noble and broad-minded. He could not forget himself in the service of his fellows; for he already is a slave and service is the badge of his degradation, not a willing self-devotion. When man is thus degraded, Sri Aurobindo observed, it is idle to think that society can be free.
Sri Aurobindo went farther and pointed out that not only social freedom but even spiritual freedom can never be the lot of many in the land of slaves. He asked, “If the mass of men around us is miserable, fallen, degraded how can the seeker after God be indifferent to the condition of his brothers?”3
He stated further:
"Compassion to all creatures is the condition
of sainthood, and the perfect Yogin is he who is sarvabhutahite ratah, whose mind is full of the will to do good to all creatures. When a man shuts his heart to the cries of sufferings around him, when he is content that his fellow-men should be sorrowful, oppressed, sacrificed to the greed of others, he is making his own way to salvation full of difficulties and stumblingblocks. He is forgetting that God is not only in himself but in all these millions. And for those who have not the strength, spiritual freedom in political servitude is a sheer impossibility. When India was free, thousands of men set their feet in the stairs of heaven, but as the night deepened and the sun of liberty withdrew its rays, the spiritual force inborn in every Indian heart became weaker and weaker until now it burns so faintly that aliens have taken upon themselves the role of spiritual teachers, and the people chosen by God have to sit at the feet of the men from whose ancestry the light was hidden. God has set apart India as the eternal fountainhead of holy spirituality, and He will never suffer that fountain to run dry. Therefore Swaraj has been revealed to us. By our political freedom we shall once more recover our spiritual freedom. Once more in
the land of the saints and sages will burn up the fire of the ancient Yoga and the hearts of her people will be lifted up into the neighbourhood of the Eternal." 4
Swaraj without any limit or reservation came to be fixed as the aim of the philosophy of nationalism. Swaraj came to be seen as a lifebelt, as the pilot, as the star of guidance. Sri Aurobindo also saw the necessity of Swaraj for the fulfilment of India’s true role in the comity of nations.
"India is the guru of the nations, the physician of the human soul in its profounder maladies; she is destined once more to newmould the life of the world and restore the peace of the human spirit. But Swaraj is the necessary condition of her work and before she can do the work, she must fulfil the condition."5
The philosophy of Swaraj was accompanied by a programme of effective Boycott. Both Tilak and Sri Aurobindo were in favour of an effective Boycott of British goods. They wanted the Boycott to be a political weapon and not merely as an aid to Swadeshi. They both advocated national self-sufficiency in key
industries and in the production of necessities of all manufactures in which India had the natural means. In addition, national education was another item of the programme. The nationalist movement was also a movement of national education. This movement advocated the establishment of national schools and colleges so as to remedy the ills of education given by the British. Sri Aurobindo maintained that the British system tended to dull and impoverish and tie up the naturally quick and brilliant and supple Indian intelligence, to teach it bad intellectual habits and spoil by narrow information of mechanical instruction its rationality and productivity. Sri Aurobindo, in fact, wrote a full-fledged book entitled National System of Education, and another on National Value of Art. This entire programme, along with the programme of mass awakening and settlement of disputes by recourse to non- British tribunals, included a movement of passive resistance. This entire programme had a comprehensive aim of the attainment of allsided and integral Swaraj.
Philosophy of nationalism was often
described by the Moderate leaders as a philosophy of violence. In order to contradict this misleading contention, we must study a series of articles written by Sri Aurobindo in
Bande Mataram on the doctrine of passive resistance between 11th April to 23rd April 1907.
One of the main contentions of these articles was to point out that the problem that faced the country at that time was how to stave off imminent national death, how to put an end to the white peril, how to assert for the people of India their right to be themselves and to live.The only immediate answer, he said, was an organised national resistance to the state of things so as to achieve one goal, namely, freedom. He referred to three alternative courses open. The first alternative was that of an organised passive resistance. This was the kind of the course of action that was initiated by Parnell when by the plan of campaign he prevented the payment of rents in Ireland and by persistent obstruction hampered the transaction of any but Irish business in Westminster. The second alternative course was the one illustrated by the first triumph of Russian liberty which involved a series of strikes on a gigantic scale that manifested
widespread, desperate and unappeasable anarchy. The third course open to an oppressed nation, Sri Aurobindo contended, was of an armed revolt. Sri Aurobindo argued that the choice by subject nation of the means it will use for vindicating its liberty, is best determined by the circumstances of its servitude.
On this point, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
"The present circumstances in India seem to point to passive resistance as our most natural and suitable weapon. We would not for a moment be understood to base this conclusion upon any condemnation of other methods as in all circumstances criminal and unjustifiable. It is the common habit of established Governments and especially those which are themselves oppressors, to brand all violent methods in subject peoples and communities as criminal and wicked. When you have disarmed your slaves and legalised the infliction of bonds, stripes and death on any one of them, man, woman or child, who may dare to speak or to act against you, it is natural and convenient to try and lay a moral as well as a legal band on any attempt to answer violence by violence, the knout by the revolver,
the prison by riot or agrarian rising, the gallows by the dynamite bomb. But no nation yet has listened to the cant of the oppressor when itself put to the test, and the general conscience of humanity approves the refusal. Under certain circumstances a civil struggle becomes in reality a battle and the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. …But where the oppression is legal and subtle in its methods and respects life, liberty and property and there is still breathing time, the circumstances demand that we should make the experiment of a method of resolute but peaceful resistance which, while less bold and aggressive than other methods, calls for perhaps as much heroism of a kind and certainly more universal endurance and suffering. In other methods, a daring minority purchase with their blood the freedom of the millions; but for passive resistance it is necessary that all should share in the struggle and the privation." 6
Sri Aurobindo also pointed out through the pages of Bande Mataram that the philosophy of nationalism is not the philosophy of unreasoning spirit of violence and preference of desperate methods, that nationalism does not
advocate lawlessness as contended by the moderate leaders. He argued that the nationalists did not love the philosophy of suffering for its own sake. In positive terms, Sri Aurobindo clarified that nationalism has deeper respect for the essence of law than anyone else, because the building up of the nation is its object and because without a profound reverence for law the national life cannot persist and attain a sound and healthy development. At the same time, he argued that the philosophy of nationalism qualifies its respect for legality by the proviso that the law that the nationalist is called upon to obey is the law of the nation, and not a law imposed from outside. The nationalist, he asserted, never loses sight of the truth that law was made for man and not man for law. Its chief function and reason for existence is to safeguard and foster the growth and happy flowering into strength and health of national life. He further stated that nationalism refuses to accept law as a fetish or peace and security as aims in themselves while it will not prefer violent or strenuous methods simply because they are violent or strenuous. The philosophy of nationalism, Sri Aurobindo elucidated, is to ask of the method
whether it is effective for its purpose, whether it is worthy of a great people struggling to be, whether it is educative of national strength and activity.
It is true that philosophy of ahimsa which came to be advocated by Mahatma Gandhi later was not part of Indian nationalism as understood by the nationalist leaders like Tilak, Sri Aurobindo and others. On the subject of non-violence, there has remained a diversion of opinion, and if we study Sri Aurobindo and what he wrote on the subject of violence and non-violence, it is clear that a distinction should be made between acts of violence and acts of destruction. Violent act emerges from anger and hatred, but acts of destruction may not necessarily emerge from anger and hatred. A physician uses his knife for destruction of a disease, but in the motive there is no anger or hatred. Destruction advocated by Sri Krishna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra was to be carried out in consciousness of non-attachment and not in that of anger or hatred.
As this matter is very important, it will be useful to point out that while Mahatma Gandhi looked upon ahimsa as a matter of creed and a
large number of his followers in the country also took it as such, many other leaders including Jawahar Lal Nehru and others took it as a matter of policy under the, then prevailing, circumstances in the country. A school of thought right through the freedom struggle continued to hold the view that the revolutionary movement using weapons of various kinds was indispensable. After India became independent, the National Policy considered Defence Services to be indispensable as a part of support to patriotism. Sri Aurobindo’s views cannot be regarded as pacifist, since Sri Aurobindo had believed in the efficacy of revolutionary activities of destruction and he had joined the secret society whose purpose was to prepare a national insurgence. In his public activity, however, he took passive resistance as the means in the struggle, but not as the sole means. In fact, as long as he was in Bengal, he maintained a secret revolutionary activity as preparation for open revolt, in case the passive resistance proved insufficient for the purpose.
To get a fuller idea of Sri Aurobindo in regard to this matter, we should also add the following lines from his famous book, Essays
"All this is not to say that strife and destruction are the alpha and omega of existence, that harmony is not greater than war, love is more manifest divine than death or that we must not move towards the replacement of physical force by soul-force, of war by peace, of strife by union, of devouring by love, of egoism by universality, of death by immortal life." 7
Sri Aurobindo regarded non-violence or peace as the part of the highest ideal, but contended it must be spiritual or at the very least psychological in its basis. He pointed out later in a letter that without a change in human nature it could not come with any finality. If it is admitted on any other basis (mental principle, gospel of Ahimsa or any other) it will fail and even leave things worse than before. Sri Aurobindo’s position and practice in this matter was the same as Tilak’s and that of other nationalist leaders. In any case, Sri Aurobindo insists that violence generated from anger or hatred or as an aggressive principle of action in the conditions of freedom and peace is entirely unjustifiable and it should not be resorted to any extent whatsoever.
Philosophy of Indian nationalism is also the philosophy of patriotism. In view of this philosophy, patriotism is not limited to the love of the land of the country, janmabhumi, but it is also love for the people of the land. This philosophy goes even further and inspires love of the values of the culture that have been nourished and promoted through a long history of five thousand years and more. And beyond the values of this great culture, patriotism is in its heart-illumined worship of the smiling and beneficent and strong and powerful Shakti, which we call Mother India, Bharat Mata. As Sri Aurobindo wrote, a nation is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of spirit, nor a fiction of mind, it is a mighty Shakti composed of the Shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation. He further pointed out that the nation is veritably a soul, which is immortal and even when geographically fragmented or divided, it has the power to reunite itself as one unity in diversity.
Indian nationalism has been a source of a great recovery and reassertion of those qualities of Dharma which have been the force
of upliftment of millions of peoples of this country. That philosophy inspired thousands of martyrs, great and gallant Chidambarams, brave Padma-nabhas, intrepid Shivas who defied the threats of exile and imprisonment. The force of patriotism, of the value of self-sacrifice, of the value of worship of Mother India, — this patriotism and its values live with us and we stand in the need to remember them, to collect them together and to pour them into a new system of education that we are striving today to construct. In an inspired article (March 11, 1908 of Bande Mataram) Sri Aurobindo gave expression to the voices of the martyrs from their cells which cry out to us and give us an imperishable message which we can incorporate in our studies that aim at valueoriented education:
"Work, but aspire, so that your work may be true to the call you have heard and which we have obeyed; labour for great things first and the small will come of themselves. Cherish the might of the spirit, the nobility of the ideal, the grandeur of the dream; the spirit will create the material it needs, the ideal will bring the real to its body and self-expression, the dream is the stuff out of which the waking world will
be created. It was the strength of the spirit which stood with us before the alien tribunal, it was the force of the ideal which led us to the altar of sacrifice, it is the splendour of the dream which supports us through the dreary months and years of our martyrdom. For these are the truth and the divinity within the movement." 8
When we think today of value-oriented education and as we are planning to create among our students the immortal spirit of nationalism and patriotism, we are required to develop means by which the vision of the nation can stand out in the centre of their consciousness and they are able to feel and perceive the invisible but mighty soul of Mother India. At the same time, patriotism will also teach them to recognise the soul of other nations, the soul of entire humanity, in particular, the spirit of one united family of humanity. We need to ensure that students of today and tomorrow understand and work for those ideals for which leaders and youths, whether Hindus or Mohammedans, whether Christians or Sikhs, whether Jews or Parsis, irrespective of religion, language and race sacrificed their lives so that we may live in
freedom and protect our freedom with courage and heroism.
Sri Aurobindo had conceived of a national system of education, which had three important elements. Firstly, he made it clear that national education did not mean that we have to exile Galileo and Newton and all that came after and teach only what was known to Bhaskara, Aryabhatta and Varahamihira. But it means that an adequate place should be provided for the study of the noble heritage of our country and, while we must keep abreast with the march of truth and knowledge, we must also fit ourselves for existence under actual circumstances. Our education, he suggested, must be up to date in form of substance and modern in life and spirit. Secondly, he pointed out that the major question is not merely what science we learn, but what we shall do with our Indian science and how to acquire the scientific mind and recover the habit of scientific discovery, as also how we shall relate it to other powers of the human mind and scientific knowledge to other knowledge more intimate to other and not less light-giving and power-giving parts of our Indian intelligence and nature. The aim and
principle of a true philosophy of national education, according to Sri Aurobindo, should not ignore modern truth and knowledge, but to take our foundation on our own being, our own mind and our own spirit. And thirdly, Sri Aurobindo pointed out that this philosophy of national education should underline the fact that the most advanced minds of the occident are beginning to turn in their red evening for the hope of a new and more spiritual civilisation to the genius of Asia, and at that moment, it would be strange if we can think of nothing better than to cast away our own self and potentialities and put our trust in the dissolving past of Europe.
The values of patriotism, the values of universal brother-hood and the values inherent in the philosophy of national education that demands the discovery of our national soul, — these and their immense implications would constitute a new message that should guide the formulation of value-oriented education. In that new system of education, in that new system of value-oriented education, the heritage of India, the heritage that has always inspired the higher aspirations and achieve-
ments in India must form an integral part. Philosophy of Indian nationalism, and philosophy of internationalism that respects mutuality of all the national souls and their unity, and the right understanding of the inspiring values of Indian heritage, — this we need to put forward as the needed elements of India’s reconstruction.
1 Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, Centenary Edition, Vol. 1, p. 507.
2 Ibid., pp. 298-99.
3 Ibid., p. 700.
4 Ibid., pp. 700-1.
5 Ibid., p. 731.
6 Ibid., pp. 98-99
7 Sri Aurobindo, Essays on Gita, Centenary Edition, Vol. 13, p. 42.
8 Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, Centenary Edition, Vol. 1, p. 745