Sri Aurobindo’s 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 ambiguous attitude towards the demand of complete indepen-dence 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, Bepin 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 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 in Russia.
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.
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 Padmanabhas, 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 value-oriented 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.2
The theme of Indian nationalism occupied Sri Aurobindo throughout his life, and he wrote on this subject even when he had left in 1910 active participation in the political activity on account of his total occupation with the future of India and the world and with the integral yoga that he was developing and perfecting as an aid to the solution of the evolutionary crisis of humanity. This theme was developed by him in four of his books that he wrote during 1914 and 1921, namely, The Life Divine, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Ideal of Human Unity and The Human Cycle. In these books, we find illuminating analysis and exposition uncomparable in depth and context with any other analysis and exposition of what may be called the philosophical foundations of nationalism and Indian nationalism. These foundations, as we discern them in Sri Aurobindo’s writings, are those relating to the philosophy of the individual and the aggregate, philosophy of the national aggregate and national unity, philosophy of nationality and nation-state, and philosophy of nationalism, internationalism, and universality.
The philosophy of the individual and the aggregate underlines an inevitable interconnection between the human being and humanity, which is the largest aggregate for human beings. But this interconnection is mediated by the individual’s membership of various groups of smaller or larger dimensions. And, at an important stage of development, the formation of nations is initiated, and the resultant formation of national unity follows three stages. There is, first, some kind of looser yet sufficiently compelling order of society and common type of civilisation to serve as a framework within which the edifice of the nation can arise. The next stage is marked by a period of stringent organisation directed towards unity and centrality of control and perhaps a general levelling and uniformity under that central direction. Finally, there comes about a period of free internal development, which because of the gains of second stage of development, would no longer bring with it the peril of disorder, disruption, arrest of the secure growth and formation of the organism. The first stage depends upon the past history and present conditions of the elements that have to be welded into a national unity. Although the spirit, form and equipoise worked out differently in different parts of the world, the motive force that everywhere was the necessity of a large effective form and common social life marked by fixity of status through which individual and common interests might be brought under the yoke of a sufficient religious, political and economic unity. The institution of a fixed social hierarchy seems to have been a necessary stage for the first tendencies of national formation. But in the second stage, there comes about the modification of the social structure so as to make room for a powerful and feasible centre of political and administrative unity. This stage is marked by a strong tendency towards the abrogation of liberties, and we can see here the historical importance of a powerful kingship in the evolution of the nation-type, as it actually developed in the medieval times. The monarchical state concentrated, in its own activities, the whole national life. But the powerful structure and closely-knit order of things were tolerated so long as the nation felt consciously or subconsciously its needs and justification.
However, once when that need was fulfilled, conventions developed during the second stage came to be questioned with the growth of self-consciousness among the common masses of the people. This questioning could no longer be suppressed or permanently resisted. Hence, there came about the collapse of the old world and the birth of a new age.
As Sri Aurobindo points out, the nation-unit is not formed and does not exist merely for the sake of existing; its purpose is to provide a larger mould of human aggregation in which the race, and not only classes and individuals, may move towards its full human development. A stage must therefore come when in all directions, men and women have to come into their own, realise the dignity and freedom of humanhood within them and give play to their utmost capacity.
As a result, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity came to be formulated and the nation-unit is launched on a new path of maturity. Freedom of the nation and battle for freedom, equality and justice marks the third stage of development. Looking towards the future of this third stage, Sri Aurobindo states:
Perhaps liberty and equality, liberty and authority, liberty and organised efficiency can never be quite satisfactorily reconciled so long as man individual and aggregate lives by egoism, so long as he cannot undergo a great spiritual and psychological change and rise beyond mere communal association to that third ideal which some vague inner sense made the revolutionary thinkers of France add to their watchwords of liberty and equality, — the greatest of all the three, though till now only an empty word on man’s lips, the ideal of fraternity or, less sentimentally and more truly expressed, an inner oneness. That no mechanism social, political, religious has ever created or can create; it must take birth in the soul and rise from hidden and divine depths within.3
This is the stage which is marked by what Sri Aurobindo calls the discovery of the nation-soul, and with this discovery there arises the question of relationship among nation-souls and their relationship with the universal-soul. And this question is centrally related to the question of internationalism and universality.
t is against this background that we can profitably study the development of India as a nation and its nationalism. The evolution of India, according to Sri Aurobindo, gives evidence that the essential nation-unit was already existent presiding over the geographical boundaries ranging from the Himalayas up to the Southern Indian Ocean perceived as Rashtra even by the early Rishis of the Rigveda.4 There was indissoluble national vitality necessitating the inevitable and ultimate emergence of the organised nation. Nation-unit is basically an expression of a natural psychological unity or of the nation-soul. In the striking example of India’s development, what is remarkable to observe, however, is the operation of centrifugal forces, the character of which was strong, numerous, complex, and obstinate. And yet the centripetal tendency can also be seen right from the earliest times of which we have records and are typified in the ideal of Samrāt, Chakravarty Rājā and the military and political use of the ashwamedha and rājsūya sacrifices.Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great national epics, illustrate this theme. Mahabharata recounts the establishment of a unifying dharmarājya or imperial reign of justice. Ramayana starts with an idealised description of such a rule pictured as one existing in the ancient and sacred past of the country. Subsequent political history of India is marked by a succession of empires, indigenous and foreign, each of them destroyed by centrifugal forces, but each bringing the centripetal tendency nearer to its triumphant emergence. Sri Aurobindo points out that it is a significant circumstance that the more foreign the rule, the greater has been
its force for the unification of the subject people. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
In this instance, we see that the conversion of the psychological unity on which nationhood is based into the external organised unity by which it is perfectly realised, has taken a period of more than two thousand years and is not yet complete. And yet, since the essentiality of the thing was there, not even the most formidable difficulties and delays, not even the most persistent incapacity for union in the people, not even the most disintegrating shocks from outside have prevailed against the obstinate subconscious necessity. And this is only the extreme illustration of a general law.5
Commenting on the emergence of the nationalist movement in India in the early part of the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo points out that it was a part of a world-wide movement where nations were seen feeling for their source, trying to find them, seriously endeavouring to act from the new sense and make it consciously operative in the common life and action. This tendency was most powerful in new nations or in those struggling to realise themselves in spite of political subjection or defeat. The reason that Sri Aurobindo assigns for this phenomenon is that it is these nations that needed more to feel the difference between themselves and others so that they could assert and justify their individuality as against the powerful super-life which tended to absorb or efface it. And, Sri Aurobindo continues, precisely because their objective life was feeble and it was difficult to affirm it by its own strength in the diverse circumstances, there was more chance of their seeking for their individuality and its forces of self-assertion in that which was subjective and psychological or at least in that which was of subjective or psychological significance. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
The movement of 1905 in Bengal pursued a quite new conception of the nation not merely as a country, but a soul, a psychological, almost a spiritual being and, even when acting from economical and political motives, it sought to dynamise them by this subjective conception. …” 6
The basic ontological foundation of the philosophy of the individual and the aggregate and of nationality and national unity as also of internationalism is to be found in Sri Aurobindo’s concept of the reality of the individual spirit and that of the cosmic spirit. According to Sri Aurobindo, the individual is not merely an ephemeral physical creature, a form of mind and body that aggregates and dissolves, but a being, a living power of eternal Truth, a self-manifesting spirit. It is for this reason that Sri Aurobindo points out that the primal law and purpose of the individual life is to seek its own self-development, to find itself, to discover within itself the law and power of its own being and to fulfil it.
In the same way, society, community or nation is also a being, a living power of the eternal Truth, a self-manifestation of the cosmic Spirit, and it is there to express and fulfil in its own way and to the degree of its capacities the special truth and power and meaning of the cosmic Spirit that is within it. It is for this reason, Sri Aurobindo observes, that the primal law and a purpose of the society, community or nation is to seek its own self-fulfilment; it strives rightly to find itself, to become aware within itself of the law and power of its own being and fulfil it as perfectly as possible, to realise all its potentialities, to live its own self-revealing life. The interrelationship between the individual and the nation can therefore be harmonised when there is a surge and discovery both of the individual and of the nation as also of the nations of their inner souls and the process
of finding in these souls the secret of their true development and their drift towards progressive perfection.
Sri Aurobindo sees in the heart of the nationalist movement of India and in the attainment of freedom for India a great possibility of opening a new age in which India can, because of its treasures of spiritual knowledge, discover further secrets whereby Spirit and Matter can be synthesised, and the luminous knowledge of the spirit can illumine and transform the physical life of the earth. India has also the possibility of becoming a pioneering partner in the task of formulating new forms of the largest aggregate in which each nation can relate itself with other nations and bring about a harmonious world-unity in which ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can find their progressive harmony and fulfilment.
There is today much contest in respect of the concept of nation and nationalism, and it is even sometimes suggested that in the coming days of internationalism, globalisation and larger aggregation in the formation of a possible world union, nations and nationalities will be overpassed and the world will enter into post-national stage of existence. This debate and conclusion need to be considered seriously in the light of the real truth of the philosophical foundation of nationalism, Indian nationalism and its possible future.
Sri Aurobindo makes an important distinction between political unity and real unity, and pointing out the fact that the world history shows that there was in the ancient cycle of development a wide pre-national empire building, which is in contrast to modern cycle of nation-building. In other words, empires have been created in the past, indicating the tendency to overshoot nation-units even before they attain any maturity or stability, and that this shows that nation is not a final unit of
aggregation. But at the same time, Sri Aurobindo points out that although empires have exhibited political unity, they have not shown to have in them the force of real unity. He states:
Empires exist, but they are as yet only political and not real units; they have no life from within and owe their continuance to a force imposed on their constituent elements or else to a political convenience felt or acquiesced in by the constituents and favoured by the world outside. … If the political convenience of an empire of this kind ceases, if the constituent elements no longer acquiesce and are drawn more powerfully by a centrifugal force, if at the same time the world outside no longer favours the combination, then force alone remains as the one agent of an artificial unity.7
Empires are, according to Sri Aurobindo, perishable political unities, in contrast to the nation, a real unity, which is immortal and which will remain so until a greater living unit can be found into which nation idea can merge in obedience to a superior attraction.
Again, dwelling upon the distinction between political unity and real unity, Sri Aurobindo states that this distinction must be made because “it is of the greatest utility to a true and profound political science and involves the most important consequences. When an empire like Austria, a non-national empire, is broken to pieces, it perishes for good; there is no innate tendency to recover the outward unity, because there is no real inner oneness; there is only a politically manufactured aggregate. On the other hand, a real national unity broken up by circumstances will always preserve a tendency to recover and reassert its oneness.”8
Sri Aurobindo has given the example of the Greek Empire which has gone the way of all empires, but the Greek nation after many centuries of political non-existence, again possesses its separate body, because it has preserved its separate ego and
therefore really existed under the covering rule of the Turk. Similar is the example of Italy and in the example of Germany. In all these cases, as was in many others, the unification of Saxon England, medieval France, the formation of the United States of America, Sri Aurobindo points out that there was a real unity, a psychological distinct unit which tended at first ignorantly by the subconscious necessity of its being and afterwards with a sudden or gradual awakening to the sense of political oneness, towards an inevitable external unification. It is, Sri Aurobindo concludes, a distinct group-soul which is driven by inward necessity and uses outward circumstances to constitute for itself an organised body.
Just as the individual is an ontological Spirit, and therefore it can never be reduced to become a mere cog in a machine, even so nation is a living spirit and soul, and therefore it can never permanently be reduced to a status of a mere province of larger and largest aggregates. At the same time, Sri Aurobindo underlines the fact that humanity is turning today towards world unity, and the central problem for the human endeavour in this connection will be as to how the nation will adjust itself to the pressure of the forces that are today creating phenomena which are global, world-wide and planetary in character.
In this connection, Sri Aurobindo makes a distinction between national ego and national soul, corresponding to the distinction in regard to the individual life where the superficial ego is seen to be distinct from the true individual soul. The mark of egoism, according to Sri Aurobindo, is its superficiality and its ignorant attempt to arrive at superficial unity whether that ego is individual or national. The mark of the ego is its sense of division from all the rest, its pretension to be entirely independent in a poise of superiority over all the others. Corresponding to this ego, Sri Aurobindo points out, there is no real reality. There is no ontological superficial reality, there is no independent divided entity which is superior to all the rest. The true individual, on the other hand, has indeed distinctiveness, but is not divided
from the others. The true individual and the true nation-soul are characterised by mutuality, interdependence and inner oneness that manifests in diversity. Based upon this philosophical foundation, Sri Aurobindo perceives the future of nations as entities seeking and finding their inner souls by virtue of which they will remain free but mutually interdependent, and this, in turn, will provide the form of world unity that is supportive and not destructive of the nations. Sri Aurobindo speaks of a world union of free nations, each having status of equality, and all contributing through their distinctive capacities to the fund of richness and variety at the global level.
Sri Aurobindo formulates therefore an ideal law of social development in which the truths of the individual, of the nations and of humanity are all reconciled and synthesised. This is the law as he has formulated:
Thus the law for the individual is to perfect his individuality by free development from within, but to respect and to aid and be aided by the same free development in others. His law is to harmonise his life with the life of the social aggregate and to pour himself out as a force for growth and perfection on humanity. The law for the community or nation is equally to perfect its corporate existence by a free development from within, aiding and taking full advantage of that of the individual, but to respect and to aid and be aided by the same free development of other communities and nations. Its law is to harmonise its life with that of the human aggregate and to pour itself out as a force for growth and perfection on humanity. The law for humanity is to pursue its upward evolution towards the finding and expression of the Divine in the type of mankind, taking full advantage of the free development and gains of all individuals and nations and groupings of men, to work towards the day when mankind may be really and not only ideally one divine family, but even then,
when it has succeeded in unifying itself, to respect, aid and be aided by the free growth and activity of its individuals and constituent aggregates.9
It can be said that the fulfilment of this ideal law of social or national development is the task that still remains to be fulfilled. In this task, Indian nationalism can play a leading role. But before that task can be fulfilled, there are still some others which need to be initiated and developed. Sri Aurobindo has spoken of three aims that free India should concentrate upon. In the first place, a great effort must be made for the recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depths and fullness. Sri Aurobindo considers this to be the most essential work. Secondly, an endeavour must be made for the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge. The third aim that should be pursued should consist of an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit, and the goal should be to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society. According to Sri Aurobindo, India’s success on these three lines will be the measure of its help to the future of humanity.
Notes and References