The Indian intelligentsia of the last half a century has had many problems with Sri Aurobindo. Unlike many others, he refused to exchange our old Indian illuminations, however dark they may have grown to us, for a derivative European enlightenment. Not only did he reject the superstitions of popular Hinduism he also rejected the superstitions of materialistic science. Although educated in the West, he was not blind to a fatal limitation to its power and thought — the tendency to regard spirituality as “a riddle, nebulous metaphysics, yogic hallucination”.1 He was a champion of the spiritual culture of India, but he was equally vehement in his criticism of the more recent manifestations of it. He wrote, “Our civilisation has become ossified, our dharma a bigotry of externals, our spirituality a faint glimmer of light or a momentary wave of intoxication.”2. His vision was so all-embracing and his spirit so revolutionary that he made our intelligentsia feel insecure about the narrow and rigid paradigms within which they worked.
This, in my opinion, is why Indian intelligentsia did not favour him and therefore conspired to ignore him and marginalise him. They did this either by dismissing him with faint praise or portraying him as a well-meaning intellectual who was quite out of depth when it came to the latest in Western thinking, or by presenting him as no more than an outdated religious leader.
In pubic discourse developed in intellectual circles during the last half a century in our country, the word ‘religion’ has acquired quite a few strong negative connotations; it is considered narrow, un-progressive, tradition-bound, obscurantist and so on. And there is much truth in this! Sri Aurobindo himself has said so. I wish to declare here that Sri Aurobindo was not a staunch votary of any religion, including the Hindu religion. This is what he said about his own ashram:
The Ashram has nothing to do with Hindu religion or culture or any religion or nationality. The Truth of the Divine which is the spiritual reality behind all religions and the descent of the Supramental which is not known to any religion are the sole things which will be the foundation of the work of the future.3
Sri Aurobindo was a great spiritual figure in human history; he discovered the truth of the supramental consciousness, of which no religion had any idea, and he developed a life-affirming yoga for those who have an inner call for it. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry and the international city of Auroville are the two laboratories inspired by him and his collaborator the Mother with the aim of fostering a new man, a united new world and a spiritual civilisation. It is true that he drew deeply from the sources of Indian spiritual tradition such as the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita, but that does not make him a religious Hindu, any more than it makes Schrodinger, the father of Quantum Physics, or American transcendentalists such as Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, or any Western thinkers such as Aldous Huxley and Ken Wilbur religious and Hindus just because they too have drawn much from Vedantic sources.
Sri Aurobindo is increasingly recognised as a seminal thinker whose influence is heralding a new age and a new man. For the abundant wealth of material, profundity of thought, sublimeness of expression and majesty of vision Sri Aurobindo’s contribution is one of the most remarkable in the history of human creative effort. Reviewing Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine in the London Times Literary Supplement (1944) Sir Francis Younghusband said:
Of all modern Indian writers Aurobindo— successively poet, critic, scholar, thinker, nationalist, humanist—is perhaps the most significant and perhaps the most interesting…. He has crystallised the mellow wisdom of a lifetime into luminous prose in The Life Divine, which, it is not too much to say, is one of the masterworks of our age.4
In another evaluation published in the World Review (October 1949) Rev. E. E. F. Hill explained the significance of Sri Aurobindo in these words:
Aurobindo is the greatest contemporary philosopher and great in the company of the greatest mystics of all time… . Aurobindo’s psychological insight is so sharp and clear, and the universe he explores is so vast that, in comparison, Western psychology, even the work of Freud, when one allows in full the measure of its greatness, is like the groping of a child in the dark…. The work of Sri Aurobindo compels, not comparison, but concordance with the Fourth Gospel… ‘ye shall know the Truth and the truth shall make you free’ is one common aspect of their message … he has created a synthesis between her past spiritual achievement and modern European thought, so that the future spiritual destiny of India and the future destiny of Europe are inescapably the same destiny … We are at the turning-point in the spiritual history of man… . Because Aurobindo is in this world, the world is becoming able to express progressively unity and diversity instead of division, love instead of hatred, truth-consciousness instead of falsehood, freedom instead of tyranny, immortality instead of death. 5
It cannot be said that the Indian intelligentsia and the universities have shown a total indifference to Sri Aurobindo. During 1972, his birth centenary year, many universities organised seminars and brought out publications on Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts and vision. But in most places this remained a ritualistic homage and it was a small minority among our intelligentsia who associated themselves with this effort. The majority wondered what all this fuss was about and who Sri Aurobindo was anyway. This is very strange, really. Our intelligentsia has been swearing by Darwin, Freud and Karl Marx but they have simply ignored Sri Aurobindo, one of the few independent thinkers that India produced in the 20th century, who dealt mainly with the same issues that these three thinkers did and in the light of whose writings we are better able to appreciate them because he presents the complete truth which each of these thinkers distorted in his own way.
The fact that Sri Aurobindo did not receive a favourable reception in Indian intellectual circles during the last half a century has been very unfortunate but not very surprising. It is unfortunate because if we had heeded his voice, we could have avoided getting bogged down in many a quagmire in our national life. It is not surprising because Sri Aurobindo’s vision was so radical and ahead of his times that he effectively alienated four of the strongest intellectual establishments in the country—the Hindu religious establishment, the Gandhian establishment, the politically non-committed but Eurocentric university intellectuals and the Leftist establishment. I will try to indicate briefly the nature of the issues involved in each of these estrangements. I propose to go through this exercise partly to give a bird’s-eye view of the wide range of Sri Aurobindo’s intellectual interests and of the seminal contributions he has made to many different domains of human thought. I leave it to you to decide who was right, Sri Aurobindo or his opponents, on the various issues that divided them. My own feeling is that on the whole history seems to be on the side of Sri Aurobindo on most of these issues.
A new system of values conducive to a country’s all-round progress is the greatest contribution anybody can make to the progress of that country. This is precisely Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to modern India. He looked upon spirituality as the core strength of Indian tradition and history and he hoped that a spiritual renaissance in the country would bring about its resurgence. There was nothing obscurantist or parochial in his thinking. He was careful to make a distinction between a spirituality that embraces life and enriches it and a spirituality that takes very little interest in our terrestrial existence. He warned the country against embracing spirituality of the latter kind.
But not many of Sri Aurobindo’s country men understood him, and his call for spiritual renaissance fell on deaf years except during the first decade of this century. This happened in part because as modern education spread, India’s opinion makers had their minds reprogrammed by the system of education Macaulay had carefully planned. The West’s colonisation of the mind of the Indian intelligentsia has made it incapable of understanding the meaning and value of what Sri Aurobindo said. We have Indian bodies but our minds have become, if not completely Western, at least alien to the true Indian perspective. We are unable to appreciate India and its cultural and spiritual bases and tendencies except as seen by Western scholars. We cannot grasp many things in our own spiritual tradition because of their gross misrepresentation by European scholarship. An example of this is the excessive prestige accorded to the school of Acharya Shankara, which for all its sublimity is a life-denying spiritual philosophy. Since the second half of the 19th century, Indian scholars have been content by and large to follow European leadership in the study of this country’s traditions and have merely repeated the errors made by their mentors. Consequently, we now have a popular stereotype of what Indian spiritual tradition and philosophy signify. According to this stereotype, Indian spirituality regards The world as an illusion and Brahman alone as real. Action in an illusory world has no significance except as an exercise for the purification of the mind in preparation for its union with the absolute; the aim of our spiritual enterprise is to abandon the world as a hopeless proposition.
This stereotype has had a damaging effect on our mentality. Our finest minds have mistaken spirituality to mean world-negation, an attitude which attaches no value to man and his enterprise in this world. Is it any wonder then that they have rejected spirituality as the bane of Indian society and advocated a total Westernisation of the Indian value system? But this self-negating characterisation of our culture by our own intellectuals has encouraged the West to take on the role of an elder brother who can teach us liberal, humanistic values and save us from ruin. This whole scenario is absurd! Most of our would-be saviours follow a religion which tells us that we are all sinners and accept a materialistic science which proclaims that we are only biochemical reactions. How different this is from the Taittiriya Upanishad, one of the source books of the Indian spiritual tradition, which declares just the opposite. It proclaims that bliss is the nature of the eternal, that from bliss all creatures are born, that by bliss they live and to bliss they go hence and return. How can a spiritual tradition which teaches that all life originates in bliss, is sustained by bliss and returns to bliss be called pessimistic? In The Life Divine, in Essays on the Gita, his commentaries on the Isha and Kena Upanishads and his writings on the Veda, Sri Aurobindo has established that Indian spirituality always affirmed the value of life until Buddha and Shankara overstated the case for the spirituality of the ascetic. Life-affirming does not mean extolling a life of sense gratification, or a philosophy of self-aggrandisement, which is the real nature of what the West euphemistically calls ‘self-enhancement’. In Sri Aurobindo’s view, co-operation with God in bringing perfection to life in this world is the true vocation of man. And, he says, that since it is the individual man who fulfils this vocation, our true individuality is the most valuable thing about us. In The Renaissance in India, he clearly states his notion of life-affirming spirituality:
Spirituality is much wider than any particular religion, and in the larger ideas of it that are now coming on us even the greatest religion becomes no more than a broad sect or branch of the one universal religion, by which we shall understand in the future man’s seeking for the eternal, the divine, the greater self, the source of unity and his attempt to arrive at some equation, some increasing approximation of the values of human life with the eternal and the divine values. Nor do we mean the exclusion of anything whatsoever from our scope, of any of the great aims of human life, any of the great problems of our modern world, any form of human activity, any general or inherent impulse or characteristic means of the desire of the soul of man for development, expansion, increasing vigour and joy, light, power, perfection.6
Sri Aurobindo has conclusively established in his various writings on India, particularly in his Defence of Indian Culture, that world-negation was not the central thrust of Indian culture. Many of our country men still take great pride in the legacy of Shankara and Buddha which regards the world as a delusion and, therefore, ultimately of no value. There can be no doubt that both these mark two of the many high peaks of the spiritual mountain ranges, but while appreciating their height and glory we should not ignore other equally prominent peaks.
This focus on Shankara is, even historically, an inaccurate understanding of the Indian spiritual tradition. Until about the 9th century ad, there was no talk of Adwaita in Indian philosophy, and even in the 15th century, Adwaita was regarded merely as one of several possible metaphysical interpretations of the Brahma Sutras; other schools of thought, like Nyaya and Mimamsa, were equally prominent. But in recent times, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Swami Vivekananda to Radhakrishnan, most of the leaders of the Indian renaissance pushed Shankarite Adwaita to the forefront and so it came to be regarded as the most representative metaphysical system of the Indian spiritual tradition. There are historical reasons for this, of course. One I have already suggested: the influence of the Western educational system on our minds. In this regard some scholars have suggested that it was the time when absolute idealism was the reigning paradigm in Western philosophy; perhaps this is what prompted our leaders of thought to prefer that mould in which to cast Indian philosophy.
Sri Aurobindo kept reminding his country men that in ancient Indian thought human life was not a vile and unworthy existence; it was the greatest thing known to us; as the Puranas boldly say, human life is desired even by the gods in heaven. The dignity given to human existence by Vedantic thought and by the thought of the classical ages of our culture exceeds anything conceived by the Western idea of humanity. Isn’t it strange and ironic, then, that Sri Aurobindo’s insistence on worldly progress as quintessentially a part of the Indian spiritual tradition alienated him from the Hindu establishment! Most of our religious scholars, the so-called torch-bearers of Indian culture and spirituality, the heads of maths and other religious pontiffs rarely mention Sri Aurobindo in their public discourses or their written commentaries on the Gita, the Upanishads and the Vedas. They find Sri Aurobindo too bafflingly modern and complex and are simply not comfortable with him.
Another issue that estranged the Hindu establishment from Sri Aurobindo was his contention that man is a transitional being and that mental consciousness is not the final rung of our evolutionary ascent. Although the notion of evolution is not entirely unknown to Hinduism, the way in which Sri Aurobindo made it a fundamental tenet of his metaphysics was new and unusual. Furthermore, he defined the goal of human life and spiritual practice not as nirvana or release from the cycle of birth and death, but the perfection of life here on earth. For this consummation to be possible, he maintained, it is necessary for man to rise to the level of spiritual consciousness that he called the ‘supramental’ or ‘Gnostic’ consciousness. He defined the central objective of his yoga as “not at a departure out of world and life into Heaven or Nirvana, but at a change of life and existence, not as something subordinate or incidental, but as a distinct and central object”.7 The Hindu religious establishment considered this too radical a departure from what our great acharyas had preached. In fact, the greatness of the Indian tradition is that it is strong enough to put up with any radical departure from its current received positions, while in other traditions such radicalism is vehemently suppressed. But for departing so radically from traditional wisdom, Sri Aurobindo had to pay the price of a benign neglect from the Hindu religious establishment. And, as I have noted, although Sri Aurobindo has offered us a breathtakingly new vision of life, it is founded completely on the abiding eternal truths of the Indian spiritual traditions. He has brought new life to the Sanatana Dharma. “We do not belong to the past dawns,” he declared, “but to the noons of the future”.8
Related to this neglect from the Hindu establishment is Sri Aurobindo’s insistence that India must cultivate the Kshatriya spirit. We as a nation readily seem to admit the importance of bhakti and jnana but not of karma and the valour needed to strengthen it. In 1907, Sri Aurobindo wrote in Bande Mataram:
The Kshatriya of old must again take his rightful position in our social polity to discharge the first and foremost duty of defending its interests. The brain is impotent without the right arm of strength.9
He told his countrymen in 1920 that what India needed most at the moment was the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance and courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit of inertia India had already too much.
But sometime after the second decade of the 20th century, the leaders of our freedom struggle succeeded in weaning people away from the spiritual ideal of strength to the moral ideal of non-violence. Of course, there is a yogic or spiritual principle of non-violence which is as old as Patanjali, the Buddha and Mahavira; it seeks to reduce harm and suffering to all creatures and to promote compassion and understanding. But it arises out of fearlessness. To be successful, non-violence should not arise out of cowardice and fear, and should not brook any compromise with evil. Non-violence also presupposes a system of moral values which both the contending parties share. Gandhiji was right to use nonviolence against the British, and by doing so he successfully exposed the violence behind the British rule in India. He did not appease the British and he made them see the injustice of what they were doing. But was Gandhiji right in preaching non-violence or soul-force to the British when the British Isles were under the imminent threat of being occupied by Hitler?9Was he right in trying to appease certain sectarian groups in India who have always used bullying as a political weapon and got away with it because the state is too weak to deal with them effectively? In his Essays on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo summed up this problem of appeasing evil forces in these perceptive words:
We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in men and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resorting to violence.10
This is not the place to discuss the question of nonviolence with all its ramifications. Suffice it to say that those who refuse to recognise God as Rudra will never receive the blessings of God as Shiva. The historian Will Durant has shown how the Indian civilisation, because of its advanced culture, wealth and moral sophistication constantly exposed itself as a soft target to attacks by plunderers who devastated it; from this he draws the lesson that no advanced culture can afford to relax its defences.
My point here is that Sri Aurobindo’s insistence that India develop the Kshatriya virtues so that it is not obliged to give in to any kind of bullying or evil naturally did not find favour with the group of Gandhian intellectuals, who were among the opinion makers until recently. His insistence that we develop a strong work ethic likewise had no takers. We can see the results of not giving heed to Sri Aurobindo’s teaching. We are perceived the world over as a weak state. The hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar and the hard bargain struck by the hijackers is evidence of our weakness. Another is the bullying tactics being used in Kashmir by extremist groups. We are paralysed even by a forest brigand like Veerapan. Our work ethic is improving but we still have a long way to go. Isn’t it ironic that the Gita’s gospel of work was given to the world by India?
As a light-hearted interlude and an illustration of how the world perceives India as a weak nation, I would like to mention a recently published novel, Dragonfire, written by the British journalist Humphrey Hawksley. Describing its plot a Time magazine reviewer wrote:
In this novel, the leaders of Pakistan and China form a pact: Islamabad will rein in Islamic extremists in Xinjiang in return for China’s help in winning back Kashmir. The US tries simply to steer clear. Pakistan and India eventually go to war. When it’s clear that Islamabad is losing, it uses nuclear weapons against the advancing Indian tanks and things spin seriously out of control. China ultimately wins the great Asian war when the Indian Prime Minister, minutes before his death, decides not to strike at Chinese civilians.11
Clearly, the novelist feels that India lacks the warrior-instinct and may win a Nobel Prize for peace but will always lose decisive wars. Let us hope that our weakness is coming to an end.
The reasons why the academic establishment in India has been lukewarm to Sri Aurobindo are many, and here we will look only at a few of them. By academic establishment I mean the articulate apex of the large class of educated Indians who always look to the West for approval and generally look at India through the Western prism. This is the class dreamt of by Macaulay, who bestowed on India an educational system aimed at producing “a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellects”. From this class come most of our ‘secular’ politicians, journalists, professionals and bureaucrats who swear by liberalism and secularism. They have risen to elevated positions in the academic, bureaucratic and corporate worlds. They write eminently readable articles in the Sunday supplements of newspapers and in books which make fun of anything genuinely Indian. For them Indian culture and spirituality are subjects for party jokes. They find Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual fervour more than slightly incongruous.
For this class Sri Aurobindo’s insistence on a spiritual basis for life and action has always been anathema. They have refused to take Sri Aurobindo’s writings seriously. His poetry has found no favour with them, his prose even less. They have assumed that whatever he wrote had to be incomprehensible, mystic spiritual stuff. They are hardly aware of the brilliant intellectual acumen shown by Sri Aurobindo in all his writings. They have paid little heed to what he had to say in his brilliant Arya series, some of which received world-wide recognition after they came out in books such as The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita and The Human Cycle. While Aldous Huxley considered Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine to be “a book not merely of the highest importance as regards its content, but remarkably fine as a piece of philosophic and religious literature”,12 an Indian journalist found Sri Aurobindo irrelevant ‘for our times’ and his English marked by ‘stylistic gaucheries’. But such critics have taken on someone who is clearly too large for them to handle.
Of the many issues on which Sri Aurobindo differed from the Indian academic establishment, I will mention only one here — the colonial-missionary model of history which regarded the theory of the Aryan invasion as its crown jewel. Modern Indian historians who were committed to the Marxist way of interpreting history and who were the opinion makers in this field until recently, only reconfirmed the findings of the colonial model. But Sri Aurobindo rejected this invasion theory as a perverted Eurocentric interpretation of Indian history. In his book On the Veda he tried to draw the attention of the academic community to the fact that the invasion theory was built on a crude and slender foundation of conjectural philology. Few paid heed to what he was saying in 1915 and the result has been most unfortunate for the study of ancient history.
The Aryan invasion theory looks upon the rishis and yogis of the Indian historical tradition as primitive plunderers who around 1500-2000 bc overran the earlier and more advanced civilisation of the dark-skinned Dravidians. The theory further implies that the invaders took their civilisation from the indigenous people and in return gave them nothing but their language (Sanskrit) and their priestly cult of caste which proved so ruinous to subsequent Indie culture.
This theory had pernicious consequences. It has been exploited for political and religious advantage in a way that is perhaps unparalleled. The British used it to divide India along the north-south, Aryan-Dravidian lines and political parties came into existence to safeguard the Dravidian identity. Marxist critics have made it the basis of their critique of Indian history. They tend to portray early Indian history as a caste struggle in place of a class struggle with the invading Aryans turned into a corrupt elite class of oppressors. Christian missionaries use this theory with great relish, denigrating Hindu religion as a product of barbaric invaders. Thus we are being taught in our schools and colleges a history of our country in which there is no cohesive Indian identity and India itself is no more than a curious mixture of the people who have come from outside—Aryans, Persians Greeks, Scythians, Huns, Arabs, Turks, Portuguese and the British.
Recent historical evidence shows that the Aryan invasion theory, however it is formulated, cannot be maintained any longer. The image of the invading, destructive Aryans is totally discredited and it is becoming clear that the teaching of the invasion theory should be removed from our school and college textbooks. Unfortunately those challenging the theory, even on the most objective archaeological grounds like the rediscovery of the Saraswati river, are often accused of political motives precisely by those who have been using the invasion theory for their own political advantage. The purpose of raising this issue here is not to try and settle it. Instead it is to draw attention to the fact that besides the theological-missionary model of history or the Marxist model, there are other ways of looking at Indian history using the scientific methods now available to us. Massive evidence is available today, mainly from archaeology, geology, satellite photography and ancient literary documents, which disproves most of the assumptions on which the Aryan invasion theory was based. It is possible that not all of the conclusions drawn from this factual evidence will hold up to a critical re-examination. But it seems certain that little, if anything, of the invasion theory can be maintained in the shape and form found in textbooks. And in this review of our history, ancient India is likely to emerge not as a broken civilisation deriving its impetus from outside invaders but as the most continuous and consistent indigenous development of civilisation in the ancient world, whose literary record, the ancient Vedas, remains with us even today.
Sri Aurobindo was probably the first to issue a warning against the invasion theory in his book Secret of the Veda, written more than 80 years ago, and this has been one of the reasons why during the last fifty years, intellectuals of a certain persuasion have tried to portray him merely as a religious visionary.
While the majority of our academics were enamoured by the Western civilisation, its political ideals, social system and economic principles, Sri Aurobindo kept warning us that India must not become an intellectual province of Europe. He kept insisting that India must remain India if she is to fulfil her destiny. He pointed out that Western materialism and civilisation had become almost bankrupt. At the same time he criticised the exaggerated spirituality of the Indian ascetic effort; we can see in India, he said, not only how high individuals can rise by it but also how low a race can fall when its eagerness to seek after god ignores his intention in humanity. He lauded the absolute spiritual sincerity of the Indian attempt as much as he praised the severe intellectual honesty and ardour for the truth shown by the West. But he cautioned against what he called the Titanism of the human spirit shown by India and the Titanism of the human intellect shown by the West.
Sri Aurobindo admired the positive aspects of the liberal humanism of the West. He saw that humanism had done great service to the cause of human progress. Modern humanism was formulated in the 18th century and its aim was to re-create human society in the image of three kindred ideas: liberty, equality and fraternity. None of them has really been achieved in spite of all the progress that has been made. Whatever equality has been won generally turns out to be an unequal equality, and the liberty that has been won turns out to be a mechanical liberty. As for fraternity, it has not even been recognised as a practicable principle because it is a thing of the soul and modern humanism is unwilling to recognise that the soul exists. As a result, it has tried to bring about changes in political and social institutions without attempting to alter man’s inner nature. Sri Aurobindo observes:
Freedom, equality, brotherhood are three godheads of the soul; they cannot be really achieved through the external machinery of society or by man so long as he lives only in the individual and communal ego. When the ego claims liberty, it arrives at competitive individualism. When it asserts equality, it arrives first at strife, then at an attempt to ignore the variations of Nature, and/as the sole way of doing that successfully, it constructs an artificial and machine-made society. A society that pursues liberty as its ideal is unable to achieve equality; a society that aims at equality will be obliged to sacrifice liberty. For the ego to speak of fraternity is for it to speak of something contrary to its nature… 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.13
Freedom, liberty and brotherhood can only be founded on the recognition of the same soul, the same godhead in all and until man is awakened to his soul and made to live from his soul and not from his ego the dream of human unity can never be realised. This is the true value of religion, of the traditional religions as well as what has been called the religion of man, or humanism. How can man be made to live from his soul? That is the real question. And that is the question which Indian civilisation more than any other has tried to answer. Therefore, it is time that we turn to the ancient wisdom of mother India. But for many of our academics, all this looks too flimsy or banal to be taken seriously!
The Leftist intelligentsia fell foul of Sri Aurobindo for several reasons and were particularly harsh in denigrating his role in the freedom movement and denying him importance as a seminal thinker. In rejecting him they reacted more out of gall than understanding. What were his sins? For one thing Sri Aurobindo’s basic spiritual orientation was totally unacceptable to them since they all believed in dialectical materialism, which endows matter with ‘the freedom of the spirit’ as Nicolas Berdyaev14 has pointed out. For another, Sri Aurobindo was very critical of all the major tenets of Marxism. But finally, Sri Aurobindo was simply a puzzle for them. On the” one hand he rejected Marx’s doctrine as erroneous and fallacious; on the other he gave it credit for being of practical help in generating a tremendously powerful force in shaping the progressive movement of history. He maintained that Marxism was necessary at a certain period of European history when capitalist industrialism was swiftly growing like cancerous disease in European society. It was needed as a drastic remedy to counteract that evil.15 What is now clear to the whole world, namely, that Marx was a flawed prophet, was clear to Sri Aurobindo from the beginning. In The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity and The Life Divine you will find passages which are severely critical of Marxism- But at the same time Sri Aurobindo showed a great appreciation of what was behind the Bolshevik revolution. In an essay entitled ‘After the War’, which he wrote in 1920, he regarded the Russian Revolution of 1917 as significant an event in history as the French Revolution, About Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, he wrote:
A great nation marked out as one of the coming leaders of humanity has taken a bold leap into the hidden gulfs of the future, abolished the past foundations, made and persisted in a radical experiment of communism, replaced middle-class parliamentarism by a new form of government and used its first energy of free life to initiate an entirely novel social order. It is acts of faith and audacities of this scale that change or hasten the course of human progress. It does not follow necessarily that what is being attempted now is the desirable or the definite form of the future society, but is a certain sign that a phase of civilisation is beginning to pass and the Time-Spirit preparing a new phase and a new order.16
In two aphorisms, Sri Aurobindo commented favourably on the ends of communism, while lambasting its form, way and means:
The communistic principle of society is intrinsically as superior to the individualistic as is brotherhood to jealousy and mutual slaughter; but all the practical schemes of socialism invented in Europe are a yoke, a tyranny and a prison. If communism ever re-establishes itself successfully upon earth, it must be on a foundation of soul’s brotherhood and the death of egoism. A forced association and a mechanical comradeship would end in a world-wide fiasco.17
These words were written by Sri Aurobindo around 1913, several years before communism came to power in Russia. How prophetic his words proved to be!
As I mentioned earlier, the inadequacies of Marxist ideology which are patent to the world today were evident to Sri Aurobindo as early as the second decade of the 20th century. Sri Aurobindo agreed with Marx that in modern society, economic values tend to shape and determine all other values. But he maintained that economic determinism did not play such a predominant role in ancient and medieval periods, nor will it have such a role in the age that is coming upon us. Marx’s cardinal error was to take a factor of variable and temporary importance, namely, economic determinism, as the sole and permanent cause of all historical phenomena.
The basic contradictions in Marx’s philosophic position will readily be admitted today in most intellectual circles. But in the first half of this century Sri Aurobindo was among the few major critics of Marxism and of the communist regime. Kishore Gandhi, in his book Social Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the New Age, succinctly presents Sri Aurobindo’s critique of each of the fundamental tenets of Marxism— dialectical materialism, historical materialism and class-struggle as the lever of social change—and of Marx’s prophecy of international socialism. My purpose here is not so much to offer a criticism of Communism as to indicate how and why the Leftist intelligentsia found it necessary to reject Sri Aurobindo.
On the whole it looks as though Sri Aurobindo was far ahead of his times in his thinking. He was an evolutionist but not of the Darwinian kind; like Freud and other psychologists he explored the subconscious and unconscious levels of the human consciousness, but he was also aware of greater depths and heights of human consciousness than they were. He appreciated the thrust of the communist movement, but he believed that if communism is to succeed it has to be based on an inner revolution involving the death of egoism and a loving brotherhood of the soul. His agenda was too immense for the narrow academic interests of most intellectuals. For him scholarship was not an end in itself. He used it to give mankind a hope for the future. When most intellectuals were cynical about man’s future and saw nothing but prospects too bleak even for his survival as a species, Sri Aurobindo saw the possibility of a divine race of men living a divine life on earth. For he was not a mere intellectual; he was also the prophet of a new humanity, and he dared dream of a perfect man and a perfect earth. Let me conclude with a few lines from his glorious epic Savitri, in which he shares with us his faith in a glorious future for mankind:
Even as of old man came behind the beast
This high divine successor surely shall come
Behind man’s inefficient mortal pace,
Behind his vain labour, sweat and blood and tears:
He shall know what mortal mind barely durst think,
He shall do what the heart of the mortal could not dare.
Inheritor of the toil of human time,
He shall take on him the burden of the gods;
All heavenly light shall visit the earth’s thoughts,
The might of heaven shall fortify earthly hearts;
Earth’s deeds shall touch the superhuman’s height,
Earth’s seeing widen into the infinite.18
1. Sri Aurobindo: original Bengali text and English translation in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, April 1980.
3. The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, p. 353.
4. Sri Aurobindo Circle, 1976.
5. Quoted in K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar: Sri Aurobindo, a biography and a history, Fourth (Revised) Edition, 1985, p.726.
6. Sri Aurobindo: The Renaissance in India (Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 20), pp. 33-34.
7. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga –1 (SABCL Vol. 22), p. 100.
8. Sri Aurobindo: Essays on the Gita (SABCL Vol. 13), p. 8, xxx
9. Sri Aurobindo: Bande Mataram (SABCL Vol. 1), p. 244.
10. Sri Aurobindo: Essays on the Gita (SABCL, Vol. 13), p. 39.
11. Time Magazine, 18 September 2000.
12. Mother India: July 1956, p. 10.
13. Sri Aurobindo: The Human Cycle (Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 25), p. 569.
14. Quoted by Kishore Gandhi in his Social Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the New Age.
16. Sri Aurobindo: ‘After the War’, War and Self-Determination (SABCL Vol. 15), p. 647.
17. Sri Aurobindo: ‘Thoughts and Aphorisms’ (SABCL Vol. 17), p. 117. Although “Thoughts and Aphorisms’ appeared in a book form first in 1958, this was taken from his manuscripts which belong to the 1920s.
18. Sri Aurobindo: Savitri (SABCL Vol. 28), p. 344.
This is a transcript of the talk by Prof. Mangesh V Nadkarni, delivered at Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Shakespeare Sarani, Kolkata, in September 2001, subsequently edited by Bob Zwicker.