Sri Aurobindo in Baroda, Part 4

BANDE MATARAM (Hymn to the Mother)

Translation in prose by Sri Aurobindo

I bow to thee, Mother, richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests, the Mother!
Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
the Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss!
Terrible with the clamorous shout of seventy million throats,
and the sharpness of swords raised in twice seventy million hands,
Who sayeth to thee, Mother, that thou art weak?
Holder of multitudinous strength,
I bow to her who saves,
to her who drives from her the armies of her foemen, the Mother!
Thou art knowledge, thou art conduct, thou our heart,
thou our soul, for thou art the life in our body.
In the arm thou art might, О Mother,
in the heart, О Mother, thou art love and faith,
it is thy image we raise in every temple.
For thou art Durga holding her ten weapons of war,
Kamala at play in the lotuses
And Speech, the goddess, giver of all lore, to thee I
bow!
I bow to thee, goddess of wealth, pure and peerless,
richly-watered, richly-fruited, the Mother!
I bow to thee, Mother,
dark-hued, candid,
sweetly smiling, jewelled and adorned,
the holder of wealth, the lady of plenty,
the Mother![1]

(Composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterji)

We have already gleaned some essential elements of the spiritual background of Sri Aurobindo’s love of India. We have seen that behind his militant nationalism, there was the secret fire of an intense yearning for God and the fulfilment of His work on earth through a resurgence of Indian spirituality.[2] But when he first appears before his countrymen as a political thinker, it is only the love of his motherland that shines forth and inspires his writings, and the political liberation of his nation that seems to be the immediate, impelling objective. He had followed the Indian political movement even when he was in England, and his close study of it had revealed to him the fundamental weaknesses it was labouring under. Soon after his return to India, he set himself to expose those weaknesses with an incisive, relentless logic, pull down the fragile structure of the Indian National Congress, and build it anew on the solid foundation of a fervent nationalistic idealism and a profound political philosophy, drawing their sustenance from the very roots of Indian culture and true to the spirit of the nation. But before we begin a study of his political thought and life, it would be well to cast a glance at the religious, social, and political changes which had been taking place in India before Sri Aurobindo emerged, first as a political thinker, and then, as the most original and powerful exponent of spiritual nationalism. Rapid and revolutionary, indeed, were these changes which, originating in Bengal, spread to all parts of the country, and, in the course of a few decades, brought about a splendid outflowering of the national soul. A brief outline of India in the middle of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century will give the reader (and particularly the Western reader) the right perspective in which to view the origin, nature and growth of Indian nationalism and Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to it.

The latter half of the eighteenth century saw the Indian nation almost prostrate in the dust — its spirituality smouldering under an inert mass of dead and deadening formalism, the mainspring of its life corroded by rust, its vitality at a low ebb, and its vision narrowed and clouded. It had ceased to think creatively. Its thinking mind and higher reason had ceased to mediate between its soul and its life. And this atrophy of the thinking mind spelled, on the one hand, a catalepsy of the spiritual aspiration, and, on the other hand, a withering and enervation of life and its constriction within the shells of a supine conformity. “The evening of decline… was prepared by three movements of retrogression. First, there is, comparatively, a sinking of that superabundant vital energy and a fading of the joy of life and the joy of creation… this energy for a very brief period sinks nearest to a complete torpor… the decadence was marked and progressive. Secondly, there is a rapid cessation of the old free intellectual activity, a slumber of the scientific and critical mind as well as the creative intuition; what remains becomes more and more a repetition of ill-understood fragments of past knowledge. There is a petrifaction of the mind and life in the relics of the forms which a great intellectual past had created. Old authority and rule become rigidly despotic and, as always then happens, lose their real sense and spirit…. This diminution amounts to a certain failure of the great endeavour which is the whole meaning of Indian culture, a falling short in the progress towards the perfect spiritualisation of the mind and the life. The beginnings were superlative, the developments very great, but at a certain point where progress, adaptation, a new flowering should have come in, the old civilisation stopped short, partly drew back, partly lost its way. The essential no doubt remained and still remains in the heart of the race and not only in its habits and memories, but in its action it is covered up in a great smoke of confusion. The causes internal and external we need not discuss; but the fact is there. It was the fact of the momentary helplessness of the Indian mind in the face of new and unprecedented conditions.[3]

Socially, the Nation, starving for the sap of a living spirituality and losing its nerve in the face of alien forces of aggression, shrank into itself and stood hedged in by defensive taboos and inhibitions. It was a state of stagnation, marked by the rigour of rules, a rigidity of creeds and cults, and a progressive cultural sterility.

Politically, the country presented the spectacle of a welter of States or small kingdoms, engaged in intrigues and rivalries, and blindly struggling to satisfy their mean, parochial interests. It was a confusion, an “anarchy which gave European adventure its chance”. The rapid disintegration of the Moghal empire was accompanied by a more or less general torpor of the martial spirit and an easy proneness to any superior might.

Describing the then state of the country, Rabindranath says:

“…our country having lost its link with the inmost truths of its being struggled under a crushing load of unreason, in abject slavery to circumstance. In social usage, in politics, in the realms of religion and art, we had entered the zone of uncreative habit, of decadent tradition, and ceased to exercise our humanity.”

“It was at this moment that the European wave swept over India. The first effect of this entry of a new and quite opposite civilisation was the destruction of much that had no longer the power to live, the deliquescence of much else, a tendency to the devitalisation of the rest. A new activity came in, but this was at first crudely and confusedly imitative of the foreign culture. It was a crucial moment and an ordeal of perilous severity; a less vigorous energy of life might well have foundered and perished under the double weight of the deadening of its old innate motives and a servile imitation of alien ideas and habits. History shows us how disastrous this situation can be to nations and civilisations. But fortunately the energy of life was there, sleeping only for a moment, not dead, and, given that energy, the evil carried within itself its own cure.”[4]

The first result of the onslaught of the alien culture was, as Sri Aurobindo points out, a crude and confused imitation. Of all the provinces of India it was Bengal that was most affected by this servile tendency to aping European manners, European habits and European ways of life. Religious restraints, moral scruples and time-honoured social conventions were thrown to the winds. Those who received the new Western education and imbibed the materialistic and rationalistic spirit of the West, revelled in assaulting the outworn ramparts of Hindu orthodoxy, and abandoning themselves to a life of Bohemian self-indulgence. It was, indeed, a period of moral anarchy, reckless iconoclasm and a wanton denial and defiance of the higher values of life, which the nation had so long been cherishing and conserving with a religious zeal. Lala Lajpat Rai gives an amusing, though somewhat sombre picture of the educated Bengalis in his Young India: “He (the Bengali Babu) began to live as the Britisher lives; English life, English manners and customs, became his ideal. Gradually he became very fond of English literature and began to think as an Englishman thought. The Bengalees were the first to send their sons to England for their education and to compete for the I.C.S. (Indian Civil Service) and the I.M.S. (Indian Medical Service). They with the Parsees were the first to qualify for the English Bar. In England they lived in an atmosphere of freedom. With freedom in drinking and eating they also learned freedom of thought and expression. The first generation of the Bengalees was thus Anglicised through and through. They looked down upon their own religion; they thought poorly of Indian society…. Some of them became Christians….”

Fortunately, this period was a very short one, and the injury it inflicted upon the nation was restricted to the small community, educated on Western lines. The enormous mass of the people still lived on in the wintry twilight of a cultural decadence, jealously guarding the heritage of the past, but too languid and listless to build upon it a brighter future and a new, dynamic order of creative life. But this immobile conservatism, too, was not without its utility.[5]

“Whatever temporary rotting and destruction this crude impact of European life and culture has caused, it gave three needed impulses. It revived the dormant intellectual and critical impulse; it rehabilitated life and awakened the desire of new creation; it put the reviving Indian spirit face to face with novel conditions and ideals and the urgent necessity of understanding, assimilating and conquering them. The national mind turned a new eye on its past culture, reawoke to its sense and import, but also at the same time saw it in relation to modern knowledge and ideas.”[6]

It was at this juncture that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was born. His birth in Bengal had an important significance, for Bengal was destined to be “the chief testing crucible or the first workshop of the Shakti of India; it is there that she has chosen to cast in the greatest vivacity of new influences and develop her initial forms and inspirations.”[7] “The first impulse”, born of the reception and assimilation of Western culture and coming in the wake of the crude movement of blind imitation, was “gigantic in its proportions and produced men of an almost gigantic originality.” “Ram Mohan Roy arose with a new religion in his hand….” It is interesting to note here that unlike the Renaissance in Europe, the Renaissance in India derived its first inspiration from spirituality. It was not intellectual, artistic or political in its inception and essence, but unmistakably spiritual,[8] seeking sustenance from the national culture of the past, but endeavouring to adapt it to the spirit and needs of the modern age. As Sri Aurobindo says: “All great movements of life in India have begun with a new spiritual thought and usually a new religious activity. What more striking and significant fact can there be than this that even the new European influence, which was an influence intellectual, rationalistic, so often anti-religious, and which drew so much of its idealism from the increasingly cosmopolitan, mundane and secularist thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, precipitated in India from the very first an attempt at religious reformation and led actually to the creation of new religions? The instinct of the Indian mind was that, if a reconstruction of ideas and of society was to be attempted, it must start from a spiritual basis and take from the first a religious motive and form. The Brahmo Samaj had in its inception a large cosmopolitan idea, it was even almost eclectic in the choice of the materials for the synthesis it attempted; it combined a Vedantic first inspiration, outward forms akin to those of English Unitarianism and something of its temper, a modicum of Christian influence, a strong dose of religious rationalism and intellectualism. It is noteworthy, however, that it started from an endeavour to restate the Vedanta, and it is curiously significant of the way in which even what might be well called a protestant movement follows the curve of the national tradition and temper, that the three stages of its growth, marked by the three churches or congregations into which it split, correspond to the three eternal motives of the Indian religious mind, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma, the contemplative and philosophical, the emotional and fervently devotional and the actively and practically dynamic spiritual mentality. The Arya Samaj in the Punjab founded itself on a fresh interpretation of the truth of the Veda and an attempt to apply old Vedic principles of life to modern conditions. The movement associated with the great names of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda has been a very wide synthesis of past religious motives and spiritual experience topped by a reaffirmation of the old asceticism and monasticism, but with new living strands in it and combined with a strong humanitarianism and zeal of missionary expansion….”[9]

In order to show that all movements of rebirth or renovation of the Indian nation have been invariably preceded and inspired by a spiritual or religious resurgence, we have reproduced the above passage from Sri Aurobindo in which he has given an illuminating survey of the origin and development of the present renaissance in India, and how it has been progressing on the time-old lines of the national genius. We have thus had to anticipate a little of what we shall consider slightly later.

The national ferment produced a long line of towering personalities in almost all walks of life. The very appearance of pioneering geniuses signalised the advent of a new dawn of the national life. It was, certainly, no accident — we speak here of Bengal only — that Ram Mohan Roy was followed by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, Rishi Rajnarayan Bose, Pandit Shivnath Shastri, Akshaya Kumar Dutt, Keshav Chandra Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, poet Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, the inspired seer of the National Anthem, Bande Mataram, and the greatest novelist in Bengali literature, Dr. Rajendra Lai Mitra, Sri Ramkrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda, Yogi Vijay Krishna Goswami, the world-poet Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, the gifted pioneer of the new school of Indian Art, Jagadish Chandra Bose, the greatest Indian scientist[10], etc. etc., — an unbroken line of outstanding personalities who enriched every sphere of Indian life. We have not mentioned the more recent names, some of which are equally illustrious in their respective fields of thought and activity. All this proves that the Shakti of the nation was well at work, the divine fiat had gone forth, and a great future of incalculable possibilities was preparing behind the lightning transitions of India’s outer life.

Ram Mohan Roy, who foreshadows — very naturally in the faint glimmer of the approaching light — some of the main elements of the grand synthesis which was going to be the chief gift of renaissant India to the world, has been called by Rabindranath Tagore “the inaugurator of the Modern Age in India” and “the path-maker of this century”, and by Lajpat Rai “the first nation-builder of Modern India”.[11] “Ram Mohan Roy, that great soul and puissant worker”, as says Sri Aurobindo, “who laid his hand on Bengal and shook her — to what mighty issues — out of her long, indolent sleep by her rivers and rice fields”, was, indeed, a genius of exceptional versatility, and a wide, enlightened and comprehensive vision. He embodied the new spiritual and cultural trends and the emergent socio-political consciousness which sprang into existence from the contact of the East and the West after the initial spell of fascinated imitation had passed. He was a herald of the coming dawn. A rapid review of some of the principal facets of this giant personality will give us a revealing insight into the creative forces and ideas that were surging up from the awakening soul of the nation for building the India of the future; for, according to Sri Aurobindo, “Ram Mohan Roy was a great man in the first rank of active genius” who “set flowing a stream of tendencies which have transformed our national life.” Swami Vivekananda called him “the first man of new regenerate India”.

A Tantric[12] by early initiation and a Vendantist by natural self-development, Ram Mohan Roy was essentially a spiritual personality. All that he attempted and achieved sprang from his intrinsic spiritual sense and outlook. He was an apostle of Universal Theism. Rabindranath calls him “a Universal Man”. He was a religious humanist and a staunch rationalist who effected a reconciliation between reason and religious faith. He was the first translator into Bengali of the Brahma Sutra and the Upanishads. He was the first social reformer in Bengal whose success in reforms was so great as to throw into the shade even his far greater achievements in other fields of work. He was one of the first advocates of a radical overhauling in education with English as the medium of instruction and scientific training as an indispensable part of the curriculum. He was one of the founders of the Hindu College, which became the nursery of many a shining genius of the time. He was the first Bengali to found and edit a journal in Bengali. He is called the Father of modern Bengali literary prose. He was also a poet whose Bengali hymns, which were sung in the Brahmo Samaj, founded by him, have a moving devotional quality and lyrical sweetness.

Ram Mohan was also the father of constitutional political agitation[13] in India. He was a passionate lover of freedom. William Adams, bearing witness to his love of freedom, says: “He would be free or not be at all…. Love of freedom was perhaps the strongest passion of his soul.” He strove in his own way, and under the conditions obtaining at the time, for the political amelioration of his country. He took a lively interest in the political movements of all countries in the world which were struggling for freedom. In 1882, when the Reform Bill came up for discussion in England, he was so much exercised over it that he declared that in the event of the Bill being defeated, he would give up his residence in the dominions of England and settle in America. It is said that on his voyage to England, “when his boat touched the Cape of Good Hope, though seriously injured and made lame for several months by an accident, he insisted upon being carried to a French vessel where he saw the flag of liberty flying, so that he might be able to do homage to it. The sight of the glorious tri-colour kindled his enthusiasm and made him for the time being insensible to pain. The French received him warmly and he was conducted over the vessel beneath the revolutionary flag. When returning, he shouted, unmindful of his pain, ‘Glory, glory, glory to France!’”[14] He once wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in France that all humanity is one family and that the different nationalities are its branches.[15] He was a champion of the unity of mankind, and envisaged something like a League of Nations, long before any such idea had struck anybody. He espoused the cause of the peasants in India and fought valiantly for the freedom of the Press.

Max Müller calls Ram Mohan the father of Comparative Religion. Monier Williams says about him: “Ram Mohan is the first earnest investigator in the science of comparative theology which the world has produced.”

In Ram Mohan’s personality and his life-work we glimpse the wide, cosmopolitan, international, universal consciousness which was preparing to dawn upon the progressive mind of the Indian nation, accentuating the tendency to a synthesis of the past and the present, the East and the West, spirituality and life. It was a mere beginning, the first, pale streaks of the dawning glory; but all the same, it was a sure prognostic of the coming dawn. Ram Mohan was, indeed, in the words of Sir Brajendranath Seal, the eminent scholar and philosopher, “a precursive hint of the India that was rising” — the India, rising not for herself, but as Sri Aurobindo proclaims, for God and humanity. The times were big with a great future.

The new spirit of religious awakening brought in by Ram Mohan was “developed on original lines” by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, and by Sri Aurobindo’s maternal grandfather, Rishi Rajnarayan Bose. Debendranath went closer to the heart of the spirituality of the land, and Rajnarayan, discarding the eclecticism of Ram Mohan, upheld the cause of the pure essence of ancient Hinduism. Keshav Chandra Sen, upon whom had fallen the mantle of Debendranath, but who later broke with him and formed a new Brahmo Samaj, reverted to the eclecticism of Ram Mohan (in fact, Ram Mohan’s tentative attempt at a synthesis — in the external formulation of an inner realisation — between the Vedanta, Christian Unitarianism and Moslem Sufism[16] had really resulted in a sort of eclecticism); but his preponderant bias for Christianity led him into a pot-pourri of diverse religious strains. Keshav’s nature was genuinely religious and emotional, and was immensely widened and enlightened by his contact with Sri Ramakrishna; but his approach to Hinduism was through Christianity, and so, his preaching, in spite of its resounding success at the moment, failed to leave any lasting impression upon the national mind. However, the Brahmo Samaj was responsible for some socio-religious and educational reforms, and for weaning many a soul from the influence of Christian missionaries.

At this time, in another part of India, arose another man, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, who, according to Mrs. Besant, first proclaimed “India for Indians”. He discovered in the Vedas the perennial source and support of Hindu society, and sought to draw upon its spiritual and cultural riches for the establishment of an ideal national society in India. Describing Dayananda’s personality and work, Sri Aurobindo says: “Among the great company of remarkable figures that will appear to the eye of posterity at the head of the Indian Renaissance, one stands out by himself with peculiar and solitary distinctness, one unique in his type as he is unique in his work…. Here was one who did not infuse himself informally into the indeterminate soul of things, but stamped his figure indelibly as in bronze on men and things. Here was one whose formal works are the very children of his spiritual body, children fair and robust and full of vitality, the image of their creator. Here was one who knew definitely and clearly the work he was sent to do, chose his materials, determined his conditions with a sovereign clairvoyance of the spirit and executed his conception with the puissant mastery of the born worker. As I regard the figure of this formidable artisan in God’s workshop, images crowd on me which are all of battle and work and conquest and triumphant labour. Here, I say to myself, was a very soldier of Light, a warrior in God’s world, a sculptor of men and institutions, a bold and rugged victor of the difficulties which matter presents to spirit. And the whole sums itself up to me in a powerful impression of spiritual practicality. The combination of these two words, usually so divorced from each other in our conception, seems to me the very definition of Dayananda…. He brings back an old Aryan element into the national character…. (He was) a man with God in his soul, vision in his eyes and power in his hands to hew out of life an image according to his vision…. What a master-glance of practical intuition was this to go back trenchantly to the very root of Indian life and culture, to derive from the flower of its birth the seed for a radical new birth! And what an act of grandiose intellectual courage to lay hold upon this scripture (the Veda) defaced by ignorant comment and oblivion of its spirit, degraded by misunderstanding to the level of an ancient document of barbarism, and to perceive in it its real worth as a scripture which conceals in itself the deep and energetic spirit of the forefathers who made this country and nation — a scripture of divine knowledge, divine worship, and divine action…. He seized justly on the Veda as India’s Rock of Ages and had the daring conception to build on what his penetrating glance perceived in it a whole education of youth, a whole manhood and a whole nationhood…. Ram Mohan stopped short at the Upanishads. Dayananda looked beyond and perceived that our original seed was the Veda….”[17] A relentless crusade against priestly authority and paralysing superstitions, an uncompromising rejection of idol worship and a trenchant affirmation of the one, indivisible Brahman as at once constituting, pervading and transcending the whole universe, a repudiation of the caste system and untouchability, an advocacy of the democratic principle in religion and society, an insistence on the equality of the sexes and on equal education of them on purely national lines, and an aggressive, militant nationalism were some of the outstanding contributions of the Arya Samaj to renaissant India. It struck out an original plan of converting even non-Hindus to Hinduism. The growing spirit of nationalism derived a great impetus from the Arya Samaj movement.

The Theosophical Movement, founded by Madame Blavatsky,[18] proclaimed the greatness of Indian wisdom and the superiority of Indian spiritual culture to all other cultures of the world. It thus helped, to a certain extent, restore the faith of the newly educated community of Indians in their spiritual and cultural inheritance, and turn their minds from a blind worship of the materialistic thought and civilisation of the West. It is interesting to note that it was Swami Dayananda who had invited Madame Blavatsky to come to India.

Contemporaneous with Swami Dayananda was Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the embodiment of the highest synthesis of spiritual experience till then achieved. He was a living challenge to the materialistic rationalism of the times, a living refutation of the invading spirit of scepticism and atheism, and a living fount of the Light and Love, the Peace and Purity of the Divine whom he loved and adored as the Divine Mother. His greatest disciple, Swami Vivekananda, was in America in 1893, waiting for his apostolic triumph at the Parliament of Religions, which was to open a new chapter in the history of the impact of the East upon the West.[19] The example and influence of Sri Ramakrishna acted as a potent regenerative and formative force in the Renaissance of India, and set ablaze the awakening spirit of nationalism.

Like the Reformation, following on the heels of the Renaissance, in Europe, all these religious and reformist movements in India stimulated the spirit of nationalism and whetted the hunger for freedom. The chains of slavery began to bite into the flesh of the nation’s body, the leaden yoke galled and oppressed.

In the field of literature, which is the medium of expression of a nation’s soul, arose some remarkable men of original genius. “The two Dutts, Okhay Kumar and Michael Madhu Sudan, began a new prose and a new poetry.” “…Madhusudan’s first great poems Sharmistha and Tilottama had a complex effect, much of a piece with the sensation created by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in Elizabethan England or Hugo’s Hernani in 19th century France. They took men’s imagination by storm with their splendour, passion and mighty imagery; by creating the Bengali blank verse they freed poetry from the facilities and prettinesses of the old rhymed stanza; by their magnificences of style and emotion they brought new elements into Hindu literature, and they gave battle with their strange and fiery coloured music to the classic frigidity of the Sanskritists…. That marvellous epic, the Meghnad-badh, was the coup de grâce. When Vidyasagar praised the Meghnad-badh as a supreme poem, the day of the Sanskritists was over….”[20]

“The society by which Bankim was formed was the young Bengal of the fiftees, the most extraordinary perhaps that India has yet seen — a society electric with thought and loaded to the brim with passion. Bengal was at that time the theatre of a great intellectual awakening. A sort of miniature Renascence was in process. An ardent and imaginative race, long bound in the fetters of a single tradition, had had suddenly put into its hand the key to a new world thronged with the beautiful or profound creations of Art and Learning. From this meeting of a foreign Art and civilisation with a temperament differing from the temperament which created them, there issued, as there usually does issue from such meetings, an original Art and an original civilisation. Originality does not lie in rejecting outside influences but in accepting them as a new mould into which our own individuality may run….”[21]

“Bankim came into that heritage of peace which Madhusudan had earned…. Both were equipped with enormous stores of reading, both were geniuses of a vast originality, both had creative power, a fine sense for beauty and a gift for emotion and pathos…. One was the king of prose, the other the king of poetry.” “…Bankim, the greatest of novelists,[22] had the versatility developed to its highest expression. Scholar, poet, essayist, novelist, philosopher, lawyer, critic, official, philologian, and religious innovator, — the whole world seemed to be shut up in his single brain”.[23]

“What is it for which we worship the name of Bankim today? What was his message to us or what the vision which he saw and has helped us to see? He was a great poet, a master of beautiful language and a creator of fair and gracious dream-figures in the world of imagination…. He gave us a means by which the soul of Bengal could express itself to itself. He had a positive vision of what was needed for the salvation of the country…. It was the gospel of fearless strength and force which he preached under a veil and in images in Ananda Math and Devi Choudhurani. And he had an inspired unerring vision of the moral strength which must be at the back of the outer force. He perceived that the first element of the moral strength needed must be tyāga, complete self-sacrifice for the country and complete self-devotion to the work of liberation…. He perceived that the second element must be self-discipline and organisation. Lastly he perceived that the third element of the moral strength must be the infusion of religious feeling into patriotic work. The religion of patriotism — that is the master idea of Bankim’s writings…. Of the new spirit which is leading the nation to resurgence and independence, he is the inspirer and political guru…. The supreme service of Bankim to his nation was that he gave us the vision of our Mother…. It is not till the Motherland reveals herself to the eye of the mind as something more than a stretch of earth or a mass of individuals, it is not till she takes shape as a great Divine and Maternal Power in a form of beauty that can dominate the mind and seize the heart that these petty fears and hopes vanish in an all-absorbing passion for the Mother and her service, and the patriotism that works miracles and saves a doomed nation is born…. It was thirty-two years ago that Bankim wrote his great song (Bande Mataram) and few listened; but in a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions the people of Bengal looked round for the truth and in a fated moment somebody sang Bande Mataram. The mantra had been given and in a single day a whole people had been converted to a religion of patriotism. The Mother had revealed herself. Once that vision has come to a people, there can be no rest, no peace, no further slumber till the temple has been made ready, the image installed and the sacrifice offered. A great nation which has had that vision can never bend its neck in subjection to the yoke of a conqueror.”[24]

We have seen how the Indian Renaissance, originating in Bengal, permeated the whole country in waves of national stirrings, and roused the people into an intense urge for creative freedom and cultural self-assertion. In all spheres of life, one felt more and more the surging tide of a fresh vitality, the glow of an unwonted animation, the throbbing buoyancy of youthful idealism. The soul of India, reacting to the Western influence, imbibing what was life-giving and wholesome in its modernism, discarding what threatened to disrupt the bases of its own culture or deflect it from the course of its natural advance, turned with a wistful eye upon the immense legacy of its past and sought in it the secret of building a future which will be neither a replica of the past nor a confused and haphazard self-adaptation to the fickle demands of the present.

The revival of the intellectual and critical faculty, the galvanising of the national life by its renewed contact with the living truths of the past, and the quickening of the creative impulse constituted some of the most fruitful factors of the Indian Renaissance. Western education had brought in its train the intellectual and scientific ferment of Europe. Rationalism, Positivism, Utilitarianism, Scientific Humanism, Individualism, and Materialistic Realism of the West coloured the mind of the English-educated men of India and, in a great measure, moulded its thought and outlook, though, with the passing of time, the cardinal tendencies of the national character asserted themselves and assimilated what was salutary in the Western influence to enrich their own cultural content. The magnificent watchword of the French Revolution, the inspiring teachings and thoughts of Mazzini, the examples of Ireland and America, Italy and Germany fired the nationalist sentiment and political idealism in India. Historical research, pioneered by Dr. Rajendralal Mitra and Romesh Chandra Dutt, the publication of the Sacred Books of the East by Max Muller, and the assiduous labours of Western Orientalists in unearthing and broadcasting the treasures of ancient Indian metaphysics, philosophy and literature contributed to the growth of a vivified sense of national pride and dignity. The aggressive proselytising zeal of Christian missionaries drove the Hindus to an intensive study of their own scriptures and philosophies, so that they might combat the missionary propaganda and save the society from conversion to an alien faith. This also helped nourish the spirit of patriotism and national consciousness.

The above are some of the principal factors which precipitated the birth and development of the spirit of nationalism in the country, apart from the intangible, but irresistible, forces of evolution working from behind a veil. But no less important and fruitful were the forces of resistance and opposition, the forces that served the national cause by striving to thwart it. Adversity proved, indeed, a blessing in disguise. The nation emerged stronger and brighter from the baptism of fire.

The enormous drain of India’s wealth and material resources,[25] the ruthless exploitation and economic strangulation that went on almost unabated since the days of the East India Company, the deliberate destruction of Indian industries and handicrafts in the interests of the British industrialists and tradesmen, annexation of some of the Native States by fraud and force, the squeezing of the States and the moneyed classes under diverse pretexts, the grinding down of the peasantry by excessive taxes, and the brutal oppression of the Indigo cultivators[26] — all these and many other causes created a deep discontent against the British rulers. A series of devastating famines and virulent pestilence swept over the country taking a toll of millions of lives and reducing the groaning masses to utter destitution and untold suffering. These visitations and the desolation and misery they caused were “largely due to the chronic poverty of the people”. Chill penury, sapping what little vitality was left in the masses of the people, tended to drive them to desperation. Poverty[27] combined with repression and humiliation brought the country within measurable distance of a second revolutionary outbreak. The East India Company had been content with its plunder and pillage, and did not care much to interfere with the social and religious life of the people; but since the Mutiny of 1857, the attitude of the British Raj, which took over the administration of India from the East India Company, was characterised by racial arrogance, distrust, and disdainful hardness; and the increasing tempo of repressions and persecutions that followed served only to embitter and inflame more and more the feelings of the starving masses, and feed the fires of nationalism.

It is remarkably significant that the very first movement started to organise the intelligentsia for the growth and development of the national spirit, after the spade work done by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was inspired and initiated by Sri Aurobindo’s maternal grandfather, Rishi Rajnarayan Bose. Nowhere else in India had any such definite step been taken before it for the resuscitation of the national spirit.[28] “The first clarion call was sounded by Rajnarayan Bose in 1861 when he issued a prospectus for the establishment of a Society for the Promotion of National Feeling among the Educated Natives of Bengal. It was a heroic attempt to turn the thoughts of the anglicised English-educated Bengalis towards their own culture and customs. Those who had hitherto thought in English, talked in English, and even dreamed in English, were now asked to speak and write in Bengali, to wear dhoti and chadar instead of hats and coats, to give up the habit of taking European food and frequent European hotels, to adopt indigenous games and physical exercises, to promote the Hindu system of medicine, etc. etc. To a generation which was the ardent advocate of European or Christian ethics and rationalism, Rajnarayan Bose, himself a prominent product of the English education, boldly proclaimed the superiority of Hindu religion and culture over European and Christian theology and civilisation…. The most significant trait of this nationalism was an intense love of the motherland, based on a conception of its past greatness and future potentialities….”[29] It must be remembered that this movement was not started from any religious or political motive as such, though religion and politics were both implicit in it, but from a purely patriotic motive, from “an intense love of the motherland, based on the conception of its past greatness and future potentialities.” We find in this intrepid nationalist venture of Rajnarayan Bose the seed of the nationalism preached and practised by Sri Aurobindo about half a century later.

Another significantly interesting fact is that the next move, purely patriotic and nationalist, was also inspired by Rajnarayan Bose, though it was chiefly organised by Nabagopal Mitra. The object of the Hindu Mela[30], inaugurated by them was to encourage the use of indigenous products, and the revival of Indian industries and handicrafts, Indian methods of physical culture and the feeling of national self-respect and self-reliance. “It advocated the idea of pan-Indian nationality and urged the adoption of the cult of self-help as an instrument of national regeneration”.[31] “Though Rajnarayan Bose talked of ‘persistent constitutional agitation and other lawful means’, he had fully believed in the legitimacy of the use of force against the alien rulers of India, and in the necessity of forming secret societies for that purpose. Rabindranath Tagore has narrated in his Memoirs how he and his brother Jyotirindranath Tagore became members of the Secret Society established by Rajnarayan Bose where the members had to take oath that they would destroy by the use of force the enemies of the country.”[32]

In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded by A.C. Hume, a retired civilian, at the secret suggestion and under the veiled auspices of Lord Dufferin, the then Governor-General of India. It was Lord Dufferin’s intention to use the Congress as a “safety-valve” for the seething discontent in the land. Thus inaugurated, the Indian National Congress launched upon its career of prayer, petition and protest. It was dominated by the English-educated higher middle and middle classes of the country, mostly wedded to Western ideas and guided by Western political and social theories. Some of these politicians were able and intelligent men, sincerely desirous of serving the country and promoting its political and social welfare; but they had little insight into the soul of the nation, its destiny, and its potential powers, and less knowledge of the real character of the British bureaucracy and the nature of its stranglehold on India. “The Congress”, as says Sri Aurobindo, “wanted to make England’s yoke easy and its burden light, but not to remove the yoke altogether.” All that it hoped to achieve by its prudent policy of gradual and constitutional pressure, was a colonial form of government, expressing Britain’s platonic sympathy for the political aspirations of the Indian nation, and evincing an imperial solicitude for its advancement under its perpetual tutelage. It lacked the vision, the faith, the courage, the impetuous drive and daring of the inspired rebel who would die rather than submit to bear the yoke of slavery.[33]

But disillusionment was not long in coming. Political agitation and bureaucratic repression gathered momentum from mutual conflict. Even the moderation of the Moderates was on the stretch. Forces of unrest and disaffection were brewing in ominous resentfulness. But beyond the fretful gloom, the dawning light was gilding the far rim of the eastern horizon. It was at this moment that Sri Aurobindo, soon after his return from England, entered the arena of Indian politics with his patriotic soul and powerful pen.


[1] Translator’s note: “It is difficult to translate the National Anthem of Bengal into verse in another language owing to its unique union of sweetness, simple directness and high poetic force. All attempts in this direction have been failures. In order, therefore, to bring the reader unacquainted with Bengali nearer to the exact force of the original, I give the translation in prose line by line.” There is also a translation in English verse by Sri Aurobindo.

[2] “Already the Vedanta and the Yoga have exceeded their Asiatic limit and are beginning to influence the life and practice of America and Europe; and they have long been filtering into Western thought by a hundred indirect channels. But these are small rivers and underground streams. The world waits for the rising of India to receive the divine flood in its fullness.” — The Ideal of the Karmayogin by Sri Aurobindo.

[3] The Renaissance in India by Sri Aurobindo.

[4] The Renaissance in India by Sri Aurobindo.

[5] “The resistance of the conservative element in Hinduism, tamasic, inert, ignorant, uncreative though if was, saved the country by preventing an even more rapid and thorough disintegration than actually took place and by giving respite and time for the persistent national self to emerge and find itself.” — The Ideal of the Karmayogin by Sri Aurobindo.

[6] The Renaissance in India by Sri Aurobindo.

[7] The Renaissance in India by Sri Aurobindo.

[8] It is recorded that, during the Mutiny of 1857, behind most of the bands of the insurgents, there were Gurus or religious leaders as the source of inspiration and direction. What could Shivaji have achieved without his Guru, the Yogi Ramdas? There was spiritual power behind the creation and organisation of the Sikh militia.
In this connection, the following historical account makes interesting reading: In 1772, in Rangpur, a district in Bengal, there was a revolt of Sannyasis (ascetics) against the British rule. These Sannyasis belonged to North India. Bankim Chandra’s famous novel, Ananda Math, was inspired by this revolt. He had composed the Bande Mataram seven or eight years before he wrote Ananda Math. Even as early as 1763, the insurgent Sannyasis were waging guerilla war against the British. In that year, they suddenly appeared in Dacca in East Bengal, then as suddenly flew to Coochbehar, and there worsted the British soldiers in a skirmish. In 1768, they engaged a contingent of British troops in an open fight in the district of Saran in Bihar. In 1770, they were found in Dinajpur, then in Dacca and Rajsahi. In 1772, they fought a regular battle with the British troops in Rangpur and defeated them. In most of these encounters, they used to carry the day. Everywhere the local people helped them in all possible ways, and, even when threatened by the Government, never let them down. In the battle in Rangpur, Capt. Tomes was killed. Capt. Edwards was killed in Dinajpur fight. Neither the threat of severe punishment nor the huge prices set on the heads of the Sannyasis could induce the local people to betray them. In 1773, Warren Hastings, who was then the Governor General of India, wrote about them: “These Sannyasis appear so suddenly in towns or villages that one would think they had dropped from the blue. They are strong, brave, and energetic beyond belief.” Evidently, they had resolved to sacrifice their lives for the protection of Hindu religion and culture which, they thought, were in great danger. The Mutiny of 1857 was, in many respects a legitimate successor of the Sannyasi revolt, exploding in a wider and more violent outburst. — Based on Dr. Jadugopal Mukhopadhyaya’s ‘Viplavi Jivaner Smrit’, written in Bengali.

[9] The Renaissance in India by Sri Aurobindo.

[10] “The pride and glory of Bengal” — Vivekananda.

[11] Ram Mohan predicted that India would be free and take her rightful place as the Guru of Asia.

[12] Ram Mohan was initiated by a Tantric named Hariharananda Tirthaswamy, and practised Tantric Yoga on the lines of Mahanirvana Tantra, a Tantric scripture of great authority.

[13] “If religion is from God, is politics from the Devil?” — Ram Mohan Roy.

[14] Ram Mohan — the Man and his Work, edited by Amal Horne.

[15] When he went to France, he was welcomed and honoured by the King, Louis Philippe, who invited him to dinner and fêted him.

[16] Ram Mohan was a master of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and English, and deeply read in the canonical books of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. He also knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

[17] Bankim-Tilak-Dayananda by Sri Aurobindo.

[18] “She had some vision…. She was a remarkable woman” — Sri Aurobindo (Nirodbaran’s Notes).

[19] Swami Vivekananda’s phenomenal success in America raised India in the estimation of the whole world, and electrified the national sentiment in his motherland.

We may as well observe here that it is a fact, though not very widely known, that Swami Vivekananda had in him the makings of a revolutionary nationalist. Had not his Master’s spiritual mission claimed him as its own, he would have become a firebrand political leader, and made no bones about declaring an armed revolt against the alien Government. Sister Nivedita, whom he moulded with his own hands, owed her revolutionary political fire to him. (Ref. Swami Vivekananda Patriot-Prophet by Bhupendranath Datta.)

Vivekananda once told Jatin Mukherji (popularly known as Bagha Jatin, because he had killed a tiger with a mere knife) that the spiritual regeneration of India would not be possible till India was politically free. Jatin Mukherji, who was inspired by Vivekananda, and afterwards by Sri Aurobindo, was a redoubtable revolutionary who succeeded for long in defying the military might of the British Raj, and at last, betrayed and besieged, fell, fighting with his five trusted comrades against a whole troop of soldiers. Sri Aurobindo once remarked about him: “He was a man who would belong to the front rank of humanity anywhere. Such beauty and strength together I haven’t seen…” (Nirodbaran’s Notes).

[20] Bankim Chandra Chatterji by Sri Aurobindo.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bankim still retains his claim to uncontested supremacy as an Indian novelist. No other novelist since has had the epic vastness of his canvas, the grandeur of his imaginative creation, and the stately dignity and magnificence of his diction. All Indian languages are indebted to him for inaugurating a new era in the world of fiction, even as they are indebted to Rabindranath Tagore for ushering in a new era in poetic creation. Bankim Chandra’s novels have been translated into all the languages of India, and inspired and influenced a whole generation of novelists.

[23] Bankim Chandra Chatterji by Sri Aurobindo.

[24] Bankim-Tilak-Dayananda by Sri Aurobindo.

[25] “…Eminent writers, both Indian and English, have pointed out that the Industrial Revolution in England was itself ‘a consequence of the plundered wealth of India’…during the first half of the nineteenth century, India lost the proud position of supremacy in the trade and industry of the world, which she had been occupying for well-nigh two thousand years, and was gradually transformed into a plantation for the production of raw materials and a dumping ground for the cheap manufactured goods from the West…” — An Advanced History of India by Majumdar, Ray-Chaudhury and Dutta.

“…the manufactures of India were once in a highly flourishing condition. The Moghul Courts encouraged large towns and urban enterprise. European traders were first attracted to India, not by its raw products, but its manufactured wares. It was the industrial ‘wealth of Ormuz and Ind’ that dazzled the eyes of Western nations and sent them in search of a passage to that land of fabulous prosperity. Large portions of the Indian population were engaged in various industries down to the close of the eighteenth century…. The Indian cities were populous and magnificent.” — New India by Sir Henry Cotton.

[26] The brutal oppression of the Indigo cultivators by the British Indigo planters led to a mass upsurge of such magnitude and intensity that it was called “the first revolution in Bengal after the advent of the English”.

[27] “Paralysing poverty is more eloquent than the professional demagogue. And starvation is a better teacher than manuals of political economy.” Bande Mataram of March 2, 1907.

An eloquent testimony to the poverty of the Indian people is furnished by the following incident:

On the very day of his epoch-making triumph at the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda was invited by a rich and distinguished man to his home in a most fashionable part of the city. “Here he was entertained right royally; a princely room fitted with luxury beyond anything he could conceive was assigned to him. But instead of feeling happy in this splendid environment, he was miserable…. As he retired the first night and lay upon his bed, the terrible contrast between poverty-striken India and opulent America oppressed him. He could not sleep pondering over India’s plight. The bed of down seemed to be a bed of thorns. The pillow was wet with his tears. He went to the window and gazed out into the darkness until he was well-nigh faint with sorrow. At length, overcome with emotion, he fell to the ground, crying out, ‘O Mother, what do I care for name and fame when my motherland remains sunk in utmost poverty’. To what a sad pass have we poor Indians come when millions of us die for want of a handful of rice…. Who will raise the masses of India? Who will give them bread? Show me, О Mother, how I can help them’” — Life of Swami Vivekananda by his Eastern & Western Disciples.

This was in 1893. The poignant cry of anguish wrung out of Vivekananda’s leonine heart, his passionate love of his motherland, and his ardent appeal to the Divine Mother to raise the masses of India triggered the movement of a Force which has been unsleeping in its action, and which will not rest till it raises India to her highest, divine stature.

[28] Debendranath Tagore’s Tattva-bodhini Sabha, founded in 1839, was a religious and literary organisation. Prarthana Samaj, founded in Maharashtra in 1867 was a reformist social movement.

[29] R. C. Majumdar in Studies in the Bengal Renaissance, published by the National Council of Education, Bengal.

[30] Mela means a fair.

[31] Growth of Nationalism in India by Profs. Haridas Mukherjee and Uma Mukherjee.

[32] Soumyendranath Tagore in Evolution of Swadeshi Thought (Studies in the Bengal Renaissance).

“…Your arts and industries, which won and are still winning the admiration of Europeans, are languishing. Your artisans, the products of whose hands win such admiration are starving from want of employment. The immense material resources as well as the money of your country are being carried away by foreigners while we have to depend on England for even such a common article as lucifer match, nay, even for the very salt which seasons our rice…. The soil of India is getting impoverished year after year. Starvation is so much increasing in the country that one of the governing body himself admits that fifty millions of people are living on one meal a day…” Rajnarayan Bose (Vide studies in the Bengal Renaissance).

[33] “…the efforts they (the leaders of the Congress) have put forward have been puerile and paltry…. The movement lacked the essentials of a popular movement. The leaders were not in touch with the people…. A national movement, demanding only a few concessions and not speaking of the liberties of the nation and of its ideals, is never an effective movement…” — Lajpat Rai (Young India).

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