Nivedita, Sri Aurobindo and The National Movement — A Corrective Comment

 

SANKARI Prasad Basu, littérateur and Sahitya Academy Award winner of Bengal, has recently written a series of articles, “Nivedita and the National Movement”, in a popular Bengali journal, Desh. In one of them he describes the part Sri Aurobindo played in association with Nivedita in the Revolutionary Movement. Mentioning briefly their common agreement and ideal qualities, he dwells at great length upon their differences in various fields. He revives some old issues upon which Sri Aurobindo already gave his verdict in the compilation Sri Aurobindo On Himself in the early forties and even before that in journals and letters. We thought the ghost had been laid once for all. But Basu, in spite of having read the book, says that he has discovered some letters of Nivedita which, according to him, challenge Sri Aurobindo’s verdict or at least reopens the questions for a fresh investigation. He also raises some new issues which are of capital importance in relation to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and yoga.

The old issues involved are Sri Aurobindo’s “Open Letter to My Countrymen” and its effect on the question of his deportation by the Government, and his departure to Chandernagore according to an adesh he received from above. Nivedita seems to contend — and the writer tacitly supports her — that it was due to her persistent effort through her friends in England that the Government abandoned the plan to deport Sri Aurobindo. Also we are told that Sri Aurobindo left for Chandernagore at her suggestion. Both these claims Sri Aurobindo had refuted emphatically. The copious letters that have been reproduced give no clear proof of the friend’s success in England; they did not write a single letter relevant to Nivedita’s point. It was all her assumption or, in the words of Basu, “at least she thought so.” What value does this assumption have in the face of Sri Aurobindo’s clear-cut denial? On the other hand, Uma Mukherji and Haridas Mukherji have reproduced in their Bengali book Sri Aurobindo and the Revolutionary Movement of Bengal a communication that passed almost immediately after the publication of the “Open Letter” between the Bengal and Central Governments and resulted in the Centre’s decision that it would be highly injudicious to arrest Sri Aurobindo on the charges that had been framed. It confirms Sri Aurobindo’s intuitive feeling that the “Open Letter” would produce the intended effect. The joint authors comment that even after the publication of the said letter Sri Aurobindo moved freely in Calcutta for nearly six months and that his subsequent departure to Chandernagore had no connection with Nivedita’s much earlier advice to him to go away for some time. So Basu’s claim gets no support.

About the second issue, the writer has produced a number of witnesses in support of Nivedita, a few of whom were juniors and subordinates working under Sri Aurobindo as their leader. Sri Aurobindo himself invalidated their testimony in the book Sri Aurobindo On Himself, particularly the testimony of Ram Chandra Majumdar who was actually present at the time of his departure for Chandernagore. Not only Sri Aurobindo, but Nolini Kama Gupta and Suresh Chakravarty who were also present refuted his evidence in the Bengali journal Prabasi in 1945. Basu has quoted a number of lines which were supposed to have been dictated by Sri Aurobindo to Ram Majumdar after his meeting with Nivedita: they are on the very face of it absurd. The lines are: “Be rare in you acquaintances. Seal your lips to rigid secrecy. Don’t breathe this to your nearest and dearest.” One who is at all familiar with Sri Aurobindo’s ways cannot help laughter over such dramatic and rhetorical expressions being ascribed to Sri Aurobindo particularly at the crucial moment of his departure to Chandernagore. Apropos of them Sri Aurobindo says in the third person: “all that is of a character foreign to his habits e.g. his alleged Shakespearean and Polonius-like recommendation to Ramchandra himself while departing to Chandernagore. He may have enjoined silence on Ramchandra but not in that flowery language.”

Apart from Ramchandra the accounts of other witnesses the writer has collected are hardly worth mentioning, for none of these men were present on the scene. Therefore they are all romantically fanciful and at variance with one another. Any intelligent reader will see through the whole game. Suresh Chakravarty who was another witness present at the actual scene and took a leading part with Majumdar in guiding Sri Aurobindo to the Ghat gave us as long ago as the nineteen twenties in A.B. Purani’s Evening Talks — published later on — the same authentic account as recorded by Sri Aurobindo in the nineteen-forties. Hence Basu’s plea that events which had happened long ago could not be remembered in the forties does not stand.

Besides, we do not understand why, even if Nivedita had given the suggestion, Sri Aurobindo could not have received the command from Above at the same time.

There are many other major and minor points of difference. In fact the whole article is an attempt to show these differences and to imply deftly that Nivedita was in the right.

They are not, however, my main topics. The truth will be adjudged by time. It is the difference between Sri Aurobindo and Nivedita on the religious-cum-political plane which the writer has brought out that has a great significance for us. It gives us a glimpse of Nivedita’s fundamental outlook and bears out Sri Aurobindo’s remark that she had a Western mind. I think Vivekananda also at one time held the same view.

I found a typical instance of this mind of hers in an article written by Dinesh Chandra Sen, a renowned historian of Bengali literature. He wanted to translate his work into English and asked for Nivedita’s help. She readily agreed. When the chapter dealing with Mangala Kavya, part of the ancient literature of Bengal, came up, Dr Sen, faithful to the text, had to send one of the two queens into exile in the forest at the command of the king. The queen was quite innocent and suffered much at the hands of the other queen who had actually incited the king to exile her. She bore all her distress and suffering with the right attitude. In fact, she was a goddess fallen from heaven because of a curse for some serious fault, and was supposed to return there after her long expiation through suffering. Although knowing all this, Nivedita insisted that the episode must be left out, for it was not fair: western readers would not understand it and would have a wrong impression of India. Dr. Sen tried hard to make her understand that he would falsify tradition by cutting it out and submitted many other reasons. But she was adamant and gave an ultimatum that unless it was left out, she would wash her hands of the undertaking. Poor Dr. Sen had to comply.

Sri Aurobindo had, however, a high esteem for Nivedita on several grounds and has told us India cannot be too grateful to her for what she did for our country.

To continue our theme: here is what Basu says: “After her return from Europe [in 1909] Nivedita warned Sri Aurobindo not to speak openly in meetings [about Boycott, etc.] But she saw that he believed himself to be inspired by God. (She had not learnt by then about Sri Aurobindo’s vision of Vasudeva in the jail.) Nivedita did indeed believe in divine inspiration, but conceived at the same time like Voltaire that some small doses of arsenic poison of practical wisdom added to the political work make it more effective. She did not consider politics to be a purely spiritual matter and, to her, Sri Aurobindo, in spite of his spiritual fervour, was no more than a revolutionary leader. Therefore she could not suppress a little laughter at his attitude. Then the writer quotes her own words: “new paper called Karmayogin has come out in place of Bande Mataram. Aurobindo is lecturing widely — I think unwisely. But he believes himself divinely impelled and therefore not to be arrested. Of course, many of us do strange things, for reasons known only to ourselves. We care [for] no other. But certainly God gives no promise of indemnity! Joan of Arc is a perpetual witness to the contrary. It is when we have suffered all that we sometimes say, ‘Yes, my voices are of God.’ Meanwhile, religious experience and strategy are by no means the same thing and ought not to be confused.”

Coming from Nivedita, this is a very surprising statement. We hear an echo of the Moderate Party in it. That religious experience and strategy are not the same thing at present is self-evident. Whether they can be made one — in other words, whether spirituality can take up politics — is the question. Sri Aurobindo’s view is that it can and he has shown it. But before entering into the discussion, let us try to understand and interpret Nivedita’s statement which appears to us not a little puzzling. What does she mean by “He believes himself divinely impelled and therefore not to be arrested”? First of all, it was not merely a belief. After his major experience, in the jail, of cosmic consciousness and the seeing of Krishna everywhere, not to speak of his earlier Nirvanic experience, he said that he was being guided by Krishna and that he had surrendered himself entirely to His guidance. He would therefore be ready for any eventuality. Therefore the question of arrest does not arise. Sri Aurobindo was even sure that he would be declared innocent in the Alipore Bomb case. If he raised that point in his speeches, we are not aware of it. Quoting further the example of Joan of Arc Nivedita states: “God gives no promise of indemnity.” Does it mean that Joan of Arc misguidedly believed that God had promised security to her? As far as we know she did not expect any such promise nor did Sri Aurobindo for himself.

Then follows Nivedita’s philosophic reflection which is devoid of a clear meaning. Does it suggest that only when, after a great suffering, we look back we realise that the suffering was intended by God? The lives of saints and sadhus do not bear out that point. At least Sri Aurobindo confesses that he was at every step led by the Divine. So was Ramakrishna. I believe. Now comes the astounding generalisation, almost an admonition: “Religious experience and strategy are not the same thing and ought not to be confused.”

This view challenges and contradicts Sri Aurobindo’s own conception and practice of politics. Not only his politics, his entire philosophy of yoga stands convicted. I may go farther and add that it goes against the very Indian conception of politics. It is particularly the Western view and, followed to its logical conclusion, it will lead us to Mayavada. Spirituality must voyage all alone seeking its own release in God and the world must be left bound to its wheels of Karma, as has been done for centuries. Or if it is at all taken up, the arsenic of practical wisdom in small doses must be added to spirituality.

One can quite understand that if a traditional yogi, having no political sense and considering life as Maya, takes up politics he is bound to land himself and the country in utter ruin. Perhaps Nivedita’s dictum is aimed at such people. But since the utterance was made with reference to Sri Aurobindo, it cannot be denied that he had enough political sense and that he had gained sufficient experience of the country, people and the Government before he launched into politics, not like Nivedita about whom Vivekananda was supposed to have said at one time, “What does she know of India and Indian politics that she would go into politics?”

Now, Sri Aurobindo holds strongly and has shown by his own example that spirituality can take up politics and that a politician should take up spirituality to transform politics. Otherwise the latter will ever remain a field of dark and dangerous forces and humanity will be ruled and dominated by them. Let us present his view, albeit at length, of the matter. He says: “My whole life and Yoga since my coming to India has always been both this-worldly and other-worldly without any exclusiveness on either side. All human interests are, I suppose, this-worldly and most of them have entered into my mental field and some, like politics, into my life, but at the same time, since I set foot on the Indian soil on the Apollo Bunder in Bombay, I began to have spiritual experiences, but these were not divorced from this world but had an inner and infinite bearing on it, such as a feeling of the Infinite pervading material space and the Immanent inhabiting material objects and bodies. At the same time, I found myself entering supraphysical worlds and planes with influences and an effect from them upon the material plane, so I could make no sharp divorce or irreconcilable opposition between what I have called the two ends of existence and all that lies between them. For me, all is Brahman and I find the Divine everywhere…. In my yoga I found myself moved to include both worlds in my purview — the spiritual and the material — and to try to establish the Divine Consciousness and the Divine Power in men’s hearts and earthly life, not for a personal salvation only, but for a life divine here. This seems to me as spiritual an aim as any and the fact of this life taking up earthly pursuits and earthly things into its scope cannot, I believe, tarnish its spirituality and alter its Indian character. This at least has always been my view and experience of the reality and nature of the world and things and the Divine.”

At another place he writes in the third person: “The very principle of his yoga was not only to realise the Divine and attain to a complete spiritual consciousness but also to take up all life and all world-activity into the scope of this spiritual consciousness and action and to base life on the Spirit…. In his retirement Sri Aurobindo kept a close watch on all that was happening in the world and in India.” We may note that Sri Aurobindo came out directly for the Cripps Proposals, even though he had withdrawn from the political field for a higher purpose.

It will be interesting to observe how Sri Aurobindo who said once, “For me, the country first and the rest nowhere,” was induced to take up yoga and how the two fields, politics and yoga, so different and alien to each other in appearance, could become (used in him and with what aim he combined the two disparate professions.

When he wrote the famous articles in Indu Prakash in 1894 I believe he had no intention of doing yoga; even when he had the striking spiritual experience as soon as he landed at Apollo Bunder, Yoga was far from his mind. He had three other experiences, but “these were inner experiences”, he said, “coming of themselves and with a sudden unexpectedness, not part of sadhana.” When his friends in Baroda prompted him to take up yoga, he refused because he thought that yoga was life negating and he was not willing to give up life and politics.

These are his words, “… I did not know what God was. Deshpande at that time was doing Hatha Yoga, Asana and other such kriyas and as he had a great proselytising tendency he wanted to convert me to his view. But I thought that a yoga which required me to give up the world was not for me. I had to liberate my country; I took to it seriously when I learnt that the same tapasya which one does to get away from the world can be turned to action. I learnt that yoga gives power and I thought why the devil should I not get the power and use it to liberate my country?… It was the time of ‘country first, humanity afterwards and the rest nowhere.’ It was something from behind which got the idea accepted by the mind, mine was a side-door entry into the spiritual life.”

Along with his practice of pranayam, he started his secret revolutionary work, continued his official duties in Baroda till he left his service and came over to Bengal to join openly the political movement. He became editor of the Bande Mataram at the same time. The pressure of work increased so much that his pranayam became irregular, he fell seriously ill and was on the point of being “carried off”! We have no precise idea as to how far his public and secret activities had been influenced by his yoga, or were they two separate streams running side by side without any connection between them? The accounts given by him do suggest, however, some indirect influence of yoga on his public activities. He sums up the result thus: “My experience is that the brain becomes Prakashmaya — full of light. When I was practising pranayam at Baroda, the mind worked with great illumination and power. At that time I used to write poetry five or ten lines a day. After the pranayam, I could write two hundred lines within half an hour. I could write prose and poetry with a flow. That flow has never ceased. I grew stout and strong, the skin became smooth and fair and there was a flow of sweetness in the saliva. I used to feel a certain aura around the head….”

Apparently, these results have very little to do with his political activity, but the increased health and outflow of energy, especially the power and great flow of writing in the Bande Mataram columns, must be attributed however partially to the power of pranayam.

In 1905 when the partition of Bengal was announced, Sri Aurobindo wrote from Baroda to the revolutionary workers in Calcutta. “This is a fine opportunity. Carry on the anti-partition agitation powerfully. We will get many workers for the movement.” It was around this time that Sri Aurobindo wrote his famous revolutionary booklet Bhawani Mandir. There we find that the revolutionary movement must be based on the cult of Shakti. Politics which has been so long a secular movement was given a religious or spiritual turn. Sri Aurobindo speaks of India’s greater need of spiritual regeneration. He says, “All great awakenings in India, all her periods of mightiness and most varied vigours had drawn their vitality from the fountainheads of some deep religious awakening… The persistence of this phenomenon is proof that it is ingrained in the temperament of the race. If you try other and foreign methods we shall either gain our end with tedious slowness, painfully and imperfectly, or we shall not attain it at all.”

Again, near about this time Sri Aurobindo wrote a letter to his wife Mrinalini where for the first time he speaks of three madnesses, and his turn towards God or spirituality comes to the forefront. “By whatever means,” he says, “I must have the direct vision of God, must meet him face to face. Within a month I am experiencing in myself the signs of which [the Hindu religion] speaks.”

The next madness is that he looks upon his country as the Mother; he adores, he worships her as the Mother. At a later time he wrote in a letter: “… I am not a materialist. If I had seen India as only a geographical area with a number of more or less interesting people in it, I would hardly have gone out of my way to do all that for the said area.” In another letter to Mrinalini, Sri Aurobindo speaks of his utter surrender to the Divine and that he had no individual will since the surrender. He would go in whatever direction of activity the Divine led him. In fact, in his talks in the nineteen-twenties as well as in a letter he says that he was led into politics by the divine Command.

We have traced the history of Sri Aurobindo’s yogic life in order to show that all through his political activities his yoga was also being pursued with equal sincerity and vigour. Whatever may have been the practical results of his yoga in politics, he was not a politician of the current conception, but a yogi politician. And it was when he was involved in the whirlpool of politics that he had the crowning experience of Nirvana, not in retirement as happened in Buddha’s case and in those of many other yogis. This could not but be a culmination of his long yogic practice along with his worldly activities — a thing unheard-of before. This demonstrates at once what Sri Aurobindo has professed as his principle that there need not be any opposition between the two fields. It would be naive to contend that his spirituality had no effect on politics. It is well-known fact that he raised politics and the political movement to what has been called Religion of Nationalism and his vivid perception of India as the Divine Mother herself was at the root of this new approach. That is what he has indicated in his booklet Bhawani Mandir. In his actions, writings and speeches he has insistently and untiringly reminded the people of our country that God was the leader of the movement and that it was His force that was acting among them. From the Bande Mataram columns this was the mantric force that went abroad and created the great awakening in Bengal and in India. If Nivedita fell under the spell of those fiery writings and wanted them “to be kept bound in a volume”, it was because their inspiration came from the divine source. As was the writing, so was the man. One single person lifted up the whole race. This was the common evidence of all his illustrious contemporaries. Rabindranath has translated into a living expression the Truth that he saw in Sri Aurobindo. Lastly, Sri Aurobindo himself has reiterated to us that all his achievements spiritual or otherwise were the results of Yoga. As to what is Yoga and what transformations it brings about in life is a matter of common knowledge in India. Only that it can be applied effectively in politics was left to Sri Aurobindo to demonstrate. After this exposition what would be the meaning of Basu’s statement that to Nivedita “Sri Aurobindo, in spite of his spiritual fervour, was no more than a revolutionary leader”? If so, one can understand why Nivedita “could not suppress a little laughter.”

By the way, Sankari Prasad’s story, that Sri Aurobindo was attracted to yoga by Vivekananda’s book Raja yoga offered to him by Nivedita during her visit to Baroda, cannot be accepted as true, for, if it had been true, Sri Aurobindo who had so great a reverence for Vivekananda would have certainly related it.

Thus “he started yoga by himself without a Guru, getting the rule from a friend; it was confined at first to assiduous practice of pranayam (at one time for 6 hours or more a day). There was no conflict or wavering between yoga and politics; when he started yoga, he carried on both without any idea of opposition between them. He met a Naga Sannyasi in the course of this search, and he was confirmed by him in a belief in yoga-power when he saw him cure Barin, in almost a moment, of a violent and clinging hill-fever by merely cutting through a glassful of water crosswise with a knife while he repeated a silent mantra. Barin drank and was cured. He also met Brahmananda and was greatly impressed by him, but he had no helper or Guru in yoga till he met Lele.

But he kept his yoga all to himself. Very few persons except his close associates knew about his inner life. It was only after his experience of Nirvana that he made it known. To quote his own words, “From the time I left Lele, I had accepted the rule of following the inner guidance implicitly and moving only as I was moved by the Divine. The spiritual development in the jail has turned it into an absolute law of the being….” Such a categorical statement leaves no room for doubt that for the two years after this experience Sri Aurobindo was guided and moved by the Divine even in whatever he did in politics and life. Nirvanic experience being almost the summit-realisation of one of the traditional paths — one can imagine that Sri Aurobindo lived always in its high divine consciousness and that it created by the stilling of the mind the condition in which all his movements flowed from a beyond-mind Power. Anyone who has perused his speeches after 1908 and those who have heard them were profoundly struck by their new tone and the new vision held forth in them. This became much more intense and pervasive after his second major experience, that of Vasudeva, in the jail, but it would be baffling to those who were used to move in the field of the mind and reason.

I venture to suggest that such was the case with Nivedita. With all her brilliance of mind and sincerity of purpose, there was a wide gulf of consciousness between herself and Sri Aurobindo so that very often she misunderstood his ways and purpose. There I presume was the crux of their differences. If my surmise is accepted, then her utterances I have quoted before appear no longer surprising. If she had realised fully the significance of Sri Aurobindo’s Vasudeva experience, I believe her reaction would have been different.

The fact of her not having any inkling of Sri Aurobindo’s inner condition is in a way understandable. For, Sri Aurobindo has said that their association was restricted to the political field and his manner of living and going about like a man of the world may have veiled his true personality. Still, if Ramsay Macdonald, Nevinson and others could speak of his spiritual or mystic atmosphere and of his patriotism as a mystic doctrine, Nivedita should have been in a position to do likewise.

This mystic doctrine, the nationalism that Sri Aurobindo spiritualised, was the dynamic cause of the awakening in Bengal. Almost all the great leaders of the time perceived something of the glowing spiritual fire and dynamism of his personality and hailed him with one voice “as the brightest star in the political firmament of India” and “the voice incarnate, free, of India’s soul”. Tagore’s magnificent tribute was given not to the revolutionary leader so much as to the chosen instrument of the Divine. Not only was Sri Aurobindo himself a yogi, many prominent leaders were also yogis or disciples of yogis. And the awakening was so tremendous that had it been any other country there would have been a great revolution.

Sri Aurobindo’s politics, as we have stated, was not of the western type. He followed our true Indian tradition in which politics is considered as a part of Dharma. It was called Rajdharma and the kings and rulers of India sought the advice of the Rishis in all matters of life, politics included. Not so long ago, Shivaji, disciple of Ramdas, ruled, fought and conquered, inspired by his great Guru. Sri Aurobindo’s principle and vision were to revive the Indian tradition and his dream was to “apply the ancient ideal of the Sanatana Dharma, as it has never been applied before, to the problem of politics and the work of national revival. To realise that ideal, to impart it to the world is the mission of India. She has evolved a religion which embraces all that the heart, the brain, the practical faculty of man can desire, but she has not yet applied it to the problems of modern politics. This therefore is the work which she has still to do before she can help humanity.”

We have before us the shining example of Sri Krishna the Avatar, which utterly demolishes Nivedita’s dictum that spirituality and strategy are two things apart. Farther, at the other extreme, Joan of Arc, who did not know the A.B.C. of politics and was just a shepherd girl without any practical wisdom, was commanded by the Divine to liberate France and was guided at every step till victory was won.

Here are two instances which disprove Nivedita’s and Basu’s utterances. I do not need to discuss separately Basu’s statement of Nivedita’s views. For one thing, it is too involved and, for another, it may not be authentic. Sri Aurobindo has shown by his own glorious example how spirituality can take up politics. If nothing else, one thing is undeniable. His entry into politics raised it into a higher and purer atmosphere and so long as he was in the field it seemed as if a truth and Light of the Divine Consciousness had been brought down into the life of the people and politics had changed its old Machiavellian character.

This was Sri Aurobindo mission in politics. The Mother said that life is one, but because India made the division between life and spirit her fall began. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother came to bridge the two and that is the gospel of The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga and the epic Savitri.

(Mother India, December 1983)

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