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Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy of Nationalism and It’s Contemporary Relevance

Abstract

There has been in recent decades very substantial work done on the concept of a nation, nationality and nationalism. In spite of the world coming together on many fronts—particularly, economy and a multicultural habitat formations especially in Europe and North America—these ideas remain politically volatile. In modern times, the idea of a nation has become powerfully associated with the idea of the state and the two notions are frequently used almost interchangeably. If among the emotional ties that form the basis of the idea of a nation, we add a strong sense of belonging to a specific culture with its own history, traditions and the sharing of ethical and aesthetic values—it may quite naturally lead to the idea of one-nation, one-state and one culture. Such indeed has been a trend in the European concept of the idea of a nation of the 18th, 19th and partly of the twentieth century. However, same cannot be said about Indian nation. If we closely look at the growth of Indian nationalism in the backdrop of anti-colonial movement and formation of Indian state after gaining independence, we find lack of unanimity among thinkers. This paper explores the growth of Indian Nationalism and formation of Indian Nation through the eyes of one of the most seminal contemporary Indian thinkers Sri Aurobindo.

Throughout the history of mankind, there have been certain movements rather events which even the social scientists hesitate to enumerate. One such phenomenon is nationalism. Nationalism itself is a complicated notion which no two scholars, historians or social scientists can ever agree upon a single definition. In concise, one can assert that nationalism came into existence roughly after the French revolution and subsequently, the idea of having prominent nations was conceptualised from thereon.

The term ‘nationalism’ was probably first used in print media in 1789 by an anti-Jacobin French priest, Augustin Barruel and since then there has been no such term which has been so widely and intensely used and is debated upon, right from the days of Hegel, Mazzini and Renan down to Gellner, Smith and Anderson. One of the reasons as to why nationalism has been time and again able to draw the attention of the academicians could be that nationalism much like Marxism has been a theory of praxis, a mass-moving ideology.

There has been in recent decades very substantial work done on the concept of a nation, nationality and nationalism. In spite of the world coming together on many fronts—particularly, economy and a multicultural habitat formations especially in Europe and North America—these ideas remain politically volatile. A preliminary idea of nation may be stated as follows: Nation is a human collective—some say, only imaginary,—bound together by strong emotional bonds which involve emotions and feelings like love, pride, ownership, belonging together: these bonds become the basis of a fairly strong sense of identity which distinguishes it from other such identities. In modern times, the idea of a nation has become powerfully associated with the idea of the state, and the two notions are frequently used almost interchangeably. If among the emotional ties that form the basis of the idea of a nation, we add a strong sense of belonging to a specific culture with its own history, traditions and the sharing of ethical and aesthetic values—it may quite naturally lead to the idea of one-nation, one-state and one culture. Such indeed has been a trend in the European concept of the idea of a nation of the 18th, 19th and partly of the twentieth century. Names of philosophers of great eminence such as Rousseau, Herder, Fichte, Nietzsche, Hegel are associated with this trend—although much of this association may be erroneous in different ways. But the trend culminated in the horrible political experiment of Nazism in Europe, and there is now a great deal of moral and intellectual scepticism about the idea of one state, one nation and one culture.

Colonialism in Asia and Africa saw an unimaginable political, economic and cultural upheaval in these continents. Territories were brought together or separated primarily for the purpose of economic and political advantage of the colonial masters, with little or no thought to the underlying unities, allegiances, cultural and ethical forms and the pre-existing economic and productive relations. Added to this was the near complete intellectual and ethical hegemony imposed on the colonised minds. Emotionally, intellectually, politically and economically battered post-colonial societies had the unenviable task of seeking new unities, new economic relations, new political equations and new moral priorities so that they could live with dignity and self-respect in the modern world.

The idea of a nation, crucial as it was, in the new political thinking of the societies now free from colonial powers, had to be reshaped in order to address the challenges of the new contingencies that arose in the wake of the freedom gained. The idea was crucial because it had the potential along with its political ramifications to enable these societies to live with human dignity, self-confidence and a sense of equality with other well established politically independent entities of the world. If we take countries of Asian subcontinent, especially South Asian and Southeast Asian countries such as—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka—each of these has sought its own idea of nationhood with greater or less success. One might even say that for some of them nation-building is still a process—as it were, a work in progress.

Though the terms- nation, state, country, ethnicity have their own meaning, yet in the modern times their meanings have been conceptualised within the framework of what we now understand by “postnational”. The notion of a nation is inseparable in today’s political framework which is quite distinct from the classical “state of nature”.

The concept of a nation is of a fairly recent origin, and, perhaps, a gift of the west to the world. It implies a unity which goes beyond the merely political, linguistic, or even cultural unity—it strongly suggests a bond founded on a sense of emotional solidarity and common sympathy, strengthened, no doubt, by ideas of the “sovereign” State and territoriality. There is perhaps no nation in the world that is not marked by divisions of a more or less sharp kind—linguistic, cultural, religious and so on. It is also part of the idea of a nation that it is a good thing that people and communities are able to transcend such divisions to unite within the rubric of a nation.

Modern nationalism in Europe came to be associated with the formation of nation-states. This necessitated a change in people’s understanding of who they were, and what defined their identity and sense of belonging. New symbols and icons, new songs of revival and ideas were forged into making of new links, which redefined the boundaries of communities. In maximum of the countries, this change in making of a new national identity was a long process. Therefore, how did this consciousness emerge in India is a question to be pondered upon?

One of the prominent view see the formation of Indian Nation in the background of anti-colonial movement which took place in late nineteenth and twentieth century. They believe in India and many other colonies, the growth of modern nationalism is intimately connected to the anti-colonial movement. People began discovering their unity in the process of their struggle with colonialism. The sense of being oppressed under colonialism provided a shared bond that tied many different groups together. But each class and group felt the effects of colonialism differently, their experiences were different, and their notions of freedom were not always the same. However, opposed to this view there was a section who believed that India was always a nation. Sri Aurobindo was one amongst them.

Relevance of Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo was a fascinating figure-a revolutionary patriot, a philosopher and a yogi who devoted himself to transforming the human condition. From Sri Aurobindo one can find insights that throw light on many fundamental issues that pre-occupy our times. It is significant here to note the centrality of the idea of integration in his life and work. Sri Aurobindo dismantles conflicts and harmonizes binaries such as that of the West and East, English and the Indian languages, Religion and Secularism, pacifism and militancy, Nationalism and Internationalism. This perhaps explains his relevance to our times, characterized as they are, by so many binaries and conflicts. Before one can begin to discuss the different aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy it is important to note the division between the two periods in his life that somewhat divided the nature of his philosophical concerns. In the period between the times that he came back to India in 1893 and 1910 Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively on the freedom struggle, on swaraj and on the regeneration of India.

Sri Aurobindo, one of the greatest exponents of Indian nationalism, was born Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose in Calcutta on 15 August 1872. He was educated in England from the age of seven and came back to India in 1893. His father, Dr. Krishnadhan Ghosh, was a Civil Surgeon. Swarnalotta Devi was his mother. In 1890 he got scholarship for classics and entered King's College, Cambridge. While staying in Cambridge, he gets himself involved with an organisation of Indian students—the Cambridge Majlis—founded in 1891 and became its secretary. He also joined a 'secret' society, ‘the Lotus and Dagger’ founded by some Indian students and took oath for the freedom of India. During this time the Italian nationalists, especially Mazzini, was quite popular in Cambridge. It is likely that Aurobindo was very much influenced by them. Even, on Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnel, Aurobindo wrote the poem in 1891.

This period was an important episode in Aurobindo’s life. With the new found political visions, he gave up an opportunity to join the British civil service. At the age of 21 he returned to India in 1893. Inspite of his father’s extreme efforts to keep his him aloof from Indian matters, Aurobindo paid his deep interests in Indian politics soon after he arrived in India after staying abroad for over fourteen years. He started in the Survey Settlement Department as an attaché for learning the work. Then he was shifted to various departments until towards the end of 1895 he joined the Dewan's office or the Secretariat where he remained for the next few years. In 1904 Sri Aurobindo was made the Vice-Principal of the Baroda College and in 1905 he became the acting Principal. In 1906 he became the principal of National College, Calcutta, but resigned from his job and joined national movement. He took up numbers of journals and periodicals like the ‘Jugantar’, the ‘Bande Mataram’ and the ‘Karmayogi’ to popularise his thoughts on Indian nationalism. On the charge of Alipore Bomb conspiracy he was arrested in 1908 and was acquitted in 1909 after a long trial. After his release he took sojourn to complete spirituality and left active politics. As a yogi he passed his later life in Pondicherry till 1950.

In the words of Dr S. Radhakrishnan: ‘Aurobindo was the greatest intellectual of our age and major force for the life of the spirit. India will not forget his services to politics and philosophy and the world will remember with gratitude, his invaluable work in the realm of philosophy and religion’.

The relevance of Aurobindo’s thought could be summarized into his ideas of spiritual nationalism, ideas of freedom, ideals of passive resistance and his world visions. Sri Aurobindo believed that there is a divining line between 'national ego' and' nation-soul' national ego stands for a kind of correlative attributes of subjectivity while nation-soul remains at the heart and core of belongingness to one and another. Therefore, national ego makes a kind of hindrance towards boarder unification; nation-soul integrates the world of humanity into one. National ego sometimes may become quite aggressive like German imperialism and at a time self protective too. Self protection in an extent embodies the sense of superiority and supremacy over others and it influences the nations to become more aggressive and dominating over the other nations. For Sri Aurobindo nationalism means a religion which comes from the God, not a mere political idea or programme. In fact Aurobindo always dealt with the idea of spiritual principles of nationalism however, he did not reject the other factors necessary for the development of national consciousness. Aurobindo always visualized nationalism in terms of human unity and realization of the soul. It was that patriotism which generates love for works for the better welfare of humanity. In no way it could be chauvinism or regionalism because it leads the nation towards the highest level of amalgamation of minds. Conglomeration of human minds might be taken as the starting point from where Aurobindo’s ideas on spiritual nationalism take off. Nationalism itself is a religion. It embodies both the tradition spiritual disciplinary practices as well as social and political movements. This nationalism integrates modern notions of nationalism or political impendence with that of spiritual salvation or moksha. In doing this Aurobindo incorporated the ideas of self rule, self help, education, revolution and other modern concepts with the traditional Hindu concept of sadhana and its a process which would take time to grow to its fullest strength in India.

Sri Aurobindo started his political carrier with the aggressive view to remove the British imperial footprints from the holy land of India. He adopted certain indigenous ways of protest which became hallmark of freedom struggle in due course of time. His political lifespan was very short and soon he became spiritual. Within few years of his new avatar he became one of the harbingers of India’s classical spiritualism. He also stressed on global peace through developing good human souls. In contemporary era, we have witnessed prevailing culture of global anarchy and violence. Aurobindo’s thoughts are therefore not only relevant for India but for the globe. Today our culture is confronting the onslaught of western influence. Sri Aurobindo is relevant for promotion of our culture within this prevailing era of globalization. The debate over nationalism is also intensified since last few years, and he remains our one of the best teachers to understand the indigenous module of nationalism.

Sri Aurobindo’s ‘Indian Sprit’

As we have already mentioned that there were various thinkers who believes idea of Indian nation has nothing to do with its formation in the background of colonial rule. They believe that the idea of India was there prior to colonial rule. However, it lost its glory which needs to be identified. As per Coomaraswamy “two essentials of nationality there are,—a geographical unity, and a common historic evolution or culture. These two India possesses superabundantly, beside many lesser unities which strengthen the historical tradition” (Coomaraswamy 1909 [2011]: 69).

There is a presumption of existence of Indian nation prior to its modern formation. As he further states:

“The fact of India’s geographical unity is apparent on the map, and is never, I think, disputed. The recognition of social unity is at least as evident to the student of Indian culture. The idea has been grasped more than once by individual rulers,—As ̇oka, Vikramāditya and Akbar. It was recognized before the Mahābhārata was written; when Yudhishtira performed the Rājasuya sacrifice on the occasion of his inauguration as sovereign, a great assembly (sabhā— simply the gam-sabhāva, or village council on a larger scale) was held, and to this assembly came Bhīma, Dhritarashtra and his hundred sons, Subala (King of Gandhāra), etc....and others from the extreme south and north (Dravida, Ceylon and Kashmir). In legends, too, we meet with references to councils or motes of the gods, held in the Himalayas, whither they repaired to further common ends. No one can say that any such idea as that of a Federated States of India is altogether foreign to the Indian mind” (Ibid.).

Hence,

“The whole of Indian culture is so pervaded with this idea of India as THE LAND, that it has never been necessary to insist upon it overmuch, for no one could have supposed it otherwise” (Ibid.: 70).

Sri Aurobindo echoes the similar sentiments about Indian nation. He says “The beginnings of the centripetal tendency in India go back to the earliest times of which we have record and are typified in the ideal of the Samrat or Chakravarti Raja and the military and political use of the Aswamedha and Rajasuya sacrifices. The two great national epics might almost have been written to illustrate this theme; for the one recounts the establishment of a unifying dharmarajya or imperial reign of justice, the other starts with an idealised description of such a rule pictured as once existing in the ancient and sacred past of the country” Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 2002b, Vol. 25: 308). He further elaborates about the emergence of nation and writes “The political history of India is the story of a succession of empires, indigenous and foreign, each of them destroyed by centrifugal forces, but each bringing the centripetal tendency nearer to its triumphant emergence. And it is a significant circumstance that the more foreign the rule, the greater has been its force for the unification of the subject people. This is always a sure sign that the essential nation-unit is already there and that there is an indissoluble national vitality necessitating the inevitable emergence of the organised nation. In this instance, we see that the conversion of the psychological unity on which nationhood is based into the external organised unity by which it is perfectly realised, has taken a period of more than two thousand years and is not yet complete” (Ibid., 308).

However, Sri Aurobindo “develops a narrative of Indian unity and identity in a slightly different register …while Aurobindo agrees with Coomaraswamy that the foundation of India’s identity is to be found in its spiritual link to its Vedic past, he emphasizes neither geographical continuity nor a history of the interdependence of distinct Indian cultures, but rather a persistent spiritual orientation that expresses itself in each embodiment of actual Indian culture” (Bhushan & Garfield, 2011b: 5).

Sri Aurobindo put it differently and says “For what is a nation? What is our mother-country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty Shakti, composed of the Shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation, just as Bhawani Mahisha- Mardini sprang into being from the Shaktis of all the millions of gods assembled in one mass of force and welded into unity. The Shakti we call India, Bhawani Bharati, is the living unity of the Shaktis of three hundred millions of people; but she is inactive, imprisoned in the magic circle of tamas, the self-indulgent inertia and ignorance of her sons. To get rid of tamas we have but to wake the Brahma within. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 2002a, Vol. 6–7: 83).

Sri Aurobindo states: “Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation; to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility. Such attempts are foredoomed to disappointment and failure; yet when the disappointment and failure come, we choose to attribute them to some radical defect in the national character, as if the nation were at fault and not its wise men who would not or could not understand the first elementary conditions of success. The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the free habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude. The second is the organization of the national will in a strong central authority”. (Ibid., 267). He rejects westerns ideas about formation of a nation and enlists essential features of nation. He writes: “That unity in race, religion or language is essential to nationality is an idea which will not bear examination. Such elements of unity are very helpful to the growth of a nationality, but they are not essential and will not even of themselves assure its growth” (Ibid., 642). Sri Aurobindo then tries to answer the question “If these are not essential elements of nationality, what, it may be asked, are the essential elements?” Ibid., 643). According to him “there are certain essential conditions, geographical unity, a common past, a powerful common interest impelling towards unity and certain favourable political conditions which enable the impulse to realise itself in an organised government expressing the nationality and perpetuating its single and united existence. This may be provided by a part of the nation, a race or community, uniting the others under its leadership or domination, or by an united resistance to a common pressure from outside or within. A common enthusiasm coalescing with a common interest is the most powerful fosterer of nationality” (Ibid.). Sri Aurobindo puts a strong sentiment about the formation of Indian nation, he says “…inspired by a common enthusiasm and ideal, that united nationality for which the whole history of India has been a preparation, will be speedily and mightily accomplished”. (Ibid.)

While answering the question about nationalism he writes “Nationalism is not a mere political programme; Nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed in which you shall have to live. Let no man dare to call himself a Nationalist if he does so merely with a sort of intellectual pride, thinking that he is more patriotic, thinking that he is something higher than those who do not call themselves by that name. If you are going to be a Nationalist, if you are going to assent to this religion of Nationalism, you must do it in the religious spirit. You must remember that you are the instrument of God for the salvation of your own country. You must live as the instruments of God”. (Vol. 6–7, p. 818–19). He goes on to say “Nationalism is immortal; Nationalism cannot die, because it is no human thing. It is God… God cannot be killed, God cannot be sent to jail. (Ibid., 819).

Writing in the early twentieth century Aurobindo Ghosh discerned that India was at the cusp of a transformation and therefore exhorted that the transformation should take the shape of an Indian renaissance. According to him Indian Renaissance was necessary to re-awakening of Indian spirit. Sri Aurobindo “depicts the Indian renaissance as a ‘reawakening’ rather than what he characterizes as an ‘overturn’ or ‘reversal’ in the renaissance of Europe” (Bhushan & Garfield, 2011a: xvi).

Sri Aurobindo highlights the historical processes and then now knowledge systems that emerge from it in this land. The evolution of philosophical systems grounded on paradigm is different from the West; philosophical systems that are not in just independent and its own, but also that hold influence over other parts of the world. He argues that it is from those extensive, rigorous and profound philosophical systems that more thought tangible, real forms of life and order emerges incorporating art, science, philosophy, maths, sensory knowledge systems, etc. in this intricately into the everyday life of the individual the two that is the life of an individual and the spiritual philosophical systems do not exist in isolation but are a result of being keenly tied to each other. Sri Aurobindo was one amongst them who believed that it is post a certain period in history when such vitality and grip on its intellectual spiritual grounding is lost to its people soon after which and because of which the ‘European adventure’ is made possible.

Sri Aurobindo dreams out the long and complex history of what India is in the beginning of his paper “Renaissance in India” (1918/2011) in order to bring to the memory of its reader a past that is alive and thriving. It is during this period, I believe that the memory of past and a self that was once more that hole is lost: both as a result of an absence of a strong enough grip on it and the corrosive influence of imperialism and colonialism on history. It is like an amnesiac getting misled because it has no other way of knowing who it really is. This is the first reaction of the Indian people on encountering the west and the second that follows then is a rejection to it that also comes from a miss understanding of its own past.

Sri Aurobindo talks about his concept of Indian culture and Indian spirit. According to him Indian culture or a spirit has three pillars or powers—Spirituality (concerning the spirit), Intellectuality (mind) and Vitality (life and body). Unlike the nationalistic platitudes or distant understanding of some scholars that label the country spiritual or other such things, Sri Aurobindo focuses on building a more serious and substantial understanding of the “Self of India” and argues that it is from these that are that one will be able to look at the West and other influences; and only from this strong and clear “Self” it can assimilate more knowledge and evolve.

One can read this in the presence of two kinds of polarity is one that of an aggressive nationalistic rejection of the West and the other in an equally passionate acceptance of its forms, systems, philosophies and values through forgetting of the self and its history. He writes,

“India can best develop herself and serve humanity by being her- self...This does not mean, as some blindly and narrowly suppose, the rejection of everything new that comes to us... [that] happens to have been first developed or powerfully expressed by the West. Such an attitude would be intellectually absurd, physically impossible, and above all unspiritual; true spirituality rejects no new light, no added means or materials of our human self-development. It means simply to keep our center… and assimilate to it all we receive, and evolve out of it all we do and create” (Sri Aurobindo, 1918 [2011]: 64).

Sri Aurobindo’s concept of re-awakening of Indian spirit was criticised on various grounds firstly it is alleged that the idea of Indian renaissance propounded by Sri Aurobindo is taken from Irish Renaissance which also talked about how to achieve independence through spiritual patriotism and there should be solidarity among anticolonial countries. Secondly, that these example made us understand the lived experiences of intellectual of that time but in twenty-first century modern era one has to look at both modernity as well as past. I end with a point that Sri Aurobindo gives an unique and interesting account of formation of Indian ‘sprit’, however, it has largely been ignored by academia at large.

Concluding Remarks

The world has surely moved ahead from an era where merely uniting as a nation-state is only an aim. This is an era where global unity of humanity is needed. Indian Nationalism propounded by Sri Aurobindo is actually unravels this in greater way. In other words, the Indian tradition of nationalism had synergy with international humanitarianism, which is rare. One could not find this spiritual synergy in nationalism and internationalism in such a delicate way. Sri Aurobindo perceived entire humanity as one and follows the ancient Indian tradition of ‘Vasudev Kutubmkam’. Global peace is at stake today despite massive physical progress. Violence has become order of the day and it has transcended both in developed and developing societies. In this backdrop, his views are strong enough to bring peace. Sri Aurobindo gave his views from nationalism to spiritualism. In fact perhaps he is maiden person who shifted from politics to spiritualism. He understood core of Indian culture and tried his level best to replicate it in contemporary context. He was one of the important depositories of our cultural heritage. India has achieved many significant milestones after seven decades of its independence. At the same time, contemporary India is confronting gamut of burning issues. Aurobindo’s thoughts are extremely relevant in contemporary context. His ideas could be facilitator of our cultural heritage and strengthens India as a global guru of peace and brotherhood. Sri Aurobindo’s unique vision could aptly be summarised as: “… and he has rightly been called the “Prophet of Indian Nationalism”. Sri Aurobindo had deeply studied and loved India. He had made original research in the Veda, Upanishads and the Gita, the three greatest record of knowledge which have served as the foundations of Indian Culture. Apart from his profound knowledge of Sanskrit he had made mastery over Greek and Latin and had made a thought study of Western history. He has, therefore, been rightly regarded as a great synthesizer of the East and the west. His message for human unity is of direct relevance to the contemporary effort that is sweeping all over the world connecting the past with the present and the future. His works have bridged the minds and hearts of the people all over the world”. (quoted in Joshi, 2007: 16).

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Singh, S., Kumar, A. Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy of Nationalism and It’s Contemporary Relevance. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 39, 33–42 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-022-00269-7

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Keywords

  • Nation
  • Nationality
  • Nationalism
  • Spiritualism
  • State
  • Culture
  • Sri Aurobindo
  • Bharat Mata