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“Justifying Warfare: Saint Augustine and Sri Aurobindo”

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Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was one of the most influential Western Christian theologians. Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) was a political revolutionary and later a spiritual master with a worldwide reputation. Augustine and Aurobindo were very different religiously and politically, but on the issue of justifying warfare, there are remarkable parallels between them. To begin, pragmatic considerations formed the core of most of their arguments. Furthermore, they buttressed their core points with considerations from the religious domain. These included discussing the inward disposition of the warrior, countering ethical reservations about fighting, and mentioning possible, spiritual benefits from warfare. Yet, in spite of the parallels, the two men would have found little to agree on, as their approaches to both governance and religion were very different. Augustine’s approach was statist whereas Aurobindo’s was revolutionary.

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  1. Two examples are Robinson (2003) and Popovski et al. (2009).

  2. An excellent, relatively recent biography is Lancel (2002).

  3. An excellent biography is Heehs (2008a). For a comprehensive summary of the literature on Aurobindo, see Wolfers (2017).

  4. See, for instance, Dalton (1993, pp. 37–46) and Klausen (2014).

  5. A classic study that connects Aurobindo’s nationalism with Hindu-Muslim strife is Sarkar’s The Swadeshi Movement (2010, pp. 232–233, 267–268).

  6. For a discussion of the major places where Augustine discusses war, see Lenihan (1988, pp. 42–52).

  7. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of Augustine are taken from Schaff (1979).

  8. This translation is from Parsons (1955).

  9. Though Augustine wrote highly of earthly peace, he believed that it can only be partial and fragmentary, a shadow of the final peace of heaven.

  10. This translation is from Parsons (1955).

  11. Aurobindo wrote these articles in Bengali. For the Bengali originals, see the ninth volume of Ghose (1997–2017).

  12. All translations of the Mahābhārata are taken from van Buitenen (1978).

  13. This translation is taken from Olivelle (1996).

  14. It would not be proper here to use inclusive language, for Aurobindo’s language about warfare was explicitly gendered; he had in mind male warriors.

  15. This translation is from Miller (1986). The passage was taken out of verse form for insertion into the current text.

  16. See also Ghose (1997–2017, 7: pp. 1050–1051, 8: p. 289, pp. 303–304).

  17. See also Ghose (1997–2017, p. 53). It was standard for Aurobindo to refer to himself in the third person.

  18. For an example of his spiritual experiences, see Ghose (1991, pp. 261–262). Regarding his switch from politics to spirituality, see also Ghose (1997–2017, 36: pp. 8–10).

  19. Augustine has an idea that is similar to Aurobindo’s idea that in doing wrong one may, in fact, be seeking to be like the divine (Confessions 2.13).

  20. See also Ghose (1997–2017, 6: pp. 79–80, p. 248).

  21. A decade earlier, in a 1909 article on the Gītā, Aurobindo wrote that the war of the Mahābhārata involved a cessation of clan loyalty for the sake of something greater: the political unity of India Ghose (1991, p. 142).

  22. The interpolation is the editor’s.

  23. The extent to which that was so is debatable. For a good assessment, see Yoder (2009, pp. 42–50).

  24. As an example of this sentiment, see Banerjea (1925, p. 43).

  25. A key study, from a Christian perspective, of the differences between dualistic and nondualistic forms of mysticism is Zaehner (1969).

  26. His classic work in this area is On the Trinity.

  27. My colleague, Gerald Schlabach, identified this difference.

  28. This was a response to pagan critics of Christianity, who argued that Rome’s successes were due to the favors of its particular deities.

  29. Aurobindo was a critic of the exceptionally large Roman and British Empires, which ruled many foreign peoples. However, he was not a thorough critic of empire. In Indian history, he identified a “centrifugal” tendency away from empire. That was a failing, as a lack of empire left India more vulnerable to foreign invasions Ghose (1997–2017, 6: pp. 908–910, ibid., 20: pp. 425–444).

  30. One can hypothesize Aurobindo’s response to Augustine’s considerations. He would have recognized Augustine’s point about clinging. However, relying on the Bhagavad Gītā, he would have argued that one can act with detachment even when one’s critical, personal interests are directly involved.

  31. Also, Aurobindo recalled despising, in his youth, the Christian history of intolerance and persecution (Ghose 1997–2017, 36: p. 106).

  32. My colleague, Gerald Schlabach, suggested this terminology and contrast to me.


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I thank Michael Stoeber for giving me the idea for this project in conjunction with my participation in the 2004 NEH summer institute, “Religion and Politics in India,” at the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii. In terms of feedback, I am grateful to Michael Stoeber, Gerald Schlabach, and the reviewers at the Journal of Dharma Studies. Michael Hollerich deserves much thanks for answering my many questions about Augustine. Also, I remember with fondness my first time studying Augustine, in a course taught by Susan Wood at St. John’s University.

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Correspondence to Edward T. Ulrich.

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Ulrich, E.T. “Justifying Warfare: Saint Augustine and Sri Aurobindo”. DHARM 4, 179–197 (2021).

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