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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo in Baroda, Part 6

“Swaraj as the fulfilment of the ancient life of India under modern conditions, the return of the Satyayuga of National greatness, the resumption by her (by India) of her great role of teacher and guide, self liberation of the people for the final fulfilment of the Vedantic ideal in politics, this is the true Swaraj for India…. She (India) cannot do it without taking the management of her own life into her own hands. She must live her own life and not the life of a part or subordinate in a foreign Empire.”[1]

— Sri Aurobindo

When Sri Aurobindo dropped the unfinished political series, New Lamps for Old, he started in the same journal, Indu Prakash, a short sequence of critical appreciation of Bankim Chandra Chatterji, the renowned genius of Bengali letters and the author of the national anthem, Bande Mataram. After completing the series on Bankim Chandra, Sri Aurobindo stopped contributing to the Indu Prakash. At this time, both the political and spiritual sides of his nature were pressing forward for free self-expression and self-realisation. It was a simultaneous development, marked by an increasing effort of his intrinsic spirituality to prevail over his ardent spirit of nationalism. Even when he felt a strong urge for spiritual power, it was his politics that inspired the urge and sought to employ it to its own end. “…I came in contact with a Naga Sannyasi… I told him that I want to get power for revolutionary activities. He gave me a violent Stotra (Sanskrit hymn) of Kali with jahi, jahi (slay, slay) to repeat. I did so and, as I had expected, it came to nothing.”[2] But it did not take his spirituality long to subdue his politics to its own will and initiate and direct all its operations. There was, then, no more any discord or contrary pulls between the two movements. They became, in fact, one — a single current of soul-force fulfilling itself in life. But his spirituality was yet in its radiant childhood. It had not found its destined path. It had no definite vision of its ultimate fulfilment. It was compounded of God’s secret direction, his soul’s insistent urge, and his mind and heart’s aspiration, prayer and preparation. A mighty spirituality was rising from within and pervading and mastering all parts of his being, and he gave himself up to it without reserve. This stage of his inner development is vividly portrayed in his poem, The Vedantin’s Prayer.


Spirit Supreme
Who musest in the silence of the heart,
Eternal gleam,

Thou only art!
Ah, wherefore with this darkness am I veiled,
My sunlit part

By clouds assailed?
Why am I thus disfigured by desire,
Distracted, haled,

Scorched by the fire
Of fitful passions, from Thy peace out-thrust
Into the gyre

Of every gust?
Betrayed to grief, o’ertaken with dismay,
Surprised by lust?

Let not my grey
Blood-clotted past repel Thy sovereign ruth,
Nor even delay,

О lonely Truth!
Nor let the specious gods who ape Thee still
Deceive my youth.

These clamours still;
For I would hear the eternal voice and know
The eternal Will.

This brilliant show
Cumbering the threshold of eternity
Dispel, — bestow

The undimmed eye,
The heart grown young and clear. Rebuke, О Lord,
These hopes that cry

So deafeningly,
Remove my sullied centuries, restore
My purity.

О hidden door
Of Knowledge, open! Strength, fulfil thyself!
Love, outpour![3]

The poem is intensely moving. It is suffused with the aroma of the poet’s deepest aspiration. It mirrors his soul and his heart in their most poignant moment of God-seeking. But what distinguishes it from such other poems is the distinctive note it strikes in the following lines:

“I would hear the eternal voice and know
The eternal Will.”

“O hidden door
Of Knowledge, open! Strength, fulfil thyself!
Love, outpour!”

Sri Aurobindo’s unascetic, unorthodox, life-affirming spirituality breathes in the poem its characteristic aspiration: the eternal voice must be heard, the eternal Will (God’s Will to Self-unfoldment in the world) must be known, and allowed to express and realise itself in the poet’s whole life. And Strength (the Divine Power) must fulfil itself. Not in some remote and recondite Beyond, but here, in this earthly life, in this human bodily existence, in the very midst of our natural activities, the Divine Union must be realised and the Divine Manifestation take place. These lines strike the keynote of the dynamic spirituality that was developing in Sri Aurobindo, and the integral Yoga he was to practise and teach for the radical transformation of human nature and the birth of the supramental race on earth.

An outline of Sri Aurobindo’s political views seems to be called for at this point. There has been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding in the public mind in regard to the manifold and flexible nature of his politics, and people have formed and expressed misleading and often fantastic ideas of it. Some have taken him to be a pacifist, believing in non-violence; others have gone to the other extreme and dubbed him the arch-leader of the terrorist movement in Bengal. And some have taken the middle stand, interpreting his politics as a curious compound of a strong reactionary religious bias, Parnellism, Sinn Fein, and an intense, militant, revolutionary nationalism. The best thing for us would be to hear from himself what his politics really was, how it envisaged its ultimate goal and meant to attain it.

“There were three sides to Sri Aurobindo’s political ideas and activities. First, there was the action with which he started, a secret revolutionary propaganda and organisation of which the central object was the preparation of an armed insurrection. Secondly, there was a public propaganda intended to convert the whole nation to the ideal of independence which was regarded, when he entered into politics, by the vast majority of Indians as unpractical and impossible, an almost insane chimera. It was thought that the British Empire was too powerful and India too weak, effectively disarmed and impotent even to dream of the success of such an endeavour. Thirdly, there was the organisation of the people to carry on a public and united opposition and undermining the foreign rule through an increasing non-cooperation and passive resistance.[4]

“At that time the military organisation of the great empires and their means of military action were not so overwhelming and apparently irresistible as they are now: the rifle was still the decisive weapon, air power had not yet been developed and the force of artillery was not so devastating as it afterwards became. India was disarmed, but Sri Aurobindo thought that with proper organisation and help from outside the difficulty might be overcome, and in so vast a country as India and with the smallness of the regular British armies, even a guerrilla warfare accompanied by general resistance and revolt might be effective. There was also the possibility of a general revolt in the Indian army. At the same time he had studied the temperament and characteristics of the British people and the turn of their political instincts, and he believed that although they would resist any attempt at self-liberation by the Indian people and would at the most only concede very slowly such reforms as would not weaken their imperial control, still they were not of the kind which would be ruthlessly adamantine to the end: if they found resistance and revolt becoming general and persistent they would in the end try to arrive at an accommodation to save what they could of their empire, or, in an extremity, prefer to grant independence rather than have it forcefully wrested from their hands.”[5]

These were the three planks of Sri Aurobindo’s political programme. We shall dwell upon them in greater detail when we come to study his active politics in Bengal. It will be our endeavour to show, on the basis of his political writings and speeches, that he had not only proclaimed complete independence free from foreign control as the only goal of the nationalist movement, but drawn up a programme with an exhaustive exposition of the philosophy inspiring and sustaining it, and the practical methods of its application to the developing situation in the country. All that he had said in the pages of the Bande Mataram in 1907-8 formed the staple of the subsequent political work in India, and the gospel given during those years of an immense political upheaval was followed almost verbatim till the attainment of independence, except for the creed of non-violence to which he never subscribed. Here again, on the question of non-violence, his views appear to hold water when we consider them in the revealing light of the dire but avoidable disaster the nation has had to pass through as the inevitable consequence of an imposition of non-violence on the heterogeneous mass of Indian people, irrespective of the differences of their individual nature.[6]

Regarding non-violence, Sri Aurobindo says: “In some quarters there is the idea that Sri Aurobindo’s political standpoint was entirely pacifist, that he was opposed in principle and in practice to all violence and that he denounced terrorism, insurrection, etc. as entirely forbidden by the spirit and letter of the Hindu religion. It is even supposed that he was a forerunner of the gospel of Ahimsa. This is quite incorrect. Sri Aurobindo is neither an impotent moralist nor a weak pacifist.

“The rule of confining political action to passive resistance was adopted as the best policy for the National Movement at that stage and not as a part of a gospel of Nonviolence or pacific idealism. Peace is a part of the highest ideal, but it must be spiritual or at the very least psychological in its basis; without a change in human nature it cannot come with any finality.[7] If it is attempted on any other basis (moral principle or gospel of Ahimsa or any other), it will fail and even may leave things worse than before. He is in favour of an attempt to put down war by international agreement and international force, what is now contemplated in the ‘New Order’, if that proves possible, but that would not be Ahimsa, it would be putting down of anarchic force by legal force, and even then one cannot be sure that it would be permanent. Within nations this sort of peace has been secured but it does not prevent occasional civil wars and revolutions and political outbreaks and repressions, sometimes of a sanguinary character.[8] The same might happen to a similar world-peace. Sri Aurobindo has never concealed his opinion that a nation is entitled to attain its freedom by violence, if it can do so or if there is no other way; whether it should do so or not depends on what is the best policy, not on ethical considerations. Sri Aurobindo’s practice in this matter was the same as Tilak’s[9] and that of other nationalist leaders who were by no means Pacifists or worshippers of Ahimsa.”

On the same question of non-violence versus violence, Sri Aurobindo says again: “If Sri Aurobindo had not believed in the efficacy of violent revolution or had disliked it, he would not have joined the secret society whose purpose was to prepare a national insurrection. His historical studies had not taught him the lesson indicated here. On the contrary, he had studied with interest the revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation, the struggle against the English in mediaeval France and the revolts which liberated America and Italy. He took much of his inspiration from these movements and their leaders, especially, Jeanne d’Arc and Mazzini. In his public activity he took up non-cooperation and passive resistance as a means in the struggle for independence but not the sole means and as long as he was in Bengal he maintained a secret revolutionary activity as a preparation for open revolt, in case passive resistance proved insufficient for the purpose.”[10]

What Sri Aurobindo wrote on Mazzini in the Karma-yogin of 21st August, 1909, is, to a certain extent, true of his own way of dealing with the various and conflicting problems of the political rebirth of India. His habit in action was “not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment.”[11] This has been, as we all know, the case with all those who are led by the inner light — not to occupy the mind with devising and planning, reasoning and debating and calculating on the flimsy basis of ambiguous and precarious sense-data and inference, but to keep it silent and wait upon the intuition of each moment for guidance in thought and action. As Sri Aurobindo says in his Thoughts and Aphorisms: “When I speak, the reason says, ‘This will I say’; but God takes the word out of my mouth and the lips say something else at which reason trembles.” “I am not a Jnani, for I have no knowledge except what God gives me for His work. How am I to know whether what I see be reason or folly? Nay, it is neither; for the thing seen is simply true and neither folly nor reason.” The spiritual light never fails one, if one has risen into it and can command its constant action. But to the dusky mind of man the Light is an illusion, and the action of a Yogi a baffling riddle.

“Of all the great actors who were in the forefront of the Italian Revolution, Mazzini and Cavour were the most essential to the Italian Regeneration. Of the two, Mazzini was undoubtedly the greater. Cavour was the statesman and organiser, Mazzini the prophet and creator. Mazzini was busy with the great and eternal ideas which move masses of men in all countries and various ages, Cavour with the temporary needs and circumstances of modern Italy. The one was an acute brain, the other a mighty soul. Cavour belongs to Italy, Mazzini to all humanity.[12] Cavour was the man of the hour, Mazzini the citizen of Eternity.[13]… Mazzini summed up the soul of all humanity, the idea of its past and the inspiration of its future in Italian forms and gave life to the dead. At his breath the dead bones clothed themselves with flesh and the wilderness of poisonous brambles blossomed with rose. Mazzini found Italy corrupt, demoralised, treacherous, immoral, selfish, wholly divided and incapable of union; he gave her the impulse of a mighty hope, a lofty spirituality, an intellectual impulse which, despising sophistry and misleading detail, went straight to the core of things and fastened on the one or two necessities, an ideal to live and die for and the strength to live and die for it. This was all he did, but it was enough…. His eyes were always fixed on the mind and heart of the nation, very little on the external or internal circumstances of Italy. He was not a statesman, but he had a more than statesmanlike insight. His plan of a series of petty, local and necessarily abortive insurrections strikes the ordinary practical man as the very negation of commonsense and political wisdom. It seems almost as futile as the idea of some wild brains, if indeed the idea be really cherished, that by random assassinations the freedom of this country can be vindicated. There is, however, a radical difference. Mazzini knew well what he was about. His eyes were fixed on the heart of the nation, and as the physician of the Italian malady his business was not with the ultimate and perfect result but with the creation of conditions favourable to complete cure and resurgence. He knew final success was impossible without the creation of a force that could not be commanded for some time to come. But he also knew that even force could not succeed without a great spiritual and moral strength behind its action and informing its aspirations. It was this strength he sought to create. The spiritual force he created by the promulgation of the mighty and uplifting ideas which pervade his writings and of which Young Italy was the organ.[14]

“But moral force cannot be confirmed merely by ideas, it can only be forged and tempered in the workshop of action. And it was the habit of action, the habit of strength, daring and initiative which Mazzini sought to recreate in the torpid heart and sluggish limbs of Italy. And with it he sought to establish the sublime Roman spirit of utter self-sacrifice and self-abnegation, contempt of difficulty and apparent impossibility and an iron insensibility to defeat. For his purpose the very hopelessness of the enterprises he set on foot were more favourable than more possible essays. And when others’ and sometimes his own heart reproached him with flinging away so many young and promising lives into the bloody trench of his petty yet impossible endeavours, the faith and wisdom in him upheld him in the face of every discouragement. Because he had superhuman strength, he was permitted to uplift Italy. Had it been God’s purpose that Italy should become swiftly one of the greater European powers, he would have been permitted to free her also. He would have done it in a different way from Cavour’s — after a much longer lapse of time, with a much more terrible and bloody expense of human life, but without purchasing Italy’s freedom in the French market by the bribe of Savoy and Nice, and with such a divine output of spiritual and moral force as would have sustained his country for centuries and fulfilled his grandiose dream of an Italy spiritually, intellectually and politically leading Europe.”[15] (Sri Aurobindo: The Need in Nationalism and Other Essays).

We propose to undertake a comprehensive study of the rationale of Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary and insurrectionary politics in the next article, for, it is vital to a proper understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s political thought and action, and the militant nationalism of which he was the prophet.

[1] ‘Ideals Face to Face’, Bande Mataram (May 3,1908).

[2] From Nirodbaran’s notes. “…But all this was for political success in his mission and not for Yoga.” (Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, p. 36.)

[3] This poem, unlike most poems of Sri Aurobindo which express his visions, experiences, and realisations, is one which embodies a burning aspiration, and has a haunting human appeal.

[4] The italics are ours.

[5] Sri Aurobindo and His Ashram. How his insight into the temperament and characteristics of the British people has proved true! “They would… in an extremity, prefer to grant independence rather than have it forcefully wrested from their hands” was almost a prophecy of the way independence came to India about forty years later.

[6] “Like every other moral principle, ahimsa has to spring from the depth of the mind, and it must not be forced upon man from outside appeal of urgent needs…. No doubt through a strong compulsion of desire for some external result, men are capable of repressing their habitual inclinations for a limited time, but when it concerns an immense multitude of men of different traditions and stages of culture, and when the object for which such repression is exercised needs a prolonged period of struggle, complex in character, I cannot think it possible of attainment….” (Rabindranath Tagore)

[7] The italics are ours.

[8] How topical it reads today! “On June 1897, on the occasion of the Shivaji festival, Tilak delivered a speech expressing the views that ‘great men are above the principles of common morality’, and thus justifying the murder of Afzal Khan by Shivaji.” — The Indian Nationalist Movement by Dr. S.C. Bartarya.

[9] Sarala Devi Choudhurani, the well-known organiser of physical education and propagator of the cult of lathi-play in Bengal, writes: “My lathi-cult was in full swing in those days. I had succeeded in making the practice of fencing and boxing, of the stick and the sword, and all other arts of manly self-defence popular, and captured the heart of the Bengali youth. But to my dismay,… some of my lathial boys felt tempted to join those bands (of political dacoits and terrorists)…. I was hard put to it to convince them that it would be unworthy of their manhood. For, against all my reasonings was brought in the personality of Tilak and his approval as the greatest argument in favour of the dacoities. So I… wended my way at once to Poona… to have a personal talk with Lokamanya Tilak and learn his views on the matter … Tilak told me distinctly that he did not approve of the dacoities, much less authorise them, if for nothing else, simply on the score of their being practically useless for political purposes. But looking to differences in human nature and the varying processes of evolution, suited to different temperaments, he did not condemn them openly.” — Reminiscences about Lokamanya Tilak By Bapat.

Here was the perspicacious exponent of the Gita’s Karmayoga, and a political leader who knew human psychology and had the wisdom and patience not to confuse and imperil the natural evolution of the masses by insisting on the achievement of moral ideals which were far too high for them. To force the pace of the evolution of the masses is to expose them to the dangers of violent recoils. Tilak knew, as Sri Aurobindo did, that, given an intense love of the motherland, for an Indian youth, the transition from the tossing turbidity of rajas to the comparative quiet and balance of sattwa can never be long. The sacrifices that the Bengali youth made with incredible courage and smiling fortitude compelled the admiration even of the most callous bureaucrats, and wiped away the stigma with which Macaulay and Curzon had branded the Bengalis. These sacrifices have, indeed, never been equalled. They revolutionised the political atmosphere of the country and galvanised the whole nation.

[10] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother, p. 33.

[11] Ibid., pp. 34. 35.

[12] “Heralds of a new world, we must found a moral unity, the Catholicism of Humanity.” — Mazzini

[13] “We come in the name of God and of Humanity.” — Mazzini

[14] “Your Country is the token of the mission which God has given you to fulfil in Humanity. The faculties, the strength of all its sons should be united for the accomplishment of this mission… your Country should be your Temple. God at the summit, a People of equals at the base…. Be apostles of this faith, apostles of the brotherhood of nations, and of the unity of the human race…. Preach…, O Brothers, in the name of God. He who has an Italian heart will follow you.” (Mazzini)

[15] “I thought to call up the soul of Italy, and I only see its corpse.” — Mazzini.

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