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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo in Baroda, Part 7

“Indian civilisation… made it its chief aim to minimise the incidence and disaster of war. For this purpose it limited the military obligation to the small class who by their birth, nature and traditions were marked out for this function and found in it their natural means of self-development through the flowering of the soul in the qualities of courage, disciplined force, strong helpfulness and chivalrous nobility for which the warrior’s life pursued under the stress of a high ideal gives a field and opportunities…. Being subjected to high ethical ideals and every possible rule of humanity and chivalry the function of war was obliged to help in ennobling and elevating instead of brutalising those who performed it…. It is war of this kind and under these conditions that the Gita had in view, war considered as an inevitable part of human life, but so restricted and regulated as to serve like other activities the ethical and spiritual development which was then regarded as the whole real object of life…”

Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo — Ch.VI.

The question which has occurred to most patriots and nationalists in India — it occurred even to many of Sri Aurobindo’s close and trusted colleagues — is this: Why did Sri Aurobindo engage in insurrectionary and revolutionary politics? He was one of the foremost leaders of the Nationalist or Extremist party, respected by his fellow-workers and followers as no other leader was respected. He exercised an unparalleled influence upon the youth of the country, who simply adored and idolised him. Even those who differed from him could not help paying homage to his flaming patriotism, his exalted spiritual idealism, his absolute sincerity of purpose, his far-seeing, intuitive intelligence, and above all, the Olympic grandeur of his soul, which was a rare blend of a selfless, universal love, and indomitable will to conquer the freedom of India for the good of humanity, and an utter, self-effacing humility, which steered clear of all lime-light and was content only to dare and achieve.[1] The tributes that some of the greatest of his contemporaries paid him and the admiring esteem in which he was held even by some sensitive foreigners, testify to the fact that his personality was universally considered to be unique in its inner resources, and powerfully dynamic. If we cast a hurried glance at some of these tributes before taking up the study of the rationale of his revolutionary politics, we shall see that they prove, more than anything else, that his politics was no rash adventure or a desperate gamble of a thoughtless moment. It was a spontaneous response of Bengal to the challenge of the hour.

Bepin Chandra Pal, than whom there was no more eloquent preacher and exponent of Indian Nationalism in those days, and who worked with Sri Aurobindo on the editorial board of the Bande Mataram, writes from an intimate knowledge of him: “Youngest in age among those who stand in the forefront of the nationalist propaganda in India, but in endowment, education and character, perhaps superior to them all — Aravinda seems distinctly marked out by Providence to play in the future of this movement a part not given to any of his colleagues and contemporaries…. His only care is for his country… the Mother as he always calls her…. Nationalism… at its best, a concern of the intellect with some, at the lowest, a political cry and aspiration with others… is with Aravinda a supreme passion of his soul. Few, indeed, have grasped the force and meaning of the Nationalist ideal as Aravinda has done…. Blessed are they for whom this tragic antithesis between the ideal and the real has been cancelled; for whom to know the truth is to attain it; in whom there is no disparity, either in time or degree, between the idea and its realisation; in whom the vision of the ideal, by its own intrinsic strength, at once attunes every craving of the flesh, every movement of the mind, every motion of the heart and every impulse of the will to itself; who have to strive for its realisation, not within but without; who have to struggle not with their own self, but with the not-self; who have to fight and conquer not themselves but others, in order to establish the Kingdom of God, realised by them in the relations of their own inner life, in the actualities and appointments of the life of their own people or of humanity at large. They are, so to say, the chosen of God. They are born leaders of men. Commissioned to serve special ends affecting the life and happiness of large masses of men, they bear a charmed life. They may be hit, but cannot be hurt. They may be struck but are not stricken. Their towering optimism and the grace of God turn every evil into good, every opposition into help, every loss into gain. By the general verdict of his countrymen, Aravinda stands today among these favoured sons of God.[2]

“…politics meant to him much more than is ordinarily understood by the term. It was not a game of expediency, but a school for developing character. Aravinda is an apostle of modern education. Indeed, his ideal of modern education is even higher than what is understood by modern education ordinarily in Europe. It is a supremely spiritual ideal. Its aim is to actualise the highest and deepest God-consciousness… in the outer life and appointments of human society…. Had he been given a free hand in the new National College, that institution would have opened an altogether new Chapter not only in the history of modern education in India, but perhaps in the whole world. To work the realism of the spirit of modern culture into the idealism of ancient Indian philosophy would not only secure for India her lost position as the teacher of humanity, but would perchance even save modern civilisation from total collapse and destruction under the pressure of a gross and greedy industrialism.”[3]

“… Aravinda was the leading spirit, the central figure, in the new journal (the Bande Mataram). The opportunities that were denied him in the National College he found in the pages of the Bande Mataram, and from a tutor of a few hundred youths he thus became the teacher of a whole nation.”[4]

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the greatest Nationalist leaders, who knew Sri Aurobindo intimately and enjoyed his friendship and respectful confidence, wrote about him in some of his editorial comments in the Keshari.[5] We give here a free English rendering of some gleanings from them: “None is equal to Aravinda in self-sacrifice, knowledge and sincerity…. If one sees him, one won’t think it was Aravinda… so weak of body and so simple in dress and bearing…. It is a dispensation of benign Providence that persons like Aravinda have been drawn to the national work…. His failure[6] in the Indian Civil Service examination was a blessing in disguise…. His erudition, sattwic temperament, religious mind, and self-sacrifice…. He writes from divine inspiration, sattwic intelligence, and unshakable determination….”

Lajpat Rai, who knew him, and met him in Calcutta, and also in some sessions of the Indian National Congress, speaks about him in his book, Young India: “…In intellectual acumen and in scholastic accomplishments, he is perhaps superior to Har Dayal, but above all, he is deeply religious and spiritual. He is a worshipper of Krishna and a high-souled Vedantist…. His notions of life and morality are pre-eminently Hindu and he believes in the spiritual mission of his people….”

Henry W. Nevinson, an English M.P., who travelled in India with his eyes wide open, and his mind sympathetically attuned to the pulse of the new life which he witnessed all over India, had a talk with Sri Aurobindo in Calcutta, and saw him again at Surat during the famous session of the Indian National Congress. He writes in his book, The New Spirit in India: “He was a youngish man, I should think still under thirty. Intent dark eyes looked from his thin, clear-cut face with a gravity that seemed immovable, but the figure and bearing were those of an English graduate…. He regarded the Partition of Bengal as the greatest blessing that had ever happened to India. No other measure could have stirred national feeling so deeply or roused it so suddenly from the lethargy of previous years. ‘Since 1830,’ he said, ‘each generation had reduced us more and more to the condition of sheep and fatted calves’. He lamented the long peace, leading to degeneracy and effeminate ways…. There is a religious tone, a spiritual elevation in such words, very characteristic of Aravinda Ghose himself…. Nationalism to him was far more than a political object or a means of material improvement. To him it was surrounded by a mist of glory…. Grave with intensity, careless of fate or opinion, and one of the silent men I have known, he was of the stuff that dreamers are made of, but dreamers who will act their dreams, indifferent to the means.”

It is not necessary to multiply extracts like the above from the tributes showered upon Sri Aurobindo by all those great leaders of thought and action, who came in more or less close contact with him. It is quite evident from these that the one strain of his personality which had an immediate and universal appeal, the one common note in all the expressions of homage and respect, was the transparent spirituality of his nature, and his absolute, child-like reliance on God and His guidance. When such a person, spiritual, sincere, highly educated and intelligent, and irreproachably pure and steadfast in his feelings and will, embarks upon revolutionary politics, it would be stark folly to put it down to a reckless freak. There must have been sound reason behind, an imperative knowledge and inspiration, which it should be our endeavour to understand, as far as possible, with the help of his own statements. This will necessarily involve the question of violence vs non-violence, referred to above, which, in view of the latest developments in Indian politics, has assumed a surpassing importance. Unless this question is torn out of the ethico-religious nimbus with which it has been surrounded for over four decades, the confusion, which has crippled India’s spiritual evolution and hindered her advance on the lines of her self-nature to her true destiny, cannot be dissipated. It is the key question of the hour, and it should be faced squarely, and with forthright candour and courage.

The first impression that Sri Aurobindo had on his tours in Bengal during the closing years of the last century, when he was serving in the Baroda State, was of the “prevailing mood of apathy and despair”. Except for the anglomaniacs who peacocked about in borrowed feathers and tinkered at social reform, and the Congress Moderates with their goodly begging bowls, Bengal was sunk in tamas. It lay supine under the heels of the British Raj. Sri Aurobindo wanted to rouse it into activity, to infuse a new spirit and a new life into its torpid limbs, even as Swami Vivekananda had sought to do in his own way before him. Tamas had to be churned, the immobility of inertia had to be lashed into the storm and turmoil of passionate drives. Sri Aurobindo was aware of the immense potential of his country, and felt that, if rajas could be quickened and energised, and a burning love of the motherland inspired in the hearts of the youths, the nation would rise to its feet and march forward, not only to the conquest of freedom, but to the fulfilment of its great destiny. But political freedom was the immediate objective, and Sri Aurobindo believed that an organised insurrection and guerilla war might go a long way to realise it. He started with Bengal. He supplied the spark, the kindling, upheaving and galvanising force, which convulsed the frozen timidity and lethargy of long years of political serfdom, and prepared the human soil for the approaching hour of action. He worked at first in secret from Baroda. But when the hour of action arrived, when the Partition of Bengal shook up the whole nation, he plunged into the fray and led the fight for freedom. Passive resistance (we shall dwell upon it later) and active, defensive resistance, he inspired and organised both, and though he was not committed to non-violence, in view of the prevailing circumstances in the country he leaned more upon the former. But he also gave a tremendous fillip to the revolutionary movement. Under his inspiration, young boys threw themselves into the revolutionary work, not only with careless self-abandon, but with the surging delight of a deliberate self-sacrifice for the liberation of their motherland, the Mother of their passionate love and devotion. Gone was the chill darkness of stupefied slavery, and, in its place, came gleams of hope, ardours of enthusiasm, leaping flames of rebellious indignation, and the desperate courage that counts no cost too great to attempt and achieve. Indignation fed the fires of patriotism, and the newly roused insurrectionary spirit fretted at the chains of slavery.

If we could transport ourselves into the context of the Partition days of Bengal, we would see how sudden and surprising an awakening was achieved in the name of Nationalism! Without that awakening, that marvellous sowing of the seeds of patriotism, the subsequent political harvests in India would hardly have been possible.

Was the awakening and agitation confined to some patriotic intellectuals and the educated youths of the country? But that is inevitable in the beginning of every revolutionary movement. It is the thinking section of the nation that responds first to new ideas and inspirations.

Did the movement lack proper organisation and cohesive force, and suffer from internal discord? That, too, was inevitable in the trying circumstances of the hour. Brutal governmental repression,[7] persistent opposition from the vested interests in the country, inexperience and immaturity of the workers, crippling financial stringency, clash of emergent political ideas, and the general apathy of the mass mind — these were the heavy odds against which the infant insurrection had to struggle for survival. That it survived so long, in whatever form it may be, and achieved so much within so short a period witnesses to the immense vitality and vigour of the inspiration which had generated in it the first stirrings of life and given it the initial impulsion.

Did the revolutionary movement entail violence, bloodshed, imprisonment, suffering, and the sacrifice of some promising youthful lives? But Sri Aurobindo knew well enough that that was the price the nation had to pay for wresting freedom from unwilling hands, for rekindling the Kshatriya spirit in itself, and for rising from the tamasic numbness into the swirl of rajasic passions on its way to the enlightened peace and mental poise of sattwa.[8] Sri Aurobindo did not grudge the price, even as Mazzini, the lover of God and humanity, had not, even as Rana Pratap and Joan of Arc had not grudged it in their times. He knew, that was the shortest and surest way to national awakening. He knew, besides, that the nation was not ready for completely eschewing violence. Rather, a drastic, cavalier repression of the all too natural feeling of violent indignation, he knew, would eventuate in explosive outbursts of the most disastrous kind. And so it did happen later. The savage orgies of reprisal — it matters little whether they were political or communal — were such outbursts, which drenched the country in blood[9] and left an ugly scar upon its fair name, and a paralysing legacy of fissured India and proliferating internal dissensions.

We cannot do better than quote a few passages from what Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1907 on this question:

“When tamas, inertia, torpor have benumbed a nation, the strongest forms of rajas are necessary to break the spell; there is no form of rajas so strong as hatred. Through rajas we rise to sattwa, and for the Indian temperament the transition does not take long. Already the element of hatred is giving place to the clear conception of love for the Mother as the spring of our political actions.” — The Morality of Boycott, an unpublished writing of Sri Aurobindo, seized by the Police and made an exhibit in the Alipore Conspiracy Case (May, 1908).

“A certain class of mind shrinks from aggressiveness as if it were a sin. Their temperament forbids them to feel the delight of battle and they look on what they cannot understand as something monstrous and sinful. ‘Heal hate by love’, ‘drive out injustice by justice’, ‘slay sin by righteousness’ is their cry. Love is a sacred name, but it is easier to speak of love than to love. The love which drives out hate is a divine quality of which one man in a thousand is capable. A saint full of love for all mankind possesses it, a philanthropist consumed with a desire to heal the miseries of the race possesses it, but the mass of mankind does not and cannot rise to the height. Politics is concerned with masses of mankind and not with individuals.[10] To ask masses of mankind to act as saints, to rise to the height of divine love and practise it in relation to their adversaries or oppressors is to ignore human nature. It is to set a premimum on injustice and violence by paralysing the hand of the deliverer when raised to strike. The Gita is the best answer to those who shrink from battle as a sin, and aggression as a lowering of morality.” — The Morality of Boycott, an unpublished writing of Sri Aurobindo seized by the Police and made an exhibit in the Alipore Conspiracy Case 1908.

“Hinduism recognises human nature and makes no such impossible demand. It sets one ideal for the saint, another for the man of action, a third for the trader, a fourth for the serf. To prescribe the same ideal for all is to bring about varṇasaṅkara, the confusion of duties…. Politics is the ideal of the Kshatriya, and the morality of the Kshatriya ought to govern our political actions. To impose in politics the Brahmanical duty of saintly sufferance is to preach varṇasaṅkara. (ibid.)

“The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfilment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji. To maintain justice and prevent the strong from despoiling and the weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya was created.[11] ‘Therefore’, says Sri Krishna in the Mahabharata, ‘God created battle and armour, the sword, the bow and the dagger.’” (ibid.)

Referring to the circumstances in which passive or nonviolent resistance fails, Sri Aurobindo says: “To shrink from bloodshed and violence under such circumstances is a weakness deserving as severe a rebuke as Sri Krishna addressed to Arjuna on the field of Kurukshetra. Liberty is the life-breath of a nation; and when the life is attacked, when it is sought to suppress all chance of breathing by violent pressure, any and every means of self-preservation becomes right and justifiable[12]… just as it is lawful for a man who is being strangled to rid himself of the pressure on his throat by any means in his power. It is the nature of the pressure which determines the nature of the resistance.[13]

Enlarging upon the necessary evil of war and aggression,[14] so long as man in the mass is what he is, Sri Aurobindo writes in his Essays on the Gita:

“War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral, we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live, and between all that stands behind either. It is impossible, at least as men and things are, to advance, to grow, to fulfil and still to observe really and utterly that principle of harmlessness which is yet placed before us as the highest and best law of conduct. We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in man and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resort to violence; still you have set up an ideal which may some day and at any rate ought to lead up to better things. But even soul-force, when it is effective, destroys. Only those who have used it with eyes open, know how much more terrible and destructive it is than the sword and the cannon; and only those who do not limit their view to the act and its immediate results, can see how tremendous are its after-effects, how much is eventually destroyed and with that much all the life that depended on it and fed upon it. Evil cannot perish without the destruction of much that lives by the evil, and it is no less destruction even if we personally are saved the pain of a sensational act of violence.

“Moreover, every time we use soul-force we raise a great force of Karma against our adversary, the after-movements of which we have no power to control. Vasishtha uses soul-force against the military violence of Vishwamitra and armies of Huns and Shakas and Pallavas hurl themselves on the aggressor. The very quiescence and passivity of the spiritual man under violence and aggression awakens the tremendous forces of the world to a retributive action; and it may even be more merciful to stay in their path, though by force, those who represent evil than to allow them to trample on until they call down on themselves a worse destruction than we would ever think of inflicting. It is not enough that our own hands should remain clean and our souls unstained for the law of strife and destruction to die out of the world; that which is its root must first disappear out of humanity…. So far as the problem of the individual’s action goes, his abstention from strife and its inevitable concomitant destruction in their more gross and physical form may help his own moral being, but it leaves the Slayer of creatures unabolished.”[15]

“A day may come, must surely come, we will say, when humanity will be ready spiritually, morally, socially for the reign of universal peace; meanwhile the aspect of battle and the nature and function of man as a fighter have to be accepted and accounted for by any practical philosophy and religion.”[16]

If we disabuse our minds of our shallow ethical prepossessions, and ponder deeply and dispassionately on the spiritual truth of the words quoted above, much of the confusion of our thoughts, particularly of our political thought, will vanish for ever, and we shall be able to march forward to our national destiny[17] with surer steps, and by the deathless light of our spiritual culture.

[1] “The will of Divine Wisdom is the sole law of revolutions, and we have no right to consider ourselves as anything but mere agents chosen by the Wisdom…. Do we serve the Mother for a reward or do God’s work for hire? The patriot lives for his country because he must; he dies for her because she demands it. That is all.” — Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, 9-2-1908.

[2] Character Sketches by Bepin Chandra Pal.

[3] Character Sketches by Bepin Chandra Pal.

[4] Character Sketches by Bepin Chandra Pal.

[5] A Marathi journal edited by B. G. Tilak.

[6] He did not appear for the riding test, and, so, was disqualified.

[7] “There is no surer method of goading a docile people into a state of dangerous despair than the kind of hectoring and repression he (Sir B. Fuller, the then Governor of Bengal) has been attempting.” — G.K. Gokhale.

[8] (a) “…What is called the resisting of evil is but a step on the way towards the manifestation of this highest power, viz., nonresistance. Before reaching the highest ideal, man’s duty is to resist evil; let him work, let him fight, let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will non-resistance be a virtue.” — Vivekananda

(b) At Almora, Swami Vivekananda was asked by a rather gentle and meek person: “What should one do against the tyranny of a strong man?” Turning on him in surprised indignation, the Swami replied: “Why, thrash the strong, of course! You forget your own part in this karma. Yours is always the right to rebel.” And Vivekananda was nothing if he was not, every inch of him, a spiritual man!

[9] The great leader, Gandhiji, at last disillusioned and distressed, admitted with his characteristic candour: “The attitude of violence, which we have secretly harboured, now recoils on us and makes us fly at each other’s throats when the question of distribution of power arises…. Now that the burden of subjection is lifted, all the forces of evil have come to the surface.”

To the stock argument that we have won our freedom by the power of nonviolence, Vinoba Bhave, retorts: “We say we attained independence through the way of peace, but it is only a partial truth. If it had been wholly true, then the whole nation would have experienced ‘the power of peace’. There would have been faith in peace and our country would not have been reduced to the present miserable condition. We would not have presented the sorry spectacle of being divided into many groups, parties and communities, who do not trust one another…. The way of peace we followed for the attainment of freedom was the peace of the helpless….” — Reproduced in Bhavan’s Journal of Nov. 18, 1956.

[10] “Politics is a game of worldly people and not of Sadhus, and instead of the maxim akkodhena jine kodham (conquer anger by non-anger) as preached by Buddha, I prefer to rely on the maxim of Sri Krishna “ye yathā māṁ prapadyante tāṁstathaiva bhajāmyaham” (as they approach me so do I respond). — Tilak (written to the editor of the Young India).

[11] “Even the greatest Rishis of old could not, when the Rakshasas were fierce and determined, keep up the sacrifice without calling in the bow of the Kshatriya.” — Sri Aurobindo

[12] “Let it never be forgotten that as for God, so even for a Sadhu — a saintly man — the first religious duty is the overcoming of the wicked, if the salvation of the people requires it. For this overcoming, ‘the reactional thrust’ or ‘responsive blow’ is at times necessary.” — Tilak

“You must hiss at wicked people. You must frighten them lest they should do you harm.” — Sri Ramakrishna (from his story of the Brahman and the Snake)

[13] The Doctrine of Passive Resistance by Sri Aurobindo. — First published in the Bande Mataram in 1907.

[14] “Aggression is unjust only when unprovoked; violence, unrighteous when used wantonly or for unrighteous ends.” — Sri Aurobindo

[15] Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo, Chapter V.

[16] Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo, Chapter VI.

[17] “…the function of India is to supply the world with a perennial source of light and renovation. Whenever the first play of energy is exhausted and earth grows old and weary, full of materialism, racked with problems she cannot solve, the function of India is to restore the youth to mankind and assure it of immortality. She sends forth a light from her bosom which floods the earth and the heavens, and mankind bathes in it like St. George in the well of life, and recovers hope and vitality for its long pilgrimage. Such a time is now at hand. The world needs India…” — Sri Aurobindo: Bande Mataram Weekly, May 3, 1908.

“…One vision I see clear as life before me, that the ancient Mother has awakened once more.” — Vivekananda

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