Tuesday 28th May 2024,
HHR News

Sri Aurobindo and the Gita

Sri Aurobindo and the Gita

Of all Indian scriptures, the Bhagavat Gita has likely been the one most commented on. India’s sages, yogis, philosophers, thinkers have, as a rule, regarded it a sacred duty to add theirs to the long list of commentaries on these eighteen brief chapters from the Mahabharata—a mere 700 slokas which have left the deepest of imprints on the Indian psyche for so many centuries.

Sri Aurobindo was no exception to the rule. But before writing his famous Essays on the Gita in his monthly Arya between 1916 and 1920, he had had a long acquaintance with the Song of the Lord. That was no mere intellectual or philosophical inquiry, for, in the true tradition of yoga, Sri Aurobindo always was an experimenter before anything else—he even rejected the label of “philosopher” : “[Modern] philosophy,” he said, “I consider only intellectual and therefore of secondary value. Experience and formulation of experience I consider as the true aim of philosophy.”[1]

From his return from England to India in 1893, at the age of twenty, and until 1905, Sri Aurobindo worked in the Baroda State Service. That left him enough leisure to immerse himself in Sanskrit scriptures, since, having had a completely Western education, he wanted to rediscover his roots. Among his favourites were the two Epics, the Upanishads, and Kalidas.

He translated large portions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata into English, though only a few survived his later tribulations. Romesh Chandra Dutt, whose own adaptations of the Epics were popular in those days, asked to see Sri Aurobindo’s translations at Baroda, and remarked that had he seen them earlier, he would never have published his own..[2]

In that very first study of the Gita before he was even thirty, the one thing that struck Sri Aurobindo was its bold “gospel of action”.[3] and its stress on the Kshatriya’s “duty to protect the world from the reign of injustice,”[4] a virile and distinctive Indian message as he immediately saw :

“The Christian and Buddhistic doctrine of turning the other cheek to the smiter,” he scribbled in his notebooks, “is as dangerous as it is impracticable. [It is] a radically false moral distinction and the lip profession of an ideal which mankind has never been able or willing to carry into practice. The disinterested and desireless pursuit of duty is a gospel worthy of the strongest manhood ; that of the cheek turned to the smiter is a gospel for cowards and weaklings. Babes and sucklings may practise it, because they must, but with others it is a hypocrisy.”[5]

The Gita and the Nationalists

The Gita’s stress on true manhood and “desireless duty” or nishkama karma was to be Sri Aurobindo’s prime inspiration during his revolutionary days. It is little known that Sri Aurobindo was, in 1906, the first Indian to openly call for complete independence from the British Empire,[6] at a time when the Congress Moderates were busy praising the “providential character” of British rule in India and swearing their “unswerving allegiance to the British crown.”

Through the pages of the English daily Bande Mataram and in his speeches, Sri Aurobindo exhorted his countrymen to find in themselves the strength to stand up to their colonial masters. He soon became the leader in Bengal of those whom the Moderates contemptuously called the “Extremists.” In April 1908, a few days before his arrest in the Alipore Bomb Case, he wrote :

A certain class of minds shrink 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 Gita is the best answer to those who shrink from battle as a sin and aggression as a lowering of morality.[7]

Clearly, Sri Aurobindo anticipated here the rise of non-violence as a creed ; but he took Sri Krishna’s admonition of Arjuna literally and, like Swami Vivekananda, put his faith in strength, not in ahimsa. Shortly after his release from jail the following year, Sri Aurobindo developed this point in a speech on the Gita at Khulna :

The virtue of the Brahmin is a great virtue : You shall not kill. This is what Ahimsa means. [But] if the virtue of Ahimsa comes to the Kshatriya, if you say “I will not kill,” there is no one to protect the country. The happiness of the people will be broken down. Injustice and lawlessness will reign. The virtue becomes a source of misery, and you become instrumental in bringing misery and conflict to the people.[8]

The teaching of the Gita, he said in his concluding words, “means perfection of action. It makes man great. It gives him the utter strength, the utter bliss which is the goal of life in the world.”[9]

Indeed, the revolutionaries in Bengal and Maharashtra drew such inspiration from the Gita that the colonial authorities came to regard it as a “gospel of terrorism,” and it became one of the most sought-after pieces of evidence in police raids ; it is also one of the chief influences cited in the 1918 Rowlatt Sedition Committee Report, side by side with Swami Vivekananda’s works.[10] Sri Aurobindo himself is said to have given initiation to several revolutionaries by making them swear on the Gita that they would do everything to liberate India from the foreign yoke..[11] But in the columns of the Karmayogin, he took objection to this summary characterization of the Gita :

We strongly protest against the brand of suspicion that has been sought to be placed in many quarters on the teaching and possession of the Gita—our chief national heritage, our hope for the future, our great force for the purification of the moral weaknesses that stain and hamper our people..[12]

The Yoga of the Gita

Though he drew strength from the Gita, Sri Aurobindo knew better than to see in it “a mere gospel of war and heroic action, a Nietzschean creed of power and high-browed strength, of Hebraic or old Teutonic hardness.”[13] During his year-long solitary imprisonment in the Alipore jail, he intensively practised the yoga spelt out by Sri Krishna. Soon after his unexpected acquittal in May 1909, in his famous speech at Uttarpara he recounted something of his experience :

He placed the Gita in my hands. His strength entered into me and I was able to do the Sadhana of the Gita. I was not only to understand intellectually but to realise what Sri Krishna demanded of Arjuna and what He demands of those who aspire to do his work..[14]

To “realize,” let us note again. And what he first realized was the divine Oneness described in the Gita : “The man whose self is in Yoga, sees the self in all beings and all beings in the self, he is equal-visioned everywhere. He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me, to him I do not get lost, nor does he get lost to Me.” (VI.29, 30) In Sri Aurobindo’s words :

I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned ; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me his shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door and again I saw Vasudeva. It was Narayana who was guarding and standing sentry over me.

Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a couch and felt the arms of Sri Krishna around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover…. I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and as I looked at them I saw Vasudeva, it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies.

When the case opened … I was followed by the same insight. He said to me, “When you were cast into jail, did not your heart fail and did you not cry out to me, where is Thy protection ? Look now at the Magistrate, look now at the Prosecuting Counsel.” I looked and it was not the Magistrate whom I saw, it was Vasudeva, it was Narayana who was sitting there on the bench. I looked at the Prosecuting Counsel and it was not the Counsel for the prosecution that I saw ; it was Sri Krishna who sat there and smiled. “Now do you fear ?” He said, “I am in all men and I overrule their actions and their words.”[15]

Such was the supreme experience Sri Aurobindo received in jail, which never left him afterwards. And such is the supreme paradox of the Gita, that we must act and act boldly and sometimes fiercely, knowing and seeing all the while that all is He, that there is nothing in this entire universe that is not essentially the Divine.

I stress the word “essentially,” because there lies, according to Sri Aurobindo, the key to the apparent paradox : all is essentially divine, but until it is manifestly so, this creation will remain a Kurukshetra and it will be our duty to fight for the truth. For the Gita is not concerned with our shallow and too often hypocritical “human rights” ; it deals rather with our human duties : we are human beings only if we are prepared to fight for the truth, not otherwise.

In his Essays, Sri Aurobindo expounded at length, and never in a dry metaphysical manner, every aspect of the Gita, ethical and spiritual : its stress on action, its karma yoga based on true equality, non-attachment and renunciation of the ego, culminating in the abandonment of all dharmas, its broad synthesis of Vedanta, Sankhya, Jñana, Bhakti and even Tantra, its deep insights into the workings of Nature, into human nature with its divine as well as diabolical possibilities, its call to go beyond morality and the three gunas to the supreme truth…. I cannot even outline here these profound expositions which go to the roots of almost every problem of life and yoga which Indian thought and practice has faced.

But, at the cost of incompleteness, there is one core teaching of the Gita we need to look into, one that Sri Aurobindo lays particular stress on, and the very one that had inspired him during his revolutionary days—that is, the problem of action and the use of force to defend dharma.

The Gita, the Gospel of Strength, and Non-Violence

It is customary nowadays to hear that Hinduism is at bottom a “message of tolerance and non-violence”—that has become a kind of slogan which our politicians and media people alike are fond of mouthing without even stopping to think about it. Let us for now pass over the question of tolerance, except to recall these words of Sri Krishna : “Even those who sacrifice to other godheads with devotion and faith, they also sacrifice to Me…. I am equal in all existences, none is dear to Me, none hated” (9.23, 29)—this, along with the famous Vedic affirmation about the many names of the One Existent, contains much more than what is ordinarily meant by “tolerance,” and it is an assurance we are not likely to encounter in any Scripture of the three Semitic religions.

But let us rather dwell on the point of non-violence. Our first observation is that, unlike Buddhism or Jainism, Hinduism never made a universal doctrine of ahimsa, which remained limited to the Brahmin’s dharma, even then with qualifications. True, we have in the Mahabharata the maxim ahimsa paramo dharmah, “ahimsa is the highest law,” but that is never intended for the Kshatriya. There is even a very sensible observation made to the Brahmin Kausika : “When the earth is ploughed, numberless creatures lurking in the ground are destroyed…. Fish preys upon fish, various animals prey upon other species, and some species even prey upon themselves….

The earth and the air all swarm with living organisms which are unconsciously destroyed by men from mere ignorance. Ahimsa was ordained of old by men who were ignorant of the true facts. There is not a man on the face of the earth who is free from the sin of doing injury to creatures.”[16] Then there is the humorous episode in the Devi Bhagavata (skanda 4), in which Brihaspati (in the guise of Sukracharya) preaches ahimsa paramo dharmah to the Asuras and enjoins them “not to injure even those who come to kill you”—but this he preaches to the Asuras so as to disarm them, not to the Devas !

Finally, let us note that even Jainism, which made the maxim one of its central teachings, allows monks to attain liberation by fasting to death—an undeniable act of himsa. There is clearly nothing absolute about the much-abused saying.

There is also nothing non-violent about the wars in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, about some of the Veda’s fierce gods, or Durga’s and Kali’s pitiless destruction of Asuras. Sanskrit texts, as also the Sangam literature and folk legends, resound with heroes and heroic deeds, and Sri Krishna echoes them when he declares : “I am the strength of the mighty” (10.36).

As was his wont, Sri Aurobindo faced this central problem squarely :

Unless we have the honesty and courage to look existence straight in the face, we shall never arrive at any effective solution of its discords and oppositions. We must see first what life and the world are…. Our very bodily life is a constant dying and being reborn, the body itself a beleaguered city attacked by assailing, protected by defending forces whose business is to devour each other….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 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.[17]

Significantly, this passage from his Essays was published in the December 1916 issue of the Arya, in the middle of the First World War, but also when Mahatma Gandhi had joined the national movement and started propagating his doctrine of ahimsa. Sri Aurobindo continues :

This world of our battle and labour is a fierce dangerous destructive devouring world in which life exists precariously and the soul and body of man move among enormous perils, a world in which by every step forward, whether we will it or no, something is crushed and broken, in which every breath of life is a breath too of death.

To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge.

We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it.

We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures.[18]

In these days when, again, easy and noisy slogans have taken the place of thinking and discerning, and when we are constantly told that “All religions are the same and speak the same truth,” mark how Sri Aurobindo never fails to point out the distinctive traits and contributions of the Indian genius :

It is only a few religions which have had the courage to say without any reserve, like the Indian, that this enigmatic World-Power is one Deity, one Trinity, to lift up the image of the Force that acts in the world in the figure not only of the beneficent Durga, but of the terrible Kali in her blood-stained dance of destruction and to say, “This too is the Mother ; this also know to be God ; this too, if thou hast the strength, adore.” And it is significant that the religion which has had this unflinching honesty and tremendous courage, has succeeded in creating a profound and widespread spirituality such as no other can parallel. For truth is the foundation of real spirituality and courage is its soul.[19]

Bracing words these, but lest one might imagine that Sri Aurobindo is advocating some blood-thirsty cult, let me add this conclusion of his :

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.[20]

Examples from India’s Recent History

Note the word “practical.” It should now be clear that Sri Aurobindo radically differed from the Mahatma on the practice of non-violence, and as this difference is glossed over in conventional scholarship, I think we should examine it, since such differences, far from being awkward, are in fact fecund if faced honestly.

It is true that in April 1907, Sri Aurobindo had exposed in a series of brilliant articles in the Bande Mataram his “Doctrine of Passive Resistance” intended to become a mass movement against British rule, and that the series, which was read throughout the country in those days, seems to have influenced Gandhi on his return from Africa.

But Sri Aurobindo never made a cult of ideology either, and in those same articles he had also spelt out the limits of non-cooperation and passive resistance, which he saw as the only practicable policy of the day in the face of the rulers’ crushing military superiority and the Congress Moderates’ lack of support for the ideal of independence :

Every great yajña has its Rakshasas who strive to baffle the sacrifice…. Passive resistance is an attempt to meet such disturbers by peaceful and self-contained brahmatejas ; but 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. We should have the bow of the Kshatriya ready for use, though in the background. Politics is especially the business of the Kshatriya, and without Kshatriya strength at its back, all political struggle is unavailing.[21]

Nevertheless, considerable similarities in the practical aspects of the two leaders’ policies prompted some scholars to paint them with the same brush. When, at the time of Independence, a biographer of his fell victim to such facile parallels, Sri Aurobindo protested in the following note (written in the third person) :

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 suggested 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 Non-violence or pacifist 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. 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…. Sri Aurobindo’s position and practice in this matter was the same as Tilak’s and that of other Nationalist leaders who were by no means Pacifists or worshippers of Ahimsa.[22]

It may appear hard to accept that the gospel of Ahimsa “may leave things worse than before.” But can we for a moment picture what would have happened if, in the middle of the Second World War, with much of Europe including France under German occupation, Britain had given way to the Nazi wave ?

And yet that is exactly what the Mahatma exhorted the British to do in his famous 1940 open letter “to every Briton,” in which he called for the British to lay down their arms “because war is bad in essence,” “to fight Nazism without arms or … with non-violent arms,” and to “invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take … possession of your beautiful island.”[23] No doubt Hitler would have been delighted had Britain followed such advice, just as Duryodhana would have been highly pleased to see Arjuna lay down his bow. But in both cases, what would have been the result for mankind ?

By contrast, in September 1940, Sri Aurobindo sent the Governor of Madras a contribution and a message in support of the Allies during the War :

We feel that not only is this a battle waged in just self-defence and in defence of the nations threatened with the world-domination of Germany and the Nazi system of life, but that it is a defence of civilisation and its highest attained social, cultural and spiritual values and of the whole future of humanity. To this cause our support and sympathy will be unswerving whatever may happen…[24]

Or let us consider the case of the 1942 Cripps mission. Harried by Germany, increasingly pressured by the U.S.A., a proud and reluctant Churchill, who had sworn ever to protect the Empire, was compelled to present to India on a gold platter an offer of dominion status, so as to secure her support during the war. (That was the third such offer since the start of the War, but in more explicit terms than ever.)

In spite of messages from Sri Aurobindo to the Congress urging them to accept the proposal which amounted to virtual independence at the end of the War, and although others (including Nehru and Rajagopalachari) favoured it, Gandhi told Sri Aurobindo’s messenger he found it unacceptable, once again “because of his opposition to war.”[25] (Churchill also, I should add, forbade Sir Stafford Cripps to show the slightest flexibility.) The result of Gandhi’s dogmatic stand on the evil nature of war—a dogma Sri Krishna rebuffs in the Gita—was to be tragic for India.

It not only meant an unnecessary postponement of Independence, but it made India’s bloody vivisection unavoidable, even as the Mahatma promised it would happen only “over his dead body” ; it also meant three wars with our neighbour and the continuing war of attrition and terrorism in Kashmir.

In his History of the Freedom Movement in India, the distinguished historian R. C. Majumdar was forced to reject “the generally accepted view which gave Mahatma Gandhi the ‘sole credit for the freedom of India’.[26] He noted :

It has been my painful duty to show that … the popular image of Gandhi cannot be reconciled with what he actually was…. It will also be seen that the current estimate of the degree or extent of his success bears no relation to actual facts.[27]

Today we find that more and more scholars are rallying to those views and, while giving due respect to the Mahatma, are beginning to whisper that his rigid insistence on an impracticable non-violence may have cost the country dear.[28] Such a reassessment can only be healthy, for there is nothing more debilitating than to draw a righteous veil over errors of the past.

Still, we should note that Gandhi did try to understand Sri Aurobindo’s viewpoint ; in 1924, for instance, he sent his son Devadas to Pondicherry to sound him on non-violence. Sri Aurobindo simply replied, “Suppose there is an invasion of India by the Afghans, how are you going to meet it with non-violence ?”[29]

We all know what happened when Kashmir was invaded immediately after Independence, or when Chinese troops poured into India in 1962, or even ( 1999) when Pakistani troops occupied peaks in Kargil. And I am afraid there are more Kargils to come. It is a moot point what the Mahatma’s advice would be in such cases : to lay down arms and meet the enemy with non-violence ?

The following words of Sri Aurobindo, written in December 1916 in his Essays on the Gita, appear prophetic in retrospect :

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 men 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…[30]

Non-Violence and Shakti

If, therefore, we mean the Gita’s teaching to be a practical one, which is what Sri Aurobindo did, we have to reject non-violence as a creed—it may remain an individual’s choice, for every individual is free to follow his preferred path, but anyone who has to wage a battle for dharma or for the truth—which comes to the same thing—will find a better ally in the use of shakti which the Gita advocates.

Arjuna is of course something of all of us, the symbol of “the struggling human soul,” in Sri Aurobindo’s words, and Kurukshetra is the “battle of life,” even of our humdrum everyday life if we take the trouble of living for a purpose. Resist a corrupt official and a Kurukshetra opens in front of you ; let a women’s group take on liquor barons and you can hear the twang of the Gandiva ; if a few villagers or tribals oppose a timber mafia, you will see a hundred Kauravas rise ; or simply try to keep your street clean and learn what ghoram karma is all about !

Now, a frequent misconception is that if we reject non-violence, we must fall into violence—there is no alternative beyond those two opposite poles. That is a terrible and costly confusion, which the Gita goes to great pains to dispel : between blind, asuric violence and noble but impotent non-violence, there is conscious, detached shakti, which can remain powerfully still or also wage war, as circumstances demand.

True, in the world’s history, most aggressive expansions, especially the Christian and Islamic, followed the asuric path and washed the earth with blood—there is at least one notable exception, though, and that is India, whose sole weapon of conquest was always her culture.

Yet she was by no means non-violent. Alexander was confronted by Paurava’s armies ; the Pratihara empire, the last Hindu empire of Northwest India, checked the progress of Islam into India for three centuries ; we know well enough the great deeds of a Shivaji or a Lakshmibai and countless other heroes of this land, including those who fought and often died for India’s freedom. Sri Krishna’s injunctions as to the Kshatriya’s dharma were therefore no dead letter in India’s past.

As to the present, it is a frequently heard complaint that Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence is no longer followed in India ; but it rather seems to me that it has penetrated the collective Indian consciousness deep enough to make it wince at the very thought of force and put a brake on its use even when and where it is patently needed.

Certainly no other country would have tolerated with so little reaction the amount of aggression India has suffered since Independence, and at what terrible cost.

India’s one tragedy is that she has not had the courage to put to effective use the elements of strength in her heritage. The Gita provides a telling case in point. Here is a brief and accessible text, with nothing esoteric to it, which has evoked the admiration of countless thinkers outside India, from Emerson to Aldous Huxley and André Malraux, here is the best possible guide of ethics (though not merely that), which disentangles with miraculous ease some of the most knotty questions humanity has asked—and, except for a course or two of philosophy, our schools and colleges will not teach it to our children. And why not ? Because, so far as I have been able to make out, it is a “religious” text.

A more thoughtless aberration would be hard to come by, and I wonder how those who drafted India’s education policy arrogated the right to deprive young Indians of their heritage. No, the Gita is not a “religious” or even a “Hindu” scripture, it belongs to all humanity and its very text repeatedly makes this universality plain :

“I am the path and goal,” says Sri Krishna, “the upholder, the master, the witness, the house and country, the refuge, the benignant friend ; I the birth and status and destruction of apparent existence, I the imperishable seed of all and their eternal resting-place…. I am the silence of things secret and the knowledge of the knower…. Nothing moving or unmoving, animate or inanimate in the world can be without me.” (9.18, 10.38, 10.39)

Is this a sectarian declaration ? Moreover, the Gita is about dharma and dharma is not religion, it is ethics in the deepest sense. If we decide that education is only intended to prepare children for getting jobs and has nothing to do with making better human beings out of them, then we admit that there is no more meaning to a man’s life than to an ant’s.

The Gita’s message is a practical tool : it gives a purpose in life, and a purpose is something practical ; it gives strength, and strength is something practical ; it gives self-confidence, elevation in thought, a broader view of life, a deeper understanding of human nature, and those are all practical things.

I believe India would be in a better shape today had the Gita not been kept out of sight and hearing of young Indians, except for some abstract study of the Sankhya philosophy or a few slokas for burials and other ceremonies. Was Sri Aurobindo’s depiction of the Gita as “our chief national heritage, our hope for the future” just so many empty words ?

Permit me to quote Swami Vivekananda too, in whose name we are gathered today. Speaking in Calcutta to a few young aspirants, he said :

In order to remove this delusion which had overtaken Arjuna, what did the Bhagavan say ? As I always preach that you should … draw [a man’s] attention to the omnipotent power that is in him, in the same way does the Bhagavan speak to Arjuna : “Thou art that Atman imperishable, beyond all evil… Yield not to unmanliness.” If you, my sons, can proclaim this message to the world, “Yield not to unmanliness,” then all this disease, grief, sin and sorrow will vanish from the face of the earth in three days…. Proclaim to the whole world with trumpet voice, “There is no sin in thee, there is no misery in thee ; thou art the reservoir of omnipotent power. Arise, awake, and manifest the divinity within !”[31]

Because they insisted on building a new, rejuvenated India on the great truths of her ancient heritage and not on the fleeting destructive values of the West, neither Sri Aurobindo nor Swami Vivekananda are in favour with current thinking, if it can be called that. In fact, today they would probably be labelled “revivalists” by our hypnotized intelligentsia, and they would certainly find themselves swimming against the cheerless tide, at loggerheads with almost every direction the country has taken since Independence, and with the educational system in particular.

They would never have imagined that education in free India could have rejected anything having to do with Indian culture, preferring to go on with Macaulay’s denationalizing methods. Is Indian culture then something so shameful, so ignoble that it has to be concealed from our children, except in the privacy of the home ? Well, perhaps it is after all, but if it is, let us have the courage to declare so openly and have done with it rather than brandish it just to attract foreign tourists to a few temples and ruins.

I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning a case in point : it is significant that none of our successive education ministers thought it worthwhile to give Swami Vivekananda’s or Sri Aurobindo’s names to just one out of the 216 universities spread over the country ; Mahatma Gandhi has two universities in his name, one of which is of course this one here ; Dr. Ambedkar has six, Jawaharlal Nehru three, and a number of much lesser Indians have one.

But no “Swami Vivekananda University,” no “Sri Aurobindo University”—Swami Vivekananda who shook India awake, Sri Aurobindo who in 1906 became the first principal of the newly opened Bengal National College, Sri Aurobindo the Nationalist leader, the editor and chief writer of Bande Mataram and Karmayogin, Sri Aurobindo who laid the foundations for an original Indian perspective in so many fields of yoga, thought, action, and life.

This omission may be a small thing in itself, but it is revealing of the unease the establishment feels towards these awkward personalities. Which Indian student ever learns anything of substance about Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo ? Either we find them worthy of being taught to our children for their greater benefit as human beings, in which case we should roll up our sleeves and set to work, or there is no point in making them objects of hollow praise as is too often the case.

Sri Aurobindo had and still has a message for his country, and a practical one, for he was no effete dreamer. Whether calling for India’s independence, supporting the Allies, urging acceptance of Cripps’ proposal, he practised what he called “spiritual realism.”[32] It is India’s misfortune that he was not heard, and her continuing misfortune that he and Swami Vivekananda are shoved aside like museum pieces.

Of course, it would be a mistake to equate Sri Aurobindo’ entire teaching and yoga with the Gita. As he said,

I regard the spiritual history of mankind and especially of India as a constant development of a divine purpose, not a book that is closed and the lines of which have to be constantly repeated. Even the Upanishads and the Gita were not final though everything may be there in seed….[33]

But in all his actions, Sri Aurobindo faithfully followed the spirit of the Gita. His life is, in my opinion, the best commentary on the great Scripture.

“If one is among the … seekers of [the] Truth,” he once wrote to a disciple, “one has to take sides for the Truth, to stand against the forces that attack it and seek to stifle it. Arjuna wanted not to stand for either side, to refuse any action of hostility even against assailants ; Sri Krishna, who insisted so much on samata, strongly rebuked his attitude and insisted equally on his fighting the adversary. ‘Have samata,’ he said, ‘and seeing clearly the Truth, fight.’ … It is a spiritual battle inward and outward ; by neutrality and compromise or even passivity one may allow the enemy force to pass and crush down the Truth and its children.”[34]

By Michel Danino

Keynote address delivered by Michel Danino at a seminar on  Relevance of Bhagavad Gita in the New Millennium  on January 12, 2000, at Kottayam s Mahatma Gandhi University. This seminar was part of Vivekananda Jayanthi and National Youth Day celebrations, as a valediction of the Vandematharam programme of the Department of Culture, Government of India, and was organized by the Mahatma Gandhi University unit of the Bharateeya Vichara Kendram.)

N.B. : In references to Sri Aurobindo’s works (‘Centenary Edition,’ Pondicherry : Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), the first number refers to the volume, the second to the page number.

Sri Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (3rd ed., 2000; also in Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Oriya, Tamil and Gujarati translations) is co-published and distributed by:

[1] Evening Talks recorded by A. B. Purani (Pondicherry : Sri Aurobindo Society, 1982), p. 105
[2] Mother’s Chronicles—Book Five : Mira Meets the Revolutionary by Sujata Nahar (Mysore : Mira Aditi, 1997), p. 97
[3] Notes on the Mahabharata, 3.169.
[4] Ibid., 3.178.
[6] See India’s Rebirth (Mysore : Mira Aditi, 3rd edition, 2000), p. 19.
[7] FrIbid., p. 46.
[8] Karmayogin, June 25, 1909, 2.427.
[9] Ibid., 2.430.
[10]See Sedition Committee 1918 Report under Hon’ble Mr. Justice Rowlatt (reprinted Calcutta : New Age Publishers, 1973), p. 17 & 23.
[11] R. C. Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India (Calcutta : Firmal KLM, vol. 3, 1988), vol. I p. 408.
[12] Karmayogin, 12 January 1910, 2.401.
[13] Essays on the Gita, 13.52-53.
[14] Uttarpara Speech, 30 May 1909, 2.3.
[15] Ibid., 2.4-5.
[16] Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Ch. 207, adapted from K. M. Ganguli’s translation (Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal, 2000), vol. I p. 431-432.
[17] Essays on the Gita, 13.38-39.
[18] Ibid., 13.367-368
[19] Ibid., 13.42.
[20] Ibid., 13.45.
[21] Bande Mataram, 23 April 1907, 1.122.
[22] On Himself, 26.22.
[23] Amrita Bazar Patrika, “Method of Non-violence—Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal to every Briton,” July 4, 1940. See a longer extract and Sri Aurobindo’s reaction to the open letter in India’s Rebirth, p. 227.
[24] On Himself, 26.393.
[25] See India’s Rebirth, p. 235-236.
[26] R. C. Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India, vol. 3, p. xiii.
[27] Ibid., p. xviii.
[28] See for instance N. S. Rajaram, Gandhi, Khilafat and the National Movement (Bangalore : Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, 1999).
[29] Evening Talks, p. 53
[30] Essays on the Gita, 13.39.
[31] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Almora : Advaita Ashrama, 1948), vol. IV, p. 105-106.
[32] The Human Cycle, 15:228
[33] On Himself, 26.125.
[34] Letters on Yoga, 23.665-666.

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