Western society today believes only in “exploitation,” “expansion,” “efficiency,” “competitiveness”—and seeks to transform its members into unthinking cogs in a huge Machine. We will certainly find some remarkable individuals here and there, but the mass is left to live from day to day, with, now and then, the luxury of a fit of depression, when the void in their hearts becomes a little too acute. Or, if it is not depression, it is a bottomless pit of degradation. Western civilization, if it can be given this noble name, was built on cynical greed, with a thin veneer of culture to give it a respectable appearance. Anyone who finds this statement excessive should study the way “leading” Western nations spend their time selling weapons of death to everyone, then sending peace missions to extinguish the wars they started, and more bombers in case the peace missions are turned down.
Not to speak of the countless dictators and terrorists they constantly create, only to fight them in the name of “human rights” once they are found inconvenient. Or, again, look at those giant corporate houses which think nothing of laying the earth waste as long as they can make a few more dollars. No one knows where the whole machine is heading, nor does anyone care—although many, especially among the ordinary people, vaguely and anxiously sense that things cannot go on much longer. Such unhealthy foundations are sure to decay before long, and the signs of impending disintegration are not lacking, whether in the economic or the social fields.
Sri Aurobindo, who last century imbibed all the culture Europe had to offer him, saw very soon through the West’s chosen direction. He wrote in 1910 :
Was life always so trivial, always so vulgar, always so loveless, pale and awkward as the Europeans have made it ? This well-appointed comfort oppresses me, this perfection of machinery will not allow the soul to remember that it is not itself a machine. Is this then the end of the long march of human civilisation, this spiritual suicide, this quiet petrifaction of the soul into matter ? Was the successful businessman that grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving ? After all, if the scientific view is correct, why not ? An evolution that started with the protoplasm and flowered in the ourang-outang and the chimpanzee, may well rest satisfied with having created hat, coat and trousers, the British Aristocrat, the American Capitalist and the Parisian Apache. For these, I believe, are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads. […] What a bankruptcy !
What a beggary of things that were rich and noble ! Europe boasts of her science and its marvels. But […] to the braggart intellect of Europe the Indian is bound to reply, “I am not interested in what you know, I am interested in what you are. With all your discoveries and inventions, what have you become ? Your enlightenment is great—but what are these strange creatures that move about in the electric light you have installed and imagine that they are human ?” Is it a great gain for the human intellect to have grown more acute and discerning, if the human soul dwindles ? […] Man in Europe is descending steadily from the human level and approximating to the ant and the hornet. The process is not complete but it is progressing apace, and if nothing stops the debacle, we may hope to see its culmination in this twentieth century. After all our superstitions were better than this enlightenment, our social abuses less murderous to the hopes of the race than this social perfection.
Ninety years later, what was then behind the veil is now out in the open. We have almost reached the “culmination” of the West’s failure. It has failed in spite of all its achievements because it has ignored what we “are,” scoffed at what we are expected to “become.” And that is precisely, for Sri Aurobindo, the heart of Indian civilization, its constant concern through ages, in art or science or yoga, in every activity of life. “The laboratory of the soul has been India,” he said. Indian culture is simply the culture of man’s inner richness. It is a realization that the entire universe is divine, tree, bird, man and star—and our Mother Earth, whom the West has for two thousand years regarded as a chunk of inanimate matter created to serve our ever-expanding greeds.
While fighting for India’s independence, Sri Aurobindo reminded his countrymen :
This great and ancient nation was once the fountain of human light, the apex of human civilisation, the exemplar of courage and humanity, the perfection of good Government and settled society, the mother of all religions, the teacher of all wisdom and philosophy. It has suffered much at the hands of inferior civilisations and more savage peoples; it has gone down into the shadow of night and tasted often of the bitterness of death. Its pride has been trampled into the dust and its glory has departed. Hunger and misery and despair have become the masters of this fair soil, these noble hills, these ancient rivers, these cities whose life story goes back into prehistoric night. [… But] all our calamities have been but a discipline of suffering, because for the great mission before us prosperity was not sufficient, adversity had also its training; to taste the glory of power and beneficence and joy was not sufficient, the knowledge of weakness and torture and humiliation was also needed.
One hopes that the lesson of weakness and humiliation is coming to its end. It has lasted long enough. But, for Sri Aurobindo, it can only end if we get rid of a central misconception, a fatal misconception. When we speak of the “laboratory of the soul,” of India’s wisdom and spirituality, a widespread tendency is to think that all this is fine for those confined to ashrams, or perhaps for old age, but of little practical use to build a nation. Sri Aurobindo frankly disagrees. To him, inner growth can never contradict outer growth, but can alone put it on a sound foundation. Referring to India’s extraordinarily creative past, which certainly never neglected material life and achievements, he observed :
“Without this opulent vitality and opulent intellectuality India could never have done so much as she did with her spiritual tendencies. It is a great error to suppose that spirituality flourishes best in an impoverished soil with the life half-killed and the intellect discouraged and intimidated. It is an error, we repeat, to think that spirituality is a thing divorced from life.”
When, in 1920, Sri Aurobindo was asked to resume politics, while spelling out his reasons for turning down the request, he also said :
I have always laid a dominant stress and I now lay an entire stress on the spiritual life, but my idea of spirituality has nothing to do with ascetic withdrawal or contempt or disgust of secular things. There is to me nothing secular, all human activity is for me a thing to be included in a complete spiritual life.
With half-veiled causticity, Sri Aurobindo explained :
People care nothing about the spiritual basis of life which is India’s real mission and the only possible source of her greatness, or give to it only a slight, secondary or incidental value, a something that has to be stuck on as a sentiment or a bit of colouring matter. Our whole principle is different. We are sometimes asked what on earth we mean by spirituality in art and poetry or in political and social life—a confession of ignorance strange enough in any Indian mouth at this stage of our national history. […]
We have here really an echo of the European idea that religion and spirituality on the one side and intellectual activity and practical life on the other are two entirely different things and have each to be pursued on its own entirely separate lines and in obedience to its own entirely separate principles. [… But] true spirituality rejects no new light, no added means or materials of our human self-development. It means simply to keep our centre, our essential way of being, our inborn nature and assimilate to it all we receive, and evolve out of it all we do and create. [… India] can, if she will, give a new and decisive turn to the problems over which all mankind is labouring and stumbling, for the clue to their solutions is there in her ancient knowledge. Whether she will rise or not to the height of her opportunity in the renaissance which is coming upon her, is the question of her destiny.
To achieve India’s “renaissance,” Sri Aurobindo boldly and repeatedly called on his countrymen to develop the Kshatriya spirit, almost lost after centuries of subjection :
The Kshatriya of old must again take his rightful position in our social polity to discharge the first and foremost duty of defending its interests. The brain is impotent without the right arm of strength.What India needs especially at this moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic spirit of inertia we have already too much. We need to cultivate another training and temperament, another habit of mind.
And how do we cultivate that other training and temperament ? We can cultivate it on the individual or on the collective level. Individually, that is yoga; it means opening ourselves to a wider consciousness and a greater power; it means allowing them to fashion anew our hardly human nature. And of course, it means discarding the misconception that yoga is good only for escaping from this world. Recently, a young Indian friend asked me, “But what is the benefit of yoga ?” Overlooking the rather mercantile aspect in his question, I tried to explain that the “benefit” is all that ordinary life cannot provide—all that the ancient Rishis were after : true mastery, true power, true expansion, and a true understanding of the world, which is so tragically lacking today. I don’t think my young friend was convinced it was really worth all the trouble ! Which is why Sri Aurobindo never expected too many people to sincerely practise his exacting integral yoga.
That brings us to the slower but crucial collective level. Sri Aurobindo always laid great stress on education. He himself had the best European education while in Cambridge, and, between 1897 and 1906, was a professor in the Baroda State College, then in the Bengal National College. So he knew the question in depth. And he had hopes in the young.
Our call is to young India. It is the young who must be the builders of the new world—not those who accept the competitive individualism, the capitalism or the materialistic communism of the West as India’s future ideal, not those who are enslaved to old religious formulas and cannot believe in the acceptance and transformation of life by the spirit, but all who are free in mind and heart to accept a completer truth and labour for a greater ideal.
Sri Aurobindo never tired of calling for what he termed “a national education.” He gave this brief definition for it :
[It is] the education which starting with the past and making full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of our national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing us the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that Europe can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these we must harmonise into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines.
Sri Aurobindo had little love for British education in India, which he called a “mercenary and soulless education,” and for its debilitating influence on the “the innate possibilities” of the Indian brain. “In India,” he said, “the students generally have great capacities, but the system of education represses and destroys these capacities.” As in every field, he wanted India to carve out her own path courageously :
The greatest knowledge and the greatest riches man can possess are [India’s] by inheritance; she has that for which all mankind is waiting. […] But the full soul rich with the inheritance of the past, the widening gains of the present, and the large potentiality of the future, can come only by a system of National Education. It cannot come by any extension or imitation of the system of the existing universities with its radically false principles, its vicious and mechanical methods, its dead-alive routine tradition and its narrow and sightless spirit. Only a new spirit and a new body born from the heart of the Nation and full of the light and hope of its resurgence can create it.
It is beyond this brief presentation to spell out the features of a national education as Sri Aurobindo envisioned it; let me just mention that he laid great stress on the cultivation of powers of thought and concentration, which runs counter to the present system of rote learning. The student had to be trained to think freely and deeply : “I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness,” Sri Aurobindo observed in 1920, “is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge.
Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think.” Sri Aurobindo also insisted on mastery of one’s mother-tongue, on the teaching of Sanskrit, which he certainly did not regard as a “dead language,” on artistic values based on the old spirit of Indian art, all of which he saw as essential to the integral development of the child’s personality. In short, nothing whether Indian or Western was rejected, but all had to be integrated in the Indian spirit.
This is clearly not the line Indian education has taken. If we see today that nothing even of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana is taught to an Indian child, we can measure the abyss to be bridged. That the greatest epics of mankind should be thrown away on the absurd and erroneous pretext that they are “religious” is beyond the comprehension of an impartial observer. A German or French or English child will be taught something of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, because they are regarded as the root of European culture, and somehow present in the European consciousness. He will not be asked to worship Zeus or Athena, but will be shown how the Ancients saw and experienced the world and the human being. But Indian epics, a hundred times richer and vaster in human experience, a thousand times more present in the Indian consciousness, will not be taught to an Indian child. Not to speak of other important texts such as the beautiful Tamil epics, Shilappadikaram and Manimekhalai. Even the Panchatantra and countless other highly educational collections of Indian stories—even folk stories—are ruled out.
The result is that young Indians are increasingly deprived from their rightful heritage, cut off from their deeper roots. I have often found myself in the curious position of explaining to some of them the symbolic meaning of an ancient Indian myth, for instance—or, worse, of having to narrate the myth itself. Again, a French or English child will be given at least some semblance of cultural identity, whatever its worth; but here, in this country which not long ago had the most living culture in the world, a child is given no nourishing food—only some insipid, unappetizing hodgepodge, cooked in the West and pickled in India. This means that in the name of some irrational principles, India as an entity is throwing away some of its most precious treasures. As Sri Aurobindo put it :
Ancient India’s culture, attacked by European modernism, overpowered in the material field, betrayed by the indifference of her children, may perish for ever along with the soul of the nation that holds it in its keeping.
Certainly some aberration worked upon the minds of those who devised Indian education after Independence. Or perhaps they devised nothing but were content with dusting off Macaulay’s brainchild. It is painful to see that the teaching of Sanskrit is almost systematically discouraged in India; it is painful to see that the deepest knowledge of the human being, that of yogic science, is discarded in favour of shallow Western psychology or psychoanalysis; it is painful to see that the average Indian student never even hears the name of Sri Aurobindo, who did so much for his country; and that, generally, Western intellectualism at its worst is the only food given to a nation whom Sri Aurobindo described as once the “deepest-thoughted.”
India will certainly be compelled to address these central questions in the very near future, even as the Western edifice crumbles. Again and again, in the clearest and strongest terms, Sri Aurobindo asserted that India can never survive as a nation if she neglects or rejects what was always the source of her strength. Again and again, he saw India as the key to humanity’s rebirth.
In 1948, just two years before his passing, Sri Aurobindo said in a message to the Andhra University :
It would be a tragic irony of fate if India were to throw away her spiritual heritage at the very moment when in the rest of the world there is more and more a turning towards her for spiritual help and a saving Light. This must not and will surely not happen; but it cannot be said that the danger is not there. There are indeed other numerous and difficult problems that face this country or will very soon face it. No doubt we will win through, but we must not disguise from ourselves the fact that after these long years of subjection and its cramping and impairing effects a great inner as well as outer liberation and change, a vast inner and outer progress is needed if we are to fulfil India’s true destiny.
References 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:
Mira Aditi 62 ‘Sriranga’, 2nd Main, 1st Cross T. K. Layout, Saraswatipuram Mysore – 570 009, India firstname.lastname@example.org
 “Epistles from Abroad,” 3.454-456.
 Bande Mataram, 28 March 1908, 1.800.
 Ibid., 7 October 1907, 1.560-561.
 The Renaissance in India, 14.404.
 Karmayogin, 19 June 1909, quoted in India’s Rebirth (Mysore, 1997), p. 51.
 On Himself, 26.430.
 From a letter to Motilal Roy, May 1920, 27.487.
 The Renaissance in India, 14.426-433.
 Bande Mataram, 8 April 1907, 1.244.
 “Ourselves,” 15 August 1920, 16.331.
 Ibid., 7 June 1907, 1.405.
 Bande Mataram, 24 February 1908, 1.718.
 “The National Value of Art,” in Karmayogin, 20 November 1909, 17.231.
 “National Education,” April 1918, 27.505.
 �National Education,� April 1918, 27.505.
 Letter to Barin Ghose, April 1920, India’s Rebirth, p. 151.
 The Foundations of Indian Culture, 14.1.
 Karmayogin, 25 September 1909, 2.211.  Message to the Andhra University, December 1948, On Himself, 26.412-413.