16. Aurobindo: Nationalism and Democracy Sangit Kumar Ragi – Indian Political Thought, 2nd Edition


Aurobindo: Nationalism and Democracy

Sangit Kumar Ragi


Aurobindo, a creative genius and a multifaceted personality, was a towering figure of the national movement. Nationalists worship him as an apostle and prophet of Indian nationalism.1 He was not a mass leader of the national movement like Gandhi2 but he was no less forceful than him. Aurobindo, whose original name was Aravinda Akroyd Ghose, was born on 15th August 1872 in Kolkata. His father, a district surgeon in Rangapur in Bengal, had studied medicine in Britain and wanted his children to be educated there, free from any kind of Indian influence. After a few years of schooling in Loreto Convent, Darjeeling, Aurobindo and his two elder brothers were packed off to Manchester, England, in 1879, where they were put in the care of an Anglican clergyman’s family. Later, in order to fulfil his father’s wishes to have his sons in the Indian Civil Services (ICS), he joined King’s College, Cambridge University, on a scholarship and attempted the difficult ICS examination. He was successful and achieved a pretty high rank. However, by the end of the two-year probation period, he had decided against joining the ICS and serving the British. Instead, after an arranged meeting with the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, in England, he joined the Baroda State Service. He left England soon after and arrived in India in February 1893.

In Baroda, he moved from one department to the other and finally settled as the vice-principal of Baroda College. It was only while at Baroda that he taught himself, Bengali, which was his mother tongue, Hindi and Sanskrit. His father’s insistence on keeping him away from Indian influences had completely cut him off from his roots, and he did not know even his mother tongue. While still in the service of the Baroda State, he quietly started taking interest in the political movements against the British rule. Soon enough, he was engaging in the clandestine promotion of resistance activities. He also started writing a series of articles in a weekly in which he attacked the aim and methods of the moderates in the Congress.

By 1905, the year Bengal was partitioned, he was in the thick of nationalist politics. He attended the Benares session of the Congress in 1905. He moved to Kolkata in 1906 and became very active in organizing and promoting revolutionary activities. He was charged with sedition for his fiery articles in Bande Matram but was later acquitted. This, however, strengthened his position among the revolutionaries and he began to be considered, by both the revolutionaries and the British, as the leading member of the group. The simmering discontent between the Congress’s moderate and revolutionary factions, which had largely to do with the crucial question of the aim of the party and the methods to be adopted to achieve them, came to a head in the Surat session of 1907. Aurobindo, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, led the extremist or the revolutionary faction in the showdown at the session, which resulted in the split in Congress. In the meantime, his activities gathered pace and he travelled to various places giving speeches and holding meetings. Arrested in the May of 1908 in connection with the Alipore Bomb Case, he was incarcerated and kept in isolation in the Alipore Central Jail for a year while the trial was underway. Though he was acquitted, his experiences while in prison had shifted his focus from the political to the spiritual. But this transformation did not completely dampen his revolutionary spirit. As soon as he was out of the jail, he gave the famous Uttarpara speech in which he articulated forcefully his spiritual convictions, equating nationalism with dharma, elevating the nationalist struggle and cause to the spiritual level. The British, however, were very worried by his growing influence and his brand of politics. Lord Minto thought him to be the ‘most dangerous person we have to reckon with’ and the police were on the lookout for a chance to arrest him again. So, within a year of his release, he finally left British territory and moved to the French colony of Puducherry (earlier known as Pondicherry) where he concentrated on his spiritual activities and philosophical pursuits. He died on 5th December 1950.

Political Activities of Aurobindo

Aurobindo’s initial activities were largely focussd on the burning political and nationalist questions of the time. In the beginning, Aurobindo had great expectations from the Congress Party. He believed that the party would play a leading role in the national movement, and it would help in channelizing the aspirations of the masses. However, the feeling did not last very long. Disappointed at its debating club mentality, he became a vehement critique of the party and its leadership. He questioned the Congress Party almost on every count: from the question of leadership to its methods of working, from its claims to be representative to its very commitment to the cause of Indian independence and its capability of galvanizing the Indian masses towards national goals. According to him, the Congress lacked both ‘direction and insights’.

A revolutionary, Aurobindo opposed both the motive and methods of the early Congress, led by the moderates. He was of the view that the constitutionalist and ‘faithful symbolic protests’ of the moderates would not yield the desired result for the nation. He described the moderates as ‘loyalists’ (due to their allegiance to and faith in the British government and colonial rule) and severely condemned the moderate’s ‘reformatory goals’ directed at gradual upgradation of the quality of life of Indians within the British rule itself, and peaceful constitutional campaigns aimed at extracting political concessions for Indians. Aurobindo, on the other hand, argued for complete independence of Indian. He ridiculed the logic of self-development and common well being under foreign rule as extended by moderates. He considered foreign rule as ‘unnatural and foreign to a nation’ as it does not give ‘space to the indigenous capacity and energies’ to flourish rather than crush them down to meet the colonial interests. The subject nation, he argued, ‘becomes dependent, disorganized and loses its power by atrophy’. The national independence, therefore, is ‘absolutely necessary’.3

He held that just as no two men are alike, so no two nations can be alike. Each one has a separate character and capacity. The way every individual has his own distinct individuality despite several aspects of physiological similarity so is the case with nations. They all have their own individuality. And the way this distinctiveness in human beings remains ‘due to freedom’ similarly the distinctiveness of nations can continue to sustain only when they are free and able to develop in consonance with their innate nature. Thus he drew on the idea of organic development to prove his point. He argued that the way individual liberty is essential for individual development, national liberty, similarly, is required for development of a nation. For Aurobindo, liberty was ‘a necessity of national life and therefore worth striving for its own sake’.4 Secondly, it was also must for the intellectual, moral, industrial and political development of the nation. Colonization does not stop with political enslavement but leads to economic, moral and cultural imprisonment too. Colonialism, he held, drains out the natural vitality and genius of a nation and reduces the colonized people into a race of imitators. He, therefore, argued for exercise of ‘actions and efforts determined by our own nature’.5 Even a benevolent foreign rule, which was what the moderate approach was aiming for initially, was therefore not worth it because it is unnatural, as ‘the foreign rule is bound to impose foreign values and systems, some time knowingly, some time unknowingly’. But without exception, it proves to be a burden and is harmful to the colonized population as the foreign elements are not best suited to the genius of the native population. Imitations, he said, can provide temporary success, not the lasting one. They decay and die out at the end. He argued that under colonial rule certain sections of people may be beneficiary but the nation stands to lose.

Political emancipation of the nation therefore was the first principle. He called upon the nationalists always to remember this point and adhere to as aspired for by the early moderates, was sufficient. Aurobindo criticized the moderates for their limited goals like increasing representation in the legislative institutions. His apprehension was that such moves would benefit the British government as they would help the latter to legitimize its rule by ‘using the broader representation as the reflection of ‘general will’ or real will of the people of the country’. This finally would defeat the larger goal of nation. Moreover, they (British) would also like to fill up the seats with their puppets. Therefore, instead of representation in government he advocated for representative government.6

Aurobindo also rejected the ‘disunity and fitness theory’ propagated by the British and blindly accepted by the moderates. It is relevant to note that one section of the early moderates believed in ‘civilizing theory’ that the British rule was beneficial to the nation. The ‘civilizing theory’ smacked of racial arrogance and contained the elements of religious excluvism, and both the Christian missionary and the colonial state were hand in glove on this count. Several reformists of the 19th century as well as the moderates within the Congress had fallen victim to it and had interiorized this theory. Aurobindo rejected this line of argument and condemned the moderates for misleading the nation.

For him advancing faith in the British sense of justice was ‘grave and injurious’7 to the nation as it would weaken the national resolve to throw out the colonial power and hence opposed it tooth and nail. He held that British had not come to India to promote moral and noble cause in the country but to exploit it for their own colonial ends. Hence, expecting any thing big and great from them would be self-deceiving and grossly erroneous as they were here not to work towards political, economic and cultural emancipation of the country. They would work, if at all, only towards ‘nominal redressal through petty and tinkering legislation’.8 Hence, any appeal to the British sense of justice was misplaced, misdirected and fatal to the country.

He ridiculed the Congress for behaving like a ‘permanent opposition’ of the British rule in India in the same way there was a permanent opposition to the Crown in England.9 He questioned the convictions and wisdom of the Congress. He argued that ‘bar counsel’ behavior of the Congress leaders working for ‘remedial legislation’10 could be appropriate for the judicial matters but inappropriate strategy for ‘political emancipation of the people’.11 He wrote:


Its aims are mistaken. It is proceeding for accomplishment of goals not with sincerity and wholeheartedness and its methods are not the right methods and the leaders whom it trusts are not the right sort of men to be leaders in brief.12


Aurobindo made it very clear that the Congress should work for no less than complete independence. He held that ‘any aggregate mass of humanity must inevitably strive to emerge and affirm its own essence by law of its own nature, aspire towards life and its expansion’. This is possible only in the atmosphere of political freedom. And the political freedom does not come from requests and appeal to the colonizer but is fought and won. It is true for every nation including India. Therefore, application of the methods by the Congress for achieving it by ‘relying on the liberty-loving instincts of English Parliament’13 and ‘hankering after the Anglo-Indian or British sense of justice’14 was not correct. What was needed was to arouse and display a sense of manhood and genuine patriotism among the Indians. It required a sense of confidence within the national population and its commitment to the national cause forgetting the individual gains and interests. For him, actual enemy of the country was not ‘any exterior force’ but Indians own inferiority complex, their selfishness, hypocrisy and ‘purblind sentimentalism’. He therefore called upon the youths to shed off their mental inertia and dedicate themselves to the cause of the nation.

Idea of Passive Resistance

Aurobindo was very clear that the emancipation of the nation was not so easy. The path to Swaraj, he wrote, everywhere in the world has been ‘full of sharp rocks and thick brambles’. Those who wish for it must have faith and conviction in cause and methods apart from capacity to bear sufferings. They should possess the ‘quality of endurance and sacrifice’. For emancipation of the Indian nation from the British colonialism, he advocated for starting first the ‘organized national passive resistance’, rather than ‘organized active resistance’, which could involve assassinations, riots, strikes, agrarian risings, etc. Nor did he advocate the course of ‘armed revolt bringing the administration to collapse’.15 This may seem surprising given his revolutionary bent of mind. But it was well considered. Aurobindo knew it very well that it was almost impossible to oust the British militarily given their relative military might. Moreover the colonial government could find it easier to suppress such revolts and therefore chances of their success were less. The story of the 1857 uprising was before him. Therefore as a first step towards freedom he advocated the course of ‘passive resistance’, a technique of resisting the government by gradually making it irrelevant for the people.

By passive resistance he thus meant ‘organized defensive resistance to the alien rule’ by ‘reducing the dependency of nation on the foreign bureaucracy’16 It involved two things: first constructive activities like creating institutions of need, parallel to government, such as the opening of schools, local community courts etc and secondly opposition of foreign schools and foreign courts. Both had to go simultaneously. Thus passive resistance did not mean only institution of swadeshi but resistance of Videshi at the same time without which the entire purpose behind creating swadeshi would get defeated. Passive resistance was not an end of or deviation or escape from struggle but a new kind of struggle which in his view required rather more courage, endurance, and capacity to sufferings compared to active organized resistance involving riots and assassinations or armed revolts. Resistance was the core of its strategy. After all Congress was also engaged in the constructive programmes like opening of schools and colleges to impart education but it lacked the second part, i.e., boycott of schools and colleges run by the alien ruler. It introduced the second part only after arrival of Gandhi on the national scene. It is therefore he termed the moderate within the Congress as ‘inoffensive philanthropic patriots’.17 Resistance therefore was intrinsic and must, just as the swadeshi without boycott had no meaning. Aurobindo held that these two constituents must encompass all the ‘critical aspects’ of the nation life from the court to industries. Thus mere expanding indigenous trade and industry or setting up of indigenous court of arbitration was not enough. Boycott of the government run entities were equally important. Thus self-help and boycott, two complementing strategies, constituted operating methods of passive resistance. While boycott aimed at ‘non-cooperation with and non-acquiescence’ to the colonial set-up, self-help was directed towards providing alternative to the existing ones. Thus boycott of the industry or foreign goods in itself was not enough. It had to be ‘supplanted’ by swadeshi industry, i.e., ‘expansion of indigenous industries.

Aurobindo identified four major priority areas in this respect. They included economy, education, judicial system and executive administration. The selection of these four core areas was important, as these four constitute the backbone of any colonial administration. If swadeshi was essential to stop the draining out of the native capital, indigenous schools were important to end production of ‘non-patriotic individuals getting tutored by schools controlled by the government’. Quite naturally, he suggested for developing alternatives in these areas. He said:


If we decline to enter alien court of justice, we must have arbitration courts of our own to settle our disputes and differences. If we do not send our boys to school owned or controlled by the government we must have schools of our own in which they must receive a through and national education. If we do not go for protection to the executive, we must have a system of self-protection and mutual protection of our own.18


The idea of passive resistance also included ‘the refusal of payment of taxes to the government’ but considered it the strongest and final form of passive resistance. He therefore did not recommend this for India in the first stage of struggle. Nevertheless, legality was neither the core of passive resistance nor an essential condition. He strongly advocated the breaking of laws if they were unjust and oppressive, as was the case with sedition laws and laws related to racial enmity. In fact, opposition of such laws, for him, constituted the duty of the practitioner of passive resistance and the latter should be ready to bear the brunt of the government because the latter would like to suppress it at every cost. Aurobindo derived this inference from the happenings in Bengal where even the singing of Vande Mataram invited wrath from the state.

For Aurobindo, there was a narrow line between active resistance and passive resistance. The passive resistance was acceptable to him only to the extent the bureaucracy too resorted to legal procedures. Otherwise the practitioner of passive resistance was duty-bound to apply violent techniques. That means if bureaucracy was engaged in brutal suppression of the movements through illegal means, then non-retaliation on part of the passive resisters would be cowardice. Here he made an essential departure from Gandhi who advocated that one should maintain non-violence in all forms and in all conditions. Contrary to Gandhi, he argued that submission to ‘illegal and violent methods of coercion’ is an act of cowardice, as it not only undermines the divinity within oneself but also of the motherland, which must be protected.19 He said:


If the instrument of executive chose to dispense our meetings by breaking the heads of those present, the right of self-defense entitles us not merely to protect our heads but to retaliate on those of the head breakers.20


He ridiculed the moderates and Gandhian techniques as ‘overstressing passivity’ at the expense of resistance. He attacked Gandhian preaching of healing ‘heat by love, injustice by justice, sin by righteousness’. He said that it was possible for only few saintly people, one out of thousand and unfortunately ‘politics is not about rare individuals but masses’. Aurobindo wrote: ‘to ask masses of mankind to act as saint is desirable but not a tenable proposition’.21 Thus Gandhian method was not practicable even if it was desirable. For him, active resistance to illegal and brutal coercion was also a passive resistance as it was defensive in nature. It becomes non-passive only when retaliation is over proportionate. He termed his passive resistance as masculine in character as it was always ready to turn active against the brutality and coercion.

He argued that passive resistance should continue not till the colonial administration initiated reforms in these areas but till ‘the control of all these functions is vested in a free, constitutional, and popular government’.22 Passive resistance thus was not the sacrifice of the goal of self-rule in India but a ‘midway’ to the same in the sense that it aimed at paralyzing the colonial government by restricting its penetration in to the life of the nation, peacefully and without violating rules. It was a prior to final assault or battle for salvation.23 He made it very clear that the purpose of organized resistance was not limited to mere seeking few concessions from the ruling power or to get few grievances settled but to accomplish the task of complete eradication of the foreign government and ‘creating of a free popular government vindicating Indian nationality’.24 Its objective was not restricted to few reforms but to ‘end the state of servitude’ India was passing through.

Aurobindo did not condemn violence and assassinations. The application of means and methods for him was not static in struggle and hence none of the methods were condemnable. They were to depend on the exigencies and were directly linked to the suitability of the circumstances. In fact nature of resistance is conversely linked to the nature of suppression. Thus, where the life is suppressed or threatened by all violent means, ‘any or every means of self-preservation becomes justified’.25 Where the liberty of a nation is suppressed by violent means violent response becomes duty. Passivity in such conditions amounted cowardice. Thus passive resistance is valid only till and where oppression is ‘legal and subtle in form’ as there is breathing space for life and liberty. He found the passive resistance also useful in ‘making the struggle wider and shared’ as it involves masses. It gives the movement a wider reach and popularity. This is not possible in case of violent methods because few motivated ones execute them. Moreover passive resistance provides a kind of training and opportunities for inculcating certain values among the citizens which are essential for selfgovernment. According to him, Indian situation was fit for the practice of passive resistance, at least till 1907, as the bureaucracy had not gone so wild and brutal in case of India as had been the cases in Russia or Ireland.

In fact, Aurobindo gave four reasons in favour of political freedom, i.e., why it should be accorded priority. First, that liberty is necessary for the national life and therefore worth striving for in itself. Secondly, it is indispensable for the overall development of the nation. That means intellectual, moral, industrial or political development of a nation is not possible in the absence of political freedom. For him, political democracy was a prerequisite for realizing social and economic democracy.26 Thirdly, freedom was essential to accomplish and retrieve the Vedantic wisdom of India and its applications in all segments of national life including politics in the modern conditions. He held that in order to place Hindu dharma at the centre of our national life what was first needed was the political freedom. Fourthly, and finally, Indian independence was essential for the spiritual emancipation of the humanity at large. He repeatedly made this point that Indian nationalism was not for India alone but for the sake of humanity.27

Cultural Nationalism

He made it a point that the world needed Indian freedom as much as India needed it for itself. For him, the civilizational growth of the West was not the guarantee of the human misery because of their materialistic orientation. Therefore, he applauded the material growth of the West but found it ‘spiritually deprived’ and felt that it badly needed spiritual guidance. Materially, they ‘were everything but spiritually they were nothing’. Like Vivekanand and Gandhi, Aurobindo too was a vehement critique of the western civilization which he found deficient in spirituality and too engaged with material pursuit. He found it unsuited to India. In his opinion, the material progress of the West had limited their vision to the ‘visible and material’28 and hence their entire energy was directed towards ‘mechanical invention’.29 He held that India would ‘sterile itself if it went on importing and imitating’ from the West. India could not have a future in the western civilization, which was based on material gains and whose political and other institutions were just to achieve these goals. They, he considered, were for ‘immediate and practical gains’.30 They would not lead to great ideals or goals. They provide just material enrichment and that too without ‘building a healthy industrial life’.31 When applied to India, instead of wielding the country together they, he held, would only give rise to ‘competitive selfishness’.32

The function of India, he held, was not simply creating material wealth but spreading a perennial source of light of spirituality and Vedantic wisdom to the world which it couldn’t do by implanting western or foreign institutions or being part of foreign civilization but by returning to her eternal self which was rooted in spiritualism. It was essential to preserve its ‘individuality and splendour, greatness and wisdom’.33 Imitation would spoil the native genius, which naturally turned to spiritualism. He said that India did not need only ‘political revolution but spiritual revolution as well’.34 And for this what was needed was to retrieve its spiritual majesty by ‘recovering the patrimony of forefathers, Aryan thought, Aryan discipline, Aryan character and Aryan life; and by recovering the Gita, Vedanta and the Yoga. They needed to be retrieved not only in sentiments and intellect but practically in life. He wished to orient the entire national life—from society to polity, science to literature to individual character along the tenets of sanatan dharma.

Sanatan Dharma as the World Religion

Aurobindo was a great advocate of sanatan dharma and considered this alone to be worthy of being world religion. He went on to say:


Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism is not a dogma, it is a law of life discovered and absorbed in to life after continuous testing and experimenting. It alone can be the basis of world religion because it accepts all forms of religion—from theism to Christianity, from Buddhism to Mohammedanism, yet it is none of these. It alone combines science and faith.35


For him it was the religion ‘in which India first awoke’ and it is the religion which should shape the future of India in the time to come.

Aurobindo was not the one to subscribe to a defensive and ascetic Hinduism. He dwelt on the historical experience to drive this point. He held that whenever Hinduism went on the defensive, ‘it shrunk or contracted to narrower limits and finally moving on the course of decay’.36 He therefore dismissed all the ascetic movements as damaging to the nation.

Aurobindo not only wanted a free India but a regenerated India, without which there was nothing but bondage.37 He wanted freedom but freedom was meaningless if it was not followed by religious and cultural regeneration of the nation. Regeneration does not come through imitation but returning to the roots. He talked the language of revivalism, and accused the British of creating policies that encouraged cultural amnesia in the people of the nation in order to produce ‘a body of grave, loyal and conservative citizens’38 educated with the aim of working for the British Empire rather than revolting against it. They, he held, were intended to produce ‘submissive and attached population’.39

When Aurobindo talked about cultural and religious emancipation of the nation, he chose to focus on Hindu religion and Hindu India because for him Hinduism, despite several distortions coming into it in course of time, constituted the soul of India. Like Vivekanand, when he talked of Indian culture he talked the language of Hinduism as all that he referred to depict the Indian culture were the Hindu components be it the Shastras, texts or spiritual domain. Unfortunately, Christian and Muslim components did not constitute the parts of his articulation of Indian culture. To quote him:


… When it is therefore said that India shall rise, it is Sanatan Dharma that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great, it is the Sanatan Dharma that shall be great. When it said that India shall expand and extend itself, it is the Sanatan Dharma that shall expand and extend itself all over the world.40


However, his nationalism was not exclusive. It was inclusive and it had space for all classes and creeds. Nationalism, he said, could not afford to ignore or neglect any segment of the society. And therefore he welcomed the break of Muslim inertia and rise of political consciousness at the community level among them. For instance, he did not consider Pan-Islamism, in the beginning, as a threat to the nation because he believed that one day it will get submerged in the tide of nationalism.41 Possibly, the growing violent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims led him to take this stance.

Depiction of the Nation as a Divine Entity

India for him was not a name for a geographical territory. It was not merely a piece of land but a living divine entity, hence, sanatan, or imperishable. It was the one which neither originated ‘in operation’ nor would die ‘in suppression’. Aurobindo brushed aside the idea of political origin of the nation as subscribed by the modernists and the moderates in India. It, for him, was rather an incarnation, an avtar, an eternal force, and a divinely appointed shakti, who had to perform a god-given work and would immerse into the universal energy after performance of its divinely ordained tasks.42 Aurobindo was not alone in holding such a view. Similar arguments were given by well-known French and Indian nationalists such as Mazzini and Bipin Chandra Pal who too considered the nation as the manifestation of god and nationalism, anywhere in the world, as a godordained phenomena. Thus, Aurobindo’s characterization of nationalism was on a very different plain. It was more metaphysical than political. Nationalism, for Aurobindo, was not a ‘mere’ political movement for political ends but a religious act in itself, because it amounted to working for the will of god. For him, enslavement was denial of the creation of Almighty and therefore working for liberation from the clutches of colonial rule was not less than serving the god itself. He therefore argued that for a nationalist it is a must to have faith in god and he should always remember the fact that he is discharging merely a godly appointed mission. And since it is a divine work a true nationalist for him should be fearless from persecution of any kind and should always be ready to sacrifice every thing for the sake of the nation. Such fearlessness and a sense of sacrifice can be possible only in those who hold great ideals in mind and have a faith in divine virtue.43

Nationalism thus was not a ‘political program or intellectual fashion’44 but a passionate aspiration for the realization of divine unity in nation where all components of individuals despite variations and inequality get dissolved and every one feels the spirit of oneness.45 Nationalism thus does not discount inequality and variations but has the capacity to dissolves the differences arising out of them. Aurobindo thus gave an argument very different from some of the modernists like E.J. Hobsbawm who used the inequality, contrasting and conflicting interests and unfamiliarity among the members of the society to argue the concept of ‘imagined community’ and refuse the idea of nationalism as a real category. Aurobindo thought differently. For him it was not the social and economic equality that gives rise to nationalism but vice versa. He was sure that the force of nationalism would automatically take care of it and such divide would not come in the way of nationalism. He had seen it in Bengal where people reacted sharply against the communal partition of the state. The social and economic divide did not come in the way of spontaneous spurt of protests against the partition. This did not require public pronouncements. People on their own came out on the streets. He thus cautioned the Congress not to think that Indian nationalism happened because of it efforts. It was rather bound to take the shape irrespective of the party because it was destined by the divine force. He said that Indian nationalism neither grew in the pandal of Congress nor in Bombay presidency Association nor in the councils of wise economists and land reformers or in the brains of Ghokhales or Mehtas or de-nationalized English speaking moderates.

It was destined by god and it took shape in the minds of common men. Though Aurobindo defined nationalism as a manifestation of divine on the earth, the way Bipinchandra described it as manifestation of Viratpurusha,46 he unlike Hegel did not consider it as the highest synthesis. He ranked the love for humanity, love and compassion for all creatures far greater and considered god as the highest synthesis. Nationalism for him was just ‘an immediate faith’ and it was essential because other higher synthesis could not be realized without it. He wrote:


God in nation becomes realization of the first moment to us because the nation is the chosen means or condition through which we rise to the higher synthesis, god in humanity, god in all creatures, god in him self and our self.47


Thus the argument that one should work and live for the higher cause of humanity is impossible unless we realize the order of free nationalism. He said that nations couldn’t work for the greater cause of humanity if they are deprived of political freedom. It is true in the same sense as a man must be free and powerful enough to work for the others.

Aurobindo’s arguments are echoed in writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Pundit Deendayal Upadhay’s integral humanism. Both these writers did not discount the importance of humanism but they, at the same time, didn’t consider nationalism as antithetical to it but complementary one. Gandhi’s nationalism too was not averse to internationalism. He rather argued that those who cannot be nationalists couldn’t be internationalists as well. He condemned those who condemned nationalism as madness. He considered nationalism not a product of intellectual arguments but a matter of faith. Nationalism for Aurobindo also was not a mental construct, hence not guided by the brain or the force of reason but driven by heart and the force of passion. But how was this cultural regeneration to be achieved?

Views on Caste System

Though Aurobindo clearly seems to prioritize Hinduism in the national life, he did not approve of it in totality. He condemned the practice of social evils such as the oppressive caste system. He considered the caste system inverse to the gospel of Vedanta and rejected it. It did not fit in with the spiritual catholicity of the religion. Aurobindo’s view on caste was almost similar to that of Mahatma Gandhi. He too considered caste as a sociofunctional category that had nothing to do with birth and heredity at all.48 Moreover, it was not wrong and oppressive from the beginning. It became detrimental to the society only after it got distorted in the course of time and started ‘purporting the principles of inequality’. While he accepted the degeneration in the institution, he did not approve of the idea of conversion or separate representation for the lower castes in the political institutions as a solution. If he did not subscribe to the idea of separate representation system it was only because of realization that, it would further lead to a permanent divide in the Hindu society which ultimately would weaken the national movement. Gandhi thus preferred to fight against this menace throughout his life but only within Hinduism. Like Gandhi and R.N. Tagore, Aurobindo too had a faith in the catholicity of Hindu religion and its internal centripetal impulse to solve the caste and other social problems. Though, like Gandhi, Aurobindo did not launch a mass-scale social and national crusade against the caste system, he found it opposed to the gospel of Vedantic equality and unity and therefore unfit for future democratic set up in India. He called for removal of these unreasonable distinctions and inequalities.49 He hoped that the wave of nationalism would be able to dissolve the caste differences and finally give rise to a new India bereft of inequality and oppression.

Views on Education

The most important aspect of the national reconstruction programme was the introduction and development of native education system in India. Aurobindo wrote extensively on education. He was very critical of blindly imitating the system of education prevalent in the western countries. He said that European education system ‘surely marked an advance in the terms of methods and techniques’ but it had been based on ‘insufficient knowledge of human psychology’.50 Though he wrote several articles on education but the articles titled ‘A Preface on National Education’ which was published in two parts in two issues of Arya, a journal which was later discontinued, first in Nov-Dec 1920 and then in January 1921, expounded his thoughts on education.

His scheme of national education did not envisage the mere changing of the ownership of academic institutions from foreigners to native hands because that was not a guarantee of providing better education; leave aside the task of imparting national education. Aurobindo was of opinion that the indigenous or native people trained in the western system won’t be providing true education even if they became the owner of the institutions. At most, they would be ‘making minor additions and subtractions here and there’, or making the ‘syllabus more Indian oriented’. Thus taking over of the foreign educational institutions and giving them a national name was not the national education what Aurobindo aspired for. Nor was he for ‘retrogressive sentimentalism’ manifesting through recurring cry for hanging back to glorious past. The national education for him did not mean resurrection of the ‘past principles, method and system whatever great it was and in consonance with our past civilization’. He considered it false patriotism. He held that we couldn’t reject the western science just because they have come from the west. He held that knowledge is trans-territorial and therefore there was nothing wrong in taking something from the west if they were good. What was wrong was the blind copying of the west and orienting our national education accordingly with minor modification and then terming it indigenous. He held that our education must be update ‘in form and substance and modern in life and spirit’51. Thus, when he talked of swadeshi education he did not mean going back to the forms of education imparted in Nalanda and Taxila or returning to the mathematics and astronomy of Bhaskara but to make it connected to Indian mind and nature. Similarly, it also did not mean rejection of the western discoveries and their methods of knowledge but to ‘assimilate them to our own knowledge and culture, native temperament and spirit mind and social genius’52 to formulate a civilization of future.

The Indian mind, as he saw it, was of peculiar cast because of its culture-centric and spiritual orientation. It has always seen, within the individual soul, the manifestation of mighty power. The object of national education should be to develop the soul of India and its eternal spirit. Its objective should essentially be the awakening and development of ‘individual spiritual being’.53 This will not only be good for the individual but also for the ‘preservation, strengthening and enrichment of the nation-soul and its dharma’. For him, the question of education, thus, was not a selection between modernity and antiquity but between imported civilization and greater possibilities of the Indian mind and nature. Moreover, it was also not merely a tool for gathering information but building of the human mind and spirit. Acquiring scientific mind and producing new scientific discoveries were important but they need to be related to other areas of knowledge, especially spiritual one, which are ‘no less light giver’.54

One also finds him emphasizing on education to be imparted in Indian languages, and Sanskrit finds a special place in his scheme of education. He did not hate the foreign languages but strongly advocated for adoption and promotion of Sanskrit and other Indian languages ‘so as to get to the heart and intimate sense of our own culture and establish a vivid continuity between still living power of our past and the yet uncreated power of our future’.55

Economic Reconstruction and the Idea of Boycott

Aurobindo was an ardent advocate of swadeshi economy and therefore he strongly supported the idea of ‘boycott’. The idea of boycott was introduced in the national movement first by B.G. Tilak. Though Tilak and other nationalists aimed to exclude only British-made goods initially, they later allowed those people who wanted, at least in Bengal and Maharashtra, to make it a comprehensive movement that meant the boycott of all foreign-made goods or goods made with a foreign collaboration. Boycott, for Aurobindo, was a powerful instrument in the fight against colonialism. It served at least three purposes. First, it stopped the drainage of the native capital to the colonizing state. Secondly, it protected the indigenous enterprises against already powerful foreign enterprises which in the open competition could have killed them a premature death. Thirdly, it marked an expression of movement towards self-sufficiency and independence.

Though Aurobindo favoured the protection of indigenous industry he was very categorical that the indigenous businessmen should not treat it a granted license to continue with supply with inferior quality of goods. If it happened it was abuse of the national or patriotic sentiments which can’t continue for a longtime and the entire premise of boycott and swadeshi would meet an unwanted death. He said that businessmen should not forget that in boycott nation is persuaded to buy even an inferior quality of product in the place of superior foreign good in the hope that the businessmen would improve the methods, processes and quality of the product and would be able to compete with the foreign enterprises. He held it to be the duty of the native businessmen without which he loses the right of protection in the name of patriotism.56 He was also critical of infighting among the native businessmen for monopoly supply of goods to the people. This tendency according to him was against the spirit of swadeshi. He suggested that the native entrepreneurs rather should join hands together to increase the supply by increasing the productivity.

According to Aurobindo, successful boycott thus needed broadly two things: first, organization of the national industry with a view to improve the quality of existing product and secondly opening up new lines of enterprises. He held that though this task belonged to the producers, even leaders of the movements could contribute to it by organizing vital information both for the businessmen and the consumers such as suggesting which business was needed in the interests of the nation, what were the chances of earning profit (for businessmen) and the quality of the goods their prices, source of supply etc. (for consumers) The second condition for the success of boycott was the unbroken, genuine and sufficient supply of the swadeshi goods. The unbroken and sufficient supply of goods was essential to strengthen the confidence of the people in swadeshi. Moreover, there must be a supply agency which brings the goods to a near market and as close to the door of the people as possible as ‘it is not possible for every one to hunt swadeshi articles to their source and purchase them’.57


Nineteenth-century Bengal, in its penultimate decade, came across two sets of movements; the first was under the influence of Raja Rammohan Roy, and the second was represented by people like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekanand and Aurobindo. These two sets of thoughts, though not completely disjointed, represented two different interpretations of India. While the former attempted to reinterpret India in terms of western modernity, the latter sought to define India essentially in the framework of its native tradition and spiritual individuality. They saw India’s future essentially linked to the resurgence of native religion and native culture, alongside the struggle for political liberation from colonialism. After Vivekanand, Aurobindo was the most powerful spokesperson of this thought system. Needless to say, Aurobindo eulogized an India which was destined to thread the path of modernity without sacrificing its spiritual distinctiveness. His uniqueness lies in the fact that he is the referral point for both the revolutionaries and the spiritualists.

Notes and References

  1. Karan Singh, Prophet of Indian Nationalism (Bombay: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1967). For critical understanding, also see D.P. Chattopadhyay, Sri Aurobindo and Karl Marx: Integral Sociology and Dialectical Sociology (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), pp. xi–xvii.
  2. Aurobindo never met Gandhi nor corresponded with him. He was a bitter critic of Gandhian central approach, be it non-violence or Satyagrah or Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi too knew him only by his reputation and Gandhi Ashrams used to have his photos hanging on the walls.
  3. Aurobindo, On Nationalism: Selected Writings and Speeches (Pondichery: Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1996), p. 174.
  4. ‘Europe and Asia’ in Vande Mataram, 3rd July 1907.
  5. Dharma, ‘The meaning of freedom’ 9th October 1909, reproduced in English in supra 3, pp. 475–477.
  6. ‘Caste and Representation’, in Vande Mataram, 6th December 1907.
  7. Supra 3, p. 6
  8. Ibid., p. 8.
  9. Ibid., p. 10.
  10. ‘New Lamps for Old-IV’, Indu Prakash of Bombay, 18th September 1893. See also On Nationalism, supra 3, p. 25.
  11. Ibid., p. 25.
  12. ‘New Lamps for Old-III’, supra 10, 28th August 1893.
  13. Ibid., ‘New Lamps for Old-V’ 30th October 1893.
  14. Ibid.
  15. ‘The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Necessity’, supra 3, p. 134.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., ‘The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Limits’, supra 3, p. 153.
  18. Ibid., ‘The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Methods’, supra 3, p. 140.
  19. Ibid., supra 17, p. 151.
  20. Ibid., p. 152.
  21. ‘The Morality of Boycott’, supra 3, pp. 360–361
  22. Ibid.
  23. ‘The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Conclusions’, supra 3, p. 159.
  24. ‘The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Object’, supra 3, p. 130
  25. Supra 15, p. 135.
  26. Vande Mataram, 20th September 1907.
  27. ‘The Ideal of Karmayogin’, supra 3, 19th June 1909.
  28. ‘New Lamps for Old V’, 30th October 1893.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Supra 3, ‘Ideals Face to Face’, pp. 330–331. It was also published in Bande Mataram on 1st May 1908.
  31. Ibid., ‘The Awakening Soul of India’, p. 405.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Supra 3, pp. 330–331
  34. Supra 3, ‘The Ideal of Karmayogin’, p. 387.
  35. Ibid., p. 385.
  36. Supra 31, p. 403.
  37. Supra 3, p. 84
  38. Ibid., ‘New Lamps for the Old - VIII’, p. 55.
  39. Lord Macaulay’s statement in the British Parliament in 1802 bluntly stated that the British wanted to introduce an education system in India which could impose a cultural amnesia on the one hand and produce a class of Indians loyal to the British, on the other.
  40. Letter of Sri Aurobindo to Dr B. S. Munje reproduced in India’s Rebirth published by Institut De Recherches Evolutives, Paris, p. 46.
  41. Supra 3, p. 248.
  42. ‘The Life of Nationalism’, Vande Mataram, 16th Nov 1907. Also see in supra 3, p. 238.
  43. Supra 3, ‘Ideals Face to Face’, p. 329.
  44. Speech delivered at Mahajan Wadi, Bombay, on 19th January 1908, reproduced in On Nationalism, supra 3, p. 251.
  45. Vande Mataram ‘The Un-Hindu Spirit of the Caste Rigidity’ 20th September 1907.
  46. Ibid., p. 228.
  47. Supra 3, ‘Opinions and Comments’, p. 408.
  48. Ibid., ‘Caste and Representation’, p. 245.
  49. Supra 45, pp. 229–230
  50. Aurobindo, ‘On System of Education’ first published in 1924, reproduced in Sri Aurobindo and Mother on Education (Pondicherry: Shri Aurobindo Ashram, 2004).
  51. ‘A Preface on National Education’ in Aurobindo and Mother, Supra, 50, p. 8.
  52. Ibid., p. 11.
  53. Ibid., p. 16.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., p. 10.
  56. Supra 3, ‘A Practical Boycott’, pp. 508–509.
  57. Ibid., p. 509.