Today we are celebrating the 63rd anniversary of India's Independence, but also Sri Aurobindo's birthday.
It was perhaps a coincidence or my good ‘karma’, but when I came as a backpacker traveling from France to India in 1972, I carried a book for the travel. This French translation of The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus was to greatly influence my life and answer a vital question for me: should the ‘outside world’ be transformed in something beautiful ‘which works’ or should the material world be abandoned and all life devoted to reaching ‘higher’ realms?
Frankly, I had some reservations. Traveling for a couple of months in India in the early seventies was a shock for a foreigner. The dirt, the chaos in the big cities, the lack of ‘modern’ facilities, the blaring of loud speakers, the crowds, all these were a constant reminder that things were not so bad in Europe where trains ran on time, towns were clean, information was easily available to the public, hygiene a way of life.
Some of Sri Aurobindo’s words went home: “The affirmation of a divine life upon earth and an immortal sense in mortal existence can have no base unless we recognise not only eternal Spirit as the inhabitant of this bodily mansion, the wearer of this mutable robe, but accept Matter of which it is made, as a fit and noble material out of which He weaves constantly His garbs, builds recurrently the unending series of His mansions.”
Matter had to be transformed in the image of the Spirit. In the same work, Sri Aurobindo noted: “The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation… [is] the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality”.
Unfortunately, as he put it: “These persistent ideals of the race are at once the contradiction of its normal experience.” This central contradiction had to be worked out; Matter and Life had to be transformed.
This second discovery decided me: I did not want to spend my life in a Himalayan cave, but to live more a ‘concrete’ life. Two years later, I left France for Auroville, the ‘Universal City’ near Pondicherry whose ideals, defined by its founder, the Mother, corresponded more to my search: ”Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.”
Is Sri Aurobindo still relevant in the 21st century?
This question remains valid today (if not for me, for India)
To answer this query in few lines does not do justice to Sri Aurobindo who left us 35 thick volumes of his philosophical, socio-political and evolutionary thought, as well as Savitri, an epic in 28,000 verses. However, some glimpses of his socio-political philosophy and how it translated into action during the last years of his life might be thought-provoking.
Today, we hear that India is shining as never before. But on the streets of any metropolis or in the villages of rural India, one still sees the same ‘misery’ which I saw more 30 years ago (with louder noise, more chaos, pollution and garbage).
It is true that in the past two or three decades the Spirit of India appears to have woven new garbs. However is it not symptomatic that a great deal of the ‘shine’ has come from the Indian Diaspora in the West which did not reject the world ‘outside’ while retaining some inner Indian values?
Sri Aurobindo, in a chapter of his Foundations of Indian Culture envisioned a three-point program for the ‘renaissance in India’:
The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work.
The flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second.
An original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult.
This message is more than relevant today as these tasks written nearly a century ago remain unfulfilled. ‘Synthesis’ is a key word in Sri Aurobindo’s vision.
Recently, this ‘Indian renaissance’ has been equated to economic growth, a Chinese-model development with an 8 or 9% growth of the GNP (to ‘become rich is glorious’ à la Deng Xiaoping), but it is certainly not the sort of renaissance Sri Aurobindo envisaged (though he excluded nothing).
But ‘synthesis’ does not mean aping the West! India has to rediscover her past, not for the sake of the past, but because “Spirituality is the master-key of the Indian mind.” The ancient seekers had found that “the physical does not get its full sense until it stands in right relation to the supra-physical; [Ancient India] saw that the complexity of the universe could not be explained in the present terms of man or seen by his superficial sight, that there were other powers behind, other powers within man himself of which he is normally unaware.”
This knowledge is the key to the true transformation the bodily mansion of Mother India. Only then will India be able to play her rightful role in the world and truly shine.
In the meantime, planetary civilisation is going through one of the most difficult (and challenging) times of its recorded history. Just read a newspaper, whether published in India, the US, China or Timbuktu, everywhere headlines are similar: Iraq, environment catastrophe looming large, nuclear proliferation, corruption, new viruses…
In 1940, Sri Aurobindo foresaw: “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny... Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites…”
How can we deal with this crisis? Sri Aurobindo’s answer is by a change in consciousness; not only an individual one, but a revolutionary transformation of the entire race.
Sri Aurobindo had noted: “The end of a stage of evolution is usually marked by a powerful recrudescence of all that has to go out of the evolution.... The law is the same for the mass as for the individual.”
The planet is today going through this stage. India could help, but will she be able to grasp once more the Spirit which sustained her past achievements and formulate a ‘greater synthesis’? In 1920, Sri Aurobindo wrote to his brother Barindranath: “The chief cause of the weakness of India is not subjection nor poverty, nor the lack of spirituality or Dharma, but the decline of thought-power, the growth of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge… The modern world is the age of the victory of Knowledge.” Since then, a tremendous change has occurred; the explosion of the Indian IT phenomenon is one of the many signs which could be cited. But is it enough?
Sixty years after Sri Aurobindo’s departure, can his message help us to deal better with this troubled world?
Though for the sake of his sadhana, he lived a secluded life, Sri Aurobindo never retired into some sort of Nirvana or beatific splendour. He remained well acquainted with the politics of the sub-continent and the world situation. In 1940, when many Indian leaders were vacillating and would have supported a German victory in World War II, he sent a personal contribution to the British war effort and expressed ‘unswerving sympathy’ to the Allies cause. He wrote: “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.”
Most contemporary Indian politicians believed that Sri Aurobindo could no longer understand the intricacies of the freedom struggle. When Sir Stafford Cripps came to India in March 1942 with a proposal for dominion status as a first step towards full independence, Sri Aurobindo immediately offered his support to Sir Stafford: “I welcome it as an opportunity given to India to determine for herself, and organise in all liberty of choice, her freedom and unity, and take an effective place among the world's free nations. I hope that it will be accepted, and right use made of it, putting aside all discords and divisions...”
Unfortunately, the Congress leaders thought otherwise and rejected the proposal. Dr. K.M. Munshi, a senior minister in the first Indian Cabinet after independence (and the founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan) told an audience soon after Sri Aurobindo passed away in December 1950: “We rejected the advice. We who rejected it had sound reasons for it, but today we realise that if the first proposal had been accepted, these would have been no partition, no refugees and no Kashmir problem.”
Sri Aurobindo strongly disapproved of the “two-nation theory”. He described it as “only a newly-fangled notion invented by Jinnah for his purposes and contrary to the facts.” He pointed out: “Jinnah is himself a descendant of a Hindu, converted in fairly recent times, named Jinahbhai.”
If Pakistan would accept its common past with India, a great step towards a more harmonious relation would be made. And why not the creation a sort of confederation between the two nations? Today, it seems that there is long, long way to go.
Today, Sri Aurobindo would certainly firmly condemn terrorism or the Al Qaida type of actions simply for the reason that it is again the future of the human race which is at stake. How can one accept an ideology or a creed which seeks to dominate others and impose by force its will on the rest of humanity?
Sri Aurobindo had taken a similar position when North Korea attacked the South in 1950. He even foresaw the invasion of Tibet: “The whole affair is as plain as a pike-staff. It is the first move in the Communist plan of campaign to dominate and take possession first of these northern parts and then of South East Asia as a preliminary to their manoeuvres with regard to the rest of the continent - in passing, Tibet as a gate opening to India. If they succeed, there is no reason why domination of the whole world should not follow by steps until they are ready to deal with America.”
Sri Aurobindo opposed the hegemony of any one single ideology. For the planet to survive, every nation, every culture or individual has to find its rightful place according to its own genius.
On August 15, 1947 India obtained the independence which Sri Aurobindo had worked so much towards. It coincided with his 75th birthday. For this occasion, he wrote about five dreams. The first one was to see India united again: “India today is free but she has not achieved unity.” During the last years of his life he often spoke of the aberration of the Partition. “It has to go!” Though the occasion presented itself a few times, political leaders were never able to grasp the opportunity. The problem remains, can the division between India and Pakistan disappear one day?
The second dream was to see the “resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia”. He envisaged an important role for Asia in the future of mankind. In many ways, this continent has come out of its ashes and it is widely predicted that Asia could be the leader of the world in a few decades. One can hope that it will not be an economic leadership alone, but a deeper one, more in resonance with its spiritual roots.
His third dream was a “world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind.” Many groupings such the European Union or the ASEAN are already taking shape. The sub-continent has been slow to come together, but the progress towards a free trade zone and a region where ideas and people can travel freely, seems now to be on its way.
The fourth dream was a “spiritual gift of India to the world”. Here again, one just has to go to a bookshop in the West or look at the number of yoga, dharma or meditation centers flourishing in the United States or Europe to see that a firm beginning has been achieved.
The final dream was a new “step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society.”
Sri Aurobindo has described this quest as ‘the Adventure of Consciousness and Joy’. It seems to be the most urgent task at hand for humanity. If enough individuals would aspire for this higher consciousness, undoubtedly the process could be hastened and the world around us would begin to change. The Mother once told the Ashram children: “I invite you to a Great Adventure”.
It is perhaps the only relevant adventure in the world today.