On the occasion of Sri Aurobindo's Birthday (and India's Independence Day), I republish an old article on the great Rishi, who brought me to India.
"Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee! O friend, my country's friend, O Voice incarnate, free, Of India's soul".
The Man who saw the Future
It was perhaps a coincidence or my good ‘karma’, but traveling from France to India in 1972, I kept a pocketbook in my backpack: the French translation of The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical magnum opus. I did not know it, but it was the Great Rishi’s Centenary Year. I have also to admit that I was not able to not decipher much about the Master’s philosophical vision. It was, however, to greatly influence my life and answer a fundamental question: should the ‘outside world’ be transformed into something ‘beautiful’ in the image of the Divine or should the material world be abandoned and all life devoted to reaching ‘higher’ realms?
I had serious reservations about the latter. Traveling in India in the early 1970s was a shock; the dirt, the chaos in the big cities, the lack of ‘modern’ facilities, the blaring loudspeakers, the crowds, the crowds everywhere, everything was 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.
Somehow Sri Aurobindo’s words struck home. He said: “The affirmation of a divine life upon earth and an immortal sense in mortal existence can have no base unless we recognise not only the 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 into the image of the Spirit; matter need not (and should not) be abandoned. It is quite a revolutionary statement.
It touched me deeply and I decided to settle in India.
It makes Sri Aurobindo relevant in our ‘modern’ century.
While the ‘Indian renaissance’ has recently been equated to economic growth, a sort of Chinese-model development with a constant GDP growth (a ‘to become rich is glorious’ à la Deng Xiaoping). Though he excluded nothing (‘synthesis’ being the keyword of Sri Aurobindo’s vision), it is certainly not the type of renaissance Sri Aurobindo envisaged for India.
His synthesis never meant to ape the Western model which, according to him, had already failed. He wanted India 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 of 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 Delhi, the Himalayas, China or Timbuktu, everywhere headlines are similar: pollution, corruption, poverty, global warming, environment catastrophes, nuclear proliferation, new viruses or the NSA (and Beijing) peeping into your private life…
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 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 difficult 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, tremendous changes have occurred; the explosion of the Indian IT phenomenon is one of the many signs which could be cited. But is it enough?
To do justice to Sri Aurobindo one should read some of the 35 thick volumes of his philosophical, socio-political and evolutionary thought, as well as Savitri, an epic in 28,000 verses. His socio-political philosophy and how he translated it into action during his life as a revolutionary leader in Bengal and later a Rishi in Pondicherry, are thought-provoking.
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.
These tasks written a century ago remain unfulfilled.
On August 15, 1947 India obtained independence. It coincided with the 75th birthday of the one who had been the first Indian to ask for Purna Swaraj in the early years of the 20th century. For this occasion, Sri Aurobindo wrote about five dreams he had for India.
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. The second dream was to see the “resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia”. His third dream was a “world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind.” The fourth dream was a “spiritual gift of India to the world”. 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.”
The person that Dr Karan Singh has called the Prophet of Indian Nationalism could already see beyond India’s freedom. Bharat had a larger role to play for the future of humanity.
Though for the sake of his personal sadhana, he lived a secluded life in his room in Pondicherry, 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.”
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.
It is why he took a strong stand when North Korea attacked the South in early 1950; he then 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.”
We see the consequences in Ladakh or Arunachal today.
After visiting Pondicherry in 1928, Tagore said: “Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee! O friend, my country's friend, O Voice incarnate, free, Of India's soul.” The poet added “You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world. Hearken to me!”
Sri Aurobindo’s Vision is still relatively unknown in India, but his ‘Adventure of Consciousness and Joy’ is the most urgent task at hand for humanity today.