“Long after this controversy is hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation ceases, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands.”
These words of defense lawyer Chittaranjan Das to describe the accused, Aurobindo Ghose in the Alipore bomb trial of 1909, was perhaps prophetic of the debate surrounding the image of the nationalist leader. In the minds of the popular masses, Ghose is definitely revered as a cultural icon of the early twentieth century when the Swadeshi movement swept across the streets of Bengal. The pages of history textbooks have also not forgotten to mention the fervour with which he urged people to sacrifice in the cause of the motherland. There are others, however, who would comment on the divisive nature of Ghose’s political ideology. Seventy-one years after India freed itself from the clutches of British rule, how exactly is the political philosophy of Sri Aurobindo remembered?
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“Half a century of indoctrination in the dulling ideology of statist secularism has led to profound misunderstandings of Aurobindo’s political thought and an utter inability to comprehend its ethical moorings,” writes historian Sugata Bose in his article, ‘The spirit and form of an ethical polity: A meditation of Aurobindo’s thought’. There are others, however, who are doubtful of Ghose’s contribution to the political history of India. “There is a curious convergence between academics often based in the West and dominant political currents in India today in recovering what they take to be authentic Indian voices marked by a deep Indic religious consciousness, Aurobindo being one of them. However, this has not been established to any significant degree, and in fact the recent work of Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and Sanjay Palshikar have shown that his commentaries on the Gita owe more to a Western paradigm of Gita interpretation (in figures such as Humboldt) than indigenous traditions such as those of Sankara” writes historian Rahul Govind in an email interview with Indianexpress.com
Ghose was born on August 15, 1872, in Calcutta to a Bengali Kayastha family. He went on to complete his education at King’s College in England. It was in England itself that Ghose first felt the call of nationalism when he acquainted himself with Italian and Irish nationalists and participated in an Indian students’ organisation called the Cambridge Majlis. It was only after he returned to India, however, that he found himself actively embroiled in the freedom struggle, engaging with radical youths, inspiring them in the path of revolution and urging people to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of the motherland.
The revolutionary Aurobindo
“It is the common habit of established governments and especially those which are themselves, oppressors, to brand all violent methods in subject peoples and communities as criminal and wicked,” wrote Aurobindo in an article in the Bande Mataram in 1907. The feisty thirty-five-year-old was of the firm opinion that passive resistance could very well turn into battle if the need arises and in such situation to turn away from war deserved the kind of rebuke that Lord Krishna addressed to Arjuna.
Ghose’s political endeavour in India began in the 1890s when he rebuked the Congress for taking a moderate stance. His ideology evolved during the Swadeshi movement of the early 1900s when he urged people to follow the path of passive resistance. “He was saying that strategically it was better to adopt passive resistance, but armed struggle can certainly be ethical. It is just that we don’t have the means to fight,” says Bose in an interview to Indianexpress.com.
For Ghose the struggle to free the motherland was above all and some scholars would refer to him as a matrist. In the doctrine of passive resistance, he wrote that “no political object of worship except the divinity in our Motherland, no present object of political endeavour except liberty, and no method of action as politically good or evil except as it truly helps or hinders our progress towards national emancipation.”
In yet another essay in the Bande Mataram, titled ‘The morality of boycott’, he wrote almost poetically of the “joy in seeing one’s blood flow for country and freedom”. Writing about the political methods of Ghose, historian M K Haldar says “violence and non-violence were mere methods for achieving freedom and neither was an integral part of his creed.”
At the 1907 Surat session of the Congress, Ghose along with other extremists had a major showdown with the moderate wing of the party. Soon after the Congress split. By then, he was already leading radical youth organisations in Calcutta including the Anushilan Samiti which had been challenging British rule through militant tactics since 1902. In 1908, he along with few other members of the Anushilan Samiti were arrested in the Alipore bomb case. Though Ghose was finally acquitted owing to lack of evidence, he did spend a year in jail, during which time his political philosophy underwent a change owing to few spiritual experiences that he claimed to have had. “It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence,” he wrote in his autobiography. Soon after his release he shifted his vision to the sphere of spirituality.
The spiritual Aurobindo
Historians often note Aurobindo to be the first among the freedom fighters to attach religion to politics. We can say that Bankim Chandra was the first to introduce a religious dimension to politics and he was followed by Vivekananda. “With Aurobindo Indian politics crossed the Rubicon; the religious dimension became an integral part of the political scene of the country,” writes Haldar.
In one of his writings Ghose mentioned that his philosophy was “ formed first by the study of the Upanishads and the Gita”. Devy, however, refutes the claim that Ghose subscribed to any particular religion in politics. “He was a philosopher. He did not subscribe to any particular religion,” he says. “Upanishads are extracts from the Vedas. The Vedas are not about any religion. They are philosophical books. Religion is attached to them only much later,” explains Devy. He further notes that Ghose also read Homer and other European philosophers and has also discussed the Buddha. “He was a philosopher for whom all religions were areas of enquiry,” he says.
Bose, on the other hand, is of the opinion that Ghose’s idea of religion needs to be located in the sphere of ethics. “He referred to the Dharma in the high spiritual sense, or in the ethical sense. He said that in the name of taking religion out of politics, do not take out ethics out of politics,” says Bose. “His political ideology was far more inclusive than the existing political ideologies in the world,” says Devy.
Once he came out of jail Ghose withdrew himself from politics and went into hiding at Chandernagore. He then moved to Pondicherry which was then a French colony and dedicated himself to pursuits of spirituality and philosophy. He started a philosophical magazine by the name Arya and later a number of books were brought out of it, including the ‘The synthesis of yoga’, ‘Essays on the Gita’, ‘The secret of the Vedas’ and ‘The ideal of human unity’ among several others.
However, even when in Pondicherry, he continued writing on politics as well. “In his essay ‘The spirit and form of an Indian polity’ he assessed the Mughal empire which he said was a magnificent construction and more liberal and tolerant in religion than any medieval kingdom or contemporary European power,” says Bose. He goes on to add that “his views on the Mughal empire was quite different from what the coteries of Hindutva say today.”
Aurobindo the debated hero
“In the later nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries the Indian nation was very much in the process of its own making with a variety of individuals, linguistic groups and religious communities seeking to contribute to imagining it into being,” writes Bose in his article. In that sense, there were several strands within the nationalist movement, a large majority of whom were based on indigenous ideologies. Scholars of post-independent India have, however, very often attributed the ideological dimensions of the freedom movement to European philosophies. “The Indian intellectual deserves to be put on par with the European thinker,” explains Bose.
There are few who believe that Ghose as an ideologue was almost forgotten and often ignored by scholars of modern India. “Aurobindo Ghose has been inadequately studied and understood. Are there even a handful of people in India who have read and can say with confidence that they understood his books?” says Devy.
“Since he went to Pondicherry in 1910, there have been many who have said that he went off to a life of religious seclusion, abandoning anti-colonial politics. So there has not been much attention to what he wrote in terms of his political philosophy,” says Bose.
However, eminent scholars have indeed paid attention to the philosophy of Ghose. Sociologist Ashis Nandy, in his work ‘The intimate enemy’, has dedicated a significant section to understanding the spiritual politics of Ghose, which he believes to be a way of handling Western cultural aggression. There are others who have been vehemently critical of his philosophy. Historian Sumit Sarkar, in his book “The Swadeshi movement in Bengal”, noted that the idea of including religion into politics was a means to end mass contact. Contrasting Ghose’s retreat from a religiously informed politics to revolutionaries, who were far from religious in their political activism and had either been hanged by the British or spent years in the dreaded Cellular Jail, Govind writes that “what really requires more historical research is the revolutionary critique of religion to be found in figures like Hemchandra Kanungo and Bhagat Singh who wrote with eloquence and prescience on the divisive and numbing effects of religiosity in political activism.” Bose on the other hand, opposes Sarkar’s critique by suggesting that it is a remarkable failure of intellect and imagination in works by secular historians in dealing with the question of religion in public life.
Bose further goes on to explain that the inability of liberal academics in engaging with the philosophy of Ghose has made it much easier for the right wing to appropriate him. “If you do not engage with the writings of Vivekananda and Aurobindo where they are arguing against religious fanaticism, if you don’t know about it or highlight it simply because he became a religious figure, the religious right can appropriate them,” he says.