For Sri Aurobindo, Indian ‘Renaissance’ Was Bigger Than Just Imitating the West

'Then, as now, the value of ancient Indian culture in the context of modernity was being actively debated.'

5 min read

(The following is an edited excerpt from Reading Sri Aurbindo (Ebury Press), edited by Gautam Chikermane and Devdip Ganguli. The book, which releases today, explores Sri Aurobindo’s deep wisdom and vision for resolving the fundamental issues facing individuals, societies and nations currently. The year also marked 75 years of India's independence, as also the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian philosopher, yoga guru, maharishi, poet and Indian nationalist who played a vital role in India’s freedom struggle.)

The essays contained in The Renaissance in India with a Defence of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo are of the greatest value to those who love India. They offer a comprehensive and deep understanding of Indian religion, spirituality, philosophy, culture, art and polity. Though written a century ago, these essays are increasingly relevant. Then, as now, the value of ancient Indian culture in the context of modernity was being actively debated. Then, as now, India stood at a crossroads with regards to its future direction, having to choose between a mindless aping of the West, a regression towards the religious and social conservatism of the past or an India ancient, yet modern, spiritual, yet life-embracing. In these pages, Sri Aurobindo reveals to us the ancient soul of India and indicates how her eternal message is central to the modern idea of India.

'Then, as now, the value of ancient Indian culture in the context of modernity was being actively debated.'

The cover of Reading Sri Aurobindo.

(Photo: Penguin India)

As the First World War drew to a close, the question of Indian independence rose once again to the fore. Indian revolutionaries demanded self-rule in return for the services of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who fought valiantly for Allied victory on battlefields in Europe, Africa and Asia. The British responded to these demands by dangling the carrot of limited reforms. At the same time, they argued that India was not ready for independence, that its people were politically, culturally, rationally, even spiritually, unprepared for freedom and nationhood, and that colonialism was necessary to ‘civilise’ India.


The Inevitability of Indian Renaissance

In this series of thirty-two brilliant and illuminating essays published in Arya between 1918 and 1921, Sri Aurobindo debunked this notion and revealed the full sweep and depth of Indian culture. He wrote these essays equally for English- educated Indians who, by virtue of their foreign upbringing, had almost as little knowledge of their heritage as their foreign counterparts. The work of reshaping the hearts and minds of modern Indian youth that began under the inspiration of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda continues with a wider import in the pages of this volume […]

[…] Sri Aurobindo believed in the inevitability of an Indian renaissance. As one of the primary architects of the freedom movement, he envisaged an India that would be at once rooted in its spiritual identity, and yet ready to embrace new forms of expression and living. He warned that the word ‘renaissance’ should not automatically tie India to a Western idea of scientific renewal and progress – not that these were undesirable, but that the Indian approach must be true to her own spirit. Nor was Sri Aurobindo sympathetic to revivalist movements of religious and social conservatism that upheld habits and traditions of the past as sacrosanct.

Being Modern Without Losing Itself

Sri Aurobindo’s idea of an Indian renaissance was spiritual, the word spiritual understood in the widest, most integral sense, ‘...the attempt to know and live in the highest self, the divine, the all-embracing unity and to raise life in all its parts to the divinest possible values’.

His was not an ascetic call to cast away life for the sake of the ‘abstract, the hidden and the intangible’, but to make ‘...this higher view of life, this sense of deeper potentiality once more a creative, perhaps a dominant power in the world’.

And for this he posited that India had to once again ‘...get back entirely the native power of her spirit at its very deepest and turn all the needed strengths and aims of her present and future life into materials for that spirit to work upon and integrate and harmonise’.

But the question remained: how should India assimilate modern and foreign influences without losing itself in the process of learning from the West? Sri Aurobindo answered this question in ‘Indian Culture and External Influence’ by affirming that growth implies a movement of self-development from within, but equally the capacity to receive impact from the environment that becomes material for future growth:

[T]hose who live most powerfully in themselves, can also most largely use the world and all its material for the Self,—and, it must be added, most successfully help the world and enrich it out of their own being. The man who most finds and lives from the inner self, can most embrace the universal and become one with it; the Swarat, independent, self-possessed and self-ruler, can most be the Samrat, possessor and shaper of the world in which he lives, can most too grow one with all in the Atman… Therefore to live in one’s self, determining one’s self-expression from one’s own centre of being in accordance with one’s own law of being, swadharma, is the first necessity.

'Barbarian, Barbarism, Barbarous'

The next essay series in the volume, provocatively titled ‘Is India Civilised?’, was written by Sri Aurobindo in response to a book of the same title by Sir John Woodroffe, also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, who published extensively on the Tantra and other Hindu traditions, and whose books can still be bought in Indian bookstores today. An ardent admirer and defender of Indian culture, Woodroffe’s book was itself a response to a book by an author of a very different breed, one William Archer, a Scottish writer and theatre critic who kept harping on the need for India to ‘rationalise’ itself as soon as possible, and whose understanding of Indian culture may be gleaned from the following passage:

‘Barbarian, barbarism, barbarous – I am sorry to harp so much on these words. But they express the essence of the situation…the plain truth concerning the mass of the [Indian] population – and not the poorer classes alone – is that they are not civilized people.’ (Emphasis in the original.)

Sri Aurobindo countered Archer’s hostile and ignorant assertions throughout the course of this volume, but ignored Archer’s political motive and his other extreme statements, and took up this criticism of Indian culture as one representative perspective of the time, widening the issue to a universal question – does the future of India, and even humanity as a whole, lie in the direction of installing science and reason as the fundamental truth of existence, or does humanity have a spiritual destiny? And what do we understand by spirituality? Against the kind of criticism that Archer represented, Sri Aurobindo argued in favour of an ‘aggressive defence’, an active effort to not just assimilate whatever is useful from the West, but also to create new and powerful formations true to its own spirit:

If we are to live at all, we must resume India’s great interrupted endeavour; we must take up boldly and execute thoroughly in the individual and in the society, in the spiritual and in the mundane life, in philosophy and religion, in art and literature, in thought, in political and economic and social formulation the full and unlimited sense of her highest spirit and knowledge.

(This is a book excerpt published with the permission of the publisher and the authors, along with the book cover. Paragraph breaks, subheadings and blurbs have been added for the ease of readers.)

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