So, ultimately, what was true nationalism? Who were the real revolutionaries, those who had an inner vision of what the British really represented, those who knew what was the genius of India and how it was destined to be great again? Once more, we have a wrong understanding of nationalism, because we are induced in error by the West’s opinions about it.
In Europe, nationalism means external revolutionary movements, revolutionaries, materialism. But India’s greatness has always been her spirituality, her strength was always founded upon her spirit’s hold. Not only her Brahmins, but also her Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras even, drew their heroism from that fountain. Thus in India, the nationalist movement, the reawakening of India’s soul started at the source, in her spirit.
Sometimes a nation’s soul is more predominant in one region, in one particular culture. In India’s early Independence movement, it was Bengal which held high the light of reawakening. This has often been forgotten and justice should be done again. Thus, in Bengal, there was born a man who could not read and write a single word. A man without intellectual training, a man who would be considered totally useless by Britishers, or Westernised Indians.
But this man’s inner strength was so great, his truth so radiating, that from all over India, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, they came to the temple of Dakshineshwar in Calcutta and bowed at the feet of Shri Ramakrishna. The work of salvation, the work of raising India out of her lethargic sleep had begun.
Narendarnath Dutta, later known as Swami Vivekananda, was the brightest disciple of Ramakrishna, and a true son of India. He was the first spiritualised Indian political leader, an ardent Hindu, who was not afraid to call for Hinduism’s adaptation to the modern world. He was also the first to inspire in the Western world a certain respect towards Hinduism, because of his education and his forceful personality.
But the man who was the true visionary of an Independent India, the man who worked most of all for her liberation, the man who was a yogi, a saint, an avatar has been mostly ignored by history. Others, who played only a superficial role and did not have a millionth of his vision took the forefront. That man of course was Sri Aurobindo.
Born on August 15, 1872 in Calcutta, he spends his first years at Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) and at the age of 5 is sent to Loreto Convent school in Darjeeling. His father, who wants him to have a thorough Western education, packs him to England, where he enters St Paul’s school in London in 1884 and King’s College, Cambridge in 1890.
Sri Aurobindo is a brilliant student and passes the ICS, but ‘fails’ to appear for the riding test and is disqualified. After 13 years in England Sri Aurobindo returned to India on February 6, 1893 at the age of 20. He joined the Baroda State Service from 1897 to early 1906 and taught French and English at the Baroda college, before eventually becoming its principal. It was at that time that he started writing a series of articles, “New lamps for Old”, in the Indu Prakash, a Marathi-English daily from Bombay.
Sample of his early writings: “I say of the Congress that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it is proceeding is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and their leaders in whom it trusts, not the right sort of men to be leaders. In brief that we are at present the blind led, if not by the blind, at least by the one-eyed. (Rebirth of India, page 10).
From 1900 onwards, Sri Aurobindo realised that passive resistance, constitutional agitation “A La Congress”, was not the right path to achieve an Independent India. In the true spirit of a yogi, he re-enacted the Bhagvad Gita’s great message: that violence is sometimes necessary, if it flows from Dharma — and today’s Dharma is the liberation of India. Thus he began contacting revolutionary groups in Maharashtra and Bengal and tried to co-ordinate their action.
One should remember that at that time, and indeed until Independence, violence against the oppressive British was not organised; it was the work of a few individuals or a sudden outburst of uncontrolled anger and that the famous freedom fighters of the Congress only went to jail because they were passive resisters. At Sri Aurobindo’s initiative, P Mitter, Surendranath Tagore and Sister Nivedita formed the first Secret Council for revolutionary activities in Bengal. But action was accompanied by inner vision: “While others look upon their country as an inert piece of matter, forests, hills and rivers, I look upon my country as the Mother. What would a son do if a demon sat on her mother’s breast and started sucking her blood? I know I have the strength to deliver this fallen race. It is not physical strength — I am not going to fight with sword or gun, but with the strength of knowledge” (India’s Rebirth, page 16)
In 1905, the terrible Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal. This divide-and-rule move was meant to break the back of Bengali political agitation and use the East Bengal Muslim community to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, a policy that was to culminate in India’s Partition in 1947. Bengal responded to its partition with massive and unanimous protests in which many personalities took part, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Surendranath Banerjee, Bipin Chandra Pal… The ideal of Swadeshi, which called for the boycott of British goods, spread widely.
It was at this time that B C Pal launched the famous English daily, Bande Mataram. Sri Aurobindo joined it and soon became its editor. Day after day, he jotted down his vision and tried to instil fire and courage in the nation through its pages. What was true nationalism for Sri Aurobindo?
“Nationalism is not a mere political programme; nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed which you shall have to live.. If you are going to be a nationalist, if you are going to assent to this religion of Nationalism, you must do it in the religious spirit. You must remember that you are the instruments of God… Then there will be a blessing on our work and this great nation will rise again and become once more what it was in the days of spiritual greatness. You are the instruments of God to save the light, to save the spirit of India from lasting obscuration and abasement…” (Bande Mataram)
But Sri Aurobindo had to fight against the Congress Moderates (who, it must be remembered came out openly for complete Independence only in 1929) of whom he said: “There is a certain section of India which regards Nationalism as madness and they say Nationalism will ruin the country. They are men who live in the pure intellect and they look at things purely from the intellectual point of view. What does the intellect think? Here is a work that you have undertaken, a work so gigantic, so stupendous, the means of which are so poor, the resistance to which will be so strong, so organised, so disciplined, so well equipped with all the weapons science can supply, with all the strength that human power and authority can give… (Bande Mataram)
Sri Aurobindo was very clear in what was demanded of a leader of India: “Politics is the work of the Kshatriya and it is the virtues of the Kshatriya we must develop if we are to be morally fit for freedom (India’s Rebirth, page 19). Or: “What India needs at the moment is the aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack”. (India’s Rebirth, page 22)
But if the Moderates dismissed Sri Aurobindo as a ‘mystic’, Lord Minto, then viceroy of India, made no such mistake, calling him, “the most dangerous man we have to deal with at present”. Thus Sri Aurobindo was arrested on May 2, 1908, following a failed assassination attempt on a British judge by a nationalist belonging to his brother’s secret society. Sri Aurobindo spent a year in jail, which proved to be the turning point of his life as he went through the whole gamut of spiritual realisations. When he came out, the nationalist movement had nearly collapsed and he set about giving it a fresh impetus, launching a new English weekly, the Karmayogin, as well as a Bengali weekly, Dharma.
This following is an extract from his famous Uttarpara speech, where he speaks of his spiritual experiences in jail: “Something has been shown to you in this year of seclusion, something about which you had your doubts and it is the truth of the Hindu religion. It is this religion that I am raising up before the world, it is this that I have perfected and developed through the rishis, saints and avatars, and now it is going forth to do my work among the nations. I am raising this nation to send forth my word…When therefore it is said that India shall rise, it is the Santana Dharma that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great, it is the Santana Dharma that shall be great. But what is the Hindu religion? It is the Hindu religion only, because the Hindu nation has kept it, because in this peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others. If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal. A narrow religion, a sectarian religion, an exclusive religion can live only for a limited time and limited purpose…I say no longer that Santana Dharma is for us Nationalism… Santana Dharma IS Nationalism” (India’s Rebirth, page 46)
In mid-February 1910, news reached that the British had again decided to arrest Sri Aurobindo and close down the offices of the Karmayogin. By that time Sri Aurobindo had the vision that India was free; for the external events are always preceded by an occult happening, sometimes long before they become fait accompli.
Sri Aurobindo then received an ‘Adesh,‘ an inspiration that he must go to Pondichery, then under French rule. He settled there, with a few disciples, the number of whom slowly swelled, until it became known as the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He wrote all his masterpieces and devoted the remaining of his life to bringing down what he called the “supramental manifestation on the earth”. The great Sage passed away on 5 December 1950.
Hinduism, true Hinduism was for Sri Aurobindo the basis for India’s past greatness, it was also the essence of nationalism, the means of liberating India and ultimately the foundation of the future India. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Indian National Congress did not have the same vision. Of these leaders, history has mostly remembered two, the most famous of all: Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.