• Review of Sri Aurobindo and his Contemporary Thinkers

Following the publication of “Understanding Thoughts of Sri Aurobindo,” Indrani Sanyal and Krishna Roy of the Centre for Sri Aurobindo Studies, Calcutta have complied a set of eighteen scholarly essays on Sri Aurobindo and his contemporaries in the ideational context of what has been called the Bengal Renaissance. Sri Aurobindo’s physical involvement in the politics and culture of early Bengal nationalism was of relatively short duration (1905-1910), albeit an intense and all-sided participation which internalized the entire regional history of the movement and left a powerful creative impress in the milieu of its time and space. Moreover, the discursive background of this involvement continued to develop organically and find voice throughout his life in his subjective articulation just as his own situated contribution continued to resonate in later Indian nationalism. Thus this collection of considered interpretive contemplation fills an important need in our historical understanding. But more importantly, it is the post-colonial legacy of these engagements which draws us today by their fertile and future-gazing content, inviting reflection not merely for India’s but the world’s re-generation at a time of global ferment.

The term “Bengal Renaissance” was a form of self-inscription devised within this milieu itself, and used to refer to its own historicity, with its beginnings in the late 18th c and extending into the second decade of the 20th c. In this self-identification is carried the sense of a rebirth and a historical reference to the 15th/16th c. European movement of the same name, marked by its all-round creative reconstruction, leading to a “new birth,” what may arguably be thought of as the seeds of modernity. The term is omnipresent in this volume, explicitly referenced in many of its essays and forming the subject of consideration in at least four of its essays – those by D. P. Chattopadhyaya, Rakhal Nath, Dilip Kumar Roy and Dilip Kumar Chatterjee. Of these, Rakhal Chandra Nath traces the historiography of the term in the context of Bengal nationalism, drawing out its many divergent interpretations and valuations. Here we realize that the genealogy of this “renaissance” itself is in question, symptomatic of the variety of trajectories encompassed within it. Is it Rammohun Roy, the Brahmo Samaj and the post-Enlightenment reformist tradition which stands at the head of this body of critique and creation or is it Ramakishna, Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra, the polarity of indigenous spiritual and religious awakening? Again, is there any reality of resemblance with the Italian origins of the term in medieval Europe or is the term an inflated romantic misnomer? This question also comes up in the other essays on this subject. Marxist criticisms of this “renaissance” being a bourgeois hot-house flower with little or no popular involvement due to its cultural investment in the language of the colonial masters, its economic collusion with the same colonial powers and the Hindu communal potential of exclusionary violence it is supposed to carry are traced in some detail. I may say here that more recent left-oriented critiques of this period or its figures have attempted more complex and nuanced approaches, seeing them on the one hand, in Gramscian power terms, as constituting a middle ground of autonomy from colonial culture and elitism over subaltern culture so as to wrest national power from the colonizer and rule the subaltern; and on the other hand, as  initiating a critique of modernity with far-reaching post-modern and post-colonial possibilities. Rakhal Nath ends his essay by pointing to the widespread creative critique and rethinking of Indian culture initiated during this period, and the lasting effects of this initiative, much in need of our consideration and continuation today. In this, and in the other essays in this volume, Sri Aurobindo’s views on the term “Renaissance” in the context of Bengal are invoked, where he demonstrates the presence of three successive strands or movements within it – (1) a reception of European thought and life forms and a comparative evaluation and in some cases, rejection of old or effete Indian forms based on these; (2) a movement of assimilation characterized by a reaction of Indian cultural forms stressing both the spirit and letter of tradition and criticizing the foreign culture; and (3) a “new creation” characterized by a full emergence of the Indian spirit adapting the modern forms creatively to its purposes and nature. This scope of the “renaissance” sets the tone which pervades the essays in the volume, exemplifying the powerfully creative spiritual turn given to the forms and structures of a variety of modern disciplines originating in post-renaissance and post-Enlightenment Europe. Among these essays on the Bengal Renaissance, it is particularly refreshing to come across Dilip Kumar Chatterjee’s paper on “Sri Aurobindo and Ireland…” where an alternate genealogy of the term “renaissance” is drawn out, based on Sri Aurobindo’s own proclivities and pronouncements on the contemporaneous Irish resurgence, at the same time, drawing the discussion out of its provincial Bengal reference and relating it to a trans-national context.

Sri Aurobindo’s involvement in the cultural and revolutionary politics of the time touched on the wide gamut of thought and life-activities constituting the ferment of the movement and the remaining essays in the volume touch on all these areas, either through a comparative consideration of his ideas with those of other contemporaries or through a consideration of examples which left their related legacies. The various disciplines in question include philosophy, politics, aesthetics, literature, history, social thought and education. The issue introduced earlier of the reformist and revivalist poles of the discourse, characterized by Rammohun Roy and Vivekananda respectively, are addressed in two essays by Krishna Roy (Rammohun Roy on women’s liberation) and Tirthanath Bandyopadhyay (renaissance aspects of Vivekananda). Here we find how these so-called poles intersect and overlap – the non-sectarian spiritual humanism of Vivekananda and the universalist emancipatory Hinduism of Rammohun. As something of a companion piece to the article on Rammohun Roy and women’s liberation is Madhumita Chattopadhyay’s finely crafted essay on “Outlook Towards Women: Influence of Indian Renaissance.”

“Sri Aurobindo’s contemporaries” in this powerfully creative period interacted together in a participatory culture through life-contacts and episodes, bringing into manifestation the ideas being discussed in this book. Some of these contemporaries include Rabindranath Tagore, who was senior by about ten years to Sri Aurobindo and Satis Chandrs Mukherjee, who was associated with both Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath in the effort at developing a national education, which would yield the National College, whose first principal was Sri Aurobindo, whose first day of operation was 15th August 1906, Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, and which houses the centre which has published this present volume. Two essays, one by Rama Prasad De (on Satis Chandra) and one by Amal Kumar De, deal with this saga of education in nationalist Bengal and Sri Aurobindo’s part in it. Unfortunately, only a few essays here give us a taste of the lived culture of these contemporaries and their interactions, Rama Parasad De’s paper being exemplary in this account. It is hoped that more writing of this kind emerges through publication, so that a sense of the collective and participatory reality of the Bengal Renaissance becomes more palpable as a form of communitas.

Kireet Joshi’s essay on “Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy of Nationalism, Internationalism and Contemporary Crisis” opens the volume and, as may be expected from Prof. Joshi, sets the reflective tone for the reader. Nationalism has become a much criticized term in contemporary scholarship and Prof. Joshi’s laying out of Sri Aurobindo’s views on this subject disabuses the reader of any misgivings regarding sectarian and chauvinistic or racial/religious/ethnic forms of nationalism on the one hand, and the administrative artificiality of the nation-state on the other. Nationalism, in Sri Aurobindo’s view, is shown to be a force of creative culture, drawing on a lived and constantly renewed interpretive history, uniting a people. Indian nationalism is seen as having its basis in a protean and integral spirituality adapting itself to an illimitable variety of social forms and inviting us today to embrace it, just as Sri Aurobindo’s generation did in their time and place. At the same time, Sri Aurobindo’s notion of a progressive social history is brought out by the essay, in which nationalism is a fluid form, constituted from below by communitarian individual choices based in spiritual fraternity, in relation with wider trans-national realities, and expanding towards an internationalism, based on an “universal religion of humanity.” However, this is neither a religion with coded forms of sectarian practice nor humanitarianism. It is a rich unity in diversity founded on human identity through the perception and realization of the soul.

Drawing on similar sources, Indrani Sanyal discusses the philosophy of history developed by Sri Aurobindo and by Pramath Nath Mukhopadhyaya. A philosophy of history is a teleological theory and the development of such theories in the Bengal Renaissance is perhaps predictable, given its character of resistance to the teleology of civilizational progress based in the Enlightenment and coded into colonialism. In the philosophies of history of both these figures, Indian spiritual ideas are invoked to provide a universal significance to world temporality. Dr. Sanyal first touches on several examples of philosophy of history developed in the west, including those of Kant, Hegel, Marx and Herbert Spenser. Dr. Sanyal shows how, in The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo adapts the teleological ideas another German thinker, Lamprecht, in presenting an interpretation of history as developing through symbolic, typal-conventional, individualist and subjective phases. Sri Aurobindo’s adaptation here is also an original interpretation of the yugas of Puranic theory. Similarly, she discusses the ideas of Pramath Mukhopadhyaya, showing his historicism to rest on a successive passage of the universal soul or atman through the four purusarthas of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. In this, he develops the idea of the philosopher of history, itihasavid, arriving at the subjective and experiential knowledge of history through identification in consciousness with the universal self, Vaishvanara, drawing on the yogic idea of Vaishvanaravidya from the Chandogya Upanishad.

Sri Aurobindo’s own views on creative culture, particularly poetry and its future, in the light of the spiritual remoulding of language is brought out in a lucid essay on the significance of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry in the Indian Renaissance by Supriyo Bhattacharya. Here Dr. Bhattacharya quotes Sri Aurobindo to show how the rich tradition of Bengali spiritual literature is brought to bear on the lived subjective experiences of modern reality by Rabindranath in his poetry. He also shows how Rabindranath draws subtly from European poetic forms but subjects these to the intonations and meanings of the Indian spirit. In a similar vein, an essay on the little-known philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya by Tara Chatterjea and one on the famous philosopher of aesthetics, Acharya Brojendranath Seal by Sudhir Kumar Nandi, bring out the intensive hermeneutic engagement between Indian and western philosophy in their works and the brilliant original conclusions they arrive at through this engagement.

A final issue of interest in the volume concerns the political views of Sri Aurobindo vis-à-vis his contemporaries, predecessors and successors. An essay on Rabindranath and Sri Aurobindo by Manjula Bose, two on Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo by Sushmita Bhowmik and Sujata Mukherjee and one on Sri Aurobindo, Tilak and Gokhale by Aparna Banerjee make up this strand. It is well known that both Rabindranath and Gandhi were not too enamored of the espousal of violence by Sri Aurobindo as a legitimate means of political action. What is less well known is the fact that Sri Aurobindo also actively wrote on and promoted the doctrine of passive resistance, boycott and swadeshi, which would become the cornerstones of Gandhian activism. In this, we see once more the unattached flexibility of spiritual transcendence and utilization of opposites being demonstrated by Sri Aurobindo as against the rigidity of mental ethics. Each of these essays open up the tricky issues involved in the arguments between their protagonists and do an admirable job of commentary and interpretation.

All in all, this is a most valuable work of scholarship and a timely intervention to the contemporary Indian and global impasse of thought and culture. The ideas and figures it introduces invite us to further study and a continuation of the creative and hermeneutic exchange  which they opened up more than a century ago.

 

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